Robert Graves Hero Image

Wife to Mr. Milton

The domestic pressures on Robert Graves, already eased to some extent by Sam’s departure from Galmpton, were further reduced for five or six weeksI34 when in August 1941 he and Beryl and William were joined at The Vale House by a housekeeper. This, curiously enough, was ‘Jenny’s first nurse, Margaret Russell’,I35 the woman who had been sacked by Nancy back in February 1921, at a time when she had been ‘almost the mistress of the house, having charge of the money, & giving R & N pocket-money weekly out of their own money’.I36 Margaret had remained devoted both to Jenny and to Robert; and when her former employer somehow resumed contact with her, she wrote to him most warmly as ‘Dearest Captain’,I37 and was pleased at once again becoming a member of his household.

Shadows from the past continued to fall across Graves’s path. In mid-September, for example, came a long letter from Tom Matthews with fresh news about Laura Riding and Schuyler Jackson. ‘ As you must have heard,’ wrote Tom,

Kit’s divorce from Schuyler went through with no hitches and he and Laura were married sometime last June I think. We were all glad that Kit stuck to her guns about divorcing him. The proceedings took place very quietly at Doylestown PA. Kit’s witnesses (the hearing was in the master’s chambers) were her brother Jimmy, Haven Page (an even older friend of Schuyler’s than I) and myself. It was not fun but it could have been worse. ..Now we hear that L and S have bought a place in Wabasso] Florida (how or with what I don’t know), plan to spend the winters there and the summers on the farm.

Tom added that he and Julie had not seen Laura ‘since a year ago last Christmas’; but that he had ‘r[un] into Schuyler about six months ago in the lobby of the Time building and we just said Hello. The awful thing about it was that it wasn’t more awful. He might have been almost anybody.’

While Graves absorbed the news of Laura’s marriage to Schuyler, he completed the Work in Hand collection, which now consisted solely of poems by himself, Norman Cameron and Alan Hodge, the Hogarth Press having determined to exclude poems by Harry Kemp and James Reeves. There was also work to be done on The Reader Over Your Shoulder, and in late October he gave a wireless talk on ‘War Poetry’ of which a version appeared in the Listener entitled ‘Why has this War produced no War Poets?’139 This talk and the subsequent article brought Graves two new correspondents, both of them poets aged twenty-six: Keidrych Rhys, co-editor with Dylan Thomas of the magazine Wales, who had ‘got himself into muddy waters’ in the Listener correspondence following the publication of Graves’s article, and was advised by him ‘not to get involved in literary politics’; and Alun Lewis, a second-lieutenant in the South Wales Borderers.

Alun Lewis wrote in the first instance complaining that his poem ‘The Soldier’ had been quoted in Graves’s talk ‘to express a point of view I don’t endorse: to wit, the isolation or difference of the poet’. However, he did not blame Graves for this, but Stephen Spender, who had lifted out of context a number of lines from a longer poem. The complete version, he added, was to be published shortly by Allen and Unwin in a selection of his poems (to be entitled Raider’s Dawn).140 Robert replied on 6 November that he was sorry about his mistake, but that it had been a natural one to make in the circumstances which Lewis had outlined; he also suggested that they should exchange their forthcoming volumes of poetry, and asked him to call in ‘if you are ever down this way’.141

Robert’s next visitor was another second-lieutenant: his son David who had been given embarkation leave after being informed that the First Battalion of the RWF, to whom he had recently been posted, might be going abroad very soon. Having purchased ‘tropical kit and a good number of books to last me for the voyage’,142 he had spent four days with Nancy and Sam, and then (en route for Galmpton) had gone to see Jenny in Londonl43 where, having won her commission, she was now working for the WAAF as a public relations officer.144

Jenny’s principal function at that time was acting as liaison officer between the WAAF and the BBC, a role which she fulfilled with enormous success. ‘It was more than exhilarating’, wrote one of her colleagues, ‘sitting next to one of the most enchanting women I have ever met.’ Jenny seemed ‘irresistible with her blonde hair (slightly longer than the approved length) shining eyes and vivacious mouth’; she had tremendous energy and enthusiasm; and when (for instance), the recruiting for WAAF Cooks became an urgent issue, Jenny found a girl in a RAF Cookhouse. ..with a splendid voice and got her on the “Forces Broadcast” -the Singing Cook -and so gave a glamorous twist to that mundane operation’.I45

At The Vale House, Robert listened to David’s news about Jenny, before giving him some careful advice about what he should take abroad with him -suggesting in particular morphia, and gold tokens. Then, on Sunday afternoon,I46 father and son bade each other ‘a fond and sad farewell’, 147

The following morning there was a further letter from Alun Lewis, who declared that he was ‘surprised, excited and honoured’ by Graves’s letter . He would ‘dearly like’ to call on him if an opportunity arose, and would ‘count it a privilege’ to send Graves his poems, However, he wanted him to:

know beforehand the course from which my writing comes. Humility …the source of all my long struggles, for it brings me into conflict with self-pity and pity for the world, with authority and presumption on the part of those who are not humble, with intolerance and cruelty, and with submission.I48

Graves replied that humility was ‘a characteristic of poets, as they learn the impossibility of poetry by experience’. But he added a warning. ‘1 think it is important’, he wrote,

to make the humility something that one puts between oneself and one’s impossibly high standards, not between oneself and others. After all, nobody can possibly succeed in being Alun Lewis so well as yourself, and gradually you in that favourable position of being in his position can find out far better than anyone else what being him entails.

He added that he did not like ‘synthetic work, from Virgil on through the centuries- including Milton. ..’149

This dislike of Milton was deep-rooted, and was about to be incorporated by Graves into an historical novel far more powerful than his recent volumes on Sergeant Lamb.

Work on The Reader Over Your Shoulder was now well advanced, but Faber, the prospective publisher, had lost their nerve and backed out; and so Robert, needing a new source of income, had been thinking hard about a subject for another popular historical novel. He had almost settled on the story of Jason and the Argonauts when, as he told Alan Hodge,

I had a sudden inspiration that I know all about Milton and his wife whom he was living with when he wrote about divorce. Historically I know very little and will have to get all the relevant books together- tell me, didn’t you read up Mrs. Milton for Laura?150…hair was [Milton’s] obsession and bound up tightly with his Samson complex.151

Graves immediately began researching for this novel, in which he tells the story, from her point of view, of Marie Powell, the daughter of a Royalist squire who in 1642 at the age of sixteen married the thirty-four-year-old Puritan poet John Milton. Published as Wife to Mr. Milton, it made such an impression that it remains in print after more than fifty years.

This is not surprising for it has an emotional charge second only, in Graves’s fiction, to that which had powered the Claudius novels. His ‘sudden’ lightning flash of inspiration had welded not only a number of immediate preoccupations, but also long-standing guilt, hatred and prejudice: much of it deeply buried. And although Wife to Mr. Milton is largely sympathetic to Marie Powell, it displays towards John Milton the kind of virulent hatred which indicates some deeply personal motive.

The unsympathetic side of Milton’s nature had already been well documented. In 1900 Sir Walter Raleigh (subsequently Graves’s friend and mentor) had published a volume on Milton in which he lamented that, after describing in Comus ‘one whole realm of pagan loveliness’, Milton had ‘turned his face the other way, and never looked back’. His guiding star had become ‘that severe and self-centred ideal of life and character which is called Puritanism’; he had elected to ‘reject common ambitions, to refuse common enticements, to rule passions, desires and fears’; and to think of himself as ‘a “cause,” an agent of mighty purposes’.I52

Graves (who had once described Poetry as ‘a modified descendant of primitive Magic’I53) shared Raleigh’s admiration for Comus; but where Sir Walter could admire the spiritual grandeur of Paradise Lost, ‘spanned on frail arches over the abyss of the impossible, the unnatural, and the grotesque’,I54 Robert regarded everything but Milton’s earliest work as a betrayal of his true poetic gifts. For poetry, in Graves’s view, was principally about the relationship between the poet and his Muse; and the ‘classical’ poetry of a Virgil or a Milton was not true poetry at all, but an artificial construction chiefly concerned with impressing its hearers and enhancing the reputation of its autor.

Milton admits in Graves’s novel that in his youth he ‘conceived strange amatory fancies for persons of my own sex’; 155 and he is portrayed as ‘small-minded, vengeful, self-righteous’,156 proud, vain and ruthlessly ambitious. He decides to marry partly because Marie Powell, as he notes, is ‘remarkable for the glory of her hair’, 157 so ‘copious’ that in his eyes it ‘bespeaks perfect femininity’; 158 and partly because he believes that only the chastity of the married’, which is ‘neither to commit adultery nor to be greedy of the sensual pleasures by Nature permitted to a married man’ will enable him to become a great epic poet.159

Marie Powell, who marries John Milton in 1642 only because her family owes his family a large sum of money, is shown as being treated abominably. Milton’s arrogance causes so many misunderstandings that the marriage remains unconsummated, she is sent back to her parents, and Milton proceeds to write a number of tracts advocating ‘that such contrariety of mind between husband and wife as will blight the peace of marriage is a just and sufficient cause not only for their separation, but for their divorce’.160

Within three years, learning that Milton is planning bigamously to acquire a second wife, Marie effects a return, cunningly appealing to her husband by throwing herself upon her knees in such a way that ‘my hood tumbled off and showed him my hair’.161 Their marriage is finally consummated, though Milton is too selfish to notice that his love-making gives his wife no pleasure, and she bears him three children before dying in childbirth in 1651.

Tom Matthews was in no doubt about the motive which lay behind Graves’s savage assault upon his fellow-poet. ‘I believe’, he wrote, ‘that he visited on Milton the bitter detestation he felt for Schuyler [Jackson]: that the Milton he was writing about was Schuyler.’162

Graves certainly hated Schuyler Jackson. Earlier in 1941 he had described him to Alan Hodge, deliberately misquoting a Riding poem, as ‘madder than before/ With nothing but a nasty grangrened spot/ Where once had been his heart …,163 His portrait of John Milton clearly has Schuyler Jackson’s selfishness and arrogance; and in retelling the story of how Milton refused to pay his mother-in -law a sum of money to which she felt entitled, 164 Graves also attributes to Milton the ‘cynical dishonesty in business affairs’ which he thought of as the most shocking feature in Schuyler’s character. But there is something more. Graves’s hatred of his Milton/Jackson figure is so extreme that, as Eddie Marsh would comment,

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you never show him doing a kindly action or saying a civil thing. Is this really credible, that a man who shows such nobility and greatness of mind in his poetry could have been so completely lacking in those qualities in his daily life?166

In expressing such hatred, Graves was also holding up a mirror to the dark side of his own soul.

In his novel, The Wooden Shepherdess, Graves’s friend Richard Hughes would write that:

No man can see his own soul clearly and live: he must hood his eyes which look inwards as if against a dazzling by light when the light is too much- though this is a dazzling by darkness, his soul is too dark to bear looking at.I67

So when we look over Graves’s shoulder, as it were, into that sinister reflection, the picture is often shadowy and indistinct. Yet we can see clear hints in the foreground of the connection between Milton’s story and his own.

For example, Graves’s conviction that Milton had an obsession about hair was derived partly from the passage in ‘Lycidas’ in which Milton had asked:

…What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted Shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankles Muse,
Were it not better don as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?

But alongside Neaera we may also imagine two likenesses of Nancy Nicholson: one very recent, and one dating back to 1926. In each of them she is ill, her hair is falling out, she holds a wig in her hand, and she stares accusingly at her husband and tormentor. By her side is a single image of Laura Riding, whose hair had once been cropped close, but who here, in 1928, in the process of stealing Robert away from his wife, has grown her hair long, so that it falls luxuriantly across the breasts between which she flaunts a silver locket containing Nancy’s picture.

Further back in the reflection, their images clouded with guilt, stand Nancy’s children; with Beryl not far away.

How roundly Graves attacks Milton for the treatment of his wife; yet where Milton rejected Marie for three years, and was then reconciled, Graves has already rejected Nancy for twelve years, and will continue to reject her for the rest of his life. How forcefully Graves attacks Milton first for his dishonourable wish to divorce Marie; and then for his still more dishonourable plan, once he has realized that a divorce is out of the question, of marrying bigamously. Yet where Milton ultimately remained faithful to his wife, Graves had deserted Nancy and their four children for Laura Riding, and was now living as though married to Beryl Hodge.

John Milton is also implicitly ridiculed for his relationship with a woman eighteen years younger than himself; yet Beryl was almost twenty years younger than Robert Graves. Milton is attacked for his puritanical notion of ‘chastity’ within marriage; yet for much of his relationship with Laura Riding, Robert had embraced the far more puritanical ideal of total sexual abstinence. Milton is attacked for his early homosexual leanings; yet Robert too had passed through what he would describe as a ‘pseudo- homosexual’ phase in his early manhood. Milton is attacked for spending part of his youth dependent upon his father’s generosity; and yet on more than one occasion it was only Alfred Perceval Graves who had saved Robert from financial ruin.

In this mirror held up to the dark side of Robert Graves’s soul, the figure of his father is almost completely obscured; as is that of his once beloved school-fellow Peter Johnstone.

In the background of all these figures swathed in guilt there is a great darkness; and the strongest element in that darkness is arrogance, closely intertwined with the desire for fame. How fiercely Graves attacks Milton for his arrogant belief in the excellence of his own poetic powers, and for his determination to write some great work that would live for ever. Yet Graves had long ago declared that: ‘with the poet there is always the tinge of arrogance in the thought that his own poetry has a lasting quality which most of his contemporaries cannot claim’;168 and in his recent correspondence with Alun Lewis, he had specifically cautioned him against too much humility.

Graves believed not only that a measure of arrogance was an essential ingredient in the personality of any writer or artist; 169 but also that at any one time there were only a few people in the world (‘proper chaps’ he had called them in Good-bye to All That) whose lives were of any real importance. Riding, with her own conspicuous failure either to earn money or to achieve the recognition she felt she deserved, had subsequently taught him that he should despise both fame and commercial success; yet, although he could never acknowledge it, even to himself, Graves retained for both these things a powerful longing which fuelled his creativity, even if at times it unbalanced his critical thought.

Once Graves had signed a contract for Wife to Mr. Milton with Cassell, he intensified his researches, although he was deeply committed to his point-of-view and wrote to James Reeves on the subject: ‘Nothing can make me like, admire, or even pity John Milton. That was my earliest judgment and the more I read the sounder it seems.’I70

Robert Graves and The White Goddess (1940-1985)
Book Three: The Shout (1929)