On this day in 1895, the great British scholar and writer Robert Graves was born. The volume and diversity of his work is overwhelming. He probably thought of himself as a poet. But he did an enormous amount of pure scholarship: critical analysis and translation. But I believe he paid the bills by writing the historical fiction that he is most remembered for, I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and other books like Wife to Mr Milton: the Story of Marie Powell, which is about the wife of John Milton.
I don’t have a great deal to say about Graves beyond relating my intense jealousy of him. My standard line about my own education is that if I had it all to do over again, I would study mathematics and not physics; but if I were starting now, I would study classics. I remember reading in a biography of Christopher Marlowe that originally, the term “illiterate” meant that one could not read Latin. And that a basic college education at that time (late 16th century) meant you were fluent in Latin. When Marlowe got his Master’s degree, that meant he was fluent in Greek as well. Graves did quite a lot of Greek and Latin translating, although I don’t think anyone was paying him, which makes it all the more cool.
The first thirty years of his life were something of a muddle where he went to school, then to war, got married, went back to school, was unsuccessful at business and then abandoned his wife and children for poet Laura Riding. His career kind of started there with the two of them publishing poetry and academic works. Things really got going when Graves published his autobiography, Good-bye to All That. Much of it was about his experiences in World War I, which was not laudatory and even discussed the murder of German prisoners of war. He also managed to offend a lot of people with the book, but I get the impression that Graves was generally rather good at that.
In 1934, he published I, Claudius, which has hugely successful and probably set him for life. Five years later, his turbulent relationship with Riding ended. Then he took up with Beryl Hodge, the wife of his collaborator Alan Hodge. They married and Graves went on to have a more boring life befitting a successful writer. But it is hard not to think that Graves was kind of jerk to many of the people in his life. Not that it matters. And none of us are perfect.
The gods, it would seem, did punish Graves. In his mid-70s, he began suffering from severe memory loss and for the last ten years of his life, he was able to do no work at all. It is a sad way to go, although actually rather typical. The mind tends to see a distinct diminution in its abilities in the early 70s, although it doesn’t seem to get notably worse even if you live to be 124 (which seems to be about the maximum possible age for humans). But it must have been particularly hard on a great mind like Graves. It is one of the reasons that I think it is best for me to die at around 75, even if I don’t have a great mind like Graves. What I do have is my mind and when that starts to go, what will be the point? Moving on…
Happy birthday Robert Graves!