October 2022

A Venn Diagram for the Ages

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

It's an indulgent habit, but I love my re-reads. And among the books to which I continually return is Good-bye to All That, Robert Graves' account of his experiences as an infantry officer on the Western Front and justly considered by many, including the late Paul Fussell, to be "the best memoir of the First World War." I promise you, it's a book you'll never forget.


Graves regales his readers with so many unforgettable stories and fascinating observations. Part of what makes his book so memorable (and what contributes to its evergreen appeal) is how Graves approaches the war's absurdity—the squalor; the futility at every level, from tactics to the cause itself; and the grisly, even ghoulish scenes of wholesale slaughter and its aftermath—not with outrage but humor.

First published in 1929 (and, as Graves deservedly boasts, never out of print since), Good-bye to All That primarily recounts his time as a lieutenant then captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but it also serves as a compressed autobiography with entertaining descriptions of his childhood and upbringing, as well as his life after the war to the time of publication.

Born in 1895, Graves died in 1985. Yet even by 1929, he'd led a literally charmed life. For starters, he survived World War I, a feat he ascribed in interviews to a superstitious faith in keeping his virginity. At the Battle of the Somme, a shell fragment pierced him below his right shoulder and exited above his right nipple. Like a scene in Monty Python, medics and doctors wrote him off as hopeless at every station, Graves too weak to protest "I'm not dead yet." His commander mailed the obligatory "I regret to inform you" letter to his mother. Graves read his obituary in The London Times and its correction.

Graves also had the good fortune to know many remarkable people. His teacher at Charterhouse preparatory school was George Mallory, who introduced him to modern literature and, of course, mountaineering. Graves makes a pilgrimage to meet Thomas Hardy, one of the best vignettes in the book. The poet Siegfried Sassoon happened to be a fellow officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers; he and Graves became close friends. While convalescing in hospital, Graves also befriended Wilfred Owen.

And then there's Chapter XXVIII, which begins: "The first time I met Colonel T. E. Lawrence.…" Lawrence had been awarded a seven-year fellowship at All Souls' college in Oxford. Graves reckons the date around February or March 1920:

    You must be Graves the poet. I read a book of yours in Egypt in 1917, and thought it pretty good.

I'd put that line on my résumé.

Lawrence and Graves struck up an immediate, lifelong friendship. Aside from both being officers who'd recently seen harrowing amounts of combat, they were fellow poets and writers, as well as scholars and enthusiasts of Greek and Latin culture. And they were survivors. How dizzying that must have felt sometimes amidst the comforts and civility of academic Oxford.

Lawrence's regard for Graves as a writer and friend can be seen in a moving anecdote. Lawrence loathed the publicity his exploits garnered, but publishers clamored for his biography. He agreed on condition that Robert Graves write it, but that Graves not be told that T. E. had asked for him; Lawrence knew that Graves was struggling financially but didn't wish to embarrass him by making the job offer too obvious. For his part, Graves happily accepted the commission but on condition that Lawrence agree to it! Somehow, their decorous concerns got sorted and the very successful, fully authorized Lawrence Among the Arabs appeared in 1927.

But one of my favorite moments in Good-bye to All That sees T. E. Lawrence referee what has to be among the greatest literary meetings of all time, introducing his guests with a line Hollywood couldn't improve. As Graves recounts:

    One morning I went to his [Lawrence's] rooms, and he introduced me to a visitor there: 'Ezra Pound: Robert Graves—you will dislike each other,' he said.

For me it's impossible not to hear that line delivered by Peter O'Toole with his breathy delivery and fastidious elocution. I'd also pay a generous sum for a transcript of the conversation those three had. Ponder the Venn diagram of those three heads in one room! Alas, Graves doesn't provide a single quote from Pound, quite deliberately, I suspect.

Lawrence was right, of course. And Graves and Pound would only move further to opposite ends of the political spectrum in the coming decades. The irony is that they shared so much in common: long-lived poets, polyglots, classicists, and eventual expatriates.

On my bookshelf I have a copy of Robert Graves' lauded translation of Apuleius' The Golden Ass alongside Ezra Pound's collection of shorter poems, Personæ. The two get along fine.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. He served four years as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division of the
U.S. Army. His articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2022 Patrick Walsh
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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