Robert Graves was born in Wimbledon, Surrey, England in July of 1895. His parents were Alfred Perceval Graves, a school inspector and scholar, and Amalie Elisabeth Sophie von Ranke. Graves was one of ten children and took a great deal of direction from his parents as he grew up. He grew up under the influence of his mother’s puritanical beliefs and came to appreciate the Celtic myths studied by his father. When Graves was very young he contracted measles and almost lost his life to the disease.
Early Life and World War I
In 1913 he won a scholarship to study at St. John’s College, Oxford. He did not remain at the school due to the start of World War I. Graves enlisted as a junior officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant and then to captain. Two years later he was injured in the Somme offensive when a shell-fragment went through one of his lungs. It was not expected that he would survive.
His first collection of poetry, Over the Brazier, was published while he was recovering. Graves quickly gained a reputation as a war poet known for his realistic poems that detailed the conflict on the frontlines. He spent the rest of the war in England. While convalescing he became close with the marginally better known poet, Siegfried Sassoon. He also met his first real love, a nurse named Marjorie.
Sassoon made a number of antiwar statements in 1917 and came close to facing court-martial. Graves helped his friend by persuading the authorities that Sassoon was shell-shocked and not responsible for his actions. Graves and Sassoon both spent time at Craiglockhart, a military hospital in England. Here, they met Wilfred Owen. It was in the same year that Graves was posted to Limerick. He woke one morning and decide to flee to Waterloo under the suspicion he was contracting Spanish Flue.
When Robert Graves was twenty-two he married Nancy Nicholson. The two would go on to have four children together. He was deeply traumatized by the war but went on to Oxford. His next collection of poetry, The Feather Bed, was published in 1923. It was followed by Mock Beggar Hall in 1924.
Toward the middle of the 1920s his writing style went through a transformative period. He met Laura Riding an American poet and theorist who influenced him greatly. Graves failed his B.A. but was allowed to take a B.Litt, allowing him to start a teaching career. In 1926 he took up a position teaching at Cairo University where he lived with his wife, children, and Laura Riding.
Robert Graves and his wife Nancy permanently separated in 1927, the same year he published Lawrence and the Arabs. The volume was a biography of T.E. Lawrence which became a commercial success. This work was followed by Goodbye to All That, an autobiographical account of the trauma he endured during the war years. This book was one of his most successful but cost him a number of friendships. He soon left on a trip to Majorca alongside Laura Riding.
Years in Majorca
During this period of time he completed a number of books of verse and collections of criticism on which he collaborated with Laura. They founded Seizin Press in 1928 and the magazine, Epilogue, in 1935. It was his goal to make his work therapeutic for both writer and reader. Riding and Graves wrote two academic books together, A Survey of Modernist Poetry and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies. These works were published in 1927 and 1928 and had a great influence on literary criticism.
In 1934 and 1935 he finished I, Claudius and Claudius the God, works detailing the life of the Roman emperor Claudius. In 1938 he wrote on the career of the Byzantine general Belisarius in Count Belisarius. When the Spanish Civil War broke out Riding and Graves left Majorca and moved to the United States, specifically, Pennsylvania.
Their relationship was volatile and they would eventually break up, triggering Graves to return to England. He soon began a relationship with Beryl Hodge who was already married to the writer Alan Hodge. The two moved into a home with their three children in Majorca.
Later Life and Death
In 1946 Robert Graves published the historical novel, King Jesus and then The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth two years later. Graves continued to publish throughout the 1950s. His later works included The Greek Myths, The Nazarene Gospel Restored and Catacrok! Mostly Stories, Mostly Funny. In 1961 Graves became Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He remained in this position until his death in 1966.
Starting in the early 1970s Robert Graves began to suffer from memory loss. By 1975 he stopped working, and then died from heart failure ten years later in December of 1985.