Robert von Ranke Graves was born in Wimbledon, London. His father was Irish and his mother German (the von Ranke name was to cause suspicion among some of his fellow soldiers that he was a German spy). He volunteered for active service at the outbreak of the First World War, aged 19, and went on to serve as a Captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, alongside Siegfried Sassoon, his closest friend during the war years. He was badly wounded at the Somme, and reported dead on his 21st birthday, though recovered enough to return to the front a few months later. He suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia, for many years after the war and continued to be haunted by traumatic memories of the war until old age. Goodbye To All That (1929) is the most compelling and enduring contemporary prose account of the First World War. From 1929 he spent most of his life in Spain, and became one of the leading literary figures of the age. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in the 1960s. His novels include I, Claudius, King Jesus and The Golden Fleece, and his writings on myth include The White Goddess and The Greek Myths.
His first book, Over the Brazier (1916), included youthful poems that the Times Literary Supplement found full of ‘compelling rawness and … blunt familiarity’, and the ‘arresting sense of the realities of trench life.’ The poems were tame compared to what Graves himself, as well as Owen, Sassoon and others of their circle went on to write, but the review shows that Graves was one of the first to attempt to write in a way about the war which tried to capture the extremeness of the experience. Indeed, Sassoon was shocked by Graves’s early realism and thought the poems ‘violent and repulsive’.
Like Sassoon and others, Graves wrote poetry that challenged unthinking attitudes to the war, but he also appeared to use his poetry to protect himself from being overwhelmed by war, in writing about situations and images that were emblematic of peace. Most of the poems he wrote in 1917 were not about the horrors of trench life, but about childhood innocence and the English countryside.
Graves is one of the foremost English poets of the twentieth century. His feelings about the First World War were complex and ambiguous, and his writings reflect this. Graves continued writing poetry into the 1970s and many of his best war poems were written long after it was all over, including ‘Recalling War’, ‘Cuirassiers of the Frontier’ and ‘Last Day of Leave’.