5 JUNE 1982, Page 22


T. S. Matthews

D obert Graves is a blowsy charwoman .n..of a book — down on its knees scrubb- ing away at acres of floor-space, polishing the parquet of its hero's office till it shines again, and spitting out the occasional 'orri- ble objurgation, as charwomen will, perhaps in order to breathe.

Graves himself is still alive, yet here we have a biography of him apparently intend- ed as definitive. On another count too this is a brave book: Mr Seymour-Smith, vorpal blade in hand, whacks the bushes for Laura Riding, 'whose name,' he says, 'is better known amongst the reading public for her "scandalous" association with Robert Graves than it is for any of her ,own work'. This remark, and others like it, is sure to

summon a williwaw from far Wabasso. 'A bizarre personality of limited but powerful genius' (another snicker-snack) may not de- mand an answer from Laura Riding but will most certainly get one.

Mr Seymour-Smith has known Graves 'very well' since 1943. He was only 15 then, but already a professed poet, and he must have decided early on to stake out his claim to Graves. That stake has now become tan- tamount to ownership, and trespassers are warned to keep off the grass. Mr Seymour- Smith is in a strong position. The four peo- ple to whom his book is dedicated and who were known to have been close friends of Graves are all safely dead; and Beryl Graves (Robert's wife) has been 'over every word of the final draft of this book, correcting only errors of fact'.

Mr Seymour-Smith can with impunity make any assertion he likes about Graves's opinions, since Graves, though still alive, is beyond our reach. He can no longer read or write, and says virtually nothing. On his last visit to London some years ago, which was also my last sight of him, he seldom spoke, and when he did it was usually to say 'Hur- ray!' — meaning the opposite. I can easily imagine hi's saying 'Hurray!' about some of the references to himself in this book.

Graves's life makes a complicated, sensa- tional, at times nearly incredible story. Mr Seymour-Smith doesn't really get it all together, but my word, does he let it hang out! I thought it fascinating, because part of it was also a part of my life; but I can't think that many readers will find of interest what was, after all, only a very small and rather silly footnote to a single paragraph of literary history.

Graves is the undoubted hero of this ver- sion, but his evil genius is not put nearly so firmly in her place. After speaking of Laura Riding's 'enormous debt' to Graves, of her

Spectator 5 June 1982 inflexible belief that any criticism of herds 'offensive, untrue, malignant drivel'; after saying that she is 'undermined ... by a vulgarity in herself so insidious that she herself could not admit of its existence' after all this and more, the author at the very end of his book makes these oddly apologetic statements about her: 'Riding s capacity for generosity and good fun has been acknowledged by many ... I doubt If anyone has ever written more astonishing poetry ... Despite what she may imagine; she has almost everyone's good wishes. Words fail me; but, as I have already in' timated, they won't fail Laura Riding. , The other notorious chapter in Graves s life is the history of his 'Muses', opeillY celebrated in series after series of poems, and openly declared — a silly, embarrassing and boring tale. Here the author does not tell all, or even perhaps all he knows. He !II- forms us that there were four Muses, begin' ning with Judith in 1950 and ending with Julie in 1975, when Graves was 80. Were they actually his mistresses or merely his We are left in ignorance. Iv° Seymour-Smith does tell us that Graves never really wanted to fall in love with any of them and complained bitterly when he did, but sacrificed himself in line o' business, to get more poems.

This is not a bad book, as books g° nowadays. And it's a labour of love

what passes for love with the author. Ile somewhat overplays the accomplishments of his hero. 'It is of course as a poet that 11,7e will be chiefly remembered.' A lyric poet' Not exactly. To get his claim just right n, hobbles it in lawyer-lingo: 'the finest and most versatile traditionalist technician III, English-language poetry of his century • Well, if I were to join this guessing-8011j I'd back a different Pegasus: namely, ' Graves will still be read 80 years from no — not his poems, however, but the, Claudius books and (for antiquarians °` mediaeval warfare) Goodbye to All That. Mr Seymour-Smith writes like a rather bad-tempered schoolmaster, but relapsiq only occasionally into borborygnile phrases; he likes words such as. - 'delitescent', internpestive', ,ann banausic', 'despumate'. Is he trying t° avoid the vulgarity of plain speech? To e/c,, tend, as it were, the little finger of the hall" that holds the teacup? Vulgarity and con- tempt are notions that loom large in Ills cosmos, just as 'vulgar' and 'nasty' are words that seem to haunt him. I should like to have known Robed Graves — and in fact I had thought I did know him, until the scales were torn fro 111 my eyes. References to me in this book ore frequent, unflattering and unfriendly. 1,111ei author says that my last book, in wilt Graves is one of the chief figures, 'speaks for itself. I have used it only with care •A. quadruple checked ...' that Graves 'hay nothing but contempt' for what I thought. Mr Seymour-Smith wants me not to have known Graves before he did; and he very much wants us not to have been friends. He even goes so far as to hint that I didn't re 1Y exist. (This put me in mind of another man who once said I was only a figment. In the early days on Time, when the staff was tiny, the name Peter Mathews was listed on the masthead. There was no such person; but in case of Time making a really dreadful mistake he was to be fired. A columnist on a New York tabloid discovered this trade secret and announced that I didn't exist.) I thought the most interesting part of Paul O'Prey's very readable selection of Graves's letters was his correspondence with Siegfried Sassoon. I hadn't realised how long and quarrelsome (and also

their stormy friendship had been. ,, what lengths they would go to score a Point! — i

for example, this from Sassoon in 1930: 'Although I made a new will last year, You will still be consoled for my death . . to the extent of £300 a year tax paid ... But I do implore you not to write anything more about me ... your silence will be much ap- preciated'. Here's a lovely passage (Graves): 'I do not believe in great men. 1 treat everyone as an equal unless they prove themselves inferior .. . ' (Sassoon): 'I wish you'd broken your rule, for once, and regarded [Thomas Hardy] as your superior until you found that you were his equal.'

There are some lively letters from T. E Lawrence, another and even more equivocal friend. Thank God (and the copyright law) — no letters from Laura Riding, surely one of the most voluminous and disheartening letter-writers of this or any age.

These two books were published at the same time and show signs of having been looked over by the same editor: they repeat the same mistakes.