Poetic Words: Two War Poems of Robert Graves

Goodbye to All ThatI’ve just finished Good-bye to All That, the autobiography of poet and classicist Robert Graves (an anchor paperback purchased for a book club meeting 26 years ago. Didn’t go to the bc meeting as I hadn’t read the book–book clubs are too regimented for me usually.) Groves wrote it in 1929, when he was in his early 30’s, and much of it is candid, unvarnished description of his WWI service.  Like Siegfried Sassoon, his good friend and fellow war poet, he came to see the war, its aftermath, with a grim patriotic disgust. He was a good soldier, and proud of his service in some ways. But also thought it was a terrible waste, and resolved nothing.
It’s  an engrossing read, like opening up a box of photos from your great grandparents, and sent me looking for his poetry–which it seems he wrote even while in the trenches in France. Here are two.



He had met hours of the clock he never guessed before—
Dumb, dragging, mirthless hours confused with dreams and fear,
Bone-chilling, hungry hours when the gods sleep and snore,
Bequeathing earth and heaven to ghosts, and will not hear,
And will not hear man groan chained to the sodden ground,
Rotting alive; in feather beds they slumbered sound.

When noisome smells of day were sicklied by cold night,
When sentries froze and muttered; when beyond the wire
Blank shadows crawled and tumbled, shaking, tricking the sight,
When impotent hatred of Life stifled desire,
Then soared the sudden rocket, broke in blanching showers.
O lagging watch! O dawn! O hope-forsaken hours!

How often with numbed heart, stale lips, venting his rage
He swore he’d be a dolt, a traitor, a damned fool,
If, when the guns stopped, ever again from youth to age
He broke the early-rising, early-sleeping rule.
No, though more bestial enemies roused a fouler war
Never again would he bear this, no never more!

“Rise with the cheerful sun, go to bed with the same,
Work in your field or kailyard all the shining day,
But,” he said, “never more in quest of wealth, honour, fame,
Search the small hours of night before the East goes grey.
A healthy mind, a honest heart, a wise man leaves
Those ugly impious times to ghosts, devils, soldiers, thieves.”

Poor fool, knowing too well deep in his heart
That he’ll be ready again if urgent orders come,
To quit his rye and cabbages, kiss his wife and part
At the first sullen rapping of the awakened drum,
Ready once more to sweat with fear and brace for the shock,
To greet beneath a falling flare the jests of the clock.


(From Frise on the Somme in February, 1917, in answer
to a letter saying: “I am just finishing my ‘Faun’s
Holiday.’ I wish you were here to feed him with

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Good-bye to All That also has some good writing advice (for which I’m always on the lookout, of course).

“My last memory [of Charterhouse School] is the Headmaster’s parting short: ‘Well, good-bye, Graves, and remember that your best friend is the waste-paper basket.’ This has proved good advice, though not perhaps in the sense he intended: few writers seem to send their work through as many drafts as I do.”

Lovely that “send their work,” as if each paragraph was going on a little walk, or more likely a rafting trip.

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