[This image is of a window in St Tannwg and St Eithrias Church (Royal Chapel of the Prince Owain Glyndŵr) in Pennal, Gwynedd, North Wales. It is one of the very few representations of a Green Man figure in church stained glass anywhere in Britain.]
It's a curious coincidence that three notable writers happened, in the summer of 1916, to be on the same bit of the Western Front at the same time. Robert Graves was wounded in the fighting at Mametz Wood in July 1916. David Jones, a private in the same battalion in which Graves was an officer, also fought in this engagement (Mametz Wood is an important location in Jones's masterpiece In Parenthesis). J R R Tolkien, though in a different battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, was on the same line at the same time, only a little way north of Graves and Jones. More remarkably, each of these people went on to adapt their war experience into new mythologies: in Tolkien's case, most famously, as ‘Middle Earth’ and the War of the Ring, in Jones's case as the strange and beautiful fusion of Arthurian legend and modernity than informs In Parenthesis, and in the case of Graves as The White Goddess, his prose ‘historical grammar of poetic myth’, and a great many attendant poems.
In each of these cases the mythography involved a radical reconfiguring of the actual experience—transforming modern reality into an alternate realm of magic cod-medievalism in the case of Tolkien, adding a superposition of English/Welsh myths to modern life for Jones, and for Graves swapping prosaic masculine reality for poetic female myth. It's an interesting question as to why only one of these invented legends, and why that particular one, went on to colonise the entire cultural world. I'm not sure I have the answer as to why. A couple of years ago I posted a short thing about the differences between the globally popular mythography of Tolkien and the little-regarded mythography of Graves, and what the two of them mean to me, personally. Your mythage may vary, of course.
Graves wrote a lot of war poetry but suppressed almost all of it from his later collections of poetry. Goodbye To All That (written in a hurry in 1929 to make money, something Graves needed urgently in part to pay for Laura Riding's medical bills after her suicide attempt) remains a very readable, often blackly droll memoir of his time at the front. Re-reading it recently I was struck by how deftly it insinuates the many continuities between public school life (the all male environment of Charterhouse which Graves hated) and military life in wartime (the all male environment of the Western Front, which Graves hated), and the various ‘homosocial’ (to use Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's famous term) logics of both modes of living. The physical dangers of the Western front (maiming and death) were, obviously, a step-up from the physical dangers of public school (fights and corporal punishment) but otherwise the social logic, emotional tenor and oppressive stresses of the two worlds are portrayed by Graves as being more-or-less the same.
Goodbye To All That is a masculine book, both in terms of its detailed account of day-to-day living with lots of other men and in its rather more veiled account of the emotional intensities of male-male desire. Graves is, up to a point, frank about about his time at school and the intense love he felt for a beautiful younger boy ‘Dick’ (actually: George Harcourt Vanden-Bampde-Johnstone, later 3rd Baron Derwent), a love he insists was ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’, and how betrayed he felt when Dick was later arrested for propositioning a Canadian corporal for sex in 1915: all that paradoxical complexity of male same-sex desire. The whole book is written in what, wary of gender essentialism, I am nonetheless going to peg as a male style: detailed, no-nonsense, matter-of-factual, interested in the intricate machinery of things, but also drily funny and gallows-humorous:
One day I walked out of the mess to begin the afternoon’s work on the drill ground. I had to pass by the place where bombing instruction was given. A group of men was standing around the table where the various types of bombs were set out for demonstration. There was a sudden crash. A sergeant of the Royal Irish Rifles had been giving a little unofficial instruction before the proper instructor arrived. He picked up a No. 1 Percussion-Grenade and said: ‘Now lads, you’ve got to be careful here! Remember that if you touch anything while you’re swinging this chap, it’ll go off.’ To illustrate the point, he rapped the grenade against the table edge. It killed him and the man next to him and wounded twelve others more or less severely. [Goodbye to All That, ch 11]There's lots in the book like this, and though it's certainly entertaining I suppose it doesn't really reflect terribly well on ‘masculinity’ to gender it that way. It is funny, but this is manifestly a strategy for avoiding emotional intensity, a deliberate deflation. The point is that this kind of sniggering at sex and death, the superannuated schoolkid of the type that the English upper-class public school system was so prolific, only takes us so far.
What else? Well, the stuff that isn't anecdotal and humorous is drily factual:
The troop-train consisted of forty-seven coaches and took twenty-five hours to arrive at Béthune, the rail-head. We went via St. Omer. It was about nine o’clock in the evening and we were hungry, cold and dirty. We had expected a short journey and so allowed our baggage to be put in a locked van. We played nap to keep our minds off the discomfort and I lost sixty francs, which was over two pounds at the existing rate of exchange. On the platform at Béthune a little man in filthy khaki, wearing the Welsh cap-badge, came up with a friendly touch of the cap most unlike a salute. He was to be our guide to the battalion, which was in the Cambrin trenches about ten kilometres away. He asked us to collect the draft of forty men we had with us and follow him. We marched through the unlit suburbs of the town. We were all intensely excited at the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. [Goodbye to All That, ch 12]‘We were all intensely excited at the noise and flashes of the guns’ is entirely told, and in no respect shown. The tone here is the blandly dialled-down underexcitement appropriate to Graves's class and generation. Most of Goodbye to All That is like this.
The really interesting thing, so far as I'm concerned, is that by 1929 Graves had already gone most of the way along the path that reconfigured his whole aesthetic: from whimsical offhandedness, juvenile black humour and a protective shield made out of blocks of unremarkable prose, and to a mythic ingenuousness, to poetry, and to a sometimes frankly embarrassing open-heartedness: his new mythos and ethos. The remarkable thing about The White Goddess is how assertively feminine it is: an (invented) myth of matriarchal prehistoric Europe being conquered by a patriarchal culture, but keeping the religious adoration of the triple goddess (maiden/mother/crone) alive in subterranean ways, for instance through poetry. It completely inverts both the medium and (male) subject of Goodbye. And although part of David Jones's greatness as a poet was his willingness experimentally to meld prose and poetry (and although Tolkien embroidered the edges of his prose Fantasy epics with long stretches of weakbeer verse) Graves was the only one of the three fully to commit to poetry as poetry, not just formally but in terms of an entire Being-in-the-World. In the 1949 Preface to The White Goddess he described poetry as his ‘ruling passion’: ‘I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric’. Mark Ford glosses:
His eccentricity took many forms, as many as the mercurial goddess herself, yet Graves seems never to have doubted the central narrative to which his life and work were dedicated:It's a narrow vision of what poetry is, but a compelling one for all that, I think. And there's no doubt in my mind that, so far as his persitently unliteral mind could ever be described in these term, Graves literally believed in this Goddess. He was a deeply superstitious man, who saw meaning and pattern in what others would ascribe to chance, and who genuinely thought that a particular kind of poetic intensity was the gift of a muse-deity who sometimes, if rarely, granted acolyte-poets the idiom of reality truly apprehended. That reality was often terrifying (the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine) and thrilling; erotically mysterious and overwhelming.
There is one story and one story onlyhe declares in one of his best-known poems, ‘To Juan at the Winter Solstice’. Although Graves only began formulating his Muse theories in the mid-Forties, the ‘one story’ of his vocation dominates his entire career. Graves’s ‘poetic principles’ involve a wholesale rejection of 20th-century civilisation and complete submission to the capricious demands of the Goddess: ‘a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into snow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag. Her names and titles are innumerable.’ All true poems are invocations of this volatile ‘Mother of All-Living’, and their effect is immediate—‘the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine.’
That will prove worth your telling
What this means, I think, is that the story is not that Graves ‘suppressed’ his war poetry, but rather that his war poetry evolved strangely but directly into his Muse poetry. Here he is in 1927:
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,This is a war poem not just in that it insinuates those alarming marching-soldiers into its infant's sensorium, but because it balances the traumatic immediacy of overwhelming youthful experience (fighting a war, we might say) against the cooler, more Robespierrean version of that experience that is captured by words. Its the White Goddess's lunar night sky, it is her rose, and therefore poetry that drives us mad; and it is rationally considered prosaic representation that takes that edge away, that settles what was once dreadful and spine-tingling into mediocrity. It's the difference, in other words, between a poetic and a prosaic account of juvenile trauma—between, perversely enough, ‘The Cool Web’ itself and the cool web of prose that constitutes Goodbye To All That.
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.
But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.
There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way. [‘The Cool Web’ (1927)]
Graves's poetry reopens, by feminising, the horrific chasm of his youth at the same time as Graves's prose sardonically and entertainingly distances himself from it. It's even in his book's name: Goodbye To All That as a title has, I suppose, a carefree, tossed-away sort of vibe; except that it's also evidently apotropaic, an attempt at emotional and spiritual prophylaxis, a magic charm of warding away. In Ancient Greece χαῖρε was what you said when you met up with or parted from somebody (so ‘goodbye’), but it was also a religious invocation, meaning rejoice (religious congregations aimed at συγχαίροντας, ‘rejoicing together’, just as goodbye actually means god-be-with-ye); and I wonder if the remaining emphasis isn't ‘... to all that’ so much as it is ‘... to all that’. Of course you know that the name of the god Pán, Πάν, means all, and that Pan was the hyper-masculine, randily phallic, goatish deity of herds of cows, the only god to have died in our time. It wouldn't stretch things too far to see Graves as bidding all that Pannishness goodbye as he headed off to Majorca with Laura Riding to serve the Muse.
Consider the poem he wrote as epigraph to the book The White Goddess, at the other end of his time with Riding (earlier in the 1940s she had left him to return to America with Schuyler B. Jackson, whom she married). Graves is still haunted by her, though:
All saints revile her, and all sober menThose bright bolts coming down like mortar fire, that headstrong heroism, that journey to the place where the paths run out and people hide in caves and dug-outs, even the details like November, rawest of seasons—Armistice month, of course—all speak to a poem that refracts and reinvents Graves's war service as an encounter with the cosmic death-goddess. An encounter that rends the web of language and returns us to an immediacy of terror of wonder.
Ruled by the God Apollo's golden mean—
In scorn of which we sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom we desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.
It was a virtue not to stay,
To go our headstrong and heroic way
Seeking her out at the volcano's head,
Among pack ice, or where the track had faded
Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers:
Whose broad high brow was white as any leper's,
Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,
With hair curled honey-coloured to white hips.
The sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir
Will celebrate with green the Mother,
And every song-bird shout awhile for her;
But we are gifted, even in November
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall. [‘The White Goddess’ (1949)]
I'm confident I could work through Graves's various later White Goddess poems and find in almost all of them a magically inverted version of his war service,. Indeed, I'd even be prepared to make the case that the more conventional war poetry (later mostly suppressed by Graves) as much as the prosaic language-webbing of that experience in Goodbye To All That, work proleptically mythic resonances into their reportage. Here is a poem Graves wrote in 1915:
To you who’d read my songs of WarNot a very good poem, really; that first stanza is mostly padding, a prolix restatement of what it itself concedes is a cliché, and though the word-portrait in the second stanza is certainly vivid and gross, it doesn't do much more than hold that grossness before the reader for him/her to ugh! at. Here, slightly better, is the prose account of the same encounter in Goodbye To All That.
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
“War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard. [‘The Dead Bosche’ (1915)]
For the next two days we were in bivouacs outside the wood. We were in fighting kit and the nights were wet and cold. I went into the wood to find German overcoats to use as blankets. Mametz Wood was full of dead of the Prussian Guards Reserve, big men, and of Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of the new-army battalions, little men. There was not a single tree in the wood unbroken. I got my greatcoats and came away as quickly as I could, climbing over the wreckage of green branches. Going and coming, by the only possible route, I had to pass by the corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and beard. He had been there for some days and was bloated and stinking. There had been bayonet fighting in the wood.This account, woven fourteen years later into the web of language, is no longer a simple war is hell datum. Something still horrible but more ambiguous is going on. The White Goddess, the book, is honest about its indebtedness to Frazer's Golden Bough, although it finesses Frazer's argument to claim that the sacred king, the lame god ritually killed (cut down with a sacred axe, or nailed to a magic tree, or castrated with a sickle and then slain)—killed, of course, in order that he might be reborn and the land reborn with him in spring—was always a specific sacrifice to the Goddess. Graves's whole book is fascinated by sacred groves and woodland, and goes into the magic qualities of trees, and sacred tree-alphabets, at wearying length: its working title was The Roebuck in the Thicket.
In this poem, and in these sections of Goodbye To All That, the thicket is Mamet's Wood. Graves's dead German is green-faced because, on the level of documentary verisimiltude, skin as it rots can acquire a greenish tint; but more importantly for Graves on the level of myth he is the green man in the green sacred wood, just as Graves, as quasi-priest, ‘climbing over the wreckage of green branches’, and the point becomes not why has hellish war rendered this man dead? but rather to whom has he been sacrificed in this terrifying and thrilling ritual?
This level of meaning is not merely adventitious. It is, or at least by 1929 it had become for Graves, the core point. Here, quoted at some length, is Graves's own plain-prose account of what happened to him at Mametz Wood, a year after encountering his alarming Greenman-German. It's July 1916. Two Scots and one English regiment has been sent forward, at 5am, to pitch the German defenders out of the wood. Graves is waiting for the orders to bring up his battalion to support the attack. This order, in the event, was not given until 11am (the subsequent attack reduced the already battle-depleted battalion numbers from c.400 to fewer than 80 men: it took them the rest of the year to get back to strength). But Graves wasn't part of this assault. The Germans, having sighted the waiting attackers, began bombarding them with six- and eight-inch shells.
There was so much of it that we decided to move back fifty yards; it was when I was running that an eight-inch shell burst about three paces behind me. I was able to work that out afterwards by the line of my wounds. I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: ‘I’ve been hit.’ Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos [at which Graves had fought the previous year]. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietszche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:His commanding officer wrote to his parents, offering his condolences, talking of his sorrow at the loss of so gallant a soldier. Graves is officially dead.
Non, tu ne peus pas me tuer.It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him ...
One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.
My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: ‘Old Gravy’s got it, all right.’ The dressing-station was overworked that day; I was laid in a corner on a stretcher and remained unconscious for more than twenty-four hours. [Goodbye To All That, ch 20]
The next morning, the 21st, when they were clearing away the dead, I was found to be still breathing; so they put me on an ambulance for Heilly, the nearest field-hospital. The pain of being jolted down the Happy Valley, with a shell-hole at every three or four yards of the roads, woke me for awhile. I remember screaming. But once back on the better roads I became unconscious again.At a hospital behind the lines he was able to write to his parents:
An orderly gave me a pencil and paper and I wrote home to say that I was wounded but all right. This was July 24th, my twenty-first birthday, and it was on this day, when I arrived at Rouen, that my death officially occurred. My parents got my letter two days after the letter from the colonel; mine was dated July 23rd, because I had lost count of days when I was unconscious; his was dated the 22nd. They could not decide whether my letter had been written just before I died and misdated, or whether I had died just after writing it. ‘Died of wounds’ was, however, so much more circumstantial than ‘killed’ that they gave me up.He is 21: an auspicious age (three times the magic number 7; just as the strange little life-preserving charm he mutters out of a French translation of Nietzsche consists of seven magic monosyllables, the final one doubled to seal the spell)—the threshold between childhood and manhood in many cultures—and he is both officially dead and strangely alive. Despite the seriousness of his chest wound, it is his finger that bothers Graves the most: ‘I had little pain all this time, but much discomfort; the chief pain came from my finger, which had turned septic because nobody had taken the trouble to dress it, and was throbbing. And from the thigh, where the sticky medical plaster, used to hold down the dressing, pulled up the hair painfully when it was taken off each time the wound was dressed.’ Graves concludes this chapter with an account of a comrade, a soldier called Roberts (a name of kings and princes!) also from the Royal Welch, who happens to be in the next bed to him in the hospital:
Next to me was a Welsh boy, named O. M. Roberts, who had joined us only a few days before he was hit. He told me about High Wood; he had reached the edge of the wood when he was wounded in the groin. He had fallen into a shell-hole. Some time in the afternoon he had recovered consciousness and seen a German officer working round the edge of the wood, killing off the wounded with an automatic pistol. Some of our lightly-wounded were, apparently, not behaving as wounded men should; they were sniping. The German worked nearer. He saw Roberts move and came towards him, fired and hit him in the arm. Roberts was very weak and tugged at his Webley. He had great difficulty in getting it out of the holster. The German fired again and missed. Roberts rested the Webley against the lip of the shell-hole and tried to pull the trigger; he was not strong enough. The German was quite close now and was going to make certain of him this time. Roberts said that he just managed to pull the trigger with the fingers of both hands when the German was only about five yards away. The shot took the top of his head off. Roberts fainted.This passage is written with a little more boys-own stylistic brio than the rest of the book, but it's a little puzzling as to why Graves rounds-off the chapter with it, unless it's just to add a little more battlefield colour. Could it be more? Roberts O. M. is wounded in the groin (for Graves, the druidic sickle that castrated the fisher-king, and the sickle that emasculated Ouranos that he could be reborn as his own son Kronos, was the crescent moon, and therefore sacred to the lunar triple-goddess) just as Robert(s) Grave is wounded in his left thigh ‘high up near the groin’ (only the fact that he was running at full pelt meant he ‘escaped emasculation’). Roberts O. M. is in a dead swoon, left for dead, without even enough vitality to pull the trigger of his pistol; and yet somehow he lives. Grave Robert(s) is more comprehensively pegged out: both hands symmetrically wounded (though at different battles) like stigmata, his brow penetrated by a small piece of death itself—a chip from a gravestone—and a lance of shrapnel right through the side of his torso. He dies, but he does not die. He is the green man, sacrifically pierced in the sacred wood in order to come back to life. His English name ‘Robert Graves’ with its intimations of death of burial (‘Old Gravy’s got it, all right!’) is shown as containing within it his German name ‘von Ranke’ (ranken means ‘to grow in tendrils; especially of plants like ivy’); to make, yin-yang, the Green Man, the fisher king, the death of the year in winter and its regrowth in spring. In all this I'm not suggesting that Graves didn't suffer these wounds; but I am suggesting that he weaves language into a web to recuperate the raw, ghastly, inarticulable experience into something auto-mythographic. School was all boys, and the army was all men, but war itself, he is saying, is the Goddess in one of her many guises, and not only was he sacrificed upon her altar in the thicket he is now, in retrospect, glad to have been her victim. In realism is found, magically hidden, true myth.
If nothing else, this account of the charm that wards off death is worth knowing: non tu ne peus pas me tuer is a lovely tangle of paired and cross-mixing sounds: non/ne, the tu ne half-rhyming with the terminal tuer, the alliteration of peus pas centring the alliterations of non ne and tu tuer to leave me, the object of the charm, standing proud. It has a compactness and musical riff-on-variation sonality that could not, I think, be equalled in English. Remember it and say it yourself when your life is threatened: it might save you. I mean, who knows?