Sunday, September 11, 2016


A. G. G. Gibson (ed.), Robert Graves and the Classical Tradition. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 370. ISBN 9780198738053. $125.00.

Reviewed by Steven Lundy, University of Texas at Austin (

Version at BMCR home site


The influence of the poet, novelist, mythographer, and translator Robert Graves on the reception of classics in the 20th century is staggering. While Graves is already the subject of several edited volumes,1 the current volume is the first to be devoted exclusively to this aspect of Graves's work. Arising out of a 2009 conference held at the University of St. Andrews and published as part of OUP's "Classical Presences" series, the volume, in the words of its editor A. A. G. Gibson, seeks "to energize the debate about the value of [Graves's] contribution" (5) to modern reception of the ancient world. It achieves this goal admirably. The wide range of essays covers almost every aspect of Graves's prodigious literary career, and allows the contradictions of his persona to emerge in full: the author steeped in classical learning whose fierce iconoclasm frequently provoked antipathy or indifference from the academic community; the celebrated writer of historical fiction, who, in his quasi-religious devotion to poetry, regarded his novels as mere money-spinning "potboilers" (e.g. 57).

Given the tremendous variety of Graves's literary corpus, Gibson has sensibly pursued a fairly clear division of essays according to the genres in which Graves worked. Following Gibson's introduction, the first five essays treat Graves's historical fiction. The first two essays, "'It's readable all right, but it's not history': Robert Graves's Claudius novels and the Impossibility of Historical Fiction" by Andrew Bennett and "Claudius in the Library" by Duncan Kennedy and Ellen O'Gorman, discuss the Claudius novels (1935's I, Claudius and its sequel, Claudius the God, published a year later) and the vexed status of history in Graves's historical fiction. In the preface to Claudius the God, for example, Graves rails against critics who attacked his historical research in his previous book, and submits a long list of ancient sources he claims to have consulted. Bennett's essay argues that, far from satisfying our need for historiographical probity in reading historical fiction, "Graves's attempt to ground the novels in historical factuality… may be seen to work against their force as novels" (37). Adopting a different approach, Kennedy and O'Gorman explore how Graves's reanimation of Claudius constitutes a "fantasy of the recovery of the past" (51), as though the fiction of an emperor's autobiography might make complete the always unfinished project of history.

Despite Graves's misgivings about the literary value of his novels, the essays in this section share the view that in his historical fiction Graves was able to work through and dramatize his distinctive ideas about the past. In "Homer's Daughter: Graves's Vera Historia", Sheila Murnaghan finds Graves in a mode both inquisitive and playful. In Homer's Daughter, published in 1955, Graves reveals the author of the Odyssey to be a woman, staging "Nausicaa" as a princess whose Odyssean adventures prompt her spontaneous composition of the Homeric epic. In her engaging analysis of this "neat satire of the Odyssey" (76), Murnaghan identifies in Graves's Nausicaa the influence of Samuel Butler's renegade thesis on the Odyssey's female authorship, as well as "an antitype of the tortured male poet" (71) of Graves's speculative essay The White Goddess, published in 1948.

The themes of Murnaghan's essay provide a segue to two contributions on Count Belisarius (1938), a novel recounting the life of the Byzantine general. In "Robert Graves as Historical Novelist: Count Belisarius — Genesis, Gender, and Truth", Shaun Tougher further elaborates the gender politics of Gravesian fiction. Although finding Count Belisarius "dull and disappointing" compared to the Claudius novels (77), Tougher sees in both works a shared interest in powerful women (Livia and Messalina in the Claudius novels; Antonina and Theodora in Count Belisarius). He also considers Graves's decision to cast the narrator as a eunuch, the first of several attempts in the volume to address biographical interpretations of Graves's work — especially his fraught relationship with the poet Laura Riding. In "Graves on War and the Late Antique: Count Belisarius and his World", Jon Coulston explores the martial themes of the novel "set within a fallen world of imperial tyranny and disintegration" (101) as a commentary both on late antiquity and of Graves's own experiences of the First World War.

Graves's political outlook is further developed in the two contributions treating his translations, Sonia Sabnis's "The Golden Ass and the Golden Warrior", and Philip Burton's "'Essentially a Moral Problem': Robert Graves and the Politics of Prose Translation". Sabnis's essay explores the 20th century reception of Apuleius through the lens of Graves's friendship with T. E. Lawrence. She begins by scrutinizing the publisher's blurb of Graves's translation of Apuleius's The Golden Ass, which claims that a text of Apuleius was carried by Lawrence during the campaigns of the Arab Revolt (Sabnis reveals this to be a groundless marketing ploy). In Sabnis's view, however, Graves's anti-romanticizing 1927 biography, Lawrence and the Arabs, does provide a parallel with his "simple and staid" (134) translation and serious (as opposed to comic) interpretation of Apuleius. In Burton's essay, the morality and politics of Graves's decision to publish translations mainly in a plain-prose style (including, for example, of Homer and Lucan) are sketched. Burton concludes that accessible translations provided a space for Graves's self-fashioning, both in relation to his mass audience as well as among other prominent authors like Lawrence.

Graves's political and cultural priorities are best understood through his eccentric ideas about literature and myth, which paid scant regard either to scholarly consensus or popular beliefs. His approach to mythography in 1955's hugely popular The Greek Myths, discussed by Sibylle Ihm in "Robert Graves's The Greek Myths and Matriarchy", for instance, relied on distortions and fabrications in the service of his rigid commitment to a matriarchal revision of Greek mythology. In her contribution, Ihm traces the genealogy of this belief, finding important precursors of Graves' mythographical program in Johann Jakob Bachofen, Jane Harrison, and J.G. Frazer. The thesis pursued by Graves in The Greek Myths has its origins in The White Goddess, in which Graves characterizes poetic production as a kind of mystical devotion to an authentic, prehistoric mother-goddess cult. Vanda Zajko connects this work to Graves's subsequent mythography in "Scholarly Mythopoesis: Robert Graves's The Greek Myths", which finds Graves's work operating between well-intentioned academic presentation and unrestrained literary imagination. I enjoyed both Ihm and Zajko's analyses, but was surprised not to find reference to Penny Murray's essay "Reclaiming the Muse" (published in a volume co-edited by Zajko), a survey of classical and post-classical instances of female gendering of creativity which opens with a useful critique of Graves's White Goddess.2

Graves considered himself a poet above all, while his mythography can be read as something like a thesis statement for his poetic career; for these reasons, the essays by Ihm and Zajko, and the three following, on Graves's poetry, form the core of this volume. Isobel Hurst's "Freedom to Invent: Graves's Iconoclastic Approach to Antiquity", for example, is an invaluable account of Graves's classical background, surveying his education at Charterhouse and St. John's College, Oxford, his sometimes caustic pronouncements on classical poets (Graves believed Vergil a mere "literary pretender to poetry", 204), and his "distinctive and engaging" (219) use of classical themes. John Burnside's splendid, lyrical essay on Graves's love poems, "Restoring Narcissus: The Love Poems of Robert Graves", follows. Burnside uses Graves's account of Narcissus in The Greek Myths as a psychoanalytic model for his love poetry, in which Graves attempted to move beyond immature romantic neediness and renunciation in search of "the image of the perfect Beloved, one he can never possess yet can also never lose" (227). Tom Palaima (who, in full disclosure, is a colleague at the University of Texas at Austin), concludes the section with an essay on Graves' war poetry, "Robert Graves at Troy, Marathon, and the End of Sandy Road." Palaima regularly teaches a seminar on responses to war and violence, which informs his impression of Graves's war poetry, and its use of classical material, as a "detached and unemotional" (235) response to triumphalist war poetry, on the one hand, and violent (but potentially thrilling) protest poems, on the other.

Four final essays treat aspects of Graves's own reception and appearances in media beyond print. Jonathan Perry returns to the Claudius novels and an intriguing moment of critical response in "'Con beffarda irriverenza': Graves's Augustus in Mussolini's Italy". Perry highlights a Fascist review which described the "mocking irreverence" of Graves's Augustus as "another sign of the undeniable decadence" of the British (quoted and translated from Italian at 258). He then considers the Britishness of Graves's characterization, comparing it to a prominent contemporary biography of Augustus by the author and statesman John Buchan. Gibson's contribution to the volume, "Josef von Sternberg and the Cinematizing of I, Claudius" recounts the fraught efforts to bring Graves's novel to the silver screen, fragments of which can still be seen in a BBC documentary on the failed production, The Epic that Never Was. Gibson attends to the challenges of adapting the novel, as well as the "[s]exual relationships of Byzantine intricacy" (284) which informed the adaptation, both on and off-screen. "Broadcasting the Common Asphodel: Robert Graves and the Mass Media" by Mick Morris and "The Anger of Achilles: A Prize-Winning 'Epic for Radio' by Robert Graves" by Amanda Wrigley are both concerned with Graves on the radio. Morris's essay is a compelling account of Classics at the BBC (particularly on the Third Programme), and Graves's mercurial, characteristically iconoclastic radio performances (once proposing a series provisionally entitled "Why I Hate the Romans", diplomatically broadcast as "The Cultured Romans"). Wrigley describes the radio production of Graves' translation (or rather interpretation) of the Iliad, which, despite mixed reviews by classicists, found critical acclaim on the radio, and won the coveted Prix Italia in 1965.

Readers may be disappointed to find little written about the celebrated BBC adaptation of Graves's Claudius novels; in all other aspects, however, the scope of the work is comprehensive and impressive. In sum, I enjoyed this volume a great deal. It will be indispensable to students of Graves's work, important to research on the classical tradition in the 20th century, and of considerable interest to even the most casual of Graves's readers.

The volume concludes with a bibliography and index. Some typographical and substantive errors were found, but did not in the main obstruct comprehension or appreciation.3


1.   e.g. Quinn, P.J. ,ed. , New Perspectives on Robert Graves, Susquehanna UP, 1999; Firla, I., ed., Robert Graves's Historical Novels, Peter Lang, 2002; Firla, I. and Lindop, G., eds., Graves and the Goddess: Essays on Robert Graves's The White Goddess, Susquehanna UP, 2003. See also the peer-reviewed journal of the Robert Graves Society, Gravesiana.
2.   Murray, P., "Reclaiming the Muse", in Zajko, V. and Leonard, M. (eds.), Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought Oxford; New York: Oxford UP, 2006, 327-354.
3.   e.g. "Sean Tougher" (for Shaun Tougher, 16); a missing comma between "Pliny" and "Varro" in a list of ancient sources (43); "Hoskins" (for Hopkins, 85 n. 28); "Theodors" (for Theodora, 106 n. 40); "mythopoiesis" in the subheading (195), where elsewhere it is "mythopoesis"; "from1929" (299 n. 10); at 301 n. 21, Oxford's Hilary term, which is in the spring, is incorrectly glossed as the summer term.

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