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Friday, May 27, 2011

Number 168: Robert Graves "Wild Strawberries"

Wild Strawberries

Strawberries that in gardens grow
Are plump and juicy fine,
But sweeter far as wise men know
Spring from the woodland vine.

No need for bowl or silver spoon,
Sugar or spice or cream,
Has the wild berry plucked in June
Beside the trickling stream.

One such to melt at the tongue's root,
Confounding taste with scent,
Beats a full peck of garden fruit:
Which points my argument.

May sudden justice overtake
And snap the froward pen,
That old and palsied poets shake
Against the minds of men.

Blasphemers trusting to hold caught
In far-flung webs of ink,
The utmost ends of human thought
Till nothing's left to think.

But may the gift of heavenly peace
And glory for all time
Keep the boy Tom who tending geese
First made the nursery rhyme.

-- Robert Graves

Hap Notes: Well, Robert Graves (1895-1985) is far too big and complex a subject for a late spring morning but I'll sketch in a bit of background. This poem, by the way, is not actually only about strawberries – it's about literary theory and one which Graves felt intently. It all has to do with the White Goddess. We'll get to that in a minute.

Graves was born and raised in Wimbledon in south London. His father was a school inspector and Gaelic scholar and his mother was from a German family hence his full name Robert von Ranke Graves, which caused him considerable troubles in school stemming from events leading up to WWI with Germany. He began writing poetry as a youth. He took a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the outbreak of the war in 1914 even though he had a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford. He would attend there after the war. (If you get a minute look up the Royal Welch Fusiliers, it's fascinating stuff. And, yes, it's Welch.)

Graves was severely wounded, recovered and went back to the war. He met and knew Siegfried Sassoon as well as Wilfred Owen (another fine WWI poet). Graves' experiences in the war left him shell shocked and miserable for years. He wouldn't even pick up a telephone for more than 10 years after the war because he had been electrocuted by a trench telephone. He said in his autobiography, Goodbye To All That, "Since 1916, the fear of gas obsessed me: any unusual smell, even a sudden strong smell of flowers in a garden, was enough to send me trembling. And I couldn't face the sound of heavy shelling now; the noise of a car back-firing would send me flat on my face, or running for cover."

A very important side note about those who fought in WWI, is the horror that these men felt in the first war that was conducted with rapid killing machinery and chemicals. Those front loading muskets used during the Revolutionary War were like children's toys compared with the destruction of the machine gun. Other new weapons to destroy men included the tank, grenades, flame throwers and poison gas. It was a whole new way to fight war, most grim and gruesome and shocking. Watching a man die from poison gas in the field, a man you knew and chatted with, while you had a gas mask on as protection, was one of the nightmares from which most of the young men in WWI never recovered.

Graves knew everybody from T.E. Lawrence (of whom he wrote a biography) to Robert Bridges and John Masefield. He studied classics and literature after the war and continued to write poetry. His output is so prolific in poetry, novels, biographies and translations that we will cut to the chase. (Breaking off briefly to say his translation of Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars is revelatory and his books on Greek and Roman myths are somewhat embroidered but still standard texts. You might be familiar with his books I, Claudius and Claudius the God from the BBC mini-series based on them. Or you may have read them, I hope.)

In 1948 Graves wrote The White Goddess, a book which has never been out-of-print, in which he detailed his inspiration for writing and talks about the nature of myths and myth making. The White Goddess of birth, love and death was Graves word for this creative power which should be worshiped. Graves speaks of worshiping a single goddess under many names and this matriarchal religious stuff gave him no end of both fame and grief. He cites ancient texts as precedents for this and continued laboring on the goddess religion throughout his life. Grave felt that goddess worship was the mother (no pun intended) of all religions and had become obscured by male dominated theories and changes. (We could talk all day about this so let's get to the poem.) I highly recommend that you read the book.

First off, that's not a misprint, "froward" means "difficult to deal with" or "controversial." In the poem Graves is telling us that "wild" strawberries grown the natural way are best and tastiest. He then extrapolates that poets, weaving their over-wrought, over-thought inky webs, should be silenced and the natural, inspired way a young boy tending the geese makes up a rhyme is the way it should be – natural, goddess given, charged with a heavenly spontaneity. I suppose had we but world enough and time we could also talk about the finer points of strawberries. We'll save that, maybe, for another poem.

There's so much more to talk about with Graves; his bi-sexuality, his affair (he left his wife) with poet Laura Riding, his Celtic tree astrology and alphabet, his friendship with Spike Milligan (Remember the "Ning Nang Nong"? Here: and so much more.

He died at the age of 90 and was buried the in a small churchyard on a hill at Deia on the site of a shrine which had once been sacred to the White Goddess of Pelion.

Here's a good Graves quote: "Since the age of 15 poetry has been my ruling passion and 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."

You can find enough Graves to keep you busy for a lifetime here:

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