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MS 542

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MS 542


Robert Graves collection



Administrative / Biographical history

From the ODNB: "Graves, Robert von Ranke (1895–1985), poet and novelist, was born on 24 July 1895 at Red Branch House, Lauriston Road, Wimbledon, Surrey, the third of the five children of Alfred Perceval Graves (1846–1931), poet and educationist, and his second wife, Amalie Elizabeth Sophie (Amy; 1857–1951) , eldest daughter of Heinrich Ranke, professor of medicine at Munich University, and his wife, Luise; his eldest half-brother was Philip Perceval Graves, who achieved note as a journalist. With his indefatigable Irish father famous as the author of the popular song ‘Father O'Flynn’, and his saintly but moralistic German mother proud to be the great-niece of the historian Leopold von Ranke, Graves was brought up within a literary family in which it was taken for granted that artistic achievements were of the greatest importance. After being educated first at a dame-school and then at several preparatory schools, including most notably Copthorne School (1908–9), Graves went to Charterhouse (1909–14), where from 1911 his poems appeared regularly in The Carthusian, and poetry became his ruling passion. Graves's earliest Carthusian verse, though technically imperfect, is highly forceful, reflecting as it does the desperately overwrought condition into which he had been plunged by the assiduous bullying of those who resented him, chiefly because he was trying to live up to the high moral standards of his home. Under the protective tutelage of George Mallory, with whom he went rock-climbing, poetry became not merely an escape, but a positive pleasure. This pleasure was heightened by Graves's close friendship with a much younger boy, G. H. (Peter) Johnstone, which made writing poetry a celebration of the kind of highly charged idealistic relationship which Graves would later describe as pseudo-homosexual. On leaving Charterhouse in the summer of 1914, this large man with thick dark curly hair and blue eyes, whose otherwise regular features were disturbed by a nose which had been broken in a game of rugger and a slightly twisted mouth, was on his way to take up a classical exhibition at St John's College, Oxford, when he was caught up in the First World War. Although a convinced pacifist, Graves was so shocked by the German violation of Belgian neutrality that joining up seemed the only honourable course of action. The fact that at the time he was staying at Erinfa, Harlech, north Wales (the holiday home where he had spent many of his happiest hours) led to his being commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a regiment for which he retained a lifelong affection. Graves was sustained during the terrible trench warfare which followed by his Christian faith, and by his friendship both with Johnstone and with his brother officer and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, with whom he planned to live and work after the war. The stresses of Graves's wartime experiences—during the battle of the Somme in 1916 he was so badly wounded in the lung that he was left for dead and was later able to read his own obituary in The Times—had a major impact upon his poetry, especially when combined with the thoroughgoing criticism which he had received from Edward Marsh, the editor of successive volumes of Georgian Poetry. In 1916 an impressive first volume of Graves's poems appeared, entitled Over the Brazier. In June 1917 Graves was hospitalized with shell-shock; and while recovering (and preparing Fairies and Fusiliers, 1917), he underwent a major change of emotional direction. The first sign of this, a sickbed attraction for a pretty nurse, was followed shortly afterwards by a revulsion from Peter Johnstone, who had been convicted of making homosexual advances. A few months later, Graves was in love with the young, stylish, and artistic but also fiercely dogmatic Annie Mary Pryde (Nancy Nicholson; 1899–1977) , daughter of the artist William Newzam Prior Nicholson, and sister of the artist Ben Nicholson. They were married on 23 January 1918; and in 1919 (after Graves's demobilization) they moved into Dingle Cottage in John Masefield's garden on Boars Hill near Oxford, and Graves began reading English at St John's. Graves's hopes for popular success as a poet faded after the poor reception given in 1920 to Country Sentiment, his third volume of poems; while in 1921 Nancy's efforts to earn money by running a shop on Boars Hill also ended in failure. In addition, between 1919 and 1924 Nancy gave birth to four children in under five years; while Graves (now an atheist like his wife) suffered from recurring bouts of shell-shock. For a while, their retreat in 1921 to the World's End, Islip, gave them renewed hope; but Graves had been compelled by the poor state of his nerves to abandon his undergraduate work (although, unusually for a non-graduate, he gained a BLitt degree in 1925, after writing a thesis, ‘Poetic unreason’). For several years he and Nancy were depressingly dependent upon familial hand-outs and assistance from friends, among whom he numbered T. E. Lawrence and Edmund Blunden. His relationship with Nancy, who was also ill with worry, began to deteriorate, and by 1925, when he was appointed professor of English literature at Cairo University, Graves feared that his own personality was on the verge of disintegration. Fortunately for him, Graves set sail for Egypt in January 1926 not only with his wife and family but also with the young American poet Laura Riding (1901–1991), the daughter of Nathan S. Reichenthal, a tailor, and his second wife, Sadie. The former wife of Louis Gottschalk, a lecturer in history at Cornell University, Riding was a woman of forceful intellect and magnetic sexuality, and she had agreed to be Graves's collaborator; together they would write the ground-breaking Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927). Not long after their return to England in July 1926, she also became his mistress and his muse. He had soon come to depend upon her not only as lover, companion, critic, and mentor—she helped him to prepare his Poems, 1914–1926 (1927)—but also as a unique source of ultimate wisdom. After a bizarre period during which the ménage à trois between Robert Graves, Nancy, and Laura became a ménage à quatre with the Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (a period which ended only when Laura attempted suicide by hurling herself from the window of 35A St Peter's Square, London), Laura rescued Graves both from his failing marriage and from the moral censure of his wider family. She also acted as intellectual and spiritual midwife both to a kind of personal rebirth, and to Graves's writing Good-bye to All that (1929), the war-period autobiography which made him famous. In its original form, this is a searing work of genius in which Graves offers up a heavily rewritten version of his past life upon the altar of his present love. Later that year Graves and Laura decamped to Deyá, Majorca, where they lived and worked together, and where the quality of Robert's literary work was dramatically improved by Laura's detailed criticisms. They also collaborated on a novel, No Decency Left (1932), published under the pseudonym Barbara Rich. As well as producing a steady stream of poetry, and being at the centre of a circle which at various times included James Reeves, John Aldridge, and Jacob Bronowski, Graves published his best-selling historical novel I, Claudius (1934), winner of the Hawthornden and James Tait Black memorial prizes, and made into a critically acclaimed television miniseries starring Derek Jacobi in 1976. Graves also published Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina in 1935, and his most original novel (later to become Philip Larkin's favourite) ‘Antigua, Penny, Puce’, in 1936. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 sent Graves, Laura, and a few of their most loyal followers wandering through Europe, with Graves finding time to write Count Belisarius (1938), and to prepare his Collected Poems (1938). However, Laura had long been sexually disenchanted with Graves, and when they went to America in 1939, she left him for her admirer Schuyler Jackson, after some nightmarish episodes during which she deliberately caused Schuyler's wife much mental distress. Graves returned to England alone, and was saved from a breakdown only by the advent of Beryl (1915–2003), the youngest child of the solicitor Harry Pritchard and his wife Amy, and the wife (since January 1938) of Alan Hodge. Beryl, who had long admired Robert, became his new muse and mistress; from 1940 (the year of Graves's Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth) they set up house in Devon, where they stayed during the Second World War. These years, although clouded by the death in action of Robert's eldest son, David, also saw the birth of two more sons and a daughter, the writing of some fine love poetry, and the publication of Graves's social history (with Alan Hodge, who had remained a friend) The Long Weekend (1941). At this time his novel Wife to Mr Milton (1941) also appeared, and formed an attack upon Milton so ferocious as virtually to reveal the dark side of Graves's own soul. In 1946, the year in which Graves published his King Jesus, he returned with Beryl and their three children to Canelluñ, Deyá. There he completed The White Goddess (1948, rev. 1952, 1966), perhaps his most durable and certainly his most original prose work. Subtitled ‘a historical grammar of poetic myth’, it gives Graves's explanation of what it is to be a romantic poet, and identifies the white goddess of Pelion with the triple muse, whom Graves now believed to be the only source of true poetic inspiration. In 1950, six months after Nancy Nicholson granted him a divorce, Graves married Beryl; their fourth child was born in 1953. During his second period in Majorca, Graves published several notable works: The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953), The Greek Myths (1955), and his novel Homer's Daughter (1955), while as a poet his reputation soared. In 1954 he was asked to give the prestigious Clark lectures at Cambridge, where he entertained the undergraduates with iconoclastic attacks upon Dryden, Pope, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden, and Dylan Thomas, among others. In 1957 he began a lucrative series of lecture tours and poetry readings in the United States; in 1959 his Collected Poems was published; and in 1960 he was awarded the gold medal of the National Poetry Society of America. From 1961 to 1966 he was professor of poetry at Oxford, and in 1968 one of his poems was awarded an Olympic gold medal at the games in Mexico City. Later that year the queen presented him with her gold medal for poetry. Finally, in 1971, St John's College, Oxford, made him an honorary fellow. Private life was less easy for this large and eccentric man, with his broad-brimmed hats and his straw baskets, who looked as he aged increasingly like one of the Roman emperors about whom he had written. Graves's devotion to his ideal of the poetic muse (necessarily the enemy of domesticity) led him and his family into some extraordinarily difficult situations. The beautiful artist Judith Bledsoe (b. 1934), who acted as Graves's muse from 1950 to 1952, and Margot Callas (b. 1934), her equally beautiful successor from 1960 to 1963, proved no serious threat to Beryl (though Graves had a brief affair with Margot), and both became her friends. The highly sexed Aemilia (Cindy) Lee, née Laraçuen (b. 1926), who followed from 1963 to 1966, was more dangerous; when in 1965 Graves accompanied her to Mexico it was uncertain whether he would return. The ballet dancer Julia (Juli) Simon (b. 1949), from 1966 onwards Graves's final muse, enjoyed a platonic relationship with him and became Beryl's friend. During the early 1970s Graves began to suffer from increasingly severe memory loss, and by his eightieth birthday in 1975 he had come to the end of his working life. By this time he had published more than 135 books, including his novels The Golden Fleece (1944) and Seven Days in New Crete (1949); his critical works The Crowning Privilege (1956) and Oxford Addresses on Poetry (1964); and his Collected Poems of 1975. He survived for ten more years in an increasingly dependent condition until he died from heart failure on 7 December 1985. He was buried the next morning in the churchyard at Deyá, on the site of a shrine which (fittingly enough) had once been sacred to the white goddess of Pelion." Richard Perceval Graves, ‘Graves, Robert von Ranke (1895–1985)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31166, accessed 9 Dec 2015]



Extent & medium

7 boxes and 3 envelopes

Content description

This collection of Robert Graves material consists mostly of the working papers for Graves' later collections of poetry. The working papers are manuscripts and typescripts. There is also a small collection of autograph letters from Robert Graves.


Purchased for College Library from Beryl Graves, Robert Graves's widow.

Associated material

Eton College holds further archives relating to Robert Graves. These are listed under: MS 925

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