Sunday, 22 September 2013

Long Love Poems

Long Love Poems Definition

Love, begins one of Robert Graves’ most striking and best-known poems,  is a universal
migraine, / A bright stain on the vision / Blotting out reason.  This realistic, some would say
cynical attitude towards the idea of romantic  love might, at first glance, appear to be
somewhat at odds with our general expectations about the nature of conventional love
poetry.  In fact, it makes us question whether we are reading conventional love poetry at all.
Yet Symptoms of love, which by its very title treats romantic love as a malady, is in many
ways typical of Graves’ characteristic approach to the love poem.  The unflinching posture
adopted by the poet and the resigned tone  we encounter in this poem show just how
unwilling Graves was to take love or, for that  matter, love poetry at face value.  When
reading the love poetry of Robert Graves we should expect to be surprised and entertained.
This is because he has a tendency to view the love poem as not merely a vehicle for
expressing unqualified praise for a ‘significant other’ but as a means of exploring a
phenomenon that most of us, at some time or other, have experienced.  And it is in this area
of common experience that the love poem works.  That is not to say that Graves’ love poems
are entirely subversive:  on the contrary they also present a view of romantic love which
celebrates its unique qualities and its power to transform lives.
 By the time Graves came to write Symptoms of Love  he had survived the horrors of the
Great War although officially reported as dying of wounds) and, like many others of his
generation continued to carry the scars of that experience into later life.  He became bitterly
disillusioned with modern society and was constantly haunted by the memory of the suffering
he had witnessed as a captain in the British army.  While Graves wrote a handful of poems in
direct response to his experience of trench warfare he is in no sense to be considered as a
war poet in the same way as his contemporaries Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon who
sought to change public opinion by their graphic representations of what was happening on
the Western Front.  Yet any understanding of Graves’ subsequent career as a poet needs to
be rooted in an understanding of the impact  this conflict had on him:  the War is not a
subject for Graves’ mature poetry but its effects can be seen wherever we look.  It is
important for us to acknowledge, for instance, that the symptoms of shell-shock such as
nightmares, paranoia, and hallucinations all recur in Graves’ poetry and provide him with
some of his most striking and memorable images.  In early poems such as The Pier Glass
Graves presents the reader with images of haunting, exhaustion, fear, and loss of faith.
While others who had experienced the War sought for an answer in organised religion orconventional politics, Graves turned increasingly to poetry and the regenerative power of
romantic love as a solution for his own problems, seeing in them the beginnings of a healing
process which others might share.  And, for all its posturing about love’s incapacity to change
anything except our Perception of life, Symptoms of Love ends with the resigned question:
Could you endure such grief / At any hand but hers?  That is, love might not provide us with
the perfect answer - but with an answer we can at least live by.
‘I had, by the age of twenty-three’, writes Graves in his autobiography, Goodbye to All That,
‘been born, initiated into formal religion, travelled, learned to lie, loved unhappily, been
married, gone to the war, taken life, procreated my kind, rejected formal religion, won fame,
and been killed.’  Anyone wanting to understand Graves’ love poetry in relation to the context
of his biography is directed towards this candid, fast-moving and engaging account of his life
up to the age of thirty-five.  It also contains one of the most harrowing and accurate
descriptions of the stark realities of trench warfare as experienced by Graves as a captain on
the Western Front.  The other major approach is through Graves’ enduring interest in myth
and classical history - something which preoccupied him throughout his long and productive
life as a writer; and we should be careful not to allow ourselves as new readers of Graves to
be intimidated by the unfamiliarity of the subjects or their reputation for being difficult or dull.
They occupy a central place in Graves’ poetic imagination.  His two famous novels about
Roman history,  I Claudius and  Claudius the God are both very readable, providing a
psychological insight into the period which makes them attractive to the modern reader;
while his splendid version of The Greek Myths is actively concerned with bringing its ancient
subject-matter vividly to life.  However, as we have seen, Graves’ true calling was as a poet
and, as such he came to consider his other activities as being of secondary importance to this
central role.
For Graves, then, the love poem performs a special function:  it reaffirms our faith in others
and offers a partial solution to the problems of living in a ravaged, ‘modern’ society in which
personal relationships are difficult to sustain.  Graves was always careful - some would say
too careful - to cover his poetic tracks by not linking his love poems to specific individuals;
and in this we can trace something of his upbringing as an English Gentleman.  This often
means that the love poems have a tendency to become generalised; that the poet appears to
be withholding from the reader some significant details which, if it were revealed, might serve
to ‘explain’ the poem.  In many ways, however, this characteristic is what makes Graves’ love
poems so distinctive:  he has an ability to transcend the particular circumstances of a
relationship and preserve its essential quality.  Perhaps the most significant relationship of
Graves’ life as a writer was his association with the American poet Laura Riding and, while
this is not the place for a discussion of the circumstances which produced the love poems it is
important not to underestimate Riding’s influence on Graves and on his developing theory of
poetic inspiration.  The best way to approach Graves as a love poet is to look fairly closely at
a handful of poems which demonstrate something of his range; and for this purpose we will
discuss three poems - Apple island, Counting the Beats, and The Face in the Mirror - all of
which are concerned with love but which also seek to extend the territory of the conventional
love poem.
In Apple Island two of Graves’ recurring themes are evident:  his interest in myth and his
inherent idealism.  Myth was important to Graves for several reasons, but as a poet it
connected him with past civilisations and also provided him with a series of shared images
which could be adapted and explored.  The very title of Apple Island alerts the reader to the
importance of myth in the poem.  The Welsh word for ‘apple’ is ‘afal’ (pronounced ‘aval’) and
is the source of Avalon - the magical island where King Arthur was taken to recover from his
mortal wound.  The connections here between the wounding experience of the Great War
and the restorative potential of love are obvious.

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1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    Could I use The Nature Poem picture on a webquest that I am creating for my middle school classroom? Thanks!

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