Jul 242020

Today is the birthday (1895) of Robert von Ranke Graves, an Anglo-Irish poet, historical novelist, critic, and classicist. His father was Alfred Perceval Graves, a celebrated Irish poet and figure in the Gaelic revival. Graves produced more than 140 works in his lifetime. His poems, his translations and innovative analysis of Greek legend, his memoir of his early life—including his role in World War I—Good-Bye to All That, and his speculative study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess, have never been out of print. For most of his life Graves earned his living from writing, particularly popular historical novels such as I, Claudius; King Jesus; The Golden Fleece; and Count Belisarius. He was also a respected translator of classical Latin and Greek texts. His versions of The Twelve Caesars and The Golden Ass remain popular for their clarity and entertaining style.

From my teenage years I have been aware of Graves in various guises.  I owned copies of Greek Myths I & II as well as I, Claudius, all of which I read avidly, and in my college years, when I read as many first-hand accounts of World War I as I could, I was absorbed by Good-Bye to All That. The latter captures, for me, the tangled and complex emotions of watching all that you have cherished, admired, and clung to, torn into a million pieces, never to be relived.  For Graves, as for so many youths of his generation, the War was both a coming of age and a shattering of carefully crafted illusions.  I was a Classicist in the 6th form of my grammar school, so I was deeply engaged in Greek and Latin poetry, and was intrigued by the many stories of the classical pantheon.  In that world, Graves’s erudition was helpful.  Greek Myths helped me pick my way through the endless, fragmented source material in Greek, and gave a satisfying coherence to works that were otherwise disjointed and hard to interpret.

Where Graves and I part company is in his analysis of the culture of ancient Greece.  The disagreement arises from two areas.  First, his intellectual inspiration was the anthropology and folklore of the 19th century which is hopelessly outdated (and just plain wrong).  Second, his interpretation of ancient texts is in the service of poetry and poetic inspiration, whereas mine is anthropological.  As I get longer in the tooth, I am less inclined to criticize Graves for his academic point of view, but I, nonetheless, find it grating. By the same token, I am also more inclined to cut him some slack for his academic crimes. He was on the trail of poetic honesty, not prosaic truth.

You can read his biography on Wikipedia if you want the details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Graves .  Here I’ll indulge in some of my favorite quotes followed with a recipe.

There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.

The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.

Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat.

One gets to the heart of the matter by a series of experiences in the same pattern, but in different colors.

This seems to me a philosophical question, and therefore irrelevant, question. A poet’s destiny is to love.

The gift of independence once granted cannot be lightly taken away again.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

Graves spent many years of his life living in Mallorca (to escape English culture), and, in fact, died there.  The ensaïmada is a pastry product from Mallorca, now found, in different variants, in southwestern Europe, Latin America and southeast Asia (mainly the Philippines). The first written references to the Mallorcan ensaïmada date back to the 17th century. At that time, although wheat flour was mainly used for making bread, there is evidence that this typical pastry product was made for festivals and celebrations. The ensaïmada de Mallorca is made with strong flour, water, sugar, eggs, mother dough and a kind of reduced pork lard named saïm. The name comes from the Catalan word saïm, which means ‘pork lard’ (from the Arabic shahim, meaning ‘fat’). Here is a video (in Spanish):