Goodbye To All That
Author: Robert Graves
As a proof of my readiness to accept autobiographical convention, let me at once record my two earliest memories. The first is being loyally held up at a window to watch a procession of decorated carriages and waggons for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (this was at Wimbledon, where I had been born on July 24th, 1895). The second is gazing upwards with a sort of despondent terror at a cupboard in the nursery, which stood accidentally open, filled to the ceiling with octavo volumes of Shakespeare. My father had organized a Shakespeare reading circle. I did not know until long afterwards that this was the Shakespeare cupboard but, apparently, I already had a strong instinct against drawing-room activities. And when distinguished visitors came to the house, such as Sir Sidney Lee with his Shakespearean scholarship, or Lord Ashbourne, not yet a peer, with his loud talk of ‘Ireland for the Irish’, and his saffron kilt, or Mr Eustace Miles the English real-tennis champion and vegetarian with his samples of exotic nuts, I knew all about them in my way.
Nor had I any illusions about Algernon Charles Swinburne, who often used to stop my perambulator when he met it on Nurses’ Walk, at the edge of Wimbledon Common, and pat me on the head and kiss me: he was an inveterate pram-stopper and patter and kisser. Nurses’ Walk lay between ‘The Pines’, Putney (where he lived with Watts-Dunton), and the Rose and Crown public house, where he went for his daily pint of beer; Watts-Dunton allowed him twopence for it and no more. I did not know that Swinburne was a poet, but I knew that he was a public menace. Swinburne, by the way, when a very young man, had gone to Walter Savage Landor, then a very old man, and been given the poet’s blessing he asked for; and Landor when a child had been patted on the head by Dr Samuel Johnson; and Johnson when a child had been taken to London to be touched by Queen Anne for scrofula, the King’s evil; and Queen Anne when a child...
But I mentioned the Shakespeare reading circle. It went on for years, and when I was sixteen, curiosity finally sent me to one of the meetings. I remember the vivacity with which my utterly unshrewish mother read the part of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew to my amiable father’s Petruchio. Mr and Mrs Maurice Hill were two of the most popular members of the circle. This meeting took place some years before they became Mr Justice Hill and Lady Hill, and some years, too, before I looked into The Shrew. I remember the lemonade glasses, the cucumber sandwiches, the petits fours, the drawing-room knick-knacks, the chrysanthemums in bowls, and the semicircle of easy chairs around the fire. The gentle voice of Maurice Hill as Hortensio admonished my father: ‘Thou go thy ways, thou hast tamed a cursed shrew.’ I myself as Lucio ended the performance with: ‘’Tis a wonder by your leave she will be tamed so.’ I must go one day to hear him speak his lines as Judge of the Divorce Courts; his admonitions have become famous.
After ‘earliest memories’, I should perhaps give a passport description of myself and let the items enlarge themselves. Date of birth…. Place of birth…. I have already given those. Profession…. In my passport I am down as ‘University Professor’. That was a convenience for 1926, when I first took out a passport. I thought of putting ‘Writer’, but passport officials often have complicated reactions to the word. ‘University professor’ wins a simple reaction: dull respect. No questions asked. So also with ‘army captain (pensioned list)’.
My height is given as six feet two inches, my eyes as grey, and my hair as black. To ‘black’ should be added ‘thick and curly’. I am untruthfully described as having no special peculiarity. For a start, there is my big, once aquiline nose, which I broke at Charterhouse while foolishly playing rugger with soccer players. (I broke another player’s nose myself in the same game.) That unsteadied it, and boxing sent it askew. Finally, it was operated on by an unskilful army surgeon, and no longer serves as a vertical line of demarcation between the left and right sides of my face, which are naturally unassorted – my eyes, eyebrows, and ears being all set noticeably crooked, and my cheekbones, which are rather high, being on different levels. My mouth is what is known as ‘full’, and my smile is tight-lipped: when I was thirteen I broke two front teeth and became sensitive about showing them. My hands and feet are large. I weigh about twelve stone four. My best comic turn is a double-jointed pelvis; I can sit on a table and tap like the Fox sisters with it. One shoulder is distinctly lower than the other, because of a lung wound. I do not carry a watch because I always magnetize the main-spring; during the war when an order went out that officers should carry watches and synchronize them daily, I had to buy two new ones every month. Medically, I am a good life.
My passport gives my nationality as ‘British subject’. Here I might parody Marcus Aurelius, who begins his Golden Book with the various ancestors and relatives to whom he owes the virtues of a worthy Roman Emperor: explaining why I am not a Roman Emperor or even, except on occasions, an English gentleman. My mother’s father’s family, the von Rankes, were Saxon country pastors, not anciently noble. Leopold von Ranke, the first modern historian, my great-uncle, introduced the ‘von’. I owe something to him. He wrote, to the scandal of his contemporaries: ‘I am a historian before I am a Christian; my object is simply to find out how the things actually occurred,’ and when discussing Michelet the French historian: ‘He wrote history in a style in which the truth could not be told.’ That Thomas Carlyle decried him as ‘Dry-as-Dust’ is no discredit. To Heinrich von Ranke, my grandfather, I owe my clumsy largeness, my endurance, energy, seriousness, and my thick hair. He was rebellious and even atheistic in his youth. As a medical student at a Prussian university he took part in the political disturbances of 1848, when students demonstrated in favour of Karl Marx at the time of his trial for high treason. Like Marx, they had to leave the country. My grandfather came to London, and finished his medical course there. In 1854, he went to the Crimea with the British Army as a regimental surgeon. All I know about this is a chance remark that he made to me when I was a child: ‘It is not always the big bodies which are the strongest. At Sevastopol in the trenches I saw the great British Guards crack up and die by the score, while the little sappers took no harm.’ Still, his big body carried him very well.
He married, in London, my grandmother, a tiny, saintly, frightened Schleswig-Dane, daughter of Tiarks, the Greenwich astronomer. Before her father took to astronomy the Tiarks family had, it seems, followed the Danish country system – not at all a bad one – of alternate professions for father and son. The odd generations were tinsmiths, and the even generations were pastors. My gentler characteristics trace back to my grandmother. She had ten children; the eldest of these, my mother, was born in London. My grandfather’s atheism and radicalism sobered down. He eventually returned to Germany, where he became a well-known children’s doctor at Munich, and about the first in Europe to insist on clean milk for his child patients. Finding that he could not get clean milk to the hospitals by ordinary means, he started a model dairy-farm himself. His agnosticism grieved my devoutly Lutheran grandmother; she never ceased to pray for him, but concentrated more particularly on saving the souls of her children.
My grandfather did not die entirely unregenerate; his last words were: ‘The God of my fathers, to Him at least I hold.’ I do not know what he meant by that, but it was a statement consistent with his angry patriarchal moods, with his acceptance of a prominent place in Bavarian society as Herr Geheimrat Ritter von Ranke, and with his loyalty to the Kaiser, with whom once or twice he went deer-shooting. It meant, practically, that he considered himself a good Liberal in religion as in politics, and that my grandmother need not have worried. I admire my German relatives; they have high principles, are easy, generous, and serious. The men have fought duels not for cheap personal honour, but in the public interest – called out, for example, because they have protested against the scandalous behaviour of some superior officer or official. One of them lost seniority in the German consular service, because he refused to use the consulate in London as a clearing-house for secret service reports. They are not heavy drinkers either. My grandfather, as a student at the regular university ‘drunks’, had a habit of pouring superfluous beer into his eighteen-fortyish riding-boots, when nobody was watching. He brought up his children to speak English at home, and always looked to England as the centre of culture and progress. The women were noble and patient, and used to keep their eyes on the ground when out walking.
At the age of eighteen, my mother went to England as companion to Miss Britain, a lonely old woman who had befriended my grandmother as an orphan, and waited hand and foot on her for seventeen years. When she finally died, under the senile impression that my mother, her sole heiress, would benefit hardly at all from the will, it turned out that she had been worth £100,000. Characteristically, my mother divided the inheritance among her four younger sisters, keeping only a fifth share. She was determined to go to India, after a short training as a medical missionary. This ambition was presently baulked by her meeting my father, a widower with five children; it became plain to her that she could do as good work on the home-mission field.
The Graves family have a pedigree that goes back to a French knight who landed with Henry VII at Milford Haven in 1485. Colonel Graves the Roundhead is claimed as the founder of the Irish branch of the family. He was once wounded and left for dead in the market-place at Thame, afterwards had charge of King Charles I’s person at Carisbrooke Castle, and later turned Royalist. Limerick was the centre of this branch. The occasional soldiers and doctors in it were mainly collaterals; the direct male line had a sequence of rectors, deans, and bishops, apart from my great-grandfather John Crosbie Graves, who was Chief Police Magistrate of Dublin. The Limerick Graves’s have no ‘hands’ or mechanical sense; but a wide reputation as conversationalists. In those of my relatives who have the family characteristics most strongly marked, unnecessary talk is a nervous disorder. Not bad talk as talk goes: usually informative, often witty, but it goes on and on and on. The von Ranke’s seem to have little mechanical aptitude either. I find it most inconvenient to be born into the age of the internal-combustion engine and the electric dynamo and to have no sympathy with them: a bicycle, a Primus stove, and an army rifle mark the bounds of my mechanical capacity.
My paternal grandfather, the Protestant Bishop of Limerick, had eight children. He was a remarkable mathematician – he first formulated some theory or other of spherical conics – and also the leading authority on the Irish Brehon Laws and Ogham script, but by reputation, far from generous. He and O’Connell, the Catholic Bishop, lived on the very best of terms. They cracked Latin jokes at each other, discussed fine points of scholarship, and were unclerical enough not to take their religious differences too seriously.
While in Limerick as a soldier of the garrison, some nineteen years after my grandfather’s death, I heard stories about him from the townsfolk. Bishop O’Connell had once rallied him on the size of his family, and my grandfather had retorted warmly with the text about the blessedness of the man who has his quiver full of arrows; to which O’Connell answered briefly: ‘The ancient Jewish quiver only held six.’ My grandfather’s wake, they said, was the longest ever seen in the town of Limerick: it stretched from the Cathedral right down O’Connell Street and over Sarfield Bridge, and I do not know how many miles Irish beyond. He had blessed me as a child, but I do not remember that.
Of my father’s mother, a Cheyne from Aberdeen, I have been able to get no information at all beyond the fact that she was ‘a very beautiful woman’, and daughter of the Physician-general to the Forces of Ireland. I can only conclude that most of what she said or did passed unnoticed in the rivalry of family conversations. The Cheyne pedigree was flawless right back to Sir Reginald Cheyne, Lord Chamberlain of Scotland in 1267. In later times the Cheynes had been lawyers and physicians. But my father is at present engaged on his autobiography and, no doubt, will write at length about all this.
My father, then, met my mother some time in the early nineties. He had previously married one of the Irish Coopers, of Cooper’s Hill, near Limerick. The Coopers were an even more Irish family than the Graves’s. The story goes that when Cromwell came to Ireland and ravaged the country, Moira O’Brien, the last surviving member of the great clan O’Brien, who were the paramount chiefs of the country around Limerick, came to him one day with: ‘General, you have killed my father and my uncles, my husband and my brothers. I am left as the sole heiress of these lands. Do you intend to confiscate them?’ Cromwell is said to have been struck by her magnificent presence, and to have answered that this certainly had been his intention. But that she could keep her lands, or a part of them, on condition that she married one of his officers, Ensign Cooper. Jane Cooper, whom my father married, died of consumption.
The Graves family were thin-nosed and inclined to petulance, but never depraved, cruel, or hysterical. A persistent literary tradition: of Richard, a minor poet and a friend of Shenstone; and John Thomas, who was a mathematician and contributed to Sir William Rowan Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions; and Richard, a divine and regius Professor of Greek; and James, an archaeologist; and Robert, who invented the disease called after him and was a friend of Turner’s; and Robert, classicist, and theologian, and a friend of Wordsworth’s; and Richard, another divine; and Robert, another divine; and various Roberts, Jameses, Thomases, and Richards; and Clarissa, one of the toasts of Ireland, who married Leopold von Ranke (at Windermere church), and linked the Graves and von Ranke families a couple of generations before my father and mother married. (See the British Museum Catalogue for an eighteen- and nineteenth-century record of Graves’ literary history.)
It was through this Clarissa-Leopold relationship that my father met my mother. My mother told him at once that she liked Father O’Flynn, the song for writing which my father will be chiefly remembered. He had put the words to a traditional jig tune The Top of Cork Road, which he remembered from his boyhood. Sir Charles Stanford supplied a few chords for the setting. My father sold the complete rights for one guinea. Boosey, the publisher, made thousands. Sir Charles Stanford, who drew a royalty as the composer, also collected a very large sum. Recently my father has been sent a few pounds from gramophone rights. He is not bitter about all this, but has more than once impressed upon me almost religiously never to sell for a sum down the complete rights of any work of mine whatsoever.
That my father is a poet has, at least, saved me from any false reverence for poets. I am even delighted when I meet people who know of him and not me. I sing some of his songs while washing up after meals, or shelling peas, or on similar occasions. He never once tried to teach me how to write, or showed any understanding of my serious poetry; being always more ready to ask advice about his own. Nor did he ever try to stop me writing. His light-hearted early work is the best. His Invention of Wine, for instance, which begins:
Ere Bacchus could talk
Or dacently walk
Down Olympus he jumped
From the arms of his nurse,
And though ten years in all
Were consumed by the fall,
He might have fallen farther
And fared a dale worse…
After marrying my mother and turning teetotaller, he is said to have lost something of his playfulness.
My father resisted the family temptation to take holy orders, never rising higher than lay-reader; and he broke the geographical connexion with Ireland, for which I cannot be too grateful to him. Though much harder on my relatives, and much more careful of associating with them than I am with strangers, I can admire my father and mother: my father for his simplicity and persistence, and my mother for her seriousness and strength. Both for their generosity. They never bullied me, and were grieved rather than angered by my default from formal religion. In physique and general characteristics my mother’s side is, on the whole, stronger in me. But I have many habits of speech and movements peculiar to the Graves’s, most of them eccentric. Such as finding it difficult to walk straight down a street; fidgeting with bits of bread at table; getting tired of sentences when half-way through and leaving them in the air; walking with the hands folded in a particular way behind the back; and being subject to sudden and most disconcerting spells of complete amnesia. These fits, so far as I can discover, serve no useful purpose, and tend to produce in the victim the same sort of dishonesty that afflicts deaf people who miss the thread of conversation – they hate to be left behind and rely on intuition and bluff to get them through. This disability is most marked in very cold weather. I do not now talk too much, except when I have been drinking, or when I meet someone who fought with me in France. The Graves’s have good minds for such purposes as examinations, writing graceful Latin verse, filling in forms, and solving puzzles (when invited, as children, to parties where guessing games and brain-tests were played, we never failed to win). They have a good eye for ball games, and a graceful style. I inherited the eye, but not the style; my mother’s family are entirely without style. I have an ugly but secure seat on a horse. There is a coldness in the Graves’s which is anti-sentimental to the point of insolence, a necessary check to the goodness of heart from which my mother’s family suffers. The Graves’s, it is fair to generalize, though loyal to the British governing class to which they belong, and so to the Constitution, are individualists; the von Rankes regard their membership of the corresponding class in Germany as a sacred trust enabling them to do the more responsible work for the service of humanity. Recently, when a von Ranke entered a film studio, the family felt itself disgraced.
The most useful and, at the same time, most dangerous gift that I owe to my father’s side of the family – probably more to the Cheynes than to the Graves’s – is that I am always able, when dealing with officials, or getting privileges from public institutions which grudge them, to masquerade as a gentleman. Whatever I happen to be wearing; and because my clothes are not what gentlemen usually wear, and yet I do not seem to be an artist or effeminate, and my accent and gestures are irreproachable, I have been placed as the heir to a dukedom, whose perfect confidence in his rank would explain all such eccentricity. Thus I may seem, by a paradox, to be more of a gentleman even than one of my elder brothers, who spent a number of years as a consular official in the Near East. His wardrobe is almost too obviously a gentleman’s, and he does not allow himself the pseudoducal privilege of having disreputable acquaintances, and saying on all occasions what he really means.
About this business of being a gentleman: I paid so heavily for the fourteen years of my gentleman’s education that I feel entitled, now and then, to get some sort of return.