This Robert Graves selection I've had since I was about 17, though, as the pre-decimal price indicates, it was considerably older than that when I obtained it. My A-level English teacher dug it out of the store cupboard, along with Housman and, I think, Auden, and passed it on to me. At the end of my time there, the others found their way back, but somehow or other, accidentally on purpose, this one didn't. I can't imagine it was missed; I doubt Graves was ever on the syllabus, the presence of the books probably came from the time when the 6th form college was a grammar school, and my teacher was able to have a freer hand to teach, or simply share, the poetry he loved. He was a lean, dark, dry man, with an agreeable touch of bitterness, 50 to my 17, and naturally I was more than a little in love with him. (I've mentioned my Abelard and Heloise thing before, haven't I? Happily for the men concerned, however, the final outcome has been otherwise... and I'm too old to play Heloise now.) I don't know where he is now; I could Google him, he had published on Chaucer and others, so there would be a bio somewhere. But I don't want to know if he's no longer living, I don't feel like that ' They told me Heraclitus...' kind of shadow of grief.
Well, I kept the Graves, and I think he probably got me to university, on the syllabus or not. My results were poor, with the exception of a special paper distinction, where somehow I broke through into a state of modest inspiration writing a critical comparison between 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'The Vicar of Wakefield' - the examiners were probably so astonished that any 18 year old in 1980 had read the latter that they gave me the mark regardless. If I became catatonically stupid in exams, I was even worse at interview, my inarticulacy verging on lockjaw. But at Cardiff, I was given an opening to talk about Graves, and my momentary animation must have persuaded them to give me a chance.
And, I think with Housman ( Hopkins was a discipline I was bent to and I have always been completely grateful, but he was never quite a friend, more so now, perhaps ), Graves has been my dearest companion, outlasting the moods of my adolescence, the fashions and infatuations of my 20s and the neglect of my 30s to be with me still. So, from the book, this is for all of you, my dear companions, most of whom I have never seen, with much love, perhaps a belated Valentine:
At first sight
'Love at first sight,' some say, misnaming
Discovery of twinned helplessness
Against the huge tug of procreation.
But friendship at first sight? This also
Catches fiercely at the surprised heart
So that the cheek blanches and then blushes.