Monday, March 26, 2007

Dear companions

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.


Anonymous said...

Love the quote on 'friendship at first sight'! So much is written about love, so this is refreshing. Enjoyed your reminiscences of your youthful love of literature, that still remains. I can really identify with the 'inarticulacy' except mine was in regard to discussing my art! Haven't we surprised our former selves with our blogs!?

herhimnbryn said...

Oh, I know this poem and like you have an old copy of his works. I shall dig it out of the bookcase tonight and re-read.

I bet your copy falls open at your favourite poems too.

Catalyst said...


..your friend

Jean said...

'Catches fiercely at the surprised heart' - that's so lovely. I've never read his poems, but then I've never been into poetry much until recently, so perhaps it's time I did. And, yes, friendship at first sight is so much how I feel about many on my blogroll (though others, as in the flesh, took longer to grow on me).

Unknown said...

Ahah! My Penguin edition of Robert Graves is identical, green and equally worn. The only difference is that mine was priced at 3/6. Who would give sixpence for 35 years? I heard Graves talking on the theme of inspiration (his poem The White Goddess Page 172 of my edition, was what he called his talk), at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, a jagged rock of a man. The poem I best remember is Flying Crooked (page 81).
The butterfly, a cabbage white,
His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight...

Avus said...

Thank you for the "Valentine" gift ("and I the maid at your window, to be your Valentine" - chapter and verse, please!)
I really enjoyed and identified with this. We seem to have similar poetic tastes - Auden, Housman (those "blue, remembered hills").
I think it's about time I did a post on Larkin, too.
As to the book sort of staying in your possession - I have a copy of McCauley's "Lays of Ancient Rome" that came to me in that manner (and no, I don't feel guilty - it was this volume that sparked all my subsequent interest in Roman matters - all because an English teacher once read us "Horatius". I wonder if good teachers know how deeply they can influence their pupils.
"For their work continueth
Wide and deep continueth,
Greater than their knowing"
(again - chapter and verse?"

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

In the US he's known mostly for The White Goddess; his poetry isn't taught much, but I love his poem "The Portrait":

She speaks always in her own voice
Even to strangers; but those other women
Exercise their borrowed, or false, voices
Even on sons and daughters.

I believe it was he who once said that if poets were left to their own devices, all they would write about would be love and the moon.

Lucy said...

I am much blessed in all of you!

Marly Youmans said...

Agreeable touch of bitterness: I like that! And the Graves, of course.