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Early Robert Graves Letter from St John's

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Joined: 25 May 2002
Posts: 72
Location: Oxford, England

PostPosted: Mon Aug 19, 2002 6:11 pm    Post subject: Early Robert Graves Letter from St John's Reply with quote

A fascinating letter has recently surfaced on ebay. Patrick Villa, who noticed the item on auction, made a tremendous effort to purchase the letter for the St John's College Robert Graves Trust but ultimately was outbid. Nevertheless, from the perspective of Graves scholarship, a great deal has been learned from the brief surfacing of the letter.

Patrick posted notice of the letter's auction to a small group of scholars. With permission of the participants, I'm reproducing a slightly edited version of the email dialogue that resulted from Patrick's original email.

The observations made by Patrick, Richard Perceval Graves (Robert's nephew and biographer) and Dunstan Ward (co-editor with Beryl Graves of the Complete Poems) are worth reproducing here as an example of how influential one letter can be and, in my opinion, reenforces the importance of the database and cataloguing project being undertaken by the Trust.

The first email in the series was from Patrick:

From: PJVilla@aol.com
To: <snip>
Subject: Graves autograph letter sent from St John's: November 1st 1919?
Date: 13 Aug 2002 09:06:41 -0400

Dear All,

An autograph letter sent by Robert from St John's is currently being offered on eBay. For details and images see: [url no longer valid]

[ ... ]

The letter is dated Nov. 1st. The interesting questions, of course, would be: To whom was Graves writing? Which poem was attached? What was noted during the lecture and whose names have been changed? And: Which year was it?

After looking at the biographies, especially Richard's first volume, I think the year was probably 1919 when he first went up to Oxford. It could have been 1920 or 1921, but the letter has a slight suggestion that studying English at Oxford may have been something new to him. The letter was probably written to a newspaper or magazine, hence the "Dear Sir" and "I hope it's in your line all right." In "Poems About War" William noted a number of poems that had been published in the Press earlier in 1919.

If it was that year, I did wonder if the letter may have been written to one of the many leading poets and others whom Robert would have met at that time, even to W.B. Yeats or even T.E. Lawrence, but Richard's biography notes that these meetings were later in November 1919 and especially over the weekend of 15/16 November. I suppose that a younger man might have written "Dear Sir" in those times to an older leading figure that he had just met, but feel that someone of Robert's background and temperament who had also been an officer for 4 years would not have done.

I've written to the seller as below and will let you know if he replies. In the meantime I'd be interested in any advice or views from any of you. In particular, what was the poem?

If St John's would be interested to have the item for the Graves collection, given its address on the letter, the full signature and of course the contents, (it could make a good illustration for publicity for the archive, or for exhibitions) I could bid for it, but there are only 2 days left and I'd need to know a price limit. Probably there are many similar examples around.

The note I wrote to the seller was:

"Do you have any information about the provenance of this letter? The interesting questions are, of course: "Who was Graves writing to?" And: "Which poem was attached?" I wondered if you or the person who supplied the manuscript to you might be able to supply some clues to help provide answers to these questions.

Incidentally, Graves went to Oxford University after his service in the First World War - he enlisted in 1914 straight from school - and I would guess that the letter was written on November 1st, 1919; but it could have been 1920 or 1921 when he was still studying at Oxford. The text does perhaps suggest that he had just started there, which would be 1919; when he was 24.

I agree that it does show some youthful enthusiasm, but he was a published author of two books of poetry by then. He had had many poems published in newspapers and magazines, and had been an army officer in the First World War. Another reason for his enthusiasm could have been that he was struggling financially to support a growing family as well as his studies! [He needed the publication fees, as well as to build up his reputation as a writer.]"

All best wishes


The next email in the sequence came from Dunstan who, as the editor of the Complete Poems, knew very well to which poem the letter likely alluded as he explained:

From: Dunstan Ward <dunstan@ext.jussieu.fr>
To: <snip>
Subject: Graves autograph letter sent from St John's: November 1st 1919?
Date: 14 Aug 2002 10:46:30 +0200

Dear All,

The letter evidently refers to the poem 'The Oxford English School: 1920', copied below. It appears in Complete Poems, Vol. III (Uncollected Poems(1910-1974)), pp. 323-24, and the note on pp. 522-23. The poem seems to correspond exactly to what Graves says in the letter: 'I am studying for a degree in English at the University, and this was noted during a lecture; the names are changed, however'.

It would splendid if St John's could acquire it!

Best regards,



She's in the second row, see? No, not that one!
The girl in the green jersey, the pale fat one,
Taking few notes, sitting beatified,
Plump fingers locked, a large mouth open wide,
Eyes staring down. . . . Of course Professor Steel
Isn't a dried old haddock like Macneil,
The Chair of Anglo-Saxon, who'll admit
His period has no interest, not a bit,
Except to students ardent in research
For early records of our Laws or Church.
'Literature? No, nothing of the kind!
Still, Glosses need re-glossing you may find.' . . .
But Steel, (Parks Road Museum at midday,
Tuesdays and Fridays) points a happier way.
(Ascetic chin, smooth hair, persuasive gesture,
Smile, gentle Oxford voice setting at rest your
Rebel's mistrust of mortar-board and gown.)
He quotes, smiles, pauses. Itching pens rush down
Chapter and verse; for we sit tier on tier,
A girl from Roedean there, a Serbian here,
Two Reds from Ruskin next the Meat-King's daughter,
A one-armed Brigadier returned from slaughter,
A young Babu, the Nun from Foxcombe way,
All in a row we crouch, scribbling away.
But She sits still, her notebook shut, her pen
Idling. Steel treats of Beowulf's death, and then
Wrings a deep sigh from her, almost a tear,
With 'That old tale, the Snows of Yester-year.'
. . . What was the joke? I missed it, but they laughed;
A map of Syria shuddered with the draught.
She dimpled up, she laughed, she's grave again.
The stops are changed, now a cathedral strain
Peals out:--
'This Norman influence brought in
Fresh themes of Poetry and we first begin
To meet a new word, sweetened by new rhyme,
The great word, Love.'
I looked away this time,
Green Jersey; after all what right had I
To twitch aside the curtains, to play spy?
Still I could feel the sudden burst of red
Drench your pale face when glancing up, he said
Quoting most reverently: 'A crowned "A"

The Oxford English School
Text: Anglo-French Review, 4 (Aug. 1920), 52-3, revised.
Previous title: 'The Lady Student | A Study in Norman Influences'
(Anglo-French Review).

This edition incorporates Graves's revisions (in ink and pencil) on a copy
of the poem in his library, two loose pages torn from the Anglo-French
Review, as follows:

l.3 few] no
l.10 records] record
l.14 way.] way-
l.15 (Ascetic] Ascetic
l.17 gown.)] gown
l.21 Two Reds from Ruskin] Eton and Balliol Meat-King's] Vicar's
l.22 slaughter,] slaughter.
l.23 A] The
l.26 idling.] idling:
l.29 laughed;] laughed.
l.31 again.] again:
l.35 new word, sweetened by new] word unknown to earlier
l.37 had] have
l.39 could] must
l.41 reverently:] reverently

Two further lines are cancelled:

And turn aside I must to the far bench where sits
Your phantom Chaperone. She nods and knits.

The date '1920' has been inserted in ink below the poem.

Graves evidently revised the poem in several stages. Most of the substantive revisions appear in the version in the manuscript book of poems which he gave to Siegfried Sassoon for Christmas in 1925 (see the note on 'From an Upper Window' ('Unpublished Poems')). However, he apparently made subsequent revisions on the Anglo-French Review pages.

In l.21, the 'Vicar's daughter' first becomes a 'baronet's' ('Baronet's' in the manuscript book) -- making the line metrically anomalous -- but this is then deleted and 'Steel King's' substituted, 'Steel' finally being replaced by 'Meat-'. The manuscript book version is entitled 'A Study in Norman Influences', the original subtitle, which is cancelled on the Anglo-French Review page (a new title, 'The Oxford English School | 1920' has been inserted in ink). There are, in addition, significant punctuation changes which have not been made in the manuscript book version. (The latter has some thirty differences in punctuation, over half of them the problematic omission of a comma -- though one is added, after 'Still' in l.39.) For these reasons, the revised Anglo-French Review version has been preferred in this edition. The text printed in the Anglo-French Review was republished without change in Living Age, 306 (11 Sept. 1920), 682.

Richard Perceval Graves then weighed in with his view as one of Robert's biographers:

From: Richard Perceval Graves <rpg@richardgraves.org>
To: <snip>
Subject: Re: Graves autograph letter sent from St John's: November 1st 1919?
Date: 14 Aug 2002 13:15:00 +0100

Unless conclusively crushed by firm evidence I would still guess that both the letter and the poem, even though the poem now includes 1920 in its title, were in fact written in 1919.

That's how the tone of the letter strikes me. Had RG been writing it in 1920 I don't think it would have been quite so humble.

And would RG have been offering the poem for publication on 1 November 1920 (if that is what he was doing, which seems most likely) less than three months after its publication and less than two months after its republication in a second magazine without mentioning that it had already appeared in print? 'You should know that it has already appeared in the Anglo-French Review and Living Age'.. Or even offering it to a new acquaintance ['Dear Sir' 'Robert Graves'] without mentioning the fact? 'Here is something of mine that recently appeared in...'

The 'one-armed Brigadier returned from slaughter' also sounds more 1919 than 1920, somehow.

RG might well have revised the title to include the date 1920 having forgotten exactly when he wrote it, but noting the year of first publication.

I suppose (despite the difficulty of the names being changed) we now need to find out who was lecturing, where and on what subjects in 1919 and 1920. It would be nice to find a match for 'Parks Road Museum at midday/ Tuesdays and Fridays' And who was the lecturer? RG may have changed the names, but did he also change those physical characteristics? 'Ascetic hair, smooth chin, persuasive gesture' - a gesture which was so characteristic and memorable that it had to be left in, despite the vile rhyme to which he was reduced in the following line. Time for someone in Oxford to do a little detective work, perhaps...

I agree with Dunstan - whose email, utterly conclusive as to the poem, reminds us what a wonderful job he and Beryl did in that superb edition of RG's poems - that it would be splendid if St. John's could acquire the letter.


Dunstan almost immediatly answered RPG's challange in identifying the lecturer to whom the poem refers:

From: Dunstan Ward <dunstan@ext.jussieu.fr>
To: <snip>
Subject: Re: Graves autograph letter sent from St John's: November 1st 1919?
Date: 15 Aug 2002 18:56:28 +0200

Dear All,

In 'The Oxford English School: 1920', the lecturer, 'Professor Steel', is evidently Sir Walter Raleigh (1861-1922), appointed first Professor of English at Oxford in 1904: the slogan of the famous Raleigh bicycle was 'The All Steel Bicycle' (to distinguish it from its competitors who used cast iron). Sir Walter, according to the Oxford Companion to English Literature (fifth edition, 1985), 'was renowned [. . .] as a stimulating if informal lecturer' (p.808), a description which the poem bears out.

As Richard Perceval's The Assault Heroic shows, Raleigh's friendship and support were important to Graves, especially as his tutor for his B.Litt.: see Goodbye to All That (1957), p.283 (his thesis was of course published as Poetic Unreason (1925)).

[Incidentally, the Raleigh Cycle Company was named after Raleigh Street in Nottingham, where there was a small workshop in which the founder of the company, Frank Bowden, bought shares in 1887. There's a wealth of data about Raleigh bikes obtainable via Google!]

Clearly, I'll have to expand the note in Vol. III of the Complete Poems when/if it's reprinted . . . Meanwhile, this might also be considered for the anticipated file at Oxford [... ]

All good wishes,

Dunstan added the following witty postscript in a follow-up message to his own:

From: Dunstan Ward <dunstan@ext.jussieu.fr>
To: <snip>
Subject: Re: Graves autograph letter sent from St John's: November 1st 1919?
Date: 15 Aug 2002 23:01:50 +0200

P.S. I wonder if RG himself rode a Raleigh 'All Steel Bicycle' at the time?

Finally, Patrick closed out the discussion with the disappointing news that his bid had not been successful.

I'll do my best to encourage future discussions like these to be posted directly by their authors to the discussion board; however, as Patrick rightly pointed out, we weren't really in a position to do so whilst the bidding was active.
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