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Counting the Beats

Robert Graves’ Poetry of Unrest


Anne Mounic


Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012

Costerus New Series, 192

Paperback. 273 pages. ISBN 978-90-420-3450-1. €68.00 / £52.00 / $87.00


Reviewed by John W. Presley

Illinois State University



Anne Mounic’s Counting the Beats: Robert Graves’s Poetry of Unrest is an annoying read for several reasons. Her explications and analyses of Graves’s work are occasionally as lyrical as the poems she is interpreting. Her analysis is squarely framed by existentialism, so she quotes philosophers of that school often—especially Kierkegaard, whose name pops up nearly as frequently as that of Robert Graves. And, because Counting the Beats is a collection of essays and presentations at conferences of the Robert Graves Society and elsewhere, the chapters tend to be somewhat repetitive, especially in each chapter’s introduction, but also in Mounic’s choices of poems for illustrating her own ideas. The reader will be quite familiar with Graves’s “The Cool Web,” for example, after reading Mounic.

But pressing past these quirks will also certainly reward the reader, as well. By framing her approach to Graves’s work in existentialist theory, Mounic is able to ground nearly all of Graves’s work in his experiences of World War I, with its threat, its trauma, its revelations of the tenuous nature of all civilisation’s mores and beliefs.

At the same time, Mounic pays attention to the small things, to the technical poetics of meter (as her title foretells), to the words and lines of Graves’s poems. Chapters 3 and 4 may be the sections which show Mounic at her best, applying her Kierkegaard-derived tools to Graves. In the war poetry, she argues, the poet is dissociated from himself: he has imagined himself dead, and he has addressed and named himself in the third person. This is a technique Graves learned on the battlefield (and dissociation is one diagnostic criterion for post-traumatic stress disorder, in fact). In his poem “Escape” Graves speaks of himself as if he were a third person: “But I was dead, an hour or more” [85]. Mounic wisely descends to the grammatical in explicating and illustrating her views; when Graves writes “my wraith before me stood” she argues convincingly that this dissociation of the self in facing death amplifies the paradox of immortality considered by a being with a consciousness of its possible end and results in “the mind having no real notion of the finite.” Such a fate, Mounic says, “can be overcome only because it can be represented” [85]. She reminds us that Freud believed that the unconscious cannot possibly conceive of death. Graves’s hero, partly an epic hero (in his immortal aspect), partly a poet (since he is bound to die), has indeed retrieved the full power of language through submitting to death [85].

Anne Mounic’s ideas might give us perspective, for example, on what Graves called his “analeptic” method of composing his historical fiction, a trance-like concentration with which he claimed literally to sense the sights, smells, and tastes of everyday life in, say, ancient Rome--this analeptic state can almost be understood as at least a near- reincarnation. These trances were so absorbing that Graves is said to have more than once set a place at table for Claudius or Count Belisarius.  And with this reincarnation, Graves is able to immerse himself in the persona of Emperor Claudius; the simple technique of assuming the voice of a narrator is made very powerful:  The reader reads what are presented as Claudius’s words, written not for a Roman audience, but for a centuries-later modern audience Claudius—the real or the fictional—could not possibly have imagined.  Literally in the same moment, Claudius tells the reader the “real Roman history of poisons and murders while Graves tells the reader of Claudius’s misunderstandings of Roman history and his being duped by conspirators.  (Claudius may in fact be the most unreliable narrator in the history of fiction.)  For the reader, of course, Claudius lives in the present time—as Graves, in a trance, lives in Roman time—all the while with Claudius’s frailties and his possible stupidity on full display in all his  complex personality.

For Graves, Mounic says,

[t]he epic is transformed into the epic of the individual self. Sacrifice is negated. The personal voice, following alternate periods of rest and poetic utterance, regenerates time in the present moment of interiority. No external death and rebirth is needed. Time is experienced as possibility in the inner self. [86]

With this admittedly Kierkegaardian and “as seen from 30,000 feet” view of Graves’s starting point as an infantryman at risk, Mounic can make sense of Graves’s fascination with both myth and mythography (a fascination very rare among modern poets). “Cyclic time replaces historical time for the sake of hope. Death, in history, is final: in myth, it is followed by resurrection in the dialectic pattern provided by the everlasting return of the seasons” [86]. Mounic’s explanation of the attractiveness of the self-assertion and creativity allowed by myth is itself very poetic, as is its dialectical opposite presented here, the void created by death and its “oppressive, negative history.” The door opened here by Mounic allows us to see the essential identity of the poet and the mythographer of The White Goddess and the worshipping artist in submission to The Muse, whatever her incarnation of the moment. 

Again, it is the linking of this existential view of cyclic death to the language of the poems that makes Mounic’s book so valuable, I believe. The cool web of poetic language suppresses many things, most usefully the shout of chaos and terror. Meaningless history makes epic values invalid, but myth can provide “images forceful enough to counterbalance post-war neurasthenia” [87]. This dissociation, as noted, is both a diagnostic criterion and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder; it is the mind’s natural attempt to forget violence and violation. The individual, isolated in his first-person suffering, a simple “I” trying to reach a second person beyond chaos, recovers his own self through identifying with a series of third persons, such figures of absence that eventually enable him to “speak clear” [87].

This lyrical, existential logic gives Mounic broad explanatory powers along with the tools to perform wonderfully meaningful close readings of such poems as “My Name and I”, “The Cool Web”, “The White Goddess” and “The Morning Before the Battle.” She presses rhetorical readings of the poems, even analysis of rhythms, into the service of her grand explanation of Graves’s ideas, and she applies all this to poems written as late as the 1970s, and most revealingly to “Counting the Beats” and “The Green Wood of Unrest”. The “metamorphosis of rhythm . . . of time itself” turns Kierkegaardian “unrest” into “a new unity of being emerging from the poem into the moment of its writing and then of its reading” [97].

This is a near-total identification and explanation of Graves’s motivations and aesthetics. Graves’s poetic legacy stretches from the Georgian era to the mid-1970s, and along with his often-read and often-viewed I, Claudius, may be his best known and best appreciated achievement. But this combination of Graves’s highly regarded poetry and his best-selling historical fiction is only one aspect of his efforts. Graves was an acknowledged master of easily over a dozen genres, from poetry to historical fiction to mythography, Biblical scholarship, to prize-winning memoir, literary criticism, translation and more. A genuine European man of letters, Graves is the subject of at least five volumes of biography and the inspiration for at least one novel. Carcanet, possibly the leading literary publisher in the U.K., has published critical editions of his poetry, his short stories, and his mythography. Much of Graves’s early poetry has remained in print since the Great War, and his prose memoir Goodbye to All That, for over eighty years now, and the Claudius novels for some seventy-five. But for all this interest in Graves, much analysis of his work has attended to the fascinating biography and the fascinating—for some of us—bibliography. To Mounic’s credit, her index to Counting the Beats lists only two appearances of the name Laura Riding. Most literary criticism of Robert Graves has focused on periods or single genres or single works: the early poems, the White Goddess poems, The Nazarene Gospel Restored, for example.

To further clarify Graves’s ideas, Mounic contrasts Graves’s work to that of T.S. Eliot and David Jones. Graves and Jones were each born in 1895, and both served in the Great War, even in the same regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In fact, both men revered Welsh poetry, its poetics, its myths. Both at first were categorised as War Poets, and each poet’s work grew well away from these roots. Mounic sees Jones as an objective poet, one who uses myths as a “hermeneutics” to reveal what he conceives of as the “one story only”. Jones is a Thomist, Mounic argues, and in the end the one story only for Jones is that of human salvation by Christ’s death and sacrifice. On the other hand, “Graves explores the myths, or even the Gospel, puts them right in his own perspective, and restores them. He probes the past to renew the present” [165]. I may be simplifying Mounic’s explanations of Jones, in favour of her reading of Graves, but I believe that her explanation of this basic difference between the two poets is a productive explanation that unifies all of Graves’s work in the literally dozens of genres and epistemologies and assumptions he explored in his long career.

[Graves] goes back to the origin not to confirm the dogma but to shake it and recover what he considers as truth to life. The only story he finds when doing so, after all this analyzed confrontation of myths, words, letters, and figures, is the existential story in all its wonder, joy and fear, awe and desire . . . to gather and unify what had become altered, or even distorted within the flow of duration. Through his gift for ubiquity in time, the poet always comes back to the origin [165].

Eliot, on the other hand, is characterised by an “ironical viewpoint” which “despises, or at least mistrusts the present moment” [178]. Here Mounic’s contrast is less explicit than with Graves and Davis. Suffice it to say that Graves thought that “Eliot and Pound have set a bad example”, as he wrote in a letter to his friend Lynette Roberts [cited by Mounic, 177].

Mounic’s conclusion is a series of close readings of individual Graves poems, again very specific about rhythm and language and very insightful, and followed by a chapter on the difficulties of translating Graves—few literary critics could write about this challenge from their own experience! There is scarcely any method that would more forcefully focus one’s attention on technical detail in a text more than the effort to transform that text into another language, one would imagine.

Even in her conclusion, Mounic returns to her idea that Graves’s methods and compulsions arose during his war experience: “From a historical point of view, Graves’s achievement is highly significant in a period when the heroic values of courage and virility were being exalted” [219]. Graves’s constant emphasis on service to love and the female has a similar origin: “. . .thinking in mythic terms was a way for Graves to re-introduce female values into a male world of supposedly heroic deeds—which had been his environment during the years spent in the trenches in France” [219]. And even The White Goddess, we must remember, was “actually written during the Second World War—a period in which the individual and ethics were particularly crushed” [220].

Thus Mounic makes a convincing case that Graves’s poetics, criticism, ideas are all of a piece, not necessarily disconnected work of a particular genre or period or movement. She makes the case that Graves’s later ideas are natural developments and evolutions of his early ideas. Graves’s ideas about the Bible or the White Goddess are more organically related to all of his thought and work. Added into the current body of Graves scholarship, Mounic’s work is the only work that is both so encompassing as to allow convincing explanations of Graves’s aims and his compulsions, and to allow the critic to explicate and problematise and theorise single poems as well as entire books. I believe that Mounic’s comes closer than any other reading of Graves to an explanation of the thought that underlies nearly all his work—from his Greek and Hebrew mythography to The Real David Copperfield to even the “sidebar” mysteries in Antigua, Penny, Puce to, yes, the impulses behind virtually every one of his major poems.

It may sometimes seem that Anne Mounic is creating her own poetics in the light of existential philosophy, even that she is in fact using Robert Graves’s work to bolster her theorising. But this lyric interrogation of Graves’s meanings makes Counting the Beats a very valuable text for understanding and linking all of Robert Graves’s work.


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