‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves: a matter of class?

This was quite an odd memoir. Robert Graves was a poet, and his narrative was influenced by that. He met a great many poets, including Swinburne, Hardy, Masefield, Pound, and Sassoon. However, while Graves had some interesting things to say about poets and poetry, his account of the war and its aftermath was unbalanced. The prose never captured the trauma of conflict properly because Graves seems to have been damaged by his experiences as a child. The book is not equivalent to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, which although a novel, really conveys the horrors of war.


There was a distance between Graves and the suffering of others. For example, he was anxious about the impact on income tax that the war might have when most people would have been concerned with survival. Moreover, he was always thinking of himself as an officer as if that made him radically different from ordinary soldiers. In addition, he was obsessed with regimental issues. He also demonstrated a casual racism towards French people. He was of partly German origin and this meant that he had little antipathy to his adversaries in battle. But he did not question the causes of the war in a systematic fashion, even after he became disillusioned with it.


The reasons behind the slight lack of feeling in Graves as the war took its toll on people are various and vague. His family was large. They were accustomed to having servants. The young Graves had many unpleasant experiences in different schools. They were not schools which ordinary people attended. Graves also had feelings for a younger boy at school which were not acted on but which were quite serious. Without being a psychologist, one could say that Graves lacked a warm family or a sensible education. Hence his emotional life was odd. Perhaps the class from which he originated had removed itself from reality.


After the war, Graves became a socialist in a subdued way. However, his heart was not really in it. He experienced a little genteel poverty on account of having several children and a modest income. He then went to Egypt to work at a university. This post was a lucrative one. His anti-French prejudice resurfaced again. His first marriage ended in divorce, but he gave marriage another chance. Graves was a brave soldier, a skilled writer, and a fairly honest person, but his apparent lack of empathy makes the book a frustrating document.


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