Robert von Ranke Graves was a British poet, historical novelist, critic, and classicist. His father was Alfred Perceval Graves, a celebrated Irish poet and figure in the Gaelic revival; they were both Celticists and students of Irish mythology.
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Famous Robert Graves Poems
Song: One Hard Look
Small gnats that fly
In hot July
And lodge in sleeping ears,
Can rouse therein
A trumpet’s din
With Day-of-Judgement fears.
Small mice at night
Can wake more fright
Than lions at midday.
An urchin small
Torments us all
Who tread his prickly way.
A straw will crack
The camel’s back,
To die we need but sip,
So little sand
As fills the hand
Can stop a steaming ship.
One smile relieves
A heart that grieves
Though deadly sad it be,
And one hard look
Can close the book
That lovers love to see–
Take now a country mood,
Resolve, distil it: —
Nine Acre swaying alive,
June flowers that fill it,
Spicy sweet-briar bush,
The uneasy wren
Fluttering from ash to birch
And back again.
Milkwort on its low stem,
Spread hawthorn tree,
Sunlight patching the wood,
A hive-bound bee….
Girls riding nim-nim-nim,
Gentlemen hard at gallop,
Now over the rough turf
Bridles go jingle,
And there’s a well-loved pool,
By Fox’s Dingle,
Where Sweetheart, my brown mare,
Old Glory’s daughter,
May loll her leathern tongue
In snow-cool water.
‘Come, surly fellow, come! A song!’
What, madmen? Sing to you?
Choose from the clouded tales of wrong
And terror I bring to you.
Of a night so torn with cries,
Honest men sleeping
Start awake with glaring eyes,
Bone-chilled, flesh creeping.
Of spirits in the web hung room
Up above the stable,
Groans, knockings in the gloom,
The dancing table.
Of demons in the dry well
That cheep and mutter,
Clanging of an unseen bell,
Blood choking the gutter.
Of lust frightful, past belief,
Unrestrainable endless grief
From breasts long rotten.
A song? What laughter or what song
Can this house remember?
Do flowers and butterflies belong
To a blind December?
As I walked out one harvest night
About the stroke of One,
The Moon attained to her full height
Stood beaming like the Sun.
She exorcised the ghostly wheat
To mute assent in Love’s defeat
Whose tryst had now begun.
The fields lay sick beneath my tread,
A tedious owlet cried;
The nightingale above my head
With this or that replied,
Like man and wife who nightly keep
Inconsequent debate in sleep
As they dream side by side.
Your phantom wore the moon’s cold mask,
My phantom wore the same,
Forgetful of the feverish task
In hope of which they came,
Each image held the other’s eyes
And watched a grey distraction rise
To cloud the eager flame.
To cloud the eager flame of love,
To fog the shining gate:
They held the tyrannous queen above
Sole mover of their fate,
They glared as marble statues glare
Across the tessellated stair
Or down the Halls of State.
And now cold earth was Arctic sea,
Each breath came dagger keen,
Two bergs of glinting ice were we,
The broad moon sailed between;
There swam the mermaids, tailed and finned,
And Love went by upon the wind
As though it had not been.
As Jane walked out below the hill,
She saw an old man standing still,
His eyes in tranced sorrow bound
On the broad stretch of barren ground.
His limbs were knarled like aged trees,
His thin beard wrapt about his knees,
His visage broad and parchment white,
Aglint with pale reflected light.
He seemed a creature fall’n afar
From some dim planet or faint star.
Jane scanned him very close, and soon
Cried, ”Tis the old man from the moon.’
He raised his voice, a grating creak,
But only to himself would speak.
Groaning with tears in piteous pain,
‘O! O! would I were home again.’
Then Jane ran off, quick as she could,
To cheer his heart with drink and food.
But ah, too late came ale and bread,
She found the poor soul stretched stone-dead.
And a new moon rode overhead.
The General Elliott
He fell in victory’s fierce pursuit,
Holed through and through with shot,
A sabre sweep had hacked him deep
Twixt neck and shoulderknot….
The potman cannot well recall,
The ostler never knew,
Whether his day was Malplaquet,
The Boyne or Waterloo.
But there he hangs for tavern sign,
With foolish bold regard
For cock and hen and loitering men
And wagons down the yard.
Raised high above the hayseed world
He smokes his painted pipe,
And now surveys the orchard ways,
The damsons clustering ripe.
He sees the churchyard slabs beyond,
Where country neighbours lie,
Their brief renown set lowly down;
His name assaults the sky.
He grips the tankard of brown ale
That spills a generous foam:
Oft-times he drinks, they say, and winks
At drunk men lurching home.
No upstart hero may usurp
That honoured swinging seat;
His seasons pass with pipe and glass
Until the tale’s complete.
And paint shall keep his buttons bright
Though all the world’s forgot
Whether he died for England’s pride
By battle, or by pot.
Oh, what a heavy sigh!
Dicky, are you ailing?
Even by this fireside, mother,
My heart is failing.
To-night across the down,
Whistling and jolly,
I sauntered out from town
With my stick of holly.
Bounteous and cool from sea
The wind was blowing,
Cloud shadows under the moon
Coming and going.
I sang old roaring songs,
Ran and leaped quick,
And turned home by St. Swithin’s
Twirling my stick.
And there as I was passing
The churchyard gate
An old man stopped me, ‘Dicky,
You’re walking late.’
I did not know the man,
I grew afeared
At his lean lolling jaw,
His spreading beard.
His garments old and musty,
Of antique cut,
His body very lean and bony,
His eyes tight shut.
Oh, even to tell it now
My courage ebbs…
His face was clay, mother,
His beard, cobwebs.
In that long horrid pause
‘Good-night,’ he said,
Entered and clicked the gate,
‘Each to his bed.’
Do not sigh or fear, Dicky,
How is it right
To grudge the dead their ghostly dark
And wan moonlight?
We have the glorious sun,
Lamp and fireside.
Grudge not the dead their moonshine
When abroad they ride.
The Patchwork Bonnet
Across the room my silent love I throw,
Where you sit sewing in bed by candlelight,
Your young stern profile and industrious fingers
Displayed against the blind in a shadow-show,
To Dinda’s grave delight.
The needle dips and pokes, the cheerful thread
Runs after, follow-my-leader down the seam:
The patchwork pieces cry for joy together,
O soon to sit as a crown on Dinda’s head,
Fulfilment of their dream.
Snippets and odd ends folded by, forgotten,
With camphor on a top shelf, hard to find,
Now wake to this most happy resurrection,
To Dinda playing toss with a reel of cotton
And staring at the blind.
Dinda in sing-song stretching out one hand
Calls for the playthings; mother does not hear:
Her mind sails far away on a patchwork Ocean,
And all the world must wait till she touches land;
So Dinda cries in fear,
Then Mother turns, laughing like a young fairy,
And Dinda smiles to see her look so kind,
Calls out again for playthings, playthings, playthings;
And now the shadows make an Umbrian Mary
Adoring, on the blind.
The Three Drinkers
Blacksmith Green had three strong sons,
With bread and beef did fill ’em,
Now John and Ned are perished and dead,
But plenty remains of William.
John Green was a whiskey drinker,
The Land of Cakes supplied him,
Till at last his soul flew out by the hole
That the fierce drink burned inside him.
Ned Green was a water drinker,
And, Lord, how Ned would fuddle!
He rotted away his mortal clay
Like an old boot thrown in a puddle.
Will Green was a wise young drinker,
Shrank from whiskey or water,
But he made good cheer with headstrong beer,
And married an alderman’s daughter.
Nine of the clock, oh!
Wake my lazy head!
Your shoes of red morocco,
Your silk bed-gown:
Rouse, rouse, speck-eyed Mary
In your high bed!
A yawn, a smile, sleepy-starey,
Mary climbs down.
‘Good-morning to my brothers,
Good-day to the Sun,
Halloo, halloo to the lily-white sheep
That up the mountain run.’
Good-night to the meadow, farewell to the nine o’clock Sun,
‘He loves me not, loves me, he loves me not’ (O jealous one!)
‘He loves me, he loves me not, loves me’–O soft nights of June,
A bird sang for love on the cherry-bough: up swam the Moon.
Are you shaken, are you stirred
By a whisper of love,
Spellbound to a word
Does Time cease to move,
Till her calm grey eye
Expands to a sky
And the clouds of her hair
Like storms go by?
Then the lips that you have kissed
Turn to frost and fire,
And a white-steaming mist
So back to their birth
Fade water, air, earth,
And the First Power moves
Over void and dearth.
Is that Love? no, but Death,
A passion, a shout,
The deep in-breath,
The breath roaring out,
And once that is flown,
You must lie alone,
Without hope, without life,
Poor flesh, sad bone.
She Tells Her Love
She tells her love while half asleep,
In the dark hours,
With half-words whispered low:
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.
Mermaid, Dragon, Fiend
In my childhood rumors ran
Of a world beyond our door-
Terrors to the life of man
That the highroad held in store.
Of mermaids’ doleful game
In deep water I heard tell,
Of lofty dragons belching flame,
Of the hornèd fiend of Hell.
Tales like these were too absurd
For my laughter-loving ear:
Soon I mocked at all I heard,
Though with cause indeed for fear.
Now I know the mermaid kin
I find them bound by natural laws:
They have neither tail nor fin,
But are deadlier for that cause.
Dragons have no darting tongues,
Teeth saw-edged, nor rattling scales;
No fire issues from their lungs,
No black poison from their tails:
For they are creatures of dark air,
Unsubstantial tossing forms,
Thunderclaps of man’s despair
In mid-whirl of mental storms.
And there’s a true and only fiend
Worse than prophets prophesy,
Whose full powers to hurt are screened
Lest the race of man should die.
Ever in vain will courage plot
The dragon’s death, in coat of proof;
Or love abjure the mermaid grot;
Or faith denounce the cloven hoof.
Mermaids will not be denied
The last bubbles of our shame,
The Dragon flaunts an unpierced hide,
The true fiend governs in God’s name.
The hunter to the husbandman
Pays tribute since our love began,
And to love-loyalty dedicates
The phantom kills he meditates.
Let me embrace, embracing you,
Beauty of other shape and hue,
Odd glinting graces of which none
Shone more than candle to your sun;
Your well-kissed hand was beckoning me
In unfamiliar imagery.
Smile your forgiveness: each bright ghost
Dives in love’s glory and is lost
Yielding your comprehensive pride
A homage, even to suicide