Robert von Ranke Graves was born in Wimbledon, the son of a celebrated Irish poet and Gaelic scholar. He owed his middle name to his German mother’s surname, a fact which caused him some problems in both World Wars. After being educated at a variety of preparatory schools in the South of England, he won a scholarship to Charterhouse in 1909 where he was prominent in boxing and a member of the school choir. One of the masters there was George Mallory who took him mountaineering with him.
He won a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford but war broke out before he could take up his place and he immediately enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Welsh Fusiliers. He was rapidly promoted to lieutenant, then captain, and in 1916 was seriously wounded by a shell fragment, so seriously in fact that he was initially reported as having died. He convalesced at Somerville College, Oxford which was being used as a hospital. Siegfried Sassoon, a member of the same regiment, was a fellow patient. After recovering, he spent the rest of the war in England before being posted to Limerick, Ireland in 1918 where he contracted Spanish flu and quickly returned to England.
In 1918 he married Nancy Nicholson, a painter and fabric designer, and took up his place at Oxford the following year, switching from classics to English. He failed his BA but was awarded a BLItt degree. He then accepted the post of professor of English at Cairo University. He moved there with his wife and children and also his lover Laura Riding, an American poet and novelist, whose presence in this triangular relationship was accepted by his open-minded wife. In 1926 he and his wife divorced in acrimonious circumstances and he moved to Majorca with Laura where they remained until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. He and Laura moved to the United States in 1939 but they subsequently split up and he returned to England where he started a relationship with Beryl Hodge who became his second wife in 1950. They then moved to Majorca where they re-established a home and where Graves lived for the rest of his life.
Graves published his first volume of poetry in 1916, Over the Brazier. This was followed by many more between then and 1971 with his Collected Poems in 1948 being a comprehensive edition, revised several times in later years. In addition to producing a large number of poems, he was a prolific prose writer, publishing a biography of T E Lawrence, whom he knew from Oxford, in 1927 and his own, the well-known Goodbye to All That, in 1929. He came to national prominence with I Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) chronicling life in Rome during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula.
After WWII Graves wrote many more prose works including The White Goddess, a book-length essay on the nature of poetic myth-making. In 1961 he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, a post he held for five years. His long and eventful life came to an end in 1985 and he is buried in Majorca. He is one of the sixteen war poets commemorated on a plaque in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. In addition to his war poetry, his poems encompass themes of love, nature, philosophy and mythology.