“It is bad enough when a modern elevator flashes me past twenty storeys. I always have to wait a minute or two at the top for my rustic spirit to follow by the stairs.”
– Robert Graves
Rebel scholar Robert Graves bestrides this festival as easily as he bestrode the 20th century. The war poet who dosed himself with the sacred mushroom, the love poet who dared to address and undress his muse – never fearing for one moment that he might burn up from seeing too much. Who but Graves had such a long and fruitful career purely from exploring at the very edges of their own culture? What pre-LSD author but C. G. Jung himself would have dared to embark on such a world-challenging notion as The White Goddess? Who but Graves could have demanded of his audience that they accept such bizarre Celto-Viking utterances and still receive the commission for a new translation of the Greek Myths? Only Graves. No one could convince him that anything in culture had ever been entirely lost. No one could convince him of the futility of ransacking his own mind in order to demand of himself the keys to the sacred mansions that Christianity and the Christian church had so long before locked and barred, as Graves stated defiantly: “Mythical facts are not beyond anthropological conjecture.”
Graves, sometimes even to his own detriment, sailed so high above the outpourings of his poet contemporaries that it is only fairly recently that we have come even to question some of his more extreme outbursts. Like a Druid officiating at an Iron Age wedding, Graves inhabits Western culture unquestioned and at large. As a World War One poet himself, Graves it was whose timely introduction of Siegfried Sassoon to Wilfred Owen saved the life of the former whilst guaranteeing greatness for the latter. Graves it was who brought form to Lawrence of Arabia’s legendary work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Several decades later, he would be playing Majorcan host to Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and the Soft Machine. And in between all of this were his daring new interpretations of Christianity: first the novel King Jesus, next the enormous scholarly tome The Nazarene Gospel Restored. The choices he made for his studies long decades ago still resonate and bring meaning to Western explorers and seekers of freedom to this day. And in this SydArthur Festival, which so celebrates the expanding of the mind, Robert Graves – both the artist and the man – sums up the Gnosticism which we in the West have so come to cherish since the advent of rock’n’roll. For Robert von Ranke Graves, no world tradition – no matter how ancient or cherished – was secure from his Promethean excavations.
Today let’s put ourselves in an Ian Curtis kind of mood by searching out Robert Graves’ short but masterful and wildly modern poem, ‘Sick Love’.