The Story of Marie Powell, Wife to Mr Milton and The Islands of Wisdom edited by Simon Brittan In The story of Marie Powell, Wife to Mr. Milton (1943) Robert Graves - half a century before Carol Ann Duffy - creates a Mrs for a famous Mr, a Mr who Graves regards as one of the heinous monsters in the English poetic pantheon. Certainly his Mrs Milton is ill-used by a distended genius. Milton's first wife was sixteen when they married. Milton was after her dowry and when it did not follow he proved a domineering and prig, unresponsive to her sensuousness or her down-to-earth wit. It was a spiritual misalliance, too: her Catholicism sorted ill with his beliefs. The dramatic political and military events of the English civil war touch her life at every point, and we witness the execution of Charles I close up. The depiction of everyday life at the time and the merciless portrait of the young Milton, are spell-binding. The Islands of Unwisdom (1949) is also a true story, but visits a different, very Catholic world, that of the expeditions of the Spanish explorers and discoverers, near contemporaries of Milton but not emancipated by the Reformation, who come unstuck in the New World. Graves reconstructs the ill-fated voyage of Alvaro de Mendana y Neya to find the Solomon Islands, popularly believed to constitute the fabled Land of Ophir, where King Solomon got his legendary wealth. With Don Alvaro sails his wife Ysabel, a key figure in the narrative.
Robert Graves was born in 1895 in Wimbledon, the son of Irish writer Perceval Graves and Amalia Von Ranke. He went from school to the First World War, where he became a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. After this, apart from a year as Professor of English Literature at Cairo University in 1926, he earned his living by writing, mostly historical novels, including: I, Claudius; Claudius the God; Count Belisarius; Wife of Mr Milton; Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth; Proceed, Sergeant Lamb; The Golden Fleece; They Hanged My Saintly Billy; and The Isles of Unwisdom. He wrote his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, in 1929, and it was soon established as a modern classic. The Times Literary Supplement acclaimed it as 'one of the most candid self portraits of a poet, warts and all, ever painted', as well as being of exceptional value as a war document. Two of his most discussed non-fiction works are The White Goddess, which presents a new view of the poetic impulse, and The Nazarine Gospel Restored (with Joshua Podro), a re-examination of primitive Christianity. He also translated Apuleius, Lucan and Suetonius for the Penguin Classics, and compiled the first modern dictionary of Greek Mythology, The Greek Myths. His translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (with Omar Ali-Shah) is also published in Penguin. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1961 and made an Honorary Fellow of St John's College, Oxford, in 1971.
Robert Graves died on 7 December 1985 in Majorca, his home since 1929. On his death The Times wrote of him, 'He will be remembered for his achievements as a prose stylist, historical novelist and memorist, but above all as the great paradigm of the dedicated poet, "the greatest love poet in English since Donne".'
(Image courtesy of The William Graves Collection.)