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  • Reading Graves Misreading Milton
  • Paul Stevens

Nothing can make me like, admire, or even pity John Milton. That was my earliest judgment and the more I read the sounder it seems.

—Robert Graves (1941)

Robert Graves is notorious among Milton scholars as the author of the popular 1942 novel Wife to Mr. Milton. The novel is relentless in its representation of Milton as the most abusive of husbands, egotistical and cruel: in the words of one recent scholar, the seventeenth century poet is made to appear "pedantic, selfabsorbed [and] callous."1 By any measure, whatever the very real failings of the historical Milton, Graves's representation of the poet is so extreme that it beggars belief. But Graves was no hack: he was immensely talented, one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century, and his novel is a disconcertingly brilliant piece of work. The principal topic of this essay is, then, the mysterious relationship between these two great poets, Graves and Milton—specifically the problem of the younger poet's extraordinary antipathy to and sustained misreading of the elder. One way to understand this, both the antipathy and the misreading, is to begin with Graves's approach to audience. [End Page 3]

Misreading and Graves's Sense of Audience

There is a sense in which all reading is, of course, a form of misreading, but there are degrees of misreading and some are obviously less knowing or self-aware than others. Despite his insistence on clarity, Graves himself, certainly in his prose, is very easy to misread and this, so I want to suggest, is central to my main concern because his lifelong misreading of Milton has a lot to do with Graves's indistinct or unfocused sense of a reading public. That is, while his indifferent sense of audience often encourages us to misread him, it also enables him to persevere in what Harold Bloom would call his "strong" misreading of other writers, not least Milton. "Poetic strength," Bloom claims, "comes only from a triumphant wrestling with [that is, misreading of] the greatest of the dead, and from an even more triumphant solipsism."2 This is helpful but not entirely so. Solipsistic or self-absorbed as Graves's motives might be, Bloom's formulation does not really capture the singularity of Graves's relationship with Milton, for his motives were considerably more inchoate and less straightforwardly literary than those imagined by Bloom. His relationship with Milton involved so much more than proving that he was the stronger poet.3

As everyone familiar with Graves knows, the writer had very decided views about his reading public. "Never use the word 'audience,'" he says in a 1969 interview. "The very idea of a public, unless a poet is writing for money, seems wrong to me. Poets don't have an audience: they're talking to a single person all the time."4 With prose it seems to be a bit different. While he writes poetry for poets and satires for wits, Graves declared a little earlier in 1946, he writes prose for what he called "people in general." And as far as these people are concerned, he continues dismissively, I am "content that they should be unaware that I do anything else."5 The serious work of poetry should not be wasted on them, for the "common people," he says on another occasion, "do not understand poetry."6 While Graves's unfocused sense of audience cannot be explained entirely in terms of class and his own privileged upbringing, it clearly has something to do with it, for despite his assertion [End Page 4] to the contrary, even in his prose he often seems to be talking to a single person—and that person a member of his own class.7 When I first read Graves as a boy I found all this very confusing, so let me illustrate the effect of Graves's insouciance with an example from my own early misreading of his prose—an example of what happens when he's read by a single person not of his own class.

Reading Milton and Graves as a working-class schoolboy in South Wales in the 1960s had...


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