Robert Graves made a small splash as a poet of world war one, but only really made his name several years later as with the celebrated memoir Goodbye to All That, covering the minor and major horrors of public school life and the war, respectively; settling in Majorca, he made a living writing historical novels, such as I, Claudius and Count Belisarius, and a celebrated guide to Greek mythology. All the while he worked on a respectable corpus of poetry ranging from the romantic to the cerebral to the comic.
Graves’ own theories about the origins and purposes of poetry are sketched out in his book ‘The White Goddess’, which is succinctly subtitled ‘a historical grammar of poetic myth’. It is by turns fascinating and incomprehensible; as much as I enjoyed it, I wasn’t much wiser about poetic myth’s grammar, poetic or otherwise, than before I’d read it, although I had gathered that Graves thought all ‘true’ poetry is inspired by and directed at the great Goddess that self-same Lass who was the original deity of Indo-European culture before being displaced by the patriarchal gods of the Greeks and the Hebrews.
But Graves’ poetry itself doesn’t always seem to conform too closely to this idea. A lot of his love poetry is, frankly, rather forgettable. Some of his best poems have nothing whatsoever to do with love or the Goddess or what have you. Down Wanton Down has something to do with love, but addressed to the Goddess it ain’t! The wanton creature that Graves is beseeching to desist is in fact a part of his own anatomy.
You may already have guessed which.
The poet-wooer’s dilemma here is palpable (so to speak), as he complains to his over-eager member that its misplaced zeal and enthusiasm is not likely to produce the desired response. At the same time Graves smuggles in more smutty puns than you could find on a postcard rack in Blackpool (or a speech by Boris Johnson!) Most are easy enough to understand, but the second stanza had me looking at the notes in my Norton. A ravelin is a ‘Fortified projection from a castle wall’ – I think the wall is the more potent symbol here – while die also carries the sense of ‘to achieve orgasm’…
Down, wanton, down! Have you no shame
That at the whisper of Love’s name,
Or Beauty’s, presto! up you raise
Your angry head and stand at gaze?
Poor bombard-captain, sworn to reach
The ravelin and effect a breach–
Indifferent what you storm or why,
So be that in the breach you die!
Love may be blind, but Love at least
Knows what is man and what mere beast;
Or Beauty wayward, but requires
More delicacy from her squires.
Tell me, my witless, whose one boast
Could be your staunchness at the post,
When were you made a man of parts
To think fine and profess the arts?
Will many-gifted Beauty come
Bowing to your bald rule of thumb,
Or Love swear loyalty to your crown?
Be gone, have done! Down, wanton, down!
Sweettenorbull’s pithy summary:
Graves to the Goddess, ‘I fear that something has come between us!’