How Robert Graves’ Poetry Helps Us Understand Shell Shock


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A derelict British tank submerged in mud and surrounded by shell-holes. Near St. jean, looking back towards Ypres. 6 March 1918. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Ahead of the Durham Book Festival events on war, and a forthcoming conference on the depiction of war in fictionLaura McKenzie looks at the work of British soldier-poet Robert Graves and the way his writing helps us to understand the insidious effects of shell shock.

As a term that was coined during the First World War to describe what we now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, shell shock refers to a spectrum of experiences. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries trauma theorists such as Sigmund Freud and Cathy Caruth have posited different ‘ways in’ to the understanding of traumatic experience, and following their lead we most commonly refer to it in terms of visions, flashbacks and waking nightmares – the incessant, repetitive return of an event (or history) that has not integrated itself into narrative memory.

These features of shell shock circulate freely throughout the writing of the First World War, not least in the poetry of Robert Graves, who in the immediate post-war period attempted to use poetry as a form of ‘writing cure’. Inspired by the work of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, he believed that poetry could offer a form of catharsis, and that, in fact, true poetry necessarily drew its inspiration from the kind of mental conflict that shell shock created in the trauma subject. Both Graves and Rivers feature in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and the books have played a part in generating contemporary interest in both the poetry and the shell shock of the First World War. Anthologies are plentiful, and during the centenary countless television and radio shows have discussed the complexities of British war poetry and the syndrome which inflects it. There is a canon of British War Poets – Sassoon, Owen, Sorley, and Brooke, to name a few – to which Graves belongs, but he is quite often dwarfed in the popular imagination by the titans of the genre: Owen, the author of ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (1917), surely being the most lauded (and, for that matter, most quoted).

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Robert Graves in the uniform of his battalion, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. 1914. © The Robert Graves Literary Estate. via The First World War Digital Poetry Archive

This is because Graves’ war poetry is notoriously hard to pin down. It lacks the bitter profundity of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or (for example) Sassoon’s ‘To Any Dead Officer’ (1918), the latter of which was written following the death of Sassoon’s fellow Royal Welch Fusilier, Edmund Leslie Orme. Predominantly elegiac in tone, the poem breaks into satire in the final stanza: like Owen, Sassoon condemns the overwhelming waste of life – Britain famously lost 60,000 men on the first day of the Somme, to no apparent gain – caused by what he believed to be warmongering politicians:

Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show. (ll. 33-40)

In a letter to his university friend Theo Bartholomew dated 4 July 1917, Sassoon wrote of ‘To Any Dead Officer’:

‘I solemnly affirm that it is the best war poem I’ve ever done, and Robert Graves says so too. So there!’

Nonetheless, we find no such dwelling on pity or empty glory in Graves’s poetry, no immediacy of loss, and we are therefore rarely moved. But if the trenches of the First World War fashioned Owen and Sassoon into canonical War Poets, it could equally be said that they forged Graves into a poet who wrote about the traumatic experience of war, a phenomenon which is never truly consigned to the past. This notion of a past that doesn’t obey the traditional laws of time and space – the very constructs on which we base our understanding of the world – is a fundamental aspect of shell shock; and although shell shock is a widely recognized term today, of the poetry of the First World War Graves’ writing in particular allows us to contextualize it as subjective experience. The benefit of using poetry as a tool to reflect on the experience of the shell-shocked soldier is that it takes an objective, medical concept and transforms it into narrative. Graves’ poetry helps us to understand shell shock because it shows us how it feels to have your own traumatic history become disobedient and encroach on your present.

We find this encroachment articulated in poems such as ‘Haunted’, in which Graves recounts waking visions of fellow soldiers who died on the Somme:

I met you suddenly down the street,
Strangers assume your phantom faces,
You grin at me from daylight places,
Dead, long dead, I’m ashamed to greet
Dead men down the morning street. (ll. 6-10)

Here Graves comes face to face with the men whom he commanded as an officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Faced with apparitions who intrude into his everyday life, he is plagued by another – equally potent – facet of shell shock, the survivor guilt which many veterans found so debilitating on their return to the Home Front. The universality of this experience is apparent today: testimony of combat veterans of modern conflicts, such as the Iraq war, reflects the pervasive effects of survivor guilt on their mental wellbeing.

There is a precision and economy to Graves’ war poetry which paradoxically taps into the overwhelming emotional freight of the experiences it articulates. Seamus Heaney described his writing in terms of ‘a bare wire conducting a live current’, and I think this electric presence is immanent in ‘Haunted’. The linguistic play of ‘You grin at me from daylight places’, a simply turned phrase that is nonetheless steeped in horror, perfectly relates the overwhelming wrongness of shell shock, the ‘out of place’-ness. The disjuncture of the missed rhyme and juxtaposition of tenses between ‘met’ (instead of ‘meet’) and ‘greet’ and ‘street’ signals that something is profoundly off-kilter in this scene. Graves’ dead comrades ‘grin’ like stripped skulls, not the relatively innocent ‘faces’ of the previous line. They appear where they should not, both in a future that has been denied to them and also places where ‘daylight’, we have been told since infancy, should reduce threat and banish our fears. In daylight, phantoms cannot haunt us; but for Graves, nowhere is safe.

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The dust-jacket for the first edition of Graves’ 1929 war memoir Good-Bye To All That, in which he recounts both his wartime experience and the rigours of shell shock. [Public Domain] via Poets.org

This lack of safety, based so fundamentally on the established boundaries and limits by which we order our existence, is again undermined in ‘The Devil at Berry Pomeroy’. This doesn’t read, at first glance, as a war poem – here more than ever, the slipperiness of intention that we find in Graves’ poetry defies any attempt to categorize it. Berry Pomeroy is a real place, a supposedly haunted castle in Devon with which Graves had a strange relationship. At a reading in 1953 he told the audience:

As a child I used to have nightmares about an unknown castle and this remained unidentified for 40 years. And then one day I visited Berry Pomeroy in South Devon. I don’t believe in reincarnation and therefore can’t explain why this place is so familiar and horrible to me.

As Emma McEvoy points out in her book Gothic Tourism, the castle signifies for Graves ‘a kind of evil archetype, untied from linear time’ and ‘severed from nature’, a feature of his nightmares before he ever encountered it in reality. Like the movement between memory and the present moment enacted by Graves’ shell shock, entry into the castle at Berry Pomeroy involves a trajectory that removes one from the world of traditional time (where the present is the present, the past the past, and each stay within their own limits) into a sinister state of either enforced stasis or of fruitless repetition.

The analogies to be drawn between this state of being and traumatic experience are clear: trapped in a neurasthenic condition from which he cannot escape, Graves is locked in a cycle of recurring ‘hauntings’ or visions. The poem describes the uncanny aspect and activity of this ‘horrible’ edifice, a site of death and menace where the speaker

[…] heard bells toll
For a monster’s soul
That was born, half dead,
With a double head;
I saw ghosts leap
From the ruined keep (ll. 13-18)

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Berry Pomeroy Castle in the County of Devon, by Francis Towne (1816). [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Published nearly forty years after Graves returned from the Front, ‘The Devil at Berry Pomeroy’ recalls both the irrational terrors of childhood and the horror of the Somme. The repetitive rhyming structure stresses the incessant, cyclical nature of the speaker’s experience, drawing on the mechanism of shell shock by which traumatic memories are locked in a cycle of repetition. The suicidal ghosts, doomed to ineffectually repeat their own deaths, allude to the action of ‘going over the top’ – soldiers breaking cover of the trenches to enter no man’s land in wave after wave, only to be gunned down where they stood. These, perhaps, are the same ghosts of ‘Haunted’, dead comrades who appeared to Graves on the busy streets of Oxford, and it may also be significant that the first and last corpses Graves encountered during his combat service were suicides.

The ‘monster’ Graves conjures in this stanza is perhaps the most telling figure of all. Born with a ‘double head’, it recalls the Janus-like nature of the soldier-poet who must aestheticize the carnage he participates in. Graves struggled, too, with the duality that combat caused in the self. A perpetrator as well as a victim of violence, his soul is as much in danger as that of the enemy. This draws on the modern notion of moral injury, an aspect of PTSD that registers the moral guilt that combat inspires in veterans – trained to use lethal force reflexively, once they return home they have to reconcile this violent behaviour with civilian life, where such actions are regarded as criminal. In an interview with trauma theorist Nancy Sherman, Iraq veteran Josh Mantz stated that

‘[i]t’s the moral injury over time that really kills people […] Soldiers lose their identity.’

Like the monster of ‘Berry Pomeroy’, veterans who survive combat can nonetheless return home feeling ‘half dead’.

Graves’ war poetry, then, need not necessarily be signposted as such. ‘The Devil at Berry Pomeroy’ speaks as much to Graves’ experience of shell shock as ‘Haunted’, although they approach it from oblique angles. Both poems apply a weathered and, in ‘Berry Pomeroy’, wicked lens to the rigours of combat-related stress, giving readers insight into the dynamics of memory and repetition that lie at its heart. As such, Graves’ poems remain relevant today. Despite the amount of research that goes into combat-related PTSD, Mantz told Sherman that ‘[s]ociety is oblivious to what soldiers go through.’ Graves’ poems bridge this divide. While he may not be as lauded as his fellow soldier-poets, Graves’ poetry offers us a unique window of understanding into the haunting and often surreal experience of the shell shock that became one of the most disturbing legacies of the First World War.

To learn more about the soldier-poets and how the First World War is represented in literature today, join award-winning authors Pat Barker (The Regeneration Trilogy) and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) for their Durham Book Festival Event ‘Writing the First World War’, Friday 14 October, Durham Cathedral Nave, 19.00. The following day there will be a conference on the works of Pat Barker, and writing about the War in general; registration for this is now open.

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