Day 794: Classic Club Spin #10! Selected Poems of Robert Frost

Cover for Selected PoemsMy book for Classics Club Spin #10 is Selected Poems of Robert Frost. I have to confess to not having quite succeeded in finishing my selection this time, but more than 300 pages of poetry is a lot of poetry to read. I got about halfway through the book.

Poetry is just not my thing, I guess. I did enjoy many of the poems in this book, but they were the same ones I’ve enjoyed before, so it was like visiting old friends—“Mowing,” “Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Acquainted with the Night,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Most of these, I notice, are devoted to observations about nature or are about rural work.

I do not so much enjoy what Robert Graves refers to in the introduction as his “poignant country dramas,” like “The Death of the Hired Man.” They seem more like prose to me, which is ironic, since I am generally more comfortable with prose. But they are not what I come to Frost for. I come to him for things like this:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

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The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Goodbye to All That


Day 591: Goodbye to All That

Cover for Goodbye to All ThatThis is my book for the most recent Classics Club Spin! I originally announced that I would post my review a day late, on October 7, but I decided to post it early instead, so as to meet the spin deadline, since Monday, the deadline, is Literary Wives.

Goodbye to All That is the only memoir by Robert Graves, written in his 30’s about a dozen years after World War I. Nowadays, Graves may be best known as the author of I, Claudius, but the publication of Goodbye to All That was extremely controversial. It was one of the first memoirs about the war, and it was one of the most critical.

But before Graves turned a satiric eye on the war, he pointed it at the public school system. I did not always understand what was going on in his boy’s school, but the layers of hierarchy and the customs seem ridiculous. Not surprisingly, this same complexity extends to the different regiments in the military and their customs—where to wear their decorations, what to wear (for one regiment in France, the answer is shorts), and who may speak or drink in the officer’s mess.

Graves, who enlisted early in the war at the age of 21, was soon viewing it all skeptically. One scene of high satire takes place in a meeting of battalion officers, who are all called in to listen to the complaints of their colonel that the men aren’t buttoning their pocket flaps and so on—the worst offence being that he heard a soldier actually call a noncommissioned officer “Jack”! This meeting takes place at the same time that the division is issuing commands for the men to perform impossible missions that would have gotten them all killed had they not been cancelled at the last minute.

Graves also deals somewhat facetiously with the premature reports of his own death, sent by the military to his family after he was wounded, by putting a polite announcement in the Times.

This memoir is interesting enough, although at times I could not follow the nuances of the events, having no knowledge of British school or military terms. There is a short glossary of military terms at the beginning of the book, but it is insufficient. These days, news of incompetency and jingoism during the war is no surprise, but when this book was published, it was the cause of a storm of letters containing all kinds of accusations against Graves.

Day 183: The Greek Myths

Cover for The Greek MythsThe Greek Myths is classicist and writer Robert Graves’ well respected and unconventional translation and interpretation of a comprehensive collection of Greek myths. Graves explains that rather than interpret the myths psychologically (i.e., Oedipus), which he appears to have some disdain for, it is more useful and accurate to look at them in combination with the findings of archaeology, as a sort of historic record. Graves relates each myth, with all its variants, and then provides sometimes copious notes to explain each facet. He also points out the many similarities among world myths, showing the relationships between Greek myths and those of the Celts, Sumerians, Jews, and others.

It is Graves’ contention that most of the Greek myths with which we are familiar were manipulations and distortions by the Hellenes of the religious beliefs of the people they conquered. There were four migrations of the Hellenes into Greece. After the first two, the patriarchal Hellenes adopted the matriarchal religions of their hosts, but in the last two, the Hellenes forced the existing tribes to follow their beliefs and then consciously distorted their mythologies to reflect this change.

For example, there are many instances where Zeus chases and rapes various nymphs. In the earlier myths, the three-headed goddess in one of her forms would have been chasing the king as part of a ritual ceremony, so the myth has been turned on its head. Similarly, many a Greek hero’s exploits that involve fighting and killing an opponent are a perversion of the ritual whereby the king is “killed” by his tanist–or alternate ruler (“twin” or “son”)–at the end of his reign and then in turn actually kills the tanist to take up his reign again. Grave states, “Like Aeschylus, Euripedes was engaged in religious propaganda.”

The ideas Graves espouses are very interesting and the book is extremely well written. However, the sheer number of names and places and similar incidents can be overwhelming. Some deities or other figures go by six or eight names, for example. And there’s only so much killing and rapine a person can take. I finally bogged down over Heracles, who has more than 100 of the 600+ pages devoted to him (and whose adventures are very similar to those of Gilgamesh). Heracles, I feel, was a thug, and round about his tenth labor, which was particularly rambling, I gave up on him.

My intention in reading this work was to come out with a more coherent idea of the whole of Greek mythology, but ironically, I feel this book is too comprehensive for me to meet that goal–that something simpler would have worked better for me. However, for serious students of mythology, this is probably required and interesting reading.