Robert Graves




List of Illustrations


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32



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Goodbye to All That

Robert Graves was born in 1895 in Wimbledon, son of Alfred Perceval Graves, the Irish writer, and Amalia Von Ranke. He went from school to the First World War, where he became a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His principal calling was poetry, and his Selected Poems have also been published in Penguin. Apart from a year as Professor of English Literature at Cairo University in 1926 he earned his living by writing, mostly historical novels which include: I, Claudius; Claudius the God; Count Belisarius; Wife to 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 rapidly established itself 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. His two most discussed non-fiction books 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 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) was 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”.’

List of Illustrations

1. Robert Graves in Majorca. (Tom Weedon)

2. Robert Graves, from a portrait by Eric Kennington. (By kind permission of the artist)

3a. Charterhouse School in 1914

3b. Béthune before the shelling, 1915. (Imperial War Museum)

4a. The brickstacks at Cuinchy. (Imperial War Museum)

4b. Somme Battle. The First Royal Welch Fusiliers attacking near Mametz, 1 July 1916. (Imperial War Museum)

5. Somme trench map: Martinpuich section. (Imperial War Museum)

6a. Waterlogged mine crater. (Imperial War Museum)

6b. Somme Battle. Scene in a communication trench before an attack. (Imperial War Museum)

7a. Royal Welch Fusiliers at rest, 28 June 1916. (Imperial War Museum)

7b. Mametz village, July 1916. (Imperial War Museum)

8. The Second Royal Welch Fusilier Goat and Band at the 33rd Division Horse Show, July 1917. (Imperial War Museum)


1. Robert Graves in Majorca


2. Robert Graves, from a portrait by Eric Kennington


3a. Charterhouse School in 1914


3b. Béthune before the shelling, 1915.


4a. The brickstacks at Cuinchy


4b. Somme Battle. First Royal Welch Fusiliers attacking near Mametz, 1 July 1916.


5. Somme trench map: Martinpuich section


6a. Waterlogged mine crater


6b. Somme Battle. Scene in a communication trench before an attack


7a. Royal Welch Fusiliers at rest, 28 June 1916


7b. Mametz village, July 1916


8. The Second Royal Welch Fusilier Goat and Band at the 33rd pision Horse Show, July 1917


I partly wrote, partly dictated, this book twenty-eight years ago during a complicated domestic crisis, and with very little time for revision. It was my bitter leave-taking of England where I had recently broken a good many conventions; quarrelled with, or been disowned by, most of my friends; been grilled by the police on a suspicion of attempted murder; and ceased to care what anyone thought of me.

Reading Goodbye to All That over again, for the first time since 1929, I wonder how my publishers escaped a libel action.

Domestic crises are always expensive, but the book sold well enough in England and the United States, despite the Depression which had just set in, to pay my debts and leave me free to live and write in Majorca without immediate anxiety for the future. The title became a catch-word, and my sole contribution to Bartlett’s Dictionary of Familiar Quotations.

A good many changes have been made in the text – omission of many dull or foolish patches; restoration of a few suppressed anecdotes; replacement of the T. E. Lawrence chapter by a longer one written five years later; correction of factual misstatements; and a general editing of my excusably ragged prose. Some proper names have been restored where their original disguise is no longer necessary.

If any passage still gives offence after all those years, I hope to be forgiven.

Deyá, Majorca, Spain, 1957                                                                                                                   R.G.


As a proof of my readiness to accept autobiographical convention, let me at once record my two earliest memories. The first is being loyally held up at a window to watch a procession of decorated carriages and waggons for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (this was at Wimbledon, where I had been born on July 24th, 1895). The second is gazing upwards with a sort of despondent terror at a cupboard in the nursery, which stood accidentally open, filled to the ceiling with octavo volumes of Shakespeare. My father had organized a Shakespeare reading circle. I did not know until long afterwards that this was the Shakespeare cupboard but, apparently, I already had a strong instinct against drawing-room activities. And when distinguished visitors came to the house, such as Sir Sidney Lee with his Shakespearean scholarship, or Lord Ashbourne, not yet a peer, with his loud talk of ‘Ireland for the Irish’, and his saffron kilt, or Mr Eustace Miles the English real-tennis champion and vegetarian with his samples of exotic nuts, I knew all about them in my way.

Nor had I any illusions about Algernon Charles Swinburne, who often used to stop my perambulator when he met it on Nurses’ Walk, at the edge of Wimbledon Common, and pat me on the head and kiss me: he was an inveterate pram-stopper and patter and kisser. Nurses’ Walk lay between ‘The Pines’, Putney (where he lived with Watts-Dunton), and the Rose and Crown public house, where he went for his daily pint of beer; Watts-Dunton allowed him twopence for it and no more. I did not know that Swinburne was a poet, but I knew that he was a public menace. Swinburne, by the way, when a very young man, had gone to Walter Savage Landor, then a very old man, and been given the poet’s blessing he asked for; and Landor when a child had been patted on the head by Dr Samuel Johnson; and Johnson when a child had been taken to London to be touched by Queen Anne for scrofula, the King’s evil; and Queen Anne when a child….

But I mentioned the Shakespeare reading circle. It went on for years, and when I was sixteen, curiosity finally sent me to one of the meetings. I remember the vivacity with which my utterly unshrewish mother read the part of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew to my amiable father’s Petruchio. Mr and Mrs Maurice Hill were two of the most popular members of the circle. This meeting took place some years before they became Mr Justice Hill and Lady Hill, and some years, too, before I looked into The Shrew. I remember the lemonade glasses, the cucumber sandwiches, the petits fours, the drawing-room knick-knacks, the chrysanthemums in bowls, and the semicircle of easy chairs around the fire. The gentle voice of Maurice Hill as Hortensio admonished my father: ‘Thou go thy ways, thou hast tamed a cursed shrew.’ I myself as Lucio ended the performance with: ‘’Tis a wonder by your leave she will be tamed so.’ I must go one day to hear him speak his lines as Judge of the Divorce Courts; his admonitions have become famous.

After ‘earliest memories’, I should perhaps give a passport description of myself and let the items enlarge themselves. Date of birth…. Place of birth…. I have already given those. Profession…. In my passport I am down as ‘University Professor’. That was a convenience for 1926, when I first took out a passport. I thought of putting ‘Writer’, but passport officials often have complicated reactions to the word. ‘University professor’ wins a simple reaction: dull respect. No questions asked. So also with ‘army captain (pensioned list)’.

My height is given as six feet two inches, my eyes as grey, and my hair as black. To ‘black’ should be added ‘thick and curly’. I am untruthfully described as having no special peculiarity. For a start, there is my big, once aquiline nose, which I broke at Charterhouse while foolishly playing rugger with soccer players. (I broke another player’s nose myself in the same game.) That unsteadied it, and boxing sent it askew. Finally, it was operated on by an unskilful army surgeon, and no longer serves as a vertical line of demarcation between the left and right sides of my face, which are naturally unassorted – my eyes, eyebrows, and ears being all set noticeably crooked, and my cheekbones, which are rather high, being on different levels. My mouth is what is known as ‘full’, and my smile is tight-lipped: when I was thirteen I broke two front teeth and became sensitive about showing them. My hands and feet are large. I weigh about twelve stone four. My best comic turn is a double-jointed pelvis; I can sit on a table and tap like the Fox sisters with it. One shoulder is distinctly lower than the other, because of a lung wound. I do not carry a watch because I always magnetize the main-spring; during the war when an order went out that officers should carry watches and synchronize them daily, I had to buy two new ones every month. Medically, I am a good life.

My passport gives my nationality as ‘British subject’. Here I might parody Marcus Aurelius, who begins his Golden Book with the various ancestors and relatives to whom he owes the virtues of a worthy Roman Emperor: explaining why I am not a Roman Emperor or even, except on occasions, an English gentleman. My mother’s father’s family, the von Rankes, were Saxon country pastors, not anciently noble. Leopold von Ranke, the first modern historian, my great-uncle, introduced the ‘von’. I owe something to him. He wrote, to the scandal of his contemporaries: ‘I am a historian before I am a Christian; my object is simply to find out how the things actually occurred,’ and when discussing Michelet the French historian: ‘He wrote history in a style in which the truth could not be told.’ That Thomas Carlyle decried him as ‘Dry-as-Dust’ is no discredit. To Heinrich von Ranke, my grandfather, I owe my clumsy largeness, my endurance, energy, seriousness, and my thick hair. He was rebellious and even atheistic in his youth. As a medical student at a Prussian university he took part in the political disturbances of 1848, when students demonstrated in favour of Karl Marx at the time of his trial for high treason. Like Marx, they had to leave the country. My grandfather came to London, and finished his medical course there. In 1854, he went to the Crimea with the British Army as a regimental surgeon. All I know about this is a chance remark that he made to me when I was a child: ‘It is not always the big bodies which are the strongest. At Sevastopol in the trenches I saw the great British Guards crack up and die by the score, while the little sappers took no harm.’ Still, his big body carried him very well.

He married, in London, my grandmother, a tiny, saintly, frightened Schleswig-Dane, daughter of Tiarks, the Greenwich astronomer. Before her father took to astronomy the Tiarks family had, it seems, followed the Danish country system – not at all a bad one – of alternate professions for father and son. The odd generations were tinsmiths, and the even generations were pastors. My gentler characteristics trace back to my grandmother. She had ten children; the eldest of these, my mother, was born in London. My grandfather’s atheism and radicalism sobered down. He eventually returned to Germany, where he became a well-known children’s doctor at Munich, and about the first in Europe to insist on clean milk for his child patients. Finding that he could not get clean milk to the hospitals by ordinary means, he started a model dairy-farm himself. His agnosticism grieved my devoutly Lutheran grandmother; she never ceased to pray for him, but concentrated more particularly on saving the souls of her children.

My grandfather did not die entirely unregenerate; his last words were: ‘The God of my fathers, to Him at least I hold.’ I do not know what he meant by that, but it was a statement consistent with his angry patriarchal moods, with his acceptance of a prominent place in Bavarian society as Herr Geheimrat Ritter von Ranke, and with his loyalty to the Kaiser, with whom once or twice he went deer-shooting. It meant, practically, that he considered himself a good Liberal in religion as in politics, and that my grandmother need not have worried. I admire my German relatives; they have high principles, are easy, generous, and serious. The men have fought duels not for cheap personal honour, but in the public interest – called out, for example, because they have protested against the scandalous behaviour of some superior officer or official. One of them lost seniority in the German consular service, because he refused to use the consulate in London as a clearing-house for secret service reports. They are not heavy drinkers either. My grandfather, as a student at the regular university ‘drunks’, had a habit of pouring superfluous beer into his eighteen-fortyish riding-boots, when nobody was watching. He brought up his children to speak English at home, and always looked to England as the centre of culture and progress. The women were noble and patient, and used to keep their eyes on the ground when out walking.

At the age of eighteen, my mother went to England as companion to Miss Britain, a lonely old woman who had befriended my grandmother as an orphan, and waited hand and foot on her for seventeen years. When she finally died, under the senile impression that my mother, her sole heiress, would benefit hardly at all from the will, it turned out that she had been worth £100,000. Characteristically, my mother divided the inheritance among her four younger sisters, keeping only a fifth share. She was determined to go to India, after a short training as a medical missionary. This ambition was presently baulked by her meeting my father, a widower with five children; it became plain to her that she could do as good work on the home-mission field.

The Graves family have a pedigree that goes back to a French knight who landed with Henry VII at Milford Haven in 1485. Colonel Graves the Roundhead is claimed as the founder of the Irish branch of the family. He was once wounded and left for dead in the market-place at Thame, afterwards had charge of King Charles I’s person at Carisbrooke Castle, and later turned Royalist. Limerick was the centre of this branch. The occasional soldiers and doctors in it were mainly collaterals; the direct male line had a sequence of rectors, deans, and bishops, apart from my great-grandfather John Crosbie Graves, who was Chief Police Magistrate of Dublin. The Limerick Graves’s have no ‘hands’ or mechanical sense; but a wide reputation as conversationalists. In those of my relatives who have the family characteristics most strongly marked, unnecessary talk is a nervous disorder. Not bad talk as talk goes: usually informative, often witty, but it goes on and on and on. The von Ranke’s seem to have little mechanical aptitude either. I find it most inconvenient to be born into the age of the internal-combustion engine and the electric dynamo and to have no sympathy with them: a bicycle, a Primus stove, and an army rifle mark the bounds of my mechanical capacity.

My paternal grandfather, the Protestant Bishop of Limerick, had eight children. He was a remarkable mathematician – he first formulated some theory or other of spherical conics – and also the leading authority on the Irish Brehon Laws and Ogham script, but by reputation, far from generous. He and O’Connell, the Catholic Bishop, lived on the very best of terms. They cracked Latin jokes at each other, discussed fine points of scholarship, and were unclerical enough not to take their religious differences too seriously.

While in Limerick as a soldier of the garrison, some nineteen years after my grandfather’s death, I heard stories about him from the townsfolk. Bishop O’Connell had once rallied him on the size of his family, and my grandfather had retorted warmly with the text about the blessedness of the man who has his quiver full of arrows; to which O’Connell answered briefly: ‘The ancient Jewish quiver only held six.’ My grandfather’s wake, they said, was the longest ever seen in the town of Limerick: it stretched from the Cathedral right down O’Connell Street and over Sarfield Bridge, and I do not know how many miles Irish beyond. He had blessed me as a child, but I do not remember that.

Of my father’s mother, a Cheyne from Aberdeen, I have been able to get no information at all beyond the fact that she was ‘a very beautiful woman’, and daughter of the Physician-general to the Forces of Ireland. I can only conclude that most of what she said or did passed unnoticed in the rivalry of family conversations. The Cheyne pedigree was flawless right back to Sir Reginald Cheyne, Lord Chamberlain of Scotland in 1267. In later times the Cheynes had been lawyers and physicians. But my father is at present engaged on his autobiography and, no doubt, will write at length about all this.

My father, then, met my mother some time in the early nineties. He had previously married one of the Irish Coopers, of Cooper’s Hill, near Limerick. The Coopers were an even more Irish family than the Graves’s. The story goes that when Cromwell came to Ireland and ravaged the country, Moira O’Brien, the last surviving member of the great clan O’Brien, who were the paramount chiefs of the country around Limerick, came to him one day with: ‘General, you have killed my father and my uncles, my husband and my brothers. I am left as the sole heiress of these lands. Do you intend to confiscate them?’ Cromwell is said to have been struck by her magnificent presence, and to have answered that this certainly had been his intention. But that she could keep her lands, or a part of them, on condition that she married one of his officers, Ensign Cooper. Jane Cooper, whom my father married, died of consumption.

The Graves family were thin-nosed and inclined to petulance, but never depraved, cruel, or hysterical. A persistent literary tradition: of Richard, a minor poet and a friend of Shenstone; and John Thomas, who was a mathematician and contributed to Sir William Rowan Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions; and Richard, a divine and regius Professor of Greek; and James, an archaeologist; and Robert, who invented the disease called after him and was a friend of Turner’s; and Robert, classicist, and theologian, and a friend of Wordsworth’s; and Richard, another divine; and Robert, another divine; and various Roberts, Jameses, Thomases, and Richards; and Clarissa, one of the toasts of Ireland, who married Leopold von Ranke (at Windermere church), and linked the Graves and von Ranke families a couple of generations before my father and mother married. (See the British Museum Catalogue for an eighteen- and nineteenth-century record of Graves’ literary history.)

It was through this Clarissa-Leopold relationship that my father met my mother. My mother told him at once that she liked Father O’Flynn, the song for writing which my father will be chiefly remembered. He had put the words to a traditional jig tune The Top of Cork Road, which he remembered from his boyhood. Sir Charles Stanford supplied a few chords for the setting. My father sold the complete rights for one guinea. Boosey, the publisher, made thousands. Sir Charles Stanford, who drew a royalty as the composer, also collected a very large sum. Recently my father has been sent a few pounds from gramophone rights. He is not bitter about all this, but has more than once impressed upon me almost religiously never to sell for a sum down the complete rights of any work of mine whatsoever.

That my father is a poet has, at least, saved me from any false reverence for poets. I am even delighted when I meet people who know of him and not me. I sing some of his songs while washing up after meals, or shelling peas, or on similar occasions. He never once tried to teach me how to write, or showed any understanding of my serious poetry; being always more ready to ask advice about his own. Nor did he ever try to stop me writing. His light-hearted early work is the best. His Invention of Wine, for instance, which begins:

Ere Bacchus could talk

Or dacently walk

Down Olympus he jumped

From the arms of his nurse,

And though ten years in all

Were consumed by the fall,

He might have fallen farther

And fared a dale worse …

After marrying my mother and turning teetotaller, he is said to have lost something of his playfulness.

My father resisted the family temptation to take holy orders, never rising higher than lay-reader; and he broke the geographical connexion with Ireland, for which I cannot be too grateful to him. Though much harder on my relatives, and much more careful of associating with them than I am with strangers, I can admire my father and mother: my father for his simplicity and persistence, and my mother for her seriousness and strength. Both for their generosity. They never bullied me, and were grieved rather than angered by my default from formal religion. In physique and general characteristics my mother’s side is, on the whole, stronger in me. But I have many habits of speech and movements peculiar to the Graves’s, most of them eccentric. Such as finding it difficult to walk straight down a street; fidgeting with bits of bread at table; getting tired of sentences when half-way through and leaving them in the air; walking with the hands folded in a particular way behind the back; and being subject to sudden and most disconcerting spells of complete amnesia. These fits, so far as I can discover, serve no useful purpose, and tend to produce in the victim the same sort of dishonesty that afflicts deaf people who miss the thread of conversation – they hate to be left behind and rely on intuition and bluff to get them through. This disability is most marked in very cold weather. I do not now talk too much, except when I have been drinking, or when I meet someone who fought with me in France. The Graves’s have good minds for such purposes as examinations, writing graceful Latin verse, filling in forms, and solving puzzles (when invited, as children, to parties where guessing games and brain-tests were played, we never failed to win). They have a good eye for ball games, and a graceful style. I inherited the eye, but not the style; my mother’s family are entirely without style. I have an ugly but secure seat on a horse. There is a coldness in the Graves’s which is anti-sentimental to the point of insolence, a necessary check to the goodness of heart from which my mother’s family suffers. The Graves’s, it is fair to generalize, though loyal to the British governing class to which they belong, and so to the Constitution, are individualists; the von Rankes regard their membership of the corresponding class in Germany as a sacred trust enabling them to do the more responsible work for the service of humanity. Recently, when a von Ranke entered a film studio, the family felt itself disgraced.

The most useful and, at the same time, most dangerous gift that I owe to my father’s side of the family – probably more to the Cheynes than to the Graves’s – is that I am always able, when dealing with officials, or getting privileges from public institutions which grudge them, to masquerade as a gentleman. Whatever I happen to be wearing; and because my clothes are not what gentlemen usually wear, and yet I do not seem to be an artist or effeminate, and my accent and gestures are irreproachable, I have been placed as the heir to a dukedom, whose perfect confidence in his rank would explain all such eccentricity. Thus I may seem, by a paradox, to be more of a gentleman even than one of my elder brothers, who spent a number of years as a consular official in the Near East. His wardrobe is almost too obviously a gentleman’s, and he does not allow himself the pseudoducal privilege of having disreputable acquaintances, and saying on all occasions what he really means.

About this business of being a gentleman: I paid so heavily for the fourteen years of my gentleman’s education that I feel entitled, now and then, to get some sort of return.


My mother married my father largely, it seems, to help him out with his five motherless children. Having any herself was a secondary consideration. Yet first she had a girl, then she had another girl, and it was very nice, of course, to have them, but slightly disappointing, because she belonged to the generation and tradition that made a son the really important event; then I came, a fine healthy child. She was forty at my birth; and my father forty-nine. Four years later she had another son, and four years later still another son. The desired preponderance of male over female had been established, and twice five made ten. I found the gap of two generations between my parents and me easier, in a way, to bridge than a single generation gap. Children seldom quarrel with their grand-parents, and I have been able to think of my mother and father as grand-parents. Also, a family of ten means a dilution of parental affection; the members tend to become indistinct. I have often been called: ‘Philip, Richard, Charles, I mean Robert’

My father being a very busy man, an inspector of schools for the Southwark district of London, we children saw practically nothing of him except during the holidays. Then he behaved very sweetly, and told us stories with the formal beginning, not ‘once upon a time’, but always: ‘And so the old gardener blew his nose on a red pocket handkerchief….’ He occasionally played games with us, but for the most part, when not busy with educational work, was writing poems, or being president of literary or temperance societies. My mother, kept busy running the household and conscientiously carrying out her social obligations as my father’s wife, did not see so much of us as she would have liked, except on Sundays or when we happened to be ill. We had a nurse, and one another, and found that companionship sufficient. My father’s chief part in our education was to insist on our speaking grammatically, pronouncing words correctly, and using no slang. He left our religious instruction entirely to my mother, though he officiated at family prayers, which the servants were expected to attend, every morning before breakfast. Light punishments, such as being sent to bed early or being stood in a corner, were in the hands of my mother; the infliction of corporal punishment, never severe and given with a slipper, she reserved for my father. We learned to be strong moralists, and spent much of our time on self-examination and good resolutions. My sister Rosaleen put up a printed notice in her corner of the nursery – it might just as well have been put up by me: ‘I must not say “bang bust” or “pig bucket”, for it is rude.’

We were given very little pocket-money – a penny a week with a rise to twopence at the age of twelve or so – and encouraged to give part at least of any odd money that came to us from uncles or other visitors to Dr Barnardo’s Homes, and to beggars. A blind beggar used to sit on the Wimbledon Hill pavement, reading the Bible aloud in Braille; he was not really blind, but could turn up his eyes and keep the pupils concealed for minutes at a time under drooping lids, which were artificially inflamed. We often gave to him. He died a rich man, and had been able to provide his son with a college education.

The first distinguished writer I remember meeting after Swinburne was P. G. Wodehouse, a friend of my brother Perceval. Wodehouse was then in his early twenties, on the staff of The Globe, and writing school-stories for The Captain magazine. He gave me a penny, advising me to get marshmallows with it. Though too shy to express my gratitude at the time, I have never since permitted myself to be critical about his work.

I had great religious fervour, which persisted until shortly after my confirmation at the age of sixteen, and remember the incredulity with which I first heard that there actually were people, people baptized like myself into the Church of England, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity. I had never met an unbeliever.

Though I have asked many of my acquaintances at what stage in their childhood or adolescence they became class-conscious none has ever given me a satisfactory answer. I remember how it happened to me. At the age of four and a half I caught scarlet fever; my younger brother had just been born, and I could not be nursed at home, so my parents sent me off to a public fever hospital. The ward contained twenty little proletarians, and only one bourgeois child besides myself. I did not notice particularly that the nurses and my fellow-patients had a different attitude towards me; I accepted the kindness and spoiling easily, being accustomed to it. But the respect and even reverence given to this other little boy, a clergyman’s child, astonished me. ‘Oh,’ the nurses would cry after he had gone, ‘oh, he did look a little gentleman in his pretty white pelisse when they took him away!’ ‘That young Matthew was a fair toff,’ echoed the little proletarians. On my return from two months in hospital, my accent was deplored, and I learned that the boys in the ward had been very vulgar. I did not know what ‘vulgar’ meant; it had to be explained to me. About a year later I met Arthur, a boy of nine, who had been in the ward and taught me how to play cricket when we were convalescent together. He turned out to be a ragged errand-boy. In hospital, we had all worn the same institutional night-gowns, and I did not know that we came off such different shelves. But I suddenly realized with my first shudder of gentility that two sorts of Christians existed – ourselves, and the lower classes. The servants were trained to call us children, even when we were tiny, ‘Master Robert’, ‘Miss Rosaleen’, and ‘Miss Clarissa’, but I had not recognized these as titles of respect. I had thought of ‘Master’ and ‘Miss’ merely as vocative prefixes used for addressing other people’s children; but now I found that the servants were the lower classes, and that we were ‘ourselves’.

I accepted this class separation as naturally as I had accepted religious dogma, and did not finally discard it until nearly twenty years later. My parents were never of the aggressive, shoot-’em-down type, but Liberals or, more strictly, Liberal-Unionists. In religious theory, at least, they treated their employees as fellow-creatures; but social distinctions remained clearly defined. The hymn-book sanctioned these:

He made them high or lowly,
And ordered their estates …

I can well recall the tone of my mother’s voice when she informed the maids that they could have what was left of the pudding, or scolded the cook for some carelessness. It had a forced hardness, made almost harsh by embarrassment. My mother, being gemütlich by nature, would, I believe, have loved to dispense with servants altogether. They seemed a foreign body in the house. I remember the servants’ bedrooms. They were on the top landing, at the dullest side of the house, and by a convention of the times, the only rooms without carpets or linoleum. Those gaunt, unfriendly-looking beds and the hanging-cupboards with faded cotton curtains, instead of wardrobes with glass doors as in the other rooms. All this uncouthness made me think of the servants as somehow not quite human. Besides, the servants who came to us were distinctly below the average standard; only those with no particularly good references would apply for a situation in a family of ten. And because we had such a large house, and hardly a single person in the household kept his or her room tidy, they were constantly giving notice. Too much work, they said.

Our nurse made a bridge between the servants and ourselves. She gave us her own passport immediately on arrival: ‘Emily Dykes is my name; England is my nation; Netheravon is my dwelling-place; and Christ is my salvation.’ Though calling us Miss and Master, she used no menial tone. In a practical way Emily came to be more to us than our mother. I did not despise her until about the age of twelve – she was then nurse to my younger brothers – when I found that my education now exceeded hers, and that if I struggled with her I could trip her up and bruise her quite easily. Besides, she went to a Baptist chapel; I had learned by that time that the Baptists were, like the Wesleyans and Congregationalists, the social inferiors of the Church of England.

My mother taught me a horror of Roman Catholicism, which I retained for a very long time. In fact, I discarded Protestantism not because I had outgrown its ethics, but in horror of its Catholic element. My religious training developed in me a great capacity for fear – I was perpetually tortured by the fear of hell – a superstitious conscience, and a sexual embarrassment from which I have found it very difficult to free myself.

The last thing that Protestants lose when they cease to believe is a vision of Christ as the perfect man. That persisted with me, sentimentally, for years. At the age of eighteen I wrote a poem called ‘In the Wilderness’, about Christ greeting the scapegoat as it roamed the desert – which, of course, would have been impossible since the scapegoat always got pushed over a cliff by its Levite attendants. ‘In the Wilderness’ has since appeared in at least seventy anthologies. Strangers are always writing to me to say how much strength it has given them, and would I, etc.?


I went to several preparatory schools, beginning at the age of six. The very first was a dame’s school at Wimbledon, but my father, as an educational expert, would not let me stay there long. He found me crying one day at the difficulty of the twenty-three-times table, and disapproved of a Question and Answer history book that we used, which began:

Question: Why were the Britons so called?
Answer: Because they painted themselves blue.

Also, they made me do mental arithmetic to a metronome; I once wetted myself with nervousness under this torture. So my father sent me to King’s College School, Wimbledon. I was just seven years old, the youngest boy there, and they went up to nineteen. My father took me away after a couple of terms because he heard me using naughty words, and because I did not understand the lessons. I had started Latin, but nobody explained what ‘Latin’ meant; its declensions and conjugations were pure incantations to me. For that matter, so were the strings of naughty words. And I felt oppressed by the huge hall, the enormous boys, the frightening rowdiness of the corridors, and compulsory Rugby football of which nobody told me the rules. From there I went to Rokeby, a preparatory school of the ordinary type, also at Wimbledon, where I stayed for about three years. Here I began playing games seriously, grew quarrelsome, boastful, and domineering, won prizes, and collected things. The main difference between myself and the other boys was that I collected coins instead of stamps. The value of coins seemed less fictitious to me. The headmaster caned me only once: for forgetting to bring my gym-shoes to school, and then gave me no more than two strokes on the hand. Yet even now the memory makes me hot with resentment. My serious training as a gentleman began here.

I seem to have left out one school – Penrallt, right away in the hills behind Llanbedr. I had never been away from home before. I went there just for a term, for my health. Here I had my first beating. The headmaster, a parson, caned me on the bottom because I learned the wrong collect one Sunday by mistake. I had never before come upon forcible training in religion. At my dame’s school we learned collects too, but were not punished for mistakes; we competed for prizes – ornamental texts to take home and hang over our beds. A boy at Penrallt called Ronny was the greatest hero I had ever met. He had a house at the top of a pine-tree which nobody else could climb, and a huge knife, made from the tip of a scythe which he had stolen; and he killed pigeons with a catapult, cooked them, and ate them in the tree-house. Ronny treated me very kindly; he went into the Navy afterwards, deserted on his first voyage, and, we were told, was never heard of again. He used to steal rides on cows and horses which he found in the fields. At Penrallt I found a book that had the ballads of ‘Chevy Chase’ and ‘Sir Andrew Barton’ in it; these were the first two real poems I remember reading. I saw how good they were. But, on the other hand, there was an open-air swimming bath where all the boys bathed naked, and I was overcome by horror at the sight. One boy of nineteen had red hair, real bad, Irish, red hair all over his body. I did not know that hair grew on bodies. Also, the headmaster had a little daughter with a little girl friend, and I sweated with terror whenever I met them; because, having no brothers, they once tried to find out about male anatomy from me by exploring down my shirt-neck when we were digging up pig-nuts in the garden.

Another frightening experience from this part of my life. I once had to wait in the school cloak-room for my sisters, who went to the Wimbledon High School. We were going on to be photographed together. I waited for perhaps a quarter of an hour in a corner of the cloak-room. I must have been ten years old, and hundreds and hundreds of girls went to and fro; they all looked at me and giggled, and whispered to one another. I knew they hated me because I was a boy sitting in the cloak-room of a girls’ school; and my sisters, when they arrived, looked ashamed of me and seemed quite different from the sisters I knew at home. I had blundered into a secret world, and for months and even years afterwards my worst nightmares were of this girls’ school, which was always filled with coloured toy balloons. ‘Very Freudian’, as one says now. My normal impulses were set back for years by these two experiences. In 1912, we spent our Christmas holidays in Brussels. An Irish girl staying at the same pension made love to me in a way that, I see now, was really very sweet. It frightened me so much, I could have killed her.

In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion. For every one born homosexual, at least ten permanent pseudo-homosexuals are made by the public school system: nine of these ten as honourably chaste and sentimental as I was.

I left the day-school at Wimbledon because my father decided that the standard of work was not high enough to get me a scholarship at a public school. He sent me to another preparatory school at Rugby, where the headmaster’s wife happened to be a sister of an old literary friend of his. I did not like the place. There was a secret about the headmaster which some of the elder boys shared – a somehow sinister secret. Nobody ever let me into it, but he came weeping into the class-room one day, beating his head with his fists, and groaning: ‘Would to God I hadn’t done it! Would to God I hadn’t done it!’ My father took me away suddenly, a week later. The headmaster, having been given twenty-four hours to leave the country, was succeeded by the second master – a good man, who had taught me how to write English by eliminating all phrases that could be done without, and using verbs and nouns instead of adjectives and adverbs wherever possible. And when to start new paragraphs, and the difference between ‘O’ and ‘Oh’. Mr Lush was a very heavy man, who used to stand at his desk and lean on his thumbs until they bent at right angles. A fortnight after taking over the school, he fell out of a train on his head, and that was the end of him; but the school seems to be still in being. I am occasionally asked to subscribe to Old Boys’ funds for memorial windows and miniature rifle ranges and so on.

I first learned rugger here. What surprised me most at this school was when a boy of about twelve, whose father and mother were in India, heard by cable that they had both suddenly died of cholera. We all watched him sympathetically for weeks after, expecting him to die of grief, or turn black in the face, or do something to match the occasion. Yet he seemed entirely unmoved, and because nobody dared discuss the tragedy with him he seemed oblivious of it – playing about and ragging just as he had done before. We found that rather monstrous. But he had not seen his parents for two years; and preparatory schoolboys live in a world completely dissociated from home life. They have a different vocabulary, a different moral system, even different voices. On their return to school from the holidays the change-over from home-self to school-self is almost instantaneous, whereas the reverse process takes a fortnight at least. A preparatory schoolboy, when caught off his guard, will call his mother ‘Please, matron,’ and always addresses any male relative or friend of the family as ‘Sir’, like a master. I used to do it. School life becomes the reality, and home life the illusion. In England, parents of the governing classes virtually lose all intimate touch with their children from about the age of eight, and any attempts on their parts to insinuate home feeling into school life are resented.

Next, I went to Copdiorne, a typically good school in Sussex. The headmaster had been chary of admitting me at my age, particularly since I came from a school with such a bad recent history. However, family literary connexions did the trick, and the headmaster saw that I could win a scholarship if he took trouble over me. The depressed state I had been in ended the moment I arrived. My younger brother Charles followed me to this school, being taken away from the day-school at Wimbledon; and, later, my youngest brother John went there straight from home. How good and typical the school was can be seen in the case of John, a typical, good, normal person who, as I say, went straight there from home. He spent five or six years at Copthorne – played in the elevens – got the top scholarship at a public school, became head-boy with athletic distinctions, won a scholarship at Oxford and further athletic distinctions – and a good degree – and then, what did he do? Because he was such a typically good, normal person he naturally went back as a master to his old, typically good preparatory school, and now that he has been there some years and needs a change, he is applying for a mastership at his old public school. If he gets it, and becomes a housemaster after a few years, he will at last, I suppose, become a headmaster and eventually take the next step as head of his old college at Oxford. That is the sort of typically good preparatory school it was.

There I learned to keep a straight bat at cricket, and to have a high moral sense; and mastered my fifth different pronunciation of Latin, and my fifth or sixth different way of doing simple arithmetic. They put me into the top class, and I got a scholarship – in fact, I got the first scholarship of the year. At Charterhouse. And why at Charterhouse? Because of íστημι and íημι. Charterhouse was the only public school whose scholarship examination did not contain a Greek grammar paper and, though smart enough at Greek Unseen and Greek composition, I could not conjugate íστημι and íημι conventionally. But for these two verbs, I should almost certainly have gone to the very different atmosphere of Winchester.


My mother took us abroad to stay at my grandfather’s house in Germany five times between my second and twelfth year. Then he died, and we never went again. He owned a big old manor-house at Deisenhofen, ten miles from Munich; by name ‘Laufzorn’, which means ‘Begone, anger!’ Our summers there were easily the best things of my early childhood. Pine forests and hot sun, red deer, black and red squirrels, acres of blueberries and wild strawberries; nine or ten different kinds of edible mushrooms which we went into the forest to pick, and unfamiliar flowers in the fields – Munich lies high, and outcrops of Alpine flowers occur here and there; a farm with all the usual animals except sheep; drives through the countryside in a brake behind my grandfather’s greys; and bathing in the Isar under a waterfall. The Isar was bright green, and said to be the fastest river of Europe. We used to visit the uncles who kept a peacock farm a few miles away; and a grand-uncle, Johannes von Ranke, the ethnologist, who lived on the lakeshore of Tegernsee, where everyone had buttercup-blonde hair; and occasionally my Aunt Agnes, Freifrau Baronin von Aufsess of Aufsess Castle, some hours away by train, high up in the Bavarian Alps.

Aufsess, built in the ninth century, stood so remote that it had never been sacked, but remained Aufsess property ever since. To the original building, a keep with only a ladder-entrance half-way up, a medieval castle had been added. Its treasures of plate and armour were amazing. My Uncle Siegfried showed us children the chapel: its walls hung with enamelled shields of each Aufsess baron, impaled with the arms of the noble family into which he had married. He pointed to a stone in the floor which pulled up by a ring, and said: ‘That is the family vault where all Aufsesses go when they die. I’ll be down there one day.’ He scowled comically. (But he got killed in the war as an officer of the Imperial German Staff and, I believe, they never found his body.) Uncle Siegfried had a peculiar sense of humour. One day we children saw him on the garden path, eating pebbles. He told us to go away, but of course we stayed, sat down, and tried to eat pebbles too; only to be told very seriously that children should not eat pebbles: we would break our teeth. We agreed, after trying one or two; so he chose us each a pebble which looked just like all the rest, but which crushed easily and had a chocolate centre. This was on condition that we went away and left him to his picking and crunching. When we returned, later in the day, we searched and searched, but found only the ordinary hard pebbles. He never once let us down in a joke.

Among the castle treasures were a baby’s lace cap that had taken two years to make; and a wine glass which my uncle’s old father had noticed in the Franco-Prussian War standing upright in the middle of the square in an entirely ruined French village. For dinner, when we went there, we ate some enormous trout. My father, a practised fisherman, asked my uncle in astonishment where they came from. He explained that an underground river welled up close to the castle, and the fish which emerged with it were quite white from the darkness, of extraordinary size, and stone-blind.

They also gave us jam made of wild rose-berries, which they called ‘Hetchi-Petch’, and showed us an iron chest in a small, thick-walled, white-washed room at the top of the keep – a tremendous chest, twice the size of the door, and obviously made inside the room, which had no windows except arrow-slits. It had two keys, and must have been twelfth- or thirteenth-century work. Tradition ruled that it should never be opened, unless the castle stood in the most extreme danger. The baron held one key; his steward, the other. The chest could be opened only by using both keys, and nobody