In 1976, Larry Buttrose, an Australian playwright and poet, journeyed to Deya, on the Spanish island of Majorca, to seek out the then 81-year-old British poet, author and classicist, Robert Graves, renowned for his historical novels, notably I, Claudius and Claudius The God, a memoir, Goodbye To All That, and a ‘speculative study of poetic inspiration’, The White Goddess.
I stepped out onto the steep cobbled street outside the Villa Verde. I had arrived at the hostel’s door in the wilting afternoon heat of the day before, after having taken the overnight ferry from Barcelona, and the bus up from Palma, along with the locals in breeches and headscarves carrying bound, clucking chickens on their laps.
I strolled down towards the centre of the village and the Cafe Del Monde. The hostal keeper had told me everyone in Deya spends at least an hour or so there every day, and thought it would be as good a place as any to begin my quest. After all the hitches and delays of my time back in Barcelona waiting for the letter from Graves’s secretary that hadn’t come, I sensed now the final obstacle might just be overcome.
I had only walked some twenty metres down from the Villa Verde when I saw a pale, pink-faced man staring absent-mindedly out his front window onto the laneway, drying teacups with a white tea-towel. I greeted him and he responded with a smile. He turned out to be English, quite. I explained that I was visiting Deya hoping to meet the poet Robert Graves. He replied that Robert would be calling for tea in less than half an hour, and would I be so kind as to join them.
Martin embodied Robert Morley in the role of Oscar Wilde. Affable and arch in strictly equal amounts, his vocation was writing musical comedies for children, the scores of which were scattered throughout his stone cottage. The front room was dominated by an enormous oak table, which I saw was set for tea: bread, butter, tea cups, saucers and plates, and jam, Martin confided, made by Robert’s wife, Beryl.
He prepared a pot of tea, taking his in staccato sips. This was, he informed me, probably the finest tea in the entire world, a vestige of contacts between his family and Asian traders going back quite some time. As he spoke, over his shoulder I saw a huge bank of cloud, entirely black, swirl in across the escarpment that soared behind the village and blot out the sky in a moment.
Regulars at his long-running daily tea party, Martin continued on, included Colin Wilson, Robert of course, and a miscellany of Huxleys. He stopped speaking just then and turned to the glass-panelled front door, where an old man stood outside, smiling. He was rigged out in the style almost of an actor, in white suit, black Spanish felt hat, and a blue-striped vest with silver buttons. The facial features were as he once himself related: nose bent, lips full but ascetic, eyes blue, wide and clear.
‘I think it will rain. Do you think it will rain?’ His words came in a lilting rush, trilled like a child’s, with a similar earnestness.
‘I don’t know Robert,’ Martin sighed, ‘but do come in.’
Over tea, Graves spoke at length of the weather, of what it had been like the day before, what might eventuate today, and predictions for tomorrow. There seemed a fitting sense of propriety to it though: a poet, a great poet, at the end of his life, quietly obsessing about the weather over tea.
After taking our leave from Martin we walked through the village out to his house, about a kilometre away. The storm clouds vanished from the peak as suddenly as they had come, and the afternoon sun was hot. We toiled up a long slow rise past olive groves, until he bounded on ahead of me, instantly playful.He regarded it as a wonderful joke that he could easily outdistance this visitor more than half a century his junior. He was a very fit man, particularly for one reported dead from war wounds sixty years previously.
‘Poets these days,’ he said, ‘not much knowledge.’
The house was in the local style, double-storey sandstone with green shutters. Gardens flourished about it and a cool neatness within. I met his wife Beryl, a charming no-nonsense woman, who politely requested I not to tire him with too much talk. He had only returned from London that day, where he had been attending the shooting of the BBC’s television adaptation of I, Claudius.
I enquired about his secretary, with whom I had made the initial arrangements for my visit. I had first written, entirely out of the blue, from Adelaide, with my request, enclosing half a dozen of my poems, and had been astonished when a reply had soon come that Mr Graves would see me. But after arriving in Spain I had received no further word, and crucially nothing awaited me at Poste-Restante in Barcelona, as had been agreed, regarding the timing of my visit. I had come somewhat to enjoy the waiting though, it had to be admitted, immersing myself in the piquantly perilous demi-monde of Barcelona.
Beryl answered that the secretary had left them some weeks previously. I realised that my letters, addressed to her by name, would have followed her all the way to her new post, somewhere in Switzerland.
I went into the living room where Graves was seated in an armchair. He pointed out a book on a shelf, and I brought it to him. It was his Five Pens In Hand, a collection of criticism and essays I had read. He pointed with a craggy forefinger to a page and I read selections out loud as he requested: On Pope: ‘A sedulous ape’. On Shelley: ‘Voice is too shrill’. On Wordsworth: ‘He disowned and betrayed his Muse.’ On Pound: ‘Cloacal ranting, snoot-cocking, pseudo-professorial jargon.’ On Dylan Thomas: ‘He gave his radio audiences what they wanted.’ On Eliot: ‘His poetic heart has died and has been given a separate funeral, but he continues to visit the grave wistfully and lay flowers on it.’ And on Auden: ‘The prescribed style of the 50s – compounded of all the personal styles available.’
I looked up at him, and saw he was watching me closely. The smile of a cheeky child was upon his lips. His eyes were cloudless skies. The rough old skin around his mouth bunched as he let out a laugh. The forefinger left the book, and pointed to his own forehead with its wisps of white hair on end. ‘Poets these days,’ he said, ‘not much knowledge.’
I wished to defend Shelley and his voice, debate Eliot’s mournful wreaths and Pound’s ranting and Auden’s style, but he had passed on. His eyes were on the window now, fixed on the distant escarpment, where again storm clouds jostled. The range was dark as the slopes of Harlech he had once climbed: I imagined him back there now, a young man alone up where the vapours swirled.
Beryl came in with tea on a tray and sat with us, but Robert’s attention remained fixed on the window. Then apparently tuning back in to the room, he turned and asked where I was travelling next. I said I intended going to Ireland, that I had ancestors from there. He looked at me, entirely lucid now, with real concern on his features: ‘You’re not Catholic are you?’
‘Certainly not,’ I replied, feigning shock. He laughed at this, as did Beryl. Nonetheless they seemed genuinely relieved, for my sake. ‘Anything but,’ I added. He gave me a slight nod, and another childlike smile.
‘I came here to request your Poet’s Blessing,’ I said. The words sounded too loud to me as I spoke them, and hung in the air.
Graves looked at me once more. This time it was a stare, of scrutiny, one which assessed me utterly – my youth, my doubts and faults, my all-too obvious naiveté. Yet, he nodded.
‘You have it,’ he said.
Not long after, I walked back out through the gardens and out gate, and started the walk back to the village. It was hot again. For the second time in the afternoon the clouds had vanished from the mountain and the sun was strong. Perhaps there was something to the weather worth his attention after all.
Larry Buttrose is a writer living in Sydney. His novel about a young poet travelling to Spain to meet Robert Graves, The Muse of the Maze, is published by BryshaWilson Press. The photo above is of Buttrose with Robert Graves, in Deya, Mallorca, July 1976.