The Pier-Glass (1921) is the third book of poems by Robert Graves, or sixth if I count three chapbooks. That’s a book of some kind every year since 1916. The Pier-Glass is only fifty-three pages, counting just the poems, heading towards chapbook territory. Graves, judging by his bibliography, hustles at this pace as a poet for another ten years, and then only somewhat more slowly for another forty.
The memoir and novels and all of the Greek stuff is in the future. Graves is still a charming poet. The great devotee of the White Goddess has begun to show himself, though, just barely, as in the poem “Raising the Stone,” in which druids are raising a menhir by moonlight. It topples, crushing one of them,
but we who live raise a shrill chant
Of joy for sacrifice cleansing us all.
Once more we heave. Erect in earth we plant,
The interpreter of our dumb furious call,
Outraging Heaven, pointing
“I want, I want.”
Less charming than terrifying, and an inversion of William Blake’s engraving.
The next poem, “The Treasure Box,” is Graves at his most charming. “Ann in chill moonlight” – just like the ancient druids – “unlocks \ Her polished brassbound treasure-box.” Most of the poem is just a list of the treasures: ribbons tied in a knot, little gloves that “fold in a walnut shell,” dried flowers, a scrap of lace,
A Chelsea gift-bird; a toy whistle;
A halfpenny stamped with the Scots thistle…
Are these the treasures of a child?
Her mother’s thin-worn wedding ring;
A straw box full of hard smooth sweets;
A book, the Poems of John Keats…
No, not a child. An older woman. There is also a packet of letters, the greatest treasure, the record of an old love affair so sad that, when the woman tries to read them by moonlight, “the old moon blinks \ And softly from the window shrinks.”
In “The Troll’s Nosegay,” a troll picks a bouquet; in “The Pier-Glass” an old ghost is saved from despair by bees; in “The Gnat” a tormented shepherd, thinking he is dying, murders his beloved horse. Graves the poet has a strong narrative imagination, an odd one. I always enjoyed the surprises of his little stories even when I was not sure what they meant.
The last poem, “The Coronation Murder,” is perhaps oddest of all. It is in four parts, from four points of view: the woman who murders the lecherous, “rat-soul’d” Becker; the victim himself – “His bones are tufted with mildew”; his son, who confronts his father’s ghost; and a parrot, who hears the woman confess in her sleep and thus reveals her crime, maybe:
Soon, when sunlight warms his cage,
He plots to cheer the passers-by
With burlesque of murderous rage,
Acting how his victims die:
Thus he stabs ‘em; there, they lie.
It’s a revenge tragedy in five pages. The war is over, and Graves is no longer a trench poet, but some kind of war continues.