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Seven Days in New Crete

Robert Graves


  Seven Days in New Crete



  Chapter I The Evocation

  Chapter II The Five Estates

  Chapter III Love in New Crete

  Chapter IV The Origin of New Crete

  Chapter V Take a Look at Our World

  Chapter VI Erica

  Chapter VII The Record House

  Chapter VIII The Brutch

  Chapter IX The Santrepod

  Chapter X Market Day at Sanjon

  Chapter XI War is Declared

  Chapter XII Battle is Joined

  Chapter XIII The Peace Supper

  Chapter XIV The Pattern

  Chapter XV The Break

  Chapter XVI Quant

  Chapter XVII Who is Edward?

  Chapter XVIII The Nonsense House

  Chapter XIX The Rising Wind

  Chapter XX The Sights of Dunrena

  Chapter XXI The Wild Women

  Chapter XXII The Whirlwind


  Seven Days in New Crete

  Robert Graves was born in 1895 in Wimbledon, the son of Irish writer Perceval Graves and Amalia Von Ranke. He went from school to the First World War, where he became a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme. After that, apart from a year as Professor of English Literature at Cairo University in 1926, he earned his living by writing. His mostly historical novels 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 was soon established 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 works are The White Goddess, a study of poetic inspiration, and The Nazarine Gospel Restored (with Joshua Podro), an examination of primitive Christianity. He also translated or co-translated Apuleius, Lucan, Suetonius and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám for Penguin, and compiled the first modern dictionary of Greek Mythology, The Greek Myths. 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 memoirist, but above all as the great paradigm of the dedicated poet, “the greatest love poet in English since Donne”.’ His Complete Poems, as well as many of his novels, is published in Penguin Classics.

  Chapter I

  The Evocation

  ‘I am an authority on English,’ the man in the white suit said in a curiously colourless accent and with a good deal of hesitation, like an authority on Sanscrit trying to talk conversational Sanscrit. ‘I hope that you will pardon us for having brought you so far, i.e., so many generations ahead of your epoch. You are Mr Edward Venn-Thomas, are you not?’

  I nodded, still a little confused by the sudden change of scene but wide awake.

  ‘Do I speak with correctitude?’ he asked anxiously.

  ‘With great correctitude,’ I assured him, trying not to smile, ‘but without the modulations of tone that we English use to express, or disguise, our feelings.’

  ‘It is convenient to disregard such trivia; I understand that the scholars of your day similarly disregarded the modulations of ancient Greek. But I must not trouble you with fine points like these.’

  ‘No trouble at all. The finer the point, the happier it makes me. I’m even ready to discuss ancient Greek modulations.’

  ‘You are very kind, but I am not an authority on Greek, I regret. However, Sir, there is one question that my colleague Quant and I have been debating during the last few days – we are entrusted, you must know, with the revision of the English Dictionary. On the evidence of the Liverpool find of Christmas cards, in which occurred such couplets as:

  Just to hope the day keeps fine

  For you and yours this Christmas time,


  I hope this stocking’s in your line

  When stars shine bright at Christmas-time.

  I hold that “Christmas-time” was often pronounced “Christmas-tine”, and that this is a dialect variant of the older “Christmas-tide”. Quant denies this, with a warmth that is unusual in him.’

  ‘Quant is right.’

  ‘Oh, that is very disappointing to me. I thought that I had made a discovery of value.’

  ‘Who are you? Where am I?’

  ‘Did I not make myself clear, viz. that I am a student of European languages of the Late Christian epoch and an authority on the English language? As for your whereabouts, if you look out of the window you will perhaps recognize this district.’

  Yes, the district was familiar. That rocky headland, the low hill, with the church of Sainte Véronique on the top – except that it was not the same church, and perhaps not a church at all. But the Mediterranean had retreated a mile or more, a broad belt of farmland stretched nearly to the horizon, and the bare hills were now covered with trees. I thought they looked much better this way and told the man so.

  ‘How did I come here?’ I asked.

  ‘You remember nothing?’

  ‘Nothing at all.’

  ‘Incantations were chanted over a fire from dawn until midday, and when you appeared you were nicely invited to visit us. You replied that you had no objection, though the future did not really interest you.’

  ‘It doesn’t. By the way, I’m not dead, am I?’

  ‘No, we have summoned you from the living. The dead are, nem. con., dead. You have still some years to live.’

  ‘Then please tell me nothing about my immediate future. That would spoil the story as I have to live it day by day.’

  ‘As you wish, Sir.’

  ‘And I don’t particularly want to know exactly how many hundreds of years I’ve been taken into the future. It might make me feel uncomfortably primitive.’

  ‘As you wish, Sir.’

  ‘Why have I been summoned?’

  ‘The poets want to pose you a few questions about the Late Christian epoch, which has a certain melancholy fascination for us. Your answers, if you care to yield them, will be preserved in our records.’

  ‘Do you make a habit of raising people from the past?’

  ‘No, Sir. Our witches have not long perfected the technique and you are the first person raised from so early an epoch as the Late Christian, except for your uncle and namesake, who was raised one week ago in mistake for you. He was surprised and confused, because you had not been born at the time; but he answered us nicely enough.’

  ‘I bet Uncle Edward gave nothing away; he was a diplomat of the old school. But why have you summoned me rather than anyone else?’

  ‘Whom else in your epoch would you have had the witch summon?’

  ‘Well, I don’t know… Someone with a greater knowledge of contemporary affairs than myself. I am neither a scientist, nor a statistician, nor the editor of an encyclopaedia. Not even a trained historian.’

  ‘We chose you because one of your poems, viz. Recantation, happens to have survived to our day and you are known to have dwelt hereabouts.’

  ‘Are you a poet?’

  He looked a little crestfallen at having to repeat himself again. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I am an authority on the grammar and syntax of the English language in the Late Christian epoch. The ladies and the poets await you in the next room. My task is to introduce you to them and
act as your interpreter. How do you feel? Are you dizzy?’

  ‘I’m very well, thank you. And I like this room: it reminds me of our Georgian style. Restful, solid, well-proportioned – though, of course, proportions don’t change with the ages, so I’m not really surprised. But no pictures; why no pictures?’

  ‘What sort of pictures would you desire?’

  ‘Oh, I don’t know. Family portraits, for example.’

  ‘Isn’t it stupid to record a face as it gazes today, when after a few seasons it will gaze differently?’

  ‘Landscapes, then.’

  ‘It’s surely easier and preferable to admire a landscape in the original?’ I dropped the subject. ‘I see that you still burn wood in your grates,’ I said. ‘Prophets of my epoch have promised a future in which atomic energy will supersede wood, coal and electricity in domestic heating.’

  ‘That was a very temporary future, and, according to the Brief History, not at all a happy one. Would you care to drink?’

  ‘What have you got? A glass of wine, and a biscuit?’ It was a test question.

  ‘I will consult the ladies of the house. Since you are a visitor from the past it would be inhospitable to deny you wine if you need it. But we should all feel more comfortable if you would consent to drink, e.g., a glass of lager instead. This is not the hour in which we drink wine. Wine, like meat, is reserved for festivals. But the lager is good.’

  ‘Heavens,’ I said, ‘it’s all the same to me! Lager, by all means.’

  He smiled gratefully, went out and soon came back with a glass of lager and some salt-pretzels on a plate. ‘This is the servants’ holiday, otherwise they would have served you,’ he explained. ‘But this made it a convenient day for your evocation. Soon they will return.’

  The lager was very good indeed. So were the pretzels.

  ‘I wish I could take this plate back to my period,’ I said, ‘and this glass. Are they valuable?’

  It took him some time to adjust his mind to this question. Finally he said: ‘If you mean: “are they valued as worthy of daily use?” the answer is, that we use no objects that are not so valued; though the different estates, i.e., classes, of our society acknowledge and confess different sets of values. It is, indeed, the discrepancy in values that distinguishes the estates. This glass and plate are of the sort valued as worthy of daily use by what one might call the magician estate: I do not admire these objects at all.’

  ‘Well, I do. But what I meant was: do they cost a lot of money?’

  ‘Money?’ he said. ‘Ah, no! Money went out of use long, long ago. It misbehaved, you see.’

  ‘Too true it did! What do you use instead – coupons?’

  ‘Oh, no, no, no! Not coupons.’


  He threw up his hands. ‘Please, Sir, would you mind coming into the next chamber, where the ladies and the poets are waiting.’

  We went into the room where two women and three men sat quietly around another fire. ‘Introduce me, please,’ I said to the Interpreter, with a slight bow to the company.

  The men were already on their feet. They returned my bow. The women, who were almost embarrassingly good-looking, remained seated, smiling pleasantly. The Interpreter explained: ‘We no longer name people publicly as in your epoch; we give only nicknames, or titles. This lady is a witch. No, please, we do not shake hands here.’

  The witch, who reminded me strongly of Marlene Dietrich, seemed amused by my open-handed advance but said nothing.

  ‘Her nickname is “Leaf-of-the-Sallow”, or “Sally” for short.’

  ‘Miss or Mrs?’

  ‘I beg pardon?’

  I explained.

  ‘Oh, no. Distinctions of that sort exist only among the commons, not here.’

  ‘Not among the poets and other magicians, you mean?’

  ‘Yes, that is right. Here, as we say, the house chooses the man, not the man the house; i.e., the women who rule a house do not derive a title from their congress with men.’

  ‘Assure the witch that I intended no offence,’ I told the Interpreter.

  ‘This quiet young lady is – well, she is a nymph – a nymph of the month. But perhaps you will not understand the meaning of nymph? We call her by her jewel title, viz: Sapphire.’

  They were speaking a language based on Catalan – my mother came from Catalonia – but it had a good deal of English in it, with some Gaelic and a little Slav, and though they spoke with dignified slowness, I could not at first follow the conversation.

  The three men had nicknames that reminded me of the Red Indians: ‘See-a-Bird’, ‘Fig-bread’, and ‘Starfish’. They were poets, and also magicians. See-a-Bird was a tall, gentle, oldish man; Fig-bread and Starfish, who were in their late twenties, looked like brothers – both dark-eyed, broad-shouldered, slim and earnest.

  ‘You have invited me to answer some questions…’ I said.

  Sally caught Starfish’s eye and he asked a question for her: ‘Do you like us?’

  ‘Very much.’ I meant it.

  There was a murmur of relief. The Interpreter explained: ‘Our conversation can continue now. If you had hesitated, or if we had twigged a false note in your voice, we should have apologized and returned you to your epoch without a further question.’


  ‘Conversations between persons who do not like one another’s selves are always sterile,’ he said with a consequential cough.

  ‘Who would have recognized the false note?’

  He seemed surprised. ‘Everyone. This company are all magicians.’

  Fig-bread looked about him for permission to speak next. ‘How does it feel,’ he asked, ‘to be a poet of the Late Christian epoch?’

  This was so wide a question that I was silent for half a minute. Then I answered guardedly: ‘Do you wish me to compare it with the Early Christian or with the pre-Christian epochs? You can’t expect a comparison with your own – by the way, what do you call it?’

  ‘This is the New Cretan epoch.’

  ‘– Well, you can’t expect a comparison with your New Cretan epoch, of which as yet I know nothing.’

  ‘It would be best to avoid comparisons. Nobody can speak for any age but his own.’

  ‘Then may I say simply that I dislike mine? Or would you regard that as a confession of stupidity?’

  ‘If you are happy in your personal friendships and still dislike your age, that is merely to indict it as one of violent change. Change must always be painful.’

  ‘Thank you for putting it like that. By the way, how long is the Late Christian epoch to last?’

  They consulted together, and the Interpreter reported: ‘According to the Brief History, Sir, you still have several Popes to be elected. We date the end of the Christian Era from that of the Papacy, though Christianity itself persists in multifarious forms for many generations ahead of you.’

  ‘Oh? And who suppressed the Papacy?’ I asked with rising interest.

  ‘Its seat was transferred from Rome to San Francisco at a juncture of great wars, and it was suppressed a generation or two later by the Pantisocrats, or Levellers, of North America. Hadrian VIII and Pius XVI were the ultimate Popes. Then a World Council of Churches, convoked at Pittsburgh, agreed to distinguish the Israelite Jesus from Christ the God, whom they abolished by a majority vote, just as he had been established by a majority vote at the Council of Nicaea, and to regard him as the first Pantisocrat. This notwithstanding, the Christ was much longer retained by the heretical Mystiques, a French-speaking secret sect of Canada, as the Second Person of their Trinity; though they addressed him as “Peace”, not “Christ”, in part for security reasons, in part because they wished to dissociate themselves from concern with the Israelite Jesus, and because “Jesus” and “Christ” had become synonymous in popular usage. But I now hold my peace, since the future does not interest you, and since all that I was asked to provide was a temporal definition of the Late Christian epoch.’

sp; ‘Perhaps that’s just as well. But you mustn’t think that what I said about the future implies that I don’t enjoy this future. I meant that, in my age, to speculate on a futurity to which we don’t belong and which we have no means of forecasting – we can’t even forecast the prevailing winds for more than a day ahead – distracts attention from the present and often deranges people’s minds. To have foreknowledge of even unimportant events, such as the results of horse-races not yet run, would put me at an embarrassing advantage over my contemporaries.’

  ‘None of us will volunteer any unsettling information,’ said Sally.

  ‘You must understand,’ I began a little nervously, ‘that to be a poet is something of an anachronism in my age, when none of the people’s main interests have anything even indirectly to do with poetry. I mean, for example, money and sport and religion and politics and science.’

  ‘Are all these exclusive interests?’ Fig-bread asked heavily, leaning forward in his leather armchair.

  ‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘not exclusive, certainly not exclusive.’ Fig-bread’s dark serious eyes made me feel rather a cheap-jack as I rattled on. ‘In theory, a businessman puts money before everything in the world: in war-time he might even sell arms to an enemy power for use against his own country. An out-and-out communist, the most active type of politician, puts communism before everything: he is prepared even to denounce his own parents or children for “bourgeois activities”. A religious fanatic will give all he has to the poor and die happily in a ditch. An out-and-out scientist would be pleased to blow up the earth on which he lives, merely to demonstrate a particular theory of atomic energy. But, in practice, the communist may also be a scientist, the businessman may teach in a Christian Sunday-school, the Christian may also be a communist, the scientist may be in trade. And all may be sportsmen. It is confusing, I admit. Well – poetry is not worth buying and selling on a large scale, so the businessman shows no interest in it. The communist condemns it as an individualistic divergence from marxist principles. The religious fanatic shuns it as frivolous. The scientist disregards it because it can’t be reduced to mathematical equations and therefore seems to lack a principle. It bears no relation whatever to sport, being non-competitive.’