BORN in 1895 to a bourgeois family in Wimbledon, England, the young Robert Graves moved with a smooth inevitability from the homosexual crushes of a private boarding school to the killing fields of the Somme. Siegfried Sassoon, his fellow poet of the trenches, mourned the loss of a dear friend. Before the war's end, Sassoon had to face in some ways a worse loss, since it involved betrayal: Graves turning ''straight'' and marrying a feminist artist, Nancy Nicholson.
He was aware, dimly, on a summer morning in Flanders, of a stretcher-bearer saying, ''Old Gravy's got it all right,'' before he passed out. As a suddenly heterosexual lover, he proved insatiable yet unsatisfying.
Seymour makes plain, there was more terror than pleasure for Graves in the sexual act.Yeats -- whose work Graves detested, for no better reason than that his father adored it -- observed that poetry is made out of ''our quarrel with ourselves.'' Graves could thank his ancestry for creating a fertile ground for inner conflict.His mother, Amy von Ranke, came from a distinguished German academic family; his father, Alfred Graves, was the son of an Irish bishop.Alfred had a minor literary linguistic talent; Victorianly respectable, he worked (like Matthew Arnold) as an inspector of schools.Widowed early, this earnest, trim little red-haired Celt needed a mother for his five children.
His German bride, age 34, brought him five more children and an amiable but essentially loveless marriage.
She emphasized duty and rectitude; Robert's intense, agonized sexuality owed much to parental puritanism.
Thanks to that and the Somme, his blood-red banners, love and war, became entangled.
The newly married, shellshocked Graves wanted to start a family quickly: an attempted reparation, perhaps, for seven dead cousins from the opposing trenches. Seymour explains, ''wanted to get the business of motherhood done and return to her artwork as soon as possible.'' Within a decade, she had borne four children and succumbed to a severe thyroid condition, brought on at least in part by fatigue; Nancy quickly lost both her spirit and her looks.
Driven by poverty to take up an academic post in Cairo, which he hated, Graves decided to invite a young American poet into the household. Due weight is given to her intelligence, refinement, quiet homemaking abilities and kindnesses to friends; yet the portrait that emerges is of a monster.
So Laura Riding entered their lives: a charming and helpful houseguest, liked by Nancy too. She had been trained to lead by her father, Nathan Reichenthal, one of the founders of the American Socialist Party; in fact, Ms.