Below, Robert Graves writes to struggling poet D. S. Savage in response to a previous letter, wherein Savage had described his recent dream of an encounter between Jesus and an “extortioner.”
TO DEREK SAVAGE
January 3, 1951
My dear Savage
If I were the Pilgrim Trust or Signor Guggenheim or Carnegie’s Executors, I would confer an OED on every writer, real writer, in England. [margin note: It would not involve great expense—half-a-dozen copies would be too many!] I have advised many rich and incorrect writers to sell their astrakhan collared coats and frigidaires and Baxter prints to the same end. It is not a faultless work, of course—I am often catching it out—but necessary...I starved, like you, for years and my critical work suffered in consequence: good dictionaries and plain texts were what I lacked most; and I never could find time to work in a library.
About Jesus: yours is a nice story, but since he was a Pharisee, and therefore bound to consider even Roman swine and Phoenician dogs as God’s creatures, he would not have approved of the usurer (the text about ‘spoiling the Egyptians’ was out of fashion in the 1st century) and would not (even ironically) have wished that the usurer would transfer his extortions to the Children of Promise. He made a nice crack about the High Priest’s privy (quoted in the Talmud) which the HP used during the Feast of Atonement; and he made ironical remarks about the Lord (of the Unjust Steward)’s pleasure at being defrauded, and about the Sadducees’ reserving seats in Heaven. But there I think he would merely have reproved the usurer for his unfair dealings and told him to restore the stolen money fourfold according to the Law.
Yes, isn’t a conscience a damned nuisance? Here I am spending 18 or 20 months on a book that will bring me in 4 months’ living expenses. But it has to be done. However, now that I have got to 55 and have a lot of work behind me, sudden gifts drop from Heaven like unexpected sales in Germany or Hungary of books I wrote 15 or 20 years ago. And I’ve never been forced to abandon my independence which I swore to keep when I left the army in 1919. Read a poem of yours about the water and potatoes in Oscar Williams’s swollen Treasury—it touched me, remembering my own stolchy allotment and how I fed four children on spuds, milk and a weekly tin of bully—Army surplus. But I still refuse to invest money and cannot look more than a year or two ahead.
I have been spending Xmas solving the problem of the first four chapters of Genesis which, mythologically speaking, stink to Heaven yet muddlingly incorporate most of the usual Eastern Mediterranean creation-myth elements. I have got the answer at last and checked it from the textual commentaries and now I’m happy. You’ll understand me when I say that I feel very pleased to think that you are keeping on, in spite and still; out of every ten writers, eleven sell the pass to the Persians.
Have you a subscription to the St. James’s Library? If not, please let me know what it is now and I’ll be very pleased to send it you [sic] as a new year gift. Apart from theology and ballet (blitzed during the War) it is extremely good. I used it throughout the War.