Dead Cow Farm

A cryptic beautiful poem by Robert Graves

This image of Robert Graves comes from WarPoets.org. In his account of World War I, Robert Graves noted a staggering fact that, if it’s known at all, is too often forgotten and yet never should be: “At least one in three of my generation at school was killed [in World War I], and the average life of the infantry subaltern on the Western front was, at some stages of the war, only about three months.” I mention this fact now because it’s vital in understanding the poem below.

— Robert Graves (1895–1985)

The following is a draft which Robert Graves corrected in the final manuscript. I include it here purely as a point of interest. Note the self-editorial acumen in how he changed the opening of his war poem (“I’ve read an ancient saga, how” becomes “An ancient saga tells us how”):

Image from World War I First Digital Archive

Note his self-editorial acumen, as I say above and repeat again now, in how he changed the opening of his war poem — and the reason I repeat myself here is to emphasize that this is a war poem and cannot be properly understood outside the context of war. It simply cannot.

War is chaos.

World Wars are the most chaotic wars of all.

Retrospectively, when we have decades of history and the wisdom of history to draw from and when we therefore know the outcome of wars — World War I, for example, wherein Captain Robert von Ranke Graves was badly injured and pronounced dead (forever after shell-shocked from this experience) — it becomes almost preposterously simple to let slip the chaos created by war. By this I mean that it becomes almost preposterously simple for us to lose perspective on the full context of war because that context fades from memory after the immediacy of the horror has passed.

It then becomes tragically simple to forget that when you’re living through the atrocities of wartime — as we are now living through precisely such atrocities in a bioterror war conducted with unprecedented stealth — the final outcome is totally uncertain.

Will the malevolent chaotic forces responsible for the initiation of aggression prevail?

Will the people being attacked by these forces of aggression, the individual human beings striving to battle back, lose their lives?

I say again: it becomes preposterously, tragically simple to forget the chaos created by war — the utter and yet unutterable chaos that war generates.

Make no mistake, however, and please never forget: all war is chaos, and the outcomes are always far from certain.

Never forget also: the root of all war is found precisely in the initiation of force and aggression. It is found precisely here and nowhere else.

War is the instigation of force and aggression.

War is the instigation of force and aggression.

War is chaos.

Chaos is the opposite of life.

War is by definition chaos.

The psychological manipulation and confusion and terror that issues from the well of chaos are exactly what the purveyors of force and the ministers of coercion seek first and most fundamentally of all to instill within humankind — to instill and sustain: chaos and the terror and confusion that chaos generates.

The first two lines of Robert Graves’s poem deliberately (yet obliquely) echo the Book of Genesis — specifically, I believe, in how the beginning of time is biblically portrayed, and then reinforced in line eight, when Robert Graves names Adam and Eve explicitly.

The opening line also refers to certain obscure Nordic mythologies of creation (“an ancient saga”) and how human life on earth began.

The Cow is a figurehead and symbol of ultimate good.

The Cow is a life-giving force standing diametrically opposed to the forces of chaos.

It is neither accidental nor coincidental that “Cow” and “God” both contain three letters.

The Cow is thus capitalized in the poem to symbolize God.

I find in this fact the key to unlocking the entirety of Robert Graves’s brief, beautiful, cryptic poem and the fundamental meaning Graves intended, which meaning is profound.

Robert Graves, like all other war poets, was one soldier striving to speak for the countless millions of other non-writing soldiers — striving to articulate poetically the monstrous chaos created by war, including most terrifying of all the unknown outcomes of these acts of aggression and the initiation of force, which is malevolent chaos. And will it prevail?

The answer to that question is completely unknown ahead of time.

As the later poet Edna St. Vincent Millay memorably wrote, though in an entirely different context:

I have an answer to her question:

There is nothing greater than life.

The will is eternal.

Goodness is timeless.

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