A Slice of Wedding Cake
by Robert Graves, 1895-1985
Robert Graves (1895-1985) is best known nowadays for his Claudius novels, made into a memorable TV series with Derek Jacobi as the emperor Claudius and Sian Phillips as a wonderfully blood-chilling Livia. World War One buffs also know his memoir Goodbye to All That, though none of us have felt quite the same about it since reading Paul Fussell's commentary.
Graves regarded himself primarily as a poet, though. He worked hard at this craft, developed an elaborate theory of poetic inspiration, and produced many fine pieces, mostly in a reflective key, and mostly about women. In this one he gives voice to a common male complaint.
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• Text of the poem
Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls
Married impossible men?
Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out,
And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten.
Repeat "impossible men": not merely rustic,
Foul-tempered or depraved
(Dramatic foils chosen to show the world
How well women behave, and always have behaved).
Impossible men: idle, illiterate,
Self-pitying, dirty, sly,
For whose appearance even in City parks
Excuses must be made to casual passers-by.
Has God's supply of tolerable husbands
Fallen, in fact, so low?
Or do I always over-value woman
At the expense of man?
It might be so.