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A man and a woman sitting on the beach

"Advice to Lovers," a Poetic Fable by Robert Graves


In 1919 Graves published this wonderful poem that with an enviable simplicity seems to summarize how love behaves.

Robert Graves is best known for his work as a mythographer, as a patient and generous restorer of those stories, which are, evidently or secretly, fundamental references to our civilization. With one hand he gathered Greek myths, and with the other, the persistence of the “White Goddess” as the archetypal source of poetry.

These works were the culmination of a creative life that also bore the fruits of many other wonders, which came as a result of his literary and cultural restlessness. An example of this is The Owl, a periodical magazine, which Graves directed from 1919 to 1923. The publications brought together some of the leading cultural figures of his time, among them poets Thomas Hardy and W.H. Davies, and painter W.J. Turner

Graves published one of his poems in the second volume of the magazine, a short and symbolic fable on the nature of love, concerning the mirror-like connection that exists between our behavior and its character. “Love is not kindly nor yet grim / But does to you as you to him”, this poem states. With his invaluable clarity and sense of humor, Graves writes in few words what many have tried to say in long essays or novels; what we all already know, but sometimes need to be reminded of through an ingenious fable.

Advice to Lovers

I knew an old man at a fair
Who made it his twice—yearly task
To clamber on a cider cask
And cry to all the lovers there:–

‘Lovers of all lands and all time
Preserve the meaning of my rhyme,
Love is not kindly nor yet grim
But does to you as you to him.

Whistle, and Love will come to you:
Hiss, and he fades without a word:
Do wrong, and he great wrong will do:
Speak, and he tells what he has heard.

Then all you lovers take good heed,
Vex not young Love in thought or deed:
Love never leaves an unpaid debt,
He will not pardon, nor forget.’

The old man’s voice was kind yet loud
And this shows what a man was he,
He’d scatter apples to the crowd
And give great draughts of cider free.

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