Robert Graves was perhaps the most significant inheritor of the Romantic tradition in twentieth century poetry. After articulating his devotion to the White Goddess, he specialized in love poetry. He wrote significant poetry, however, at every stage of development, sometimes dealing with psychological or philosophical ideas as well as with mythological themes.
According to Graves, the art of poetry requires long experience with and attention to the meanings of words, a carefully developed craftsmanship, and an intuitive openness to what he called the poetic trance. He explained this process lucidly in one of his Oxford lectures, “The Poet in a Valley of Dry Bones” (published in Mammon and the Black Goddess, 1965):A poet lives with his own language, continually instructing himself in the origin, histories, pronunciation, and peculiar usages of words, together with their latent powers, and the exact shades of distinction between what Roget’s Thesaurus calls “synonyms.”
The use of the English language depends largely on precedent. One needs to know the precedents and when to deviate from them. Graves says that “The exact rightness of words can be explained only in the context of a whole poem: each one being related rhythmically, emotionally, and semantically to every other.”
“The Naked and the Nude”
This meticulous sense for shades of meaning is demonstrated in an ironic poem called “The Naked and the Nude.” “Nude” is associated with sly seduction, showmanship, and mock-religious poses, while the state of nakedness is appropriate in contexts of love, medicine, and “true” religious devotion: “naked shines the Goddess when/ She mounts her lion among men.” The poet warns that though the brazen nude may defeat the naked in life, in the world of the dead they shall be pursued by Gorgons with whips. There, in a final play on meaning, “How naked go the sometime nude!” Here, of course, “naked” means exposed in its actuality. Thus, in the poet’s personal lexicography, “nude” implies exploitation and prostitution, while the term “naked” fuses connotations of love, beauty, and truth.
“The Cool Web”
Graves has other poems that explore in a more serious tone the function of language. One of the most perceptive is “The Cool Web,” in which language serves as a buffer between the speaker and the intensity of raw experience. It is one of the best poems written on the theme of language as a cocoon that protects but also embalms:
There is a cool web of language winds us in,Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:We grow sea green at last and coldly dieIn brininess and volubility.
This state of insulation from the stark reality of experience contrasts with the clearer perception that he attributes to children: “Children are dumb to say how hot the day is . . . How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky. . . .” The poet suggests that one must either smother in a sea of words or throw off language and die of madness, “Facing the wide glare of the children’s day.” Besides being a unique expression of the function of language in controlling emotional reaction to experience, the poem also suggests a view of alternative fates somewhat analogous to Achilles’ dilemma in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611). Achilles was supposed to have two possible destinies: a short life of violent action in obedience to his passions that would bring him everlasting fame, or a long, uneventful life if he chose to return home. Of course, the romantic traditionally prefers the short, intense life to the long, dull, conventional existence. Graves, however, gives a new turn to the screw: The ferocious quality of reality is not a romantic illusion, but its true color. It is the dull, conventional life that is an error—an illusion of order conceived and perpetuated by language.
Although Graves had the romantic’s distrust of cold reason uninformed by the heart, the poem called “The Philosopher” seems to entertain at least the possibility of some benefit derivable from logic—given a suitable environment. The ideal housing for the logical mind is, unfortunately, a barren prison cell where the mind might be “free” of all the usual distractions of living. There one might weave a more perfect web of thought, “Threading a logic between wall and wall,/ Ceiling and floor more accurate by far/ Than the cob-spider’s.” In this paradoxically ideal situation, one might attain “Truth captured without increment of flies.” The poet imagines the cell becoming a
spacious other headIn which the emancipated reason mightLearn in due time to walk at greater lengthAnd more unanswerably.
The poem achieves an ironic fusion of contradictory attitudes—although, only persons quite dead to the world are in a position to form a logically consistent philosophy. This may suggest an outright parody of philosophers, but one fancies that the poet would really like to reconcile the worlds of experience and thought if he could. Perhaps Graves was struggling with Riding’s rather obscure requirement that poetry express “truth.”
Graves meticulously avoided schools and movements in poetry. Having emerged from the Georgian school popular in his early youth, he deliberately disregarded T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who were...
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