Robert Graves Essay - Graves, Robert (Vol. 6)

Graves, Robert (Vol. 6)

Graves, Robert 1895–

Graves, an Englishman of Irish and German ancestry, has lived in Majorca for many years. He is a poet, novelist, critic, translator, essayist, and mythographer. One of the major English poets of our time, Graves has always regarded himself not as a craftsman, shaping raw materials to his own order, but as a truth-teller, finding by means of intuition and continuous awareness the essence of the wisdom and perfection that exist totally outside himself. Martin Seymour-Smith has accurately noted that the influence of Laura Riding's poetry on Graves' own is so pervasive that study of the former is a prerequisite for understanding the latter. Seymour-Smith adds that Graves may be "the last romantic poet to operate within wholly traditional limits—and his mastery of these is not in question." (See Also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Robert Graves presents an attractive figure; he is diverse, he is multifaceted as some might say, he writes clearly and with engaging emphases. Many of his books—like the occasions which prompted them—may well fall away; but some, equally, seem squarely fated to stick.

So, what to think of The White Goddess? Is she really for real—because that has, it seems, been the question. Perhaps it is our ingrained monogamy that has made most readings of this book, ironically enough, a frustrated rejection of its proposals. The subtitle gives an orientation, however; the book is "A historical grammar of poetic myth." By its "historical," the text will depend on what is known in and of time; by its "grammar," will offer a wherewithal to "know one's letters"; and, by "poetic myth," will depend on those evidences, tales of the tribe, which poets, the makers in language, have used as a basis for their work. This in hand, one may read as literally as he cares to; but he would do well to see that the book is an "argument" as much in its own form and methods, as it is in the literal details to which it refers.

In short, this book is much concerned with an image of how poets have worked in this world, and of the "magic" source by which they have survived. Poetic faith, Coleridge's plea for a "willing suspension of disbelief," the timeless acknowledgment of the other, such things may, or may not, depend upon the matrilinear institutions which Graves exhaustively premises. But his working premises of conjecture, of a formulative (basically) rather than an analytic ordering of the "what happened," are, I would argue, the only ones which will work in this area. He is right that the poet is a man peculiarly fated to move by such alphabets as he restores, and by such sidewise containment of knowledge as "The Battle of the Trees" demonstrates. Philosophically enough, the poet is here to prove nothing but the continuance of that which was given him on his arrival…. The Goddess, whether characterized as the ultimately personal, or impersonal, wife, mother, queen, or simply the generically "unknown," is the most persistent other of our existence, eschewing male order, allowing us to live at last. The obedience of a poet's gratitude, for this, is the authority which you hear in his poems, and it is obedience to a presence which is, if you will, that which is not understood, ever; but which he characterizes as all that can happen in living, and seeks to form an emblem for, with words. (pp. 395-96)

Robert Creeley, "'Her Service Is Perfect Freedom'," in Poetry (© 1959 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1959.

In both his prose and poetry related to The White Goddess, Graves attempts to restore to myth functions it has long since outgrown. He has described himself as an initiate in a private cult of worship, and he justifies his conversion of fear into awe on the basis of ancient mythical narrative and ritual practice. Furthermore, like all cultists, he judges others—in this case poets—on the basis of their willingness to accept the emotional satisfactions and taboos of the initiate. As is typical of the participant in ritual worship, he seeks to control his inner fears and desires, and the precarious conditions of all mortal life, by creating a deity who encompasses the cruelty and rage he cannot accept in himself and the superhuman gentleness and strength he has vainly sought in others. (p. 362)

Graves believes that for the poet who worships the White Goddess the "main theme of poetry is, properly, the relations of man and woman" (The White Goddess, p. 501), and much of the poetry Graves has written since his preoccupation with matriarchal myth deals with this subject. Yet his love poetry has a curious coldness. No woman he writes of can measure up to his goddess, and the poet is always aware of the disparity between his ideal and the actual female. Graves has spoken directly of this distinction, one that is implicit in much of his love poetry. (p. 363)

All of Graves's efforts to describe the mysterious presence and the magical influence of his White Goddess cannot disguise the fact that, whatever her remote origins, she is essentially an example of a fairly common twentieth-century poetic phenomenon: a mythical construction which reflects its creator's application of contemporary anthropological or psychological theory—and sometimes both—to ancient myth and ritual. (pp. 367-68)

Lillian Feder, in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971.

[Robert Graves'] earlier verses—for example, the 'collection of romantic poems and ballads' entitled Country Sentiment—were often primarily poems of escape, through which the poet took refuge from the painful present in realms of decorative literary make-believe; and they were sometimes marred, he felt at a later stage, by 'falsities for public delectation'. The Pier Glass, on the other hand, represented a courageous effort to follow the ghosts that haunted him down the corridors of his own mind, and trace them to their secret, far-off lairs. Yet—a significant point—he did not wish completely to exorcise all these ghostly influences…. In fact, long after he had outlived the period of war neurosis, he continued to keep ghostly company; and it is remarkable how many references to ghosts and phantasmal lore are to be found in his [work]. As a mature writer, he holds a successful balance between the luminous and the obscure, the rational and the irrational aspects of his poetic personality. (pp. 178-79)

Every genuine poet seems to incorporate several contrasted but complementary selves; and, beside the carefree Imaginative Artist, Robert Graves includes the Pedant and the Prophet…. Like D. H. Lawrence, in his search for a new society he was constantly groping towards a new religion…. (pp. 180-81)

[From] 1934 onwards he published the famous series of historical novels that began with I, Claudius and Claudius the God. But the poet was always incensed should the novelist receive undue attention. He dismissed his best-selling novels as pot-boilers, written chiefly with the object of producing a quick financial dividend.

That they are much more than pot-boilers, every critic will agree; though again and again he may find himself disputing Robert Graves' interpretations of the past. Personally, I have always thought of the Roman Empire as an immense, complex, often cruel but, on the whole, smoothly running piece of bureaucratic mechanism…. Graves prefers to emphasize the human element, with all its individual waywardness. His Romans have a faintly rustic air—beneath the toga emerge a pair of hobnailed boots; and, in his text, the meetings of the Senate are apt to suggest the confabulations of an Oxfordshire Rural District Council. His generals are English infantry officers; and the Emperor he chose as the hero of his first two books was one of the homeliest and crankiest members of his tragic and eccentric family.

Not content with re-creating the past through the medium of imaginative fiction, Graves has also developed a taste for revising, refurnishing and re-writing the literary records that it left behind. He is among the foremost re-writers of the age—here the Pedant and the Prophet combine their efforts. In 1933, he published The Real David Copperfield, illustrating how Dickens might, and ought to, have designed his masterpiece, had he been unimpeded by Victorian social conventions; in 1953–a yet more ambitious effort—he 'restored' The Nazarene Gospel, a revised version of the New Testament, stripped of tendentious Pauline glosses; and in 1955 came the turn of The Greek Myths, to which he endeavoured to give back their ancient simplicity and dignity of meaning…. (pp. 181-82)

The focal point of all his scholarly researches is the bizarre theory of Analeptic Thought, based on his belief that forgotten events may be recovered by the exercise of intuition, which affords sudden glimpses of truth 'that could not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning'. In practice, of course, this sometimes means that the historian first decides what he would like to believe, then looks around for facts to suit his thesis. According to a classical scholar I once consulted, although his facts themselves are usually sound, they do not always support the elaborate conclusions that Graves proceeds to draw from them; two plus two regularly make five and six; and genuine erudition and prophetic imagination conspire to produce some very odd results.

Certainly The White Goddess is an extraordinarily baffling volume—a bold attempt to dethrone Apollo and Zeus, and the poetic standards they exemplify, in favour of a much more venerable godhead, the Mediterranean Mother Goddess, prototype of the Muse whom every 'Chief Poet' serves with a mixture of exaltation and alarm. (pp. 182-83)

Whatever its limitations may be as a work of historical research or literary scholarship—one is surprised to learn that only two English writers, John Skelton and Ben Jonson, deserve to be considered 'Chief Poets'; and there is an unfortunate slip at the beginning of Chapter 25 about the Aztecs and the Incas—The White Goddess will prove an admirable source-book for all who wish to study the writer's personal development and hope to understand his poetry. (p. 183)

[If] Robert Graves now stands high above the great majority of modern English poets, he owes his position not only to his inherited gifts but to the remarkable persistence and diligence with which he has exploited them. He has turned out an enormous quantity of prose—much of it extremely good prose; yet it is difficult to imagine him as anything but a professional poet, whose sheer professionalism is no less conspicuous than the imaginative zeal with which he serves his art. We may discount a good deal of his pedantic and prophetic theorizing; his volume of collected verse remains, and his poems speak their own language. (pp. 183-84)

In his … poetry [his] sense of wonder persists—wonder combined with delight and dread. Like every true imaginative artist, he shows us trees as men, and men as trees walking, and helps to break down the rigid conceptual pattern, imposed on the ordinary unpoetic mind by years of lethargy and acquiescent habit. Again like every good poet, he has both an individual view of existence and a correspondingly individual style. (pp. 184-85)

[In his collected verse] although each poem is a separate unit, existing in its own right, together these units form a continuous record of the poet's mental odyssey, from Ithaca, the scene of his childhood, through the hideous storms of war, past many Circean islets and round again across still troubled waters. Odysseus did not expect that he would reach his final goal; nor presumably does Robert Graves…. [He] is lyrical, yet never devoid of wit—he employs wit as successfully as the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poet; and he, too, is personal and satiric without sacrificing his persuasive lyric flow.

If we are to enjoy him as he deserves to be enjoyed—and the merits of a poem can only be gauged by the quality and the duration of the pleasure it gives—his poems should be read in bulk. A survivor of the Georgian Book period, he alone among his immediate contemporaries—and, indeed, among representatives of the post-war literary age—has contrived to hold a steady onward course. At no juncture is its line broken, as the lines of the human hand are broken; his poetic 'Line of Destiny' is astonishingly straight and clear. (pp. 185-86)

Peter Quennell, "Robert Graves," in his Casanova in London (copyright © 1971 by Peter Quennell; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day/Publishers), Stein and Day, 1971, pp. 175-86.

Where Auden accretes, crystallises, Graves distils. Of all poetry written in our days, his lyrical meditations, each one a translucent pas de deux, make the most apt gifts for the darkness, gifts suited to Rilke's Ninth Elegy, with its consideration on the nature and purpose of the human artefact and the artist's craft…. Graves has created his own enchanted circle where

                 Poets are guardians
                 Of a shadowy island
                 With granges and forests
                 Warmed by the Moon,

and the cool diction, heraldic and timeless, with its harps and hazel groves, its waves and granite rocks, its castle turrets and silver mirrors, is a superb vindication of the use of language worn and pebble-smooth…. The lines hover and pause; the metrics are varied, the cadences beautiful. To read [Poems 1970–1972] aloud is to appreciate again the fineness of Graves' ear. How skilful those open-textured lines, the management of assonance and vowel sounds that drifts the poems on to the ear, the exact, odd word which lifts the poem out of its sleep-walk…. Auden may give us the reticence of a poet suspicious of passion, but Graves gives us the reticence implicit in the poetic celebration of passion itself. After all, Epistles, whether to Godchildren or Corinthians, have a moralistic air [Scupham is referring to Auden's Epistle to a Godson & Other Poems]: poets write Poems. (pp. 38-9)

Peter Scupham, "God's Mother and the God-Damned Sweetheart," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), Winter, 1972, pp. 35-9.

Whether he is writing as a wit poet or a Muse poet, Mr Graves still displays a standard of craftsmanship, in chastity of diction, in a sense of the traditional possibilities of English (and Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Welsh) rhythm, that makes most other male poets writing in English seem a little clumsy, a little over-emphatic, even a little vulgar. He combines candour and reticence, proper poetic modesty and proper poetic arrogance, and a humorous self-questioning of that arrogance, in a unique way. He never mumbles and he never orates. His sense of tone, if one were to take I. A. Richards's definition of tone as including not only the poet's sense of his audience but the poet's sense of himself as the most important part of his audience, is impeccable.

"True to Tilth," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 19, 1973, p. 69.

Robert Graves, now in his late 70s, [was shamefully] neglected up to middle age, [and] is now a cult figure for youngish British poets. He is almost faultless. He can press the right combination of buttons on the well programmed computer, and a smoothly competent poem emerges, metaphorically speaking, on the print-out. Why then do I find him less exciting than many who are less skillful? Perhaps because of the feeling that he has reached the point where success is assured before he takes up the pen. And the fact that though I admire each poem as I read it, I seldom remember it. (p. 13)

Chad Walsh, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 1, 1973.

Mr Graves's fortieth book of verse [Timeless Meeting] is a slim volume of lyrics written "In rapt acknowledgment of love's low fever", acknowledged even by the author as "highly" 'Gravesian'….

Timeless Meeting … is [gentle], self-effacingly skilful, and … repetitive. Someone has said that much of the later Graves sounds like limpid translation from the Latin…. [We note] a chastity of manner as well as of sentiment, cool, reticient, courtly…. What becomes a little wearisome is the continual low-voiced insistence on the same note: this is the danger of Mr Graves's obsession with the true poet's "one story". The inspiration of these poems—apparently part Muse, part young, adored and adoring girl—begins to sound voulu or mechanical. Rather than a "low fever", the temperature of this love, mediated as it is with such fastidiousness, registers as one degree under. Mr Graves … still has the touch of a Master, and it is probably impertinent to ask for anything more. (p. 1276)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 19, 1973.

Robert Graves's Poems 1970–1972, consisting of sections XXVI-XXVIII of his Collected Poems, are mainly love lyrics in the great Graves tradition, new variations on the indefatigable motif of the poet's dedication to the White Goddess, in which the beloved becomes a symbol or an idol: "A new Muse by the Immortals sent/For me to honour worthily—/Her eyes brimming with tears of more than love". (pp. 116-17)

The special identity and task of the poet are Graves's continual subjects. The Title of Poet belongs to Primary Man, blessed with the deepest capacity to experience and communicate the supernal intensity of love. The magisterial voice thunders on undaunted by age, with only a minimum of crankiness. Olympian in his derision of the contemporary failure to make peace with form, the last great practitioner of the art of divine inspiration still hews them out flawless and adamant. (p. 117)

Jonathan Galassi, "Dealing with Tradition," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1973.