Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2369
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 dictating poetic taste somewhat later. Graves maintained that one does not write good poetry by imitating popular fashions or even recognized geniuses in the genre. The style should always be one’s own and the idea or experience itself should determine form, diction, and rhythm. He despised what he saw as the tendency in modern poetry to cultivate obscurity for its own sake or to throw out rhyme or rhythm simply to rebel against nineteenth century Romanticism. He did, however, modernize his diction, as Edward Marsh once told him to do, weaning himself away from all decorative elaboration that served no function in the poem. When the cult of Eliot and Pound was on the wane, Graves became a model to many younger poets for his craftsmanship and his ability to match rhythm and diction with content.
“The Pier-Glass” and “The Legs”
Graves repeatedly displayed this versatility of language. During the time when he was haunted by his war experiences, he became adept at the gothic mode. The collection called The Pier-Glass contains some of his best poems of that period. The title poem uses the ambience of a haunted house to convey the acute emotional trauma of its female persona, who returns obsessively to a deserted bedroom, “Drawn by a thread of time-sunk memory.” She gazes at her pale reflection in a cracked pier-glass and at the curtained bed that is likened to a “puppet theatre where malignant fancy/ Peoples the wings with fear.”
In spite of the gothic touches of such poems as “The Pier-Glass,” Graves was soon writing other poems in an altogether different mode, as cool and ironic as anyone could wish. “The Legs,” for example, is entirely original in subject matter, though surrealism may have inspired the wry humor and absurdity of the scene:
There was this road,And it led down-hill,And round and in and out.And the traffic was legs,Legs from the knee down,Coming and going,Never pausing.
The persona is apparently feeling rather smug because he is standing firmly in the grass by the roadside, clearly self-possessed in the midst of this mindless activity of legs. Suddenly, his feeling of superiority becomes slightly clouded with doubt:
My head dizzied then:I wondered suddenly,Might I too be a walkerFrom the knees down?Gently I touched my shins.The doubt unchained them.They had run in twenty puddlesBefore I regained them.
The simplicity of diction, the clarity of the symbolic action, and the delicately modulated tempo make this poem delightful.
Origins of the White Goddess
Graves became increasingly objective in his poetry as the urgencies of war and domestic upheavals receded, abandoning his notion of poetry as therapy, and writing more and more in a philosophic or ironic vein. With the disappearance from his life of Riding and his subsequent fascination with ancient myth, he found a reservoir of symbols and metaphors that contributed to a burst of creative activity during which he wrote some of the best love lyrics of his age. As he affirmed in “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” one of the best-known of the poems inspired by the White Goddess mythology, “There is one story and one story only/ That will prove worth your telling.” That is the love story between the Great Goddess of Moon, Earth, and the underworld (or a woman who embodies her) and her champion, who represents in ancient myth the Sacred King (the god of the waxing and waning year)—or, by extension, the poet inspired by his muse. As he explains his discovery in The White Goddess:The Theme, briefly, is the antique story, which falls into thirteen chapters and epilogue, of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year; the central chapters concern the God’s losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious and all-powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride and layer-out. The poet identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is his blood-brother, his other self, his weird.
The God of the Waxing Year is, of course, a variation of the primitive vegetation god. He suffers death in the fall but revives in the spring, like the Egyptian Osiris, murdered by his brother Set, god of desert and drought, only to be restored to life by his wife, Isis. The poet sees himself in both creative and sacrificial roles, alternately inspired by the love of the Goddess Muse and suffering ritual death when her love grows cold.
The historical and religious origins of the goddess, nevertheless, have some purely literary precedents in the numerous fatal women of Romantic poetry—John Keats’s supernatural “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s weird women who dice with Death for the life of the Ancient Mariner. This is exactly the guise in which Graves often meets her, stressing her more frightening implications over her occasional gentleness. In “Darien,” the poet tells his son about the Muse. “Often at moonrise I had watched her go./ And a cold shudder shook me/ To see the curved blaze of her Cretan axe.” The Cretan axe is an emblem of the ancient Moon Goddess, having both convex and concave surfaces, suggesting different stages of the moon. The axe forebodes the price of being her chosen lover, for it is an instrument of sacrifice.
In the poem titled “The White Goddess,” the persona also hints at the price of seeking the favor of the goddess. Spring, the poet suggests, always celebrates the Mountain Mother;
But we are gifted, even in NovemberRawest of seasons, with so huge a senseOf her nakedly worn magnificenceWe forget cruelty and past betrayal,Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall.
In ancient times, certain animals were associated with the Goddess, particularly the cat, bitch, cow, sow, owl, dove, and crane. (Her consort had other animal forms, such as the snake, bull, or the white roebuck.) In Graves’s poem “Cat-Goddesses” the triad expands to nine (like the powerful ninefold-mountain mother of Parnassus whom Apollo reduced to nine little nymphs, the Muses). The poem speaks of the “perverse habit of cat-goddesses” who, “With coral tongues and beryl eyes like lamps/ Long-legged, pacing three by three in nines,” offer themselves indiscriminately to “tatter-eared and slinking alley-toms.” They do this simply to provoke jealousy. They promptly desert the “gross-headed, rabbit-coloured litters” that result from such casual unions. None of these careless offspring is the sacred child whom the Goddess bears to her chosen Sacred King, symbolizing the rejuvenation of spring and the fertility of the land.
“Return of the Goddess” and “The Sweet Shop Around the Corner”
In “Return of the Goddess,” the Queen appears as a crane, reclaiming errant frogs who had unwisely crowned a king of their own devising. “The log they crowned as king/ Grew sodden, lurched and sank”; the frogs, “loud with repentance,” await the Goddess’s judgment day. At dawn, the Goddess returns as a “gaunt red-legged crane” to claim them, “Lunging your beak down like a spear/ To fetch them home again.” This clever fable perhaps suggests that men, too, erred in transferring their allegiance to a male deity. Sooner or later, the impostor will sink, and the immortal Goddess will return.
Sometimes the Goddess is invoked only indirectly in a more realistic context. The excellent short poem “The Sweet Shop Around the Corner” tells of a little boy who, losing track of his mother in a crowd, grabs a strange woman’s hand and drags her boisterously into a sweet shop, demanding candy. Only gradually does he realize with dread that something is wrong:
Were Mother’s legs so lean, or her shoes so long,Or her skirt so patched, or her hair tousled and grey?Why did she twitter in such a ghostly way?O, Mother, are you dead? What else could a child say?
It is, of course, unnecessary for the appreciation of this poem to realize the mythic quality of Mother turned Crone. The poem is a model of clarity and brevity, yet achieves a striking revelation. The child, so confident in himself and his world of indulgent Mother and animal joys, looks suddenly on the face of old age and death.
Although Graves’s long love affair with the White Goddess inspired many good poems, such exclusive attention to this mythic framework ultimately limited his further development. It was hard for even so expert a craftsperson to go on telling the “one story only” in fresh and exciting ways. The change or deepening of perspective that one might expect from age never appeared. Moreover, sometimes the reader may yearn for a real woman with a distinctive personality to emerge from the repeated avowals of love. Nevertheless, Graves wrote some very good poetry at almost every stage of his long and devoted career. Through his investigations in mythology and his celebration of it in poetry, he reactivated a past that makes the present richer.