Robert Graves World Literature Analysis
Graves is best known as one of the most accomplished lyric poets of the twentieth century, but his highly individualistic and often controversial scholarship won for him almost equal, and certainly more fiercely contested, notice. He was also an excellent author of historical fiction, and his short stories and essays rank among the best produced in his time; several works, such as I, Claudius and the story “The Shout,” have been recognized as modern classics.
Graves’s poetry was part of the grand procession of English verse, emphasizing the use of rhyme, regular meter, and definite, often traditional structure. Although his career overlapped those of poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Graves disdained their innovative, nonconventional forms and techniques. Graves believed, as did Edgar Allan Poe, that a long poem was impossible because inspiration could not sustain itself for more than brief stretches; therefore, he never attempted anything on the order of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or Pound’s Cantos (1925-1972). Graves further thought that deliberate obscurity in poetry was a fault, so his verse does not have the enigmatic complexity of some of Eliot’s lines or the recondite cultural references that Pound sometimes inserted into his lines. In short, Graves believed in and practiced clarity, technical mastery, and an absolute devotion to what he considered the true themes of poetry.
These themes inevitably revolved around the love of man and woman, and Graves is rightly regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest love poets. Because of his peculiar beliefs about the nature of his inspiration, however, Graves’s love poetry contains dimensions that are lacking in other authors. For Graves, the relationship between the poet and his lover echoed a more ancient and enduring situation, that between the White Goddess and the sacrificial king who died only to be reborn with the onset of spring. This goddess was symbolized, if not actually embodied, in a mortal woman, thus inspiring poets. What their poems celebrated, however, was greater than a single woman or individual love affairs; it was the universal and immortal goddess herself. All true poems, Graves insisted, told some aspect of this ancient tale. It was in this sense that he wrote, in “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” that “there is one story and one story only.”
A Graves poem, then, is generally a brief vision of an aspect of this immortal and recurring story, peopled by contemporary characters, perhaps, but always referring, even if implicitly, to the underlying myth. In this sense, Graves’s personal system of philosophy-mythology invites comparison with that erected by William Butler Yeats, whose book A Vision (1925, 1937) provided the scaffolding and explanation for the themes, symbols, and meanings of Yeats’s poetry. In both cases readers can, and often have, rejected the theories behind the poetry in favor of the poems themselves. So great are the powers of these two poets, and so enduring are their poems, that this is possible.
Still, in both cases the reader can find more to appreciate and consider by knowing the theories and, in the case of Graves, can find considerable enjoyment in the way those theories are presented. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948), his lengthy and polemical presentation of his ideas, is a remarkable book. Rejecting much of traditional historical, literary, and anthropological writings, Graves boldly turns Greek myths upside down, rewrites the development of Western poetry, and scorches his opponents with fierce and learned sarcasm. The Greek god Apollo, for example, was not for Graves the true patron of the arts but only an impostor who had ousted the goddess by fraud, force, and deceit. That was a typical Graves’s interpretation, delightful to read, and, because of Graves’s learning, impossible to dismiss out of hand.
Had Graves been only a poet, he would have commanded his place in...
(The entire section is 3,607 words.)