Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3607
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 literary history. If mythology and cultural studies had been his main thrust, he would still have to be reckoned with as a quirky but important figure. Should he be considered solely for his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, he would rank among the foremost of modern writers to tell his own story and that of his entire generation. He was a far more versatile talent, however, as his many outstanding novels, stories, essays, and occasional pieces demonstrate. The list of Graves’s works is long, and there seems to be no genre that he did not attempt, and few in which he did not excel.
In his own eyes, however, Graves was always a poet. In the religious sense, poetry was his vocation, his calling. It was a mystery to which he had been summoned by the goddess, to whom he owed all of his allegiance and dedicated all of his talents. Never was a goddess better served.
Goodbye to All That
First published: 1929
Type of work: Autobiography
Graves recounts his childhood and youth and his devastating experiences as a soldier in World War I.
As Graves recalls in Goodbye to All That, he grew up in a household that stressed the time-honored virtues of Christianity, patriotism, and progress. Along with millions of other young Englishmen, he found that these virtues were severely shaken, if not totally destroyed, by the nightmare of World War I. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, Graves was a brilliant writer, and his classic autobiography is an account of both his own personal experiences and the end of innocence for an entire generation and nation.
Although the book covers all Graves’s life up to the time he wrote it, the work is primarily a memoir of his service in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, one of the most respected regiments in the British army. After a brief account of his family life and a rapid but thorough review of his education at Charterhouse, Graves thrusts the reader directly into the experiences of modern warfare. These are by turns stirring, boring, horrifying, heroic in brief moments, and brutal for long stretches. The battlefield of World War I was not a glamorous place or an arena for storybook heroism; it was a nasty, death-filled place. The Western Front was a morass of death and mud where huge armies grappled without seeming purpose or hope of victory.
As a young lieutenant being sent into battle, Graves had a life expectancy on the front lines of just about three months; he lasted for two years. He was then severely wounded and reported as dead. For more than a week, his friends and family back in England believed that Graves had, in fact, died. His unexpected recovery and the delayed notification to his family constitute the “resurrection,” which is one of the central passages of Goodbye to All That. The experience clearly had a deep and lasting influence on Graves both as a man and as a poet.
The war scarred Graves and nearly broke his spirit. That this should be so is hardly remarkable, and the reader of Goodbye to All That will find example after example of stupidity and callousness from higher officers, government officials, the popular press, and even the general public. On one hand, Graves was rightly proud of his unit, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and its men. Without false sentiment or vainglory, he presents an affectionate and moving portrait of a distinguished and honored regiment, skilled at its tasks and as brave as modern soldiers can be. On the other hand, Graves felt nothing but contempt for the commanders who wasted such brave men in criminally stupid fashion. Frontal attacks on entrenched positions, pointlessly enduring endless bombardments that blasted men into bloody fragments, repeated encounters with the horrors of gas warfare and trench combat—these were inflicted on the Fusiliers by the Allied high command, not the German enemy. Graves never got over that fact. Had he not been wounded, he might have gone totally insane; as it was, he suffered a severe mental setback and did not recover for many years after the war. In one sense, in his hatred for British hypocrisy, Graves never did recover, nor did he ever wish to recover.
Goodbye to All That, then, is more than an autobiography. It is also an explanation of Graves as a man and as a poet, setting forth what he believes and why he believes it. Having been transformed by his wartime experiences, Graves felt compelled to chart those changes and present them. His book, as the title implies, is also a farewell to England and English life. In one sense, it is literally a farewell, for when Goodbye to All That was published, Graves left England for Majorca with Laura Riding. Although he and Riding would separate in 1939, Graves would remain in Majorca for the rest of his life; he made occasional visits to Great Britain but never again considered it his home.
In another sense, Graves was saying good-bye to a way of life that had been destroyed by war and time. His childhood and youth had been spent in another age, a time when the world seemed certain, the future was bright, and men and women lived orderly, confident lives. Nothing of that remained after the war. Uncertainty, fear, and doubt reigned, and all the promises of religion and politics had been revealed as nothing more than hollow, cynical words to fool the masses. Not without a sense of regret at lost innocence, Graves also said good-bye to all that he had known in his youth.
The White Goddess
First published: 1948
Type of work: Literary and mythological criticism
Graves traces all true poetry back to an ancient religion of the three-part moon goddess, the truths of which have now largely been lost.
The White Goddess eventually had its source in Graves’s first popular success in fiction with the novel I, Claudius, an account of the first four Roman emperors. He followed this with a sequel, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina (1934). While researching material for another novel set in ancient times, The Golden Fleece, Graves was seized by a revelation of what he believed to have been the true structure and nature of all ancient poetry and, indeed, of all real poetry to modern times. This vision was expanded, with recondite references to Celtic, northern European, and Mediterranean myths and prehistory, to form the basis for his most notable and controversial work of criticism, The White Goddess.
The book is subtitled A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, and in it Graves presents a highly detailed account of what true poetry is, what constitutes its unvarying themes, and how these themes have been used by all real poets for thousands of years. Although Graves indulges in numerous digressions, his main points can be briefly summarized.
Until the end of the Bronze Age, roughly 1000 b.c.e., a single religion had held sway in most of the world from northern India to Britain; that is, in those areas where the Indo-European language was established. This religion consisted of worship of the three-part, or tripartite, goddess, who, because of her mutable nature, was most commonly associated with the moon; her phases were those of Maiden, Wife and Mother, and Crone. In these three guises, the universal goddess presided over all birth, growth, and death. Two gods attended the goddess: the god of the spring, or waxing year, who was ritually slain at midsummer and supplanted by his rival, the god of the waning year, who ruled until the winter solstice. At that time, the god of the waxing year was resurrected through the power of the goddess, and the cycle began once more. This cosmic story was repeated in human society and individual human lives, and it was the task of the true poet to celebrate this mystery; the poet succeeded only to the extent that he accepted the power of the goddess and was granted her inspiration.
Graves maintained that this goddess worship, which formed the essential basis for all real property, was violently disrupted and then displaced by invaders from the Middle East, worshipers of a supreme male god, who usurped the rightful place of the goddess. This process occurred in several stages, beginning with the advent of the classical Greek pantheon of gods dominated by Zeus and culminating with the spread of patriarchal Christianity throughout Europe. The worship of the goddess, and therefore the practice of true poetry, was effectively outlawed. Where it persisted, it did so either under hidden forms, such as those practiced by the Welsh bards, or as a debased and only partially correct memory. Modern poets still manage to exist, Graves maintained, and to be inspired by the White Goddess as a muse, but they do so largely unconsciously and often in defiance of accepted social and critical conventions.
The White Goddess is a work packed with references to a wide range of historical, anthropological, and mythological studies, including Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Drawing upon Frazer’s illuminating study of the truths behind myths, Graves added his own interpretations of traditions ranging from the obscure, such as the ancient Welsh poem “The Battle of the Trees,” to the familiar, as in the book of Revelation from the Bible. All of these provide evidence, Graves insists, to support his thesis.
Such arguments by Graves are one reason The White Goddess has been so controversial since its publication. By positing a single, unified goddess worship that extended through Indo-European culture, Graves is inverting or contradicting much of traditional scholarship. His interpretation of Greek myths in support of his theory has been attacked as idiosyncratic at best, simply wrong at worst, and his subsequent account of these stories, The Greek Myths (1955), was attacked by many critics on these grounds.
A second reason for the controversy surrounding The White Goddess was that Graves presented his work not simply as a historical or critical study but as a literal and truthful account of the continuing source of true poetry. Graves does not use the triple goddess as a metaphor; rather, she is an actual deity. Worshiped before the coming of the patriarchal invaders, she inspired poets; known only dimly and by chance inspiration now, she is still the only real Muse of true poems in the contemporary world. Such a belief seems to many in the modern world perverse, yet it is the position that Graves forcefully and learnedly argued in The White Goddess and which he maintained in the body of his poetic work.
The White Goddess thus joins the ranks of those works of English literature that cannot be satisfactorily classified. Along with William Butler Yeats’s A Vision, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-1834), and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), it is an achievement that has inspired admiration, condemnation, and continued debate among its readers.
First published: 1933 (collected in The Complete Poems in One Volume, 2000)
Type of work: Poem
The wandering Greek hero of Homeric legend must always be with a woman because of his devotion to the eternal goddess.
As Graves demonstrates in “Ulysses,” he was, above all else, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His lyrical gifts were extraordinary, and his technical mastery of verse form, rhyme, and rhythm was unrivaled. Unlike many other poets of the modern era, Graves did not engage in free verse, idiosyncratic form, or unusual styles. He worked within the traditions of English poetry, almost always using a specific pattern of rhyme and a regular meter to frame his message. This message varies, but more often than not it is a variant of his central theme, the concept of the three-part goddess and the true poet’s devotion to her. Since the goddess often appears in the guise of a mortal woman, Graves is predominantly a love poet, and his lyrics celebrate the possibility of enduring affection between man and woman. Graves was not, however, without his sardonic side. The gulf between deity and daily life was all too obvious for Graves, and even the most heroic of men, such as Ulysses, could be blind to the truths offered by the goddess. Such is the case in this poem that has the hero’s name.
Ulysses is fated to need women but never truly understand them; at the same time, he is secretly terrified by the changeable nature of women. He comprehends enough to recognize the mutable nature of the goddess who appears sometimes as a virgin, a loving wife, a seductive temptress, and even as an implacable, natural force. The mythological Ulysses encountered all of these in his return from the Trojan War, and Graves’s poem is a compressed litany of this journey. Ulysses meets the goddess as the sorceress Circe, in the form of the Symplegades, or clashing rocks, and as the Sirens, destroyers of ships and men. The goddess also takes her form in Ulysses’s chaste wife, Penelope, who waits for him for twenty years while he is fighting on the plains of Asia and then trying to return home. What Ulysses senses, without consciously realizing it, is that all of these women are the same and are versions, avatars, of the White Goddess. What he does accept is that he needs them and that without them he is incomplete.
“To Juan at the Winter Solstice”
First published: 1945 (collected in The Complete Poems in One Volume, 2000)
Type of work: Poem
The only true theme for an authentic poet is the recurring myth of the White Goddess and her powers.
The rule of the triple goddess, which Graves explains in his book The White Goddess, finds its most trenchant and beautiful exposition in “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” The Juan of the poem may be the poet’s own son or it may equally well be Don Juan, the famous lover of many beautiful women and thus a worshiper of the goddess in her many aspects. To whomever it is addressed, the poem is both an invocation of the Muse of true poetry and an example of the mysteries she performs.
“There is one story and one story only,” Graves says in his opening line, and by the time the poem concludes he has shown that the various aspects of the myth of the goddess encompass all the truths that humankind can know or poets can relate. In doing this, Graves recapitulates his arguments from The White Goddess, showing how the Welsh tree poems, the myth of the Zodiac, and the recurring legends of sacrificial kings are part of this single, powerful tale, the story of the goddess.
Graves moves, methodically but poetically, through these mutations. These are the subjects, he says, for a true poet: verses about the Zodiac, which is a representation of the goddess in her heavenly, seasonal aspect; and poems about the god of the waxing year, who rules only to be sacrificed at midsummer, as “Royally then he barters life for life.” On the other hand, the poet may turn inward, but still, if he is a true poet, his personal story will reflect the universal one.
In the end, Graves maintains, the one story that can be told is that of the goddess, her beauty, and her power:
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,Her sea-grey eyes were wildBut nothing promised that was not performed.
“The Persian Version”
First published: 1945 (collected in The Complete Poems in One Volume, 2000)
Type of work: Poem
This poem is an account of the battle of Marathon from the losing side.
Graves admitted that “at times the satiric left hand of poetry displaces the lyric right hand,” and “The Persian Version” is a poem written with his left hand but one that also contains a hint of the real pain and suffering he endured in World War I, when so many pointless and useless Allied defeats and deaths were reported to the gullible public as great victories or examples of British fortitude. As he showed in Goodbye to All That, Graves understood that the German public had been fed the same lies. Why should it have been different in ancient times?
This is the premise for “The Persian Version,” where the famous battle of Marathon is put into its true—that is, Persian—perspective. For European history, Marathon was the first and perhaps greatest struggle of democracy against tyranny, the prototype of all subsequent battles for freedom. For the Persians, Graves’s poem says, the event was only a minor event, a “trifling skirmish” upon which “truth-loving Persians” do not like to dwell; the implication here is that the Greeks have lied about the battle, an accusation often levied in wartime. Using terminology from the military, Graves calls Marathon “a mere reconnaissance in force” and notes, as any well-trained military spokesperson would be sure to add, that the ships involved were only “light craft detached from the main Persian fleet.” In other words, Marathon was essentially a local, almost unnoticed event, not the world-shaking clash of legend.
“The Persian Version” is an ironic, even savage poem, which underscores the futility of warfare and the endless idiocies to which governments will go to wrest some shred of spurious victory from even the most obvious defeat, just as the Persians claim to be the victors in this encounter because, despite the losses and deaths, “All arms combined magnificently together.” That is exactly the sort of bombast Graves read while his friends were being killed beside him in the trenches. In “The Persian Version,” he made it a joke, but it is a joke with a serious, bitter center.