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Graves, Robert 1895–
Graves is an English poet, novelist, critic, translator, and editor. Stylistically traditional in many ways, his verse is both technically complex and artful. He is a romantic whose work takes classical lines and clarity, whose poetry revolves around themes of love, childhood, and the spirit world. These...
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- Critical Essays
Graves, Robert 1895–
Graves is an English poet, novelist, critic, translator, and editor. Stylistically traditional in many ways, his verse is both technically complex and artful. He is a romantic whose work takes classical lines and clarity, whose poetry revolves around themes of love, childhood, and the spirit world. These ideas are also visible in his prose, perhaps most importantly in The White Goddess, an exploration of the poet's muse and mythology. Graves is also recognized for his historical novels and his wide-ranging criticism. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2508
Oxford Addresses on Poetry discusses "the hard core of our English poetic inheritance, namely poems inspired by the Muse rather than commissioned by Apollo, God of Reason," to quote Graves's foreword. "A good many of the younger University members agreed with me that such poems are alone likely to survive concentrated pressures from commercialized or politically slanted literature and entertainment," Graves observes, and continues: "The ornate academic Victorian tradition and the more recent but no less artificial Franco-American modernism, seemed to them equally bankrupt…." As his Muse-worship hardens into dogma, Graves seems to envision it here as the basis of a literary program. But such programs are, of course, Apollonian; and furthermore Graves does not really believe any living poets are worth reading. His thesis is, therefore, as applied to contemporary poetry, completely negative. (Curiously, however, he reminds his readers on occasion that he and Laura Riding wrote A Survey of Modernist Poetry, one of the first books to recognize and defend the poetry that he now holds to be worthless.)
Graves's case against Modernism is threefold. The first argument is based on pure xenophobic prejudice: modernist poetry is un-English. He calls it Franco-American, and observes that "Anglo-American poetry of, say, 1911–1929" was "based on Continental models and psychological theory." Often mixed with this argument is the second, a "traditionalist" complaint that Modernism is based on a confusion of the arts and that it doesn't make sense. In Food for Centaurs he said, "All I know is that a Modernism based on a confessedly impossible attempt at adapting English poetic practice to the aesthetic principles of French painting makes no sense; and has never made any sense."… His third and most fundamental objection is that modernist poetry is in motive "critical, rather than creative," and is thus a form of Apollonian poetry, which is always "composed in the forepart of the mind," on a preconceived plan, and based on a "close knowledge of rhetoric, prosody, classical example, and contemporary fashion."… In contrast, Muse poetry, the kind Graves writes and approves of, he describes as "composed at the back of the mind; an unaccountable product of a trance in which the emotions of love, fear, anger, or grief are profoundly engaged, though at the same time powerfully disciplined…. The effect on readers of Muse poetry … is what the French call a frisson, and the Scots call a grue—meaning the shudder provoked by fearful or supernatural experiences."
This sounds like the same distinction that Matthew Arnold once made, in the course of explaining why the 18th century was an age of prose, between poetry conceived in the wits and poetry conceived in the soul. After Eliot's devastating commentary on the relation of this crude dichotomy to Arnold's own poetry, conceived in "the soul of a mid-century Oxford graduate," and his patient exposure of the falsity of any such assumption that the creative and critical faculties are necessarily opposed to each other, one would hardly expect Graves to restate it in cold blood. But Graves has no respect for Eliot; either he never read the passage or he would brush it aside.
Graves's theory of poetry—if it can be dignified by the name of theory—is essentially a perfectly conventional late Romantic notion of poetry as emotional and magical; it is remarkable only in its crude simplicity and vulnerability. Thus he believes quite literally in inspiration, as we have seen; true poetry is composed in a trance, without design by the conscious mind. (pp. 661-62)
During the last twenty years or so, however, Graves has embodied this notion of poetry in a private mythology, which he has elaborated with increasing explicitness. The central belief is that all true poetry is both inspired by and a celebration of the White Goddess. The White Goddess is both the Muse and the archetypal Woman, from bride to matriarch…. (pp. 662-63)
Graves's private myth is in itself intriguing and often delightful; it has given him, in Yeats's phrase, "metaphors for poetry," with some excellent results. But as a criterion for the judgment of poetry in general, it seems to me too preposterous to discuss seriously. As Graves uses it in the Oxford Addresses, it involves judging the poem by its content or subject-matter and by its relation to the poet's biography, and specifically to his love-life. These are old-fashioned heresies, popular in the last century, but now fortunately rare. In this volume, too, Graves dedicates himself even more single-mindedly than in the past to one purpose: the attempt to demonstrate that the kind of poetry he has written and wants to write is the only true poetry, and that poetry of any other sort is worthless. His criticism is, therefore, of little interest aside from the light it throws on Graves's own poetry. (p. 663)
Graves's scholarly and miscellaneous writings are more intimately related to his poetry than is his criticism. Nor can the criticism be meaningfully separated from these writings, for they are crucial to the question of Graves's beliefs—a question that must be confronted in evaluating the criticism. (pp. 663-64)
But, as [J. M. Cohen] has observed, Graves's approach to history is essentially that of the detective: he expects to find a solution that no one has discovered before—both in his historical novels and in his scholarly works—by deciphering and interpreting the concealed clues. Thus, as a kind of historical Sherlock Holmes, he finds the true and simple solution which previous investigators have been too stupid to see…. In this role he has propounded a whole series of reductive solutions: that Jesus of Nazareth was merely another Essene, absolutely faithful to the Jewish religion; that Milton was merely a trichomaniac; that the Iliad is merely an anti-war piece, suitably to be translated in prose with interspersed ballads and illustrated by Ronald Searle. But The White Goddess is the most astounding of them all, since it provides, directly or by implication, simple answers to all the mysteries of poetry and religion, from tree-alphabets to the meaning of the Trinity.
When he is not playing Private Eye among the historians, Graves likes to play Houdini among the spiritualists: he provides physical explanations for presumed supernatural phenomena, or makes magic natural. (pp. 665-66)
I have never understood why literary critics and classical scholars did not utter louder cries of outrage at the definition of myth Graves inflicted on a large and inadequately defended public in his Penguin Greek Myths. "True myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals," he said pontifically. Graves seemed to regard the myths as having no psychological or archetypal significance whatever; his procedure in interpreting them was to "pay careful attention to the names, tribal origin, and fates of the characters concerned; and then restore it to the form of dramatic ritual, whereupon its incidental elements will sometimes suggest an analogy with another myth which has been given a wholly different anecdotal twist and shed light on both." Obviously, this kind of interpretation allows enormous scope for purely speculative reconstruction, since most of the "historical" events with which the myths are to be correlated are lost in the mists of pre-history. (p. 666)
Though he is anti-Modern, Graves is thus emphatically not a traditionalist. He has nö reverence for the past and he is not interested in learning from it; instead, he re-shapes it in his own image. Truth, as he conceives of it, is private and individual. Here again, one is reminded of the Private Investigator of the tough detective story. Like these heroes, Graves has an admirable independence and a genuine integrity, but also an arrogant belief that he alone is intelligent and honest. Like theirs, his investigations tend to justify a low view of the rest of humanity and especially of his rivals. Like them, he displays much ingenuity and learning in his interpretations of events and characters, but also a certain coarseness of perception and a tendency to oversimplify. The most striking manifestation of this cast of mind in Graves is his inclination to reductionism—that is, to reduce large and complex matters to one single aspect and insist that there is nothing more to them. (pp. 667-68)
Similarly, Graves is addicted to crude dichotomies…. Graves is a fanatical etymologist, convinced that the true meaning of a word is the etymological, but given to concocting his own etymologies, with scant respect for the judgment of linguistic scholars. (p. 668)
In the Oxford Addresses Graves …, like a true Romantic, equates religious and poetic truth…. (p. 669)
Graves thinks of religion as closely related to magic, an art of propitiating the external powers, and he rejects the accepted etymology which relates the word to binding beliefs. Finally, since poetry is the primary homage to be paid to the Muse and her chief invocation and worship, it is hard to see what men who are not poets, or not good poets, are to do. It would seem to be a highly exclusive religion: essentially an aesthetic religion for poets only. (p. 670)
[As] a religion, it will not stand serious inspection. It remains, finally, a protest, not standing alone but meaningful only in the context of the religion against which it rebels….
[The Oxford Addresses on Poetry] must have been very successful lectures, but they are hardly worth preserving. (p. 671)
[In Food for Centaurs, Graves described his poetic ideal:] "I said that a clear, personal voice was better than all the technical skill and daring experimentation in the world—really good poetry always makes plain, immediate, personal sense, is never dull, and goes on making better sense the oftener one reads it. 'Poems are like people,' I said, 'there are not many authentic ones around.'" As criterion for poetry in general, this is so arrogantly exclusive as to be preposterous; as description of Graves's own practice, it is excellent. Certainly Graves has succeeded in writing the kind of poetry he here defines—or perhaps one should say that he here defines the kind of poetry he has succeeded in writing.
The writing of poetry to a prescription this specific as to both form and content has certain obvious dangers. The chief is monotony…. [It] has also the great disadvantage of being esoteric…. Many of the poems are therefore didactic and Apollonian, even while expounding a doctrine that opposes these qualities. As to style, there is, in addition to the danger of writing to formula, that of reacting from Modernism into an excessive simplicity—into a conventionally late-Romantic "poetic" style. (pp. 671-72)
[In] the foreword to Man Does, Woman Is, he reveals that this volume "closes a three-book sequence dramatizing the vicissitudes of poetic love." Since the Muse can be known only as she is incarnate in a particular woman, clearly this is the story of a love affair with a real woman; but equally clearly it is both the record and the product of a love affair with the Muse. The poems themselves are testimony and fruit of an encounter with the Muse, and the story they tell is that of the poet's love for her latest mortal incarnation. In a sense, this is, like so much Romantic poetry, reflexive: that is, its ultimate subject is the writing of poetry. But Graves differs from other modern Romantics such as Wallace Stevens … in rendering vividly and convincingly the specific human aspect of both the Poet and the Muse.
This ambiguity of subject is sustained throughout the three volumes and preserved in careful balance. To resolve it would reduce most of the poems to either conventional celebrations of romantic love or conventional difficulties of the poet with his muse; what keeps them interesting is the constant analogy and interplay between the two subjects. (pp. 672-73)
"Dance of Words" deals with the nature of meter and the role of inspiration, arguing for traditional forms given an individual rhythm…. The pattern is basically iambic pentameter, yet highly varied, and with a recognizably Gravesian rhythm. There is a regular stanza pattern, but not so regular as to seem archaic. The language is natural, unstrained, personal, in accord with Graves's definition of his ideal. These observations hold true of most of the poems in the volume. When Graves goes wrong, the trouble is usually in an incomplete fusion of the two subjects, together with the liability to occasional unconscious absurdity that is inherent in so emotional and romantic a style. (p. 674)
[Grave's perfected style at its best is] easy, natural, colloquial, but rising effectively to the taut dramatic climax and then modulating away in the last line. The restraint everywhere else makes the penultimate line very moving…. The poem ["The Undead"] is sardonically amusing, and there is something pleasantly outrageous in Graves's brutal way of addressing us, his zombie readers—though if we are old readers of Graves we are not surprised by this treatment. After rereading and reflection, however, one ceases to be amused and becomes increasingly conscious of the monstrous arrogance that lies behind the poem. For the poem is, in fact, a belated example of nineteenth-century special pleading for the Artist, the Genius, as superior to the ordinary human being and therefore not subject to the same rules, laws, moral codes. Its only new twist is that it admits Muses on equal terms with Poets to this very exclusive order. The metaphors of the poem tie in with those of others to suggest that only Poets and Muses are alive: everyone else is in an underworld, a Hades, a living death…. Although Graves would wince at the comparison, he resembles his bête noire, Ezra Pound, in that his Hell, too, is only for the others. (pp. 676-77)
Graves calls for poetry to "make sense."… There is a certain irony in the fact that so bitter an opponent of Modernism should write poetry that can be said to make sense only insofar as it is ambiguous….
Graves has shown an increasing tendency to write Apollonian poetry in the course of expounding and illustrating his Muse doctrine. For poetry based on any dogma or formula will be didactic, even if the dogma is anarchic. (p. 677)
It seems to me, then, that Graves will not do as the latest version of the Poet as Hero. His stance as Romantic Lover is, in spite of superficial modernizations, essentially archaic. His arrogantly personal and eccentric interpretation of the past has made him unable to learn from it, and his doctrinaire attitude toward Modernism, with his absolute lack of generosity toward possible rivals, has led him to refuse to learn from his betters among the moderns. He is a genuine and highly accomplished poet, but a limited and dubious exemplar. In prose, he is a first-rate autobiographer and informal essayist, an interesting scholar-detective for those sophisticated enough to supply the necessary context for his revelations, and a deplorable literary critic. (p. 678)
Monroe K. Spears, "The Latest Graves: Poet and Private Eye," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1965 by The University of the South), Fall, 1965, pp. 660-78.
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[The framework of Watch the North Wind Rise] exhibits a duality characteristic of the genre of the "fantastic," [and] it provides an example of the way in which similar dualities may be found in utopian works…. (pp. 248-49)
Although set in a future alternative world, Watch the North Wind Rise maintains a certain tension between natural and supernatural explanations for what Venn-Thomas sees in New Crete, as well as for the dream-journey which takes him there. The poet-magicians who have summoned him believe implicitly in their own magic powers, but the magic which Venn-Thomas actually observes is explainable in terms of psychological suggestion and common sense…. (p. 249)
New Crete shares with many other utopias a caste system, and Watch the North Wind Rise includes both implicit and explicit satire on this feature of utopias. (p. 250)
The world of the utopia may thus be seen as existing in opposition to the author's own society, to other utopias, and (again) to an implicit notion of human possibilities. New Crete may also be seen as both a reproduction and an idealization of Late Bronze Age Crete, a Golden Age or lost Eden—though Graves's destruction of his own utopia at the end suggests that he believes in the Fortunate Fall…. Societies which aspire to be perfect, as utopias do, are almost inevitably static, and New Crete seems to have been created as an escape from the consequences of man's history. But to be human is to change, and change is coming to New Crete at the end of the novel….
At some level, Watch the North Wind Rise is a projection of the conscious concerns and latent impulses of the poet Venn-Thomas-Graves. To begin with, it is obviously concerned not only with the kind of society implied by Graves's poetic values but also with the kind of society ideal for poets. The two are not identical, for the poetry of New Crete—and its music as well—is insipid and academic. (p. 251)
The failure of New Crete is the failure of the utopian ideal itself. The soft, good life which it provides its inhabitants does not arouse the strong emotions which Graves thinks necessary for true poetry. Poetry is to act as a mediator between innocence and experience, good and evil, but here is only innocence and good. (pp. 251-52)
Watch the North Wind Rise has many of the characteristics of the "fantastic" genre, which is to be located in an area of tension between the natural and the supernatural. As a utopian fiction, it also presents oppositions between notions of the possible, between social ideals, and between the idealizing and satiric impulse. Such formal dualities make it a particularly appropriate vehicle for the reflections of a poet who has always seen poetry as the result of mastering conflicting impulses. The congruence of the formal structure of the novel with the internal dynamic of its plot gives Watch the North Wind Rise an organic unity unusual in Graves's fiction…. (p. 253)
Robert H. Canary, "Utopian and Fantastic Dualities in Robert Graves's 'Watch the North Wind Rise'," in Science-Fiction Studies (copyright © 1974 by R. D. Mullen and Darko Suvin), Fall, 1974, pp. 248-55.
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In a brief but sharp review of Graves' The Greek Myths,… [H. J. Rose complains] that Graves includes "sentimentalities of his own devising, legitimate enough in a work of the imagination, but quite out of place in a handbook of mythology, where a story should be told as the authorities tell it, or epitomized from their account." (p. 145)
The predicament can be summarized simply: the contemporary mythographer inherits a formidable equipment of technology and scholarship, and can no more ignore it than he can ignore the modern prose in which he expresses himself and which is no less a fruit of the same soil. To treat myth, in this light, as object for study is to provide a useful service of one sort, but it robs the story of its affective and noumenous dimension without which it does not remain mythic. On the other hand, to treat it without the context of historical analysis is to run the risk of divorcing the story from the lived and incarnate actuality which engendered it. The problem of reconciling these contraries is formidable, and although the theorists have made presentations of great sophistication, the proponents of ritualism, of euhemerism, and of psychology have found reconciliation extremely difficult. The analytic mind, its force bound by its own strength, simply finds in mythology the infuriating paradox (and rebuke) of a whole meaning which existed prior to the divisions of speech by which the very sophistication of analysis is achieved. In such a predicament, claims Graves, the artistic imagination is singularly powerful, and by its means we can focus afresh on the old stories to experience them new and whole—as poetry undivided, not as prose analysed into sober familiarities. Consequently, though he will adapt the modern skills and sciences, Graves does not aim to reproduce their results: to criticize him for not doing so is to fall into a trap, as he scornfully expects we will.
I do not claim that Graves provides an answer to the problems of modern mythography, as will soon enough become clear, but I do believe he perceives the problems with clarity, and enjoys unusual gifts of imagination and scholarly talents of a higher order by means of which he affects a distinctive and original solution, however wrongheaded he seems to many serious scholars of the subject. (pp. 145-46)
As is now commonplace, the complementary opposite to the spirit of the prosaic, or Apollonian which Graves deplores, is the lunar White Goddess, the muse of poetry, representing the female in her three roles as mother, lover, and layer-out, who assures that the enskied imaginations of mankind aspiring to spiritual autonomy stay rooted in the mysteriously cyclical and passionately grounded conditions of human nature. She reminds us that language is but a remote declension of the flights of cranes and the beauties of trees. She tells us that science is not the only means of describing phenomena, and warns that "as soon as Apollo the Organizer, God of Science, usurps the power of his Mother the Goddess of inspired truth, wisdom and poetry," then, inevitably, "negatively ethical" … behaviour follows.
In one way, the White Goddess is a very complex and highly syncretic figure (such as only a sophisticated Apollonian mind could conceive), but she is also, in more conventional terms, the Muse, for "poetry began in the matriarchal age, and derives its magic from the moon, not the sun."… (p. 148)
[Graves], as a mythographer, insists that he is not to be understood by the analytic means of the literary critics. They "can be counted upon to make merry with what they can only view as my preposterous group of mares' nests,"… and Graves claims instead that his presentation of the single variable theme of poetry and myth rather "commits you to a confession."… He insists, moreover, that at the centre of poetry (and ultimately of language, and of the alphabets in which the insights of poetry were first recorded), lies a secret. The poets are essentially preservers of the ancient knowledge from which civilization increasingly departs as its powers of articulation develop. Much of the eccentricity and monomania of modern poets is simply their "concealing their unhappy lack of a secret," and Graves laments that "there are no poetic secrets now,"… as there were among the ancient bardic colleges of pre-Christian Britain or among the early Christians, though the Athanasian creed has since made them disastrously explicit…. (p. 151)
Graves insists also that the origins of myth are in religious ritual—in "ritual mime performed on public festivals" … which celebrate the birth, fruition and death of the year. The modern rift between poet and priest has therefore become a particular bane for literature. Especially since the Puritan revolution "It has become impossible to combine the once identical functions of priest and poet without doing violence to one calling or the other,"… Graves claims that true poetry, whether modern or ancient, remains an inspired initiation to the "secret."… Graves has consistently argued for this primacy of inspiration, but he insists … that a true poem must be cast in meter, and must preserve the full meaning of every word. (pp. 151-52)
The series of equivalences between certain of Graves' attitudes as a mythographer, and the mainstream of European mythography until the seventeenth century can now be summarized. There is a common conviction that (1) myth is the fountainhead of inspired poetry; (2) myth, like true poetry, contains the profoundest cultural secrets; (3) by inspiration and formulation in stirring meters these secrets find most valid expression; (4) the poet's task is priestlike; (5) great learning and love of nature are indispensible poetic tools; (6) etymology reveals the full and original meaning of words to be "polysemous," and prior to reductive conceptualization that distinguishes historical fact from imaginative fancy; (7) such conventions find expression in an almost perversely disorganized and digressive style. In all this, Graves appears "old European" rather than modern.
Where, then, does Graves depart from this model? Mainly, as is well enough known, in an obdurate and consistent refusal to acknowledge God the Father as the source of any true poetic inspiration. The mystery for Graves resides with the mother, and in all his study of mythology Graves reverts to the hypothesis that patriarchy, and the patriarchal gods, were regrettable results of schism from a prior matriarchal order wherein woman, as mother, lover, and crone, was worshipped as the Great Triple Goddess, the power of the waxing, full, and waning moon, and of the three-season year of spring, summer, and winter…. The single theme of all poetry and living mythology is the identification by the poet of himself with the waxing year, and his inevitable fate is that of the king whom the Goddess Queen of the ancient matriarchy took to herself and ritually sacrificed to ensure fertility: "every Muse-poet, in a sense, dies for the Goddess whom he adores, just as the King died."… (p. 154)
Graves runs risks in … taking on so boldly the world of specialized scholarship and daring to show it up while also interpreting it accurately…. [The key lies in] Graves' perception that the facts can not be misrepresented, only refocussed, if the ground is truly intuited and imagined. And organized scholarship has been less than convinced that Graves has indeed honoured the facts. The White Goddess is, in particular, problematic. It is without footnotes or bibliography, which has almost compelled more recent scholars, even when directly concerned with matriarchal mythologies, to ignore it…. The omissions also render almost impossible the confirmation, and sometimes even the application, of particular arguments and suggestions which Graves makes…. And how can Graves be expected to decipher complex etymological riddles without a scholarly knowledge of the languages? Where is the archaeological evidence to be found for the imagined "iconotropic" reconstructions of familiar mythological materials? (pp. 159-60)
With The Greek Myths the issue is even more vivid, for the confrontation is more direct. For a start, Graves' ordering of the materials seems as random as the argument in The White Goddess. The freely indulged exercises in etymology have been classed as "Howlers," and he seems to ignore important modern efforts similar to his own, for instance the work of Rose, Kerenyi, and the Oxford Classical Dictionary. His preference for late commentators, such as Dictys, leads him, furthermore, to syncretistic interpretations in which conflations of such late sources are made without due regard for tradition or authority. Moreover, he often omits earlier sources while citing the late ones, and the claim to "assemble … all the scattered elements of each myth" … can hardly be upheld…. Add to this his postulating unidentified but imagined icons to demonstrate that the stories, for instance of Paris and Heracles, are misinterpretations of original graphic representations of the Goddess, and the credibility of most readers is strained. (pp. 160-61)
[Although] Graves abjures the failures of Christianity, he has remained nonetheless faithful to Western thought and tradition in probing the roots of those failures. I believe he belongs, in consequence, more readily among the mythographers of the mainstream of Western tradition prior to the Puritan revolution which inaugurates the modern era of technology and scientific nominalism…. Graves is himself a product of a highly articulate and "prosaic" post-Renaissance culture, and his perspectives and techniques are highly self-conscious and sophisticated. Certainly he realizes the dimensions of experience he desires to uncover and revitalize cannot simply or prosaically be demonstrated: he appreciates the importance on the one hand of not turning myths into objects for study, and also of avoiding purely subjective interpretations. The facts of history themselves must yield the secret, as the earlier mythographers knew, and Graves undertakes to show how they may. His technique is ironic, his method proleptic, and his focus the White Goddess. (pp. 162-63)
Patrick Grant, "The Dark Side of the Moon: Robert Graves as Mythographer," in The Malahat Review (© The Malahat Review, 1975), July, 1975, pp. 143-65.