Robert Graves Graves, Robert (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Monroe K. Spears

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2508 words.)

Robert H. Canary

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Patrick Grant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1641 words.)