Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857
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.
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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.