(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The questions addressed in The White Goddess are difficult indeed, but Graves tackles them with a will. It is ironic that he expresses such devotion to and spends such scholarly energy on poetry and yet is much better known for his prose than verse. His study of Celtic lore is comprehensive; while not all serious students of that tradition agree with his analysis of the poets’ messages and techniques, his account is logical and persuasive.

The mix of mythological elements—Celtic, classical, and Christian—in the Welsh and Irish literature on which Graves focuses gives a sense of the transfer of ideas among cultures in the Hellenic and Roman eras. His accounts of the language and importance of poets and poetry in ancient Europe support his contention that the inspiration of the White Goddess has failed in modern times, when poetry is written and read mostly by academics. Despite the lack of formal scholarly apparatus, these sections are clearly the result of serious and in-depth study.

Much more speculative and personal are the sections in which Graves attempts to analyze poetic inspiration. Although his insistence that all serious poetry must be based on an interpretation of myth seems applicable to the Celtic tradition from which he draws most of his examples, it is nevertheless very limiting. There are many poets and critics who would argue that poetry may successfully address other themes and traditions. Indeed, Graves himself seems eventually to agree, for he praises in later writings poetry...

(The entire section is 628 words.)