The White Goddess

by Robert Graves
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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

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 about nature written out of love for the subject.

The strictly structured sexual stereotypes in The White Goddess are his least defensible assertions. Graves is unyielding in his claim that poets are men and that they are inspired by women: “It is the imitation of male poetry that causes the false ring in the work of almost all women poets.” He also derides the impact of domesticity and permanence in relationships as being destructive to poetic passion. Poetry, he seems to think, arises from an orgiastic frenzy compounded of sexual and blood lusts and expressed in the sacrificial rites of ancient peoples. Without the capacity to fantasize such ceremonies in all of their bloody horrors, no poet living in the ages since can come to grips with the real power of his craft.

Few other critics would go so far. Graves has rejected all but Romantic poetry, and while the passion of creativity does flare brightly among the Romantics, it is difficult to deny a writer of the stature of Alexander Pope the title of poet. Graves’s emphasis on the roles of masculinity and femininity is also not widely accepted. While love is often the subject of the most powerful poetry, there is certainly no consensus that that love must be heterosexual. Nor would many students of poetry agree that women rarely if ever reach the heights of poetic skill. Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Sylvia Plath, and many other women have written poetry that is as respected as most of that produced by men. The sexual theme in The White Goddess seems to be mostly a quirk of Graves.

When he is analyzing “The Battle of the Trees,” Graves’s style is much like that of a very literate academic critic. He clearly loves his subject and enjoys writing about it, but real passion shows only as he begins to discuss the loss of myth in modern culture and the devotion to the White Goddess that he believes must inspire any true poet. When he writes of the power of the poet and of the very real sacrifices he must make to his deity, his prose flowers. Not only is it more expressive but it also begins to take on some of the rhythms of poetry.

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Critical Context