Form and Content
Robert Graves is best known for his historical novels, but he insists that his real calling is poetry. In The White Goddess, Graves has written a dense, original narrative addressing several poetical concerns. First there is an analysis of Celtic poetry that is fairly straightforward literary criticism. In it, he focuses particularly on the Welsh epic Hanes Taliesm, which he shows to be a blend of Celtic, Christian, and classical mythology, with even a bit of Scandinavian lore added. He also attempts to uncover the pattern of lines. The poem, he believes, is pied—that is, consecutive lines do not necessarily refer to the same thing. Having established a coherent pattern, he then shows that the poem contains an alphabetic code that existed in several versions in Great Britain and Ireland before the introduction of the Latin alphabet. This system was used by the Druids to maintain their secrets.
Within the larger poem, there are smaller ones. Most famous is the tale of a battle of trees, but when the lines recounting this brawl are put together and the trees are associated with symbols, much more meaning can be ascertained. Further, an analysis of the poetry reveals a number of riddles which Graves attempts to resolve. The answers are references to the various mythologies from which the poet has drawn inspiration.
A second theme in The White Goddess is the decline in the quality of poetry since ancient times. The failure of modern poets, Graves argues, is the result of the decline in knowledge of myths. Before the modern era, there was a body of literature, including mythology such as the eighth century b.c.e. Iliad and Odyssey, which all educated individuals studied and knew well. The power of a poet’s work came from invoking the images...
(The entire section is 752 words.)