The White Goddess

by Robert Graves

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752

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 and symbols of this common heritage, which Graves personifies as the White Goddess. Thus, when a true poem is heard “the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine.”

Modern education has eliminated the common canon and diluted the myth, and attempts to regain that which has been lost are complicated by the efforts of the early poets to keep secret their lore, much of which was regarded as having magical powers. An Irish student seeking to become a master poet started by spending three years learning 150 cipher alphabets.

The final major theme, more personal, is a consideration of poetic inspiration. Graves uses the metaphor of devotion to the White Goddess to portray the obsession that he considers a necessity to a real poet. In mythology, the White Goddess represents a compendium of the various deities of Bronze Age peoples; these divinities had different names but similar rites, powers, and qualities. Emerging out of matriarchal societies, she represents woman as mother, lover, and destroyer. For the poet, she is the personal muse who inspires and praises yet never is satisfied, like the sexually insatiable woman. The best account of the Goddess in literature is to be found in Metamorphoses (c.180-190) by Apuleius. Of the leading English poets, Graves believes only John Skelton and Ben Jonson had the qualities he thinks are required of a chief poet. The only other writer that comes close to the standard is William Blake.

Modern society, Graves argues, is not conducive to poetry. Its focus on domesticity and the workaday world leads to the submerging of the passion on which poetic inspiration feeds. The White Goddess, he says, “is the perpetual ‘other woman,’” and modern women lead their male devotees into marital fidelity and commitment to fatherhood. Within this argument a subtheme emerges: the almost exclusively masculine gender of poets (Sappho is a rare exception). Inspiration, however, is equally exclusively feminine, and his rejection of homosexual love as a source of true poetry borders on the homophobic. In Graves’s opinion, at least in this book, the central theme of poetry must be heterosexual love and passion.

The White Goddess was originally published in 1948. It contains twenty-four chapters plus, in later editions, a postscript. An enlarged edition in 1966 was the first to be published in the United States, and by 1987 the book was in its twentieth printing. Although the themes are mixed throughout the text, it starts with a relatively narrow focus on the Celtic poetic tradition and mythology and then broadens into a discussion of poetry and inspiration. The degree of erudition displayed by Graves is truly impressive and at times even intimidating.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242

Canary, Robert H. Robert Graves. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Combines an abstract of the book, a survey of critical perspectives, and a look at the book’s relationship to the novels and poems that succeeded it.

Graves, Robert. Five Pens in Hand. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958. Contains “The White Goddess,” a lecture given in New York in 1957, in which Graves tells how he came to write The White Goddess. Repeats some of the book’s central themes, including Graves’s idea of the poetic mode of thought.

Kernowski, Frank L. The Early Poetry of Robert Graves: The Goddess Beckons. University of Texas, 2002. A portrait of Graves and his work that benefits from the author’s own interviews with his subject and input from Graves’s daughter.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Robert Graves: His Life and Work. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982. Provides a chronology of the evolution of The White Goddess. Dismissive of Graves’s notion of a prehistoric matriarchy. Emphasizes the book’s indispensability as a tool for understanding Graves’s poetry.

Snipes, Katherine. Robert Graves. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. A sound introduction to The White Goddess, comparable to Robert Canary’s, although simpler.

Vickery, John B. Robert Graves and the White Goddess. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972. The most thorough study of Graves’s debt to James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Vickery’s impressive familiarity with Frazer at times verges on being disruptive, almost superimposing itself upon Graves’s work.

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