Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.