Begun in 1944, The White Goddess was to illuminate the path of Robert Graves’s literary career for the next forty years, the larger part of his creative life. Beliefs expressed in this work concerning the obligations of poetry and poets, the rightful relationship of man to woman, and the priority of inspiration would shape all of Graves’s novels, essays, and books of poetry that succeeded it. So central would it remain to his work that it is possible to claim that The White Goddess represented a way of life, or perhaps a religion, to Robert Graves. The book represents a way of life for scholars of his work as well. Some analyses of his work have stressed the influence of The White Goddess not only on the poems written after it but also the poems that preceded it, examining them for the ideas and attitudes that The White Goddess crystallized.
The White Goddess is an indispensable tool for gaining fuller understanding of Graves’s poetry. One may even suggest that this function is the book’s saving grace. Although, as a work of prodigious learning, it leads readers to reevaluate their understanding of the Bronze Age, anthropologists have preferred to ignore The White Goddess or to marginalize it as a poetical fancy or an idiosyncratic embellishment on the studies of James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough (1890).
The blunt boldness and heterodoxy of Graves’s assertions seem calculated to ward off conventional scholars. Indeed, assessing their anticipated reaction, Graves writes, “They cannot refute it—they dare not accept it!” The richness of reference and the fluid intellectual arguments presented in The White Goddess, and the catlike balance it maintains among research, interpretation, and pure imagination, make it one of the most idiosyncratic prose works of the twentieth century.
The White Goddess asserts that poetry embodies fundamental principles, and these may be traced back in time in Europe to a Neolithic faith that celebrated an inspirational figure linked with the moon, known subsequently in a diversity of ancient and modern languages as the white goddess. “In Europe there were at first no male gods contemporary with the Goddess to challenge her prestige or power,” Graves declares. For evidence of this faith, Graves extends the anthropological and mythological studies of Jane Ellen Harrison and James George Frazer, weaving together an intricate system of natural, celestial, linguistic, and numerological relationships.
Graves constructs what he terms a historical grammar of poetic myth. The figure at the center of his grammar is the theme, or the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the god of the waxing year and of his combat with his brother, the god of the waning year, for the love of the capricious threefold goddess. The goddess was, in her various incarnations, their mother, lover, and destroyer. “The male role was that of consort-lover, represented by a star-son, the Hercules type with which poets have traditionally identified themselves,” Graves explains, “and a wise spotted serpent, Erechtheus, his hated rival. As summer succeeded winter, Star-son and Serpent superseded each other in the Moon-woman’s favor.”
This fundamental myth of Bronze Age matriarchal society also has served as inspiration for all poems capable of moving readers profoundly, according to Graves. He asserts that every poem succeeds only insofar as it recapitulates a part of the theme. Graves demonstrates the extraordinary precision of this statement in a succession of polarities, contrasting inspirational and classical poetry, poetic and prosaic modes of perception, proleptic and linear thought, intuitive and deductive reasoning, and so on. Graves argues that such dichotomies mirror the ancient struggle between the old matriarchal religion and the patriarchal one that came later to vanquish and replace it.
Graves organizes his anthropological insights within a facile analysis of two Welsh poems preserved in the thirteenth century manuscript The Red Book of...
(The entire section is 1698 words.)