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The White Goddess

Robert Graves


  The White Goddess

  A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth



  The White Goddess is one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary books. Subtitled ‘a historical grammar of poetic myth’, it is also (among other things) an adventure in historical detective-work, a headlong quest through the forests of half the world’s mythologies, a poet’s introduction to poetry, a critique of western civilisation, a polemic about the relationship between man and woman, and (in some respects at least) a disguised autobiography.

  The last may seem an unlikely claim; but from its opening confession (‘Since the age of fifteen poetry has been my ruling passion’) to the ringing declaration of its close (‘None greater in the universe than the Triple Goddess!’) the book is an intensely personal one. The attentive reader will catch many glimpses of Robert Graves – as a child picking blackberries in North Wales; as a student talking to his moral tutor at Oxford; as a Professor teaching English at Cairo; cutting mistletoe in Brittany; being bitten by a viper in the Pyrenees; exercising the time-travelling faculties that had helped him produce the Claudius novels; and even (at several points) writing the first draft of The White Goddess. The book’s composition was itself an extraordinary episode, even in the setting of Graves’s far-from-ordinary life – an irruption of inspired creativity generating a theory which not only deciphered much of European prehistory but also interpreted the most powerful experiences of his own past life and determined the course of his future. Certainly no one can understand Graves, or his poetry, without reading The White Goddess. It is tempting to go further and suggest that no one can fully understand the modern world who has not at least considered its arguments.

  Graves’s own account of the book’s writing (reprinted here as Appendix B) is one of the great accounts of literary inspiration – a tale of power worthy to stand beside Coleridge’s note to ‘Kubla Khan’ and Mary Shelley’s account of the birth of Frankenstein. But it leaves many questions (not least those about dating) unanswered. A few points may be summarised here. In 1940 Robert and Beryl Graves had moved to the village of Galmpton in South Devon; their first child, William, would be born there later the same year. Before long, things started to happen which with hindsight appear relevant to the gestation of The White Goddess. In late 1941 Graves began to correspond with the Welsh poet Alun Lewis. They discussed the nature of poetry and poets; the name of the medieval Welsh poet Taliesin cropped up.1 Then, in July 1942, as they completed their prose-writers’ manual The Reader Over Your Shoulder, Graves and his co-author Alan Hodge began to consider writing a ‘book about poetry’. Topics mooted by Graves for treatment included the psychology of poetic inspiration, and the reasons for the ‘aura or halo, or whatever, that clings to the name of “poet” in spite of the lamentable history of bad poetic behaviour’.2 They agreed to ‘put [the] book on to simmer very, very slowly’, but by July 1943 Graves was writing to Hodge about the links between poetry and ‘primitive moon-worship’ and suggesting that ‘The history of English poetry has been the modifying of the original moon-poetry, which is stressed, with sun-poetry (intellectual, Apollo poetry) which is measured in regular beats and metres’.3 Evidently the investigation of ‘moon-poetry’ soon took a Celtic turn, for in September Graves was telling the poet Lynette Roberts that ‘Gaelic and Brythonic influences’ would be important for the book, and she was offering to help with his research.

  At this point the story acquires a second dimension. In November Graves (who frequently incubated, or even wrote, several books at once) began research for a historical novel, King Jesus, based on his opinion that the documentary evidence showed Jesus to have been, in a strict view of both Jewish and Roman law, a claimant to the throne of Israel – a title which descended by the maternal line.4 Thus Celtic, Roman and Hebrew matters were all much in Graves’s mind when, a month later in December 1943, Lynette Roberts sent him a copy of Edward Davies’ Celtic Researches (first published in 1804). The effect was dramatic: as Graves told Roberts,

  that Edward Davies book you lent me, though crazy in parts, contains the key (the relations of bardic letters to months and seasons, which he himself doesn’t realize; but he gives all the elements in the equation, so it is easily worked out) to Celtic religion: a key which unlocks a succession of doors in Roman and Greek religion, and (because the Jewish religion was a Semite one grafted on a Celtic stock) also unlocks the most obstinate door of all – the story of the Nativity and Crucifixion.1

  The ingredients of the magic brew were now ready in the cauldron; but still something was needed to produce their synthesis. It came in March or early April 1944, when Graves’s projects, poetic and scholarly, were suddenly interrupted.2 The publishers who were to bring out his recently completed historical novel, The Golden Fleece, which dealt with the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, asked him to redraw the Argo’s route on the maps which were to accompany the text. It was during this (significantly non-verbal) task that Graves’s mind began to work irresistibly on the mass of materials he had lately absorbed. To quote his own account,

  A sudden overwhelming obsession interrupted me… I stopped marking across my big Admiralty chart of the Black Sea the course which (according to the mythographers) the Argo had taken from the Bosphorus to Baku and back. Instead, I began speculating on a mysterious ‘Battle of the Trees’, allegedly fought in pre-historic Britain, and my mind worked at such a furious rate all night, as well as all the next day, that my pen found it difficult to keep pace with the flow of thought.

  By mid-May he had written a book-length work which was, essentially, the first draft of The White Goddess. Entitled The Roebuck in the Thicket, it was sent to Keidrych Rhys (Lynette Roberts’s husband), who serialised part of it in his magazine Wales whilst Graves’s literary agent, A.P. Watt, began approaching publishers. Graves continued his work on the book, consulting experts in many different fields. Margaret Murray (author of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe) was asked about witch-names and the use of herbs; Christopher Hawkes advised on New Grange and Stonehenge; Max Mallowan (he lived near Galmpton with his wife, Agatha Christie) was on hand to discuss Middle Eastern Archaeology.

  The book deepened and expanded up to its publication in 1948 as The White Goddess and, indeed, continued to develop until 1960: one purpose of the present edition is to give the text as Graves finally left it in that year. But what kind of book is it, and what was the ‘illumination’ that so gripped Graves during those weeks in 1943? To summarise in a rough-and-ready fashion, the book’s argument is that in late prehistoric times, throughout Europe and the Middle East, matriarchal cultures, worshipping a supreme Goddess and recognising male gods only as her son, consort or sacrificial victim, were subordinated by aggressive proponents of patriarchy who deposed women from their positions of authority, elevated the Goddess’s male consorts into positions of divine supremacy and reconstructed myths and rituals to conceal what had taken place. This patriarchal conquest happened at various times, beginning in the second millennium BC and reaching Britain around 400 BC. True poetry (inspired by the Muse and her prime symbol, the moon) even today is a survival, or intuitive re-creation, of the ancient Goddess-worship. Moreover, her cult and the matriarchy that went with it represented a saner and happier mode of human existence than the patriarchy of the male God and his sun-inspired rationality, which have produced most of the ills of the modern world.

  The illumination which struck Graves with such force was really a double realisation. One part of this was the perception that the mysterious ‘Battle of the Trees’ recalled in an early medieval Welsh poem was actually a battle between alphabets. The Celtic Druids used tree-names fo
r the letters of their alphabet, and the alphabet was structured so that it functioned also as a calendar and, in general, as a system of correspondences that could embody all kinds of knowledge. There was, indeed, evidence that one ancient Bardic alphabet had been replaced by a newer one of different structure. It was suddenly clear that the battle of two alphabets represented a conflict of the knowledge-systems held by the learned bards on the two sides at the time when Goddess-worship in ancient Britain was overthrown by patriarchy. Simultaneously, Graves realised that the puzzling Song of Taliesin, always regarded by scholars as nonsense, was in fact a series of riddles; and that the answers to the riddles were the letters of one of the alphabets involved in the battle.

  Even simplified as crudely as this, the argument is difficult – a set of interdependent hypotheses, each very strange in itself. Not surprisingly, some readers quickly find The White Goddess unreadable and give up. But to follow every ramification of Graves’s argument at a first reading is not necessary, nor even desirable. Better to wander through this fascinating labyrinth of poetry, myth and erudition enjoying the extraordinary delights and puzzles it has to offer, following the general drift and leaving the more recalcitrant knots to be untied at a future reading. And there are likely to be future readings: the book is one that can be enjoyed again and again, yielding new pleasures and surprises each time. For The White Goddess is the kind of work Northrop Frye has usefully called an ‘anatomy’: a book (like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy) packed with learning and catalogues of strange facts, mixing verse, prose and dialogue to analyse its subject exhaustively and at the same time satirise contemporary society and academic scholarship. Such books are written with their authors’ lifeblood and take a lifetime to comprehend, though they may be read the first time with intense excitement.

  Certainly, for all its literary qualities, The White Goddess is a work of massive scholarship. Considered as a study in anthropology, it springs directly from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (first published in 1890), and those who have read Frazer are likely to find The White Goddess most accessible. In a sense, Graves’s work rests on a brilliantly simple transformation of Frazer’s theory. The Golden Bough had demonstrated that a wide range of primitive religions centred on a divine king, a man who represented a dying god of vegetable fertility and who either killed his predecessor, reigning until killed in his turn, or else was sacrificed at the end of a year’s kingship. Graves’s contribution was to supply the missing female part in this drama: to suggest that originally the god-king was important not for his own sake, but because he married the goddess-queen; and that whilst kings might come and go, the queen or goddess endured.

  Nonetheless, the broader notion that human society was originally matriarchal was one in which Graves had many predecessors, most notably the Swiss archaeologist J.J.Bachofen, whose Das Mutterrecht (‘Mother Right’, 1861) had argued that matriarchy was a remnant of a primitive era before the domestication of animals, when the part played by the male in procreation was not understood. The female was seen as the sole source of life; the dominance of goddesses and female rulers naturally followed. (Graves may well first have heard of such theories from W.H.R.Rivers, the psychiatrist and shell-shock specialist who had become a close friend after the First World War. Rivers, who had been an anthropologist with an active interest in ‘mother-right’ as a social phenomenon, must have known the work of Bachofen and his followers.) Such theories, though controversial, are still very much alive. A recent proponent has been the American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, whose books Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1982) and The Language of the Goddess (1989) are thoroughly in harmony with Graves’s ideas.

  In the fields of poetry and aesthetics, precursors of The White Goddess’s perspective are perhaps easier to find. It is evident that Graves’s idea of a divine female power, manifest under many names and forms in the goddesses of the ancient world, and appearing in historical times to possess the women who have inspired poets, has a great deal in common with the idea of the ‘eternal feminine’ which fascinated so many writers in the late nineteenth century. The ‘Gioconda’ of Walter Pater’s Renaissance (1873), who ‘has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave…and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes’; Swinburne’s ‘Proserpine’ (‘goddess and maiden and queen…’), Yeats’s ‘Rose of the World’, and even the threefold heroine of Hardy’s last novel, The Well-Beloved, all embody such a vision. Significantly, when Graves was preparing his Oxford lectures in 1964, he was a little perturbed to find that his concept of the poetic Muse as a particular woman possessed by an inspiring goddess was not attested by any quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘I would feel happier,’ he admitted, ‘to know that some other poet – Raleigh or Coleridge or Keats, for instance – …had anticipated me in this usage.’1 As this discovery suggests, whilst the poetic relationships Graves describes are certainly ancient, his particular view of them may be one that received expression only in the late nineteenth century.

  This would not be surprising; for in many respects The White Goddess has its origins in the ‘Celtic’ literary movements of the fin de siècle. Graves’s grandfather, Charles Graves, Bishop of Limerick (1812–99), had been a prominent Irish antiquarian and a pioneer in the decipherment of Ogham inscriptions; and his father, the poet Alfred Percival Graves (1846–1931), had been an important figure in the Irish Literary Revival: Robert had spent his childhood in a household full of the literary bustle of a committed ‘pan-Celtic’ poet and educator. He had soon rejected most of his father’s ideals; but when in the 1940s Taliesin and the Battle of the Trees seized on his imagination, he was able to turn at once to ‘a shelf-ful of learned books on Celtic literature which I found in my father’s library (mainly inherited from my grandfather…)’.2 He was resuming, however belatedly, a family tradition, and there is a sense in which The White Goddess might claim to be the last product of the Irish Literary Revival. Many of the books Graves used are still on the shelves in his study at Deyá: P.W.Joyce’s Social History of Ancient Ireland and Origin and History of Irish Names of Places; R.A.S.Macalister’s Secret Languages of Ireland; Lady Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion; the many-volumed Transactions of the Irish Texts Society, of the Ossianic Society, of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.

  In these circumstances it may seem odd that The White Goddess contains no mention of W.B.Yeats, or of his collaborator in the collection of Irish myth and folklore, Lady Augusta Gregory. After all, Yeats’s youthful devotion to the charismatic Maud Gonne would seem to offer an outstanding example of the creative relationship between muse and poet; and literary historians have often coupled Yeats’s A Vision with The White Goddess as the modern period’s masterpieces of poetic myth-making in English. Moreover, Yeats had been a close friend of Alfred Percival Graves.

  Robert Graves, however, cherished a lifelong distaste for Yeats and all his works, a product of his own early rejection of everything ‘Celtic’ intensified later by Laura Riding’s abhorrence of Yeats’s attitude to poetry (epitomised in his teasing suggestion, in a letter to her, that poets should be ‘good liars’). Although it might seem that to write The White Goddess without a single reference to Yeats must have required heroic determination, it is much more likely that the omission was unthinking and intuitive, an instinctive avoidance of a tainted source. Tellingly, Graves’s library contains just one volume by Lady Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902). Inside, in a hand of the 1960s, Graves has scrawled ‘Philip Graves from Robert Graves from Philip Graves’ – a riddling indication that the volume came from his half-brother Philip and is to be passed on to his grandson, another Philip. The inscription reads like a brusque dismissal, a laconic reminder that the book is just passing through and has no permanent place in his collection.

  Comparison with Yeats’s A Vision is nonetheless instructive. Both books were written in a temp
est of inspiration by poets in their fifty-second years; both present systems of myth which underlie their authors’ poems and will shape their future work; both owe much to women. But the contrasts are equally important. Yeats claimed a supernatural origin for his book – its materials were dictated by spirits – yet refused to commit himself as to its ultimate validity, quoting the spirits’ own confession: ‘We come to give you metaphors for poetry’. Graves’s book, on the other hand, shows a curious disjunction between passages of inspired fervour and an argument which proceeds ‘scientifically’, drawing its evidence from archaeology, linguistics, anthropology and even chemistry. It assumes a tone of the scientific and the factual never attempted by Yeats. This has helped to make Graves’s argument far more acceptable to a late-twentieth-century readership which remains uncomfortable with avowed occultism or myth-making. Yet Graves’s most explicit public word on the nature of the Goddess remained surprisingly close to the terms chosen by Yeats’s spirits. ‘Whether God is a metaphor or a fact cannot reasonably be argued,’ he told his New York audience in 1957; ‘let us likewise be discreet on the subject of the Goddess.’

  The emphasis on metaphor is a useful reminder that The White Goddess is, among other things, a work of literary criticism, proposing a specific theory of English poetry. As such it shows Graves drawing not only on Celtic scholarship and anthropology but on major works of literary scholarship which had appeared during the 1920s and 1930s. John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu (1927) had set a precedent for conscripting the reader into a process of detection that led through realms of myth, dream and legend in pursuit of the poetic imagination; and a technique for disentangling the Hanes Taliesin may have been suggested by A Song for David (1939), W.F.Stead’s innovative book on Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno (a poem which has much in common with Taliesin’s song). By reordering the lines, Stead had been able to show that a long poem previously regarded as ‘mad’ or ‘nonsensical’ was in fact a coherent work whose religious riddles and puns followed a meaningful pattern. If Graves did not know these books before, it is possible that he read them in 1942 when gathering material for the book on poetic thinking which he had planned to write with Alan Hodge. There are fictional influences too. For example, Chapter I’ s extraordinary vision of the Goddess’s nests as seen in dreams, with its accompanying quotation from Job – ‘Her young ones also suck up blood’ – derives from M.R.James’s ghost story ‘The Ash Tree’ (itself a fine portrayal of the Goddess in her ‘hag’ aspect).