Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The White Goddess, Page 2

Robert Graves

  Preoccupied though it is with the making of poetry, The White Goddess has much to say also about interpretation, most remarkably in Chapter XIX, ‘The Number of the Beast’. Here Graves turns aside from his pursuit of the magic roebuck to test his poetic intuition on ‘a simple, well-known, hitherto unsolved riddle’, namely the Number of the Beast mentioned in the biblical Book of Revelation. The logic of this exercise will reward careful attention. Graves first uses his ‘analeptic vision’ – a kind of historical clairvoyance – to read the riddle as an inscription referring to the Roman Emperor Domitian; he then ‘corrects’ it to refer to Nero; finally he argues that both versions are correct, although conceding that the second one could never actually have been written. Intuition, it seems, has read not only a text but the text’s hidden history, for which historical proof can be gathered after the reading is done. As for the original intentions of the biblical author, ‘Who can say whether the sense was put there by St John, as it were for my benefit, or by myself, as it were for St John’s benefit?’ The chapter shows how far Graves’s method differs from that of the scientist. Where the scientist must choose the most economical interpretation, Graves chooses the interpretation richest in meaning: if poetic intuition is in good working order, historical evidence to confirm the reading will turn up later.

  For Graves himself, more than reading and writing was at stake. The White Goddess was a book which made sense of his personal as well as his literary past. Sydney Musgrove has shown1 that many of the themes and preoccupations of The White Goddess had been present, in fragmentary or embryonic form, throughout his earlier work. More importantly, it is likely that The White Goddess arrived so insistently because its writing was a necessary process of therapy. Graves’s intense personal and poetic relationship with Laura Riding had ended in 1939, with her decision to remain in Florida with Schuyler Jackson. Graves had been stunned and, in a sense, disoriented: despite the increasing strains of their relationship, he had been accustomed for the past dozen years to accepting Riding’s (often ferocious) critical judgments on his work, and her (frequently megalomaniac) views on poetry and politics, as carrying a virtually divine sanction. By 1940 he had fallen in love with Beryl Hodge, the wife of his friend and co-author Alan Hodge. The new relationship caused no friction: as we have seen, Graves and Hodge continued to collaborate after Beryl and Robert had set up home together at Galmpton. But whilst Beryl’s love and support had probably saved Robert from a serious breakdown, the deeper trauma of the sudden and painful conclusion to his frighteningly intense relationship with Riding cannot have been quick or easy to deal with. It is clear that the myth of the terrible, beautiful, inspiring and destroying Goddess enabled Robert Graves to come to terms with the part Laura Riding had played in his life, to view it as part of a larger drama that transcended the personal; to see what had happened to him as what must happen to every poet, as the acting out of a myth. Even so, one senses the personal lurking near the surface of the book at many points. To read the story of Llew Llaw Gyffes in Chapter XVII, or of Suibne Geilt in Chapter XXVI, with Riding’s rejection of Graves in mind, is a very poignant experience. And yet little in the book is merely personal. In Graves’s discussion of that same Llew Llaw Gyffes story, for example, occurs his brilliant demonstration that sacred kings were ritually lamed by dislocation of the hip – a suggestion which resolves so many mythical and historical puzzles that the reader has a positively frightening sense of seeing for a moment directly back into a prehistoric world. Intellectually, we reflect that Graves may or may not be right; emotionally, we are convinced – and shaken.

  Such was the book whose first draft Graves wrote during those few weeks of 1944. Not surprisingly, publishers were slow to take the bait. Cassell and Jonathan Cape in London, and Macmillan in New York, rejected it. (In his 1957 lecture Graves would suggest that the bizarre death of Macmillan’s vice-president, Alexander Blanton, was a kind of judgment for his rejection of the book.) For a time Graves had high hopes of Oxford University Press, where the poet Charles Williams was an editor. Williams admired Graves’s poetry and they had exchanged friendly letters about Graves’s novel Wife to Mr Milton; moreover, Williams was writing an ambitious sequence of poems about Taliesin. He was indeed enthusiastic about The White Goddess, finding it ‘thrilling…astonishing and moving’. Graves’s later claim that Williams ‘regretted that he could not recommend this unusual book to his partners because of the expense’, like his attribution of William’s untimely death to this dereliction of poetic duty, was unfair. Williams argued for the book’s acceptance, but the Director of the Press, Sir Humphrey Milford, refused to be persuaded. There was, he pointed out, a paper shortage; the Press had in hand such ambitious series as the Oxford History of English Literature. ‘The Press,’ Milford told Graves’s agent with perhaps a touch of contempt, ‘is already committed to these works of scholarship and not to his study of the poetic mind.’ So the typescript went to Dent, who also turned it down.

  At length, the luck turned. The White Goddess was accepted by T.S.Eliot of Faber and Faber: a singular piece of generosity and intellectual courage on the part of a poet who had been roughly handled by Graves and Riding, and who knew the risks involved in committing his publishing house to a deeply controversial work. The much less well-known Creative Age Press of New York soon followed suit. For the jackets, Graves’s friend and secretary Karl Gay drew (‘with me standing over him all the time’, as Graves said) two little emblems. One shows the Roebuck in the Thicket (after the design on an antique cameo ring which Graves later lost) and the other, as Graves told Eliot, ‘the goddess Carmenta giving Palaimedes [sic] the eye which enables him to understand the flight of cranes which originated the alphabet’1 – an icon described in Chapter XIII. It is clear from the letters that Graves regarded these devices as integral parts of the book and so, for the first time since 1948, the present edition includes both.

  The White Goddess was greeted by mixed reviews. American critics were mostly enthusiastic but bewildered, a natural result of having to come to grips with such a book in just a few weeks. In Britain the book went to more knowledgeable reviewers, who tended to be firmly pro or contra. Perhaps the most perceptive review was by the poet John Heath-Stubbs, in The New English Weekly (8 July 1948). Heath-Stubbs saw the book as having ‘in reality, an importance quite independent of any unlikely-seeming theories about Irish or other alphabets’ and as ‘a plea for a return to imaginative, mythopoeic, or poetic forms of thought’. He linked Graves with Yeats and Williams as perhaps the only modern poets who had ‘made that intellectually conscious use of traditional mythological symbols which constitutes… “Bardic” poetry’. On the other hand the professional archaeologists were predictably scathing. Glyn Daniel, then the best-known archaeologist in Britain, dubbed Graves’s theories ‘fantasies’ and his book ‘outrageous’ (The Listener, 4 June 1948). Graves replied in print to this, and to one other hostile review in The Spectator. His replies are given in Appendix A.

  More surprising was the reaction of readers. Evidently The White Goddess had touched a hidden spring in the public mind, and demand for this difficult, erudite book was strong and steady: the British edition sold out and was reprinted in less than five months, and a new edition followed in 1952. Readers’ letters about the book reached Graves in ever-increasing numbers, some confessing to Goddess-worship in unlikely places. The biologist and popular science-writer Lancelot Hogben (author of Mathematics for the Million and Science for the Citizen), for example, wrote of his admiration for the book, concluding ‘There cannot be many of us. So I will subscribe myself in the fellowship of She whom we venerate in her three phases or waxing, fullness and waning…’

  By now, Graves had returned with his family to the village of Deyá, Mallorca, to live at Canelluñ, the house Graves and Laura Riding had built together in 1931 and had occupied until the Spanish Civil War drove them from the island in 1936. Graves had made the move back to Mallorca in 1946, whilst The White Goddess was
awaiting publication, and had corrected the proofs at Deyá. It was there that the last acts of the remarkable drama of The White Goddess were to be played out. For, having drawn into the open the mythical pattern underlying his life and work, Graves now became more and more its prisoner as well as its beneficiary. Increasingly, a preoccupation with the idea of the Muse came to shape both Graves’s and his readers’ views of his poetry. In The White Goddess itself it is noticeable that the original myth of the Goddess and her ephemeral male consorts easily undergoes a subtle inversion, whereby a rather different pattern emerges – that of the male poet and the succession of women who (as Graves wrote of Wyatt’s mistresses) ‘were in turn illuminated for [him] by the lunar ray that commanded his love’. This view had consequences for Graves’s personal life, and led to the series of intense emotional relationships with young women – the so-called Muses – which stimulated Graves to the love poems of his later years but also subjected him at times to pain and humiliation. The stories of the four ‘Muses’ and their impact on the lives of the ageing poet and his family need not be retold here: they are available in Richard Perceval Graves’s Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940–85 and (an inside view from a member of the family) in William Graves’s Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves. But it is hard to believe that these relationships would have developed as they did had The White Goddess never been written. For better or worse, it was the book which fixed the popular image of Graves, and increasingly his own self-image.

  A decisive stage in the process, and one which turned Graves into something of a cult-figure for the last decades of his life, was the appearance of the third British edition of The White Goddess in 1961. It was the first time the book had been available in Britain as a paperback, and the period was propitious. The 1960s, with all the radical cultural changes they brought, were getting under way; new religions, new psychotherapies, new sexual freedoms and new psychedelic drugs were all starting to spread across the western world. Occultism, paganism and a kind of feminism were in the air. The White Goddess was in tune with many of these developments, all the more so as Graves revised it in 1960. It had already been enlarged for the second British edition (1952), where Graves had added Chapter XXVI, ‘Return of the Goddess’. Now, between 24 March and June 17 1960,1 Graves gave the text a thorough working-over, strengthening his arguments, cutting out some rather dated references to Russian Communism and the Second World War (his interest in politics had waned over the years), and adding extracts from his 1957 lecture to form the challenging ‘Postscript I960’. Two changes in particular demand attention and show how skilfully he judged the mood of the time and the needs of his book. From the end of Chapter XV he deleted two paragraphs on the Tarot which, however they might appeal to the ‘hippy’ section of the audience which the book would soon be finding, were the passages most likely to alienate those others who wanted to take the book seriously as anthropology. One of the book’s strengths, as Graves must have known, is that it radiates magic, yet never allows itself to be reduced to occultism. At this point, for a single moment, Graves had lost his balance and begun to write like an ordinary magus. He was right to remove the passage; yet its intrinsic interest is such that it may be given here, safely outside the boundaries of the work itself:

  While on the subject of ancient means of divination which, like the jewels of the month, have become corrupted by charlatans, I should like to mention the medieval Tarot pack. This consists of four suits of thirteen, and twenty-two trumps, and seems clearly derived from the tree-alphabet. The four suits are the thirteen weeks separating the vowel-stations, the trumps are the twenty-two letters of the full alphabet. The trumps could be used to spell out words and the ordinary cards to yield dates, and since each of the trumps had a symbolic picture on it, apparently derived from the lore of the letter it represented – e.g. Hanged Man for D, the Lightning-struck Tower for R, the Wheel of Fortune for A A – the seventy-eight-card pack was a very powerful instrument.

  Tarot is an anagram of ROTA, wheel, and the Wheel of Fortune, A A, was the first and principal card. Tarots that survive are glozed over with Christianity, but it would not be difficult to restore the original pictures on the trump cards from what has been written here of the symbolic value of the letters.

  So much for the largest cut. But Graves also made additions, and amongst them a whole layer of material – each passage brief, but in aggregate subtly changing the flavour of the book – on the subject of hallucinogenic mushrooms. The reason was that since 1949 Graves had enjoyed a growing friendship with R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Dr Valentina Wasson, who were expert mycologists. Gordon in particular was interested in hallucinogenic mushrooms. His interest was more than theoretical, and in late January 1960 he had initiated Graves and a group of other friends into the mysteries of the Mexican Psilocybe Heimsii, which they ate together in Wasson’s New York apartment. Graves described his extraordinary and beautiful visions in a 1961 lecture, ‘The Poet’s Paradise’. Four months later in May (in the midst of the period when Graves was revising The White Goddess) they experimented again; this time, for lack of the genuine article, swallowing ‘synthetic psilocybin’ (perhaps the newly-discovered LSD). The results were disappointing, but Wasson, and the world of mushrooms, remained important matters in Graves’s thinking for a good many years afterwards. The Wassons (who deserve, and will doubtless someday have, a biography to themselves) are amongst the hidden inspirers of 1960s culture, for their work influenced not only Graves but also Carlos Castaneda, and Wasson was a friend of Dr Albert Hoffmann, discoverer of LSD. Among their less obvious monuments are the string of references to a Dionysiac mushroom-cult which gave added appeal to The White Goddess as it entered the age of the ‘psychedelic revolution’.

  And there was now no doubt of that appeal. After 1961 the steady trickle of letters Graves received about the book swelled into a torrent. No longer need he complain of a lack of help in ‘refining’ his argument. Experts, real and self-styled, in archaeology and early Welsh, in runes and classical studies, in witchcraft and pharmacology, wrote to offer ‘corrections’ (often themselves of dubious correctness) and extensions to his theories. Less erudite readers wrote to tell him of their dreams, their drug experiences, their migraines, their writer’s block, their experiments in magic. When Graves claimed in his 1957 lecture that he ‘studiously avoid[ed] witchcraft, spiritualism, yoga, fortune-telling…and so on’, it may possibly have been true. Five years later it certainly was not. His writings had led to a friendship with the Sufi occultist Idries Shah; and in his wake came Gerald Gardner, a leading theorist of the modern witch-cult. Graves did not take to Gardner, but by the early 1960s magicians and witches of several kinds were writing to Graves, and the correspondence was not always one-sided: he seems to have been willing to give advice on matters of ritual as well as on the use of hallucinogens.

  During Graves’s last decades, as his poetry came to its end and his mind failed, The White Goddess continued to extend its influence. Its ideas, simplified and sometimes garbled, became a part of general literary parlance, so that critics and reviewers could refer to ‘the White Goddess’ in passing without mentioning Graves, sure that readers would catch their drift. Artists in other media were tantalised by the possibilities. Already in 1960 there was interest in a film version, and Alistair Reid had collaborated with Graves in sketching a screenplay of this most unfilmable of books. In 1983 a ballet based on the book was performed at Covent Garden. In 1986 the painter Julian Cooper completed a large canvas, ‘Reading the “White Goddess”, Windermere’, which has become the best-known serious treatment of a ‘Lakeland’ subject in graphic art this century. Literary repercussions have been equally plentiful. To discount all but the most obvious debts, the book has had a fundamental influence on works of poetic theory as different as Peter Redgrove’s The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense (1987), Peter Russell’s The Image of Woman as a Figure of the Spirit (1991) and Ted Hughes’s Shakespeare and the Goddes
s of Complete Being (1992). It would be hard to find a significant poet in Britain who has not read at least parts of the book and engaged in some way with its notions.

  Yet Graves’s own thinking had never ceased to develop. By 1963 his vision of the Goddess was changing again. In his Oxford lecture of that December – published as ‘Intimations of the Black Goddess’ – he began to speak of the White Goddess’s ‘mysterious sister, the Goddess of Wisdom’. This new vision of a Black Goddess, to be reached by the poet who can pass uncomplaining through the ordeals imposed by her ‘White’ sister, was no doubt inspired by the many Black Virgins to be found in the churches of southern Europe, some near Deyá, as well as by discussions with Idries Shah about ‘the Sufic tradition of Wisdom as blackness’.1 The Black Goddess offered the glimpse of a more harmonious and tranquil future. She is the poet’s ‘more-than-Muse’:

  Faithful as Vesta, gay and adventurous as the White Goddess, she will lead man back to that sure instinct of love which he long ago forfeited by intellectual pride.2