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The White Goddess, Page 3

Robert Graves

  The final stage of Graves’s vision of the Goddess, this aspiration suggests that he was coming to see an incompleteness about The White Goddess. Always there have been readers (perhaps the earliest was John Heath-Stubbs in 1948) who have felt that the Muse presented in the book is too fond of ‘serpent-love and corpse-flesh’, too closely tied to the physical cycle of birth, copulation and death familiar to the materialistic modern world-views Graves rejected. The Black Goddess offered enchanting possibilities. But they were not to be developed. Although Graves continued to write poems for another decade, despite suffering increasingly from the memory-loss which heralded what was perhaps Altzheimer’s disease, in prose at least his exploration of the theme was over.

  The White Goddess remains, after Goodbye to All That and the Claudius novels, his most renowned and influential book, and also one which eludes all simple judgments. Graves himself wrote ruefully to Patricia Cunningham (in a letter of 22 August 1959, apparently unposted):

  The White Goddess is about how poets think: it’s not a scientific book or I’d have given it notes and an immense bibliography of works I hadn’t read…Some day a scholar will sort out the White Goddess wheat from the chaff. It’s a crazy book and I didn’t mean to write it.


  The purpose of this edition is to present the text of The White Goddess as Robert Graves revised it in 1960, incorporating a few corrections which consistency requires. The source has been Graves’s own copy of the 1958 second American edition published by Vintage Books of New York, which incorporated all his previous alterations to the text, including the extensive additions made for the second British edition of 1952.

  Graves’s copy of the paperback Vintage edition is a remarkable and evocative object. The first three-hundred-odd pages are speckled with thousands of blue pencil underlinings wherever Graves, the stylistic perfectionist, has caught himself in an ugly repetition. Thus, finding the words ‘he had no notion of the true identity of “the nymph Orithya” or of the history of the ancient Athenian cult of Boreas…’ Graves has underlined all five ‘of’s. These markings must have been merely a self-punishment for careless prose; they have evidently nothing to do with rewriting the text.

  The actual revisions take several forms, in many combinations of colour and medium. Minor misprints are corrected in blue pencil, and one such correction (Vintage p. 152) has been further corrected in black ink. One correction (Vintage p. 144n) is in ordinary black pencil. More substantial corrections have been made in blue ink, and a few details marked in red ink. Several passages have been rewritten, or have had extensive new material added, in blue ink, with red pencil then used for further refinement, and blue ink again on top for final thoughts. No chronology can be deduced for all this, but as margins became full Graves took to gluing in slips of white paper with further material in blue or blue-black ink and/or red pencil. There are ten of these slips in all, and a patch of glue suggests that an eleventh has fallen out from between Chapters II and III. Most of the slips contain material about mushrooms.

  It seems inconceivable that this confusing palimpsest of a book was sent to Faber, who were supposed to incorporate its revisions into their 1961 edition of The White Goddess. Surviving sheets of typescript, in the Poetry/Rare Books Collection at the State University of New York at Buffalo, suggest that Karl Gay typed out the corrections as a list, and that Faber were supposed to use this, alongside a clean copy of the Vintage edition, for typesetting. Only a few such sheets now exist, but they show that Graves made some further corrections on the typescript. At certain other points where the typed sheets are now lost we can also tell that Graves made such refinements, on the typescript or the proofs or both, because the changes in his Vintage copy turn up with subtle alterations (often, significantly, to avoid ugly repetitions) in the Faber 1961 edition. In these cases alone, the Faber text has been preferred to what Graves wrote in his Vintage copy.

  In the event, not all of Graves’s revisions were incorporated into the 1961 edition. We do not know why, but many alterations – ranging from small local adjustments up to wholesale changes like Graves’s decisions to put AD after rather than before dates, and to spell ‘Juppiter’ with one ‘p’ rather than two – were overlooked. In some places either Karl Gay or Faber misread Graves’s handwriting; and, in addition to reproducing some minor errors missed by Graves in the Vintage edition, the 1961 text added hundreds more. To say this is to express no disrespect towards Faber and Faber: The White Goddess is, after all, a printer’s, editor’s, proofreader’s nightmare – complex and capricious in argument, peppered with strange names and quotations in dozens of languages, full of tables and diagrams. The 1961 edition has done good service through many reprints. But it has now been possible to remove these errors and to present the text, as nearly as possible, as Graves would have wished to see it.

  Even this, however, has not been a simple matter. To correct obvious misspellings, to alter a mistaken chapter-number in a Biblical reference or to settle the inconsistency between, say, ‘wryneck’ and ‘wry-neck’ does not ask great ingenuity. But other ‘errors’ are less clear-cut. Three examples may serve to indicate a range of problems. On page 379 Graves tells us that ‘The Son…was also called Lucifer or Phosphorus (‘bringer of light’) because as evening-star he led in the light of the Moon’. This is incorrect; Lucifer is the morning star (the planet Venus seen at first light) and never the evening star. But the error is woven into the logic of the sentence. It cannot be changed; and indeed, in its context the association between the Son, Lucifer, and the Moon is strongly evocative. It may be an error, but to correct it would damage the book.

  A more intricate conundrum occurs on page 335, where Graves quotes – not quite accurately – the poem ‘The Fallen Tower of Siloam’ which, he says, he wrote in 1934. His diary, however, shows that the poem was written on March 19 and 20, 1937. Clearly, one might think, the book is in error: why not correct the date to 1937? But look at the context. Graves is discussing the poet’s sense of ‘the equivocal nature of time’. ‘The coincidence of the concept and the reality,’ he tells us, ‘is never quite exact’. The poem, he says, was written ‘with proleptic detail’. Prolepsis, according to the dictionary, is ‘the representation or taking of something future as already done, or existing’. Graves has moved the date of his proleptic poem back by three years. A simple error? A private joke? A coded message? The quoted lines contain the words ‘We were there already…’ In the circumstances, I dare not alter the date.

  One much larger alteration I have made. In both the Vintage and the 1961 editions, the two paragraphs beginning ‘It will be objected…’, now on page 476, appeared on what is now page 105, after the words ‘Isle of Avalon’ and before ‘The joke is…’ They were clearly out of place in style, matter and logic. They jarringly interrupted Chapter VI’s account of Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury with a discussion of a quite different topic. Careful reading of the text shows that they are in reality a missing piece from the argument of Chapter XXVI. They were amongst new material added in 1952, when Graves was enlarging existing paragraphs to form the present Chapter XXVI. The printer evidently misunderstood Graves’s instructions and introduced these two paragraphs at the wrong place. Curiously, Graves overlooked the error in every subsequent proofreading: perhaps its subject (woman’s superior claims to divinity, as compared with man’s) was so central to his thinking that it seemed apposite at any point.

  But the error is clear. And (in contrast to their incongruity with Chapter VI’s Glastonbury passage) as Dunstan Ward has pointed out,

  Details in the two paragraphs tie in neatly with points [Graves] makes in the course of Chapter XXVI. For example, ‘his single person’ contrasts with ‘her ancient quintuple person’ (page 476); ‘the Apollonian or Jehovistic cult’ would refer back to Apollo as the god of science, wielding the atomic bomb (pages 467, 474), and the denunciation of the ‘patriarchal God’ on page 466; ‘Man is a demigod’ would relate to ‘whichever demi-go
d [the first edition has ‘god’] she chooses’ (page 477).1

  After consultation with Beryl, William and Lucia Graves, and with the directors of the Robert Graves Programme, the paragraphs have been placed in what is obviously their correct position. Most readers will never notice the change – which is as it should be.

  The diagrams in the present edition are taken from the 1961 Faber edition. The first American edition (Creative Age, 1948) gave its diagrams poorly-drawn, amateurish lettering. The second American edition (Viking, 1958) showed a great improvement, using strong calligraphic letters, apparently drawn by Karl Gay. But the British editions have always used a printed font for the lettering and this tradition (sanctioned, after all, by both Graves and Eliot) has been followed here.

  The text of ‘The White Goddess: A Talk’ is reprinted from Steps: Stories, Talks, Essays, Poems, Studies in History, London (Cassell), 1958. This text contains here and there a few words omitted from the version in 5 Pens tn Hand, New York (Doubleday), 1958, and differs slightly in punctuation. The two letters to the press are reprinted from their original periodicals.

  And now, here on the verge of the enchanted forest, thanks must be given to all those who have helped. I am grateful first of all to Beryl Graves, for help and advice on countless matters, for generous hospitality at Canelluñ and for unrestricted access to her files and archives and to Robert Graves’s study, where much of the work was done under the tolerant eye of the little flute-player, who still sits on his brass box on the mantlepiece. To William and Elena Graves I am grateful for warm hospitality and tireless help of many kinds. I thank also Lucia Graves for valuable advice and information; Patrick Quinn and Dunstan Ward of the Robert Graves Programme for enthusiastic guidance and meticulous scholarship; Dr Robert J. Bertholf, Curator of the Poetry/Rare Books Collection, State University of New York at Buffalo for information and advice on Graves manuscripts; Frances Whistler and Peter Foden for searching the archives of Oxford University Press; Dr I.L.Finkel of the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum for advice on Babylonian calendar beasts; Dr Edmund Baxter for help with locating texts; and Professor Charles Rzepka of Boston University for some detective work. For constant encouragement and inspiration I am grateful to my wife Amanda, to whom (for obvious reasons) the editor’s part in this volume is dedicated.

  Grevel Lindop

  March 1997

  1 Paul O’Prey, ed., In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914–1946, London (Hutchinson), 1982, 305, 309. Where no source is given for letters, they are in the possession of Beryl Graves.

  2 In Broken Images, 313.

  3 In Broken Images, 316.

  4 Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves and the White Goddess, London (Weidenfeld) 1995, 74.

  1 In Broken Images, 320.

  2 Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 79.

  1 Mammon and the Black Goddess, 151.

  2 See page 490 below.

  1 Sydney Musgrove, The Ancestry of ‘The White Goddess ’, University of Auckland (English Series No. 11), 1962.

  1 Paul O’Prey, ed., Between Moon and Moon: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1946–1972, London (Hutchinson), 1984, 40.

  1 Dates from Graves’s diary at Canelluñ.

  1 Between Moon and Moon, 232.

  2 Mammon and the Black Goddess, 164.

  1 Letter, Dunstan Ward to Grevel Lindop, 20.7.96.



  All saints revile her, and all sober men

  Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean –

  In scorn of which I sailed to find her

  In distant regions likeliest to hold her

  Whom I desired above all things to know,

  Sister of the mirage and echo.

  It was a virtue not to stay,

  To go my headstrong and heroic way

  Seeking her out at the volcano’s head,

  Among pack ice, or where the track had faded

  Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers:

  Whose broad high brow was white as any leper’s,

  Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,

  With hair curled honey-coloured to white hips.

  Green sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir

  Will celebrate the Mountain Mother,

  And every song-bird shout awhile for her;

  But I am gifted, even in November

  Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense

  Of her nakedly worn magnificence

  I forget cruelty and past betrayal,

  Careless of where the next bright bolt may fall.

  Table of Contents

  Title Page








  Chapter Five: GWION’S RIDDLE




  Chapter Nine: GWION’S HERESY

  Chapter Ten: THE TREE ALPHABET (1)

  Chapter Eleven: THE TREE ALPHABET (2)

  Chapter Twelve: THE SONG OF AMERGIN



  Chapter Fifteen: THE SEVEN PILLARS



  Chapter Eighteen: THE BULL-FOOTED GOD

  Chapter Nineteen: THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST

  Chapter Twenty: A CONVERSATION AT PAPHOS – 43 AD

  Chapter Twenty-One: THE WATERS OF STYX

  Chapter Twenty-Two: THE TRIPLE MUSE

  Chapter Twenty-Three: FABULOUS BEASTS

  Chapter Twenty-Four: THE SINGLE POETIC THEME

  Chapter Twenty-Five: WAR IN HEAVEN

  Chapter Twenty-Six: RETURN OF THE GODDESS

  Chapter Twenty-Seven: POSTSCRIPT 1960




  About the Author



  I am grateful to Philip and Sally Graves, Christopher Hawkes, John Knittel, Valentin Iremonger, Max Mallowan, E. M. Parr, Joshua Podro, Lynette Roberts, Martin Seymour-Smith, John Heath-Stubbs and numerous correspondents, who have supplied me with source-material for this book: and to Kenneth Gay who has helped me to arrange it. Yet since the first edition appeared in 1946, no expert in ancient Irish or Welsh has offered me the least help in refining my argument, or pointed out any of the errors which are bound to have crept into the text, or even acknowledged my letters. I am disappointed, though not really surprised. The book does read very queerly: but then of course a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth has never previously been attempted, and to write it conscientiously I have had to face such ‘puzzling questions, though not beyond all conjecture’, as Sir Thomas Browne instances in his Hydriotaphia: ‘what song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among the women.’ I found practical and unevasive answers to these and many other questions of the same sort, such as:

  Who cleft the Devil’s foot?

  When did the Fifty Danaids come with their sieves to Britain?

  What secret was woven into the Gordian Knot?

  Why did Jehovah create trees and grass before he created the Sun, Moon and stars?

  Where shall Wisdom be found?

  But it is only fair to warn readers that this remains a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired or rigidly scientific mind. I have not cared to leave out any step in the laborious argument, if only because readers of my recent historical novels have grown
a little suspicious of unorthodox conclusions for which the authorities are not always quoted. Perhaps they will now be satisfied, for example, that the mystical Bull-calf formula and the two Tree-alphabets which I introduced into King Jesus are not ‘wanton figments’ of my imagination but logically deduced from reputable ancient documents.

  My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry – ‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of ‘the unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute’. The language was tampered with in late Minoan times when invaders from Central Asia began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remodel or falsify the myths to justify the social changes. Then came the early Greek philosophers who were strongly opposed to magical poetry as threatening their new religion of logic, and under their influence a rational poetic language (now called the Classical) was elaborated in honour of their patron Apollo and imposed on the world as the last word in spiritual illumination: a view that has prevailed practically ever since in European schools and universities, where myths are now studied only as quaint relics of the nursery age of mankind.