Magazine article New Internationalist

[The White Goddess]

Magazine article New Internationalist

[The White Goddess]

Article excerpt

... being the book that looks slantwise at deity and poetry.

Robert Graves' The White Goddess is subtitled 'a historical grammar of poetic myth'. If you assume from this that it is not an easy book to read, you assume correctly. Graves himself in his foreword warns that the book is 'difficult... as well as queer' and should be 'avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired or rigidly scientific mind'. Nevertheless, it repays study. There are both earlier and later writers who have had similar themes -- for earlier, see Frazer, Harrison, Engels and Briffault; for later, see 'the goddess' shelf of any book shop. But it is with Graves that these ideas are most complete, consistent, logical and authoritative.

Graves was a prolific writer. His prose included essays, a compendium of myth, short stories and novels, and translations of the classics from languages from Attic Greek to Arabic. But his prose, although carefully researched and written, was little more than a livelihood to him. He named himself a poet before anything else, and cared only that his best poems should survive him. Although prose, The White Goddess is oddly poetic; it works in a different dimension from any other book you'll ever read, with the familiar-yet-elusive urgency of the best poems. Graves calls it 'looking slantwise' at something: poets do it habitually; readers -- if they are lucky -- occasionally and despite themselves.

According to Graves, Goddess-worshipping civilizations once covered Europe, at least, and their echoes can be heard in the myths and customs of successive patriarchal states right down to the present day. These echoes are either deliberate misinterpretations of older forms, such as the masculinization of Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom, as the Holy Ghost by Christianity. Or they are poetic riddles, left as time capsules by honest poets for their successors. Graves claims that by using what :he calls 'the analeptic method' -- the recovery of lost events by means of the suspension of time -- the poet or the mythographer can solve the poetic riddles and bring the older world back to life. Clearly this is 'looking slantwise' again.

But Graves is not an occultist in any shape or form, nor even a mystic. He is concerned with logic and facts, both of which he handles scrupulously. True, the analeptic method is a form of evocation or trance; but in Graves' hands even that is rigorous. For example, a whole chapter is given to his analeptic sews recreation of a conversation that supposedly took place in AD 43, during which many historical riddles are solved. …

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