Sunday, September 6, 2009

Graves and the Goddess

One of the strangest books I’ve ever read—perhaps the strangest published in the twentieth century—is The White Goddess by Robert Graves. He himself describes it as “a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth.” Indeed those words appear on the cover of my latest copy of the book (1997). The first copy, which I got in the 1950s, eventually fell apart. I still have it, in four pieces. I keep returning to this book—and must have read it at least five times, all five hundred pages of it.

The use of the word “grammar” has a scholarly odor. Another strange book I once perused was Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives. Lots of people write “Grammars of ….” The meaning in these cases, to cite Webster’s, is “The elements or principles of any science or art.” So there you are: the elements and principles of the language of poetic myth. What makes The White Goddess memorable, fascinating, and indeed sometimes maddening is that Graves avoids intellectual reduction and uses the language of poetic myth itself to weave his subject. It becomes accessible, therefore, only, as it were through absorption. You have to be adequate to it. Not surprisingly, Graves felt ignored. In the Foreword to the revised edition he acknowledges all those who helped him assemble the vast material he used. Then he complains: “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 acknowledge my letters. I am disappointed, though not really surprised.” Nor am I. If you step off the trodden path and go in search for strange flowers or beasties, you will be on your own. And those you meet are likely to be as wild and strange as you are.

The organizing principle behind the poetic myth, as Graves saw reality, was the Goddess herself—and poetry is ultimately the relationship of soul to the divine. But to say this much is to say nothing at all. The book must be experienced. To enter Graves’ forest of myths it is best to jettison orthodox structures of how, why, and where the divine will manifest. The heart will learn something even though the intellect will rage at times like a chained dog sensing shadows in the night.

Graves was a prolific writer. He wrote a two-volume work on The Greek Myths, he wrote a war-memoir (Good-bye to All That), novels, and his “grammar.” He once said of these activities: “I raise dogs to keep a cat.” The cat was his poetry. I always liked that as a good program for the writer: make your money the ordinary way and thus preserve your sovereignty. For Graves prose was the “ordinary way.”

I owe Graves for introducing me to Sufism. Once, anciently, I chanced across a book by Idries Shah entitled The Sufis. I picked it up to see what it might be about. I opened it, saw that Robert Graves had written the introduction. Not checking further I bought the book. Thus stood, stands, my relationship to this poet.

Graves like all poets was open at the top of his skull and had strange experiences and—because of them—strange beliefs. He thought he could journey into the past and experience it as if he were there. Time for him was reversible at least. Mad—like Swedenborg, like Boehme. One of the more memorable snippets of this book, to which I return at times, is a short poem of his, published in Collected Poems (London, 1975), entitled “On Portents.” Graves introduces the poem thus (p. 343 of Goddess):

Time, though a most useful convention of thought, has no greater intrinsic value than, say, money. To think in temporal terms is a very complicated and unnatural way of thinking too; many children master foreign languages and mathematic theory long before they have developed any sense of time or accepted the easily disproved thesis that cause precedes effect.
I wrote about the Muse some years ago in a poem:
If strange things happen where she is
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb, and the unborn are shed—
Such portents are not to be wondered at
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.
This gives a glimpse into this forest. For more, you need to wander in…

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