The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Myth, Poetry, and Mystery

By sheer chance (I am an occasional reader of the admirable if unfortunately titled Blog of a Bookslut), I stumbled on Roger Bourke's 1999 essay on Robert Graves' tome The White Goddess. The White Goddess, subtitled "A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth," is dense, difficult, and highly counter-intuitive to any student of English literature. It asserts 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 honor of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry..." Or, as Graves describes the premise in a letter written prior to the book's publication, quoted by Bourke:
I have been worried about thinking about poetry and finding that all the poems that one thinks of as most poetic in the romantic style are all intricately concerned with primitive moon worship...This sounds crazy and I fear for my sanity but it is so. The old English ballads ... are all composed with a sort of neurosis-compulsion for arranging things in threes ... which is the chief characteristic of the Moon Goddess Triple Goddess ritual and the 17th-century Loving Mad Tom poem which is generally regarded as the most purely poetic of all anonymous English compositions is a perfect compendium of Ashtaroth-Cybele-Hecate worship not a single element omitted.
In the book itself, Graves describes what he calls, unironically, I'm afraid, "the Theme" of all true religion and poetry:
The Theme, briefly, is the antique story, which falls into thirteen chapters and an epilogue, of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year; the central chapters concern the God's losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious an all-powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride, and layer-out. The poet identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is his blood-brother, his other self, his weird.
The notion took an increasing hold on Graves' imagination, and became the leitmotif of many of his novels and much of his later poetry. It is only fair to note that it may have played a part in his personal myth, and rationalized some aspects of his personal life.

Graves, an extraordinary novelist, and one of the premier novelists and poets of the World War I generation, saw in the lesser known poet Laura Riding a severe and brilliant authority figure to whom he turned over control of his literary and personal life for 15 years. Thereafter, he spent much of his life trying to find a less volatile, more satisfactory, reprise of the relationship, if his biographer Miranda Seymour is correct--and she makes a compelling case. Graves, in Seymour's telling, became fixated on finding the perfect muse, a goddess to lose himself in--and thereby find the poet in himself. (See, e.g., Seymour, ch. 33).

But explaining away Graves' fascination with the "White Goddess" as an intellectual justification for his own emotional needs doesn't really do him or the book justice. As Bourke points out, Graves actually underestimates the poets and poetry that fits his thesis, concentrating more on the obscure, and ignoring many examples of better known poets. Bourke keeps his examples tightly focused, and chronologically clustered, but anyone who has ever read Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae can supply quite a few more. (Paglia's brief references to Graves, by the way, are helpful in distinguishing her project from his, if a little ungenerous to Graves, although her caustic (but accurate) description of him as "addled by homophobia" is one of the great academic putdowns.)

Graves, who called himself a "fox without a brush" as Seymour notes, was another unaffiliated scholar--The White Goddess itself, not to mention his work on Greek mythology, his lively translation of Suetonius, and indeed, the profound expertise that underlines his Claudius novels, in which he seamlessly melds the disparate sources on the early Roman empire into a coherent and compelling narrative witness that Graves was a serious man, especially when it came to poetry and its mythic roots. And yet, this gifted amateur does seem to me to have one flaw: An unshakeable confidence that all the evidence must add up to a single coherent whole. While that served him extremely well in his Claudius novels, in other places--King Jesus, for example--it can seem like he is too eager to explain away all the difficult portions of his story, like a Golden Age mystery carefully and reasonably accounting for the inexplicable bits. Graves in The White Goddess similarly believes he has found the key to understanding all poetry and religion. That he has not does not meant he from has not found anything; the Oresteia and the many poets and spiritual seekers from antiquity to the present day who have been drawn to the themes Graves explored argue to the contrary.

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