Thursday, September 28, 2000

The White Goddess, by Robert Graves, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth
by Robert Graves

Poet, novelist, scholar and translator, Robert Graves’ pioneering classic, The White Goddess, a poet’s mytho-Bible on the history of Western civilization is not a text to be swallowed in one sitting. Having mined it for some 20-odd years, I’m daunted by the thought of writing a summary!

Farrar touts the book as a historical grammar of poetic myth; Graves called it a “verbal iconograph.” Graves, an Anglo-Irish Romantic poet, gained literary fame after WWI as a war poet, when he began to question the very foundations of Western civilization. He began with his own Celtic roots (his father was a renown Celtic scholar-poet from Kerry (?). 

A convergent mytho-evolutionist, Graves draws from many sources including Semitic and Indo-European myths, but his primary objective is to explore the arcane (druidic) knowledge in medieval Welsh and Irish material. 

Graves attempts to decode the “hidden knowledge” of medieval Celtic poems and myths by categorizing common motifs—especially the alphabet of trees. Using myth, folklore and poetry—especially the Brittonic source of inspiration—Graves links Europe and Asia Minor with a pantheistic, matriarchal worship of the (triple) White Goddess as the moon/ earth—who after the Fall, was demoted from primary goddess to patriarchal muse.

The 1948 publication date of The White Goddess (amended in 1960) is a post-WWII book (the original ms. written in three weeks). So the cultural landscape was in desperate need of a Goddess: a shell-shocked Europe recovering from demoralizing wars. 

What’s interesting is HOW Graves came to write the book—synchronically—a Romantic notion. His Balearic and Berber artifacts “spoke” to him in 1944, while he was writing historical novels, The Golden Fleece (I, Claudius, in 1934), King Jesus; The Hebrew Myths, and The Greek Myths were also a result of his questing. 

Graves himself commented that The White Goddess reads “queerly” but it shepherded a generation of post-war writers into imagining a Golden Age of mytho-poetics and magic. 

The book is a little more accessible than its eclectic predecessor, Frazer’s The Golden Bough. 

In rereading the text, I find that I am able to hold onto his ideas now that I’ve developed a historical matrix. However, I read his Celtic synopses with a Celtic Twilight lens, because, as he complains in his preface, that “no expert in ancient Irish Welsh has offered me the least help in refining my argument...” 

I have trouble when Graves insists that Classical culture is the model for Celtic myth. When Graves looks back to remnants of an earlier Old European landscape for surviving fragments, he links them to what he knows best: the Graeco-Romans. 

He utilizes observations of the Classical writers, weaves several strands of Eurasian, Old- and Indo-European myth and folklore, and attempts to categorize their common elements. Some of the Bible-as-myth references, especially the apocrypha, are interesting. 

Like Graves, I consider Judaeo-Christian /Islamic philosophy the taproot of modern Western civilization’s travails—especially in the context of war and ecological disaster. It is part of my own poetic mythos.
ENVOI: Graves’ book evoked memories of my grandmother’s tree idiosyncrasies (wood: our only source of heat). Why she wouldn’t cut alder: it bled (so did oak). Or willow: it was a sally (arthur-itis) tree. Madrone/ manzanita: too like a woman, too hot a flame. Or the big Doug firs: OK to burn the scrub ones, but not the tall Bishop pines—there was some fussing over the cypress, but it was diseased. 

Any aromatic fruitwood was OK. Acacia was OK to burn, but it was one of the four lintel woods. She wouldn’t let anyone cut the oaks: sacred tree/mistletoe; doors were made of it, but it burned the cleanest and was the best (you’d think its white ash was face powder). 

Bay was fine to burn—even if the Greeks made laurels from it—but was considered inferior because it wept and sang when burnt wet, leaving a dirty scum, and it burned too fast when dry. Black/white Hawthorn was NEVER allowed into the house. EVER. The haws, yes, we ate them in Fall. Woody herbs: sage, rosemary, etc., were burnt for their cleansing smoke (smudging).

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