Poetic Values of “Truth”: Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

Recently, I picked up a (terrible) book which referred to “the great classicist Robert Graves.” This is relevant, in its way, for while Graves is certainly a great poet and novelist, he is in no sense a scholar whose work can be trusted for its accuracy. (And therefore anyone calling him a “great classicist” is Officially On Crack.)

Rather, Graves approaches history and mythology as the Renaissance alchemist may have approached the work of creating the lapis philosophorum: convinced that the goal he has in mind is attainable from the material at hand, and disinclined to ever examine the goal in light of the evidence, he proceeds onwards with imperturbable conviction.

“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.”

In The White Goddess, the imperturbable conviction is that before all the historically-attested religions of Europe there existed a matriarchal goddess-religion, involving a single great goddess and perhaps her lover/son; that this was a universal thing across all of Europe; that evidence for this was deliberately suppressed by “rationalists” beginning with the philosophers of Classical antiquity; that poets preserved elements of this religion -“ancient religious mysteries”—disguised in verse; and that these elements can be uncovered by any sufficiently determined learned “true poet,” viz., in this case, Robert Graves’ own self.

“I realized too,” says Graves in regard to the Hanes Taliesin, “that he [the poet] was hiding an ancient religious mystery—a blasphemous one from the Church’s point of view—under the cloak of buffoonery, but had not made this secret altogether impossible for a well-educated fellow-poet to guess.”

It is impossible not to admire the depth of Graves’ poetic self-regard. Akin to a conspiracy theorist of mythology, history, and language, he is convinced of his ability to see and to reveal hidden truths, prophet-like. Alas, to the person trained in historiography, when Graves uses words like “proof,” “reliable,” “evidence,” “must,” and “obvious,” the temptation to quote The Princess Bride is an overwhelming one.

Inigo Montoya

We can date the beginning of my desire to respond to Robert Graves’ magnum opus with gross and impolite mockery (I, clearly, in Mr. Graves’ schema, am no true poet) to the first page of the editor’s introduction, where Grevel Lindop, the said editor, makes this claim:

“It is tempting… to suggest that no one can fully understand the modern world who has not at least considered [The White Goddess]’s arguments.”

But my willingness to put up with Robert Graves’ poetic imagination of “How I Really Would Like History And Mythology And Poetry To Be” foundered entirely on page 125 and 126, when Graves connects the Irish Iron Age deity Crom or Cenn Crúaich with the Greek Herakles, and offers the following by way of explanation:

It is likely enough that this cult was introduced into Ireland in the reign of Heremon, the nineteenth King of All Ireland, the date of whose accession is traditionally given as 1267BC, though Dr. Joyce, a reliable modern authority, makes it 1015BC. Heremon, one of the invading Milesians from Spain, became sole monarch of Ireland by his victory over the armies of the North…

[There is a brief digression on the narrative of the Milesian invasion in legend here]

…If this account makes any sense it refers to a westward migration from the Aegean to Spain in the late thirteenth century BC when, as we have seen, a wave of Indo-Europeans from the north, among them the Dorian Greeks, was slowly displacing the Mycenaean ’Peoples of the Sea’ from Greece, the Aegean Islands, and Asia Minor.

At first glance, like so much of The White Goddess, this seems like a vaguely plausible statement. It has dates! It has reliable modern authorities! It has “as we have seen”! But my imagination is not nearly poetic enough—it is, perhaps, too “rigidly scientific”—to accept the nested sets of assumptions contained herein:

  1. Legendary myth-cycles or invasion accounts, like the Lebor Gabála Érenn, compiled in the middle ages, can be decoded and read as straight history of a Bronze Age past.
  2. That chronologies originally from oral traditions (such as chronologies of kings) can be used to produce absolute dates.
  3. (a) That large-scale movements of people from specific regions can be associated with the crisis at the end of the Bronze Age in the Aegean and Near East, and; (b) That Dorian Greeks were (i)both certainly a migrating thing and (ii)definitely part of this period
  4. That the eastern Mediterranean Milesian connection in the Lebor Gabála Érenn reflects something more than a medieval desire to connect Irish antiquity to the places known from the Bible and those Classical authors preserved under the umbrella of the Church’s learning.
  5. That deities at opposite ends of a continent with no direct connection (and indeed for one of whom, Crom Crúaich, very little is even known) are related and can be fitted into a universalising schema.

The White Goddess is full of such poetic logic, in which correlation may be taken to be causation; coincidence, connection; and assertion, evidence. Graves is well—one may say extensively—read in those areas which interest him, and presents for his reader a glittering array of anecdotes and allusions, quotations and passing references: but he has a poet’s disregard for analysis that takes place on any level other than that of metaphor and symbol, a fantasist’s egregious disregard for citing sources to support his conclusions, and a bad habit of cherry-picking examples and displaying them shorn of the context that might just problematise the uses to which he wishes to have them put.

As a work of poetic re-imagination of myth, it is a fascinating work. Largely unsupportable from our historic evidence, but fascinating. As a work of history, or linguistics, or mythography…

The White Goddess is not scholarship, being unconcerned with the doubt that lies at the heart of every good scholar’s work, the may and might and if-then which bridges the gaps between probabilities and data. (It is also on many counts just plain wrong.) It is, however, the very expression of the central thesis that lies at the heart of Graves’ poetry, his conviction of an enduring goddess, a Muse that speaks to him across history.

I cannot recommend The White Goddess as light entertainment. But if you’re fascinated by Robert Graves and/or interested to see where all those fantasies which posit (pre)historic matriarchies draw their inspiration, this is probably the book for you.

It is, at least, interestingly odd.


The White Goddess is available now from Farrar, Strauss, & Girroux.
Read an excerpt from the book here on Tor.com

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.


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