If only Robert Graves’s The White Goddess had appeared in July. It would have fit my story perfectly. Instead, Graves’s incomparable, extraordinarily influential book was published on 21 May 1948.
The birth of The White Goddess
In his blurb for the first edition of The White Goddess, TS Eliot, who took the book for Faber, described it as ‘prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable’. Which is pretty much how I feel about it. I’ve tried to read it several times but never got very far. I can’t see Graves’s logic for the trees. Fortunately, I was able to interview English poet, writer and critic Grevel Lindop who wrote the introduction to the Carcanet edition of the book, published in 1999.
I started by confessing to Grevel that I found The White Goddess absolutely impenetrable. ‘It’s a book that’s capable of making poets of people, but only if they’re willing to relax their minds and “go with the flow”. Just let it happen like a dream,’ he suggests before adding ‘But if you’re not instantly gripped by the book, maybe it isn’t for you anyway.’
For Grevel, the question of how accurate the book is in its scholarship is irrelevant. ‘Graves put together a collage of everything he could find that fit the vision he was having at that time. He was communicating at great speed. I don’t think attention to detail matters greatly.’
Probably the most intriguing aspect of Graves’s later years is his relationship with what he called his Muses. I wondered how Grevel would respond to the suggestion that Graves wrote The White Goddess as a high-falutin’ way of justifying his pursuit of women young enough to be his daughter. ‘The pursuit came afterwards; the book first,’ Grevel argues. ‘But as many poets have found, desire – especially unsatisfied desire – for a woman is a very powerful source of poetic fuel.’
Perhaps all you need to take away from the book is that it’s a study of ‘the language of poetic myth…a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess, or Muse’. True poets worship the White Goddess, the goddess of creation, and her embodiment is the Muse. So, the true poet (male) has no choice but to be in love with a Muse if he wants to write.
The second life of the Goddess
When it was first published, the book was met with, as Grevel puts it, ‘A lot of incomprehension, but a few very perceptive reviews’. It really came into its own when Graves produced a second edition in 1960 and ‘exactly caught the temper of the times: up to 1960 there had been very few letters to Graves about the book, but after 1960 they start to pour in. And, of course, Gerald Gardner had revived witchcraft as a structured religion around 1959 and so the book also became a sacred text for a growing worldwide congregation of goddess-worshippers. Gardner actually visited Graves in Mallorca in 1961. The 1960s also saw a new wave of feminism, and the book’s allegiance – however controversial and partial – to some sort of revaluing of female values and qualities also chimed with this.’
Graves said it more bluntly: ‘I’m today’s hero of the love-and-flowers cult out in the Screwy State, so they tell me: where hippies stop policemen in the street and say, “I adore you, officer.”’
Graves on the Muses
In the summer of 1969, when he was in his early seventies, Robert Graves was interviewed by The Paris Review. His then muse was Juli Simon, 52 years younger than him. In the interview, Graves talks at length about the Muse.
Pursuing a Muse ‘has brought me nearer and nearer to the center [sic] of the fire,’ Graves says. A Muse is a necessary challenge. ‘Love poems must be bounced back off a moon…Love a different Muse-woman and you get a different poem.’
But although Graves’s notion of the Muse is based in myth, he also comes across as oddly calculating when describing her. ‘As a rule the Muse is one whose father has deserted her mother when she was young and for whom therefore the patriarchal charm is broken, and who hates patriarchy. She may grow to be very intelligent, but emotionally she is arrested at about the age of fourteen or fifteen.’
Which makes me wonder what effect Graves had on Judith, Margot, Cindy and Juli, the young women of flesh and blood he believed to be his Muses.
The price of being a Muse
Graves’s power as a mythmaker was something else. So it’s extremely hard to know what his four main Muses really were like as women. If Margot Callas is a tenth of the woman described in Simon Gough’s The White Goddess: An Encounter she must have been a force of nature. (Deià artist David Templeton tells a story of meeting her when she was of a certain age and ‘voluptuous, busty, in a tight short dress’, and being mightily enchanted if a little unnerved.) But where Margot was a temptress to Graves, Juli Simon seems to have been a somewhat uncomplicated girl who inspired some good poems. As Graves said, ‘Love a different Muse-woman and you get a different poem’.
Scholars differ on the effect being chosen as a Muse had on a woman. Miranda Seymour says ‘I think Graves knew how to captivate young women and perhaps he didn’t realise the consequences of that.’ Grevel Lindop sees it differently. ‘Having met them,’ he says, ‘I have to add that I think the women Graves pursued got a great deal out of the experience. Perhaps too much: in some cases, it was the most intense experience of their lives.’
I don’t know enough to have an opinion on whether the women chosen to be Muses were damaged as a result or not. But I have to admire Graves’s potency as a mythmaker, his fidelity to what he saw as poetic truth and the astonishing vigour that obviously carried on well into his old age.
The splendid Carcanet edition of The White Goddess with Grevel Lindop’s introduction is in the new Deià library. Simon Gough’s hugely entertaining The White Goddess: An Encounter is a perfect Deià read.