From the foreword and first two chapters of The White Goddess I feel confident in saying that Robert Graves is an incredible madman. Incredible because of the knowledge of Celtic lore that he’s already displayed in these pages. A madman because his book’s purpose is to reveal some of the principles of what he considers “true poetry.”
The definition of this phrase goes far in revealing both of these qualities of Graves.
He defines true poetry as works that in some way describe an incident in what he calls “The Theme.”
He uses this term for a sort of mono-myth, though it’s not the hero’s journey that he places at the center of his analysis. Instead, it’s something more Jungian in that Graves’ Theme is the story of the god of the waxing year coming into conflict with the god of the waning year for the affection of the three-fold goddess (mother, bride, and killer).
I was already grabbed by Graves’ foreword in which he presents himself as an eccentric poet who feels that, as a poet, he can best express his devotion to the muse, the white goddess, by living in an agricultural community like that on the island of Majorca. But the mention of a three-fold goddess’ being mother and killer brought to mind the idea behind James Incandenza’s Infinite Jest, that the woman who kills you (since, apparently, a woman always kills you) is your mother when you’re reborn into the world, and that completely pulled me in.
Another part of his thesis is that humanity took the wrong course from Socrates onwards.
Because Graves claims that Socrates was misguided in his thinking that mythology held no use outside of being entertaining children’s stories and that “to know thyself” is possible without myth. Graves also postulates that Socrates’ rise to intellectual prominence reflected a shift from a matrilineal society in which women were venerated by men (and necessary for them to know themselves, which I’m choosing to understand in a Jungian sense rather than simply a physiological one) to a patrilineal society in which all of the places poets would go for inspiration were commodified, their symbols rendered meaningless, and women subjected to the will of men.
Graves’ interpretations of Shakespeare minutiae are also great enticements for me.
Greatest of all, though, is the style in which Graves writes.
For the most part, The White Goddess is written in the same way that an engaging lecture is delivered. He gets a little obscure when he’s trying to pull a single poem from one that he claims is an entanglement of several as in chapter two, but even then he doesn’t hide what he’s doing in technical language. It’s just a little easier to get lost in the nuance in this close analysis.
Mixed as it is with mythological lore and poetic interpretation, I’m finding The White Goddess far more engaging than I expected. And Graves, who openly admits to having tried psilocybin mushrooms, has so far shown an academic honesty I can’t help but admire.
What do you think when the first fifty pages of a book wow you? Do you expect the rest of it to have the same effect? Or do you take that sort of enthusiastic start as a sign that the rest of the book won’t be quite so good?