Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The White Goddess

I’d like to introduce a “dangerous” book to all of you. I’ve just read Robert Grave’s book The White Goddess, and I normally don’t do reviews of older books on my blog (I save that for Goodreads), but I think that this book warrants an exception. Ever since it was published many decades ago, The White Goddess has held a somewhat infamous reputation, but it is still in print and I can see why. Never in a single book have I come across such a combination of wildly inaccurate statements mixed in with some truly remarkable gems of literature.

Briefly, this book by Robert Graves’ (a novelist and poet in his own right) contains his musings on what poetry (and by extension writing and art in general) actually is and why it’s so important. To call it a defense of poetry would be an understatement, and any poet, novelist, writer, or simply artist who loves books should give this strange book a read.

Now before I give you a glimpse of the book in Graves’ own words, I’d like to preface it with a few “guidelines.” Feel free to disagree with Graves’ throughout his book…in fact I encourage it! But at the same time try to keep an open mind, because he has some truly ingenious ideas that have altered the way I will look at poetry and writing going forward. English majors will probably love this book. Historians and linguists, however, may not. His use of pseudo-history stems from ignorance rather than an outright intention to deceive. Psychologists will also probably have a field day, as Graves’ notions about the “goddess” or muse at times reflects his own successes and failures with the women in his personal life. But enough of my opinion. If you read nothing else, simply peruse the foreword of his book, an excerpt of which I have posted below:


“ ‘What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?’ is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people. The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites. But ‘nowadays’? Function and the use remain the same; only the application has changed. This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family. ‘Nowadays’ is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonored. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; race-horse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as ‘auxiliary State personnel’. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.”

– Robert Graves (from the Foreword of The White Goddess)

So give it a glance, and see where his book takes you. I found his ideas about Irish and Welsh poetry particularly enlightening, and although he often tries to encompass too great a scope, his thoughts on everything from Greek to British to Roman to Egyptian to Libyan to Norse to Babylonian to Hebrew culture, myth, and poetry really provides a poetic feast for the mind. The book itself is in some ways in inkblot, everyone seeing something else there. So peruse its pages and let me know just how the muse speaks to you!