The White Goddess by Robert Graves
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I came for the witchcraft, I stayed for the poetics . . .
While I was on my one-day book-procurement trip to the "booktown" of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, I stopped at Richard Booth’s bookshop (among many others) and picked up Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I knew, vaguely, that the book was about the witch cults of Great Britain and something about druids, and that’s about it. I had read several works that referenced Grave’s book, so I thought I’d cut to the source and see what all the fuss was about.
I had expected an erudite study of witchcraft and its antecedents, replete with thorough bibliography and oodles of footnotes.
In fact, the book hardly mentions witches (by name, at least) at all and there is no bibliography. There are some footnotes, but they are sometimes even more cryptic and self-referential than the text itself. But I was far from disappointed.
The White Goddess is one of those books like Gödel, Escher, Bach or Hamlet’s Mill: a rumination, of sorts, that only a genius will fully understand on the first read through, a work rife with speculation and some arguably false jumps in logic, but a brilliant work, nonetheless. It is, above all, Grave’s (very well-informed) opinion. I’ve read other reviews panning the work, and I had my problems with it, but I don’t think that it should be rejected wholesale.It is a deep, deep well to draw the waters of knowledge from.
Yes, Graves jumps from god to goddess, from tree-species to alphabetic characters, from stag cults to bull cults, then from the masculine bull-cult to the feminine partridge-cult, implicating everyone from Achilles to Christ in the process, and ends with a horribly trite last couple of chapters about politics and religion that could (and should) have just been abandoned. Graves isn’t apologetic about his promulgation of his own opinions and the fact that he is openly exploring the subject as he writes, either. I find it commendable, actually, that, at one point, he openly admits that some of the answers to the questions he was exploring came to him as he was meditating, as in doing a formal meditative practice. He’s not beholden to the sometimes-stultifying idea that ideas need to come in some sort of controlled laboratory environment. In fact, Graves shows a certain disdain toward formal academia, especially as it dulls the poetic senses:
. . . there are no poetic secrets now, except of course the sort which the common people are debarred by their lack of poetic perception from understanding, and by their anti-poetic education (unless perhaps in wild Wales) from respecting. Such secrets, even the Work of the Chariot, may be safely revealed in any crowded restaurant or café without fear of the avenging lightning-stroke: the noise of the orchestra, the clatter of plates and the buzz of a hundred unrelated conversations will effectively drown the words – and, in any case, nobody will be listening.
I wonder, somewhat, though, whether or not Graves was trying to inoculate himself against arguments from the outside that perhaps the rigor of his research was lacking? While I feel sympathy and agreement with Grave’s anti-University tirades (he has a couple in the book, both reflective of some of the feelings I had and have about graduate school), I also fear that populist anti-intellectuals might use his arguments as justification for their own (usually racist and/or misogynistic) goals. Though Graves only really argues against the problems of formal college education, his sentiments could easily be twisted into anti-intellectual arguments, the sort of which feed reactionary movements. But, since he takes a secularized view of Christianity (and, in fact, pushes for a further split between the views of the Historical Jesus and the Mystical Christ), such reactionary movements are likely to become very confused by Graves’ work. Besides, the gaps in Graves' arguments regarding early Christianity are big enough to drive a semi through. Still, I like his chutzpah and the fact that he's willing to play the provocateur, as he forces the reader to think about exactly why he's wrong. It's almost like he's taunting his audience into reacting.
As a result of all this deconstruction and reweaving of myth, it is very difficult to pin down Graves theses. One thesis is that of the poetic continuity of the worship of The White Goddess in ancient times through the Irish and Welsh poetic traditions (by way of the Greeks, mainly the Dannites, if I understood correctly) and even further through the cult of Mary and Jesus. Much of the last half of the book is dedicated to these arguments. I found them somewhat convincing, but I still have strong doubts about a few of his inferences regarding some sects of Christianity and the Jewish tradition from which they stemmed.
Another thesis that I find of great interest is that the true language of the goddess is traceable through the correlating of evidences in the Ogham alphabet relating to certain trees, which correspond, in turn, with positions on a dolmen, which correspond with calendrical events, which correspond with the fingers and palms of the hand, which correspond with certain animals, which . . . Yes, it gets exhausting, at times. My interest waned and was about to leave me altogether when the book posits that specific positions on the fingers and palms of the human hand correspond with specific letters in the Ogham alphabet. When I read this and the example given, it clicked! This was Thieves’ Cant, or a mystical, esoteric equivalent: Hidden coded messages couched in a poetic language of signs! Of course, this was 300 pages in, but well worth the wait.
Though there are many other sub-theses that I will not address, the third thesis that I found to be of most interest was probably more incidental than central. I also found it to be the most poignant. It has to do with methodology and echoes with some of the same laments as the earlier-quoted paragraph. Graves says:
What interests me most in conducting this argument is the difference that is constantly appearing between the poetic and prosaic methods of thought. The prosaic method was invented by the Greeks of the Classical age as an insurance against the swamping of reason by mythographic fancy. It has now become the only legitimate means of transmitting useful knowledge. And in England, as in most other mercantile countries, the current popular view is that ‘music’ and old-fashioned diction are the only characteristics of poetry which distinguish it from the prose; that ever poem has, or should have, a precise single-strand prose equivalent. As a result, the poetic faculty is atrophied in every educated person who does not privately struggle to cultivate it: very much as the faculty of understanding pictures is atrophied in the Bedouin Arab. (T.E. Lawrence once showed a coloured crayon sketch of an Arab Sheikh to the Sheikh’s own clansmen. They passed it from hand to hand, but the nearest guess as to what it represented came from a man who took the sheikh’s foot to be the horn of a buffalo.) And from the inability to think poetically – to resolve speech into its original images and rhythms and re-combine them on several simultaneous levels of thought into a multiple sense – derives the failure to think clearly in prose. In prose one thinks on only one level at a time, and no combination of words needs to contain more than a single sense; nevertheless the images resident in words must be securely related if the passage is to have any bite. This simple need is forgotten, what passes for simple prose nowadays is a mechanical stringing together of stereotyped word-groups, without regard for the images contained in the. The mechanical style, which began in the counting-house, has now infiltrated into the university, some of its most zombiesque instances occurring in the works of eminent scholars and divines.
I may not agree with the vociferousness of Grave’s obvious rancor, but I agree with the premise. We have lost the mindset of poetics, having surrendered to a stiff logic that doesn’t allow for the breadth of poetic expression and, in fact mocks it as an obfuscation of clarity. But this obfuscation was intentional, meant to keep the secrets of the mystical cults of the past, to hide the mysteries of life and the universe to all but the initiated. The initiated have been suppressed, in the modern age. As a result, the skill of poetic interpretation has died on the vine, and we may never be able to bring it back. However, I feel that there will always be a poetic underground that does the work necessary to carry on the essential esoteric tradition of the bards. I hold a hidden hope.
Update 11/5/2020: I just learned that Graves grew up in Wales. I should have known that. I picked up this book in Wales when we visited Hay-on-Wye in 2019.
There is a fantastic interview of Graves here.
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