By Robert Graves
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18.00, 520 pages
The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves is not light reading. First published in 1948 and continually expanded by Graves through 1960, this latest edition was edited with a new introduction by Grevel Lindop. This book, which has been hailed as the Hero with a Thousand Faces for poetry, includes ancient poems, technical data, etymology, alphabet origins, analysis, and more. There is an immense amount of research that goes into a work this dense as Graves strives to understand the underlying meaning of poetry. Modern poets write about love and nature, but Graves journeys further into the past when poems were folklore, mythology and religion. This book also delves into the cultures where this poetry arises, matriarchal versus patriarchal societies, how men and women relate.
“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 honor of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry– ‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of ‘the unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute’.”
This book is not for the mildly curious, but for the poetry scholars who are dedicated to understanding the roots and essence of the craft, and are willing to enter the thick forest of Graves’s studies.
Reviewed by Sarah Hutchins