The Genius of Robert Graves Author(s): George Steiner Reviewed work(s): Source: The Kenyon Review, Vol. 22, No.

3 (Summer, 1960), pp. 340-365 Published by: Kenyon College Stable URL: . Accessed: 06/10/2012 15:22
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George Steiner





bronzed profile of one of those Roman emperors about whom he writes so brilliantly; the massive grace of a soldier and mountaineer who, at the age of sixty-five, moves nimbly down the rock-paths of his island to plunge into the dawn cold of the Mediterranean;the bearing of a man who has sired eight children and seventy books; who has lived by his pen and his wits in tenacious integrity and who, after years in comparativeneglect, is beginning to loom over the horizon as the finest and most prolific man of letters now writing in English. His name is Robert Graves. He has given me fair warning not to attempt this essay: "I doubt whether you will get me right on any but the intellectual side; the emotional side has to be sympathized with by a few pints of Irish blood which God has (perhaps mercifully) denied you." And he has written a deft, cruel poem to "The Reader Over My Shoulder": Whatnow,old enemy,shallyoudo But quoteand underline, yourself thrusting of me, Against as ambassador myself, of confusion myselfand you? In damned Knownme, done:I am a proudspirit have And you forever clay.Have done. True; we are forever clay and in few men is the quality of genius more elusive and fiercely guarded than in Graves. He is a proud spirit on his ancient rock-castled island of Majorca. He does not wish to be painted-perhaps lest something of his daemonic

I. in one of a dozen paper-back editions. an autobiographywidely thought to be the greatest piece of English prose to have come out of the mire and anguish of the first World War? There is too much here even for the bibliographer: some . more sensuous as Graves grows older? His historical novels. more golden. the score of anthologies which he has prefaced and edited or his eight-hundred page dictionary of Greek myths? Should we turn first to Graves' controversial labours on anthropology and religion. his brilliant translations from the Latin and the Spanish. Claudius being demonstrably the finest piece of historical fiction in our century? His es-/ /' says. are becoming more agile. such as the Survey of Modernist Poetry (which remains the best general introduction that anyone has written to the problems of contemporary verse) ? Where should we "thrust ourselves"against Graves' myriad-sided achievement? By picking up. The White Goddess and The Nazarene Gospel Restored? Or to Goodbye to All That. Moreover.341 vitality be filched by the portrait. through some rare spell. what should one quote and underline? His poems which.

has written and writtenand writtenin splendiddisdainof charityor com- . The earna living in ways ultiof majority modernpoetsand essayists publishingor perhaps mately hostile to their art: in journalism.He is a writer'swriter. and a full-sizedbest-seller-TheyHanged My Balzac. He gavehim one of the precious thin timesof it.The fortunate ride on the writor a "creative bounty. of seventyttles in the Library Congress half book-reviews.on a Guggenheim. particularly he polishesand limns his versewith infinitecare?Partof the answeris that. translations work on sketchesin Punch. onceT. Lawrence early copiesof the Seven Pillarsof Wisdommarked"readand He sell"and Gravespulled throughon the proceeds. in teaching. E.reviewsof a monumental humorous Reviewof Literain of the anthropology mushrooms the Saturday in defenseof The WhitcGoddess tureand the Atlantic. bitterly-attacked book. a dozen works teredpoems.B.essays. two superbvolumes of from Lucanand Suetonius(both with fine prefaces). he can write proseat a fantasticpace: Goodbyeto All That was words writtenin 1929 in only threemonthsand seventythousand of The White Goddess-a complexweb of argument-were put on paperin a mere three weeks! Part of the answerlies in the singlenessof Graves'endeavour.broadcasts.. Jesus Rome. crestof charitable ing" fellowshipor a Prix de Rome. essayon Caesarin the magazinesectionof on the New York Times.He has had in 1926. Not Graves. as How does Gravesdo it.342 ROBERT GRAVES scatcountless catalogue. All this (and no doubta good deal more) within the compassof a few months.duringa rathercomicalyearat the University Cairo lecturesrarelyand asks for no grants. I once tried to keep abreast in progressor in publishers' during spring and summer:poems in the New Yorkerand the an LondonSpectator. few of most perilously all.C.He has taught of only once. hands. a seriesof broadcasts Roman life reprinted in the Listenerof the B.a spirited the New Republicfollowed by three articleson the evils of acain little a demic scholarship.

When Gravesstepsinto a room the sensation energyand alivenessis palpable. fine hands and the massivehead are all the gatheredin inviolateconcentration.Poetry." to the broadshoulders.lies a and and centralvision. the translations the volumesof anthropology myth. And there is yet anotherclue to the bewilderingscope of Graves'work. grandfather his was ProtestantBishop of Limerick and unriddled the ancient Irish Ogham script.This is the essentialGraves-a strange brew. Graves' life has been primarilythat of his books.Charterhouse (where the boy met the greatestof mountaineers. a unified image of reality and poetic experience towardwhich the individualcreationscontributeas stones to a mosaic.looking down at a sea which he has aptlycompared "a cat with fur rubbedthe wrong way.Thereare guiding threadsinto the labyrinth." But behind the immenseoutput there are also mental and physicalpowersof a rareorder.and in the son the Irishelementdominates. antiquarian lore. The sight recallsPicassobewitching clay into outstanding English school.The proseis thereto make money. hoaxing. Over the Brazicr (I9I6). From the first slim collectionof poems. a senseof ancient tradition.The relentlessly factualGermanhistorianLeopold von Ranke is his maternalgreat-uncle. High energiesare broughtto bearon the task beforehim. To those who take much stock in heredity. the criticalessays. George Mallory) and the yearsin the trenches.Gravesseniorwas a minor poet best rememberedfor FatherO'Flynn.GEORGE STEINER 343 promise. the novels. . of when he sits at his work tablein the houseat Deya. Behind the poems.add to them the two things.eruditewit of the Irish.venom to scholars capableof bringingthe fairy-people but to yourbook-shelf. his paternalgrandmothercould trace her lineage to the medieval kings of Scotland. to the translationof the Iliad.historical research.for all things in this rich life have been "subordinated an inveterateprofessionof to poetry.Graves'ancestrywill not be without interest.

he speaks of it as a "low-grade vitality death" and has written: To bring the dead to life Is no great magic. life prevailed in the seeming corpse. Eliots and Ezra Pounds who remained in London while their fellow-poets died in the trenches. contemptuous gaiety toward those who merely write about battles from their fire-side arm-chairs-toward the T. On the night of the 20th to the 2ISt of July I9I6. in the Martinpuich sector. He served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers-the very regiment in which his son was to be killed in Burma in I943and with a battalion to which personal courage was the sole means of admission. Few are wholly dead: Blow on a dead man's embers And a live flamewill start. S. Soon Graves was to publish a courteous announcement in the London Times to inform all and sundry that he was not dead. was brought to a hospital in Oxford and spent the rest of the war training fresh levies. Having fought magnificently. Night after night he crawled out into the reeking carnage of no-man's land under the star-shells and the acrid scent of gas. . In January 19I7 Graves went back to the trenches. But he collapsed with bronchitis. Fighting near him was Siegfried Sassoon. Hence his belief that Jesus survived the crucifixion and that there runs between what we ordinarily call life and death a broad shadow-line. But the experience became central to his entire work and philosophy. Graves was terribly wounded. In the Gravesian code courage without bravado ranks high and wherever he writes of war-in the Claudius novels. Graves developed a harsh.344 ROBERT GRAVES The first World War hammered Graves' temper into its enduring shape. in Count Belisariusand the saga of Sergeant Lamb-it is with the knowing toughness of a man who has gone armed through hell. His colonel took him to be dead and wrote the usual letter home. Through some miracle of stubbornness and arch-cunning.

the brief attempt at academic respectabilityin Egypt. George Sand and Chopin passed a wretched winter in Valdemosa. The footnotes sustain a fusillade of derision on the unfortunate lady and her famous lover. Graves turned to historical fiction and moved to Spain. E. the Mesopotamia of Adam's . disciples and would-be biographersare availing themselves annually). more daemonic and legend-like than anywhere else. Lawrence (Lawrence of the Arabs in 1927 was Graves' first commercial success). who speak an ancient and difficult language. gnarled olive trees and orange orchardsdescending in escarpmentsto secluded coves. here perhaps more timehaunted. In 1929 came Goodbye to All That. He has lived there for eighteen years. returning to England only in times of war and on occasional visits. the publication of many outstanding poems and the decisive encounter with Laura Riding with whom Graves wrote some of his best essays and who probably signifies to him. to this day.GEORGE STEINER 345 The post-war years brought the meeting with T. and all-surrounding the Mediterranean. He is one of them and that is something few foreigners have ever achieved in a Spanish community. The setting is incomparable: bastions of rock shading from copper to pastel gray with the passage of the sun. It is the center of a world which he has made peculiarily his own. a few miles away on the road to Palma. But Majorca has meant more to Graves than a beauteous and inexpensive haven. On its eastern frontiers lie the Black Sea of Hercules. My Shipmate and The Golden Fleece. Graves has not forgiven them for it and one of the funniest things he has ever published is an annotated edition of George Sand's memoirs of the island. Resolved to earn his living entirely by his pen. To get the full flavour of the man one must have had the privilege of seeing him in his home on the island of Majorca (a privilege of which a growing number of young poets. The villagers. the incarnation of the Muse. will point out "Sefior Graves'" house with reticent pleasure.

And nowhere has time come more perThe tide upon which Graves ceptiblyto a halt than in Majorca. isles of Greeceand the mainland which Graveshas broughtto fantasticlife in his GreekMyths.Miltonand of two of Graves' most successful They HangedMy SaintlyBilly. the the heart of Graves'world is the ancient Mediterranean.magic-ridden England land of The White Goddessand later on the historical novels.I experienced senseof being of in the presence an aging magician.Hercules.the Americaof the SergeantLamb books. looks from the high rocksis trulythat on which Jason.C.346 ROBERT GRAVES also of Rib and the Palestine King Jesus. Wifeto Mr. persuasive It was sundown with the rocks seeminglyablaze and the cool the darkness tiding in from the east.and though his works range from the thirteenthcenturyB. sea and aroundwhich most of westernreligion. its Isles of Unn'sdom and.Therehe his warm and voice.rolls the Atlantic with its legends of lost kingdoms. Though Gravesiangeographyis far-flung. the archaic. . He was expounding.and a group Joshua children.Aeneas and Caesarset sail. Odysseus. to the future indefinite (in the fantasynovel Watchthe North WindRise). I once saw Gravessitting in his garden with his youngest Podro. of guestsfrom far away.The hot wind which blows from Africa scuddingblack cloudsbeforeit was familiar to mariners milleniaago.with his eruditecollaborator. In Engthe northernmists is England. on the furthesthorizon.Eastward are the Byzanthe tium of Count Belisarius. Movingever with the sun we come to the Italy of the Claudius novels and the Sicily of Homer'sDaughter. The laurel and the olive grow hereas they did for Pindarand Ovid. seeingthe high priestof of who would or somelost religionand mystery.literature philosophy first came into being. a legendary sea-god wind his horn and summonfrom the darkeningwaves his host of Tritons. the trovesof historyburiedin a nurseryrhyme.West from Gibraltar-beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

Graves' specialtone. 347 But I hear Gravessaying. the secondfrom his latest: Small gnats that fly In hot July And lodge in sleeping ears Can rouse therein A trumpet's din With Day of judgement fears. .GEORGE STEINER Content in you. But as Gravesis a in severediscarder his own writings. that this is supposed be a discussion his work and not an attempt to of at romanticportrayal. Asking no rescue of me. one from Graves' earlywork. It seems to me that Graves' verseis not the summitof his achievement that and it is markedlyof a lesserpower than that of other modernpoets whom he has denouncedas charlatans false idols. the qualityand idiom of his art.He has alwaysbeen a masterof the short lyric. His wit poems resoundand reflectlike burnished copper. the Twenty-Three Poemsof 1925 and the verseprintedat the end of The CrowningPrivilege(I955) and Steps (i98).But it is the poetryon whichhe takeshis standand it is as a poetthathe would want to be remembered the historyof Englishliterature. Whipperginny (1923). I947 and I955.precisionin the choice of language.On his tax returns(and as title to a collection of essays) Gravesputs Occupation:Writer.Doubtless. Mistress of air and ocean And every fiery dragon. Andromeda serene. at The Pier Glass (1921).with a touch of impatience. Collected and Poemsappeared 1926. I938.tightnessof structure. Chained to no cliff.whereveryou strike them they ring true.readersshould look also at of individual is with the poetry that he would have us begin. Take two poems.can be recognizedvery early. in But here I find myself on difficultground. his determiningvirtuesare clarity. and a high finish.

Nor burned.nor returned(the heartbeing obstinate) Yet never dare entrust them to a safe For fear they burn a hole throughtwo-footsteel.) Both poems. belong to a tradition of English poetry which leads from the Tudor poet Skelton (whom .drums Standards. When all is over and you marchfor home: That lock of rings. May decoratea staircaseor a study. A straw will crack The camel'sbackThere is no easier way. But both are distinguished examples of the Gravesian manner. gold teeth and suchAre sold anonymouslyfor solid cash. The spoils of war are easily disposedof: weaponsof combat. and most of Graves' verse.348 Small mice at night Can wake more fright Than lions at midday. And one hard look Can close the book That lovers love to see. While lessergleanings of the battlefieldCoins.helmets. The spoils of love presenta differentcase. watches. (2) ROBERT GRAVES When all is over and you marchfor home. One smile relieves A heartthat grieves Though deadlysad it be. the latter poem is the finer of the two. In contrast to much modern poetry literary allusions play only the slightest role (there are in the first poem an obvious Scripturalecho and a somewhat guarded and not terribly important reference to Dante's famous account of how Paolo and Francesca discovered their mutual passion while reading together. the syntax is handled with unobtrusive grace. those lettersand the portrait May not be publiclydisplayed. Plainly enough. The movement is simple and taut.nor sold.

in the final reckoning. It has metric affinitieswith the English and Scottish ballads-of which Graves has publislhed an anthology. the outermost splendors of language and emotion seem to lie beyond it. Graves has argued.GEORGE STEINER 349 Graves has lovingly edited) to Herrick. It begins by recollccting the day of Queen Victoria's death: I remember. political lunacy and gibberish. And with each year this control has been getting even more precise and inventive. It is the tradition of the short lyric.the Times has a black border. Marchingsolemnlyupstairswith the paper Like an angel of doom. Graves' poetry lacks the sheer comprehensivenessof. Landor and such American writers as John Crowe Ransom and Marianne Moore. At times. of the minor key and the voice kept clear and poised. with justice. the achievement of poignancy through understatement-all these exemplify a poet in mature control of his instrument. it is occasional poetry in the best sense. 'Father. Eliot's. S. but the closing section of the LXXXIst Canto- ." Moreover. pretentious and wildly out of control. The seeming casualness of treatment.' Then I grew scared When big tears started. The highest intensities. T.Look! The Queen is dead.a frostyinorning When I was five yearsold and broughtill news. But what I query. that much of Dylan Thomas's poetry is obscure. the subtle but apparently natural rhythm. is the range of the instrument itself. say. ran down both his cheeks To hang glistening in the red-grey beardA sight I hiad never seen before. knocked gently.Ma'am. But nothing he himself has written burns into one's memory quite as deeply as Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night. One of Graves' most effective poems was written in salute to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. he cannot engender and discipline the language and sensibility of an entire generation as did The Waste Land. The work of Ezra Pound is full of spurious scholarship.

350 ROBERT GRAVES Pull down thy vanity. ground. How can those terrifiedvague fingerspush The featheredglory from her looseningthighs sonnetsin world literature.Himself an Irishmanand masterof myth.Englishand Ameriof autobiography the cancriticsapplauded "originality" a fictional the RomanemperorHadrian. We novel that he standssupreme. it is not man Made courage.absolutely the distinguished firstrank.but it is not.Only recently.or made order. or made grace- endures. as will sing in men'smemories long as Englishliterature of Can we say that with completeassurance anythingin Graves' CollectedPoems?Finally.Where the book was most imof had of it pressive. Gravesand Repeatedly with Donne and Keatsand Wordsworth.Graves' Yeatsmeet on comparable That horror with which Leda quaked Under the spreadwings of the swan is good poetry. is Graves'poetic achievement of a very of orderindeed.thereis the challengeof Yeats-about whom Graveshas made some of his least defensiblepronouncements." The sense of Prayerfor My Daughter" is difference inescapable. I think. is among the proudest Compareone of Graves'major poems. was in factan imitation whatGraves done in the . Yeatsis probably the only modern poet of whom we can safely assertthat future criticswill include him among the great springsof life. He holds her helplessbreastupon his breast.But Yeats' A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl. "To Juan at the with two poems by Yeats in a similarkey. her nape caught in his bill. her thighs caressed By the dark webs. "A Winter Solstice" and "All Souls'Night. lose It is in the historical because has beenso much pilfered he sight of his statureprecisely and imitatedby lesserhands.

speaksto us in to his own voice and brings his own world unforgettably our minds and senses.My Shipmate. Graves between the known accomplishpounced on the discrepancies ments of the EmperorClaudiusand Tacitus'sand Suetonius's pedant.of his military campaignin England. We learn of Claudius's interestin philology. The maintraditions had sunkwhen Graves romanticism The Last Days of of had been set by the post-card Pompeiiand the purplebathosof Quo Vadis. Brush stroke by brush stroke. Claudius must go as far backas Thackeray's HenryEsmond.Claudius God. Nor must we forget the level to which historicalfiction kindledit backto life. his cast of mind and his sly modesty. In two accountof him as a weakling and a capricious word extraordinary novels (though that is not a very satisfactory for them) Graveslets Claudiustell the storyof his early life. we say to ourselves. Claudius its sequel.of his love for the corrupt Messalina.the lucid pictureof the otherwise gay and fast-moving . With acute psychologicalinsight. A There is genius in the very title of Graves'masterpiece.all of Graves'historicalnovels accomMy are plish this feat of re-creation.It is an obvioustributeto Graves'successthat we tend to forget who it is that is actuallywriting the book and that Claudiusis.This is what life in imperialRome must have soundedand lookedand smelt like. with his readingI. "Thisis how it musthavebeen. no less a fictionalcreationthan Sir Walter Scott'sKing Richardor Tolstoy'sNapoleon. from nearlytwo thousandyearsago. personage.of his humane attitudestoward religion and absolutepower.the man emergesbeforeus. own favourites the boisterous sea-tale.GEORGE STEINER 351 I930'S. This is what dinner must have tasted like in the house of a patricianand this is what a Roman centurionmust have exin perienced battle. of his brusqueelevationto the throne.If we want to find a to we genuineancestor I.Homer'sDaughterwhich is a romance." In varyingmeasure. Time and the and again. Hercules. in his own way.

Wife to attemptto show thatthe traditional things did in fact come to tell us what "really" of have falsifiedor the passage passand what it is that historians time has obscured.Hercules.Graves beingnine-tenths novels are works of art At their truest.eachreader his personalchoice. My Shipmate and The Golden took and Fleece revealto us wlhatroute the Argonauts"really" Daughter the "realtruth"about Jasonand Medea.Milton. In They Hanged My Saintly Billy.the Goncourts:"Historyis a novel that has beenlived.352 ROBERT GRAVES and Wife ratherobscureVlth centuryA. Ranke.Graves'historical and abovetheir wealth of documentation beyondtheir running .) King Jesus news-stallsall over the English-speaking anthropolostrikesme as a failurebecausein it the controversial of gist overwhelmsthe craftsman fiction. MariePowell. was a spirited and enchantingyoung woman. took place. (All of theseare currently on and the name of RobertGravesfiguresprominently railroad world." what fictionthat we see plainlyrevealed It is in his historical is probablythe dominant impulse and unifying principle in contains Graves'work.D. the Nausicaawho figuresbrieflyin the epic. in CountBelisarius. Gravesuses the techniquesof fiction to maintain that a notoriousXlXth centurymurdertrial was actuallya miscarriageof justice. The instinct is always identical:"Don't be of or taken in by officialhistorians the distortions time-here is For what reallyhappened!" when he pointsto his descentfrom serious. is von thatarch-historian.In Honmer's was we learnthat the Odyssey in fact writtenby a youngSicilian by princess. But from the tapestry will make which Graveshas unrolledacrossthe ages. The title of The Real David Copperfield novelsseeks to Each of Graves'historical the essentialpassword. in available paper-backs to Mr.One thing is certain:not since Tolstoy has remarkof any novelistcome closerto justifyingthe paradoxical the French critics.Miltonis a tightly-argued is pictureof Milton'shaplessmarriage a piousfraud-that it was Miltonwho was at fault and that his wife.

normal. it seemsto me. II Graveshas said of himself: I am no mystic. in the Sergeant Lambseries. spiritualism. my children. rustic life with my wife.GEORGE STEINER 353 quarrel with one or anothergroupof historians. Yoga. Readers who care neitheraboutRomanhistoriography aboutMilton'sviews on nor divorceand who haveneverheardof Butler's theorieson Homer. have delightedin Graves'books for the gusto of their narrative and their uncannypower to conjureup before our eyes ancient timesand remotescenes.where Graves'personalopinions are most passionately engaged (as in anything dealing with Jesus) or where the inclinationsof the antiquarian becometoo blatantas. of the compendious learningin The White Goddessis shot through with poeticvision. to turn from one of the finer poets and the best historical novelistof our age to the most controversial of "scholars"is merely to consider the same mind and accomplish- ment from a slightlydifferentperspective. the moreover. I live a simple. no secret society. I studiously avoid witchcraft. no .The methodhas its obviousperils.The Greek Mythsand Jesusin Rome.King Jesus hovers unsteadilybetweenfiction and researches bewilderingerudition. Graves towersabovehis manyrivalsandimitators a literary in field which extendsfrom the rigorousscholarship a Zoe Oldenburgto the of trashof ForeverAmber. Manifestly. RobertGraveswho writeshistorical novelsis the same Graveswho seeksto get "at the real truth"in The White Goddess. Betweenhis fictionand his formidably controversial laboursin anthropology and religion runs a single thread. I belong to no religious cult. fortune-telling. automatic writing. In no man is the part of imaginationharnessedmore tightly to that of reason and argument.Thus.But take him for all in all. and a wide circle of sane and intelligent friends.the novels suffer.The NazareneGospelRestored. and so on.

but what counts most heavilyin the final analysisis whetheror not the given account event or the particular of an historical readingof a myth "feels right" to Graves'sensibilityand to his image of human exIn perience. his numberlesssources and glossaries. the vastweb of his writings. behind what he calls his analeptic of method-"the intuitiverecovery forgotten eventsby a deliberate of of suspension time"-lie the temperand personalexperience the poet. But in the smoke and tumult a central fact is lost sight of. but I do value my the the theorythatJesussurvived cross. They seein Graves dangerous a amateur.The GreekMyths and the works on Jesussomethingof their fierce a sense.which I trust up to the point where it can be factuallychecked. who imposesupon realitya worldof privatefantasies.354 ROBERT GRAVES philosophical sect. Eachof his anthropological exegeticworkssalliesforth firing broadsides and at the bastions officialscholarship being rakedfrom every of and shore.die for the Goddesswhom he adores" and.Graveshits hard and has forced some of his more acrimoniouscriticsto retract theirallegations underthreatof law.memoryand the artistic skein. finally.C.Thus we movefrom Graves' "death" gift arethe unvarying on the westernfrontto his beliefthat "every Muse-poet must. but were preserved witches.travellingmin"by and Somepoets strels. possibly evena charlatan. But only if the poet adheres .his texts. Most of his academicopponentswould not acceptthis portrait. It is an exhilaratingspectacleand gives The White Goddess. Behind Graves' theories.remotecountry-folk.the to TripleMoonGoddesswhose lore and worshipwere." have disguisedtheirworshipof the White Goddessby addressing her Musesor by concealing presence her as one of the traditional behind the name of a mortal woman." To be a true poet a man must servethe White Goddess.And at the heartof the design is the Gravesian figureof the "truepoet. a few secretheretics.drivenunderground masculine by religionsin the second milleniumB. Gravesmarshalshis archaeological evidence.according Graves.

artificially contrived. They supposethat northerninvadersinto BronzeAge Creteand Greecegradually supplanted theseancientcultsand put in theirplacethe patriarchal pantheonof familiarGreek mythology. holds that the cult He of the WhiteGoddesscontinuedin Englandand in Wales."will he possessthe faculty of creating verse"moon-magical enough to walk off the page."Fake poetry.he "neverfails to bow to the new inherent in the originsof all majorreligions.GEORGE STEINER 355 to the ancientcult.Anthropologists and tend to agree that matriarchal rites and the worshipof a GreatGoddesswere in wide-spread the Neolithicand BronzeAges. resultsfrom "pretending have undergonethe on the contrary. in fact.No matter. and These poetsseek to conveyrevelations ecstaticinsightswhich are. mostreaders modernversethesenameswill seem To of wilfully obscure. But it is on his excursions into historicaltimes that Graves partscompanyfrom approved scholarship. contemporaries are notoriouslybad prophetsof what it is that will surviveand be prizedin the future.A good many scholars concurin finding tracesof this processand of the archaicsubstratumin such mythsas Oedipus's of overthrow the Sphinxand in Jehovah's Rahab.of Dylan Thomas. only if.Graves'list of "realpoets"includes LauraRiding. to the In Graves'view. H. symbolic bothfertilityand death."from that of pretending haveexperienced nearness the WhiteGoddess. says Graves. Wilfred Owen.and that the struggleagainstthe . They find that the worshipof a femininefigure with lunar and of magicalattributes. of Ezra Pound and of W. The historicalevidencefor Graves'portrayalof the White Goddessis tenebrous complex. to profoundmental disturbance calls poetryinto being. like Graveshimself. Alun Lewis and Norman Cameron.where she was known as Caridwen. most of the poetryof Yeats.Certainschools victoryover the Sea-Serpent of comparative religionand psychology furtherand see in the go Virgin Mary merely one in a long chain of MotherGoddesses. Auden is "fake"in just this way.

seal (he takesit to in life.The GreekMythsis a fascinating but full of verve." this is the crucialpoint.Gravesbelievesthat a great battle took place between the two worlds and that it is recordedin a riddlingand restored-abouta poem-which he has triumphantly fragmentary battle of the trees." Granted.Composedat one great burst of vision.symbolizedby the waxing and waning of the moon. emblem of by the death and re-birth the year. then. idioeasternmythology. imagewhich seemto derivefromoutside poetry. All these things are told of in The White Goddess. and was not thereforegiven footnotes. believein the White Goddessas an God "Whether or actualpresence being?His answeris equivocal: or argued:let us likeis a metaphor a fact cannotbe reasonably on of wise be discreet the subject the the double-axe in much of great of the White Goddess.356 ROBERT GRAVES can new religion of the masculineconquerors be tracedin the very alphabet.Does he. "whence the great line of inspiration. Graveshas said that there is for the true poet only one theme-the interplayof love and death.But let us realizealso that it is the White Goddess of who is the clue to Graves're-interpretation Greek and near book. .one of the most original books publishedin modern have and times.Linguists.It is a bookfor poetsno less than Burton's in to Anatomyof Melancholy which alone it compares lore and magic and erudition.He meansby this that poetrythese primalcyclesand rhythmsare evokedand that it is language the markof a greatpoetthathe can relatehis individual sensation mystery of shared to universally andexperience a central. it recordsGraves'life-long encounterwith the mysteryof poetic with the ancient riddle. paleographers anthropologists quarreled with nearlyeveryaspectof it. In a letterto me Gravestermsit "a Surely book for poets. Graveswearson his fingera carnelian be of the Argonautperiod) showing a royalstag with the moon on its flank.The root and syncratic frequentlyexasperating.the incandescent to the poet?"In a poem addressed his son.

The incredibleenergy and reconditelearning that went into the work can bestbe shown if we considerone or two of the storieswith which most of us are familiarfrom childhood. . In turn. according to the Mabinogion.invadedGreeceearly in the secondmilleniumB.ApolloniusRhodius. says an unlimited male monarchy. points to the same cult.Apollo's of the destruction the Pythonat Delphi "seemsto record" capture of the CretanEarth-goddess's shrine by the invadingAchaeans. or which beginwith theiryearly. .Hyginus.and refer to the alders 'growing on the banks of' the Peneius and other rivers. since the sorb-apple (French=alisier) and the alder (Spanish=aliso) both bear the name of the pre-HellenicRiver-goddess Halys. Oeagrus ('of the wild sorb-apple'). Aornum is Avernus. Phoroneusor Cronus. and sacrifices. or Alys.' may be a title of Bran'sGreek counterpart.of funerarypipes made from alder-bark.Cronus. When reachingsunlighton his ascentfrom the ." Graves.Athenaeus. with the changing relationsbetween the queen and her lovers.for example.Euripides. end.Thius.DiodorusSiculus. FirstGraves givesa traditional account of it and cites as his sourcesPindar. Starting from this theory.C.if it stands for ophruoeis.Then begins the Gravesian gloss on the true "meaning" of the legend: Orpheus'ssinging head recallsthat of the decapitatedAlder-godBran which. Ovid. thesisis that "Early Greekmythologyis concerned. Take thatof Orpheus. an Italic variant of the Celtic Avalon ('apple-treeisland'). queen of the Elysian Islands. and Orpheus went after death. Thus the name Orpheus.perhaps. Aristophanes.Lucian and Philostratus. Pausanias. Graves"elucidates" each incident and gesture in the traditional myth. Plutarch. or Elis. Aeschylus. Erastothenes.'on the river bank. and challengedthe rule of the Goddess. where Phoroneus. a fable. The name of Orpheus's father.GEORGE STEINER 357 aboveall else. twice-yearly. sang sweetly on the rock at Harlechin North Wales.Gravesproceeds re-telland interout to pretthe mythsfamiliarto readers Bulfinchand otherstandard of mythologies. with her eclipseby The patriarchalHellenes. at the time when the Iliad was composed.

says Graves.C.We protest. accordingto Graves. all Neolithicand BronzeAge paradises arisen? It is "mistakenlydeduced the "wrong"interpretation beinggivenan apple-bough from the iconwhich showedHeracles in by the Hesperides-the nakedNymph-goddess triad-Adanus Motherof All by of Hebronbeing immortalized the Canaanite Living. use us that the IbanDayaksof modernSarawak shrunkenheads rituals. of distorted a mis-reading an ancienticon or pictorial by by is eitherof wilful distortion This mis-reading the consequence of laterreligionsor of the sheerpassage time.Conductor Souls. Where a myth has This appealto icons is Graves' it to be re-interpreted is becauseits true significancehas been emblem.Gravesdisfrom the versioncommonlyadopted."The Orpheuslegend tells that the severedhead of promptlyGravesinforms the poet continuedto utterprophecies. Not at is provedby the presence Hermes.Orpheusturns around and fatally loses Eurydice. or the victor of the foot-raceat Olympiareceivinghis of of prize.The three goddessesare of actuallya triplerepresentation the GreatGoddessand it is she who is giving the apple to Parisin symbolof her love and his invokesIrishand Welshmythology. Gravescomments:"The novel worshipof the Sun as All-father seemsto have been broughtto the NorthernAegeanby the fugiAkhenatonin the fourteenth tive priesthood the monotheistic of centuryB. but death. Orpheusis shown being receivedby the Snake-goddess essentialtool. How has were orchards.a misreadingof ancient picturesor "icons"on which Hecatc. Graves meansorchardand that the fact that "Paradise" Eve and Adam. his [Paris's]guide to the Elysianfields.The besentscategorically lief that Eurydice was bittenby a snakeand that Orpheusnearly succeededin bringingher back from the dead is.358 ROBERT GRAVES underworld." . All of us have been broughtup thinkingthat Parisgave the and appleto the fairestof threegoddesses thus broughtaboutthe Trojan war. in prophetic When it comesto the centralactionof the story.

There are brilliant sparksof insight: reflectingon the etymology of Oedipus ("swollen foot"). wherehe declares But flatlythat during the XIVth century B. Cinderella) not immemorially presentin the mythologies a dozen of racesand cultures? nor But I have neitherthe qualifications the wish to intrude on the controversies ragingbetweenRobertGraves. of in these packed volumes bristleswith the kind of Every page material which setsthe mind to dreamingand meditation.and his opponentsamong professionalarchaeologists scholarsof Greek history.C.e.Gravesstrikesme as playing with psychological hunchesof considerable interest. Egypt and Phoenicia"suffered from frequentraid by the Keftiu "orpeopleof the sea"in which "theTrojansseem to have takena leadingpart"or when he cites "ancientsets of ritual icons"in evidencefor some of his oddest Gravesappears be on veryshakygroundindeed.the sheergustoand magnitude the book areundeniable. to assertions. Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute.Many of and the assumptions behind The Greek Myths are implicit in such classicworksat Frazer'sGoldenBough and in Nietzsche'sBirth of Tragedy(to which Gravesowes much despitehis description of Nietzscheas "a mad Germanox"). Graveswonders whether there is a link to Oedipais("sonof the swellingsea") "whichis the mean- .what icon? What does the presenceof Hermesprove?Is the theme of an awardto the fairest(i.Samson. Where he supposesthat thereare definitelinks betweenthe Bronze Age culturesof the Mediterranean of westernEurope-betweenCreteand Stoneand henge-or wherehe arguesthatAchilles. Where he tells us that the Odyssey was writtenby a young woman or that the Homer of the Iliad was "a secretworshipper the Great Goddessof Asia" whose of sympathieslay with the Trojansthough he had to glorify his Greek patrons. Graves seemsto me obviouslyright. Llew Llaw and Cuchulainare splintersfrom the same heroic archetype. But whateverone'sview of methodand detailin The Greek Myths.GEORGE STEINER 359 Again one protests.

I ambassador Otherwhere statesof Here and There To the confederated Enjoy (as the phraseis) Extra-territorial privileges. And as Graves delightfully says: of 1. When Graves assures us that it was actually Eurydice who destroyed men in some ancient serpent-rite. nor the Wooden Horse which conquered Troy. from Raphael to Picasso. Eliot. My own objection to Graves' re-interpretationshas nothing to do with their scholarlv soundness." One begins wondering just what kind of poetry could spring from a body of Gravesianmythology. ." Perhaps this should not be a man's first dictionary of mythology. but their mis-reading has been the inspiration of music. from Dante to T.' he would never have suggested that every man has a hippopotamus complex." There are glorious asides such as the shot as Freud: "while Plutarch records (On Isis and Osiris 32) that the hippopotamus 'murdered his sire and forced his dam. Neither Leda and the Swan. monotonous and curiously unpoetic.There may come a poet or dramatistwho will make of his Greek Myths what the Renaissance made of its Ovid.360 ROBERT GRAVES ing of the name given to the correspondingWelsh hero. As long as men weigh love against death and know the tragedy of near-success. possibly that of O'Neill and Robinson Jeffers. It seems to me that the ancient world which emerges from the Gravesian perspective is savage. But this is a point which cannot be satisfactorilyargued. In the end. S. that of Shakespeareor Keats. but not. poetry and art from Gluck to Cocteau.Orpheus's attempt to lead Eurydice back to the light will strike its rich echoes. ritual murders and seasonalrites deadens the very myths which it is supposed to have inspired. but it should certainly be his second. Dylan. nor the faithful Penelope survive the "analeptic method. Pindar and Ovid may have "mis-read"the legend of Orpheus.our sense of the poetic mutinies even before our reason. the Gravesiancycle of orgiastic cults.

Eliot declined to publish on the rather curious ground that it was not "dry" enough). The results are. and Lot's daughterwho was abusedby the mob is presumably sacred a prostituteof the sort that made Josiah forbid the bringing into the house of the Lord of 'the hire of a whore. The Quest for the Historical Jesus. the image of Jesuswhich emerges from Graves' re-valuationsis not as startling as might be expected.the familiaraltarof Astarte. Yes. Graves emphasizes that he seeks no quarrel with believing Catholics or with that dwindling number of Protestants who accept the miraculous aspectsof the New Testament. Rather.' 'The price of a dog. i8). Graves is following in a tradition of comparative anthropology and iconography which dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. is the fact that Graves carries over into his writings on Scripture the tone and the methods which he applies to profane mythologies. Yet here too. What seems to infuriate his opponents. but Graves is an amateur riding rough-shod in fields of study which demand life-long training and extreme precision. And yet here Graves has been scrupulously fair. at times.' which goes with this prohibitionin the same text (Deuteronomy. The Nazarene Gospel Restored (which T.GEORGE STEINER 361 What a good many critics have been reluctant to admit is that these "extra-territorial privileges" extend equally to Graves' work of on Jesus and to his "re-storations" the Gospel. S. bewildering: The pillar of salt into which Lot's wife was turned is presumably in represented the icon by a white obelisk. Graves is seeking to make sense of the manifold contradictions . Throughout King Jesus. and lesus in Rome. Essentially. counter his detractors. evidently means the hire of a Dog-priestor Sodomite: both fees were devoted to temple funds in relatedSyriancults. As Graves sees it.xxiii. his work could legitimately borrow Dr. Schweitzer's title. he addresses himself to the millions of Christians who feel that the origins of Christianityshould be understood in a rational and historical light and who postulate no contradiction between faith and reason. In actual fact.

of demonstrably havebeen which scholars textsand of gaps in the Jesusnarratives Life of awareof and have sought to fill since Renan'scelebrated arosebecause Jesusin I863. Graves'analysiscasts fresh and challenging light. acquired at the Coronation.for political as well as doctrinal reasons.It is very difficultto advancedby many distinguished sayingswhich would justifythe creation find anythingin Jesus's Startof a new religionor the extensionof the Law to non-Jews.such as the puzzling injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."His title 'Son of God' was an ancientreligious This Coronation-a fierce one. ing from this point. dissociatethemselvesfrom the Jews. On certain crucial sayings."The villain in piece is Paul (and it is worth noting that Graves' the Gravesian detestationof the Apostle appearsin his very first volume of ambitionsand to poems in I9I6). Accordingto Graves.the difficulties had only a limited knowledgeof evangelists the Greek-speaking and Jewishinstitutions lore (in which ChristHimselfand Christ's of the are vocabulary steeped)and because GentileChristians the mid-secondcentury "wanted. The GravesianJesusis a human being. In Graves'opinion." Keniteritual-is depictedin King Jesus. the crucifixionwas causedby Roman . perhapsthe son of and and Antipater thusheirto the Herodianthrone.This view of Paulinedoctrineis. nonsenseto makeit appear Gravesbelievesthat it is blasphemous God or was so regarded His by Himself a as if Jesusconsidered early disciples. views are close to who believedthat the day of Pharisees those of the apocalyptic the Messiahwas near.362 ROBERT GRAVES obscureand distorted betweenthe four Gospels. Paul-accordingto GravesbreakawayfromMosaicJudaism.As "collated" His glossedin The NazareneGospelRestored. twisted and falsified the teachingsof the Master. in fact. it has frequentlybeen maintainedthat the and truefounderof modernChristianity the man who soughtto fuse Hebraicwith Greekelementswas Paul. an extremeversionof an hypothesis scholars. To satisfyhis own rancorous St.

profoundlyoriginal and ever-besieged citadelof Gravesian scholarship-in literature.itself a apparently very free treatment a lost Greekoriginal. on those texts in and the Acts and Epistles which couldbe construed meanthat Jesus to re-appeared the flesh. have been a good deal shorter"?The medical evidence" Jesus's for survivalderivesfrom a learnedstudy by a British surgeon and from the fact a comparablesurvivalwas recorded the historian by Josephus. anthropology. aboveall it reflects But Graves' memoriesof his own "death"and resurrection the western on front. marshala mass of evidenceto show that the New Testament's accountof Jesus's condemnation the Jewsis a tissueof contraby dictionsand makesno sensewhateverin the light of Judaiclaw and practice.On many of these points Graveshas not yet been refuted and as eminent an authorityas Reinhold satisfactorily Niebulhr described NazareneGospelRestored "a work has The as of carefulscholarship.GEORGE STEINER 363 fears of Messianic nationalism and by Herod the Great'senmity towarda wanderingteacherwho had uttereddangerous doctrine in Transjordania. when Gravesconcludesthat "'The knowledge is with God'" he has stolena long marchon his reviewers! As one looks back over the complex.the scholarship an unmistakable Gravesian flair. Once has again. Foundinghis case on a passage in the Roman historian Suetonius.on a letter writtenby St.which of we know from a reliable Byzantine document. Graves and his collaborator. Nicephorus's to Stichometry." WhereGravesdoes becomerathermore hair-raising in his is accountof Christ's "life"afterthe crucifixion. Moreover.Gravesarguesthat He survived cross. myth and religion-an irreverentthought steals . in the spent some time in Rome and finally died perhapsat Srinagar in Kashmirwhere ancienttraditionpoints to His tomb. Jesusin Rome impressesone through its lucid and modest tone.What can one do but delight in a writer who refersto a Greek text which "is a late translationfrom the still extant Syriac. Ignatiusto the Smyrnaeans. Joshua Podro.

This has been a cursory and obviously inadequate preface to aspects of the seemingly scattered. and yet essentially united. I do not suggest that Graves is not persuaded of the truth of the main ideas put forward in The Greek Myths and the books on Christ. the ripple of amusement that passes through his style is unmistakable.Majorca may be Graves' kingdom."Surely there is in all his learned work something of the Irish genius for elaborate. The Descent of Mary. the religious essays of Plutarch and recent studiesin BronzeAge archaeology. Does Graves take it all quite as seriously as he would have us suppose? He has said of himself that he is "more Irish than the Irish themselves. the homilies of Clement of Alexandria. As he sends his reviewers and readers from a lost Gnostic gospel. for the tall tale spun out at great length and with all the devices of pedantic seriousness. Graves would find things in it that he will eloquently deny or correct (he . secret lore preservedin Calder's Hearings of the Scholars and other miscellaniesof ancient Irish poetic doctrine. I know of only two other men-two Irishmen of genius-who could have written that-Swift and Joyce. leg-first.Talmudic speculation. to the onager-cult of Set-Typhon and the mythographers Hyginus. I do suggest that there is cunning laughter in the way in which he presents his learning and that he shares a profoundly Irish joy in championing the implausible. and in the thirteenth-century Welsh Llyfr Coch o Hergest. ultimately Essene. and they yield their full sense only in the light of Babylonianastrology. genius of RobertGraves. into some vastly serious hoax.Neither was above pulling academicsand pedants.364 ROBERT GRAVES into one's mind. immensely erudite and laboured wit. It was written in the fear that Mr. but it does seem to be haunted by the Bishop of Limerick. Origen and Philo Byblius.Take the following paragraphfrom the appendix to King Jesus: The mysticalmeanings here given to the Golden Calf and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom are deduced largely from the remnantsof Gnostic. the liturgy of the Ethiopian Church.

The pleasure vitalityof his craftdoesnot lie in othermen'sbestowal. But I daresay this does not Graveshas taken in the multitudinous troublehim. . he tells As us in one of the most accomplished shortpoemswrittenin English sinceLandor: You learnedLear'sNonsense Rhymes by heart. and in the hope that more and more readers shall turn to one of the most enthralling writersof our age.children-keep them poles apart And call that man a liar who says I wrote All that I wrote in love for love of art. It has is truethatGraves' achievement yet to receive full measure it of international recognition(the Nobel Prizehas been awardedto a dozen writerswith less claimsto it). These terms should be distinguishedif you quote My verses. What is certainis that by the time this essay appears a dozen new titleswill havebeenaddedto the Gravehalf sian shelf. not rote. You learnedPope'sIliad by rote. not heart.GEORGE STEINER 365 has since done so with vehementprotest). for with him creation incessantly outstrips the critic.

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