Robert Graves, The White Goddess -- A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966 [first published by Faber and Faber, UK, 1948])

Robert Graves was a well known poet, novelist, translator, mythographer, and, in some quarters at least, crackpot. I found his renderings of the Greek myths, informed by an awareness of their historical and anthropological context, to be illuminating, and his novels to be both entertaining and substantial.

Graves is perhaps best-known for his massive study of the mythic basis of poetry, The White Goddess. The popularity and influence of the book may be judged from the fact that my copy, which I have had for years, is the 1978 11th printing of the amended and enlarged edition first published in 1966. In it, Graves takes as his framework the origins and history of the alphabet, specifically the Beth-Luis-Nion tree alphabet of the Celtic bards and druids to explore his theories of the origin of "true poetry" as a gift of the Goddess, the Great Mother common to the cultures of pre-Christian Europe and the Near East. The Beth-Luis-Nion, and its later alternate, the Boibel-Loth, were closely guarded secrets for most of their histories. In fact, "secret" is a key concept in the book: the origin of the alphabet, and of poetry, lies in the mystery cults of the Great Mother and the Sacrificed God, her son/lover/victim, found throughout the ancient world. These are known as "mystery cults" for several reasons, the most pertinent of which are, first, that the central revelation is unknowable by rational means -- it must be experienced to be understood -- and second, that knowledge of the rituals was restricted to initiates.

This plays out in the Beth-Luis-Nion and the practice of poetry through the idea of poetry as an expression of divine inspiration (and also, let me add, the not quite so idealistic idea of the bards as a privileged class whose position depended in large part on holding closely their knowledge -- keep in mind that students, in their first year, had to master roughly 150 ciphers -- you not only had to know poetry and the law, but cryptography as well).

There is much in Graves' argument that makes intuitive sense, notwithstanding -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that the text often reads like Joseph Campbell on drugs. (Graves also pays attention to the role of certain mushrooms in the rites of the ecstatic cults.) Even without a clear sense of the pattern of migrations of peoples in the ancient world roughly six to ten thousand years ago (and there is no reason to think that the arrival in Asia Minor of the Hittites or in Egypt of the Hyksos marks anything new in the history of humanity), it is very attractive to chase down parallels in myths and legends among various cultures; and there is a certain validity in that, particularly if the picture thus derived seems consistent and sensible.

This is, in essence, what Graves does for nearly five hundred pages, beginning with the Welsh riddling poem Hanes Taliesin, weaving back and forth among such disparate elements as the trees native to the British Isles, Phoenician sun heroes, the floods of the Nile and the timing of planting and growing seasons in various areas, and the founding of Rome, to build an emotionally consistent picture of the basis of poetry in myth.

Graves is quite dismissive of what he calls "prose thinking" and its poetic offshoots -- Dryden, Pope, Tennyson, most modern poetry (and strangely enough, he doesn't mention Shakespeare -- I wonder where he falls) -- as marking what I can only call a loss of faith. If there is anything in the book that I find offensive, it is the sense of moral superiority implicit in his stance.

And, to be perfectly honest, there are areas where Graves is on shaky ground, historically and linguistically. He makes a couple of statements that I know to be factually inaccurate, of little consequence in themselves but enough to make me doubt other statements that seem a little too glib and about which I have no independent knowledge.

He is also very free with assigning equivalence of meaning based on similarity of sound. Given the degree to which the Mediterranean, particularly in its eastern reaches, has been a big mixing bowl for peoples and cultures; and also granting that many of his equivalencies are in names, which are notoriously transportable as well as mutable; and adding in the fact that most non-Abrahamic religions are highly syncretistic (as witness the Roman habit of welcoming every god they ran across into their own pantheon - finding that lo! Bran must be the British equivalent of Jupiter and Cernunnos is obviously Bacchus in his aspect as Lord of Beasts), I can't say flatly that he's wrong in finding that the Semitic "baal" and the Indo-European "bel" might denote a similar entity, although it's by no means a foregone conclusion. The prose thinker in me wants something slightly more reliable than a flat assertion. Merlin Stone, in When God Was A Woman, does what Graves fails to do, actually documenting insofar as possible the cultural cross-fertilization between Indo-European and Semitic invaders and the indigenous peoples they conquered. It is her work, as well as Merritt Ruhlen's discourse on the origin and evolution of languages, that leads me to credit Graves' dissertation more than I might otherwise.

Another demerit comes from the fact that Graves' footnotes are all expansions on points in his text, and he provides no bibliography, although he's very free with passing references to ancient authorities in the discussion. I think, under the circumstances, a certain degree of skepticism is acceptable, although I'm sure Graves would take this as proof of my being hopelessly mired in prose thinking. (In my own defense, let me point out that words are not the only way to express inspiration. I have other means.)

What it boils down to is faith: you either believe Graves, or you don't. Considering the number of contemporary poets (a group Graves dismisses) I've read whose work sends a little shiver up my spine, I remain dubious.