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The White Goddess : a historical grammar of poetic myth

by Robert Graves

  Book  |  1st American, amended and enl. ed

" A prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book ..."   (2013-01-21)

Excellent

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by jcorelis

[Note:  this book exists in numerous editions; this review is based on The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Amended and Enlarged Edition   (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966 and later), which is the edition I'd recommend to interested readers.]

This is a popular, influential, and controversial book. Let's put things in perspective by quoting the first and best review of it, the statement by T. S. Eliot, who was responsible for its publication, that this is a 'prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book.' Eliot was not, to say the least, given to exaggeration, so his opinion is all the more suggestive that there must be something special here.

A second data point: this book is just what it says it is: 'A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth.' It may be the only one ever written. But be that as it may, criticisms of the book's scholarship are quite beside the point, because it isn't and doesn't claim to be a work of scholarship. It's a work of visionary poetic intuition which uses Celtic mythology as a paradigm to explore the roots of poetic inspiration. To criticize its scholarship is like criticizing the Old Testament for employing invalid anthropological methods.

Admittedly, the book is not easy reading, and much of it may never be clear to many readers. Graves himself warns that 'this remains a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired, or rigidly scientific mind.' But he goes on to give a useful reference point to which his whole complex, and often convoluted, argument ultimately remains related: 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 honour of the Mood-goddess, or Muse, and that this remains the language of true poetry.' The argument for, or one might better call it the exploration of, this thesis takes the reader on something of a wild ride. But however much or little one is convinced of the thesis, there is barely a paragraph of it which is not intensely interesting and intensely suggestive, leading one to new insights of one's own in considering poetry, mythology, and religion.

This is not, perhaps, a book everyone will want to sit down and read straight through; many people may benefit more from keeping it around to dip into every once in a while, thinking about the paragraphs which seem most intriguing and saving the obscure or less convincing seeming ones for later. (I myself have done both: there is an AVP badge on this review because I had to buy a new copy after the old one I bought years ago started falling apart.)

Hence the five stars, meaning that this is a must have book for anyone interested in Robert Graves, poetry, mythology, Celtic culture, or religion. I don't think even those who aren't convinced by it could say it is ever a dull read.  (Reviewed by Jon Corelis)




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