The man and his muse (ii): Robert Graves and the White Goddess

English poet Robert Graves gave much serious thought to the role of the young woman as Muse particularly in poetry. His work is an exploration of this relationship. Graves believed that the White Goddess, the goddess of Birth, Love and Death, was the source of poetic inspiration and that “true” or “pure” poetry is inextricably linked with her ancient cult-ritual.

The young Robert Graves as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the First World War
The young Robert Graves as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the First World War

She was the Moon-goddess who inspired, and demanded that, man should pay woman spiritual and sexual homage. Graves believed that the function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites and that “unswerving and absolute devotion to her is the poet’s only path.”

All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean—
In scorn ofwhich I sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom I desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.

But I am gifted, even in November
Rawest ofseasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
I forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Careless of where the next bright bolt may fall.

The Goddess/Muse would visit the poet, often as a lover but a heedless and unfaithful one. She would, as Graves said, “find it impossible to sustain the love of a poet and allies herself with a pretended poet who she knows is not a real one. Someone she can mother.”

For the poet, the departure of the muse is as painful as the departure a lover.

Graves captured this beautifully in The Hung Wu Vase

With women like Marie no holds are barred.
How do they get the gall? How can they do it?

She stormed out, slamming the hall door so hard
That a vase on a gilt shelf above – you knew it,
Loot from the Summer Palace at Pekin
And worth the entire contents of my flat –
Toppled and fell …
I poured myself a straight gin,
Downing it at a gulp. ‘So that was that!’

The bell once more … Marie walked calmly in,
Observed broken red porcelain on the mat,
Looked up, looked down again with condescension,
Then, gliding past me to retrieve a glove
(Her poor excuse for this improper call),
Muttered: ‘And one thing I forgot to mention:
Your Hung Wu vase was a phony, like your love!’

How can they do it? Where do they get the gall?

He also records the beginning of a relationship with one of his muses, presumably Laura Riding, in How it Started

It started, unexpectedly of course,
At a wild midnight dance, in my own garden,
To which indeed was not invited:
I read: “teen-agers only.”

In the circumstances I stayed away
Until you fetched me out on the tiled floor
Where, acting as an honorary teen-ager,
I kicked off both my shoes.

Since girls like you must set the stage always,
With lonely men for choreographers,
I chose the step, I even called the tune;
And we both danced entranced.

Here the narrator pauses circumspectly,
Knowing me not unpassionate by nature
And the situation far from normal:
Two apple-seeds had sprouted….

Recordable history began again
With you no longer in your late teens
And me socially (once more) my age –
Yet that was where it started.

These beautiful little poems are typical of Graves, based on an immediate and recognisable situation and shot through with the reflection of the older poet looking back on previous experiences.

He also visits this situation in Beatrice and Dante

He, a great poet, fell in love with her.
She, a mere child, felt deep in love with love
And, being a child illumined his whole heart.

From her clear conspect rose a whispering
With no hard words in innocency held back –
Until the day that she became a woman.

Failing to find her love imposed upon:
A new world beating out in her own image –
For his own deathless glory.

Graves' Muse, the poet Laura Riding
Graves’ Muse, the poet Laura Riding

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