When I was undergraduate studying English literature Auckland University, I was often frustrated by lecturers who would spend much of their time explaining about the life of a poet, the time in which he or she lived and the intellectual and philosophical ideas of the poets we were studying. I remember the lectures on Pope being entirely devoted to Palladian architecture. The lecturer spent no time actually talking about Pope’s poetry.
This highlights two approaches to understanding poetry. The first is as I have described, understanding the context in which the poet was writing as an important element in understanding the poetry. The assumption is that this will help understand what the poet is has written on the page.
It is true that it is almost impossible to understand Milton’s poetry without understanding Greek and Roman mythology and having an intimate knowledge of the Bible. This is probably why Milton is pretty much an accessible to all but a small group of scholars today.
The disadvantage of this approach is that it requires a large amount of study to be able to approach a lot of poetry that was written before the beginning of the last century.
The second approach is to take the poem as it is on the page and to regard the primacy of the reader’s response as the only important consideration, ignoring any of the social, economic, intellectual contexts of the poems.
The disadvantage of this approach is that you will miss most of the point of the poetry of the English Romantic movement. But then, who reads English Romantic poetry nowadays.
Robert Graves (1895 – 1985) is English poet who with Yeats, Eliot and Auden is one of the four great English poets of the 20th century.
How it started
This poem, taken from his 1975 “Collected poems”, is typical of Graves’ love poetry. It is short, lucid and refers to events taken from his life.
The poem is divided into two parts, looking at two separate times.
The poem, which is addressed to the poet’s lover, looks back on the time when their love affair first began. In the first part of the poem, the poet recalls the beginning of a love affair between an older man and a teenager.
It was at a party for the teenager held at the poet’s house. He was not invited, being too old. There is some hint of something clandestine, yet understood by them both, in relationship,
“in the circumstances I stayed away
until you fetched me out on the tiled floor
…… we both dance entranced”
The perspective then changes to the present:
“Here the narrator pauses circumspectly..
Recordable history began again
With you no longer in your late teens…
Yet that was where it started.”
The poet does not tell us what happened that evening in the garden nor what happened in the intervening years. The affair has continued which is what makes the poem so intriguing.
And which raises an interesting point about commentary and criticism of poetry.
Does it help to look at Grave’s life and enquire who woman might have been? I think not.
Does it help to know that “two apple-seeds had sprouted” is a biblical reference to the fall of man and woman into sin and into a forbidden relationship that would come to fruition some later date. Well, it’s there in the poem and Graves would have been well aware of its significance.
Does it help to know that Graves was interested in, indeed preoccupied by, the White Goddess, the female Muse of Poets and that this woman was probably one of them? Possibly.
The more you read of Graves poetry more this haunting figure comes to dominate his love poetry.