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This article is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

Robert Graves: A Crazy Book Grevel Lindop

The White Goddess is one of the twentieth century's most extraordinary books. Subtitled 'a historical grammar of poetic myth', it is also (amongst other things) an adventure in historical detective-work, a headlong quest through the forests of half the world's mythologies, a poet's introduction to poetry, a critique of western civilisation, a polemic about the relationship between man and woman, and a disguised autobiography. No one can understand Graves, or his poetry, without reading The White Goddess. It is tempting to go further and suggest that no one can fully understand the modern world who has not at least considered its arguments.

Graves's own account of the book's gestation is dramatic but leaves many questions unanswered. The story is worth reconstructing. In 1940 Robert and Beryl Graves moved to the village of Galmpton in South Devon, and in late 1941 Graves began to correspond with the Welsh poet Alun Lewis. They discussed the nature of poetry and poets; the name of the medieval Welsh poet Taliesin cropped up. Then, in July 1942, Graves and Alan Hodge, who had recently written a manual for writers of prose, The Reader Over Your Shoulder, began to consider collaborating on a 'book about poetry'. Topics mooted by Graves for treatment included the psychology of poetic inspiration, and the reasons for the 'aura or halo, or whatever, that clings to the name of "poet" in spite of the lamentable history of bad poetic behaviour'.1 They agreed to 'put [the] book on to ...

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