Friday, November 29, 2013

The White Goddess and the habit of coincidence

The White Goddess is a "queer" and difficult book, as the author, the poet and novelist Robert Graves, cautions his readers in a foreword. The subtitle in itself may scare away some readers: A historical grammar of poetic myth. Yet it is a book I find myself returning to, again and again, over the years - though since I was a teen I have never been mad enough to try to read it from front to back.
     The whole book is a celebration of the Goddess, as she may have been worshiped in matrifocal Old Europe, and other places, before the advent of patriarchal gods installed by patriarchal men. The material came to Graves, and came through him, in a marvelous flow; he dashed off the first draft (then titled The Roebuck in the Thicket) in just three weeks. Specialists will carp at his prodigious but errant scholarship, which is guided by rhyme and resemblance rather than any logical ordering. Few who are learned in the languages and customs of the Celts, in his day or ours, will accept him as an irreproachable source on the Battle of the Trees or the Matter of Britain.
     Yet it is impossible not to thrill to the passion of a poet who proclaims that the business of poetry is to serve the Three-fold Muse, and restore the Goddess, and gives us the most rousing and transfiguring (if not the most literal) version of the Song of Amergin that has ever been sung in English.

I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
sets the cool head aflame with smoke?

In writing The White Goddess, as in other inspired work. Graves was certain that he was not alone in his creative space. In addition to what stirred in his imagination, he noticed objects in his physical environment showed up in ways that suggested a hidden hand, from the realm of the Goddess. In a postscript he added to The White Goddess in 1960, he recounted that when he started on the first draft of that book

I had in my work-room several small West African brass objects - bought from a London dealer - gold-dust weights, mostly in the shape of animals, among them a humpback playing a flute. I also had a small brass-box with a lid, intended (so the dealer told me) to contain gold dust. I kept the humpback seated on the box. In fact, he is still seated there; but I knew nothing about him, or about the design on the box-lid until ten years had gone by. The I learned that the humpback was a herald in the service of the Queen-mother of some Akan State; and that every reigning Queen-Mother (and there are a few reigning even today) claims to be an incarnation of the Triple Moon Goddess Ngame. The design of the box-lid, a spiral, connected by a single stroke to the rectangular frame enclosing it - the frame having nine teeth on either side means: ‘None greater in the universe than the Triple Goddess Ngame!’ These gold weights and the box were made before the British seizure of the Gold Coast, by craftsmen subservient to the Goddess, and regarded as highly magical.

When he learned the meaning of these African objects, Graves suspected that an African version of the Moon Goddess had played a part in his inspiration. The story deepened after World War II, when he returned to work on his manuscript. He was now writing about the sacred king, first the consort and then the sacrificial victim of the Goddess in certain traditions. Now a collector named Georg Schwartz bequeathed to Graves "five or six more Akan gold-weights, among them a mummy-like figurine with one large eye." Graves was able to have this strange figure identified as the Akan king's okrafo priest, who in later times served as a surrogate victim, in place of the king. "The okrafo figurine lay beside the herald on the gold box, while I wrote about the Goddess's victims."
     After publication of the first edition of The White Goddess, "a Barcelona antiquary" invited Graves to choose a stone from a selection of Roman gems. Among them was "a stranger", a banded carnelian seal from an earlier culture, engraved with a stag galloping towards a thicket with a crescent moon on his flank - the very image that had given the poet his original title, The Roebuck in the Thicket.
     "Chains of more-than-coincidence occur so often in my life," Graves observed, "that, if I am forbidden to call them supernatural hauntings, let me call them a habit." He hastens to add that he's not keen on the word "supernatural", since he finds patterns of "more-than-coincidence" entirely natural, though escaping the explanations of science.
     Call them a habit. I like that very much. Meaningful coincidences or correspondences do multiply when we are charged with passion, and in forward movement on the roads of life and creation, Goddess knows.


The House of Madness said...

What a great article. Very inspiring.

Mel said...

Amazing article, and answered a question I had perfectly. I am much obliged. Insane coincidence for me right now thank-you Mr. Moss.

Tomm said...

My curiosity is well piqued! I have found that the library has a copy of this book, so I'll be taking a look soon. Is there a reason why it is the "White" Goddess? Curiously, for me, the colour white has become a very strong theme in my dreams of the last several months.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Poetry is it's own type of research.

The beat poet Ed Sanders wrote a brillant manifesto, calling on poets to act as historians... to not limit the writing of history to prose. His manifesto is called "Investigative Poetry". ...and it inspired me to write my own biographical ode in praise of Koizumi Yakumo aka Lafcadio Hearn.

Graves' book heralds the return of bards, filis, ollamhs, & poets in service to Her-story. Now I let my head fill with the smoke of inspiration.

(I've joined the Walnut Street Poetry Society here in Cincinnati, a monthly discussion group at the Mercantile Library led by a professor from Xavier University.
In preparation for Seamus Heaney's visit as this years Neihoff Lecturer at the Mercantile, the class is focusing on Irish poetry all year. The first two sessions are on Yeats. This is par for the course in my own Bardic training. And I was led to join the Mercantile Library and found out about this class from a dream I had where Gertrude Stein and I worked at the Mercantile Library together!)

nina4667 said...

Great post, Robert! I, too, have experienced "Chains of more-than-coincidence" throughout my lifetime. I've been journaling events of synchronicity for over six years. It has been so enlightening to reflect this way on events of meaningful coincidence that I've begun writing a book about the process. It has enhanced my life in so many ways.

I also have a goddess inspiration story:

While fiddling around on the Internet, looking for a screen saver for my desktop, I came across a lovely Hindu figure of a goddess playing a lute instrument. That is the one I chose for my screen saver. That week I began thinking about going back to school to obtain a master's degree in transpersonal studies (something I had wanted to do for many years, but just kept putting off)...this desire to go back to school turned into an obsession, really, and I quickly became enrolled in a great program at Atlantic University where I did obtain my degree. A month or so later, I realized that the goddess I chose for my screen saver was none other than Saraswati, goddess of "knowledge, music, arts, and science"!

Patricia said...

Thank you Robert. I like his thoughts on the naturalness of this seemingly supernatural occurrence.I have been dreaming of The Goddess lately. One was her body. Two doors were her breasts. The left with gum drops on the top tier. They spiraled when I touched them. The left had stars on the top tier. They were doors, but when I work with them they became this three layer something. Below was a golden meadow, her belly. It flowed with grain
Like somethings and/or horses hairs. I loved having this dream. I wonder if this book is on Kindle?

Robert Moss said...

Nina - Saraswati will be a wonderful ally in your new venture. I posted a wonderful recent (1948) image of her here:

Robert Moss said...

Tomm - Look more closely at the moon any night (to answer your question). Though I must add that while Robert Graves celebrates the Moon as a goddess, other cultures (ancient Uruk, Lithuania, Japan, India etc) see the Moon as a god.

Robert Moss said...

Patricia - I have dreams and visions, often in the midst of a landscape, in which the Earth itself is the body of the Goddess, and I move and touch everything with reverence. While I'll admit I am not the Kindle type, it is quite impossible for me to imagine reading "The White Goddess" - a book that demands to be handled, riffled and caressed - on a screen.

Robert Moss said...

Justin - I rather like the idea of "investigative poetry." I am deep inside a new cycle of Yeats researches. Rather important not to get lost in them, since the sheer quantity of material now available is mountainous.

Patricia said...

Of Course.
I often learn a scholarly integrity and energetic respect from you and your writings. I imagine this caressing expression only has the Goddess smiling back at you:)

Jose Luis said...

African ancestors of the Celtic Culture...? (look closely at the portrait of the Sidhe being on the cover...)

"...The design of the box-lid, a spiral, connected by a single stroke to the rectangular frame enclosing it..."

great post!
warm regards

Worldbridger said...

I am a wizard: who but I
sets the cool head aflame with smoke?

What did he mean by that?

Robert Moss said...

Graves' response would probably be that of another poet asked a similar question: "You want me to say it in worse English?"

Worldbridger said...

Graves' response would probably be that of another poet asked a similar question: "You want me to say it in worse English?"

Yes please, give it a shot.

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