British academy

CHATTERTON LECTURE ON POETRY

Robert Graves and The White Goddess

Dr Fran Brearton, Queen’s University, Belfast

Thursday 11 November 2004

In critical discussions of twentieth-century poetry, Robert Graves has been gradually fading from view over the last forty years, even as a fascination with his life has increased. A poet who compulsively wrote and rewrote, in different forms, his autobiography, it is unsurprising that Graves has become trapped in a repetitive biographical discourse of his own making. Equally, his claim that ‘I write poems for poets’ hardly courts critical attention from the academy. The White Goddess (1948) compounds both problems. Read as a profession of faith in ‘one story only’, and as a challenge to the scholars who ‘dare not accept it’, the book offers a seductive interpretive model for Graves’s life which potentially narrows the terms of reception for the poetry. But The White Goddess is also obliquely about Graves’s poetic style. That style, with its rhythmical and syntactical complexities, its reiterations, repetitions and reversals, its playing of surface against depth, and its quality of apprehension, is both traditional and genuinely innovative in ways which have always been understood by those poets for whom Graves is a profound influence – Auden, MacNeice, Hughes, Heaney and Mahon among them – if not by a more recent critical climate in which ‘challenging’ poetry is celebrated, but in which the challenge posed by Graves’s forms is not met. Disentangling the life, the work, and the myth, this lecture examines Graves’s poetic form, inscribes his work in the context of contemporary critical debate, and re-evaluates the significance of The White Goddess to his poetry.