Friday, September 28, 2012
Pursuing a Theme: My Review of Simon Gough's The White Goddess
A couple of days ago, I posted a review of The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough on my Ruminations blog. I mentioned that the subject matched up well with my intentions for this present blog -- that is, to comment on the subject of myth in literature. The review was getting pretty long and so I left out a couple of things. I would like to remark on those here and also to talk a little about Graves' poetry and how reading Simon Gough's book has impacted my perception of it, and also touch briefly on Dylan Thomas.
First, my omissions from the review. I didn't talk about the role of Robert Graves' son Juan, who plays such a noticeable part in the first section of the book. He is a bit of a Wild Child -- a mischievous faun who doesn't take to the constraints of civilization. He helps Simon lose a lot of his civilized inhibitions. And yet when we see him again, at the age of perhaps 16, he has become an introverted youth who plays hardly any part in the story. One can only assume that going off to school has crushed his spirit. A couple of remarks are made about how he, too, is in love with Margot and about how he is a disappointment to his father, but that's as far as it goes. I was a bit disappointed, too. However, this isn't Juan's story and since it's based on actual events, the author can't change some realities. Juan simply had no role to play in the latter two-thirds of the book.
It's a greater oversight for me to have omitted a discussion of Beryl, Robert Graves' wife. She is the steadying influence, the centerpost of the household, which would fall apart without her. She is the Wise Woman, herself an aspect of the Goddess -- the Mother or Earth Goddess -- Demeter -- who is eternal. Graves' relationship with her is enigmatic -- she can't be his muse, yet he can father children on her and he couldn't live without her. By 1989 the King-God may have yielded to the new king and left the scene, but Beryl still remains. What endures in Paradise is the Mother, not the Muse -- a more profound dimension of the female principle, but not one who is inspirational for poets, it seems.
Now to the subject of poetry. At one point in the book this exchange takes place:
"Beryl looked away, shaking her head, not at me but at her thoughts. 'What makes it even worse is that we're in October now,' she sighed.
" 'It's the worst month for poets -- for true poets, at least! October's the month of death, of human sacrifice -- ' She suddenly grinned at my expression. 'It doesn't matter what you or I think, it's what Robert believes -- that's the thing.' "
I was struck by this because, in picking the chapter epigraphs for my book The Termite Queen, I used two poems related to October: "Especially When the October Wind" by Dylan Thomas, and Robert Graves' own "Intercession in Late October."
"Especially When the October Wind" is a 32-line poem on the dual themes of the urgency of poetry and death, a sinewy weave of imagery of words, weather, landscape, blood, heartbeat, the "dark bird," and in effect Graves' Goddess ("the wordy shapes of women"). It even has some of Graves' trees from his own White Goddess (the "vowelled beeches," the "oaken voices"). In one of my epigraph posts in Ruminations, I discussed some of the excerpts from this poem that I used as epigraphs on the chapters where Kaitrin and Kwi'ga'ga'tei are learning how to communicate. Personally, I think this is one of Thomas's great poems because the progession of the imagery is so controlled. Sometimes Thomas can seem wildly out of control, but not here.
So it's interesting to note that Thomas was born in October. For that reason alone he might connect the month with a sense of his own mortality, but Beryl's remark quoted above made the connection all the more meaningful. Robert Graves was born in July, so he can't make that connection; for him the connection is one of the dying of the year, the time when the King is sacrified so that a new year can be born.
"Intercession in Late October" is short. I own a copy of Graves' Collected Poems, 1975, but I just discovered he didn't include "Intercession in Late October" there; I copied it from a library copy of the 1961 collection, so he had written it by the period being portrayed in Gough's book. I'm going to quote it here.
How hard the year dies: No frost yet.
On drifts of yellow sand Midas reclines,
Fearless of moaning reed or sullen wave.
Firm and fragrant still the brambleberries.
On ivy blooms butterflies wag.
Spare him a little longer, Crone,
For his clean hands and love-submissive heart.
According to Graves' Greek Myths, Midas is one of the King-figures who is doomed to die at the end of the year. He was cursed with ass's ears and was ashamed, so he hid them under a cap. However, his barber knew the truth and found the secret too good to keep, so he dug a hole on the river bank and whispered into it, "Midas has ass's ears!" Then he filled in the hole and went away. A reed grew in that place and whispered the secret to everyone who passed by (the "moaning reed"). When Midas learned that his secret was out, he executed the barber, drank bull's blood, and "perished miserably," as Grave concludes. ("Because of the great magical potency of bull's blood, only the Earth-mother could drink it without harm," Graves writes. So it makes a terrific weapon for the Goddess to use to slay her Kings.)
Originally I saw this as a single-dimension poem, talking about the end of the year as symbolized by the dying King, but after reading Gough's book, I see it a little differently. I see Midas as the betrayed Goddess-loving King who is innocent of any real evil-doing and yet will ultimately be done in by the Goddess, anyway. I see Graves identifying with Midas -- one who can't escape the ultimate betrayal, but yet begs his muse to spare him for a little longer.
I've long known Graves' poetry was about the female principle, but now I'll always be looking for parallels between the figures in his poetry and how he felt about his muses, which I think will deepen my understanding. And I think it's an intriguing -- can we call it a coincidence? -- that another "true poet," Dylan Thomas, should also have written about October as the month of the death of life and poetry.