Poetic Thought for the Day (9/1/2014): Robert Graves, Ted Hughes & Poetic Mythography of the Goddess



Robert Graves, the Poet, the author of over one hundred books, besides a number of anonymous rewrite jobs for friends once in a trance invented his on mythography: The White Goddess, a history of poetic myth—“the language of poetic myth . . . was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honor of the Moon goddess, or Muse . . . and this remains the language of true poetry—‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of the ‘unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute’”. The true poet worships the White Goddess, or goddess of creation; unswerving and absolute devotion to her is the poet’s only path. He “falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse.”

Long ago I read another book The Golden Bough by Sir. James George Frazer which traced an old Celtic mythology of sacrifice and kingship to the ancient cults of the Goddess in Britain and other ancient sources. Graves was heavily influenced by this armchair mythography. The Gravesian Society has a backlog of works available in pdf or other format that traces much of the scholarship current on this poets work (here). Another scholar who has explicated The White Goddess to good effect is Mark Carter in his work Stalking the Goddess.

For Graves poets drew from trance and dreams, waking visions, and in ancient contexts from plant induced divinatory and invocative processes. He believed that sleep has seven levels, topmost of which is the poetic trance—in it you still have access to conscious thought while keeping in touch with dream . . . with the topmost fragments of dream . . . you own memory . . . pictorial imagery as children know it and as it was known to primitive man. No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance, out of which you can be wakened by interruption as from a dream.

Graves was also a firm believer that scientific religion was under what he termed the Apollonian influence of pure intellect and philosophy, and had cut itself off from both literary and poetic worlds and their roots in the pagan mystery religions of the ancients. He felt that global civilization has got further and further from the so-called natural man, who uses all his faculties: perception, invention, improvisation. He believed that civilization was bound to end in the breakdown of society and the cutting down of the human race to manageable size. “That’s the way things work; they always have. My hope is that a few cultural reservations will be left undisturbed. A suitable place might be certain Pacific Islands and tracts in Siberia and Australia, so that when the present mess is over, the race of man can restore itself from these centers.” He seems to align well with philosopher’s such as Peter Sloterdijk who believe we are entering an age of decline as well (i.e., his Bubble Trilogy & In the World of Interior of Capital). Others such as John Michael Greer of the Arch Druid Report incline to such reversions to chaos mythologies and implosions as well (i.e., see Dark Age America: The Population Implosion).

I think many poets and scholars in seeking alternatives to the malaise of nihilism, or life with out absolutes and meaning develop almost primitivistic recursions to mythical or imaginative need in their search for any form of religious or poetic framework that does not entail revitalizing any of the male oriented and dominative or hierarchical based systems and practices. Another great modern poet, Ted Hughes, in his work Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being would offer even another alternative poetic mythography.

For Hughes, Shakespeare was “a prophetic shaman of the Puritan revolution,” his plays mythic reenactments of the holy war between Catholic and Puritan fanaticism. This arcane, often farfetched study maintains that the Bard tapped into the “source myth” of Catholicism in Venus and Adonis : the myth of the Great Goddess and her sacrificed god. In The Rape of Lucrece , Shakespeare mined the rival source myth of Puritanism: the enraged Jehovan god who abhors the Goddess for her presumed treachery or whorishness. In this highly speculative analysis, Hughes follows the workings of these two interlocking myths through Shakespeare’s plays, whose overall trajectory, he argues, is an attempt to escape from tragic destiny to secular freedom. In King Lear , according to Hughes, Shakespeare reinvented an ancient Egyptian cosmology to illuminate the distorting ethos of the English Reformation. And from Cymbeline to The Tempest , he argues, the Bard used the Gnostic myth about the Female who represents the hero’s own soul.

Shakespeare consistently employed the same basic prototype plot structure – what Hughes calls his “Tragic Equation”. That plot structure was derived from the inspired fusion of the plots of Shakespeare’s two long narrative poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”. Hughes demonstrates that behind every major male protagonist is the god Adonis, and behind every female figure (Cressida, Gertrude/Ophelia, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Cordelia etc.) is the goddess Venus – or, more accurately, the Goddess of Complete Being.

By combining the two myths in this way, Shakespeare hit upon an unfailing source of dramatic (and poetic) power. Indeed, what he tapped into was virtually the power source of all human feeling itself. To understand this, think about myth and religion and what they seem to be, VIZ, the expression of our profoundest primal instincts, of our deepest psycho-biological mysteries. They are, if you like, the DNA code of our very souls.  Apollo, Dionysus, Aphrodite, Isis, Osiris, Horus, Jehovah, Allah, Christ, Mary, Krishna, Shiva – and countless others from around the planet – these gods (and their experiences and sufferings) embody our brightest truths and our darkest mysteries. Their stories are the stories of our collective consciousness.

This explains why Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear somehow feel like mortal gods: Shakespeare was enacting the mythic script of Adonis himself. Adonis is one of the oldest prototypes of the worldwide phenomenon of the sacrificed god; as such, he is a near relative of Osiris, Dionysus, Christ, and countless others – just as Venus/Lucrece is a first cousin of Isis, Demeter, the Virgin Mary, etc.

Moreover, Shakespeare’s mythic intuition – somewhat akin to Grave’s sense of poetic trance, was somehow greater than other writers before or since. In other words, he discovered all the mythic possibilities of these two key stories – what exactly they were expressing. Once he discovered this mythic key to his imagination, Shakespeare could then dedicate his entire mature career to exploring the corridors it unlocked. He harnessed all the various potentialities of those deeply rooted ancient stories for his own Elizabethan dramas.

Indeed, Hughes goes on to show that it’s always at the same particular moment in each play (i.e. when “Venus and Adonis” metamorphoses into “The Rape of Lucrece”; and, later plays) that Shakespeare’s poetry takes off to ever-greater heights. In other words, Hughes argues that by touching the primal mythic sources of the human imagination (where the two myths collide), Shakespeare gains direct access to his Muse. He touches the vision itself, and records its feel in his poetry.

In lieu of a summation

One of the fascinating things that amazes me is how even poet’s fall into the trap of literalizing ancient myths and iconographies. The more I understand of the neurosciences the more I begin to realize that the power of deception in the brain is ever apparent. Somewhere along the way in our human past we began to develop diametrically opposed ways of forming and shaping society and civilization that seem to have connected themselves very deeply to the Cosmologies of women and men. We can call them Matriarchic and Patriarchic, Goddess and God, Androcratic or Gylanic, etc. till we’re blue in the face, but this does not tell us why all of this came about. Nor does it explain why even in our secular world today such mythic insights still have meaning and relevance to a secular society that has fro two hundred years tried to escape ancient religion only to form its own new religion of atheism. Strange, that!

My thought for the day is really a problem: What in us has such a need for the power of such deep seated mythologies? Why a Goddess or a God? Why were the ancient People of the Goddess everywhere slaughtered from the face of the earth to the point that her mythologies almost vanished as well? How did such poets dig down and open up again such treasures of the ancient world? Even in the feminist traditions one saw a great revitalization of the Goddess scholarship during the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s to only be ousted again by secular atheistic feminists in the past two decades. Why? Is the Goddess a hidden truth within our deep brain life?

Will the neurosciences uncover such knowledge, or the poets? For scientists the mystery shall be revealed at last in the fact that all the gods and goddesses reside in the human brain, or a naturalized aspect of our life functioning. Is that it? Is this great reduction to the three-pound lump of meat in one’s skull really an explanation; or, is it just a way to explain away the mystery?

For me, the poets offer both a challenge and a problematique: a goad to further research and a knowledge at once profound, and cuts to the heart of our present predicaments in our quest to restore earth in some form of habitation for all life on the planet beyond the secular and commercial systems of death that seem bent of dominating the global commons. For me the roots of the goddess lie in the ancient traditions of both the spirit climbing Shamanistic cults, and in the embodied rhythms of the ancient worship of the African based voodoo worlds of dance and possession, invocation and divination. Between these two forms of physical enactment the worlds of the Goddess myths and mysteries reside, and it is to those that poets should turn toward and away from the secular tribes of nihilism and global domination.  

Is this an agenda? Of course not, it’s just one poet discovering in other poets certain poetic facts of mythography that speak of other great civilizations of the past that have been covered over, buried, and for the most part forgotten by the great monotheistic civilizations that conquered the world in the past two thousand years or so. Even now one can find traces of these ancient cultures scattered in remnants among such various places as India, China, Africa, South America, etc. Yet, due to our demythologized secular Enlightenment program for two hundred years the whole notion of myth and poetry has been for the most part bifurcated, divided against itself and slowly turned into a secular tool like all other aspects of thought and feeling. Is this good or bad? Look around you: do you like the world you live in? Tell me, is this truly the kind of world you want your children to inherit?


That is my thought for the day.  




3 thoughts on “Poetic Thought for the Day (9/1/2014): Robert Graves, Ted Hughes & Poetic Mythography of the Goddess

      • Maybe I should ask: What specifics do you entail by agenda? Political, religious, life? What is your agenda in asking this question? What do you affirm about art or poetry? That it should never enter into political or religious debate? I’m just not sure where you’re coming from on this? It’s as if your asking a specific question in such an abstract way that one wants to answer it specifically, but is unable because its too broad and philosophical.

        Maybe you could provide examples for / against? Hell, even the aesthete’s of “Art for art’s sake” of Wilde had an agenda. The modernists Pound and Eliot had an agenda to go against that very slogan. All art has some kind of agenda as do people, we don’t exist in a vacuum. Does that mean their art is subordinated to the agenda because they bring certain agendas into their art? Of course not.


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