Representations of the muse in the writings of Robert Graves: a study of five prose texts (1944-1950)

  • Selma Karayalcin

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The conventional view of Robert Graves’s ideas about poetic inspiration is that they are presented in their entirety in The White Goddess - A Historical Grammar o f Poetic Myth (1948). However, this dissertation aims to argue that Graves’s four prose works, published in the 1940s and early 1950s - written at almost the same time as he was composing various drafts of the manuscript which was to become The White Goddess - contributed to the development of his highly contentious poetic theory concerning Goddess worship and its essential influence on the poet and muse relationship.

The thesis examines the interrelationship between The White Goddess and the tour seminal fictional works The Golden Fleece (1944), King Jesus (1946), The Golden Ass (1950) and Seven Days in New Crete (1949). Analysis of selected poems that also shed light on the interconnections between the four texts in the context of the poet-muse relationship is integrated throughout the argument. This demonstrates that all four works are central to understanding the evolution of Graves’s thought in relation to the White Goddess myth and his claims about the poet and muse. The generic complexity of The White Goddess - as a theory of poetic inspiration derived from his quasi-historical argument about the story of the Goddess and her demise - is intricately linked to what he perceives to be the role of the poet in the modern world. The critical examination will focus on the interplay between the various genres which make up The White Goddess. and Graves’s manipulation of them in this and the other texts to elucidate his poetics.
The opening chapter offers an overview of the way in which Graves came to write The White Goddess, and it discusses his central hypothesis, the source of which is the primeval Triple Goddess incarnate in the form of a female muse. Graves’s seminal text is far from straightforward because the mix of different genres - the literary theory cf inspiration alongside his 'historical evidence’ - blurs fact, fiction and autobiography and he uses this blurring to shape and alter other genres in order to convey his message.

The thesis will then argue that mixing of genres extends to the writing of two historical novels, The Golden Fleece and King Jesus. Moreover, along with the act of translating The Golden Ass by Apuleius, these texts all contribute to the argument about the origins of the muse and poetic inspiration, finally articulated in the writing and rewriting of The White Goddess. The thesis will also suggest that Graves’s biased reinterpretation of research material for The Golden Fleece and King Jesus, presented as historical fiction, played a vital role in developing his concept of the Muse-goddess who inspires the poet to write true poetry, as articulated in The White Goddess.

The aim of Chapters Two to Five is to show how Graves was able to work out his poetic theory of the White Goddess by developing it as an underlying theme in these four books. Chapter Two will explore the genesis of the White Goddess herself, whose person and character began to take shape during Graves’s research and actual writing of The Golden Fleece. This novel refers to the historical narratives of the Argonauts, which awakened Graves to ‘revelations’ of a Goddess who had already been pre-figured in his actual life by the impact of strong women, most notably, Laura Riding. As a direct result of these ‘revelations', Graves came to believe the Goddess to be the source and inspiration of the true poet, acting through a human female muse. This assessment leads to Chapter Three and a close reading of King Jesus (1946), including an examination of its context and reception. It argues that the license Graves took in his radical reinterpretation of the trinity in order to justify his thesis, makes this novel more controversial than has previously been credited. Graves is at pains to show how Jesus was the true poet who, blind to his folly, was drawn away from his first loyalty, the Mother-goddess, whose influence was still widely recognized, and who turned instead to the Father-God, thereby transforming poetic discourse into the patriarchal discourse.

Chapter Four focuses on Graves’s translation of The Golden Ass by Apuleius (1950). It refers to other recent translations, in order to show that his idiosyncratic alterations of the original work were made in order to affirm that the Goddess is central to the story’. The Chapter concludes that Graves’s poetics of the muse and poet relationship greatly influenced his translation.
With Seven Days in New Crete (1949), there is disillusion with poetic theory and the muse’s role. Graves brings to life his theory from The White Goddess, and creates a matriarchal dystopia. Chapter Five argues that this ideal is actually unrealizable because of its static, controlled ‘perfection’. A true poet cannot thrive in such a contrived environment: rather, his place is in the imperfect, chaotic real world. Seven Days in New Crete is also discussed as an example of utopian/dystopian fiction of the 1940s.

In conclusion, the fictional texts examined in it have previously received scant critical analysis. This thesis focuses on the many reasons that the key texts are deserving of further scholarly attention - not just as works in their own right, but because they provide a better understanding of The White Goddess in its uneasy combination of different forms and genres. It is demonstrated how Graves used these prose texts not only for their avowed purposes of providing translations or reconstructing ancient myth, biblical and the historical, but also to work through his ideas on poetic inspiration by accommodating more than one genre. He weaved several together in order to tell his own particular story the more convincingly, and to reaffirm his belief in himself and his own role as a poet. 1 he thesis traces the rise and then the fall of the White Goddess poetics that eventually leads to the Black Goddess theory, and establishes the need for a revised perception of the status of the four texts in question - a comprehensive re-evaluation of their significance for Graves’s entire oeuvre in the evolution of his poetic thought.
Date of Award2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorPatrick Quinn (Supervisor), Charles Bennett (Supervisor) & Janet Wilson (Supervisor)

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