Read an Excerpt
The White Goddess
A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth
By Robert Graves
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1997 The Trustees of the Robert Graves Trust
All rights reserved.
POETS AND GLEEMEN
Since the age of fifteen poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric. Prose has been my livelihood, but I have used it as a means of sharpening my sense of the altogether different nature of poetry, and the themes that I choose are always linked in my mind with outstanding poetic problems. At the age of sixty-five I am still amused at the paradox of poetry's obstinate continuance in the present phase of civilization. Though recognized as a learned profession it is the only one for the study of which no academies are open and in which there is no yardstick, however crude, by which technical proficiency is considered measurable. 'Poets are born, not made.' The deduction that one is expected to draw from this is that the nature of poetry is too mysterious to bear examination: is, indeed, a greater mystery even than royalty, since kings can be made as well as born and the quoted utterances of a dead king carry little weight either in the pulpit or the public bar.
The paradox can be explained by the great official prestige that still somehow clings to the name of poet, as it does to the name of king, and by the feeling that poetry, since it defies scientific analysis, must be rooted in some sort of magic, and that magic is disreputable. European poetic lore is, indeed, ultimately based on magical principles, the rudiments of which formed a close religious secret for centuries but which were at last garbled, discredited and forgotten. Now it is only by rare accidents of spiritual regression that poets make their lines magically potent in the ancient sense. Otherwise, the contemporary practice of poem-writing recalls the mediaeval alchemist's fantastic and foredoomed experiments in transmuting base metal into gold; except that the alchemist did at least recognize pure gold when he saw and handled it. The truth is that only gold ore can be turned into gold; only poetry into poems. This book is about the rediscovery of the lost rudiments, and about the active principles of poetic magic that govern them. My argument will be based on a detailed examination of two extraordinary Welsh minstrel poems of the thirteenth century, in which the clues to this ancient secret are ingeniously concealed.
By way of historical preface, a clear distinction must first be drawn between the court-bards and the wandering minstrels of ancient Wales. The Welsh bards, or master-poets, like the Irish, had a professional tradition, embodied in a corpus of poems which, literally memorized and carefully weighed, they passed on to the pupils who came to study under them. The English poets of to-day, whose language began as a despised late-mediaeval vernacular when Welsh poetry was already a hoary institution, may envy them in retrospect: the young poet was spared the curse of having doubtfully to build up his poetic lore for himself by haphazard reading, consultation with equally doubtful friends, and experimental writing. Latterly, however, it was only in Ireland that a master-poet was expected, or even permitted, to write in an original style. When the Welsh poets were converted to orthodox Christianity and subjected to ecclesiastical discipline – a process completed by the tenth century, as the contemporary Welsh Laws show – their tradition gradually ossified. Though a high degree of technical skill was still required of master-poets and though the Chair of Poetry was hotly contested in the various Courts, they were pledged to avoid what the Church called 'untruth', meaning the dangerous exercise of poetic imagination in myth or allegory. Only certain epithets and metaphors were authorized; themes were similarly restricted, metres fixed, and Cynghanedd, the repetitive use of consonantal sequences with variation of vowels, became a burdensome obsession. The master-poets had become court-officials, their first obligation being to praise God, their second to praise the king or prince who had provided a Chair for them at his royal table. Even after the fall of the Welsh princes in the late thirteenth century this barren poetic code was maintained by the family bards in noble houses.
T. Gwynn Jones writes in the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1913-1914):
The few indications which may be gathered from the works of the bards, down to the fall of the Welsh princes, imply that the system detailed in the Laws was preserved, but probably with progressive modification. The Llyfr Coch Hergest metrical Code shows a still further development, which in the fifteenth century resulted in the Carmarthen Eisteddfod. ... The subject tradition recorded in this Code, practically restricting the bards to the writing of eulogies and elegies, and excluding the narrative, is proved to have been observed by the Gogynfeirdd [court-bards]. Their adherence to what they conceived to be historical truth was probably due to the early capture of their organization by ecclesiastics. They made practically no use of the traditional material contained in the popular Romances, and their knowledge of the names of mythical and quasi-historical characters was principally derived from the Triads. ... Nature poetry and love poetry are only incidental in their works, and they show practically no development during the period. ... References to nature in the poems of the court-bards are brief and casual, and mostly limited to its more rugged aspects – the conflict of sea and strand, the violence of winter storms, the burning of spring growths on the mountains. The characters of their heroes are only indicated in epithets; no incident is completely described; battles are dismissed in a line or two at most. Their theory of poetry, particularly in the eulogy, seems to have been that it should consist of epithets and allusions, resuming the bare facts of history, presumably known to their hearers. They never tell a story; they rarely even give anything approaching a coherent description of a single episode. Such, indeed, has been the character of most Welsh verse, outside the popular ballads, practically down to the present day.
The tales and Romances, on the other hand, are full of colour and incident; even characterization is not absent from them. In them, fancy, not affected by restrictions applying both to subject and form, develops into imagination.
These tales were told by a guild of Welsh minstrels whose status was not regularized by the Laws, who counted no bishops or ministers of State among their associates, and who were at liberty to use whatever diction, themes and metres they pleased. Very little is known about their organization or history, but since they were popularly credited with divinatory and prophetic gifts and the power of injurious satire it is likely that they were descended from the original Welsh master-poets who either refused or were refused court-patronage after the Cymric conquest of Wales. The Cymry, whom we think of as the real Welsh, and from whom the proud court-bards were recruited, were a tribal aristocracy of Brythonic origin holding down a serf-class that was a mixture of Goidels, Brythons, Bronze Age and New Stone Age peoples and Aboriginals; they had invaded Wales from the North of England in the fifth century AD. The non-Cymric minstrels went from village to village, or farm-house to farm-house, entertaining under the trees or in the chimney corner according to the season. It was they who kept alive an astonishingly ancient literary tradition, mainly in the form of popular tales which preserved fragments not only of pre-Cymric, but of pre-Goidelic myth, some of which goes back as far as the Stone Age. Their poetic principles are summed up in a Triad in the Llyfr Goch Hergest ('The Red Book of Hergest'):
Three things that enrich the poet: Myths, poetic power, a store of ancient verse.
The two poetic schools did not at first come in contact, the 'big-bellied' well-dressed court-bards being forbidden to compose in the minstrel style and penalized if they visited any but the houses of princes or nobles; the lean and ragged minstrels not being privileged to perform at any court, nor trained to use the complicated verse-forms required of the court-bards. However, in the thirteenth century the minstrels were taken up by the Norman-French invaders, apparently through the influence of Breton knights who could understand Welsh and who recognized some of the tales as better versions of those which they had heard at home. The trovères, or finders, translated them into contemporary French and adapted them to the Provençal code of chivalry, and in their new dress they conquered Europe.
Welsh and Norman families now intermarried and it was no longer easy to keep the minstrel out of the courts. In an early thirteenth-century poem one Phylip Brydydd records a contention between himself and certain 'vulgar rhymesters' as to who should first present a song on Christmas Day to his patron, Prince Rhys Ieuanc at Llanbadarn Fawr in South Wales. Prince Rhys was a close ally of the Normans. The two thirteenth-century poems which will be here examined are the work of a 'vulgar rhymester' – vulgar at least by Philip's aristocratic canon of what a poet should be. They are called the Câd Goddeu and the Hanes Taliesin.
By the fourteenth century the literary influence of the minstrels began to show even in court poetry, and according to fourteenth-century versions of the bardic statute, Trioedd Kerdd, the Prydydd, or court-bard, might write love-poems, though debarred from satires, lampoons, charms, divination, or lays of magic. It was not until the fifteenth century that the poet Davydd ap Gwilym won approval for a new form, the Kywydd, in which court poetry and minstrel poetry are united. For the most part the court-poets would not modify their obsolescent practice; remaining scornful and jealous of the favour shown to 'tellers of untruth'. Their position declined with that of their patrons and their authority finally collapsed as a result of the Civil Wars, in which Wales favoured the losing side, shortly before the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland also broke the power of the ollaves, or master-poets, there. Its revival in the bardic Gorsedd of the National Eisteddfod is somewhat of a mock-antique, coloured by early nineteenth-century misconceptions of Druidic practice; yet the Eisteddfod has served to keep alive a public sense of the honour due to poets, and contests for the bardic Chair are as keen as ever.
English poetry has had only a short experience of similar bardic discipline: the Classicism of the eighteenth century, when highly stylized diction and metre and 'decorum' of theme were insisted upon by the admirers and imitators of Alexander Pope. A violent reaction followed, the 'Romantic Revival'; then another partial return to discipline, Victorian Classicism; then a still more violent reaction, the 'modernistic' anarchy of the 1920's and 1930's. English poets now appear to be considering a voluntary return to discipline: not to the eighteenth-century straitjacket, nor to the Victorian frock-coat, but to that logic of poetic thought which gives a poem strength and grace. But where can they study metre, diction, and theme? Where can they find any poetic government to which they may yield a willing loyalty? Metre, they would all probably agree, is the norm to which a poet relates his personal rhythm, the original copybook copper-plate from which he gradually develops a unique personal handwriting; unless such a norm is assumed, his rhythmic idiosyncrasies are meaningless. They would also probably agree about diction, that it should be neither over-stylized nor vulgar. But what of theme? Who has ever been able to explain what theme is poetic and what is unpoetic, except by the effect that it has on the reader?
The rediscovery of the lost rudiments of poetry may help to solve the question of theme: if they still have validity they confirm the intuition of the Welsh poet Alun Lewis who wrote just before his death in Burma, in March 1944, of 'the single poetic theme of Life and Death ... the question of what survives of the beloved.' Granted that there are many themes for the journalist of verse, yet for the poet, as Alun Lewis understood the word, there is no choice. The elements of the single infinitely variable Theme are to be found in certain ancient poetic myths which though manipulated to conform with each epoch of religious change – I use the word 'myth' in its strict sense of 'verbal iconograph' without the derogatory sense of 'absurd fiction' that it has acquired – yet remain constant in general outline. Perfect faithfulness to the Theme affects the reader of a poem with a strange feeling, between delight and horror, of which the purely physical effect is that the hair literally stands on end. A. E. Housman's test of a true poem was simple and practical: does it make the hairs of one's chin bristle if one repeats it silently while shaving? But he did not explain why the hairs should bristle.
The ancient Celts carefully distinguished the poet, who was originally a priest and judge as well and whose person was sacrosanct, from the mere gleeman. He was in Irish called fili, a seer; in Welsh derwydd, or oak-seer, which is the probable derivation of 'Druid'. Even kings came under his moral tutelage. When two armies engaged in battle, the poets of both sides would withdraw together to a hill and there judiciously discuss the fighting. In a sixth-century Welsh poem, the Gododin, it is remarked that 'the poets of the world assess the men of valour'; and the combatants – whom they often parted by a sudden intervention – would afterwards accept their version of the fight, if worth commemorating in a poem, with reverence as well as pleasure. The gleeman, on the other hand, was a joculator, or entertainer, not a priest: a mere client of the military oligarchs and without the poet's arduous professional training. He would often make a variety turn of his performance, with mime and tumbling. In Wales he was styled an eirchiad, or suppliant, one who does not belong to an endowed profession but is dependent for his living on the occasional generosity of chieftains. As early as the first century BC we hear from Poseidonius the Stoic of a bag of gold flung to a Celtic gleeman in Gaul, and this at a time when the Druidic system was at its strongest there. If the gleeman's flattery of his patrons were handsome enough and his song sweetly enough attuned to their mead-sodden minds, they would load him with gold torques and honey cakes; if not, they would pelt him with beef bones. But let a man offer the least indignity to an Irish poet, even centuries after he had forfeited his priestly functions to the Christian cleric, and he would compose a satire on his assailant which would bring out black blotches on his face and turn his bowels to water, or throw a 'madman's wisp' in his face and drive him insane; and surviving examples of the cursing poems of the Welsh minstrels show that they were also to be reckoned with. The court-poets of Wales, on the other hand, were forbidden to use curses or satires, and had to depend on legal redress for any insult to their dignity: according to a tenth-century digest of laws affecting the Welsh 'household bard' they could demand an eric of 'nine cows, and nine-score pence of money besides'. The figure nine recalls the nine-fold Muse, their former patroness.
In ancient Ireland the ollave, or master-poet, sat next to the king at table and was privileged, as none else but the queen was, to wear six different colours in his clothes. The word 'bard', which in mediaeval Wales stood for a master-poet, had a different sense in Ireland, where it meant an inferior poet who had not passed through the 'seven degrees of wisdom' which made him an ollave after a very difficult twelve-year course. The position of the Irish bard is defined in the seventh-century Sequel to the Crith Gabhlach Law: 'A bard is one without lawful learning but his own intellect'; but in the later Book of Ollaves (bound up in the fourteenth-century Book of Ballymote) it is made clear that to have got as far as the seventh year of his poetic education entitled a student to the 'failed B.A.' dignity of bardism. He had memorized only half the prescribed tales and poems, had not studied advanced prosody and metrical composition, and was deficient in knowledge of Old Goidelic. However, the seven years' course that he had taken was a great deal more severe than that insisted upon in the poetic schools of Wales, where the bards had a proportionately lower status. According to the Welsh Laws, the Penkerdd, or Chief Bard, was only the tenth dignitary at Court and sat on the left of the Heir Apparent, being reckoned equal in honour with the Chief Smith.
Excerpted from The White Goddess by Robert Graves. Copyright © 1997 The Trustees of the Robert Graves Trust. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.