This sprawling indulgent showing-off of Graves erudition and scholarship had a big effect on me in my early twenties, at least the bits I understood. I’d been reading other myth and comparative religion texts Fraser’s The Golden Bough, and a two volume hardback Peasant Customs and Savage Myths ( bought remaindered from the Max Harris era Mary Martin Bookshop newsletter because it sounded good. That’s also how I discovered Rilke I’m embarrassed to say. No classical education for Fred in his school years.) After so many retelling’s of the saviour/hero death and rebirth myths, how could you believe in an Judeo-Christian God? Other than as a nice myth.
But it was the last paragraphs in Grave’s introduction to the White Goddess – a historical grammar of poetic myth that sent me to sleep terrified about what I was doing with my life.
“Call me, if you like, the fox who has lost his brush; I am nobody’s servant and have chosen to live on the outskirts of a Majorcan mountain village, Catholic but anti-ecclesiastical, where life is still ruled by the old agricultural cycle. Without my brush, namely my contact with urban civilisation, all that I write must read perversely and irrelevantly to such of you as are still geared to the industrial machine, whether directly as workers, managers, traders or advertisers or indirectly as civil servants, publishers, journalists, schoolmasters or employees of a radio corporation. If you are poets, you will realise that acceptance of my historical thesis commits you to a confession of disloyalty which you will be loth to make; you chose your jobs because they promised to provide you with a steady income and leisure to render the Goddess whom you adore valuable part-time service.
Who am I, you will ask, to warn you that she demands either whole-time service or none at all? And do I suggest that you should resign your jobs and for want of sufficient capital to set up as small-holders, turn romantic shepherds—as Don Quixote did after his failure to come to terms with the modern world—in remote unmechanized farms? No , my brushlessness debars me from offering any practical suggestion. I dare attempt only a historical statement of the problem; how you come to terms with the Goddess is no concern of mine. I do not even know that you are serious in your poetic profession.”
R. G .
It was from Graves I learnt about the ancient poetry of trees – a favourite, oak, and the other European trees like yew, elder, chestnut, poplar. I was already a child of English willow from growing up on the banks of the Murray River, but everything else around me was eucalyptus, wattle and some introduced pine trees. I remember arriving in the English countryside and breathing a sigh of happiness to be ‘home’. I knew that landscape in my mind.