The White Goddess

By Christopher Zoukis

Sparkling green and white in the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, just off the coast of Spain, there is an archipelago called the Balearic Islands.  The largest of these islands, the ‘major’ island, carries the appropriate name of Majorca.

On the northwest coast of Majorca sits the quiet village of Deya, serene beyond words.  Like the many-breasted God of the Hebrews, El Shaddai, small hills press up toward the sky all along the coast.  Deya surrounds and encompasses one of these profulgent mammai.

At the crown of the hill, overlooking the sea, there is a small, white church.  Next to the church is the churchyard, and in the churchyard is a cemetery with white grave markers.  Under one of the marmoreal slabs, quite plain, hearing but no longer listening to the voice of his muse, is buried Robert Graves.

He died December 7, 1985.

The offshore breeze walks softly across the cemetery, smelling of orange musk, sea salt and old smoke.  The smoky-smell is the panting from the olive trees.  Around Graves’ grave the dirt is the color of a cardboard box.  Gritty like sand it quickly dissolves to powder when trod on.  At the bottom of the hill, the dirt is coarse, composed of brown and black larva-sized granules.  Raw and heavy because of the moisture, it breathes an odor of mold and fecundity.

Soil like this, naturally, supports the madness in the blood of literary types.  For it is here that the shadows of the nine Greek muses gather and cavort and choir their beckoning song.  Anais Nin heard the call, as did Carmen Naranjo and Claribel Alegria.  They, and others, came before the swarms of tourists, like black clouds of locusts, chased the nine muses away to more remote places.  But first to find his muse here was Robert Graves.  

His muse he called The White Goddess, and he wrote a book about her.  In the book he explains the idea of the muse, who is essentially nothing more than a curious field of suppressed energy.  Some might call her a myth.  This energy comes into the real world by way of human females, who inspire, even cajole, their subject by means of flirtation, sensuality, and sometimes through brief sexual interludes.

In other words, they sing.  And their song, like that the Sirens sang to Ulysses, stimulates emotion and the primitive portions of the human brain, from whence the primordial urges arise.  The most primal of these urges is love.  And love sets aglow what mankind, in the artist, calls genius. 

It’s not intellectual genius.  It’s creative genius, which is shrugging off the rational rigidities of society, i.e., its silly limitations, and allowing the imagination to take over.

The concept and function of a muse sounds on the surface almost like the mad ravings of a lunatic, someone who needs to get a grip on reality.  In point of fact, reality is precisely what they are trying to get rid of. 

Picasso had female muses, as does Gerhard Richter, as did Robert Graves.

Graves, who was scholar, poet and wastrel in equal parts, had three wives, and many affairs and amours.  His first wife, Nancy, an artist, did not satisfy him sexually, being, as Graves put it, “an insistent lover.”  Too, her frame of reference (her perspective on the world) was visual, which resulted in her insistence on appearances.  She cared what other people thought of her.  Whereas Graves, literally, listened to the world, hearing its heavy inhaling and exhaling, its contrapuntal aria.

Doomed from the start, the marriage failed miserably and embittered Nancy since, as the adage goes, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  For Graves had found a new muse:  Laura Riding, a poet.  Riding, a gynecological nightmare, was impressed only with Laura Riding, and believed herself delightful and superb in every imaginable way, and a poet of supreme ability.

She and Graves moved to Deya where Riding used sex as a system of reward and punishment.  Primarily punishment in Graves’ case, as sexual interludes were far apart and relentlessly grew further and further apart, until, in the end, they must have seemed as remote as specters to Graves.

This purgatory of intimacy found its way into Graves’ writing, although Riding, in her arrogance didn’t seem to notice, or if she did, dismissed it as impossible.  Riding thought she had him wrapped around her finger.  Which she did, on one level, but once her usefulness as a muse withered, she, too, was replaced.

By Beryl Hodge, the wife of Alan Hodge, a writer with who Graves collaborated on two books.  The collaboration came to include Alan’s wife.  After they married, Graves took Beryl to Deya.  Beryl, who was sickly, was probably Graves’ one true love.  Yet he still required his muses, and Beryl realized this, putting up with his dalliances.

Although Graves considered himself a poet, and his novels hack work to make money, it is as a writer of prose that he is remembered.  I, Claudius and The Greek Myths are probably his most enduring works.

Love, according to Graves, being the sole vivacious instrument of expression, he embraced with little concern for his own vanity.  Graves was in love with Love.  His poetry reeks of their affair.  In that sense, he was a romantic.  But in the final summary, he, like all males, was quite parochial, as his poetry lists like a sinking ship in the proximity of his prose.  His poetry is sentimental slop.

Graves’ biographers cite his willingness to let his women control him, use him in a negative sense.  I think not.  Each of his wives provided him with what he needed at that moment.  Even the semi-celibate liaison with Laura Riding manifested itself in his prose. Like a worm becoming a butterfly, it escaped the coccoon.  There is no pretense of stoic resignation here.  Graves, when all is said and done, used his women to fulfill his literary compulsions.

Did he take advantage of them deliberately?  No, I think not.  Rather he listened to his muse, sailed his boat to where she sang, an idea which lacks contemporary equivalence.  And this explains why Graves was described as charismatic and sui generis (unique).  For anytime anyone heeds a different articulation, a different song, a way of life others don’t understand, he is condemned as eccentric, exaggerated, larger than life.  Or simply described as ‘mad.’


Like the boy in The Giving Tree, Graves returned again and again to the Tree of Life, his muse, his White Goddess, and asked her to give him what he needed.  She did.

“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy, “just a quiet place to sit and rest.  I am very tired.”

“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting.  Come, Boy, sit down.  Sit down and rest.”

And the boy did.

And the tree was happy.