Robert Graves

The great LDS scholar Hugh Nibley once complained that scholars treat such narrow areas of expertise that the big picture never comes into focus. He did mention, however, a few “men of genius like G. Santillana, Cyrus Gordon, or Robert Graves,” who have made some effort in “taking up the whole lot [of ancient texts] and relating every pile to every other.”

It is of Graves that I write today. There are many reasons why I love Robert Graves. For those of you who may not be familiar with him, he was an astonishingly prolific author working in a very broad range of genres. Best known for his historical novel, I, Claudius, his wide-ranging researches into the roots of poetry, The White Goddess, and his study of The Greek Myths, he was also a great love poet and essayist. I have always enjoyed scholars who can bring a wide range of material together and show the relationships between disparate traditions (I don’t know how many times I have read Santillana’s Hamlet’s Mill) and Graves does this, as Nibley pointed out above, like few others. I must insert the caveat that he was not a scholar in any orthodox way, but he was extremely erudite and possessed of what Moses Hadas, a scholar specializing in both the classical and biblical worlds and therefore one of the few scholars with the breadth to appreciate Graves, called “his famous nose,” by which he meant Graves’s ability to sniff out connections and insights where more pedantic investigators couldn’t. These connections are not always bolstered with arguments and are often debated, but it is a fact that scholars have been pillaging Graves’ work for years without ever crediting him for the ideas.

One of his most striking and endearing characteristics was his absolute independence and unwillingness to be swayed by popular opinion. He had a multitude of theories on all sorts of topics and didn’t hesitate to share them. A perfect example is his Playboy interview of December 1970, with the opening question of which he criticizes the sexual revolution, Playboy’s favorite social development, and by question number 2 he has taken on pretty much all of modern society. (Some people do read the articles–especially when they are found in the excellent collection, Conversations with Robert Graves.) Although he can be cranky, he is never a crank and always has a ready argument to answer any doubters.

Born into a middle class family in England, Robert von Ranke Graves never quite fit in at school, in part because of his name, in part because of his solemn scholarly nature, and instead of the typical school pursuits he took up poetry and boxing. He became the school champion in both welter- and middleweights, and decided that poetry was to be his life’s calling. He enlisted in WWI at the very beginning and his first volume of poetry came out in 1916. He is often grouped with the war poets Sigfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen, with both of whom he was friends, but in later collections of his poetry he omitted his early poems referring to them deprecatingly as being “part of the war poetry boom.”

He became known as one of the greatest English love poets, and much of his poetry revolves around devotion to the muse. His poem, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” is his clearest poetic treatment of what devotion to the muse meant to him, and his prose treatment of the topic, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, is one of the most remarkable books written in the past century. Its “thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry.” (From the introduction.)  He fleshes out the argument in 500 pages, marshalling evidence ranging from Wales to Palestine. In an interview Graves told of how he sent the manuscript to a publisher who rejected it and soon after committed suicide. Then he sent it to another who also rejected and then went out and hanged himself while wearing women’s clothes. Then it was sent to T.S. Eliot who published it and had a great career. He attributed all this to the goddess.

It really is an astonishing book and nothing I can write will do it justice.

A good introduction to Robert Graves would be one of his historical novels such as I, Claudius, King Jesus, or Hercules, My Shipmate. But to get a better flavor for his erudition you should check out The Greek Myths, in which he retails the myth giving the important variants, then cites the sources, and finally gives you his explanation of the myth, incorporating historical and anthropological approaches. Graves was one of the first to realize that psychotropic drugs may be the foundation of many ancient religions, and I believe it is in the Greek Myths that he explains that, while we have two recipes for ambrosia in the classical sources and they don’t list the same things, the first letters of the ingredients in each recipe spell out ‘mushroom.’

Another important book is The Hebrew Myths: the Book of Genesis, a collaboration between Robert Graves and Raphel Patai, a well-respected Jewish scholar and anthropologist. It has much the same format as The Greek Myths. Originally Patai was supposed to analyze the Hebrew stories in Genesis while Graves supplied Greek analogies and connections, but Graves from the beginning supplied much of the information regarding the ancient near eastern sources which thoroughly surprised Patai. Patai would go on to write The Hebrew Goddess, a very important work on the goddess in ancient Israel, and a book that was surely inspired by his work with Graves.

There is a lot more that I could say, but what you really need to do is read him.