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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 – December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pinch of Salt                       

When a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor stain,
O then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You’ll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.
Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you seize at the salt-box,
Over the hedge you’ll see him sail.

 
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.
Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself, and turn away.
Mask your hunger; let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Babylon

The child alone a poet is:
Spring and Fairyland are his.
Truth and Reason show but dim,
And all’s poetry with him.

 

 

 

 
Rhyme and music flow in plenty
For the lad of one-and-twenty,
But Spring for him is no more now
Than daisies to a munching cow;
Just a cheery pleasant season,
Daisy buds to live at ease on.

 

 

 

 
He’s forgotten how he smiled
And shrieked at snowdrops when a child,
Or wept one evening secretly
For April’s glorious misery.

 

 

 

 

 
Wisdom made him old and wary
Banishing the Lords of Faery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Wisdom made a breach and battered
Babylon to bits: she scattered
To the hedges and ditches
All our nursery gnomes and witches.

 

 

 

 

 
Lob and Puck, poor frantic elves,
Drag their treasures from the shelves.

 

 

 

 

 

 
Jack the Giant-killer’s gone,
Mother Goose and Oberon,
Bluebeard and King Solomon.

 

 

 

 

 
Robin, and Red Riding Hood
Take together to the wood,
And Sir Galahad lies hid
In a cave with Captain Kidd.

 

 

 

 

 
None of all the magic hosts,
None remain but a few ghosts
Of timorous heart, to linger on
Weeping for lost Babylon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 –December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I fell in love at my first evening party.              
You were tall and fair, just seventeen perhaps
Talking to my two sisters. I kept silent
And never since have loved a tall fair girl,
Until last night in the small windy hours
When, floating up an unfamiliar staircase
And into someone’s bedroom, there I found her
Posted beside the window in half-light
Wearing that same white dress with lacy sleeves.
She beckoned. I came closer. We embraced
Inseparably until the dream faded.
Her eyes shone clear and blue…

Who was it, though, impersonated you?

 

 

 

Excerpt from The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

‘What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?’ is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people. The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites. But ‘nowadays?’ Function and use remain the same: only the application has changed. This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family.

 ‘Nowadays’ is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as ‘auxiliary State personnel’. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.

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 civilization, 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 realize 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 commands either whole-time service or none at all? And do I suggest that you should resign your jobs 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.
Deyà,
Mallorca,
Spain.

 

 

 

 

When the whole substance of a poem is vouchsafed to one in a dream, which brings with it the several iconic evocations of the Muse, one can be sure that it can be trusted to have an uncanny origin. Robert Graves refers to such rare artifacts as ‘True Poems.” There is no doubt that this beautiful haunting poem was a visitation –  a gift of the Muse, conveyed by her to the receptive mind of the poet, which stays awake even as it dreams.

The dictionary defines ‘uncanny’ as “having or seeming to have a supernatural or inexplicable basis; beyond the ordinary or normal; extraordinary; mysterious; arousing superstitious fear or dread; uncomfortably strange.”

The object of Grave’s first love-at-a-distance,  the lovely Frances Speedwell, visits him in a dream years after the moment of his early entrancement. Has she appeared in the guise of the Muse – or is it the other way about – ?  It is a question without an answer, and  we suspect that  even were the answer to be found, it would leave us none the wiser.

All true poems, which is to say those which are inspired by the Muse, invoking and evoking her, have this haunting, uneasy-making quality. They persist in the mind long after the pen has been set down, the page turned and the book closed. They have a life of their own, and they weave this life into ours, and remain with us even when we think we have forgotten them. If we are receptive to the parts of ourselves that are alive with intuition and thereby maintain the link into our ancient selves, they become a part of us, of our imaginations and our ways of thinking. They shape us and change us, and place our feet on a path which sets us apart from ordinary people – which is to say, people who are unaware of the Muse’s hidden world.

I have always tried – and failed – to satisfactorily characterise – or explain to myself – this kind of writing, and I say ‘writing’ and not just poetry, because it sometimes makes its rare appearance in the world of prose as well.

I recognise it instantly because it sweeps me out of my ordinary mind into that almost dream state which I think of as the territory of my right-brain, which is intuitive, trance-like and transportive. The ‘catching’ quality in the ‘real thing’ is so strong that it brings me as a reader immediately into the flow of subtle experience. This is one of my ‘tests’ for true poetry. When I manage  to write prose in this way,  I feel I must make my intellect passive: not passive in the sense of doing nothing, but as not intruding, not interfering.

I try to not struggle  with the current but get drawn along with it and I make my writer-self become the skilled but humble servant of that emerging voice which does not communicate in words. I think this is the place where our real selves live, and we usually drown that being out with all our useless mental vociferating.

This self  – this writer –  does not seem to come from one’s familiar mental territory, and its writing itself, after a passage of time,  when some weeks or months have elapsed, is frequently unrecognisable as one’s own. The realisation then becomes unavoidable, that the journey to be oneself is one which does not have a destination, since the destination recedes in ever widening expanses – like a sea voyage when landfall never arrives.

One moves along the surface, catching glimpses of the ever deepening depths, sensing yet never being able to grasp the extra dimension. This of course is intolerable to the brain which wishes to conquer reality by means of its cognitive faculties and so it fights the inevitable surrender by asserting its cleverness and skill. But if one is aware, one feels the imperative to give in to the delicious helplessness of being carried away – of giving up its active volition and letting the wind and the water have its way.

The feeling of being caught between endless space and endless depth while being transfixed by this spell of thought – the inner space and the inner depth reflecting each other and mingling in a way that is intoxicating and transportive and ineffable can be a disorienting one. And yet, one knows oneself to be somehow fixed and poised on a pin-head of space and time. These contradictions coexist in a magical way, until ordinariness returns as it always does and the magic reluctantly gives way, and the process reverses itself, except when the impulse to resist does not intrude.

The non-locality of objects – in this case ones inner-self  – unveils itself. that’s why we are sometimes simultaneously recognisable and unrecognisable to ourselves. Its because at the level of our inner realities we are unrecognisable and strange and exotic. The perverse tyranny of our ordinariness  momentarily slides back like a secret panel, revealing a hidden passage to a universe where the laws  of  ‘reality’ are determined by intuition and we cannot for long sustain that view of ourselves  as unlimited beings.

Being enveloped in a vast physical sensation which can find no body with which to connect –  then abruptly ejected into smallness: that is original sin:  the condition which follows when one has been expelled from the zone.

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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 - December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In No Direction

To go in no direction
Surely as carelessly,
Walking on the hills alone,
I never found easy.

Either I sent leaf or stick
Twirling in the air,
Whose fall might be prophetic,
Pointing ‘there’,

 

 

Or in superstition
Edged somewhat away
From a sure direction,
Yet could not stray.

Or undertook the climb
That I had avoided
Directionless some other time,
Or had not avoided,

Or called as companion
Some eyeless ghost
And held his no direction
Till my feet were lost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Castle

Walls, mounds, enclosing corrugations
Of darkness, moonlight on dry grass.
Walking this courtyard, sleepless, in fever;
Planning to use – but by definition
There’s no way out, no way out –
Rope-ladder, baulks of timber, pulleys,
A rocket whizzing over the walls and moat –
Machines easy to improvise.

 

 

No escape,
No such thing; to dream of new dimensions,
Cheating checkmate by painting the king’s robe
So that he slides like a queen;
Or to cry,  ‘Nightmare, nightmare’!
Like a corpse in the cholera-pit
Under a load of corpses;
Or to run the head against these blind walls,
Enter the dungeon, torment the eyes
With apparitions chained two and two,
And go frantic with fear –
To die and wake up sweating by moonlight
In the same courtyard, sleepless as before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return

The seven years’ curse is ended now
That drove me forth from this kind land,
From mulberry-bough and apple-bough
and gummy twigs the west wind shakes,
To drink the brine of crusted lakes
And grit my teeth on sand.

Now for your cold, malicious brain
And most uncharitable, cold heart,
You,  too , shall clank the seven years’ chain
On sterile ground for all time cursed
With famine’s itch and flames of thirst,
The blank sky’s counterpart.

 

The load that from my shoulder slips
Straightway upon your own is tied:
You, too, shall scorch your finger-tips
With scrabbling on the desert’s face
Such thoughts I had of this green place,
Sent scapegoat for your pride.

 

Here Robin on a tussock sits,
And Cuckoo with his call of hope
Cuckoos awhile, then off he flits,
While peals of dingle-dongle keep
Troop-discipline among the sheep
That graze upon the slope.

A brook from fields of gentle sun,
Through the glade its water heaves,
The falling cone would well-nigh stun
The Squirrel wantonly lets drop
When up he scampers to tree-top
And dives among the green.

But no, I ask  a surer peace
Than vengeance on you could provide.
So fear no ill from my release;
Be off, elude the curse, disgrace
Some other green and happy place –
This world of fools is wide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Presence

Why say ‘death’? Death is neither harsh nor kind:
Other pleasure or pains could hold the mind
If she were dead. For dead is gone indeed,
Lost beyond recovery and need,
Discarded, ended, rotted underground –
Of whom no personal feature could be found
To stand out from the soft blur evenly spread
On memory, if she were truly dead.

 

 

 

But living still, barred from accustomed use
Of body and dress and motions with profuse
Reproaches (since this anguish on her grew
Do I still love her as I swear I do?)
She fills the house and garden terribly
With her bewilderment, accusing me,
Till every stone and flower, table and book,
Cries out her name, pierces me with her look,
‘You are deaf, listen!
You are blind, see!’
How deaf or blind,
When horror of the grave maddens the mind
With those same pangs that lately choked her breath,
Altered her substance, and made sport of death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky.
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy, or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Song of Contrariety

Far away is close at hand,
Close joined is far away,
Love shall come at your command,
Yet will not stay.

At summons of your dream-despair
She might not disobey,
But slid close down beside you there,
And complaisant lay.

Yet now her flesh and blood consent
In the hours of day,
Joy and passion both are spent,
Twining clean away.

Is the person empty air,
Is the spectre clay,
That love, lent substance by despair,
Wanes and leaves you lonely there
On the bridal day?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanity

Be assured, the Dragon is not dead
But once more from the pools of peace
Shall rear his fabulous green head.

The flowers of innocence shall cease
And like a harp the wind shall roar
And the clouds shake an angry fleece.

‘Here, here is certitude,’ you swore,
‘Below this lightning-blasted tree.
Where once it struck, it strikes no more.

 

 

‘Two lovers in one house agree.
The roof is tight, the walls unshaken.
And now, so must it always be.’

Such prophesies of joy awaken
the toad who dreams away the past
Under your hearth-stone, light forsaken,

Who knows that certitude at last
Must melt away in vanity –
No gate is fast, no door is fast –

That thunder bursts from the blue sky,
That gardens of the mind fall waste,
That fountains of the heart run dry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Sick Love

O Love, be fed with apples while you may,
And feel the sun and go in royal array,
A smiling innocent on the heavenly causeway,

Though in what listening horror for the cry
That soars in outer blackness dismally,
The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury:

Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head.
Exquisite in the pulse of tainted blood,
That shivering glory not to be despised.

Take your delight in momentariness,
Walk between dark and dark – a shining space
With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Thief

To the galleys, thief, sweat your soul out
With strong tugging under the curled whips,
That there your thievishess may find full play.
Whereas, before, you stole rings, flowers and watches,
Oaths, jests and proverbs,
Yet paid for bed and board like an honest man,
This shall be entire thiefdom: you shall steal
Sleep from chain-galling, diet from sour crusts,
Comradeship from the damned, the ten-year-chained –
And, more than this, the excuse for life itself
From a craft steered toward battles not your own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The China Plate

From a crowded barrow in a street-market
The plate was ransomed for a few coppers,
Was brought gleefully home, given a place
On a commanding shelf.

Quite a museum-piece,’ an expert cries
(Eyeing it through the ready pocket-lens) –
As through a glass case would be less sepulchral
Than the barrow-hears!

 

 

For weeks this plate retells the history
Whenever an eye runs in that direction:
‘Near perdition I was, in a street market
With rags and old shoes.’

‘A few coppers’ – here once again
The purchaser’s proud hand lifts down
The bargain, displays the pot-bank sign
Scrawled raggedly underneath.

Enough, permit the treasure to forget
The emotion of that providential purchase,
Becoming a good citizen of the house
Like its fellow-crockery.

 

 

Let it dispense sandwiches at a party
And not be noticed in the drunken buzz,
Or little cakes at afternoon tea
When cakes are in demand.

Let it regain a lost habit of life,
Foreseeing death in honourable breakage
Somewhere between the kitchen and the shelf –
To be sincerely mourned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burn It!

Fetch your book here,
That you have fought with for half a year
(Christmas till May)
Not intermittently but night and day
Need but enhance your satisfaction
In swift and wholesome action.

Write off the expense
Of stationary against experience,
And salvage no small beauties or half-lines.
You took the wrong turn, disregarded signs
Winking along your track,
Until too close-committed to turn back.

Fetch the book here
And burn it without fear,
Grateful at least that, having gone so far,
You still know what truth is and where you are,
With better things to say
In you own bold, unmarketable way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Leaving the Rest Unsaid

Finis apparent on an earlier page,
Wit fallen obelisk for colophon,
Must this be here repeated?

Death has been ruefully announced
And to die once is death enough,
Be sure, for any life-time.

Must the book end, as you would end it,
With testamentary appendices
And graveyard indices?

But no, I will not lay me down
To let your tearful music mar
The decent mystery of my progress.

So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,
Rising in air as on a gander’s wing
At a careless comma,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are some poets to whom Poetry is a craft. To others it is an avocation, or a hobby, or merely a means of expression much resembling prose, only written in shorter lines.  None of these types is worthy of the name ‘poet’.

But once or twice in a century one comes across a man or woman who can truly be called a poet. Such beings possess the full panoply of skills, abilities and attributes the Muse demands: an honourouble character, a deep and extensive knowledge of his or her own native tongue, both historical and contemporary, a good grasp of his or her own poetic tradition, the languages related to his or her own native tongue, a thorough familiarity with Greek Mythology, the History, Geography, Literature associated with his or her own poetic tradition, Philology, Orthography, a superior intelligence,which is matched with superior intuition, and the ability to step easily and lightly between the trance and waking state.

Needless to say that all who claim to write poetry are not poets, and today this Royal calling is debased beyond all recognition. That is why Robert Graves is one of my best-loved poets. I have never found him to disappoint, nor does he fall the slightest bit short of the highest standards.  With the rarest skill, and the deftest touch he bends his skills to meet the exigencies of love, and beautifully resolve its dilemmas and conflicts. His appeal for me has never flagged, and his example in modern times has never been matched, let alone surpassed.

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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 - December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Gabble-gabble,… brethren, …gabble – gabble!”
My window frames forest and heather.
I hardly hear the tuneful babble,
Not knowing not much caring whether
The text is praise or exhortation,
Prayer or thanksgiving, or damnation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside it blows wetter and wetter,
The tossing trees never stay still.
I shift my elbows to catch better
The full round and sweep of heathered hill.
The tortured copse bends to and fro
In silence like a shadow-show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The parson’s voice runs like a river
Over smooth rocks, I like this church:
The pews are staid, they never shiver,
They never bend or sway or lurch.
“Prayer,” says the kind voice, “is like a chain
That draws down Grace from Heaven again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I add the hymns up, over and over,
Until there’s not the least mistake.
Seven-seventy-one. (look! there’s a plover!
It’s gone!) Who’s that Saint by the lake?
The red light from his mantle passes
Across the broad memorial brasses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s pleasant here for dreams and thinking,
Lolling and letting reason nod,
With ugly serious people linking
Sad prayers to a forgiving God….
But a dumb blast sets the trees swaying
With furious zeal like madmen praying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alright then, in deference to recent comments,  here is a belated 2¢ worth.

 

 

The marvelous thing about this poem – besides its astringency,  vibrancy and  precocious irreverence, is the that it observes the present moment with the use of all the natural  senses – excepting perhaps smell – the absence of which, in the close confines of a weather-beset English congregation might have been more than just a qualified mercy.

It is interesting for me to see Graves use the characteristically very female literary device of ‘Stream of Consciousness’,  in order to drive his poem, and in addition, to place before us the streaming thoughts of this very appealing child.

Others, of course most notably James Joyce, plundered the form and made off with the loot to his great remunerative and professional advantage, (though Dorothy  Richardson herself, who invented the style,  died in poverty) but I don’t think that before I came across this poem, I had found Graves to have adopted this particular style.

As  I read “A Boy in Church,” the thought began to occur to me for the first time that this form and style may indeed have originated in the mind of the little Dorothy Richardson during her childhood. 

And why shouldn’t it after all? Neotony is of course one of the outstanding hallmarks of cognitively superiorly developed species —  and the skills and perceptions we form in childhood repeatedly prove to be the fertile ground from which our most vigorous adult perceptions spring. The works of Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are replete with childhood recollections, retrieved, re-worked and re-inserted directly into their novels and short-stories.

The consciousness in Grave’s  poem is brisk, with no trace of  the  laxity  one expects to find in the company of wandering thoughts  frequently provoked when in boring surroundings. There is a huge appreciation for each of the things which rise up to charm engage and captivate the mind, both inside the church and in the rain-sodden world outside.

The trees swaying in the drunken ecstasy of their prayers are in stark, melodramatic contrast to the parson’s trite and banal addresses: this service after all, is demonstrably missing the uninhibited histrionics of Pentecostal fervour , and instead  asserts the very staid, steadfast and carefully measured  progress of the Church of England ritual.

The boy likes the weighted substantiality of his place of worship, which is echoed reassuringly in the well put-together pews and their sober solidity. This is unsurprising, because even as children find them to be dull and restrictive, the steady reliable social norms and structures  which surround them tend to provide children with the stable white noise in the backgrounds of their childhoods, over which the real orchestra of original thinking can make its more complex music.

The windows in my own childhood church (staunchly Methodist) I remember as being above my head level and translucent, so as to permit the entrance of light but not of distractions. This might have been a very good thing for us schoolgirls for whom attendance at two church services on Sundays was compulsory. Nevertheless we contrived to while away the tedious hours playing with our handkerchiefs, folding and unfolding the corners to make little roses, and surreptitiously scraping the beeswax off the pews to form into little grey balls, as prisoners are said in the past to have rolled up their prison bread as a means of keeping count of the days, and we used these little grey masses to stick our collection money onto the backs of the pews which faced us.

The hymns were always curious and wonderful – I remember most of them even now. They were never the anæmic, politically correct pablum one hears today, but settled and confident in doctrinal assurance. They were firmly unembarrassed in their assertions and  prejudices. One hymn in particular comes to mind – “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, which had a verse in which Ceylon was described as being a place “Where every prospect pleases but only man is vile.” We all sang these lines imperturbably and   without a trace of disquiet.

As a product of a British Colonial upbringing, I absorbed much of its calm certainties in the love of order which expresses itself in my tastes even today.  When I say  ‘order’ I don’t mean the staleness of unquestioned assumptions etc, but the beauty and balance required in order to make coherent the fast flowing current of thought and give it the structure it needs to stand up as a piece of writing. Respect for order is something I always recognise and appreciate in a Grave’s poem: Order such as  can take the onrush of thoughts and usher them in diligent retrospect into the necessary complements of stanzas, rhymes, metres etc needed to make a poem, but with the unobtrusive practicality which places such linguistic implements in attendance of the main subject  so to speak, so that they stand like attentive guardians who watch a child at play without interfering, unless she appears to be about to stumble into the deep end of the fish pond.

This Robert Graves does as he does everything else – vibrantly, efficiently, admirably and believably in matters of original insight and thinking – even in a deceptively simple little poem such as this. Graves brought the same degree of Lexical, Philological and Orthographic polish and rigour to his prose works, both fiction and non-fiction, which is why in these times of passive and negligent reading, he is not nearly as appreciated as other writers who are far less deserving of recognition.

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Robert Graves

To turn men into stone on sight is the particular magic of Medusa – but to turn a stone sculpture into a woman  is how the Goddess Aphrodite answers Pygmalion’s prayer. Pygmalion is only human – though his origins hearken back to the Phoenician royal house.  His desires are modest – all he wants is a perfect woman,  – one who can meet his impossibly high standards,  and he is willing to take both spiritual and temporal steps to procure her.

It might be that he desired only that stone be turned to flesh – but he hadn’t counted on the perversity of that flesh – to wish that it would always accompanied by spirit.

This kind of thinking is very much in vogue, from the New-Age assertions about the power of affirmations to materialise our wishes and desires, to the ‘Prosperity’ based preachments trumpeted from the pulpits of mega churches and the programs broadcast by televangelists. But more than that, it has been around for a very long time.  Both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies concur that our ‘thought-forms’ under the correct circumstances can become ‘real’.

Incarnation – the ability of spirits or divinities like  Christ and Galatea  to become flesh, are popular staples in the belief systems of millions of people even today,  as is the belief in Reincarnation, (or as the Greeks called it, Metampsychosis) which is  the ability of the spirit or soul being born and reborn in different bodies. These are of course  just different shades of the same enduring belief.

What did Pygmalion really believe? They say he fell in love with Cyprian Aphrodite – the same Goddess adored by Sappho, but she of course rejected his advances, whereupon in order to assuage his longing he created the flawless sculpture of a woman.  Some say he made a sculpture of Aphrodite herself.

Then Pygmalion laid the statue beside himself in his bed, and fervently prayed to the Goddess… and she took pity on him, and brought the sculpture to life  – as Galatea.

This of course is Robert Grave’s spine-tingling version of the tale in his poem.

 

Galatea and Pygmalion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Galatea, whom his furious chisel
From Parian stone had by greed enchanted
Fulfilled, so they say, Pygmalion’s longings:
Stepped from the pedestal on which she stood,
Bare in his bed laid her down, lubricious.
With low responses to his drunken raptures,
Enroyalled his body with her demon blood.

Alas, Pygmalion had so well plotted
The articulations of his woman monster
That schools of eager connoisseurs beset
Her single person with perennial suit;
Whom she (a judgement on the jealous artist)
Admitted rankly to a comprehension
Of themes that crowned her own, not his repute.

 

 

 

So Pygmalion got his dearest wish: A goddess breathed life into the image of perfection as he himself conceived it, and that he himself  had made. Though the sculpture was at first lifeless and unresponsive to his desperate passion, divine offices rendered it otherwise, and she then graciously and wantonly submitted herself to him.  This was the  moment in life unrivaled in its perfection, when  that which is most long for and desperately desired  delivers itself into one’s hands.  It is also a moment which never lasts.  On the other side of this incredibly fulfilled wish, is a sea of the darkest horror waiting to unleash its tides.  One wonders that Pygmalion did not feel a cold hand brushing against the back of his neck….

The sequence of events is clear: Pygmalion, for whom the mortal imperfections of women are an insurmountable impediment to love, falls in love with a goddess. Motivated by his intense and unbearable longing for her, he sculpts her perfect image. He then presumes to take her to his bed – and with the fire of his passion and his passionate importunities to the Goddess, she is brought to life. Or, alternatively, he kindles passion in what was before a lifeless object – a mere ideal. He  succeeds in transferring his love from its first perfect and unattainable form, to one which he has now attained and which in part by the magic of his sexual enchantments by which he has induced to come to life the expression of perfection which is Galatea.

Some versions would have it that forgetful of all else but his rapture, that Pygmalion neglected to make an offering to the Goddess as an expression of his gratefulness to her as a recipient of her favours – and that this is the reason for the devastation which followed.

I myself do not subscribe to this belief, as it strikes me as an example of the ‘what if’ and ‘of only I had’ type of thinking we indulge in when everything has gone dreadfully wrong.  We do it largely so that we can go on clinging to the memory of the past.

The fact is, that though Pygmalion was the creator and Galatea the created, she was perfect: whereas he was not.  This is the creation story turned on its head.  Nor is this incarnation placed beside Pygmalion by her own free will. She was created by a mortal, placed in his bed by him insensate, and brought to life by the Goddess whose indwelling  spark vivifies her.  She has both human and divine attributes because she is the result of the collaboration between a mortal man and the Goddess Aphrodite – the Goddess of Love. She is perfect in a way that only an idealisation, and therefore no mortal woman could be perfect.

Could Pygmalion have been aware of his predicament? Or was he too euphoric to notice that things were perhaps just not adding up? We humans know about these types of liaisons between ordinary mortals and the perfect beings they long for and fall in love with and by a stroke of unheard of good luck manage to procure: liaisons that are impossible from the very first moment they take shape. But we are blinded by the stunning thrill of madness we feel when a dream comes true. After all, we feel that we have performed some kind of miracle – we don’t know how we did it, but God knows, we have made it happen! So we steadfastly ignore what we know to be true at the back of our minds. But often we have waited so long and and expended so much of ourselves creating this dream and bringing it to life, that even as we play out our passions with the reality  ignore the fact that we are really making love with a fantasy.

This is the moment when we might do well to look at the negative space within us that is now being so gloriously filled – the shape that exactly fitted the space which exactly corresponded to the shape that was waiting for this Goddess incarnate step into.

In the last verse of Grave’s  ‘Pygmalion to Galatea’ – a verse which he later expunged  this is what happens….

Down stepped Galatea with a sigh
“Pygmalion, as you woke me from the stone
So shall I you from bonds of sullen flesh.
Lovely I am, merciful I shall prove:
Woman I am , constant as various,
Not marbel-hearted but your own true love
Give me an equal kiss as i kiss you…”

The first thing that Galatea does when she comes to life is sigh – and  if he had not already been lost, this inauspicious sigh should have sent a shiver down Pygmalion’s back – but who knows _ perhaps it did….

Glatatea then makes a promise  – a promise in which there is something very sinister: a promise that almost sounds like a warning.   She  promises to “wake him from the bonds of sullen flesh.” This promise is sealed with a brazen lie. Pygmalion may have heard the truth, but he chose only to to believe the lie.  He probably does not even notice that she has asked him to do the impossible, which is to kiss her as an equal.

Pygmalion should have been suspicious from the very start. He had all the information he needed in order to piece things together – but he wouldn’t  – or blinded by love, he couldn’t.

Galatea was never going to be satisfied with Pygmalion, and his stuffy little list of requirements, his cloying importunities –  his assumptions that he could shape her behaviours  and choices as he shaped her shape – were doomed to go unmet and unsatisfied. It was inevitable that  milk-white Galatea (that is indeed the meaning of her name)  with her uniqueness and perfect beauty would attract other lovers – and she would not refuse them. Rare indeed is the beautiful woman who will not wield her beauty as a weapon, and use it to her own advantage.

Only wives – and frequently not even they – agree to keep the patriarchal bargain – body and soul in exchange for a promise of security.  This is never the contract of the Muse when she takes a lover.

But who is to say that even  if the men and women the Muse takes as her lovers were to know ahead of time what would happen in the future – that they would not make the same choices anyway?  After all, we are only human, and we are driven by the need to love and be loved.

Graves being human, might have wished for a partially happy ending when he wrote ‘Pygmalion to Galatea’, but in his calling as a True Poet, he was bound to tell the unvarnished truth, and so the last verse with its small but passing hope was tidily put away.

Pygmalion to Galatea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you are woman, so be lovely:
Fine hair afloat and eyes irradiate,
Long crafty fingers, fearless carriage,
And body lissom, neither short nor tall.
So be lovely!

Ay you are lovely, so be merciful:
Yet must your mercy abstain from pity:
Prize your self-honour, leaving me with mine.
Love if you will; or stay stone-frozen.
So be merciful!

As you are merciful, so be constant:
I ask not you should mask your comeliness,
Yet keep our love aloof and strange,
Keep it from gluttonous eyes, from stairway gossip.
So be constant!

As you are constant, so be various:
Love comes to sloth without variety.
Within the limits of our fair-paved garden
Let fancy like a Proteus range and change.
So be various!

As you are various, so be woman:
Graceful in going as well armed in doing.
Be witty, kind, enduring, unsubjected:
Without you I keep heavy house.
So be woman!

As you are woman, so be lovely:
As you are lovely, so be various,
Merciful as constant, constant as various.
So be mine, as I yours for ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*(The concluding lines  of Pygmalion to Galatea as they appeared in Poems 1914-1926,  and later omitted)

Then as the singing ceased and the lyre ceased,
Down stepped proud Galatea with a sigh.
‘Pygmalion, as you woke me from the stone,
So shall I you from bonds of sullen flesh.
Lovely I am, merciful I shall prove:
Woman I am, constant as various,
Not marble-hearted but your own true love.
Give me an equal kiss, as I kiss you.

And that is where the proposition shows itself to be what it was all along: something beyond the ability of a mere mortal. To ask such a thing of poor Pygmalion was to demand of him something he could never do. 

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A corpse's frigid hand to kiss...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is, indeed, neither the time nor the place
For victory celebrations. Victory over what?
Over Death, his grinning image and manifesto
Of which, as children, we have been forewarned
And offered a corpse’s frigid hand to kiss.

A Toast....

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contrariwise, let me raise this unsteady glass
In a toast to Death, the sole deviser of life.
Our antenatal witness when each determined
Sex, colour, humour, religion, limit of years,
Parents, place, date of birth –
A full conspectus, with ourselves recognized
Never to perish, time being irrelevant,
And reason for which the sole excuse, is love –
Tripled togetherness of you with me.

Our antenatal witness....

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Robert Graves

A Slice of Wedding Cake

Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls
Married impossible men?
Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out,
And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten.

Repeat ‘impossible men’: not merely rustic,
Foul-tempered or depraved
(Dramatic foils chosen to show the world
How well women behave, and always have behaved).

Impossible men: idle, illiterate,
Self-pitying, dirty, sly,
For whose appearance even in City parks
Excuses must be made to casual passers-by.

Has God’s supply of tolerable husbands
Fallen, in fact, so low?
Or do I always over-value woman
At the expense of man?
Do I?
It might be so.

The Day of the Wedding

The Day of the Wedding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Slice of Wedding Cake

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