The White Goddess: An Encounter, By Simon Gough. Galley Beggar, £10


Jonathan Gibbs
Tuesday 20 November 2012 01:00 GMT

Simon Gough calls this book a "fragment of autobiography written in narrative form", by which I think he means it is, if not fictionalised, then perhaps novelised. In his foreword he apologises to anyone who may be hurt by the book, which is always a good sign.

Gough is the grand-nephew of Robert Graves, and the story he tells centres around three visits he made, aged 10, 17 and 20, to the Graves house on Majorca, where Robert was living what seems an exemplary life as poet and paterfamilias, surrounded by family and admirers, domineering, gregarious and creatively driven. The boy and the man take to each other as kindred spirits and there is real joy in the descriptions of the loosely communal days: swimming in the Mediterranean, putting on impromptu plays, going into town on the back of the family donkey.

Things get more complicated on the second visit, with the atmosphere charged up by the presence of Graves's latest muse, 24-year-old Margot Callas. The role of muse was something that Graves took incredibly seriously, as he laid out in his "grammar of poetic myth", The White Goddess, from where Gough takes his title. So it's perhaps inevitable that Simon should fall in love with her, and that Margot should be drawn to a boy so much in the image of the older poet.

Those tensions are released during the third visit, Simon declaring his love to Margot in a memorably overblown scene set during a violent thunderstorm in Madrid:

"'But I'd kill for you, too,' I cried, 'Don't you understand? I'd – give my soul for you. I'd – die for you –'. My words torn from me in the agony of their revelation… my heart freed at last. 'I'm – in love with you! Oh, can't you see –.'"

The tragedy – invisible to the besotted adolescent – is that Margot has betrayed Robert in a far more terrible way: she is about to run off with another poet, Alastair Reid.

Maybe we don't want our poets to be such sacred monsters as Graves these days, but that doesn't stop this book reading at a gallop. It makes the case for poets as necessary lightning rods for our passions; and Graves's poetry is still very much alive, no matter that he is read more today for his prose.

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