I first heard this poem at an English Teachers Association Conference, I think it was, and it was read by one of the great UK pioneers of the “New English” of the 1970s, John Dixon, whose Growth Through English was one or the two great books to emerge from the international conference on the teaching of English in 1967 at Dartmouth College, James Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse being the other. See Right-wing education critique is historically inaccurate and perpetuates myths on this blog.
My point today though is that this poem has stayed with me long after I have forgotten what else John Dixon might have said. Robert Graves was an atheist but fascinated by religion. Probably forgotten by most is his novel King Jesus.
I’ve never seen this novel on bookshop shelves… I presume this makes King Jesus Graves’ Satanic Verses, but of course, being a very English author, there’s no angry outcry about this novel, people just don’t mention it much. Which is a pity, because it’s very interesting.
First, let’s get a couple of things out of the way. One – King Jesus isn’t as good a read as I, Claudius, Claudius the God, or Count Belisarius. Two – I understand Graves to have been an atheist, but although this novel will be deeply shocking to someone raised in a strictly traditional Christian Catholic/Anglican tradition, it’s never less than respectful to the historical person and teachings of Jesus. Three – I’ve never summoned up the interest to read The White Goddess but understand from those familiar with the field that Graves’ views on ancient mystery cults and the classic myths are held to be very speculative. Four – I’m utterly unqualified to review this novel!
King Jesus is an attempt to portray Jesus’ life and teachings within the wider context not only of the older Jewish tradition, but within the entire corpus of mystery cults and religion across the ancient world. In particular, Graves sees Jesus’ life as an important battle between the Jewish male-Jehovah and the wider pantheon centred on the various manifestations of the Triple Goddess – the central theme is that Jesus has ‘come to destroy the work of the female’. While the broad outline of Jesus’ life is preserved, much of the material is clearly provocative – not least his very inventive (to me anyway) solution to the Virgin Birth, and the adoption [of?] Jesus’ royal and messianic roles within the wider tradition of religious monarchs. Even where the events are portrayed as being close to the familiar ‘Sunday school’ version of the Bible, Graves interpretation and ‘hidden reading’ of these events is radically different – and fascinating.
All that may make this seem an odd choice for a Christmas poem, but it speaks to my views about religion and theology far more than most works of theology, and certainly more than any fundamentalist ever could.
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 roses’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.