Robert Graves' study of poetry, The White Goddess, is something of a literary unified field theory. It attempts to survey nearly all of Western poetry to assess the common factors and suggest a single unifying factor by which all poetry can be understood. Of course, Graves wasn't the first to attempt such a study, but The White Goddess is perhaps the best attempt to date; coming closer than others to finding and explaining the original creative big bang which drives all poetry, and where he fails Graves is better able to hide his failure. The White Goddess argues that echoes of this original big bang resonate in literature today and Graves teaches us how to hear them.
The problem is that, like all such studies, The White Goddess evaluates poetry in light of the author's own style; and when the author is Robert Graves we can be sure that the poetry will be judged on romantic and historical grounds. Graves' defense of poetry claims that poetry's origin lies with ancient Greek, Roman, and Celtic culture, and in even more primitive traditions of tribal shamen who chanted poetry to bless the new crops, the newborns, and the newly dead. Poetry not conforming to this theory is often dismissed as inconsequential. Thus, Graves logically favors fellow romantics who address the Muse's timeless themes of birth, love, loss, and death, or the pagan poets of the Classical and pre-Classical eras.
To Graves all poetry is pagan, either overtly or covertly, and even the best Christian poetry contains a surreptitious nod to older pagan traditions or folklore. Graves' defense of pagan poetry became a defense of pagan myth, ritual, and morality as well. This is why The White Goddess became one of the inspirational texts of modern paganism and remains popular with pagan readers today. The book appeals to both the hippy style counter-culture members of the pagan community as well as the historically minded members bent on historical reconstruction. The White Goddess' controversy derives from each school's attacks and defenses of the points it contains. After 64 years the debate still rages. Perhaps that is the book's strongest point. More important than if Graves is right or if he is wrong, is the fact that he made the attempt at all and the vast amount of debatable evidence which he has brought into the light.