Personal helicon: in praise of muses

Article published on May 17, 2012
community published
Article published on May 17, 2012
Some said they were nine, some said three. Nine sisters, born of Zeus. Water nymphs, whose jealous competitors in song became chattering magpies. Whichever writer you believe – Plutarch or Hesiod – the muses embodied the arts and inspired poetry. And they were women. Which meant that over the course of the centuries the water nymphs once beloved of Minerva became lovers.
Dante met one of them on a bridge and had her guide him into his poetic paradise, despite having only met her twice. The muses waved handkerchiefs during knightly tournaments, kissed their men on their way, waited through crusade and battle and war for letters. They smiled at their reflected summer beauty in Shakespeare, blushed at Donne and slipped between the sheets of the libertines. They got undressed and were painted by Manet, dressed in white and wowed the Russian symbolists, redid their hair and sat patiently for Picasso. All the time, the sisters – it was claimed – were silent and dignified and smiled gently as poems, paintings and concertos were showered down on them.

Muse Forget that. A muse has to work darn hard for her supper – and for that of whoever she happens to inspire. You have to have as good a knowledge as the artist to be able to sit cross-legged, nursing a mug of by now lukewarm tea and going, ‘Why not try that variation in the woodwind section?’ Or, ‘How about re-working that in the past tense?’ If the creative process involves two people, then it is a mental tug of war, requiring stamina and patience and talent on both sides. If you are trusted reader, editor or proof-reader then you need faith in your own judgement – without being so harsh as to lose that precious trust in the process. It takes a lot of inner strength to nag that procrastinator into finishing (or starting) the sonnet he or she keeps talking about. And when the fourth attempt seems to be going nowhere, it is the muse’s vision and passion which carries the flagging writer through. Don’t forget that the muses of old used to sing: if they were silent, Homer, for one, would never have written a word.

We like to commemorate poets, whether with anniversaries, biographies or statues – as well we should. Yet no matter how often their beauty is praised, the muses remain the unsung heroes of poetry. Did you know that Wordsworth’s fair daffodils actually originated in his sister’s diary? Or that Sylvia Plath typed up her husband Ted Hughes’ collection 'Hawk in the rain'? Next time you hear a debate about the importance of the author, raise a cup of kindness for the now nameless muse who laid down her own work to help chisel that poem into existence.

'Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

driven time and again off course.'

(Image © Trevor Fountain)