Poetics: Who’s your Muse? (2023)

Greetings, fellow poets! I’m Ingrid of Experiments in Fiction, and today I have a poetry prompt which I hope you will find inspiring. Before we go any further, I would like to remind you that this Thursday, 22 July, there will be a live Open Link Night where you will be able to read your poetry, and listen to others read theirs. The bar opens at 3pm EST, and the link to the live event will be posted at that time. I hope to see you there!

We often hear poets talk about their ‘Muse’ or ‘Muses,’ but what does this mean, exactly? And where does the practice of invoking the Muse in poetry originate? I’ll be looking back through the poetry archives to come up with some answers, then it’s over to you to provide the rest.

The Muse and the Poetic Tradition

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The Muse is part of the Classical Tradition in poetry, which dates back over 2000 years to the poetry of Homer and Hesiod in Ancient Greece. This poetry was originally composed as part of an oral tradition, around 800 B.C., before being committed to writing centuries later.

Homer invokes the Muse in the opening lines of the Odyssey:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

—(Robert Faglestranslation, 1996)

And Hesiod calls on the Muses of Olympus in the opening lines of his Theogony:

These things declare to me from the beginning,
ye Muses who dwell in the house of Olympus,
and tell me which of them first came to be.

—(Hugh G. Evelyn-White translation, 2015)

As you can see above, to speak of a single Muse is inaccurate, as there were in fact a total of nine Muses in the Classical pantheon. Here they are listed with their names and functions:

  • Calliope(epic poetry)
  • Clio(history)
  • Euterpe(flutes and music)
  • Thalia(comedy and pastoral poetry)
  • Melpomene(tragedy)
  • Terpsichore(dance)
  • Erato(love poetry and lyric poetry)
  • Polyhymnia(sacred poetry)
  • Urania(astronomy)

You can see straight away that four of these Muses are directly associated with poetry, but arguably any one of them could provide inspiration for a poem inspired by her area of expertise!

The tradition of invoking a muse at the start of a poem continued into the Roman Period, with renowned poets such as Ovid and Virgil issuing a call to the Muse to rouse them into song:

O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;
For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man; […]

—Virgil, from Book I of theAeneid(John Drydentranslation, 1697)

The Muse in English Poetry

One of the earliest examples of an invocation of the Muse in English poetry is to be found in Chaucer (Troilus and Criseyde, Book II). Shakespeare also took up the tradition in both Henry V, (Act 1, Prologue) and Sonnet 38:

How can my muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thy self the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy self dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Here we find Shakespeare reflecting on the Classical tradition, and referring to his subject as a potential tenth Muse. The subject in this case was the ‘Fair Youth‘ to whom he addresses sonnets 1-126. We may compare these to the mysterious ‘Dark Lady‘ sonnets (127-154). Evidently, Shakespeare had multiple muses. The subject of these two characters alone is fascinating, but lies well outside the scope of this prompt!

Continuing the tradition, Milton’s Paradise Lost begins as follows:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss ofEden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
OfOreb, or ofSinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out ofChaos: or ifSionHill
Delight thee more, andSiloa’s brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’AonianMount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

I challenge you to find a more accomplished example of poetic grandiosity!

The Romantic Muse

In the Romantic period, the poets such as Blake and Wordsworth were painfully conscious of the Muse in the poetic tradition, so sought to break free from the formal constraints of invoking the Muse, and reinterpret this practice in new and challenging ways. Consider the opening lines of the introduction to Blake’s Songs of Experience (1793):

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future sees
Whose ears have heard,
The Holy Word,
That walk’d among the ancient trees.

Calling the lapsed Soul
And weeping in the evening dew:
That might controll,
The starry pole;
And fallen fallen light renew!

O Earth O Earth return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

Turn away no more:
Why wilt thou turn away
The starry floor
The watry shore
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.

He calls out to the Bard to revive the ‘lapsed Soul’ of the Earth. Here we see the beginnings of a poetry which uses nature as its muse, the type of poetry with which many people still identify today. Similarly Wordsworth, in the opening of his Two-Part Prelude (1799) invokes a beloved river as his muse:

Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flowed along my dreams? For this didst thou,
Oh Derwent, travelling over the green plains
Near my ” sweet birthplace”, didst thou, beauteous stream,
Make ceaseless music through the night and day,
Which with its steady cadence tempering
Our human waywardness, composed my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me
Among the fretful dwellings of mankind
A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
Which Nature breathes among the fields and groves?

The Modern Muse

Poetics: Who’s your Muse? (2)

It seems we’ve fallen out of love with the Muse in the modern period, as poets have sought to break with tradition, and establish new methods of writing poetry and, indeed, finding inspiration. For example, I hope some of my fellow poets won’t mind my mentioning the Magnetic Poetry Oracle to whom they turn for inspiration every Saturday! Interestingly, I think, as women poets now share the stage in what was once a male-dominated vocation, they have started to rebel against the idea of being the passive muse of male poetry, and write poetry which challenges this traditional ideal. Consider the poem Melpomene by Fran Lock as a fine example.

Direct invocations of the Muse in modern poetry are rare. It is far more common to write about a person, place or feeling which has provided the poet with particular inspiration.

The Challenge

For this challenge, I would like you to choose your muse. You can do this in any one of the following ways:

  • Write a poem invoking the Muse, and following in the long-established classical tradition.
  • Choose one of the nine Classical Muses and write a poem with her particular area of influence in mind (for example, choose Caliope and write a comedic poem)
  • Write a poem inspired by your own personal muse, whether that be an individual, a place, or anything else which fires your creativity. You can refer to your muse either directly or indirectly, but some form of reference to your muse as a source of inspiration should be included.

When you have finished, post the poem on your blog and link up using the Mr Linky tool below.

May the Muse be with you!

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