Musings on Muses

Probably because the Greeks depicted sources of artistic inspiration as women, male authors throughout the ages often invoked a female muse. In Greek mythology each of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus presided over a different art or science.  In twentieth century literary criticism Robert Graves in The White Goddess enthroned the divine origin of poetry in the feminine.  Poets have held in reverence a dark lady to whom they owe their inspiration and to whom they dedicate their literary efforts.  In fact, for much of literary history, outside of the purported Sappho of the Isle of Lesbos, female poets, if they existed, worked in obscurity. In recognition of this, the appearance of Anne Bradstreet in colonial America provided such a surprise that when her poetry was first published in England her work was titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in reference to the female muses of Greek mythology.

It is right that I should muse upon woman as muse for man.  As I muse, interesting derivations of the word muse occur to me. Amusement means something that entertains or amuses, conveying the sense to give delight.  The verb muse means to ponder or reflect at length, to be absorbed in thought. A museum is a place ostensibly where the visitor can browse and muse at length upon the interesting objects collected. Originally, a museum was a place where the muses were worshipped.  An element of worship, adoration even of the virgin,  is present in the male poet’s invocation of his muse. Music is another derivation of the root word muse, and none more conducive in its harmonious aspects to a reflective frame of mind. What more than music can entertain, delight, amuse, and make the mind muse on things unseen.

Nine Greek Muses

Musing further on the subject of the muses, I scratch my head, wondering if women writers have ever invoked a dark male muse, a shadowy perhaps unobtainable lord, whom they identified as the source of their literary outpourings. I can think of no woman writer, but if my readers can think of one, I would be glad to hear about her. I rather think the woman writer has looked to herself to provide her  muse or at least a nebulous feminine mystique.  In other instances, the muse is her mother or her foremothers, maybe her grandmother or some ancient family matriarch.  Traditionally, in the case of the male writer, the muse remained eternally out-of-reach.  With modern women writers who look to the goddess within or a foremother, the muse seems much more accessible and realizable, being a woman also. I don’t see a man providing a muse in the traditional literary sense to a woman writer, although a male muse is possible for a male writer, as for example, with Shakespeare who was thought to have composed his sonnets with a male lover in mind.

Maybe the whole concept of a muse is sexist and dated. Yet writers, both male and female, still use the device to invoke the muse, calling up whatever spirit they wish as the source of their poetic inspiration.

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