I was going to entitle this post Victorian A-MUSE-ments, but then I thought better of it, Dear Readers. I want to ask you lovely people a question or two about the nature of the Muse: is it something to be desired, being or becoming someone’s Muse?
First off, what does it mean, to become someone’s Muse? For the Greeks, they were represented as the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, each presiding over a particular creative art or science, and serving as a guiding spirit or a source of inspiration. In this manner, they act as an aid to the poet or scientist, whispering in their ear during periods of writer’s block and encouraging them in their acts of creation.
Somewhere along the way, the role of the Muse seems to have transitioned from creative helper to object of obsession. I’d argue that our modern idea and interpretation of the nature of the Muse differs wildly from this original Greek vision. If someone calls someone their Muse, it’s still referring to an individual who serves as a source of inspiration; however, more often than not, that person also becomes the object of the Male Gaze or a point of obsession onto which ideas and visions are acted.
One famous example is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the most famous poets and painters from the Victorian era and the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His personal relationships with women were always linked closely to his work. From Wiki, “[i]n 1850, Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddal, an important model for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Over the next decade, she became his muse, his pupil, and his passion.” She sat for one of his most famous paintings, reproduced below, the Beata Beatrix, which in itself is suggestive as a representation of one of the most famous Muses of all time, Beatrice from Dante’s Divina Commedia.
One might also recognize Alexa Wilding, who sat for many of Rossetti’s most famous works, including Veronica Veronese, La Ghirlandata, and The Blessed Damozel. Here, I think we must distinguish between the knowing and/or willing and the unknowing Muse. For Rossetti’s paintings, these women were sitting models, and he became romantically and sexually involved with several of them, most notably his wife Elizabeth Siddell (mentioned above), Fanny Cornforth, whom he met after the death of his wife, and Jane Morris, who “consumed and obsessed him in paint, poetry, and life”. Another example might be Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love sonnet sequence “Sonnets from the Portuguese“, inspired by her relationship with her husband Robert Browning. These women (and men!) appear to be willing participants in the artists’ game of romantic and sexual inspiration and obsession in constructing and experiencing the Ideal in a visual or literary form.
Then we have the other side of the coin: the unwilling or unknowing muse, a person who is the artist’s vision of the Ideal and whose likeness or being serves as a point of obsession or fixation for the artist. Despite it being one of my favorite lyric poems of all time, I might use Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. as an example of this phenomenon. Arthur Henry Hallam was Tennyson’s best friend and the fiancée of Tennyson’s sister, Emily. Tennyson and Hallam, both poets, developed a deep friendship that lasted until Hallam’s sudden death of a stroke in 1833. To say that his death crushed Tennyson would be the understatement of the millennium. He spent a period of 17 years composing this poetic requiem for his best friend, and even then, felt that he could not entirely capture the full measure of his grief or the entirety of his friend’s perfection.
Other creative works by Tennyson were also said to have been inspired by Hallam and/or Tennyson’s grieving for him. Specifically, Mariana, The Lady of Shallot, and Ulysses, which Tennyson himself stated that it was “more written with the feeling of his [Hallam’s] loss upon me than many poems in [the publication] In Memoriam“. One of my favorites of the 133 cantos includes the following lines (from Canto 85):
But I remain’d, whose hopes were dim,
Whose life, whose thoughts were little worth,
To wander on a darken’d earth,
Where all things round me breathed of him.
I, the divided half of such
A friendship as had master’d Time;
Which masters Time indeed, and is
Eternal, separate from fears:
The all-assuming months and years
Can take no part away from this:
And every pulse of wind and wave
Recalls, in change of light or gloom,
My old affection of the tomb,
And my prime passion in the grave: ”
Yeah, I know. Gut-wrenching, shattering loss. For more heartbreaking beauty, you can read the poem in its entirety here. Bring tissues.
Another (darker) example of the unwilling muse comes from another of our faves, William Butler Yeats. He spent more than 20 years of his life obsessed with an Irish feminist and nationalist named Maud Gonne. Many of his poems reference her, including “This, This Rude Knocking” and he wrote the plays The Countess Cathleen and Cathleen Ní Houlihan for her. In his eyes, she has been Helen of Troy, Cathleen Ní Houlihan, Leda, Deirdre, and many others.
Why should I blame her that she filled my days/ With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways/ Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
He pursued her relentlessly, proposing to her four different times between 1891 and 1901. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t enough of a nationalist to please her and refused to convert to Catholicism. Much to Yeats’ horror, she ended up marrying an Irish Republican by the name of John MacBride; being a reasonable man, Yeats then proceeded to persecute MacBride both in his letters and his verse. Long story short, that marriage ended in disaster and Yeats and Gonne came to consummate their relationship at last. Unfortunately, their relationship never developed further than that one night and Yeats was left again with his frustration and despair. In in his poem “A Man Young and Old”, he describes his night with her thusly:
My arms are like the twisted thorn
And yet there beauty lay;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take;
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck.
In any of these cases, these women (and men) have no control over how they are presented to the public and in some cases, like Yeats, that representation can get abusive or degrading. Should we be pleased that someone has deigned to immortalize us in poetry or art thanks to the profundity of their admiration? Or should we fear the retribution or artistic revenge of an obsessed individual, wounded in his pursuit and/or scorned in his or her love (See also Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb in his poem: Remember Thee! Remember Thee! for a further example of this)?
So, Dear Readers: what say you of the idea of the Muse? Creative assistant? Idée fixe? Something devoutly to be wished? Something devoutly to be avoided like the plague? Take it to the comments!