The difficulty with muses


It seems that muses, those shadowy goddesses who influence writers, are limited under current editorial and employment injunctions to give inspiration alone to great male poets. Or so Simon Gough would have us believe.

Muses apparently perform some type of quasi-sexual inspirational function and it doesn’t matter if they are girls or boys, once the poet is a dude and his inspiration is carried through the ages to the makers of poetry. I wonder (aloud) if the linked article had been written by a female poet, a woman writer – would the muse issue be a bit more interesting, or complex ? 

Simon Gough

“There’s no reason on earth why a muse should have to be female.  Whatever the truth of the matter (and uncertainty still rages in the higher corridors of intellectual power), the identity of “the fair youth”, to whom Shakespeare dedicated so many of his sonnets is almost immaterial. The one certainty is that he had a muse, who provoked


‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death drag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.’


Here is Simon’s  top nine list of great poets and their muses :

  • Catullus – Lesbia

  • John Keats -Fanny Brawne

  • Thomas Hardy – Emma Gifford/Florence Dugdale

  • W.B Yeats – Maud Gonne

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald -Zelda Fitzgerald

  • Bob Dylan – Sarah Lowndes

  • Neal Cassady -Jack Kerouac

  • Robert Graves – Margot Callas

The woman muse (or sometimes the young boy muse) provides the meat and torture of poetic inspiration to a succession of male writers in Gough’s imagination. He makes no mention of the muses of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, of Adrienne Cecile Rich, of  Sylvia Plath. The entire list of writers produced by Gough includes not a single woman poet !

I’d like to see a woman poet’s perspective on the muse. Maybe that will happen in a century or so when the literary establishment comes round to the idea that women write rather excellent poetry. I have to say that I rather prefer the idea of the Duende anyway. Writers interested in the idea of the muse and of the Duende should look up Federico Garcia Lorca.

The muse who features on Poethead is called  Euterpe.

14 responses to “The difficulty with muses”

  1. The Muses , Female…were the original musician poets of Western Culture, who accompanied their layered chorus singing on Lyres….They discussed current affairs etc..through these poetic songs…and they are depicted irrefutably , on many Greek pots..and referred to , thu’out ancient literature…always as women…Because of there ‘inspirational ‘ qualities..the term Muse came into modern she who inspires one…or they who inspire.


    • I think they inspire women too. Have to say that I liked Lorca’s theory of the Duende equally as much as the muse. I think Elizabeth Barrett-Browning is entitled to and deserves her muse, thats why I published the wee image at the base of the post !

      …. AND , I have no issue with their depiction as women, but with Gough’s list (above) which doesn’t make mention of any woman poet tangling with her muse. Not one. This blog is concerned with the invisibility of the woman poet/editor, and thus I think that the quoted Guardian article adds to the poetic lesser space occupied by women intellectuals.


      • Yes…they were especially inspirational to women…The Muses were not sexual in intent ..more intellectual /artistic…and part of the old Matriarchy…I often await the Muses…lol..and am wary of the Fates…also Female…If you haven’t read George Thomson’s…The Prehistoric Aegean should..if you are genuinely interested in this complex stuff…


  2. The muses are symbols of the artistic intuitive function. As such, they would be feminine, rather than be related to the masculine rational logos. That “small, still voice” of the muse poets listen to today has no gender.


    • @Teenylove :The poetic lesser-space by Eavan Boland is an essay I often recommend to PH readers. I agree that muses are feminine. My argument with Gough and actually the vast majority of newspaper coverage in poetry is that writers on issues like muses do not consider the woman poet’s relation to her inspiration. This may be because newspapers commission male poets and academics, or it may be because we are become used to poetry itself being an intellectual caper that is only proper to men.


  3. Anna Akhmotova often wrote of her muse who seemed to be more of a spirit of inspiration. In her poem “The Muse” there is the wonderful moment where she discovers that her muse is same one that inspired Dante to write the “Inferno.” I like how her muse allows her connect to the books and authors that inspired her. Though I find it interesting that unlike the male poets listed above, her muse is more of spirit and concept then a potential lover.


  4. ” The entire list of writers produced by Gough includes not a single woman poet !”

    Give him a break! He only had nine choices.The list is only nine people long… He mainly seems to have gone for the most famous, not restricted himself by sex… Probably if he’d done more he’d have mentioned Sylvia Plath. And Gertrude Stein. And any others…


    • Hi Sam ,I wondered (aloud) upon my blog about muses. I wondered, indeed, what would happen if a woman had commissioned the piece and how a woman poet would approach the muse question. I reckon there’d be a few excellent women writers in said list. I am mostly tired of the hackneyed beardy thing in poetry –


  5. But it was commissioned by a woman! And the starting point was Robert Graves’ relationship to his muses, which was all about male worship… I generally agree that female writers should get more attention, but this time I think judging only along those lines is a little harsh…


    • O God … that just makes the whole thing worse ! I remember when I got really pissed at women commissioning editors, Jonathan Franzen lost his bifocals and some idiot woman decided to write breathlessly about him because you know it’s highly important to rub the egos of male writers in newspapers. The fact that more and more women are employed in publishing and news seems to account for the awful figures regarding literary reviews and the absence of women’s books from many intellectual journals. I am thinking of the 2010 and 2011 VIDA (Women in the Literary Arts) lists. The only reviews I have noted recently by women of books by women are scathing and quite hackneyed snarly-fests. I could cry tbh :-/


  6. I should say that I’m biased, by the way, in case that isn’t clear, since I’m Simon’s publisher. Just occurred to me that might not be obvious. (On that note, I’m sure you’d find Robert Graves ideas about muses fascinating, so do seek out a copy of Simon’s book!)


  7. Hello from Mexico. Interesting post and comments. I think it’s obvious that the root and the meaning of the Muses come from the original functions of poet and poetry in archaic societies. There’s no need to remember that in those societies poets are frequently (or always? We need an anthropologist) shamans. And i remember (but i’m not sure) that, according Mircea Eliade, it’s common for shamans to marry a divine husband or wife. Actually, the cult of Apollo is related to shamanism. So -I suppose-, whenever a poet gets in touch with the root of his or her vocation, also recovers something from the archaic ages. Whether this spirit of poetry is male, female or unsexed, incarnated or not in a concrete person, etc., depends on social and cultural context and the personality of the poet.


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