The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Muses: According to Greek myth, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory), each holding sway over a division of the arts and sciences. Poets traditionally invoked one or more of the muses for inspiration; those especially relevant to verse are Calliope (epic poetry), Erato (love poetry), Euterpe (music and lyric poetry), and Polyhymnia (sacred poetry). The others are Clio (history), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy). During the sixteenth century, French poet Guillaume du Bartas transformed Urania from a pagan muse into a Christian, “Heavenly” muse. In recent times, the term muse has come to refer to any person, entity, or spirit — real or imaginary — invoked for guidance and inspiration.

EXAMPLES: John Milton invoked Urania at the beginning of Book 7 of his epic Paradise Lost (1667):

Descend from Heav’n Urania, by that name

If rightly thou art call’d, whose Voice divine

Following, above th’ Olympian Hill I soar,

Above the flight of Pegasean wing.

The meaning, not the Name I call: for thou

Nor of the Muses nine, nor on the top

Of old Olympus dwell’st, but Heav’nly born… .

Various female poets have been epithetically called the “Tenth Muse,” including the ancient Greek poet Sappho (sixth century B.C.); Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, whose brother-in-law titled her first collection of poetry The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650); and Baroque writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose patron published a collection of her poetry under the name The Overflowing of the Castalian Spring, by the Tenth Muse of Mexico (1689).

Yoko Ono, herself a musician, was commonly seen as the muse of singer-songwriter John Lennon. John Fowles’s erotically charged novel Mantissa (1982) is about an author’s alternately energizing and frustrating relationship with his muse. Tracy Chevalier’s imaginative historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999; adapted to film 2003) depicts a young maid as seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer’s model and muse.