The role of the Muse in contemporary lyric poetry is to work her magic in secret. Certainly she is seldom referred to in American writing. In fact, modern critics usually dismiss the notion of Muse poetry as an invalid romantic notion, thus reducing poetry to psychology. But the lyric Muse has done her work as well in our time as in any other. If her role goes unrecognized today, it will be seen tomorrow.
It is the debased literary fashion of this new century to regard the poet as a clever manipulator of the river of language, which fallacy accounts for the death of popular interest in poetry and explains why so many creative writing graduates produce so much mediocre, forgettable verse for the careerist literary magazines of America. In the academies that exist to murder poetry, they learn how to become professionals of literature; but since they have no vocation, they are not poets in the ancient tradition. They do not serve the Goddess. Self-expression is beside the point.
Perhaps this is because the watchword of the late Twentieth Century was control, and it has remained so. The intemperance of our species has brought us to the edge of the abyss, and the ancient idea of the poet receiving dictation from an irrational life force nominally called a “Muse” is as offensive and frightening as pagan nature worship. Perhaps too, it is because poets no longer learn the lore of the Muses, and what they know is often contradictory.
Although most authorities agree that Euterpe is the Muse of lyric poetry (and the flute as well), Erato is often thought to have as strong a claim. But she is the Muse of love poetry. It may be that the distinction between the two Goddesses is blurred because while there is a long tradition of lyric poetry that does not speak of interpersonal love, in the larger sense all lyric poems are essentially love poems, whether their subject is personal or historical.
It was Hesiod, the bard who was second only to Homer in his effect on ancient Greece, who first hymned the Muses and named the lyric Muse. From the three daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne—Melete, Meneme, and Aoida, practice, memory and song—the original Muses, Hesiod differentiated nine patronesses of the arts. From Aoida came Euterpe and Erato.
The Muses dwelt on the eastern and northern slopes of Mount Olympus before moving to Mount Helicon in Boetia, in central Greece. As a shepherd boy, Hesiod led his flocks up Mount Helicon, where he saw the Muses dancing and heard them call to him to sing of the Gods—to join them in singing and dancing at the festivities of the Gods. It is possible that he encountered the Muses in a grove of willow trees; Helicon is derived from helice, the Greek word for the willow tree that like the oak is sacred to poets.
The word “Muse” itself is from the Greek mousai—hence mousike, devotion to any Muse. Apollo is the chief guardian and follower of the Muses, whose other followers are called musagetes. The cult of the Muses emerged from Thrace and spread through Hellas. Early centers of Muse worship were at Pieria in Thessaly, and Mount Helicon. The springs of Castalia, Aganippe and Hippocrene were sacred to the Muses.
John Ciardi claims the Muses were virgins who nursed the infant souls of poets at their breasts. Robert Graves disagrees, arguing that the Muses were orgiastic priestesses of the Moon Goddess. There is room for many interpretations; for the Muses have assumed many shapes; but there is a single awesome function poetry must perform, as Graves reminds us: “The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse—its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites.”