Where do artists get their ideas? According to the Ancient Greeks, artistic inspiration came from one of the Muses, female deities who gave men the power to create. (The female artist hadn't yet been invited to the party.) The poet Hesiod expanded the three original muses to nine: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. These benign creatures would give poets a laurel branch, the voice to sing their verse and special knowledge of the past and future.
As there were nine muses in Ancient Greece, I have chosen nine examples of notable literary muses throughout history. It has to be said that the role has evolved from deity to something more accessible. The love of an artist for his muse might be cerebral, but in recent times it's also likely to be physical. Some artists seek inspiration via pharmaceutical intoxication, others via romantic obsession. Perhaps the muse symbolizes the eternal mystery at the heart of creativity, or the eternal confusion between inspiration and intoxication.
Dante fell in love with Beatrice in fourteenth century Florence when both of them were nine years old. Beatrice appears as one of Dante's guides in the Divine Comedy, leading him to the Beatific Vision. The poet's love for Beatrice was idealized in the courtly love tradition in which the beloved is viewed as a deity. This is a muse in the old school mode: things hotted up later on.
When I was writing my novel Dark Aemilia
I was inspired by Shakespeare's later sonnets, which are thought to be written to a Dark Lady. No one knows her identity, but she was a mysterious woman who held him in sexual and emotional thrall. There are various candidates, but my choice is a feisty fellow artist. Aemilia Lanyer was the first woman to be published professionally as a poet in England. How would she feel about the sonnets? Not too happy, I suspect.
Unrequited love for Fanny Brawne drove John Keats to write some of his best and most intense poetry, including "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." His love sonnets are the true heirs of Shakespeare's intense outpourings of obsession and exquisite pain. Was it Keats's fragile health or his relationship with Brawne that led him to equate love with death in so many of his poems? Whatever the reality, no one can forget their vivid, febrile passion.
The story of Charles Dickens and his muse Ellen Ternan was recently dramatized in the movie The Invisible Woman. Ternan was young and beautiful, but also a blank slate onto which Dickens could project his fantasies. The film -- based on Claire Tomalin's biography -- suggests that Ternan's readiness to take Dickens as a lover had less to do with naivety than with a pragmatic attitude to the realities of her life. Her acting career had failed, and she had no money and no husband.
No one could have called Gonne invisible; she was a muse of a very different sort. William Butler Yeats wrote that when he met the red-haired Irish nationalist in 1889 "the troubles in my life began." Gonne rejected several marriage proposals on the basis that Yeats was neither a Catholic nor a revolutionary. But she lost her power to inspire his art when they finally consummated their relationship nearly 20 years after they first met.
Another crazed and unhappy love affair that led to Great Art. Exotic, Haitian-born Duval was the inspiration for much of Charles Baudelaire's love poetry, and was also painted by Edward Manet. Baudelaire attempted suicide while Duval was his mistress, and his mother condemned her as a gold-digger, alcoholic and all round woman of ill-repute. Duval also inspired Angela Carter's short story "Black Venus."
Zelda was a witty, dazzling Southern Belle when F. Scott Fitzgerald first met her, and after their marriage he used extracts from her diary in his books. She was the model for Nicole Driver in Tender Is the Night, but also inspired Fitzgerald's wider vision of women in the Jazz Age, and his emphasis on a doomed hedonism. Plagued by mental problems, Sayre wrote her autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz while in a sanatorium. Since her death in 1948, she has become a feminist icon.
The marriage between T.S Eliot and his wife Vivienne was stormy and unhappy, but initially she was essential to his poetic output. She typed up his work, and their relationship inspired several sections of his famous poem "The Waste Land." But she wasn't fulfilled by her function as muse: her passion was dancing. She died in an asylum in 1947, the year before Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Things have moved on a little since the Ancient Greeks: not all muses are female. Neal Cassady was one of the icons of the Beat Generation and his wild, incoherent writing style inspired Jack Kerouac's Benzedrine-fueled On the Road. (It is fair to say that narcotics must take equal billing at least as the inspiration for Kerouac's work.) Cassady led a restless, itinerant life and was the model for Dean Moriarty in 'On the Road' and Cody Pomeray in other novels by Kerouac.
So there you have it. Love, passion, poetry, pain, suffering and drug-crazed self-destruction, although not necessarily in that order. Being a muse -- or channelling one -- is clearly a high risk occupation. And while we all know that suffering artists have a bad time, it's important to remember that the muse doesn't have control over the art they inspire. Shakespeare's verses addressed to his cruel mistress suggest that she was unfaithful, promiscuous and even had halitosis. Inspiring great art sounds like a bum deal to me. Maybe Zelda should have written more novels and danced fewer waltzes. If you want to ensure that the writing you engender is to your taste, the safest bet is to do it yourself.
Sally O'Reilly is the author of Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (Picador, $26.00).
REAL LIFE. REAL NEWS. REAL VOICES.
Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard.