A Brief and Incomplete History of Writers’ Inner Voices, Part 1: The Muses and Classical Literature

(Eugène Delacroix, Hésiode et la Muse)

In the first of our four part series on the history of writers’ inner voices, John Foxwell writes:

There’s a very long tradition of writers talking about their characters’ voices. It was, after all, because of that tradition that we ran our study of writers at the Edinburgh Book Festival in the first place. Yet the study is more of a snapshot in time, capturing the similarities and differences between writers at a particular moment rather than across different periods. So in this blog series we’ll take the long view, following the thread as it weaves in and out of history.

We start out with the Muses of Ancient Greece, the goddesses of the creative arts. They might not be ‘characters’ in the strict sense, but theirs are the voices which the Classical writers talk about. The way this is sometimes figured is with the writer as a sort of medium, so that the Muse is responsible for the actual business of composition. For instance, both The Iliad and The Odyssey open with a request to the Muse to speak:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles…

(Homer, The Iliad)

Tell me, Muse, of the many-sided man…

(Homer, The Odyssey)

One of the most detailed accounts of the Muses themselves is provided in Hesiod’s Theogony, where the Muses do actually appear as ‘characters’ within the poem. Rather than beginning by asking the Muses to sing/speak through him in the present, the poet describes meeting them in the past when he was a mere shepherd on the slopes of Mount Helicon. There, the Muses ‘breathed into’ him a wondrous voice and taught him ‘fine singing’, before telling him the history of the gods. The implication seems to be that the Muses may have taught the poet how to sing, and may also have taught him what to sing about, but they have not actually composed this particular song that the poet is singing. (Fairly early on the poet even directly quotes what the Muses said to him on first appearing, which therefore suggests that the rest of the poem is not a direct quotation.)

Plato also has a great deal to say about poets and poetry – often because he’s trying to prove that philosophy is better. For him, poets are ‘possessed’ by the gods, like revellers in a Bacchic frenzy. The main ‘proof’ he uses for this argument comes from the way in which the reciters of poetry are moved emotionally by the fictional scenes they are describing: since they are responding to things that aren’t actually happening in front of them, they are apparently ‘not in their right mind’ and are ‘carried out’ of themselves (Ion). The secondary proof (which he dwells on rather less), comes from the fact that the same poet can write very good and very bad poetry.

Tynnichus the Chalcidian affords a striking instance of what I am saying: he wrote nothing that any one would care to remember but the famous paean which, in every one’s mouth, is one of the finest poems ever written, simply an invention of the Muses, as he himself says. For in this way, the God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed.

(Plato, Ion)

In a nutshell, the good poem is the work of the Muses, as can be seen by the fact that it is indeed very good, and the bad poem is the work of the writer on his own (in this case, Tynnichus).

The overall point Plato ends up reaching is that poets do not really create anything through any kind of art or talent – at most, their talent is in allowing themselves to become possessed, like a seer or oracle. This in turn allows him to argue that poets don’t really understand the things they’re singing about:

…not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them.

(Plato, Apology)

Aristotle, meanwhile, is a bit more circumspect. Having devoted a whole treatise to how poetry/drama actually works (his Poetics), he is rather more inclined to acknowledge that a poet might be consciously and skilfully manipulating their material.

In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction, the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies.

(Aristotle, Poetics)

However, Aristotle is still willing to concede that this kind of immersion in the world of the story could be reached by different routes. He therefore suggests that poetry can be either the product of the poet’s own talent or the appropriate kind of possession or ‘madness’, since ‘the former can easily assume the required mood, and the latter may be actually beside himself with emotion’ (Poetics). No Muses are involved here, by the way – for Aristotle, it’s more a question of whether or not the poet is deliberately adopting the relevant mood, or is just being swept up by the contents of his or her own work.

The upshot of all this is that in Classical literature we seem to have a few different ways of understanding the poet’s role in creating the poem. The poet could be a sort of medium for the gods, taking down their words exactly; or, the poet could be translating what the gods have said into verse; or, the poet could merely be making use of a talent which is recognised as being bestowed by the gods.

Yet even though the scaffolding of the Muses was eventually taken away, the basic structure remained – a persistent sense that in order to create poetry, some other force needed to be ‘moving’ the poet. To a certain extent, this idea is rooted in how we still talk about creativity: ‘inspiration’, after all, comes from the Latin inspirare, meaning ‘to blow or breathe into’. We also ‘have’ ideas – we don’t talk about making them, but instead they ‘come to’ us. So the legacy of the Muses is still with us, even though (as we shall see), the force that moved the writer shifted position from being something external to something internal.

For the other posts in the series, see:

Part 2: Medieval and Renaissance Writers

Part 3: The Romantics and the Victorians

Part 4: The Twentieth Century

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