A Brief and Incomplete History of Writers’ Inner Voices, Part 2: Medieval and Renaissance Writers

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

Picking up where we left off, the Muses were beginning to fall out of fashion towards the end of the classical period. At first, it seems that the Muses didn’t so much just get forgotten about, but were actively rejected. In some cases, this was connected with the rise of patronage – the funding of the arts by nobles and wealthy citizens, who wanted a poem’s opening acknowledgements to feature their name instead of a deity’s. As a result, you get classical writers like Persius the Satirist claiming that poets don’t write because of divine inspiration, but because they want to put food on the table.

When we enter the medieval era, these ideas are still going strong. Writing – at least of the kind we’re talking about here – was thought about more as a trade than anything else. Rather than being divinely inspired, it was a craft that could be learned and made use of on demand. That’s how writing was sometimes talked about, anyway; but it would be a mistake to leave things there.

Although the rise of patronage may well have introduced a bit of hard-headed pragmatism into how people conceived of writing, there are several other factors to take into account. To put it bluntly, the medieval era is conceptually messy (or fertile, depending on how you look at it). For one thing, talk about ‘voices’ and ‘inspiration’ was generally reserved for Scripture – and it could be very dangerous to lay claim to any kind of divine communication. It’s not necessarily all that surprising, therefore, that there came to be different accounts of how spiritual and secular writing was produced. On top of that, there was a rather different way of understanding ‘ideas’: where they came from, which ones had merit or value, and what it meant to ‘create’ something new. Originality wasn’t necessarily a good thing – it was much more important to link up to a tradition, to something which had ‘authority’ and pre-established value.

Finally, what we call ‘medieval’ spans such a long period of time, and so many different emerging traditions (even just keeping to Europe), that it’s not really accurate to talk about it as if it has any kind of consistency. Of course, the same is true of the classical period – and in a way, part of what makes the medieval era so varied is that the works different classical authors went in and out of fashion. Virgil was popular in the early middle ages, for instance, but by the 12th century Ovid had rather taken his spot. Platonic ideas (though not Plato’s actual works) were dominant for much of the period, but the 12th-century ‘rediscovery’ of Aristotle changed the intellectual playing field a great deal. Equally, the Renaissance – the ‘rebirth’ of classical thought and aesthetics – could be said to begin at different times in different places in Europe, with authors like Dante and Petrarch getting the ball rolling in Italy a couple of centuries early.

By the time we do get into the Renaissance the Muses are back in fashion, as poets strived to imitate classical authors. However, they’re given a slightly different spin. On the one hand, the ‘Muse’ might be the object of love who inspires the poet to write:

Thus she who among ladies is a sun, moving the rays of her lovely eyes, in me creates thoughts, acts, and words of love…

(Petrarch, Canzoniere 9)

Here we find what is, for us, a familiar part of the modern idea of inspiration: as compulsion, or motive force, something that drives us to do. Again, this idea isn’t necessarily absent from late classical literature, but it’s definitely something that returns in force. It’s also noticeable that ‘inspiration’ is beginning to be divorced from the literal sense of being breathed into, and is now more generally applying to the other senses (in Petrarch’s case, the eyes).

On the other hand, the ‘Muse’ (singular) might refer to the creative impulse as a part of the poet’s own mind. Shakespeare, for instance, frequently rebukes his Muse for being ineffective, idle, or absent (she doesn’t answer back). Sidney, meanwhile, has his Muse rebuking him:

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,

“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

(Sidney, Astrophil and Stella)

However, before too long we also get writers who mock this classical conception of creativity, trying to bring it back to firm, rational ground. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for instance, writing about fifty years after Shakespeare, calls the contemporary appeal to the Muses,

a foolish custom, by which a man enabled to speak wisely from the principles of nature, and his own meditation, loves rather to be thought to speak by inspiration, like a bagpipe.

(Hobbes, Answer to the Preface to Gondibert)

Of course, it could be that the appeal to the Muses is just another adornment which the Renaissance and early modern poets borrowed to make their works look ‘classical’. Yet on top of the return of the Muse(s), we also get the return of the notion of the poet not being entirely in control of what’s being produced. Again, as with the classical writers, this is sometimes cashed out in terms of the old creativity/madness trope – and as before, this is more to do with separating artistic creation from ‘rational’ forms of thought than anything else.

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

(Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

We find much the same thing in Hobbes, who talks about the need for reason to regulate ‘fancy’ (i.e. imagination) to produce art rather than madness. In fact, this dichotomy between reason and imagination – and the idea that art involves some kind of mediation between the two –  continues to turn up all over the place through the early modern period and the Enlightenment, until it becomes something of a given. The terms change, and the focus changes, but the basic idea is that there’s always this interaction between an uncontrolled bit of the mind (imagination) and a controlling bit of the mind (reason). What varies more significantly is the value placed on either the uncontrolled or the controlling part.

For the other posts in the series, see:

Part 1: The Muses and Classical Literature

Part 3: The Romantics and the Victorians

Part 4: The Twentieth Century

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