At first there were nine. Nine muses that, centuries before the common era, were called upon by poets to visit them and bring them tales to breathe life into. When Homer wrote his epics like The Odyssey, he called for Calliope. Clio was called by his peers to help tell history. Erato helped men write lyrics of love, Euterpe helped turn those into lyrics and helped others with beautiful songs. Melpomene helped write the great tragedies, Polymnia called after perhaps to worship the pain away. Terpsichore breathed life into the dancers, and Thalia helped create comedies. The final sister, Urania, helped men decipher the stars. Unmarried, these pictures of innocence worked as perpetual servants, a family built to serve the male poet whenever he needed them.
Over a thousand years later during the upsurge in female poets in Victorian England, women were finally able to reclaim the muse not just as a subservient daughter, but as a cornerstone of lesbian culture. The muses went from static and immortal to being alive and well, able to fend for themselves. Not only did these muses deliver the poetry: now they had become part of the artwork itself. Sappho of Lesbos, alive in the time as the original muses, wrote often of her love for women, so much so that the word for lesbian comes from her name. Some of these new poets kept the muse female and used this to broadcast their homosexuality in ways that would have made Sappho quite proud. One of these Victorian queens was Eliza Cook. She named a piece after her muse, “Grey-Eyed Mabel,” and wrote “Grey-eyed Mabel’s gentle glance,/ With blushing sense and beauty rife,/ Bade my soul cry with burning sigh,/ ‘I’m thine, and only thine, for life.’” Some turned the muse male, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote love sonnets to her husband. Perhaps “How Do I Love Thee?”, also known as Sonnet 43, rings a bell.
Others introduced androgynous third parties altogether, causing new thought in the respect of gender identity. Writing shortly after the Victorian age, poetess Bryher was in an almost lifelong open relationship with fellow poetess H.D. While eternally devoted to one another, the two often took on male lovers and even married men for convenience. These men had great influence in their lives and were often written about as well, and so when writing, often the gender of the muse is left for the reader to decide. This rise in genderless third-party discussion in poetry and in homosexual muse-poet relationships helped influence some of the first and fundamentally significant LGBTQ+ discussions in the European world and paves the way for the twentieth century style of muse-oriented creation.
During this transition, poets and their muses shifted to become individualistic. Poets used their actual wives in their poetry, or in the case of visual artists such as Frida Kahlo, they turned to themselves. While married to fellow Mexican painter Diego Rivera for a time, she was always openly bisexual and ended up having a sexual affair with the woman that Diego cheated on her with. In the end, due to his betrayal, her declining health from a bus accident and lifelong issues, as well as in celebration of her heritage, she often painted herself. She once stated on the matter “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” Visually, these muses began to populate the art scene. Focus on the female form changed from less of an appreciation and more of a sexualized concept due to no fault of these twentieth century muses. Tamara de Lempicka, bisexual Polish painter, had a distinct art deco form that captured the spirit of the twenties.
Her work “La Belle Rafaela” captured this sexualization in a literally beautiful light. But away from visual art, poets no longer relied upon muses if they did not have their own, one-of-a-kind individual muse of any gender. Some could say that the muse idea was moved from humans onto concepts, and this is what molded poetry, while others simply said that twentieth-century poets focused more on the world around them and less upon a muse. Those that argue the conceptual muse may also say that because the muse is once again an idea, changing only in argument but never in substance, that art and its muses have come full circle. If ideas are muses, they are once again static cornerstones that artists sit with and call upon when needed to create art. If ideas are not muses, then art has moved into a new direction free of these influential spirits. What do you think? Does your favorite artist invoke a muse? Who are they and what do they draw from? Write your thoughts in the comments below!