I never did care much for Wordsworth. But the rest of the Romantic poets – Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Coleridge, in that order – taught me the rudiments of poetic technique when I was a teenager. What’s more, I learned well enough to have a dozen or so published poems to my credit without trying too hard. But one aspect of Romanticism that I never managed to accept was having a muse.
That wasn’t through lack of trying. Having a muse is potentially convenient when you’re an adolescent boy and not sure how to approach girls. You can play out your infatuations in your attempts at poetry, and not risk actually talking with the object of your affection. Better yet, if – as happened to me – you are grief-stricken at the focus of your infatuation moving away, you can dramatize events until you feel better. I think of this as the Dante gambit, after the Italian writer of The Divine Comedy, who found a muse in a woman he had met only once, and was never around to casually disillusion him, as a real person might.
That was the trouble, really, with the whole idea of a muse. The closer you actually were to a girl or a woman, the less likely she was to act like a muse. She wouldn’t hang around inspiring you by looking soulful or sighing with bliss as you recited the poems you dedicated to her; she had school or a job and would insist on straying from your side on her own business.
I suppose the difficulty of reconciling the projection of a muse on to a woman’s life is part of what is behind Robert Graves’ White Goddess, and his attempt to cast the poet-muse relation in a myth — a myth that inevitably ends in the muse’s betrayal of the poet’s loyalty and aspirations, only to start again with the next woman he elevated in his mind. Graves was dramatizing the fact that any woman would eventually tire of being his inspiration, and find some other lover who wasn’t playing so many games.
It seemed to me a form of selfishness – especially when I learned from Graves’ biography that while he was enjoying the masochism of living his myth with a succession of muses, he also had a wife who raised their children and oversaw his household.
I thought much the same about Shelley, playing guitar with Jane Williams while Mary Shelley was nearing a nervous collapse, mourning the death of their child, and trying to run a villa in a foreign country without enough money. Having a muse sounded suspiciously like an excuse for flirting.
After a while, another point started to nag me. If poetry was the result of a literary-minded man’s (mostly) chaste infatuation for a woman, what was the explanation for Sylvia Plath? This was a matter of real concern for me as Plath became one of the first moderns from whom I learned.
Robert Graves did have a throwaway line about women’s poetry drawing on different sources than men’s. But he never explained what those sources were, being uninterested in anything outside his own personal mythology.
Obviously, though, women didn’t have muses in the way that men like Graves did. A new lover might inspire poetry – a lot of it in the early stages of a relationship – but no published woman that I could find seemed to view any man in her life as mystical or even temporarily mythological.
It was all very puzzling, especially since the idea of running off to some modern Missolongi and dying prematurely had limited appeal. I was tolerably certain that dying of consumption wasn’t on the agenda, either.
Gradually, I came to realize that the idea of a muse was only possible in a culture where men knew few women, and had to fill in the blanks in their knowledge with their imaginations. It was a form of projection, really, not much different from pornography – just prettier. Neither was reconcilable with the real relationships I was starting to have.
Later, my readings in feminism would give me the concept of objectification, and encourage me to condemn the whole idea of a muse as something fundamentally unfair. But, even before then, I had abandoned muses as a concept that was not so much false as mentally exhausting. Trying to believe in muses, I found, only made me affected and self-conscious.
On the whole, fiction writers got along without muses. So, a few years after I discovered poetry, I decided that I could too, no matter what genre or style I wrote.