“Where Have All the Muses Gone?”

where-have-all-the-muses-gone

Carl Wilhelm Friederich Oesterly’s portrait of Alighieri Dante and his muse Beatrice Portinari.

“Whatever happened to the Muse? She was once the female figure — deity, Platonic ideal, mistress, lover, wife — whom poets and painters called upon for inspiration. Thus Homer in the Odyssey, the West’s first great work of literary art: ‘Sing to me of the man, Muse, of twists and turns driven time and again off course.’ For hundreds of years, in one form or another, the Muse’s blessing and support were often essential to the creation of art. . .
Yet for sheer chutzpah, you cannot beat Dante Alighieri’s invocation, in the Paradiso — the last part of his Divine Comedy — not just to the nine muses, but also to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and Apollo, god of poetry and music and the muses’ boss, as it were.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, completed in the early 14th century, is a turning point for musedom. By the end of his massive poem, the muses have been left behind by the heavenly Christian music of the spheres, ‘a song,’ writes Dante, ‘that excels our muses.’ The pagan nine had been replaced by the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. That, in turn, freed artistic inspiration to go seek more earthly sources.
Dante’s source was an actual person, a young girl named Beatrice Portinari whom Dante claims he first saw on the street in Florence when they were both nine. He fell in love with her, but she died in her early 20s. Dante paid tribute to Beatrice first in a breathtaking volume of sonnets and prose poems he called La Vita NuovaThe New Life — and then made Beatrice a central figure in The Divine Comedy, where she is cast in the roles of teacher, guide and sacred ideal.
Beatrice symbolized both earthly love and Christian truth — the poet’s lust became ‘sublimated,’ as we would say, into spiritual longing.” [. . .]    –Lee Siegel, The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2009

Contributed by Aisha Woodward (Bowdoin, ’08)

Beatrice in “A Series of Unfortunate Events”

beatrice-in-a-series-of-unfortunate-eventsBeatrice is the name of a mysterious character in the children’s book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Beatrice does not appear in the main series, though she is often mentioned by the narrator as a lost love and, according to Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, is the reason Snicket started writing the Baudelaires’ story. A 2006 spin-off book, The Beatrice Letters, sheds light on her story.
She is thought by many to be named for Beatrice Portinari, the beloved of the poet Dante, who spurned him and then died young. He devoted his Divine Comedy to her, and in it she figures as his muse and personal saviour. She arranges for his journey through the afterlife and guides him through heaven.” (retrieved on Dec 12, 2006)

Contributed by Kate Moon (Bowdoin, ’09)