“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 The pagan nine had been replaced by the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.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)