The Beckoning Fair One

Essay for the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, May 17, 2004.


There is a brief scene that has always haunted me in Peter Weir's film THE LAST WAVE (1973). David, the movie's urban lawyer protagonist (Richard Chamberlain in his most affecting role) has been having apocalyptic visions: he seems to have somehow tapped into the Australian aboriginals' Dreamtime. During a visit with his stepfather, an Anglican priest, the distraught David exclaims, "Why didn't you ever tell me there were Mysteries?"

And his stepfather calmly replies, "My entire life has been about a Mystery."

I've carried those last words with me for decades now (though certainly not in any Christian sense). My life, too, has been about a Mystery: trying to pin down the overpowering sense of imminence and the numinous that seems to emanate from certain landscapes and certain people, trying to locate that same essence in the work of individual writers and poets and artists who also seem to have glimpsed it -

And yet, what precisely is "it"? My childhood friend Katy called it The Door; I called it the Boy in the Tree, after the visionary figure I saw in a dream at seventeen. Robert Graves named it the White Goddess; his lover, the poet Laura Riding, called it "a false wall." In her brilliant, sui generis fantasy novel LUD-IN-THE-MIST (1926), the writer and poet Hope Mirrlees termed it "the Note." John Fowles knew the Mystery as the Lost Domain, the "domaine perdu" he encountered in Alain-Fournier's symbolist novel LE GRAND MEAULNES (Fr. 1913, English THE WANDERER, 1928) It is "the country of the blue" in Henry James' short story "Derogation" (19xx), as the Jamesian scholar Denis Donoghue explicates it in SPEAKING OF BEAUTY (2003), "the place of the imagination where it has nothing at heart but to be inventive and intelligent and to live up to its best possibility." If the Mystery evokes a sense of place, that place also contains an inhabitant: the genius loci of the Lost Domain, the Muse.

A muse! The very notion of an artist's muse has become so unfashionable as to be faintly embarrassing - like admitting to a taste for Cherries Jubilee or Beef Wellington or Ambrosia Salad, one of those outmoded culinary concoctions our parents and grandparents found sophisticated, back in an era of blowsy blondes and beefy leading men. Today the muse seems to be an endangered species, if not utterly extinct: unsurprising, when one considers that the muses were traditionally depicted as female, thereby limiting their options for procreation with others of their kind. Field guides to the species are almost non-existent, the most recent being Francine Prose's THE LIVES OF THE MUSES: NINE WOMEN AND THE ARTISTS THEY INSPIRED (2003), an intelligent and entertaining if not, ultimately, illuminating account of nine real-life, female muses, the number meant to correspond with the most popular conception of the cohort - Robert Graves referred to them as "the nine little muses" - which nowadays is less evocative of the Greek Mysteries than it is of nine hearty sorority gals, each with her own merit badge: Calliope (Epic Poetry), Erato (Love Lyrics), Melpomene (Tragedy), and so on.

Yet the earliest conception of the Muses was of three figures, not the nine who later consorted with Apollo. This Triad consisted of Aoide, Melete, and Mneme, daughters of Gaea and Uranus (and thus Titans); Hesiod's "Theogony" names, alternately, Mnemosyne as Gaea and Uranus's daughter, and the three Muses as Mnemosyne's children by Zeus. Aoide is the Muse of song; Melete of practice; Mneme (and Mnemosyne) of memory. "Mnemosyne, memory, the mother of the Muses, knows and sings the past as if it were still there," notes Jean-Pierre Vernant in "Greek Cosmogonic Myths;" and given that her sisters Melete and Aoide are related to practice and song, it is likely that the Triad Muses were, originally, priestesses or poets responsible for maintaining an oral tradition, and not merely a mythical conduit for inspiration.

The Muses may have inspired entire libraries-worth of song and story, but in their most archaic incarnation they left little in the way of a papyrus trail. The first-century Greek historian Strabo first finds them on Mount Peiria in Thessaly; they then migrated south to Mount Helicon in Boeotia, a region of central Greece also associated with the cult of the immigrant god Dionysos. At Helicon the Muses' worship became subsumed into that of Apollo, at nearby Delphi.

But it is with Dionysos that the Triad Muses seem to show the greatest affinity. His cult seems to have originated in Thrace, in what is now Turkey. "... the Thraceians who colonized Boeotia consecrated Helicon to the Muses," writes Strabo in his GEOGRAPHIA, "and also the cave of the Nymphs called Leibethriades. And those who practiced ancient music are said to have been Thraceians, Orpheus and Musaeus and Thamyris, and the name Eumolpus [co-founder of the Eleusinian Mysteries] comes from Thrace."

Archaeological digs in Boeotia have also turned up cultic burials linked to Crete, another site affiliated with Dionysian rites (and, later, with those of Orpheus, Dionysos' legendary acolyte). I suspect that in their most ancient form the Muses are linked to Dionysos, that "womanish creature," and to what the great classicist Jane Ellen Harrison (who for some years lived with Hope Mirrlees) calls "the blind mad fury" of the God of Mysteries. Dionysos had his female followers, the ravening Bacchae, maenads whose worship of the god of ecstasy ends with them tearing Dionysos limb from limb then devouring his raw flesh. Thracian maenads slaughtered Orpheus as well, decapitating him; his head floated down the river Hebrus. Yet even in these ancient stories, there is a link between muse and maenad -

"The head of Orpheus, singing always, is found by the Muses, and buried in the sanctuary at Lesbos," writes Harrison in PROLEGOMENA TO A STUDY OF GREEK RELIGION (1908). "Who are the Muses? Who but the Maenads repentant, clothed and in their right minds." (In an aside that resonates nicely in our current culture of body art, Harrison notes that the murderous maenads were punished for their acts by being tattooed with the image of a stag, the animal associated with Dionysian sacrifice, on the upper part of their right arms.)

Even now, thousands of years later, we perceive the elusive essence of the Muse as two-fold, both desirable and threatening; at her worst, psychologically, even murderously, devastating, to herself and others - though this identification of the Muse as strictly female is, today, outmoded. The OED defines a muse as a poet's particular genius; genius in the sense of a tutelary god or attendant spirit presiding from birth. It is, I think, an eidolon not just of longing but of "the mystery of communicated knowledge," as Maud Bodkin states in ARCHETYPAL PATTERNS OF POETRY (1934), "The eternal quality that belongs to the moment of vision, when the seer has lost himself within the vast complex essence of the thing seen ..."

The muse is the embodiment of an individual artist's obsession, and as such can as easily be male as female - though the notion of a male muse, or a female artist, seemed a dubious one to Robert Graves (1895-1985) , the 20th century's outstanding Muse mad scientist.

However, woman is not a poet: she is either a Muse or she is nothing. A woman who concerns herself with poetry should, I believe, either be a silent Muse and inspire the poets by her womanly presence, as Queen Elizabeth and the Countess of Derby did, or she should be the Muse in the complete sense; she should be in turn Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd and the Old Sow of Maenawr Penardd who eats her own farrow.

(THE WHITE GODDESS, 1958 revised edition, pg. 500)

Graves backpedals a bit when he admits "This is not to say a woman should refrain from writing poems;" but his heart isn't in that utterance. If anyone could attest to the dangers of women writing poetry, it was Graves, who survived one of the 20th century's most noted and notorious Muses, the poet Laura Riding, a woman who so perfectly and deliberately embraced the witchy, destructive, protean and devouring aspects of the Muse that she might have sprung full-grown from Medusa's head (or, if she'd lived a few decades later, Madonna's).

Graves had been physically and emotionally battered by his experiences in the trenches during the Great War - he suffered from crippling shell-shock, what we would now term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When he met Riding, nee Laura Gottschalk, he was married to Nancy Nicholson, an artist and feminist who retained her maiden name; a bold thing to do in 1920s England. They had four children. By 1926, when Graves and Riding actually met, the pressures of supporting a family while attempting to create art - poetry for Graves, painting for Nicholson - was for both Robert and Nancy exacerbated by depression, illness, and poverty. The success of Graves' first two poetry collections, OVER THE BRAZIER (1916) and FAIRIES AND FUSILIERS (1917) was followed by the failure in 1920 of COUNTRY SENTIMENT. Graves' nephew and biographer, Richard Perceval Graves, observes that the poet "underwent a kind of personality crisis."Robert was later to reflect that by the beginning of 1926 "a process of personal disintegration was well under way" (ROBERT GRAVES: THE YEARS WITH LAURA, 1926-1940, 1990).

Enter Laura Riding. She was a coldly intellectual Manhattan-born poet who had briefly allied herself with the Nashville-based Fugitive poets (she had an affair with Allen Tate) before returning to New York. There she corresponded with Graves, and at the end of 1925 accepted Graves' invitation to join him in Europe and collaborate on a volume about modern poetry. Richard Perceval Graves quotes a family friend observing that "Robert always seemed happiest when he had found someone he admired who would give him direction."

Riding was prepared to do just that. Brilliant but domineering, seemingly inexorable in her need to be the authoritarian center of any group, she possessed the exact skills needed to wrest control of the rudderless Graves/Nicholson marriage. Laura Riding was also, frankly, a nut, but a nut on the grand scale of a Madame Blavatsky or L. Ron Hubbard, able to convince intelligent but emotionally susceptible people that she had insights and powers beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. Riding accompanied Graves' family (including children and nursemaid) to Egypt, where Robert had accepted a job as Professor of English at Cairo University. Once there she declared their quarters to be haunted, and indeed for the next fourteen years the entire extended family of Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson was haunted, by the sinister, sibylline, predatory Riding.

Richard Perceval Graves' marvelous biography gives the details of their mad and often maddening relationship. Riding, while striking-looking, was not conventionally attractive. She relied upon a combination of acute intelligence and sexual frankness; oracular pronouncements about Poetry, Woolworth bijoux and intimations of occult knowledge to cast her spell upon a moveable feast of artists, writers, poets and their spouses, both male and female, enlarging the initial menage a trois with Graves and Nicholson to menages a quatre and cinq. She was not above using black magic to gain the attentions of a lover, and when all else failed, she attempted suicide: in 1929, when one of Riding's erstwhile lovers rejected her and backed out of the elaborate relationship daisy-chain she had devised, Riding drank Lysol and leaped from a fourth-floor window. In a blackly comic couvade, the horror-stricken Graves ran down to a third-floor window and did the same. Both survived. Still nobody seems to have learned a lesson, since Laura continued to retain her near-supernatural hold on Graves, despite her refusal to sleep with him; and ten years later, when Riding entered a relationship with the poet Schuyler Jackson (whom she eventually married), she systematically and single-handedly drove Jackson's wife Kit into a mental institution, an act all the more unconscionable since it was carried out with Kit's four children as witnesses.

One doesn't so much feel Schadenfraude as genuine relief to know that the ruthless Laura Riding has now been relegated to that long, long list of Forgotten Poets, a lengthy footnote to the life of her one-time and best-known acolyte. Of course no one expects artists to be nice people, and from the wreckage of this floating world emerged some indisputable masterworks: Robert Graves' novels, poetry, and - most important for this essay - THE WHITE GODDESS : A HISTORICAL GRAMMAR OF POETIC MYTH (1948); a book that plays a bit fast and loose with history, etymology, and archaeology, but which captures as no other book does that elevated, almost supernatural, sense of peril and exhilaration which accompanies the creative process...

I summarize Riding's relationship with Graves not because it is wickedly entertaining (though it is) but because it neatly encapsulates the two most crucial aspects of the Muse one finds in both fiction depictions and real life: her (or his) ineffable appeal, and her destructiveness. When it comes to the relationship between artist and muse, there often seems to be some obscure law of quantum physics in effect: both cannot occupy the same place at the same time, or one will be destroyed. Sometimes the artist consumes the muse, sometimes the reverse. Longtime, relatively stable relationships between artist and muse exist - that of Robert Graves and his second wife, Beryl Pritchard; James Merrill (himself no stranger to the occult) and David Jackson, Vladimir and Vera Nabokov, John and Elizabeth Fowles. But these are outnumbered by those creative dramas that explode (often with serial muses) like fireworks on a string: Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Isadora Duncan and Sergei Esenin, Robert Lowell and Carolyn Blackwood.
Thoughts on Muses by Liz Hand