Calliope? Is that you?

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

So begins Robert Fagles’s translation of the Iliad of Homer. The poet begins his mighty work by calling on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. He asks the Muse to sing, making himself, in effect, her amanuensis and first audience. The words will come through him, but they are from her. This connection between poet and Muse was no mere fancy or polite fiction; the Muse gave his work not only its musical power but also its authority, for the Muse, being divine, knew all. So for centuries the Iliad was read not only for pleasure but also for historical information, it being thought that a poet of Homer’s stature was a direct channel of unerring truth.

His second epic, the Odyssey, also begins with an invocation:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

(Also Fagles’s translation.)

This standard having been established for serious epics, Virgil followed suit with his own poem of the founding of Rome, the Aeneid (again, translation by Fagles)—but this time he places the invocation in the second sentence:

Wars and a man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinian shores and Italian soil,
yet many blows he took on land and sea from the gods above—
thanks to cruel Juno’s relentless rage—and many losses
he bore in battle too, before he could found a city,
bring his gods to Latium, source of the Latin race,
the Alban lords and the high walls of Rome.
                     Tell me,
Muse, how it all began.

John Milton carried on this poetic tradition in his opening to Paradise Lost:

Of Man’s First disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.

Milton’s Muse is now “Heav’nly”—envisioned as an angel (I assume) of God rather than as an attendant of pagan Apollo—but is still the bestower of divine aid in the poetic task. For, as the rest of that opening sentence makes clear, the epic poet’s aim is necessarily ambitious. Indeed he might be the most ambitious of artists.

I bring all this up because I feel it is highly relevant to my own work in progress. Does that mean I dare to compare myself to Homer, Virgil, and Milton? Well, yes. To the extent that I am writing an epic, I am their colleague, howsoever junior and perhaps epigonous.

And do I have my own channel to the Muse? I’ve given this some thought over the years. How did the ancient poets know when they were channeling the Muse? Did they hear some kind of confident, definite voice from within? I can’t say I’ve had that very much—although sometimes, yes. I have learned some techniques of “channeling” in this sense, but I’m still in the early stages of experimenting with them.

But not long ago it dawned on me that I do have a connection with the Muse. And the evidence of it is this: that I continue to have the energy to keep going on this years-long project. For creative work cannot happen without a certain energy being present for it. You need to be in the mood for it—I do, anyway. And being in the mood to work on a single project over the course of years is a rare thing. I have started and abandoned many projects in my life, and this to me is a sign that I lacked inspiration—I lacked connection with the Muse.

But this project, my epic, continues to inspire me. Or the Muse continues to inspire me to create it. In fact, I’ve become convinced that the continuation and completion of this project, The Age of Pisces, is entirely at her discretion. If she pulls the plug, then that’s it, the project dies, and years of my life will sink beneath the waves. But if she does not pull the plug, as so far she has not, then I take it as a sign of her approval. And that encourages me further.

So there it is: I can report that the Muse of epic is alive and well. Whether she resides on Mount Helicon or in one of Yahweh’s heavens or somewhere else, she sends the stipend of creative energy that allows this work to unfold. I’m her remittance man, and very pleased to be so.

I believe there are other signs of the support of the Muse, but I’ll leave those for a future post. Right now I’m glad to have found the inspiration again to write a blog post; it seems that a different Muse watches over blogs. Erato? Is that you?

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