Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Of what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and not at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
-Disquieting Muses 1957 Sylvia Plath
When introducing ‘The Disquieting Muses’ on a radio broadcast in 1961 Sylvia Plath said. “All through the poem I have in mind the enigmatic figures in this painting, de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses – three terrible faceless dressmaker’s dummies in classical gowns, seated and standing in a weird, clear light that cast the strong shadows characteristic of de Chirico’s early work. The dummies suggest a twentieth century version of other sinister trios of women – The Three Fates, the witches in Macbeth, de Quincey’s sisters of madness.”
Affirming Plath’s disquiet about the Muse that resided within, Robert Graves wrote
“The test of a poet’s vision, one might say, is the accuracy of his portrayal of the White Goddess and of the island over which she rules. The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright and lust – the female spider or the queen-bee whose embrace means death.”
Graves depicts the Muse as a fearsome figure whose embrace squeezes the life marrow out of its host. This supports the long held suspicion that the Muse and the Sirens are one and the same and that as artists, drawn to writing, we are responding to their lilting call. In ‘The Professor and the Siren’ Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa explores this notion, directly connecting the Muse and her offspring to the Sirens whom lured men to their death. The price of Senator La Ciura’s days of ecstasy in the arms of his Immortal love was ‘divine madness’ and death by suicide.
“As I told you, Corbera, she was a beast but at the same instant also an Immortal, and it is a pity that no speech can express this synthesis continually, with such utter simplicity, as she expressed it in her own body. Not only did she show a joyousness and delicacy in the carnal act quite the opposite of dreary animal lust, but her talk had a potent immediacy which I have found since in only a few great poets. Not for nothing is she the daughter of Calliope: ignorant of all culture, unaware of all wisdom, contemptuous of any moral inhibitions, she belonged, even so, to the fountainhead of all culture, of all wisdom, of all ethics, and could express this primigenial superiority of hers in terms of rugged beauty. “I am everything because I am simply the current of life, with detail eliminated; I am immortal because in me every death meets, from that of the fish just now to Zeus, and conjoined in me they turn again into a life that is no longer individual and determined by Pan’s and so free’. Then she would say; ‘You are young and handsome; follow me now into the sea and you will avoid sorrow and old age; come to my dwelling beneath the high mountains of dark motionless waters where all is silence and quiet, so infused that who possesses it does not even notice it. I have loved you; and I remember that when you are tired, when you can drag on no longer, you have only to lean over the sea and call me; I will always be there because I am everywhere, and your thirst for sleep will be assuaged.’
Senator La Ciura, the Professor in ‘The Professor and the Siren’ by di Lampedusa fell into ‘the sea from the deck of the Rex as it was steaming towards Naples, and although life boats had been launched at once the body had not been found’. La Ciura knew that tales of escape from the Sirens were nothing more than ‘petty bourgeois poets’ tales‘ for ‘no one ever escapes from the Sirens’.
Other disturbing stories abound. Ovid describes the fate of the Pierides whose ‘daring taunts, and affronting scorn’ went too far. Calliope, after making the crime clear sentences them to be transformed into Magpies
‘The railers laugh, our threats and wrath despise,
And clap their hands, and make a scolding noise:
But in the fact they’re seiz’d; beneath their nails Feathers theyfeel, and on their faces scales;
Their horny beaks at once each other scare,
Their arms are plum’d, and on their backs they bear
Py’d wings, and flutter in the fleeting air
Chatt’ring, the scandal of the woods they fly
And there continue still their clam’rous cry:
The same their eloquence, as maids or birds,
Now only noise, and nothing then but words.’
Plato expresses Socrate’s intuitive knowing and prophetic sense of danger when he reveals him speaking to Phaedrus with such urgency “Just as I was about to cross the river, I was made aware of my divine monitor’s wonted sign – now it never occurs save to deter me from something or other I am intending to do – and me thought there from I heard a voice from the very spot, forbidding me to depart hence till I had purified myself, as though I had been guilty of some offence against Heaven. Now, you must know, I possess something of a prophetic skill, though no very great amount, but, like indifferent writers, just enough for my own purposes. And thus it is that I have now at last a clear perception of my error. I say at last, because I can assure you, my good friend, that the soul too is some sort of prophetic. For mine pricked me some time ago, as I was uttering that speech, and my face, as Ibycus says, was darkened for fear lest I might be purchasing honour on earth by some offence at the high court of heaven. But now I have discovered my sin.”
Recently a fifteen-year-old student drew from within the collective unconscious a deep foreboding when he wrote about his vision of the muse“He comes out of thick black fog the fog swirling around him with fierce momentum. As he gets out of the fog the fog gets sucked up behind him as if it is a creature itself. His hooves kick up dust as they slam on the dark ground. As he walks he has no boundaries, no walls, just freedom. As he breathes in and out the steam makes pictures, not of love, nor comedy, just war, blood and hellish visions. The dust on the ground kicks up and flutters down with the pictures of pain suffering and torture. As he swings his axe he makes a picture of death, sickness and disease. His bows do nothing but pierce the hearts of men and women, destroying all hopes and dreams. But yet, when I look at him I see the gold ring as purity, his half man half beast shape as humanity and nature As I watch him walk new ideas flood into my mind as if it were magic I do not have a name for him. He does not need one as you can see him for what he is.”
Given his youthful naivety Mark throws down the gauntlet, challenging theories that the muse is some whimsical, innocent maiden in a flowinggown. Their ancient ‘groves, dark grotto’s and shady bow’rs’ clearly hold a dark mystery of their own. Writer’s making the pilgrimage to the Muse would do well to heed such words and to note di Lampedusa’s cautionary, exquisite fantasy. Few writers achieve di Lampedusa’s potent immediacy. To drink from the fountainhead of all culture and to gain true knowledge demands relinquishment and sacrifices few, constrained by societal ethics and culture will make. Primigenial superiority and depth can only come from those who have known and succumbed to the goddess. Even then, as Sylvia Plath discovered, fame comes with its own price, for, to know her is to face ‘divine madness’ and death. Small wonders that for centuries men have feared this Queen Bee, the beast that is an immortal. Yet, so strong is the call that amongst us who can resist the ultimate prize?
Like Plath and the towering column of writer’s who have sailed the sevenseas searching for creativity, the whisper of the Muse has haunted me since my birth. Her lilting song disconcerts me, sending concentric ripples through my dreaming. My personal myth, ‘the myth I live by’, ‘The Princess and The Muse’ like Plath’s The Disquieting Muse is closely linked with the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. In Plath’s case she is cursed in her cradle by the ‘disfigured and unsightly’ witch who sends to the christening in her stead three ladies. But was the Muse really the one who bestowed the poisoned chalice, giving her such ‘bitter-fame’? ‘The Princess and The Muse’ paints a picture of a very different villain. Am I guilty of romanticising the Muse? Does a black, bottomless void lie behind her gaiety and charm? Is she ‘offering death together with immortality’?
Like others before me I am drawn to travel the well-trodden path to the island that is ‘The House of the Muse’ to seek the truth. I have no option but to become a surveyor and a geographer. I am destined to map the unexplored regions of the mind and unravel the sacred charms of the Muse. In order to unlock the mysteries of creativity I have no alternative but to travel all the stages and secure my footing as I go. Unlike Ulysses I will not tie myself to the mast, nor fill my ears with wax. Instead I choose to carry Ariadne’s thread in the vain hope that I will return.
by Heather Blakey
Written in 2005
Working with the Muse