Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.34

Effrosini Spentzou, Don Fowler, Cultivating the Muse: Struggles for Power and Inspiration in Classical Literature.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. xii, 312.  ISBN 0-19-924004-3.  $72.00.  

Contributors: Effrosini Spentzou, Penelope Murray, Adriana Cavarero, Ismene Lada-Richards, Andrew Laird, Don Fowler, Ronnie Ancona, Micaela Janan, Alison Sharrock, Gianpiero Rosati, John Henderson

Reviewed by Helen Lovatt, Cambridge (
Word count: 1769 words

Declaration of interest: John Henderson was my doctoral supervisor.

If this book has a Muse, it is the continuing presence of Don Fowler as inspiration in the study of classical literature (a male muse, incongruously given the concern with gender throughout the essays). This stimulating, coherent and wide-ranging collection of essays resulted from a conference at Oxford in 1996 and engages with the Muses as used and abused throughout Greek and Latin literature, exploring issues of gender, genre, power and inspiration from a variety of perspectives. As well as being a thorough survey of the different incarnations of the Muses, it is a valuable exploration of the poetics of many different authors.

The book has a bias towards Latin and poetry (perhaps inevitably), and it is not always quite clear how individual essays are actually about the Muses (Ronnie Ancona's in particular makes less effort to tie itself in), but whether looked at as a whole or as a collection of parts, this is an important book with many individually important essays. I will deal with each contribution individually below.

Efi Spentzou's introduction ('Secularizing the Muse') begins from Hesiod and Homer and traces the development of the Muses through a narrative of increasing rationality in Greek society and autonomy of the poet (incorporating a useful survey of secondary literature). She resists the idea that the story of the Muses is 'the history of a fading metaphor' and shows how Roman poets produce innovative and exciting new versions, looking at Ovid Metamorphoses 5, Catullus 68, Virgil's Sibyl and Lucan's Phemonoe. These new Muses are complex and vivid characters, lacking confidence and authority but taking on a human reality. The chapter finishes with a description of the project ('seeking to surprise and open to surprises') and summaries of the chapters. This is lively and exciting writing throughout, even when performing the more workaday business of the editor's introduction, if occasionally characterised by slightly bizarre English.1 S. admirably opens up the issues which will dominate much of the book.

Chapters two and three, both on Plato and the Muses, differ most distinctly in style: while Penny Murray's 'Plato's Muses: The Goddesses that Endure' is a succinct and tightly written survey of Plato's games with 'mousike', comparing the Muses and the Sirens, arguing that Plato's innovation is to appropriate the Muses for the prose genre of philosophy, Adriana Cavavero's 'The Envied Muse: Plato versus Homer' is much more diffuse and slightly repetitive. Taking on issues of poetry v. philosophy, seeing v. hearing and painting v. poetry, she explores the representation of the Muses in the Ion, the cave and the Phaedrus. There is a fair amount of overlap between the two chapters without any real sense of a dialogue between them.2

'Re-inscribing the Muse: Greek Drama and the Discourse of Inspired Creativity' has much more to surprise and excite: truth and lies, gender, initiation and ritual all take a bow, but Ismene Lada-Richards' offering suffers from the constraints of space. The writing is so dense that it is not clear what in the end she is arguing for overall (although the individual parts use the figure of the Muse for a stimulating insight into the poetics of Greek drama). There is clearly more mileage in the discussion of how the Muses are re-used in the radically different context of dramatic performance.

Spentzou's own chapter on Apollonius ('Stealing Apollo's Lyre: Muses and poetic ἆθλα in Apollonius Argonautica 3') is suggestive but not to this reviewer entirely convincing. She argues that Medea can be viewed as a dangerous yet vulnerable Muse to Jason as poet figure who steals control of the plot from Apollo (and Apollonius?). This seems to me an interesting and useful way of thinking about the Argonautica and about gender and epic poetics in general; however, the evidence in the text for a metapoetic level underpinning the different plots seems thin. Is anyone who moves the plot on or makes a plan a figure of the Muse? Much hangs on equivocation between the two meanings of 'plot'. These reservations aside, however, this is a provocative and stimulating essay, and the process of reading it and reacting to it is a valuable one.

Andrew Laird's essay 'Authority and Ontology of the Muses in Epic Reception' is very much a game of two halves, looking both forward towards Neo-Latin reception of the Muses and back as far as Hesiod. In the first part he looks at Petrarch's reception of the epic Muse in his 14th century Neo-Latin epic, the Africa.3 The Muses mark both metapoetic negotiations and an engagement with the discourse of political power. Through an examination of invocation as apostrophe and the relationship between god, divine messenger and mortal addressee as analogous to that between Muses, poet and audience, L. argues that the answer to the question of how real and powerful the Muses are is determined by ideology and reception. This essay lucidly and brilliantly takes on issues at the heart of thinking about the Muses, although Petrarch is rather left behind in the theoretical tour de force of the second half of the chapter.

'Masculinity under Threat? The Poetics and Politics of Inspiration in Latin Poetry' is everything you might want and expect from Don Fowler: the broad brush-strokes of exciting and far-reaching ideas combined with delicate handling of detailed nuance and complexity. If not perhaps fully developed, the suggestive juxtaposition of passages is always rewarding. He maps the opposition between inspiration of the belly (money, the pressures of the real world and politics) and 'true inspiration' onto the oppositions between ars and ingenium, effeminate and manly, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, small-scale and epic, staying at home and the imperial conquest of territory, and he argues that both Muse and political addressee stand in a paradoxical relationship to the poet's manhood: they strengthen him and guarantee his success but simultaneously overwhelm, penetrate and feminize him. This paradox is pursued through the particular problems of satire as a genre in the territory of Roman imperialism, reaching a full stop at the emasculation of Attis in Catullus 63.

In chapter eight, Ronnie Ancona produces a narrowly focused and vigorous reading of Horace Odes 1.22 (integer vitae) in the light of Sappho and Catullus ('The Untouched Self: Sapphic and Catullan Muses in Horace Odes 1.22').4 These intertexts are presumably a form of inspiration, Sappho and Lesbia function in some way as Muses, but this is not brought out in any detail.5 While the build up through Sappho and Catullus 51 and 11 is interesting and convincing (but not particularly adventurous), the analysis of Odes 1.22 does not quite bring the expected payoff. I was not entirely convinced that echoes of Sappho and Catullus are systematic enough to be central to reading 1.22.

Chapter nine is a reading of Acanthis (the (now) dead old woman who rants from beyond the grave to Cynthia about the importance of self-interest and materiality) in Propertius 4.5 ('The Muse Unruly and Dead') by Micaela Janan, a fuller version of which can be found as chapter five of her recent book The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV.6 As one expects from Janan, this is a re-reading of Acanthis and the Muse through Lacanaian psychology. She sees her as the poet's 'dissentient alter ego' and argues that Acanthis, Cynthia and the ever-lurking rich rival are irretrievably other, parts of the Real which explode Propertius' identity and the fantasies of his love poetry. The theory is clearly explained and she gives a compelling account of elegy's empty soul: however, the readers' opinion of this essay will inevitably spring from their personal take on Lacanian psychology and its usefulness for reading Classical texts.

Alison Sharrock's A-musing Tale ('Gender, Genre and Ovid's Battles with Inspiration in the Metamorphoses') is a very clear and stimulating discussion which gets to the heart of issues around the Muses and follows on clearly from Fowler's piece. She portrays the Muse as goddess and whore and introduces erotic undertones into her relationship with the poet; using Salmacis and Hermaphroditus as versions of Muse and poet, she brings out the emasculation of the poet and the Muse's simultaneous loss of identity in the poet's persona. She then shows how Ovid uses the Muses in an anti-climactic fashion at the beginning and end of the Metamorphoses and in the Calydonian boar hunt. Finally, she returns to gender and genre with ideas on the particularly epic nature of the Muses (this last section seems rather to run out of steam).

In 'Muse and Power in the Poetry of Statius', Gianpiero Rosati returns to the theme of politics and the Muses, arguing strongly that Statius used the figure of the Muse as a figure 'of the control exercised by political authority over the free creative spirit of the artist.'7 The majority of his argument is based on the Silvae, but he also looks at inspiration and intertextuality in the proem of the Thebaid, bolstering his ideas with a survey of the way that the Muses were replaced by political guarantors, from Zeus to Ptolemy to Augustus. This is a careful and nuanced piece which avoids getting stuck on the problem of Statius' positive or negative attitude to power and Domitian and instead focuses on the workings of power and poetry.

Last word as ever goes to John Henderson, truly the life and soul of the party, in this rich and playful introduction to 'Corny Copa: The Motel Muse'. The Copa is a short poem about relaxing down at the pub, which came down to us through the Appendix Vergiliana. Much of the point here is for us to read the poem: Henderson gives us not only the whole text but two vastly different English versions, Thomas Stanley's surprisingly un-Puritan translation of 1651 and John Betjeman's surburban adaptation of 1965. Through the playfulness of Henderson's text we can appreciate the playfulness of the Copa: much of the first part recreates a reading experience with word games ('faceless preface'), alliteration ('her quivering quim') and rhythmic build-up imitating and commenting on the experience of reading as sexual, literary criticism as strip-tease. In part two, he examines the theme of imminent mortality; the third part gives a comprehensive and scholarly survey of the intertexts; the fourth widens out the argument to think about the dancing girl as commodity: in my view the most enjoyable essay in the book and one of the most enjoyable in the Hendersonian corpus.

The essays are followed by a bibliography, index locorum and general index. Occasional errors and infelicities have been mentioned in the notes; otherwise the book is well-produced.


1.   While 'a secure position on the divine pedestal' (p.2), 'a hardly surprising element' (p.14) and 'the fissures on the figures of the Muses' (p.22) are perhaps more inelegant than incorrect, 'ambiance' (p.3) should read 'ambience', and the Sibyl should entrust her insight to leaves, rather than 'on leaves' (p.17).
2.   Which may be related to the fact that Cavarero's paper was not part of the original conference: the original participants were Fowler, Henderson, Janan, Murray, Sharrock and Spentzou.
3.   Note a mistake in the text of the proem of Petrarch's Africa (p.122): longuis line 2 should read longius.
4.   Note a mistake in the text of Catullus 11.22: cecedit should read cecidit.
5.   Although Janan (p.198 n.27) does a good job of explaining how Ancona's essay is useful for reading the Muses.
6.   Micaela Janan (2001) The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV (Berkeley: University of California Press) 85-99.
7.   Rosati's piece, too, suffers in places from slightly odd usage of the definite article: 'the discourse on the inspiration' (p.233); 'the political power' (p.242).

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