The muse writes back: lyric poetry and female poetic identity

2016-04-08T10:47:16Z (GMT) by Sarah Parker
This chapter examines the genre of lyric poetry, focussing on one particular aspect of that genre, the convention of the muse. The love lyric directed at the beloved muse has a lengthy tradition, from Sappho and Catullus to Petrarch, through Shakespeare, Sidney and Donne, and into the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The muse, as the conventional addressee of the lyric, plays a crucial role in enabling the poem to come into being: she is the absent presence towards whom the poet’s words are directed. But the gendered positioning of the muse/poet relationship, reiterated throughout literary history, means that the lyric muse has proved a particularly problematic concept for women poets. Due to the concept of the muse, women have been consistently associated with the passive, inspiring role rather than that of active creator – that role is preserved for men. This, along with other social and cultural factors, made it particularly difficult for women poets to claim the role of poet for themselves. In response to the issues outlined above, this chapter poses the following questions: how do women poets play with the gendered conventions of the lyric genre in order to reconceptualise the poet/muse relationship? Do they claim a muse of their own? Do they try to write as both muse and poet? Or do they reject the concept of the muse entirely? The first part of this chapter traces the development of the muse figure in historical poetic tradition. The second part then interrogates the problematic aspects of this concept for women poets. Finally, in the concluding section, I analyse poems from the late-nineteenth century to show how the gendered roles of poet and muse are unsettled via lyric experimentation. Before addressing these matters, however, it is crucial to define the genre of lyric poetry and the debates surrounding the role of the lyric addressee, frequently figured as the female muse.