The Art of the Muses: Poetry, Inspiration and Craft

28 September 2012

"Since Homer first invoked the Muse in the opening line of the Iliad, poets have spoken of their poems as emanating from somewhere beyond themselves," notes Dr Penelope Murray, who will present a Sydney Ideas lecture on Tuesday 2 October.

Yet the idea of poets inspired by a divine source, says Dr Murray, could be seen as incompatible with the idea of poetry as a craft that depends on human skill and expertise.

Inspiration has been described as "the gift of the Muse, the breath of God, the inexplicable workings of the unconscious mind or the unmediated force of the inner voice at work in the automatic writing of Surrealist texts," she says.

"At the same time poetry is thought of as a craft requiring specialised skills, and in many Indo-European traditions poetic composition is described as a form of 'making', or by 'terms drawn from specific manufacturing crafts such as carpentry or weaving'."

"But for the early Greek poets", argues Dr Murray, "there was no contradiction in claiming to be inspired by the Muse and yet in control of the making of a poem."

Dr Murray's lecture will look closely at Plato's Ion, which she says "strikes at the heart of the problems of authorship, authority and value that the claim to inspiration raises."

"It was Plato who, for his own reasons, first set inspiration and technique against each other through his development of the notion of furor poeticus, that mad frenzy which descends on the poet and sends him out of his mind so that he knows nothing of what he does, and is incapable of explaining the composition or the content of his poetry.

"The appeal to the Muse, so beloved of the poets, contains within it an ambiguity which Plato was all too ready to exploit: for whilst it can act as a guarantee of the poet's credentials, it also deprives him of responsibility."

Asks Dr Murray: "How do we explain the value of a work of art? What kind of a thing is it? "Poems, plays, novels are constructs which originate in an author's imagination... But what does the author actually know about his or her subject-matter? Why is it that works of art, the depiction of imagined worlds, can affect us in the way that they do?"

Penelope Murray read Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she also took her PhD. After research posts at King's College, London and St Anne's College, Oxford, she was a founding member of the department of classics at the University of Warwick. She has written extensively on ancient poetics and has a particular interest in the Muses. Her books include: Genius: the History of an Idea (1989); Plato on Poetry (1996); Classical Literary Criticism (2000); Music and the Muses: the Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City (ed. with Peter Wilson, 2004). With Pierre Destrée she is currently working on the Blackwell Companion to Ancient Aesthetic.

Event details

What: The Art of the Muses: Poetry, Inspiration and Craft, a Sydney Ideas lecture, co-presented with the Inspired Voices Research Cluster, University of Sydney

When: 6pm, Tuesday 2 October

Where: Foyer, New Law Building, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions

Cost: This event is free and open to all, with no ticket or booking required. Seating is unreserved and entry is on a first come, first served basis

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