Sunday, March 21, 2010

Thalia and her Sisters by Michael Little

Thalia, Muse of Comedy
Do you believe the Greek Muses are still around to inspire musicians and dancers and writers? I choose to believe in Thalia and her sisters, partly because they are a way of connecting with classic times and great writers, and partly because they explain a growing list of inspired moments when stories were thrust before my eyes and into my hand.

Thalia and her eight sisters. Were they spirits or goddesses or water nymphs? Muses dancing with Apollo

They were all of these. Their daddy was rather famous. Hesiod, in the seventh century BC, wrote that they were the daughters of Zeus, king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Over time Thalia and her sisters became associated with specific fields of patronage:

• Calliope (the “beautiful of speech”), chief of the muses and muse of epic or heroic poetry;• Clio (the “glorious one”), muse of history;
• Erato (the “amorous one”), muse of love or erotic poetry, lyrics, and marriage songs;• Euterpe (the “well-pleasing”), muse of music and lyric poetry;
• Melpomene (the “chanting one”), muse of tragedy;
• Polyhymnia (the “[singer] of many hymns”), muse of sacred song, oratory, lyric, singing, and rhetoric;
• Terpsichore (the “[one who] delights in dance”), muse of choral song and dance;
• Thalia (the “blossoming one”), muse of comedy and bucolic poetry; and
• Urania (the “celestial one”), muse of astronomy.

Invoke a muse at the beginning of your poetry or prose, and you follow the example of Homer and Virgil, Dante and Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Here are a few examples from the wondrous Wikipedia:

Homer, in The Odyssey: “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.” Virgil, in the Aeneid: “O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;/ What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;/ For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began/To persecute so brave, so just a man.”

Dante, in The Inferno: “O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!/ O memory that engraved the things I saw,/ Here shall your worth be manifest to all!”

Milton, in Paradise Lost: “Of Man’s first disobedience, 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, Heavenly Muse.”

Chaucer, in Troilus and Criseyde: O lady myn, that called art Cleo,/ Thow be my speed fro this forth, and my Muse,/ To ryme wel this book til I haue do.”

Shakespeare, in the Prologue of Henry V: “Chorus: O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/ The brightest heaven of invention,/ A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/ And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”

Great or small, published or unpublished, each writer follows in the footsteps of giants. Abandon the giants? Forsake the Muses? Do so at your own peril. We don’t have to invoke the Muses explicitly at the beginning of a story or poem, but we should not ignore them. A silent invocation is appropriate. Pray to God for strength and wisdom and beauty in your writing, but also keep the Muses in mind.

I write comedy, which explains why the painting of Thalia adorns the beginning of this essay. I often write romantic comedy, so I also pay tribute to the amorous one, Erato, the muse of love and erotic poetry. Thalia and Erato, each excellent in her own right, make an unbeatable combination.

Although I rarely introduce the Muses into my stories, I recently found a perfect opportunity to do so, at the end of the opening chapter of a historical novel I’m working on, Fanny the Pirate. The narrator, a young unknown poet named Jack Fielding, reads about an opening for a Ship’s Poet on a three-masted schooner, but the ship is to sail the next day, so he rushes through the streets of Boston to interview for the position. Now here is a character who knows he needs help:

Out on the street, in the rain, I make a silent plea to the muses. Speed me on my way, oh Thalia, muse of comedy and bucolic poetry. Then I remember how agonizingly fickle Thalia is, coming and going as she damn well pleases, so I add another appeal. Guide my steps, oh Calliope, chief of muses and muse of epic poetry. But surely Calliope is too busy for one struggling poet racing through the streets of Boston. And when did I ever write an epic poem? More muses. I must remember more muses. Then it hits me. Erato! Of course! Be with me today, oh Erato, muse of erotic poetry, and I promise that I will honor you with your favorite kind of verse.

As I make my way to the harbor, and the “grand voyage of discovery” that must be mine, I begin to compose a lyrical poem in my head to show Erato that I mean to keep my promise. The title is easy: “The Redhead in the Hay.” Finding words to rhyme with Prudence, now that’s the hard part.

Like Jack, I often feel in need of help, in need of a break, in need of inspiration, in need of a new story. Each of my past stories has a history. Whether it was talking to a rodeo queen in Reno, or watching a steer wrestler perform in the arena, or picking mangos with a long pole in Honolulu, or riding on a bus downtown and suddenly imagining a man living on top of his house for no apparent reason, or staring at a picture of a woman on a refrigerator magnet in Boston, or studying a Komodo dragon at the zoo and wondering what would happen if the dragon studied the two-leggers outside its cage and yearned to be human and free, or spotting a book about historical women pirates on the bargain table at Barnes & Noble—whatever it was, I have always tried to thank the Muses for throwing stories my way.

As Jack Fielding says, Thalia is agonizingly fickle and comes and goes as she damn well pleases. The same could be said of Erato, but the sisters eventually do come around again, for which I am grateful. I know that Thalia and her sisters have busy lives. But they’re still on the job. And, after all those years, they’ve held up quite well.

Clio, Euterpe, and Thalia


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Anonymous said...

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