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Muse

The “muse” in literature is a source of inspiration for the writer. This could be someone they know or a direct reference to the traditional Greek muses.

One might also use the term “muse” to describe something else that inspires them, such as an experience, place, song, poem, or more. For example, while writing, an author might draw inspiration from a song they heard and then state, “That song was my muse while I was writing.” The muse is whatever creative force is at work within a writer or artist’s life. Often, the muse is described as a female force (this relates directly to the traditional muses in Greek mythology). 

The word “muses” comes from the Ancient Greek “Μοῦσαι.”

Muse definition and examples


Muse Definition

A muse is a source of inspiration for a writer when they are working. Often, it’s a person, but not always.

Someone might draw inspiration from an experience, a group of people, an object, song, possession, and more. It can be anything that makes a writer feel inspired to work. They might end up making a poem, short story, or novel about that person/object/experience, etc. Or, they might simply look to their muse for the nudge they need to keep writing. 

Muses in Greek Mythology 

In Greek mythology, the Muses were a group of goddesses who embodied the arts and sciences. They were the source of knowledge that was translated into songs, poems, and myths. The first source of information on the muses comes from Boeotian. But, there are contradicting sources in regard to where they originated and even how many Muses there are. In the beginning, according to some sources, there were three muses worshiped in Delphi Nete, Mese, and Hypate (their names correspond with the three chords of the lyre). In Boeotia, the three worshiped muses were: Aoide, Melete, and Mneme.

It was during the Hellenistic period that the Muses were clearly categorized and named. 

  • Calliope—epic poetry
  • Clio—history
  • Euterpe—flutes and music
  • Thalia—comedy and pastoral poetry
  • Melpomene—tragedy
  • Terpsichore—dance
  • Erato —love poetry and lyric poetry
  • Polyhymnia—sacred poetry
  • Urania—astronomy

Pierus, the King of Emathia, is often credited as being the first person to praise the Muses. He named his nine daughters after the nine Muses. Tradition states that these nine women entered into a contest with the true Muses, believing that their skills were just as great. They lost and were transformed into birds. 

The nine Muses were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, according to Hesiod. The Muses brought people “forgetfulness,” Hesiod noted. They were able to forge their pain and their obligations. Throughout Greece, there were temples and shrines to the muses, located primarily in Mount Helikon in Boiotia and Pieria in Makedonia. Each of the nine Muses is associated with symbols. For example, Euterpe is connected with a laurel wreath and Clio with scrolls and books. 

Examples of a Muse in Literature 

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri 

In The Divine Comedy, there is a wonderful example of how a muse can influence and change one’s literary work. It takes only a little knowledge about Alighieri’s background and a surface-level reading of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, to understand. Throughout his life, Alighieri was in love with a woman named Beatrice. He never had a romantic relationship with her, but she served as his muse for this great literary work. In fact, she even features in the story, serving as his guide for one section of the text. She is also cited as the inspiration for La Vita Nuova, or The New Life. Here are a few lines from Paradiso

While the everlasting pleasure, that did full On Beatrice shine, with second view From her fair countenance my gladden’d soul Contented; vanquishing me with a beam Of her soft smile, she spake: “Turn thee, and list. These eyes are not thy only Paradise.


Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf 

This famous novel was first published in 1939. It was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, who served as Woolf’s muse while writing. She is also sometimes cited as Woolf’s romantic partner. The novel depicts the history of English literature in satiric form, focusing on a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives through many centuries of history. Here is a quote from the book: 

A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judgment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding, or will refuse, though the rapier is denied him, to run through the body with his pen.


He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead by William Butler Yeats

This well-known poem is one of several that Yeats wrote while in the throes of love for Maude Gonne. The two met in 1889, and he proposed marriage several times; each time, she refused and married someone else. But, he kept writing about her and maintained a love for her across five decades. Here is a quote: 

Were you but lying cold and dead, 

And lights were paling out of the West, 

You would come hither, and bend your head, 

And I would lay my head on your breast; 

And you would murmur tender words, 

Forgiving me, because you were dead: 

Explore more William Butler Yeats poems

FAQs 

What is a literary muse? 

A literary muse is a source of inspiration, usually a woman. This person may feature in an author’s literary work or simply inspire the author to write. 

What is an example of a muse?

Many different people or things can be muses. One might consider a type of music or a specific song their muse. Or, they might look to their romantic partner or a family member for inspiration.

What does “muses” mean?

The word “muses” refers to a group of nine women from Greek mythology who were thought to be the embodiments of various creative and scientific pursuits, like dance and painting.


Related Literary Terms 

  • Afflatus:  defined as a burst of sudden inspiration. A writer, artist, musician, or other creator is powerfully inspired.
  • Anecdote: short stories used in everyday conversation in order to inspire, amuse, caution and more.
  • Parrhesia:  the use of direct, emotionally honest language in one’s discussion of a topic. It has its roots in Ancient Greece.
  • Pastiche: a literary creation that imitates a famous work by another author.
  • Motif: an action, image, idea, or sensory perception that repeats in a work of literature.
  • Myth: a genre of folklore that usually includes a hero and sometimes fanatical elements. 


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