The invocation of the Muse has a long and storied history, dating back at least to the ocularly challenged Homer. In later times it would become a poetic tradition with Vergil and all his Medieval and Renaissance imitators. The poet would make a show of humility, acknowledging his debt to the divine bestowers of poetic genius. The nine daughters of Memory were the movers of the human mind, raising men up into greatness of science and song.
Dante Alighieri, writing in the Vergilian tradition and willing to use the pagan deities as poetic metaphors even in a Christian era, was aware that his Roman forerunner invoked the Muse to tell him “the reasons why / a wounded power divine, a queen of the gods” would condemn Aeneas to fruitless wandering. The Florentine poet similarly understood his debt to the celestial powers, and the figure of an inspirational heavenly woman—Muse or otherwise—resonated strongly with the maker of the Sweet New Style.
It takes Dante until the second canto of his Inferno to invoke the Muse, however briefly: “O Muses, O high genius, help me now! / O memory that engraved the things I saw, / here shall your worth be manifest to all” (II.7-9). In Hell, he asks Vergil for help more than the divine ladies: “you who guide my steps, / see to my strength, make sure it will suffice” (II.10-11). Hell is a worldly place, full of obvious imagery and well known monstrosities, and the Muse is not much needed to inspire a description of the damned.
In the Purgatorio Dante wastes less time admitting his need for divine inspiration:
My little ship of ingenuity
now hoists her sails to speed through better waters,
leaving behind so pitiless a sea…
Here rise to life again, dead poetry!
Let it, O holy Muses, for I am yours,
and here, Calliope, strike a higher key. (I.1-3, 7-9)
The realm of Purgatory is one of greater stature and importance than Hell, and as such it requires a greater genius of poetry—a “higher key”—to properly sing of it. Calliope is the mother of the doomed poet Orpheus and is the Muse associated with epic poetry, also invoked by Vergil in book nine of the Aeneid. Her inspiration is required to sing of the quasi-celestial realm of the ascending dead.
When Dante begins writing the Paradiso he fully acknowledges his dependence on heavenly assistance, but now instead of the Muse he invokes the sun god himself, Apollo. As a symbol of Christ, the bright Apollo is needed to inspire “this last work of art” (I.13) that will win Dante the poetic laurel. He had few worries about doing justice to Hell and Purgatory, but Heaven is so far above the experience of our sinful, earthly lives that he is desperate to receive the god of music’s help. The Muses are daughters of Memory, but Heaven is a place where “memory cannot follow” (I.9). Dante’s memory of his time in Heaven is insufficient because that is a place of pure ideas and spirits, where the sensory phantasms of human memory are of little use.
Till this hour
one peak of twin Parnassus has sufficed,
but if I am to enter the lists now
I shall need both. (I.16-19)
The sacred Thessalian mountain of Parnassus was the home of the Muses and the stomping grounds of the winged horse Pegasus. One peak of Parnassus was sufficient to inspire a poetry of Hell and Purgatory, but not of Heaven. A more worldly poet would be obsessed with damnation and punishment, pouring all of his genius into a description of the vile and base, while finding the subject of a blissful paradise too dull and abstract to take seriously.
But the most vivid image Dante uses to request poetic inspiration comes just after Parnassus:
Then surge into my breast
and breathe your song, as when you drew the vain
Marsyas from the sheath of his own limbs. (I.19-21)
In classical mythology, Marsyas was the satyr who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, lost, and was rewarded for his hubris with a thorough skinning. For Marsyas this was a cruel punishment, but Dante uses it as an image of mystical ecstasy. In writing about his journeys, Dante is daring to challenge the inscrutability of Heaven with verse, and hopes thereby for a future release from worldly things, one much like the transport he already received when Beatrice toured him amongst the heavenly spheres. It is a grotesquely violent image, not unlike the alien figures Dante recently watched parade through the paradise at the top of Purgatory.
The satyric unsheathing is not for the sake of poetry itself. He does not want to be in ecstasy beholding the beauty of the art, but hopes that his fumbling art will be received as a request to allow him to behold Beauty itself in the highest Heaven. It is the antithesis of art for art’s sake. It is rather art for the sake of God as man’s final end.
Poetry thus becomes a kind of penance, a purification of the soul and preparation for death. Dante is challenging Christ to a singing contest, knowing that he will fall very short, and is prepared to lose his skin in exchange for a heavenly reward.
[The quotes are from Anthony Esolen’s recent translation published by The Modern Library.]