Virgil and the Truth about The Writer’s Muse

This month I was in Tunisia at the kind invitation of The Carthage Classical Academy. I was very impressed by the school, which somehow succeeds in combining a warm, friendly atmosphere with a rigorous classical education, including the study of Latin, logic and rhetoric. You would imagine that this deliciously old-fashioned approach might stifle creativity, but on the contrary the pupils there were buzzing with high concept story ideas such as ‘The Five Minute War’ and ‘Aliens on the Titanic’.

There was even time for tourism. The director of the school took me to Tunisia’s largest museum, the Bardo Museum. Built in a fifteenth century palace, the Bardo is home to eight thousand exhibits, including one of the world’s biggest collections of Roman mosaics. I don’t think I have ever said ‘Wow’ so many times in the space of one hour. We walked past a mosaic of Ulysses strapped to his mast as he listened to the song of the sirens. We saw a partially destroyed mosaic of Neptune’s face, whose lively face and glinting eye made up for his incompleteness. Last of all – and best by far – we stood before the Bardo’s most famous mosaic, Virgil and his Muses.

The Virgil mosaic was discovered in 1896 in a garden in Sousse, and is the only visual depiction of Virgil that we have. He looks forty-something with hollow cheeks and widow’s peak, gazing out of the picture into the middle distance. No, not gazing exactly, for there’s an intensity to his regard – the brightest tile in the whole mosaic is the twinkle in the corner of his left eye. He has the vim and vigour of any author near the start of an exciting new project.

We suspect he’s near the start, because the parchment on his lap contains the eighth verse of the Aeneid: Muse, recount to me the reasons, What so wounded the divinity [that she forced a loyal man through so many hardships…] Virgil has paused in his writing, presumably waiting for muse or muses to recount to him some reasons. Luckily for him, two Muses are standing right there on either side of him.

The inscription in the Bardo museum has misidentified these muses as Calliope (muse of epic poetry) and Polymnia (muse of pantomime), but the one with the scroll and the toned biceps is much more similar to classical portrayals of Clio (muse of history) than Calliope, whilst the one holding the tragic mask is Melpomene (muse of tragedy). Whatever their specialist subjects, the two muses are inclining towards Virgil and intent on helping him out. Melpomene is clutching her cheek, so either she is overwhelmed by the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas or she has just realized, based on Virgil’s current wpm, how long she’s going to be stuck there.

It is fitting that this mosaic of Virgil should be on display so near to the ancient port of Carthage, because of the important role in the Aeneid played by Queen Dido of Carthage. In Book 4, the passionate love affair of Dido and Aeneas is interrupted by a message from Jupiter, reminding Aeneas of his destiny to found a city in Italy. Aeneas sets sail from Carthage and Dido stabs herself on a funeral pyre with Aeneas’ own sword. During her death throes she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas’ people and her own, basically predicting the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage. “Rise up from my bones, avenging spirit!” she cries, which would have made early readers of the Aeneid think of that most fearsome of all Rome’s enemies, Hannibal himself.

In case his Roman readers missed the allusion, Virgil makes it even more explicit in Book 10 of the Aeneid. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says:

The time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome.

I stood for a long time looking at the Bardo’s mosaic of Virgil and his Muses. This idea of muses hovering at the writer’s shoulder is as insistent as it is ancient. One of the first questions I fielded at the Carthage Classical Academy (like any writer at any school visit) was ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I need to think of a satisfying answer to this question, because I currently find myself roving from the flippant (‘from the ideas shop on the high street’) to the prosaic (‘you need to develop story antennae and be constantly on the lookout for inspiration’) to the honest-but-useless (‘I don’t know’).

For my money, the best modern conception of the writer’s muse is the following paragraph from Stephen King’s masterpiece On Writing – a Memoir of the Craft. It’s just the right mixture of the prosaic and the ephemeral, and it makes me laugh every time I read it.

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.

When I learned to touch-type in my late twenties, that was the paragraph I used as my ipsum lorem filler text. I must have typed it out hundreds of times. I love his portrayal of a fundamentally antisocial muse that possesses cigars and bowling trophies instead of scrolls or flutes or tragic masks.

Is the capricious, part-time muse of Stephen King incompatible with the intent and softly sighing muses from that Virgil mosaic? By no means. Virgil’s Aeneid did not come to him at night in a flash of divine inspiration – he was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to write it. And that commission was not a ‘Write me something beautiful’ sort of commission but rather a ‘Write me some decent propaganda that will unite the empire and Make Rome Great Again’ sort of commission. In accepting the emperor’s bidding, Virgil was already committed to a certain amount of grunt work, no doubt with a deadline to focus his mind.

Muse, recount to me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity, how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive this man tum tumty tum…and even if you don’t recount a word I’ll write it anyway cos that’s what writers do.

For more on Dido conjuring Hannibal, see here.

For more on the nine Muses of classical mythology, see here.

And for more pics of my time in Carthage, see here:

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Stephen Davies

Children's author: picture books, chapter books and YA novels

2 thoughts on “Virgil and the Truth about The Writer’s Muse”

  1. “she has just realized, based on Virgil’s current wpm, how long she’s going to be stuck there” – ha ha ha, laughed out loud at that! Brilliant stuff, and quite, quite amusing.

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