(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.)
National Poetry Month in the United States is surely presided over by the Muses, the Greco-Roman patron goddesses of poets. The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress features many murals depicting poetry from the lyrical to the epic, but it is the mythical Muses who ultimately reign over the pathos and passion of that art form. Indeed, the circular mural in the ceremonial office of the Librarian of Congress, on the first floor of the building, displays the Latin statement “Dulce ante omnia Musae,” or “Muses, above all things, delightful.”
Although the origins of the Muse cult are obscure, these goddesses were venerated in ancient Greece as the protectors of poets, who in those days were also musicians. Later the Muses were also seen as protectors of the liberal arts and sciences, hence the word “museum,” or seat of the Muses. Tales vary regarding their relations to other mythical characters, and their spheres of influence are never clearly demarcated. The Greek poet Hesiod, ca. 700 BCE, is credited with naming and systematizing the functions of the Muses. Of the nine, only three are not directly associated with poetry but rather with the arts, humanities and sciences: Clio with history, Terpsichore with dance, and Urania with astronomy.
The other six Muses, with their Hesiodic attributes, may be categorized as follows:
Calliope is the Muse of epic poetry, and is known as the one with the “Beautiful Voice;” whilst Erato, the Muse of lyric and love poetry, is known simply as “Lovely.” Euterpe and Melpomene are both Muses of tragedy, but whilst Euterpe plays the flute and is known as “Pleasing;” Melpomene plays the lyre and is known as “Singing.” Polymnia, also called Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred poetry, is known as “Many Hymns;” and Thalia, Muse of comedy, is known as “Blooming.”
The Edward Simmons (1852-1931) tympanums, or semi-circular wall decorations, on the first floor Northwest Corridor of the Jefferson Building, depict the Muses surrounded by laurel wreaths and curving lines of smoke—symbolizing intellectual pursuits and the inspiration of art and poetry. Photographs by Carol Highsmith (1946- ).
To all the poets during National Poetry Month and throughout the year, many thanks with these words from Hesiod’s “Theogony”:
“For it is through the Muses…that there are singers and harpers upon the earth…and happy is he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his mouth.”
(“Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, with an English translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.” London: W. Heinemann; New York, Macmillan, 1914.)