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The Greco-Roman Muses of the Library of Congress

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(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.”

Circular mural “Muses, above all things, delightful,” in the Librarian’s Ceremonial Office. Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Edward J. Holslag (1870-1924), artist; Carol Highsmith (1946- ), photographer.

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- ).

Calliope, the Muse of epic, or heroic, poetry. The surrounding characters, the genii, hold a scroll on the left, and peacock feathers on the right. In European antiquity, peacocks symbolized immortality. Thus heroes of epic tales live forever in written accounts.
Erato, the Muse of lyric and love poetry. The roses on the left signify love, and the lioness on the right reflects love’s universal power.
Euterpe, Muse of tragedy and flute playing. On the left are shown two flutes.
Melpomene, Muse of tragedy and lyre playing, with the mask of tragedy on the left.
Polymnia (Polyhymnia), Muse of sacred poetry, holds an open book. The text below, after “Two Choruses to the Tragedy of Brutus,” by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) reads:
“Say, will ye bless the bleak Atlantic shore,
And in the West bid Athens rise once more?”
The Works of Alexander Pope, esq., with Notes and Illustrations, by Himself and Others. To which are added, a New Life of the Author, an Estimate of his Poetical Character and Writings, and Occasional Remarks by William Roscoe, esq.,” New ed. London: Longman, Brown, 1847.
Thalia, Muse of comedy and bucolic poetry. To the left is a faun with pan pipes, and to the right the mask of comedy. The text below, from Pope’s “Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day,” reads:
“Descend, ye Nine! Descend and sing;
Wake into voice each silent string.”
The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope, Esq.; To which is Prefixed the Life of the Author, by Dr. Johnson.” New ed. Philadelphia: J.J. Woodward, 1839.

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.)

“Light of Poetry” (red) panel in the “Spectrum of Light” ceiling mural. Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Carl Gutherz (1844-1907), artist; Carol Highsmith (1946- ), photographer.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you, Taru! These murals of the Nine Muses are beautiful & your commentaries are a delight to read!

  2. Beautiful! Thank you for showing me from whence my inspiration comes!

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