Invoking the Muse in Poems by Adam Mickiewicz and Aleksandr Pushkin

Megan Dixon, Principia College

What role does a female addressee play in a poem? This broad question has many answers. The idea of a muse has often provided a way to talk about how a feminine figure functions, most often as the inspiration for a poem. As a prelude to a longer project on muses in Western poetry, this paper explores the role of female addressees in specific poems. The focus of the paper will remain on close readings of the poems, although it will also include a sketch of secondary literature potentially useful in establishing a framework for a broader discussion.

There is very little material which analyzes explicitly the historical shifts of the muse figure. We are familiar with the traditional invocation of muses in epic poetry, but what happens to the muse as such once the era of epic poetry yields to lyric remains unclear; further, as the assumption of external inspiration inherent in the idea of a "muse" yields to the increasingly personal expressive idea of inspiration during Romanticism, more questions about a muse arise.

The first part of this presentation will briefly present theoretical discussions, both minor and influential, which offer a point of reference for discussions of the "muse." This includes essays by Iosif Brodskij, Jefferson Humphries, and Lisabeth During, as well as material drawn from book-length studies of Russian and English literature. These texts will allow the proposal of a range of possible functions for a female addressee.

After establishing some points of reference, I wish to turn to a specific context for examining muse figures in poetry. My existing interest in Adam Mickiewicz and Aleksandr Pushkin prompts me to turn to these two major poets and their poetry to probe the "muse idea" further. Mickiewicz and Pushkin wrote at a time when the "feminine" was experiencing a resurgence in poetry through Romanticism; many of their poems were written to women of their acquaintance, as was the fashion. Is there anything to discover about muses in such poems, beyond the genre-determined shapes of praise? Gitta Hammarberg has written that during the early years of the nineteenth century in Russia, "attention shifted from important personages to beloved women as the main addressees of poems; from solemn odes to minor madrigals as the most common vehicles for flattering them," (298) linking this shift to a reorientation from the public to the private. If this entailed different attitudes to muses and to women, what was the result for specific poems? This specific cultural context offers an opportunity to analyze poems which have an explicit muse in them, such as Pushkin's "Muza," and those which have a muse-like feminine addressee, such as Mickiewicz's "Do Niemna" ("To the Niemen River") and "Do Mojej Przyjaciolki" ("To My Female Friend).

The presentation will contain close readings of these "muse" poems mentioned above, keeping several questions in mind. Do the poems present an active muse figure? Does the poet depend on her for inspiration, and if so, what is the poet's attitude to his dependence? Do the poet and muse interact in any meaningful way? If not, does the poet truly need the muse? And if he does not, what implications might we draw about the persistence of the muse figure in these and other similar poems?