Muses, voices, poetic selves: The image of the Muse as a form of self-reference in the poetry of John Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Stevie Smith

Maria Dolores Luz de Manuel, Fordham University


Milton, Barrett Browning and Smith are all concerned with writing poetry that reflects on its own making. Through this aesthetic self-reflection they construct poetic voices that enable them to speak with authority. They identify and personify the sources of their creative energy by invoking the Muse, remaking the classical figure in alternative forms and as characters in their poetry. They thus express their own concerns and experiences as poets and come to terms with the poetic tradition. In Paradise Lost, Milton finds his voice relationally, defining himself in his attitudes towards his Muse and to characters in the poem who personify creative forces: Satan, Sin and Eve. His concern with female images of generativity is apparent as he figures the Muse as nurturing guide and focuses on Eve's fertility. He distances himself from Satan's prideful energy, instead admitting his dependence on a maternal image of creativity in submission to his Muse. Barrett Browning, exploring how a woman poet can claim a voice in a male-dominated canon, writes her own version of Paradise Lost with the figure of Eve as epic heroine and inspired prophetess. However, in attempting to recapture Eve's voice, she risks subsuming her poetic identity. Instead, she adopts the more radical strategy of figuring her own femaleness as inspiration. In Sonnets from the Portuguese the voice of the female poet takes priority over the silenced male addressee; in Aurora Leigh the epic poetess-heroine and the image of a nurturing mother-age triumphantly express the strength of revisionary forms of inspiration. Stevie Smith, in her unease with established images of inspiration, figures the Muse as threatening or dispirited. This suggests her sense that the poetic tradition has become attenuated. In several poems she poses as a child and expresses her discomfort with embodiment as a woman, showing that she does not find inspiration in female images of creativity. Her personae are intimidated by the Muse, solitary and longing for death; they appear to have lost the power of voicing. However, their powerlessness is actually an enabling strategy. Smith constructs a quietly subversive voice, challenging the established sign system of language with her parodies, drawings and recitations and destabilizing conventional figures of inspiration by figuring creative strength in unexpected muses.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

de Manuel, Maria Dolores Luz, "Muses, voices, poetic selves: The image of the Muse as a form of self-reference in the poetry of John Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Stevie Smith" (1990). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9026731.