Inspiration: Bacchus and the Cultural History of a Creation Myth

By John F. Moffitt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
POST-CLASSICAL AND CHRISTIAN "INSPIRATION"

A Depiction of Classical "Inspiration" in Medieval Art

The heroic scholarly task undertaken by Ernst Robert Curtius (1886– 1956) was to demonstrate the continuity of a pan-European cultural tradition, one running from Homer to Goethe, and the culminating work of his career was his monumental study of Europaïsche Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (1948; European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1953). Here he briefly treated the theory of the poet's "divine frenzy." As we saw (in Chapters 2 and 3), this model had been initially set forth in Plato's Phaedrus. Although the European Middle Ages did not directly know this originating text, Curtius demonstrated that, nonetheless, its message was to be found throughout late Antiquity in a diluted form, and then it was passed on to the Middle Ages as a cultural commonplace, a topos, just as had been other elements of antique mythology.

Curtius cited several examples illustrating the medieval Nachleben of the commonplace idea of poetic divine frenzy.1 Among standard classical texts known to medieval scholarship we have, for instance, Horace (65–8 BCE), who once regarded himself as the victim of an "amiable insanity" (amabilis insania: Carmina, III, 4, 5), and, on another occasion (Carmina, III, 25), he described himself as being literally "carried away" by Bacchus. And in the Ars poetica (vv. 455), Horace had likened poetic creativity to "the accursed itch which plagues a man" (mala quem scabies aut morbus urget), or "a fit of frenzy" (fanaticus error), and "the wrath of Diana" (iracunda Diana) or a kind of lunacy; all these were recognized signs of "the madness of the poet" (vesanus poeta). Likewise, Ovid (43 BCE–ca. 17 CE) frequently testifies that the poet is "inspired" by the deity (Fasti, VI, 5; Ex Ponto, III, 4, 93 and IV, 2,

1 For what immediately follows, including all the Latin citations following (but
with my translations), see Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 474–75,
Excursus VIII, "The Poet's Divine Frenzy."

-94-

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