Ramfeezled Hizzies and Arachnoid Hags: Baxter, Burns, and the Muse*

By Miles, Geoffrey | Journal of New Zealand Literature, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ramfeezled Hizzies and Arachnoid Hags: Baxter, Burns, and the Muse*


Miles, Geoffrey, Journal of New Zealand Literature


Towards the end of 'The Man on the Horse'-his brilliant, quirky, deeply personal reading of Robert Burns's 'Tam o' Shanter'-James K. Baxter raises an issue that few modern critics would think to raise: the nature of Burns's Muse. The 'formalised Scottish Muse' Coila, elaborately evoked in Burns's poem 'The Vision', is in Baxter's eyes a mere pretender: 'she wears a false front, dressed up awkwardly like a girl at a Highland dancing show'. 'Burns's only real Muse', he asserts, is the dangerously sexy young witch in the 'cutty sark' (short dress) who nearly tempts Tam to his doom at the witches' sabbat: she is

one of the most powerful evocations in literature of the anima, that mysterious archetype who has been called variously Venus, Cybele, Artemis-but in Burns's case, one could say definitely, Hekate, patroness of witches, the goddess of the underworld.1

As Dougal McNeill points out, 'The Man on the Horse' is really 'not a reading of Burns at all but a reading of Burns' poetics in the light of Baxter's own developments and plans. He is, as so often in his works, sounding off Burns the better to hear his own thoughts'.2 The passage above seems a clear example of McNeill's point: Baxter projecting his own idiosyncratic twentieth-century conception of the Muse back onto an eighteenth-century predecessor who would probably have found it mystifying. Nevertheless, the triangular relationship between Baxter, Burns, and the Muse is worth more than a quick dismissal. Throughout his career, Baxter's references to the Muse are oddly and inextricably intertwined with references to Burns. McNeill has argued that 'Baxter's poetic relations to Burns [...] structure each aspect of his poetic career'. To a large extent this is true of Baxter's treatment of the Muse, who is not merely a 'classical allusion' but a key vehicle of his self-definition as a poet. In his early career his conception is directly modelled on Burns's, and, even as it later evolves in a very different direction, inflected by Jung and Robert Graves, he continues to return repeatedly to Burns as a touchstone.

The Nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Memory, patron goddesses of poetry and the arts, are among the most familiar figures of literary mythology. The earliest and classic account of their relationship with the poet is that of Hesiod, who relates how they visited him as he watched over his sheep on the slopes of Mount Helicon, their home, and 'taught [him] to sing sweet songs':

So spoke the fresh-voiced daughters of great Zeus

And plucked and gave a staff to me, a shoot

Of blooming laurel, wonderful to see,

And breathed a sacred voice into my mouth

With which to celebrate the things to come

And things which were before.3

No one, as E. R. Gregory says, has 'done better in conveying the poet's sense that his work originates outside himself and is not his to claim'.4 The Muses take over an ordinary man and transform him into a poet by a process of inspiration, that is (as Baxter explains it) 'literally a breathing-in of divine power'.5 The implications of this view of poetry are spelt out by Plato: it is a 'form of possession or madness, of which the Muses are the source. [.] If any man come to the gates of poetry without the madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought to naught'.6

It is worth drawing attention to the way Gregory, like Plato, refers to the poet as 'he' and 'himself. The mythic relationship between poet and Muse is strongly gendered: the poet is assumed to be male, while his source of inspiration is both female and characterised by divine beauty and grace (Hesiod's Muses are 'fair and graceful', with 'soft skin', and dance around the spring of Helicon on 'delicate feet').7 The potential is there from the very beginnings of the tradition for the relationship to be seen in romantic or erotic terms, with the Muse as the poet's lover or hopelessly desired but unattainable love object. …

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