Notorious Literary Muses from Best to Worst
By Emily Temple │Pocket│8 min
From most delightful to most questionable.
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
Vita Sackville-West was a poet, novelist, and noted muse and sometime lover of Virginia Woolf. Muses, in general, are a tricky proposal—there’s something inherently sexist about the trope of women being objectified and artified by men (see Ruby Sparks, etc.), but there’s no denying that a forceful enough emotion (or a forceful enough person) can change the course of an artist’s work. Artists are often romantics, you know. Plus, as a culture, we are bizarrely obsessed with the “truth” behind our favorite fictions, ever desperate to unpick inspirations, infiltrations, author’s disguises, and yes, muses—though whether this is a particularly useful way to evaluate art or not is up for debate. Still, I love stories about love and stories about writers, so I can’t help but take pleasure in the tales of famous literary muses and the art they inspired—even if those stories sometimes fail to exactly satisfy. Some of my favorite literary muses are below, from most delightful to most questionable (this mostly through no fault of their own, of course).
Woolf and Sackville-West met in 1922 and quickly fell in love. Their romantic affair lasted seven years, but the two remained very close until Woolf’s death in 1941. This is a case of mutual musedom, which is objectively the best kind, though of course Woolf’s writing is much more well-read now than Sackville-West’s—and in at least one novel, much more directly bonded to the muse in question.
Famously, Woolf was inspired by Sackville-West to write Orlando, the sweetest and lightest of her novels, of which Sackville-West’s son wrote, “The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her, and ends by photographing her in the mud at Long Barn, with dogs, awaiting Virginia’s arrival the next day.” I can’t think of a more moving love letter than this novel, which is quirky and smart and strange—perfect.
You have to love a relationship in which one member is venerated for her farts. Joyce famously based Molly Bloom on his longtime lover, farter, and eventual wife Nora, with whom he was clearly and adorably obsessed. As Anthony Burgess pointed out, Molly Bloom’s “final image is an image of Nora Barnacle and not of Molly at all. And as we know from Nora’s letters, Joyce must have studied the letters and learned from them how to set down this warm womanly pattern of speech. Nora wrote the letters totally without punctuation, and sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a chunk of one of Nora’s letters and a chunk of Molly’s final monologue.”
Even better: it was apparently Nora who was the muse in the bedroom as well as in the novel—taking the initiative in their first sexual encounter (June 16th, now celebrated around the world as Bloomsday—sure, because that’s when Ulysses is set, but Ulysses is set on that day because that’s the day of their first sexual encounter) as well as in their famously dirty letters (perhaps this is the “warm womanly pattern” Burgess is referencing above). This is all not so scandalous now, but in 1906? What a woman.
W.B. Yeats picked a ringer for his muse: the feminist, spiritualist, English-born Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, who reportedly once had sex in her child’s tomb in an attempt to coax his soul into a new body. Yeats met Gonne in 1889, and proposed marriage two years later. She refused. He would try three more times, and she would never accept him—though they remained close, and Yeats kept writing poems about her, and eventually, at least once, they did consummate their relationship. Needless to say, perhaps, she was, as Jim Dwyer put it, the “object of Yeats’s infatuation across five decades, the muse—well, really, the furnace—for his poetry of yearning.” Nothing like unrequited love to fuel some seriously tragic poems.
It seems like all the Beats were obsessed with Neal Cassady—himself a lesser artist than his friends, but a perfect example of the kind of life they all aspired to, their own personal “holy fool.” Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road after being inspired by a letter Cassady sent him, which Kerouac thought the height of literary prowess: “all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed… forty thousand words long, mind you, a whole short novel. It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.” Sure, Jack. Whatever you say. The letter disappeared (until recently) and On the Road, along with Dean Moriarty, the character based on Cassady, was born. As Scott Staton put it in the New Yorker, “the novel is Kerouac’s long meditation on his friendship with Cassady; if the book is more myth than novel, Cassady is both muse and demigod.” Or maybe Kerouac just loved him because he let him have an affair with his wife. (I think that came later, though.)
Allen Ginsberg—who was Cassady’s sometime lover—was equally enthralled by him, referring to him in Howl by his initials, calling him the “secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too.” Whatever you say, too, Allen (though this is more convincing).
Cassady also appears driving the bus in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—mostly because he was there, and not because Wolfe was obsessed with him, but still.
The most famous literary muse of all time might be Dante’s Beatrice, the Florentine woman whom Dante loved since the age of nine, when he met her (only eight herself) at a party her parents were throwing. Though the two met only once after that, she figured heavily in his work, and is the subject of La Vita Nuova, a collection of poems about his courtly but passionate love for her, which he published five years after her early death. She also appears in the Divine Comedy to guide him through Heaven.
Of course, Dante didn’t really know Beatrice. His love for her, then, was entirely conjecture, more like a love of self than a true love for another—she was ultimately just a female figure upon which to project all of his own desires and dreams, without having to assume any of the disappointment that comes with loving an actual human. Sure, it’s all very romantic, but isn’t it just a little too easy?
Zelda is getting quite a bit of attention these days, and the appropriate thing to say here is that she was much more than just a muse—which of course she was, as were all of these muses. “Muse” being only a relative term, after all. One man’s muse is another man’s mother, as they say. Is that what they say? Anyway.
When they met, F. Scott Fitzgerald was so enamored of Zelda that he rewrote the main female character in the book he was working on—This Side of Paradise—to be more like her. “The heroine does resemble you in more ways than four,” he wrote Zelda, enclosing a chapter. (He signed this note with no veil over his intentions: “Desirously F. Scott Fit—”)
As Michelle Dean puts it: “From the start, then, there were two Zeldas in the Fitzgerald marriage. There was the living, breathing person, and there was the Zelda that Scott kept putting on the page. He did this over and over again throughout the marriage. When Daisy Buchanan, in The Great Gatsby, says, “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” she’s famously speaking Zelda’s words at the birth of their daughter, Scottie.” This, of course, being the problem with making a muse out of anyone.
In addition to drawing from their life together, which is understandable, F. Scott Fit also supposedly stole material from her diaries, something she seemed alternatively to joke and be upset about, which rather strains the concept of the muse.
Now we’ve entered into creepy territory. It’s well known that Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) was inspired to write his classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by a real 10-year-old, one Alice Pleasance Liddell. Alice and her sisters were on a rowboat with the 30-year-old Dodgson when she asked him to tell them a story—it was so good that she asked him to write it down, and the rest is history.
Speculations about Dodgson’s relationship with and supposed attraction Alice abound, but there is no solid evidence to support that anything ever happened between them, aside from a number of creepy photographs, family boat trips and the like. He did, according to one biographer, have “a preference for drawing and photographing children in the nude” and some of the photographs he himself took of Liddell are suggestive (but as Sally Mann has proven in her memoir, photographs of children may look darker than they truly are—it depends on which moment you choose). On the other hand, at one point Dodgson did break with the Liddell family, and the offending incident was excised from his diary, causing some to speculate that he had proposed marriage to Alice.
There is some argument about how closely Alice is based on Alice—and indeed whether the Alice of the books bears any real resemblance to Liddell, but they are dedicated to her, and set on her birthday (and half-birthday). There is also, in Through the Looking-Glass, an acrostic poem that spells out Alice’s full name—which is creepier and more intimate, to me, than any of the photographs. So it’s fair to say Dodgson was thinking about her.
Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020.