The word “inspiration” is from the Latin inspiratio: to blow into, to inflame. I began musing on inspiration today while on a walk with Spouse and Dog, during which the idea of muse came up in conversation (with Spouse; Dog kept her own silent counsel). He observed that he had never had a muse and asked if I had ever had one. I said I cannot think of ever having a person serve as my muse, but perhaps other things have played that role.
“Isn’t a muse a person?” he asked. We discussed, then, the difference—as each of us saw it—between a muse and a mentor. He has had mentors at various stages of his life; I think most of us encounter someone along the way who serves as a sage, a guide, a teacher, or as a role model. That person certainly offers a kind of inspiration. A muse, however, seems to connote inspiration of a different character or quality from mentorship. The muse acts as trigger, someone or something whose mere presence elicits a creative urge. The muse inflames, blows on the spark of creativity and ignites it.
Richard Hugo’s book The Triggering Town is justifiably famous among creative writers, particularly poets, for its author’s sensitive explanation of a source for the creative process and his description of how inspiration percolates into the creative act. He uses the example of American towns that act as triggers for memories or conjure of specific details of place and personhood. The town becomes muse. In a similar way, works of ekphrastic poetry may employ art as muse (though not always). For other creative people, music provides that initial flicker of inspiration—which seems especially fitting, given the word “music” originates from the word for the Greek muses themselves: mousike techne “art of the muses” from mousa, “muse.”
Mousa itself derives from the ancient proto-indo-european linguistic base *mon-men-mn, most closely associated with the meaning “to think, to remember.” Inspiration, though we feel it emotionally, psychologically, even physically at times, takes us into our minds, where the creativity takes place and can be formulated into art.
Much of my inspiration over the years has come from what people tend to term “the natural world”—as if we humans were not a part of that. But other things spur my creativity, including art and things I read. Having finally completed Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, I am now consuming more easily-digestible fare and finding much to inflame my interests in Alberto Manguel’s 1995 book A History of Reading, which I highly recommend.
Perhaps I will later find time to discuss the joys and pitfalls of reading several books at once. Meanwhile, I plan to spend the last light of a late winter afternoon observing hawks and woodpeckers.
Kalliope or Calliope, Athenian-style, the muse of epic poetry.