The Tenth Muse: An Anthology by Anthony Astbury

The Tenth Muse: An Anthology by Anthony Astbury

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Book Review of The Tenth Muse: An Anthology by Anthony Astbury

Hesiod was the first poet whom the immortal Muses constrained to sing. A mere rustic lad, shepherding his flock on the skirts of Mount Helicon, he was surprised by these nine elegant ladies, daughters of Zeus, who lectured him on lying and on truth-telling and then commanded him to sing.

This he did, naming them, and spilling forth a cosmic poem about the gods and the order of all creation, a poem brimming with knowledge and wisdom he did not himself possess. And from that date to this the poet who sings beyond him – or herself – is thought to receive some inspiration, some grace, from an agency it still pleases us to call ‘the Muses’ or ‘a Muse’. Hesiod met immortal Muses; nowadays we content ourselves with mortal ones.

In 1911 Edward Thomas published The Tenth Muse, a book sufficiently popular to be reissued twice in the following decade. It considered the love poems of English poets from Chaucer to Shelley, in particular reflecting upon the human muses who elicited such verse from such men.

It seemed to me appropriate to entitle this anthology The Tenth Muse as a tribute to the late Myfanwy Thomas and by extension to all those individuals, male and female, who inspire, stand by, promote or memorialise the work of poets to whose lives they have been central. Anthony Astbury agreed.

Imagine what we might learn from Philippa Chaucer’s or Mary (not to mention poor Harriet) Shelley’s selection of their spouse’s poems… learn about who they were, how they saw their partner’s art, and how they reflected upon their own reflections, as it were, in that art. Anthony Astbury, poet, anthologist and founder of the Greville Press, set out a decade ago to provide us with such selections and reflections in the modern period.

He invited poets’ spouses and others close to them (sons, daughters, ‘significant others’) to make their selections of what they most valued in the writer’s work. Each ‘muse’ made a selection and provided a note, and the resulting selections were published in handsome Greville Press chapbooks.

This anthology brings those chapbooks together in an amazing composite anthology whose coherence is its wonderful diversity of affection and response. The breadth of the book is century-wide, from Edward Thomas writing before and during the First World War to Harold Pinter writing today.

There is something of a bias towards the poets who emerged from the creative disorders of the late 1930s and 1940s, a period when English poetry was in a struggle with politics, Modernisms and war. This is the generation just before Astbury’s, the one by which he took his bearings. The legacy of that creative disorder (always the best order for art) still has much to teach.

The muses who make these selections do not limit themselves to poetry of biographical interest. We come to understand, in the variety of work to which they positively respond, why they were such important readers and enablers: a muse inspires and a muse assesses what has been inspired. It is as though, on the skirts of Mount Helicon, the immortal Muses had lingered to appraise the surprised utterances of their apprentice Hesiod.

None of the poets included here stopped at apprenticeship: no Chattertons or Shelleys, but as with the ancient Greeks these writers saw pretty much the Biblical span, apart from Dylan and Edward Thomas, and even they were already into their middle years when they died, one of personal and one of historical excesses.

At the core of this book are poets who valued one another’s work. David Wright was a kind of lynch-pin for several of them: C.H. Sisson, W.S. Graham and George Barker all valued him as a reader and editor. He, in turn, attentively valued the poetry of both Thomases, of Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell and Thomas Blackburn.

One of the best critics of the poetry of David Gascoyne was C.H. Sisson, who was in the habit of sending poems to Wright for appraisal before he let them appear in print. Elizabeth Smart was herself a muse; and Anne Ridler, as a significant poetry editor at Faber and Faber, a muse in another sense. Harold Pinter has been a vigorous and consistent advocate of the work of some of these writers.

This book reveals that a muse can come in a variety of forms: a novelist, an editor, an archaeologist, a nurse, a painter, a publisher, an historian, a home-maker, any one of these vocations is compatible with Musedom, so long as the right poet can be found. Nothing short of detailed biography, however, can reveal the amount of patience, love and forbearance that go into the human relationships which sustain and nurture writing.

A muse inspires but is also, often, self-effacing and in the end effaced, erased. Against such erasures Anthony Astbury’s book of poets and muses is a revealing act of restitution and a complementary vision of some of the best British poetry from that least classical, the twentieth, century.

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