From Shakespeare's 'fair youth' to F Scott Fitzgerald's Zelda, the author looks at writers' most significant others
No one and nothing can be more personal to a poet than the muse. To some – the lucky few – she is a reality, the manifestation of the Goddess in human form, able to be seen and touched and scented, gazed upon and inspirationally devoured at will (her will, it must be emphasised).
To others, like myself, she can be no more than a figment of imagination, and yet a figment so powerful for the very detachment that I can bring to her conjured presence, undistracted by her "glamour", that however sporadic or shallow the poetic trance I may be granted, however short-lived the silence of mind in which she chooses to materialise, such tributes and sacrifices I offer are at least scrupulous in their integrity.
For this reason alone, to list my (admittedly random) top 10 muses would be an appalling breach of manners – an Apollonian insult for which I'd never be forgiven, since the original models are only nine in number:
"Lesbia", as Catullus dubbed his muse, was generally held to be the young Roman matron Clodia Pulcher, sister of the infamous (or famous, depending on your view of Cicero), Clodius Pulcher. She became "the dark muse" of Catullus, inspiring not merely ardent love, passion and adoration, but bitterness, hatred and regret. Apart from that, she also inspired some of the finest love poems (and most scurrilous lampoons) in the history of any language.
William Shakespeare and Mr WH
There's no reason on earth why a muse should have to be female. Whatever the truth of the matter (and uncertainty still rages in the higher corridors of intellectual power), the identity of "the fair youth", to whom Shakespeare dedicated so many of his sonnets is almost immaterial. The one certainty is that he had a muse, who provoked
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death drag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st.
John Keats and Fanny Brawne
Despite their secret betrothal, Keats's unrequited love for the unruly, outspoken Fanny Brawne (whom he first described as a "minx!") drove him to write some of the finest sonnets in English literature , and inspired La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which may well have laid bare a facet of "the mixed exultation and horror that her presence excites". Having visited his bedroom as a boy, on the corner of the Spanish steps in Rome (the walls and ceiling having been scoured after the contagion of his death, and the floor replaced), I can't help but feel that his words "everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear" were written – or at least re-echoed from his deathbed, since such is the power of the muse to kill without pity.
Thomas Hardy, Emma Gifford and Florence Dugdale
Whatever one might think of Hardy as a novelist, he wrote some remarkable poems. These were inspired more, perhaps, by the muses of guilt and remorse than either by his wife, Emma Gifford, or by his secretary and clandestine lover, Florence Dugdale – both of whom suffered a strange cruelty at his hands. This enigma of Hardy's true inspiration is an example of how the muse can manifest herself in any guise to her chosen amanuensis.
Yeats and Maud Gonne
Like "Lesbia", Maud Gonne assured herself of immortality by putting her 23-year-old lover through agony: "I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams", wrote Yeats, but Gonne was already strapping on her hobnail boots. The poet proposed to her at least four times, but she refused as often. After 20 years of wooing she finally allowed Yeats to sleep with her. Once. After that, she began sending him letters insisting that artists – and poets particularly – were best inspired under the cruel spell of abstinence. "Why should I blame her that she filled my days / with misery?" Yeats asked himself. When one looks back at the poetry she inspired, why indeed?
F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald
Hemingway loathed Zelda Fitzgerald, claiming that she was an anti-muse to her husband, "constantly making him drink because she was jealous of his working well". But Zelda was one of Fitzgerald's most powerful inspirations. His tragic, flawed masterpiece Tender is The Night is not only about her, and for her, but even partly written by her, since Fitzgerald was famously keen on including excerpts from her diaries in his writing. Given the choice between the bombastic Hemingway and the flawed but touchingly sensitive Fitzgerald, I'd have left them both to sort it out, and invited Zelda out to dinner.
Bob Dylan and Sara Lowndes
"Sara, Sara, so easy to look at, so hard to define, with her eyes like smoke and her prayers like rhymes" – and the whole of Blood on the Tracks telling us what it's like to have to lose her. Her inspiration is undoubtedly seminal to Dylan's seemingly immortal reputation as a poet and songwriter.
Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac
It was the over-excited, fulsome, improvised prose in a letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac that inspired Kerouac's benzedrine-fuelled nights of automatic writing, and the manuscript which would eventually become On the Road. Cassady was also the star of that novel, the instigator of the road trips that gave it its name and (as many say), of Kerouac's own hidden passion. Allen Ginsberg, meanwhile, made no attempt to hide his lust for Cassady, calling him "the secret hero" of his own poems.
Robert Graves and Margot Callas
I leave my great-uncle until last, since of all poets he deserves the crown of myrtle for his endless quest into the history, meaning and powers of "The White Goddess", often at risk to his own life. As for his muses, I can only speak of Margot Callas, the most potent of all. Her effect on Robert and on his love poems was so devastating, so mesmerising to watch as his own prophecies were relentlessly and cruelly fulfilled, that even now, from a distance of more than 50 years, the agony he endured in a human sacrifice of his own (and the Goddess's) fatal devising, is as vivid and painful to me now as it was then. In order to escape the coming "bloodbath" as Robert described it, Margot chose to burn herself out, and to her everlasting credit has remained indifferent to her past ever since.
• Simon Gough was born in 1942. He is a former actor and antiquarian bookseller who now lives in north Norfolk and The White Goddess: An Encounter, the fictional retelling of the extraordinary events surrounding his relationship with his "Grand Uncle" Robert Graves is his first novel, available from Galley Beggar Press.