For the various grant applications I had to write a project description for my manuscript, Still Life of a Muse. These are my thoughts on its framework:
In my poetry collection, Still-Life of a Muse, I explore the life of Elizabeth Siddal, who was married to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Although an artist and poet in her own right, she is best known as a Victorian muse and the inspiration for her husband’s paintings. Although some supported her artistic development, including her husband and the art critic John Ruskin, they did so while upholding the doctrine that a woman’s primary duty was to her family. The issue of women’s creativity being in direct opposition to the duties of domestic life remains conflictual for many women today.
Siddal was of the working class, and her sudden association with influential artists and their upper-class patrons was dramatic and life altering. As a model, then pupil, she quickly developed her own artistic ambitions. Unfortunately, a mysterious “female malady” soon developed and she became weak and suffered recurrent bouts of depression. There was no known biological root to her illness, and recent historians have suggested everything from anorexia to bi-polar disease. Her relationship with her husband, which was always volatile, deteriorated further. His adultery and the stillborn death of their first child led her down a spiral of depression and drug addiction, the eventual culmination being an over-dose at the age of thirty-two. Whether the overdose was intentional or not is unknown. Her story is especially relevant in today’s society, given that middle-class housewives are statistically the highest group diagnosed for depression. It seems that the correlation between domesticity, isolation and depression is still very much a contemporary issue.
The collection contains five sections.
1. Portraits is a series of poems based on paintings, in which I explore the ways women were framed by Victorian culture. More specifically, these poems examine the ways Rossetti cast his wife into an imagined ideal of womanhood, and for the purposes of his art, into the role of muse.
2. Still Life of a Muse looks at the events of Siddal’s life, putting them into the context of creativity and how they relate to the female body. Her pregnancy and stillborn daughter become metaphors for repressed creativity. The exhumation of her body, a true historical event, is seen as the awakening of this creative force.
3. Fairy Tale Variations gives a contemporary twist on fairy tales, retelling them with Siddal as the main character. Works such as Snow White, The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces, and The Wizard of Oz become revisionist myths of the creative process. The strange mythology centered on Siddal makes her story especially well suited to this adaptation.
4. Speculative Fictions is a series of imagined dialogues between Siddal and various people, including those from her own time period, such as Queen Victoria and Mrs. Beeton, and those from our time, including Anne Sexton, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. These hypothetical dialogues and imagined meetings bring lightheartedness, wit and a contemporary twist to the collection.
5. Life-In-Death explores the links between nineteenth-century spiritualism, séances and creativity. In these poems, I as poet, become the mediator between the past and present as well as exploring my own use of the muse archetype.
While writing this collection I keep in mind the words of Robert Graves who wrote, “woman is muse or she is nothing.” My collection intends to show that women are creators, both through my exploration of Siddal’s life and through my own act of poetic creation. I am aware that women can never fully disentangle their creativity from this long-standing myth, and that I am also complicit in its perpetuation through my choice of subject matter. I am, in effect, resurrecting the muse by using Siddal as my inspiration. I continue to work out this complex relationship, asking myself if the gap in history and being a woman makes a difference in the way it is played out. As a contemporary writer re-inventing a historical person through the creative act, I hope that my collection will give readers insight into the multi-faceted subject of how history and poetics intersect.