Epic Conventions: Part Two (Invocation to the Muse), and “What is Prose?”

I’d planned to share two epic conventions in today’s post, but we have a change of plans because I want to leave space to answer a question that we received from a reader: What is prose?


Prose is regular language. It’s what we use every day to communicate. Prose can be spoken or written, but it doesn’t have meter, rhyme, or much compression. It’s easier for most of us to read prose because we encounter it day in, day out.  (Free verse, blank verse, shape poetry, and other variations of poetic structure challenge this definition a bit. There’s also a hybrid language form developing in social media that runs between prose and poetry. But since we are summarizing here, let’s keep things simple.)

Prose can be a bit poetic. Fiction writers like Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe, Wendell Berry, and Ray Bradbury occasionally use prose language so melodic and so full of imagery, a reader can feel some of the same sensations she might feel while reading poetry. But their writing still occurs in paragraphs, not in poetic lines, so technically, it’s still prose.

When we say this rendering of The Faerie Queene is prose, we mean that we have taken sentences in which subjects, verbs, and modifiers were originally crafted to fit a particular rhyme scheme, and we’ve rearranged those same ideas into simple language patterns you will more easily recognize. Sometimes we don’t change many words, we just move the existing words into a more common order, and the meaning immediateily pops out with more clarity. This re-organization can be particularly helpful with Spenser because the stanza form he used, and the difficult rhyme scheme that he adopted, compelled him to do a bit more gymnastics than the average poet.
Some things are lost through this method, which we explain in our introduction to Book One. So, we do hope that after you learn to read Spenser through our books, you will charge into an annotated version of the original text. Still, there is tremendous benefit to being walked through his stories gently at a first pass—which is why this endeavor exists.


Now, on to the epic convention of the day: Invocation to the Muse. When I was in undergraduate school, my friends and I would spend late nights at a truck stop/diner called Grandma’s Kitchen. We’d drink too many pots of cheap coffee and eat hashbrowns slathered in ketchup while splitting up parts of Shakespearean plays to read aloud. Inevitably, we’d get caught chasing a few rabbit trails—including the distortion of very serious literary conventions.

On one of my favorite nights, we abandoned our official assignment to write a faux-epic drama.  We included ridiculous characters like Spec-ta-cles (Spek-ta-klees) a “god of vision”–and instead of an Invocation to the Muse, we inserted an Invitation to the Moose. At this point in the play, a burly poet lumberjack stood on stage and shouted, “Oh, Great Moose! Come visit us with your wisdom! Grant us the words we need to develop our epic masterpiece! “ We were slap-happy, and this amused us probably more than it should have.

Just by reading that story, you’ve gained some sort of understanding about how an Invocation of a Muse works in ancient literature. This convention allows a poet to appeal to some sort of unseen, inspirational figure to guide the creation of the poem or play. It allows the poet to appear a bit humble, claiming the inability to create entirely on his own. At the same time, however, it elevates the poet. For the authority of the mythical inspirational figure is adopted in the work, and the poet is seen as a conduit for this wisdom and power.

Rhetorically speaking, an Invocation to a Muse is a type of “apostrophe.” An apostrophe is a rhetorical device in which the flow of events pauses as the speaker appeals to a non-living or absent entity. If you’re familiar with the play Hamlet, the moment in which dead Yorick’s skull is held up while the man Yorick is addressed is an apostrophe.

A more modern example might occur if your 5G is down, so you yell into the cyber silence, “Verizon, why do you never work in these mountains!” Or, you could hold up a Christmas ornament made by a deceased grandmother and say, “Granny, I miss you so much! I wish you were still here.” If I remember correctly, there’s a touch of Invocation to the Muse in Charlie Brown’s address of The Great Pumpkin, as well. (I’ll have to check to make sure. It’s been too long.)

Anyway, in an Invocation to a Muse, an invisible force is addressed. This often occurs at the beginning of an epic, though it can also take place within the text, particulary at the start of a new canto. So keep your eyes peeled as you read Spenser. You’ll find this convention several places in The Faerie Queene.

You must be logged in to post a comment.