Tony Harrison’s "The Mother of the Muses"

This is the sixth in a series of prefaces on collective memory in Canada. "Monumentalités," "Historied Trees," "Parading Past," "The Politics and Poetics of Old Houses," and "xxx" appeared in Canadian Poetry 32, 34, 36, 38 and 40.)


Past-present-future: to resign consciousness of any part of the temporal continuity permanently is to lose consciousness of humanity. In "The Mother of the Muses" (1991), a poem dedicated to the memory of his wife’s father, Emmanuel Stratas, who was born in Crete in 1903 and died of Alzheimer’s disease in Toronto in 1987, the British poet Tony Harrison uses a visit to the Home for the Aged near Toronto where his father-in-law lived out his final days as the occasion for a meditation on various aspects of memory in the post-modern world. At the structural and emotional heart of the poem are vignettes of Emmanuel Stratas and eight other victims of Alzheimer’s disease—nine in all, in ironic reference, perhaps, to the nine daughters of Memory. In varying degrees, all nine patients live "frozen" lives in a "world of blur" that Harrison envisages as the "inner" equivalent of the ubiquitous ice and "obliterating snow" outside the "Home" (Gaze of the Gorgon 39): Anne, for example, regales her "roomates" every day with the same "‘news’" of "a lovely cruise" but cannot remember the name of the island that she visited, and Lilian, remembering the recent funeral of her husband, "tries to find / alternatives…/ for words like coffin that have slipped her mind" until "forgetting [itself], not the funeral, makes her cry" (40) On the four patients, including Emmanuel Stratas, who are immigrants to Canada, the disease apparently has the effect of "obliterating" their new identities and returning them to the "Old Country": "Gene…in a wheelchair wails for the Ukraine, / sobbing in soiled pants for what was home"; "nobody quite knows what [Jock’s] words mean [when] / they hear Scots diphthongs in the New World twang"; "the Lancashire [that Joan] once had in her speech / seeps into Canadian" as, with urine running down her legs, she "retells" the tale of how she "was once the pick of bathing belles" on Blackpool Beach; and Stratas himself, "his speech" now returned, "a stowaway, to Crete" "sees…a thorn-thick crag… / with oregano and goat smells in the air" (40-41). Mainly because of Alzheimer’s disease but also because of their "[d]ispersal and displacement, willed or not, / from homeland to [a] room" in a Rest Home all four "grow less Canadian as death draws near" (41).

Where, then (or now), is "home" to these victims of double displacement? Harrison’s twofold answer to this—that their Canadian homes have disappeared from memory ("the much-snapped [that is, photographed] duplex in Etobicoke /…swept away beyond recall" [42]) and that their childhood homes may actually have ceased to exist ("The small house…bulldozed in the island’s tourist boom / to make way for Big Macs and discothèques" [41])—places Alzheimer’s disease in the context of the poem’s wider concern with the condition of memory and, hence, creativity in the late twentieth century. "It’s not only our lateness in history but the dark catastrophes of our century that undermine creativity at its very roots," Harrison writes in "Facing up to the Muses" (1988),

[the] weariness of the nine, th[e] erosion of the affirmative spirit of out times…has been made darker by two World Wars, the terrors of Nazism, and the fearful conflagrations unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945….I prefer to think of…[the Muses as an indissoluble chorus]: Tragedy and History holding hands with Lyric and Music, because…the work I do, which I regard as all poetry, seems to me to be critically unclassifiable and resistant to being placed under the care of any specific Muse….But if there were to be only one Muse left of all the ‘weary Nine’…I would have to choose…the Muse of Tragedy…. This is the Muse…who deals with the most monstrous and appalling that life can offer, when it turns upon us its Medusa-like countenance of frenzy and despair…. This frenzy and despair…is that terror that [as Nietzsche said] tragedy allows us to gaze into…‘yet’…[as] Nietzsche added, ‘yet without being turned to stone by the vision’. In an age when the spirit of affirmation has almost been burned out of us, more than ever we need what Nietzsche also called tragedy…‘the highest art to say yes to life’. The mother of the Muses, or of the one…daughter still surviving, is Memory, so…we can’t celebrate our existence…simply by forgetting the terrors of the recent past or by ignoring the frightening future. (11-12, 16)

This is Harrison’s answer to Theodor Adorno’s famous statement that "‘[t]here can be no poetry after Auschwitz’" (qtd. in "Facing up to the Muses"[20]), his passionate defense of poetry as the medium through which the Muse of Tragedy must confront the terrors and yet celebrate the joys of life in the closing years of the twentieth century. It is the reason why "The Mother of Muses" is published over the byline "Toronto, / St. Valentine’s Day" (45) in a volume entitled The Gaze of the Gorgon that also includes pieces about the Gulf War and a "film poem" for BBC television that uses two monuments, an ancient "pediment…featur[ing] a giant Gorgon" and a "marble statue of [the] dissident German Jewish poet" Heinrich Heine to confront Kaiser William II’s legacy to the twentieth century (58).

In "The Mother of the Muses" the terrors and joys of life in the shadows of "two World Wars…Nazism, and…Hiroshima and Nagasaki" are explored as manifestations of the "two forms of fire" bequeathed to "Mankind" by Prometheus: the "gentle fire" that provides the warmth and light necessary for the creativity of a poet or a "baker" and the "baleful" fire that serves the destructive purposes of a "Führer" and a "bombardier" (Gaze of the Gorgon 38-39). At the Home for the Aged, Harrison recalls, "We have the choice of watching on TV / Dresden destroyed, then watching its rebirth"— a dilemma not shared by Emmanuel Stratas and the other Alzheimer’s patients whose loss of memory means that they have the capacity to experience neither the terrors of the city’s destruction nor the joys of its re-creation. As Harrison puts it between accounts of the effects of the "firestorm" on the Dresden Zoo (the Tiergarten) and the painstaking reconstruction of the Opera House (the Semper):

I was glad as on and on the keeper went
to the last flayed elephant’s fire-frantic screech
that the old folk hadn’t followed what was meant
by official footage or survivors’ speech.

But then they missed the Semper’s restoration,
Dresden’s lauded effort to restore
one of the treasures of the now halved nation
exactly as it was before the War.

Less pitiable, but pitiable just the same, are those who consciously try to "forget…the terrors of the recent past [and]…ignor[e] the frightening future" that inheres in "Mankind[’s]" capacity for destruction and creation:

Next more TV, devoted to the trial
of Ernst Zundel, who denies the Jews were gassed,
and academics are supporting his denial,
restoring pride by doctoring the past,
and not just Germans but those people who
can’t bear to think such things could ever be,
and by disbelieving horrors to be true
hope to put back hope in history.

Well-intentioned though they may be (and Harrison is probably too generous on this point), those who deny the horrors of the recent past not only create false "pride" and specious "hope" but also foster the forces of destruction by helping to maintain the cover of darkness under which they grow from invisible sparks to monstrous conflagrations. To deny history is to encourage its repetition.

At the conclusion of "The Mother of the Muses," Harrison and his wife (Teresa Stratas) decide to return to Toronto rather than to stay in the "Rest Home" and avoid the snowstorm:

…you kissed your dad, who, as we left, forgot
he’d been anything all day but on his own.
We needed to escape, weep, laugh, and lie
in each other’s arms more privately than there,
weigh in the balance all we’re heartened by,
so braved the blizzard back, deep in despair.

To "weep" and to "laugh," to confront "despair" and "yet" (Nietzsche’s word) to "weigh in the balance all that we’re heartened by": this is the art to "say[ing] yes to life" in all its horror and joy. In the final lines of the poem, as at the beginning, Harrison tries and fails to remember a speech from Aeschulus’ Prometheus Bound that "a boy from [ancient] Greece / [had] scratched, to help him learn it, on a shard" (38). Instead, on the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, he resolves to make known his love for his wife and achieves the tragic equipoise that allows affirmation without forgetfulness:

                                         I’m concentrating…
                                      …Damn! I forget,
but remembering your dad, I’m celebrating
being in love, not too forgetful, yet.

Country people used to say today’s
the day the birds sense spring and choose their mates,
and trapped exotics in the Dresden blaze
were flung together in their flame-fledged fates.
The snow in the street outside’s at least 6 ft.
I look for life, and find the only sign’s,
like words left for, or by, someone from Crete,
a bird’s tracks, like blurred Greek, for Valentine’s.

"Mother of the Muses, Memory": the phrase that Harrison finally remembers from Prometheus’ famous account of his benefactions to mankind in Prometheus Bound (461) refers to writing, a system of "sign[s]" that are arbitrary, open to misinterpretation, and as capable of obliteration as memory or humanity, but which will endure as long as there are those who are fired with the need to find, to record, to share, to recall life’s joys and terrors.


Works Cited


Aeschylus.  Prometheus Bound.  Trans. Warren D. Anderson.  The Library of the Liberal Arts.  Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.

Harrison, Tony.  The Gaze of the Gorgon.  Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1992.

——.  "Facing up to the Muses."  Proceedings of the Classical Association 85 (1988): 7-29.