The Naked Muse by Kelley Swain

Artists, writers and musicians have often spoken about being inspired by a ‘muse’. Sometimes this is another human being who brings out something special in their creativity. Sometimes it feels like an invisible force which takes over them and creates through them.

In Greek mythology, The Muses were goddesses of poetry, song, music and dance: what the Greeks called mousike, ‘the art of the Muses’ from which we derive our word ‘music.’ While the number of Muses, their origin and their roles varied in different accounts and at different times, they were consistently linked with the nature of artistic inspiration.

Kelley Swain ( offers us a new reflection on the nature of the Muse. Swain was born in Rhode Island in 1985. She is now based in London, working as a writer, editor and educator in poetry, science, and the medical humanities. She is the author of Darwin’s Microscope (Flambard Press, 2009), Atlantic (Cinnamon Press, 2014) and editor of The Rules of Form: Sonnets and Slide Rules (Whipple Museum, 2012).

Throughout her twenties, Swain worked as an artists’ model. The Naked Muse is an elegant, fascinating memoir of this time. It meditates on art, travel, and how we accept, inhabit, and understand our own bodies. She describes her first experience disrobing for a class, modelling for international artists over six years, an intensive month being painted in Bruges, and posing as saints for a Sicilian chapel frieze.

Swain reveals how it really feels physically, intellectually, and emotionally – in the moment when “it’s my matter that matters, not … what I consider to be ‘me’.” Both a flirtation with submissiveness and a wielding of power, Swain examines the model’s role in the alchemy of art, and tells the forgotten stories of women whose faces still bewitch us from gallery walls.

This is a delightful read for a summer afternoon on the deck chair. Enquire at your local library, or available at all good book retailers.

A discussion about the Muses can be heard in the podcast of the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ series chaired by Melvyn Bragg. With Paul Cartledge Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture and AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge; Angie Hobbs Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy, University of Sheffield; and Penelope Murray, Senior Lecturer, Department of Classics, University of Warwick. Available here

Follow up an interest in The Muses with the following:

Kathleen Christian, Clare Guest and Claudia Wedepohl (eds.), The Muses and their Afterlife in Post-Classical Europe (Warburg Institute, 2014)

Pierre Destrée and Penelope Murray (eds.), A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics (Wiley Blackwell, 2015), especially ‘Poetic Inspiration’ by Penelope Murray

Hesiod (trans. M. L. West), Theogony (Penguin Classics, 2000), especially 1-115

Penelope Murray and Peter Wilson (eds.), Music and the Muses: The Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Homer (trans. E. V. Rieu), Iliad (Penguin Classics, 2014), especially 2.484-92

Homer (trans. E. V. Rieu), Odyssey (Penguin Classics, 2009), especially 8.62-4

Plato (trans. Chris Emlyn-Jones and Trevor Saunders), Early Socratic Dialogues (Penguin Classics, 2005), especially Ion

Plato (trans. C. J. Rowe), Phaedrus (Penguin Classics, 2005), especially 245a and 248d

Plato (trans. Trevor Saunders), Laws (Penguin Classics, 2005), especially 719c

Efrossini Spentzou and Don Fowler (eds.), Cultivating the Muse: Struggles for Power and Inspiration in Classical Literature (Oxford University Press, 2002)


The Naked Muse by Kelley Swain

160 pages in Valley Press

First published 2016

ISBN  978-1908853677


Kelley Swain

Kelley Swain

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