Among artists Nature is the Mother of all Muses. She is the Supreme Deity. Alpha and Omega. The Sublime. Every single thing an artist produces is an imitation of Nature, Her processes and personalities, Her thoughts and actions. Any artist who hopes to master his art will do so only by becoming more precise, more truthful, in his representation of the acts of Nature. To do so, he must pledge allegiance to Her like a nation, swear fealty like a knight, bow and make sacrifices like a supplicant.
By Nature I mean something like Spinoza’s notion of God. Nature as Substance. Nature as the organism called Reality. Through Her comes all inspiration, all objects of our attention and all modes of thought. The dark and light materials of all artistic creation are themselves les objets d’art of Her One True Art, and so the great artist gives thanks to Nature the same way he gives thanks to the instrument makers for making the tools with which he practices his craft.
Orpheus was said to be the greatest of all artists. Both a musician and a poet, Orpheus was beloved by Nature because he could, through his art, stir the stones and set the trees to dancing. Every artist aspires to such a condition. To compose great works so that Nature herself takes notice. Animals, running into Orpheus in the woods, would stop what they were doing to listen to his music. His singing was so beautiful he calmed the Clashing Rocks and saved the Argonauts from the sirens, who stopped their own bewitching songs to hear his.
It’s the highest aim of an artist to change his surroundings through his art. So is Orpheus the archetypal artist because he affects Nature, and Nature is not easily impressed. Her works are great already. What does She care what we do? But a great artist can catch Her eye.
So how did Orpheus do it?
Well, it helped that his mother was a Muse. Calliope. She, along with her sisters on Mount Parnassus, taught him to sing and write poetry. And Phoebus Apollo (who might have been his father) taught Orpheus how to play the melodious golden lyre.
But it wasn’t only that Orpheus had the best teachers. He was also, from a young age, initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, into the cult of Demeter and Persephone. This most ancient, most primitive religion worshiped the Grain. There were fertility rituals which may or may not have included the use of hallucinogenic fungi called ergot that grew on wheat. Its adherents revered the cycle of the seasons. Harvests were a gift from God. Fecundity was holy. In short, Nature was their Muse.
As a member of the Mysteries, Orpheus swore devotion to Kore, the Maiden. He swore, like a courtly knight of romance, that if a maiden should ever be lost beyond the pale, it would be his duty to rescue her. And until that time came, he would compose songs in praise of her Beauty. Indeed, the Orphic hymns that come down to us are devotional poetry. Odes to Nature, addressed by their proper names to Nature’s various aspects. To Selene, the Moon. To Helios, the Sun. To Gaia, to Nike. To Nyx. To Ouranos.
In one ode, addressed to the whole of Nature (called Phusis) he says: “all parent, ancient, and divine, O Much-mechanic mother, art is thine.” Here he names Nature as both Mother and Mother of all artists. He’s right. Nature is the ideal. And those who imitate Her most faithfully will give birth, as She does, to marvelous creations. That is why all art is essentially imitation and representation.
Eventually Orpheus falls in love, as every artist does, with the embodiment of his ideal. She is a beautiful Ciconian woman named Eurydice. Her name means roughly, “justice that extends widely.” She is the romantic sublime, the pearl of his vision. She is the world the artist wants to live in, and wants, through his own art, to instantiate into reality. She is the Paradise of a Poet’s imagination.
But poor Eurydice dies. On the eve of their marriage, her soul flees to the underworld. So, too, must the artist strive with Death in his work, for Death is always desiring to possess Nature and Her ideals, to secret them away to a place where nothing grows, where nothing gives life, or lives. Death is Nature’s possessive, abusive lover.
Fortunately Orpheus has sworn an oath, being an initiate to the Eleusinian Mysteries. He will rescue the archetypal Maiden, as his duty demands he do. As Persephone was rescued from Hades, so Orpheus must journey down to save Eurydice. That is what being a great artist is all about. He journeys to the underworld to rescue the ideals of Nature. He brings them back from the dead so they may flower for another season.
And what he brings back are those aspects of Nature that excite us, that capture our attention with their symmetry or valence or harmony, that stir us like we were stones, or set us to dancing as if we were trees. The things in Nature that impassion the artist will become his art. And back and forth things go between Nature and the artist, an ongoing game of one trying to impress the other. The great artist must become like Orpheus and make such beautiful music, and tell such good stories, that he occasionally impresses Nature. He must praise Her features often in his work, and must rescue those ideals lost and buried deep within the Earth.