11) Lightening the Load of Your Odes : Embracing the Gifts of Thalia (and introducing the Gratilude)

A recurring theme in the Glory of Glad has been the way Odes can reframe things in a dignified manner. The idea I’ve been reiterating is that while you could just keep a basic gratitude journal to raise mood, if you really feel glad about something, why not show that it really matters to you by writing something far more dignified – a full blown Ode.?

 

But there will be draw back if this is all you do. Why? Because it’s likely to be consistently serious. The whole point of what we’re doing here is to raise mood by practicing gratitude. The self-image of the serious poet has become rather infused with the picture of the suffering artist, condemned by their nature to sink from time to time into the miserable, maudlin depths of gloom. To have an ongoing good mood, on the other hand, it is obviously vital to be able to lighten up, to see the funny side.

 

Yes, we want to harness the power of the heavenly ode; no, we don’t want to become po faced.

 

So I’ve come up with a solution, one that is a lot of fun and which will only expand your options for expressing gratitude. You see, one of the things that’s been found about keeping a gratitude journal is that it doesn’t matter hugely what you express gratitude for, as long as you express gratitude for something. It is the act of expressing gratitude that raises mood. Enter the Gratilude ( “gratitude” + “interlude”.) After a few serious odes, stick in a Gratilude to lighten things up. Gratiludes are short, and easy to compose, and give you the chance, therefore, to quickly bump up the number of things you’re expressing thanks for in your journal, while simultaneously lightening the mood after your more lofty odes. This really is the final ingredient that makes the whole recipe zing. Here’s one:-

 

To a Doily (A Gratilude)

 

What a marvellous thing is a doily!

What a wonderful thing to possess!

How divine to be able

To fling on the table

The essence of delicateness!

 

Gratiludes, therefore, are little, light-hearted poems, almost like limericks. They still express gratitude for something, but in a more frivolous way. They’ll tend to take a mere material object as their theme. They might be partly tongue in cheek – a bit of a parody of a proper ode. They don’t have to be side-splittingly hilarious, though, because comedy is not their sole purpose – they are still, at the end of the day, gratitude poems, they’re just not so weighty.

 

Here’s another example. Some more follow lower down.

 

To a Tea Cosy

 

O Tea Cosy! Tea Cosy! Tea Cosy!

What endeavour could ever be finer

Than, as if it did live,

To most gallantly give

A warm coat to your favourite china?

 

A lead here comes from the theatrical Dionysia festival of ancient Athens. Even before the Athenians began including full blown comedies as well as the tragedies in the Dionysia, already they had the satyr plays. Each playwright would put on one satyr play and three serious performances. These satyr plays provided comic relief, and were full of bawdy fun, satire and general merriment. The Gratilude is very much like the satyr play – a short interlude for light relief. If we go with the same 3 : 1 ratio as for the satyr plays, then with as few as, say, five short gratiludes, you have enough to cover a full fifteen lofty odes, and believe me a Gratilude doesn’t take long to write. Here’s another:

 

To a Bed

 

Oh how grand are clean duvets and sheets

On a well-made and comfortable mattress!

Yes it has to be said

What a boon is a bed

And big pillows all plumped up with fatness

 

Does this mean your journal will be pulling in two directions at once? Not at all. We’re not talking about undermining that sense of dignity we’ve been establishing with our odes; we’re just talking about introducing a lightness and fluidity and adding another string to the bow. The very act of dignifying ourselves reminds us that we deserve good things, and laughter itself truly is one of life’s good things. Here’s another Gratilude:

 

To Galoshes

 

What ecstatical things are galoshes!

(The name that we call’em, I mean)

It’s half “gallop” / half “slosh”,

Oh my word! Oh my gosh!

The whole concept is just such a dream!

 

And another:

To Lemony Wipes

 

Many thank-yous for lemony wipes

They’re as fresh as the dew on the rose

So go on take a sniff

Of that heavenly whiff

Lean right back with it spread o’er your nose.

 

So far I’ve equated odes with the ancient initiation mysteries of Eleusis – both celebrated divine gifts and conferred dignity on humans. Restoration of the dignity that the Soul deserves requires depth of emotion. How can you truly remember the Soul’s dignity if you cannot FEEL the falseness of the indignities which obscure it? In the Mysteries, an emotional engagement with the story of Demeter sitting at the well grieving over the loss of her daughter allowed a group catharsis to take place which would ultimately lead to the euphoric climax when Demeter and Persephone were reunited. This purification was seen as a cleansing which had to take place in order that the individual might be fit to pass through the gate to the Elysian Fields. Plunging into the depths of such emotions was part of the initiation, just as you had to pass through the dark Underworld to reach the Elysian Fields.

 

But this plunge into deep and somber emotions wasn’t the full story of the Mysteries nor of Greek culture in general. In the Greek theatres Tragedy was paired with Comedy, with even the gods not immune to being figures of fun; the comic even formed a part of the Eleusis Mysteries; in Homeric epic the gods themselves managed the odd quip, and comedy itself was represented among the divine Muses.

 

The myth underlying the Eleusis festival was that of Demeter’s daughter Persphone being taken into but later returning from the Underworld, the land of the dead. The most official form of this myth was given in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. This includes an episode that took place while Demeter was in the Eleusis, where a nurse maid called Iambe cheered Demeter up with jokes. And indeed, at a certain spot while walking along the Sacred Way to Eleusis the initiates of the Mysteries shouted obscenities in memory of when Iambe made Demeter smile. In Aristophanes’ brilliant comedy The Frogs we even find a mock procession of the Elysian Initiates.

Dionysos in this play wants to bring a poet back from the land of the dead, and he asks Herakles the best way to get there. Heracles describes a route that goes past a great river of dung, in which those who were evil wrong doers while alive are flounder, but to the list is added those who have “quoted a speech of Morsimus.” Morsimus was a playwright of whom Aristophanes was obviously not a big fan. Not a real reason to wallow in filth in the Underworld for all eternity – this is added as a joke – a comic aside which still seems thoroughly modern. Although we might not know of Morsimus, we can easily imagine substituting some other mild irritation to make the same joke. Having passed this, says Heracles, you will come to the Elysian Fields where the groups of the initiated will tell you how to get to where you’re trying to go.  Dionysos’ asks his slave to pick up the luggage so they can set off on this journey, but the slave has a better idea: why not ask a recently died person to carry it down for them? They then see a corpse being carried and ask him if he’ll take their bags, for one and a half drachmas. “I’d rather live,” says the corpse in a comic inversion of the normal phrase – a genuinely great gag.

 

At length they do indeed see the band of initiates dancing along the Sacred Way, and there is even a representation of the mocking jests mentioned above, and a reference to the all night vigil that occurred when they awaited the great light* that shone forth in the initiation temple at the moment celebrating Persephone’s return. Then there’s the next event that took place in the Mysteries following the revelation of the light, the exit to the Rharian Meadow to perform circle dances amid the flowers. (This part of the Mysteries in turn prefigured the Elysian Fields.)

 

Long before Aristophanes, Homer has depicted jokes taking place between the gods in Olympus – the Ares/Aphrodite/Hephaestus/Hermes/Net episode. There’s no need to go into the details here. Suffice it to say that after Hermes’ quip ” laughter arose among the immortal gods.” And so it should be, because laughter is a type of ambrosia. Just Google ‘healing power of laughter” and you’ll find plenty of support for this: releasing endorphins, reducing stress, anxiety and depression, lowering blood pressure, and so on.

 

Perhaps the most obvious evidence that comedy is welcomed in Olympus is the fact that one of the Greek muses, Thalia, includes comedy as one of the arts within her patronage. She’s also the goddess of rustic poetry, and of banquets and feasts. The Greeks also made one of the Graces – Euphrosyne – the goddess of merriment. (Euphrosyne was the goddess Milton invoked and called to come to him, tripping on the light fantastic toe in his L’Allegro.)

 

Milton chose iambic tetrameter – four stresses in the line – rather than the ‘heroic’ five stresses of pentameter. Generally speaking, this meter, which suggests a down-to-earth simplicity and lacks the suggested slow in breath at the end of the lines of pentameter, lends itself better to light-hearted themes. This includes the ballad form, even though that could be described as seven stresses per line: from a metrical point of view it is really one line of four stresses plus another of three, plus a breath:, making it equivalent to two lines of four stresses, but with a short breath, i.e. 4 + 4 = 4 + 3 + 1 = 8.

 

Light-hearted verse doesn’t necessarily have to be the kind of gag that makes you laugh out loud. One of my favourite lighthearted poems is Matthew Prior’s Protogenes and Apelles. It’s doesn’t make me guffaw but I just love the delightfully ludicrous tone. It includes ancient Greeks taking afternoon tea. Again, it’s in tetrameter – four stresses per line. Here’s the tea bit:

 

But, Sir, at six (’tis now past three)

Dromo must make my master’s tea:

At six, Sir, if you please to come,

You’ll find my master, Sir, at home.

 

Tea, says a critic, big with laughter,

Was found some twenty ages after.

Authors, before they write, should read,

’Tis very true; but we’ll proceed.

 

Comic verse will sometimes make use of two ti-s between each stressed tum. It gives a lively, lilting feel. This was the case with verses delivered by the dancing choruses in the plays of the Athenian playwright Aristophanes (such as the Frogs mentioned above), and it’s also found in limericks, and it is also the rhythm I’ve used in my Gratiludes, above.

 

ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum ti

ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum ti

ti tum ti ti tum

ti tum ti ti tum

ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum ti

 

As well as being the Muse of Comedy, Thalia was also the goddess of feasting, which like laughter, lightens the mood. And just as comedy formed part of the Mysteries, so too did feasting. After the fasting and the revelation and the celebratory circle dancing came a great all day feast – a prefiguring of the happy banquets that would take place in the Elysian Fields. Include feasting as a topic in your Grati-Ode journal is another way to lighten the load of your odes. Burn’s Address to a Haggis is a fantastic model for odes to feasting. It’s an ode to the Haggis and it’s an invocation said over the haggis, but because it is not in the lofty tones of an ode, it’s title is not Ode to the Haggis, but Address to a Haggis.

 

I used the same form – the meters and rhyme pattern making up each verse – for my own poem. I read this one during a Burn’s night at the Pump Rooms in Bath after wining a competition with it, which was fun.

 

Address to a Feast of Burns

 

A dreary gloom’s hangs o’er the town

For Christmas tinsel’s taken down

But Spring’s not yet put on her gown

Of finery

Dark Winter still retains his Crown

In January.

 

So at this time what we desire

Is merriment and warming fire

With blazing logs heaped higher and higher

And hearty food

These are the things that we require

To raise our mood.

 

And so we’d do well to embrace

Cold January’s one saving grace

The meal that Scots folk love to taste

Where all take turns

Hot haggis with strong whisky laced:

The Feast of Burns.

 

And by this feast that they hold dear

A second burst of festive cheer

Lights up the dark part of the year

To warm the heart

So call the piper here

And let it start!