2) The Ode : An Evolving Form (and my first English Ode)

The formal ode has undergone an evolution, from civic to personal. There have always been odes that dealt with personal things – think of Sappho for example – because ‘ode’ in Greece just meant ‘song’ or ‘chant’. These songs weren’t necessarily singing the praises of something in the sense we now understand for an ode. But Pindar’s odes were. What I mean by a formal ode is one in the manner of Pindar where the stanzas are long, and where the order exists not so much within the structure of the stanza but across stanzas and even groups of stanzas, and that complex order is a mark of respect for a thing being praised, just as a public monument should appear to have come to into being out of a properly deliberated plan. In other words, a scheme is chosen for a stanza, but it only becomes a pattern at the point that it is repeated in the next stanza, rather than due to self-evident reiterations and symmetries within the stanza’s own make up.

The odes of Pindar were very much civic matters. They were the poetic equivalent of a public monument that memorialises and honors something, (in Pindar’s case, the winners of athletic contests) and the complexity of the overarching scheme is a mark of honor and respect, as the very complexity gives evidence of the kind of planning that takes place before an important event. Public monuments shouldn’t appear to have been raised without due thought.

There have been odes written in English that have both a complex scheme and the intention of commemorating a person, just as with the odes of Pindar. For example, Gray’s ode The Progress of Poesy has a long pattern of rhyme and changing meter, repeating across stanzas and groups of stanzas, and it is a memorial to the greatness of poets such as Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. However, whereas Pindar was clearly commissioned to write his odes to athletes and had no real personal interest, Gray was obviously moved to write this ode out of his own passion for the topic. And already by this time odes could be written to abstract things, such as Gray’s own ode to vicissitude, or Dryden’s Ode to St Cecelia’s Day, which is actually an ode to music. There is a certain rather interesting, almost political statement that is made by choosing a formal ode as the mode but then expressing through it something much more personal. It is a way of saying that internal things are important too.

By the time we get to the Romantic Poets and their odes to things like Autumn, the West Wind, Nightingales and Grecian Urns, there is no doubt that we are within the realm of the passion of the individual, nor that the poet is speaking person to person, rather than making a public proclamation, but something of the original nature of the ode remains – singing the praises of something, and using a complex but repeating scheme. From our point of view here – that of the Gratitude Ode that is used for the quite specific purpose of uplifting mood – the Romantic Poet’s version of the ode has some elements that are not ideal, a degree of indulgence, you could say, some rather too melancholic intrusions. So there is room for further evolution, and we’ll look at this some more in Section 5 as we more clearly define the Gratitude Ode. (Yes, like a true ode writer, I’ve got a big scale plan.) For our present purposes, we can feel justified in talking of an evolution of the formal ode from civic proclamation to gush of personal passion.

This evolution also involves a process of finding a balance, a sweet spot, in terms of the complexity of the stanza. In taking Pindar as the model, there is a danger that the scheme will be so complex that a listener hearing it declaimed would not be able to feel the pattern. It would then backfire and actually seem less planned than would something much simpler. Gray’s Progress of Poesy, his monument to some of the great poets, has a stanza scheme which, upon analysis, shows evidence of a great deal of time in the planning and execution. Where the numbers are the meter of the lines and the letters show the rhyming scheme, stanzas I and II match each other exactly with 4a, 5b, 4b, 5a, 4c, 4c, 5d, 3d, 5e, 4e, 4f, 6f, then III is quite different, with 4a, 4a, 4b, 4b, 3a, 4c, 4c, 4d, 4e, 4d, 4e, 5f, 4g, 5f, 5g, 5h, 5h, then IV and V match I and II and VI matches III. Impressive, sure, but this poesy has progressed somewhat up it’s own posterior, might one venture to suggest?

When Gray wrote his ode on vicissitude, he used a simpler scheme, and so too did the later Romantics. Keats, for example, tended towards the simpler rhyme pattern that has become known as the English Ode: a,b,a,b,c,d,e,c,d,e. His Nightingale ode is an example. The Goldilocks zone had been found: still complicated enough to be distinct from simpler forms such as the ballad or the rhyming couplet, but it doesn’t quite put its toe over the line into the zone where you’re only aware of the scheme if you first get out your pencil and mark down the rhymes and meters with letters and numbers. For your odes in your Ode Journal, I recommend the English Ode and simple variations upon it, both because it finds a sweet spot that is more effective, and also because I want you to be writing quite a few odes – at least one a week in the ideal – and so the process of crafting a Gratitude Ode shouldn’t be too arduous and time consuming.

The evolution we are speaking of is strongly reminiscent of the democratisation that played out in the Egyptian and Greek cults of the Afterlife. This is worth looking at a little, and it is less of digression than you might think, partly because the glorification of the individual in a Pindaric Ode was a technique for hero-making, with the hero status itself ensuring an individual would pass on to Elysium in the Afterlife, and partly because the paradise realm to which the initiates gained access works as an embodiment of the state of graceful abundance to which gratitude guides the mind. 

In Egypt, first come the Pyramid Texts, which are concerned with the successful passage of the spirit of the god-king. But over time, as shown by the Coffin Texts and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the same traditions were democratised, with increasing importance given to the souls of other members of society, not just the king. 

Greece had a similar conception of the Afterlife, and indeed may have borrowed the general concept. Like the Egyptian map, the Greek Underworld had dark labyrinthine mazes, rivers and also paradise fields that you could reach if you had been properly initiated, lived a good life, and knew the directions. In Egypt this was the Field of Reeds, the place you would reach after the labyrinthine night journey, and once your spirit arrived there it would partake of the same force of rejuvenation that caused the Sun to be reborn at dawn. In Greece the paradisal gardens that you could reach if you had been initiated into the Mysteries, lived a good life, and remembered the way were the Elysian Fields, the dance ground of the happy dead. And while in Greek myth it was only glorious heroes who would pass on to Elysium, the mystery cults democratized this – anyone could now attain these fields, even slaves. 

Keats imaged in his poem Bards of Passion and of Mirth that great poets would, like the heroes, live in Elysium in the Afterlife:

BARDS of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Have ye souls in heaven too,
Doubled-lived in regions new?
Yes, and those of heaven commune
With the spheres of sun and moon;
With the noise of fountains wondrous,
And the parle of voices thund’rous;
With the whisper of heaven’s trees
And one another, in soft ease
Seated on Elysian lawns
Browsed by none but Dian’s fawns…

For our purposes here, the conception is a little different; yes the ode might lead to Elysium, but not because the poet earns entry by the heroism of the creative effort, but now in the sense that Elysium is a place of abundance existing in a state of grace; to feel gratitude, then, is to sense some degree of Elysium in life, and by uplifting mood and helping us to see the good, Practicing Gratitude through ode writing could bring us closer to Elysium on Earth. 

This is bringing me towards the first Gratitude Ode I ever wrote, An English Ode. I had already had the idea that I could perhaps write odes as a more glorified form of Gratitude Journal, but instead of setting straight to work, I let the idea sit on the back burner, waiting to see if further inspiration would arise. And funnily enough, it did.

It was one of my ‘2’ days – I’ve been doing the 5:2 diet for a few years now. A 2 day is a fasting day, or rather a day when calorie intake is restricted to a quarter of the normal amount. So as it came to early evening, it was already 24 hours since I’d last eaten a meal big enough to provide an exogenous supply of my energy requirements. This means that my body had flipped into Fasting Mode, turning to internal energy stores instead. We spend most of the time in Feeding Mode in the modern world. Our bodies are hardwired to capitalize when food is available, so our reward system hooks itself up to the Feeding Cycle, nudging us to eat when we get just a bit hungry, and making us feel properly satisfied only when full. This dampens the sensitivity of the reward system to the goodness of other, less subtle things. But when this Feeding Mode switches off, however, the reward system is unhooked from the Feeding Cycle. Different sets of genes switch on. The body knows better than to pester us to eat what is not there, and at last we’re allowed to become properly distracted and absorbed by other things, as this distraction now serves a purpose – stopping us from wasting time and energy obsessively seeking what is not there. 

So the reward system now makes it easier to find reward in other things, simple things, or subtle things, such as the beauty of nature. Simultaneously, the body sets about upregulating the reward system, so that rewards are more potent. This may be so that we now no longer turn our noses up at lower calorie food types – leaves and suchlike. Such foods still have valuable nutrients even if they does not provide any energy to speak of, so it was beneficial if these foods that we passed by when high calorie stuff was on the table now suddenly started to seem palatable, desirable, attractive. So  when you’re fasting, suddenly salads start to taste delicious. But this shift in perception has a more more wide reaching effect. Suddenly the whole World seems like a great, marvelous, delicious bowl of fruit! This is the Elysian Vision – all nature is a delight! Fasting actually increases the number and sensitivity of the receptor cells in the brain and nervous system where things like endorphins and dopamine plug in, so it’s greater appreciation is not just a psychological reaction to fasting – it is supercharged by potent physiological drivers, and how ever physical this driving may be, it still helps to remind us of the beauty of gratitude in spiritual realms. 

The initiates of the Mystery Cult of Eleusis – the ones who would be then able to find their way to the Elysian Fields in the Afterlife – underwent a process that involved fasting, then celebrated the gifts of the goddesses of natural abundance by dancing at length ecstatically, and then were garbed in the wreath and robe that showed they were now initiates, and were then given access to a sacred meadow where they walked around with the other initiates listening to beautiful music. This was a prefiguring of their journey to the Elysian Fields. So it seems likely that fasting was used to unhook and unpregulate the reward system, and, combined with the release of endorphins by means of endurance dancing, and the trance induced by the music and dance, plus a ceremony designed to stir feelings of gratefulness for the gifts of nature, all this gave a foretaste of the delights of Elysium. 

And on the day I came up with the idea for my first ode, I felt a strong resonance with such ideas. I’d entered the fasting state, reached that level where the world seems like bowl of fruit, and the countryside in the English summertime did seem to be taking on an Elysian feel. 

This itself didn’t remind me of my plan to write a Gratitude Ode; what prompted me was when my train of thought naturally took a tripartite, turn-counterturn-stand shape that suddenly reminded me of a Pindaric Ode, almost as if a Muse had whispered it into my inner ear. The train of thought was this: 

  1. This English summertime countryside seems so beautiful, it puts me in mind of the Elysian Fields, and fasting seems to have got me there, just as the Eleusis initiates fasted to achieve their beatific vision.
  2. Were peoples such as the Greeks and Egyptians naive to imagine paradise took such an Earthly form, basing it own their own native countryside? 
  3. Actually, I’d rather turn that on it’s head: we could simply observe that to do so was a way of paying a great compliment to nature, by equating it with paradise, just as I did in 1.   

So 3. brought me full circle, back to 1., but only after batting off a contrary point of view. Turn, Counter-turn, Stand. it was then that I realised this train of thought was ideal for being turned into a formal ode, and that in the process I would be writing a Gratitude Ode just as I had planned, for it would be an ode expressing gratitude for the beauty of the countryside where I live. So I went for it, initially just scribbling the main ideas down as prose, and then the next day crafting these into a formal ode. What form should I choose? Well since it was an ode to English summertime, this was an easy choice – it had to be in the form known as an English Ode. And this is what I came up with:

An English Ode


That famous field where nodding poppies sway
In sunlit grass, where Souls of all the good
Spend sweet Eternity in dance and play
And with the gods, take Beauty as their food
Upon the isle across the sea
That circles all the mortal world
With misty waters like a castle moat –
How like must that famed meadow be
To these fair fields where late I’ve strolled
These hills and lanes, these woods, this very spot!

Was it vain pomp or blind naïveté
That made the folk of ancient Egypt style
Their image of divine Eternity
Upon their earthly land astride the Nile?
Where they might hunt in starry creeks
Beside the starry waterway
Or find in starry gardens sweet, cool shade?
Or likewise made the clan of Greeks
Use Grecian fields where grasses sway
As models for their paradisal glade?

But no, let neither supposition stand
I say, that it was rather that they paid
The greatest compliment to their dear land
When seeing Beauty there, “Divine!” they said
And so to English Summer Time
Such compliment I wish to pay
As will the praise of those old pagans match
The heaven forming in my mind
The isle to which I’ll cross one day
Has village greens and homes with roofs of thatch.

East Dean Village Green and Tiger Inn East Sussex England GB

It’s not for me to comment on the literary quality or otherwise of my own poems, but one thing I definitely noticed is that now a train of thought that could have been blown away by the slightest gust of wind was instead turned into a solid monument that I could later return to, and from which I could find ongoing sustenance. I was also given a reminder that passion and formality really can work in tandem to this end, and I also realised that writing odes is not actually that hard.  

Part of what the poem is saying, I suppose, is that we shouldn’t be too quick to look down our noses at the pagan world view. After all, Christianity did the same thing, using earthly scenarios as models for heavenly ones. For example, that business of calling God ‘the Lord’ implies that he is the posh bloke in the big manner within in a feudal system, with the rest of us being the serfs. This leads me on to the start of the next section, which will look at a number of different perspectives on gratitude through the ages, starting with the religious practice of Saying Grace. ‘May the Lord make us truly thankful…’