6) Expanded Options for your Gratitude Odes (plus my ekphrasis of an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis and my Silver Birch sonnet)

As you write more odes in your glorified gratitude journal, you will want to introduce slight variations to the both your chosen stanza structure as well as your genres, modes of expression and the type of things you are expressing gratitude for. Such variation provides continuing interest. Here we’ll consider some of the options available to you, starting with ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is a mode that is well worth considering for some of your odes, especially if the object of your gratitude is itself a work of art. But what is it?

Ekphrasis is the ancient Greek name for a rhetorical mode where a narrative voice is inspired by something, usually a work of art, to give a vivid description of that thing in such a way as to give more depth and life to the object, while using expressions that carry those complimentary feelings. The description itself is a work of art and becomes part of a co-creative artistic synergy, drawing out some essence of the object, giving it extra dimensions either of the imagination or the intellect or both. What was once expressed in one medium now becomes a multimedia experience, with increased engagement.

A common rhetorical feature in ekphrasis is a description that implies a magical aspect to the art via the power of imagination, for example depicted characters imagined to have come alive, or the suggestion that other senses have become involved, that sounds can be heard or aromas smelt even though the object is a visually depicted scene such as a painting.

Already the connection between the Gratitude Ode and ekphrasis is clear because both are inspired by appreciative feelings for something. There’s a fair chance that at some point a work of art might find its way into your running gratitude list and that you may decide to write an ode to it. If so, the ekphrastic mode is definitely an option.

One of the most famous odes from the Romantic period of British poetry is Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. This is actually an ode in the mode of ekphrasis, or an ekphrasis in the form of an ode. Or at least it could be confirmed as a true ekphrasis if the actual urn he describes could be identified. Has it been? Yes, but the object is not a single vase. It was a combined ekphrasis of the Sosibios Vase, a sculpted marble krater from the Hellenistic period of which Keats himself did a drawing, giving the ‘marble men and maidens’, and the Townley Vase, a sculpted Roman marble amphora in the British Museum, (which Keats often visited), giving the lovers and the wild pursuit, plus an engraving of a third vase ‘A grand vase from Piranesi’ by Henry Moses, giving the priest at an altar to which a heifer is being lead and the crowd from the emptied town.

Townley Vase, Pursuit (left) and Lovers (right)

And the mode of expression is definitely ekphrastic. He has been inspired to write it because he is grateful for the urn’s existence, calling it a ‘friend to man’ because of its transcendent beauty, and he describes the figures in the scenes on the urn as if they are alive, with their own feelings, albeit frozen in time.

I won’t include Keats’s ode here, but encourage you to dig it out some time soon and dive in. He used his English Ode as the form and ekphrasis as the mode of expression, and you could think about doing the same. I’ve done so myself, as you’ll see in a moment.

The most comprehensive example of the art of ekphrasis from antiquity is Pilostratus’s Imagines, which contains 64 ekphrastic descriptions of paintings in a villa near Naples. We’ll pick here one example, the painting of Cupids/Eroses (‘Loves’) picking apples in an orchard near a shrine to Venus, and the reason why I’ve chosen this one as appropriate to the theme of the Glory of Glad should become apparent from his opening lines. I won’t include the whole description, but here are a few excerpts:

See, Cupids are gathering apples; and if there are many of them, do not be surprised. For they are the children of the Nymphs and govern all mortal kind, and they are many because of the many things men love.

Many loves, many things to be grateful for. He continues in classic ekprhastic style:

Do you catch aught of the fragrance hovering over the garden, or are your senses dull? But listen carefully; for along with my description of the garden the fragrance of the apples also will come to you.

…the Cupids’ quivers are studded with gold… they have hung their quivers on the apple trees…

Their wings, dark blue and purple and in some cases golden, all but beat the very air and make harmonious music. Ah, the baskets into which they gather the apples! What abundance of sardonyx, of emeralds, adorns them, and the pearls are true pearls; but the workmanship must be attributed to Hephaestus! But the Cupids need no ladders wrought by him to reach the trees, for aloft they fly even to where the apples hang. Not to speak of the Cupids that are dancing or running about or sleeping, or how they enjoy eating the apples…

…two of them are throwing an apple back and forth, and the second pair are engaged in archery… Nor is there any trace of hostility in their faces; rather they offer their breasts to each other… It is a beautiful riddle; come, let us see if perchance I can guess the painter’s meaning. This is friendship, my boy, and yearning of one for the other…

And let not the hare yonder escape us, but let us join the Cupids in hunting it down…

…and do you look, please, at Aphrodite. But where is she and in what part of the orchard yonder? Do you see the overarching rock from beneath which springs water of the deepest blue, fresh and good to drink, which is distributed in channels to irrigate the apple trees? Be sure that Aphrodite is there, where the Nymphs, I doubt not, have established a shrine to her…

The silver mirror, that gilded sandal, the golden brooches, all these have been hung there not without purpose. They proclaim that they belong to Aphrodite… And the Cupids bring first-fruits of the apples, and gathering around they pray to her that their orchard may prosper.

If you were now to go to Titian’s painting The Worship of Venus you would see many of these same features, if not all of them, because the Venetian painter recreated the ancient painting in the Italian Renaissance by reverse-engineering from Philostratus’ description. Titian includes the hovering cupids picking apples, the quiver of arrows hung from a tree, the baskets studded with jewels, the blue wings of the cupids, dancing cupids, the pair engaged in shooting darts of love at each other, the pair wrestling, the cupids trying to catch a hare and those that form an audience, those collecting water from a spring under the shrine of Venus, the nymphs by the shrine, the mirror…it’s all there.

The Worship of Venus, Titian

In truth here the painting is an ekphrasis of the description, a reversal. In general terms, ekphrasis is where one artist medium engages with another in a friendly, supportive manner, so a picture can be an ekphrasis of a story just as much as story can be an ekphrasis of a picture. So here Titian has provided a ekphrasis of an ekphrasis. Since Titian has long been one of my favourite painters, and I feel a genuine gratitude for the existence of some of his paintings, (that they are ‘friends to man’), it struck me that I might take this one stage further and provide an ekphrasis on an ekphrasis on an ekphrasis, by composing an ode to this painting.

Before I share this, a little note about its meter and structure. As I mentioned above, as you write more and more odes, continuing variations to the pattern will keep things feeling fresh. But if I were to give the pattern of this next ode on paper, with numbers for stresses per line and letters for the rhymes, you could be forgiven for thinking that my poesy had progressed up its own Pindaric posterior, with a confusing array of line lengths, some with two, some three, some four and some five stressed feet:

5a, 5b, 5a, 5b, 4c, 3d, 5e, 4c, 4d, 2e

However, the variations have been introduced for very definite reasons, and in the performance it feels natural. For this one, I wanted to take the same pattern I used for the likes of my Bath Locks ode and the odes to Trance, but add in some extra gaps for pregnant pauses and for breath. In previous sections, I have described the basic stanza structure I favour for my Gratitude Odes. It takes the 10-line rhyming pattern of an English/Keatsian Ode: a, b, a, b, c, d, e, c, d, e, and it has meter of iambic pentameter for most lines, but with lines 5 & 6 and 8 & 9 having four stressed feet. However, each pentameter is consider to have three silent in-breath beats after it, while the four-stress lines have no break after them, so that in terms of duration, or total number of beats, one line of pentameter equals two of tetrameter. As a result, though ten lines long, it is really eight lines long in the musical sense, where each line is two bars in 4/4 time.

However, the thought has occurred to me that a break for a short breath after the first two tetrameters would be beneficial, and then an even bigger break would be good at the end of each stanza. Such a break not only allows the performer time for breath, but it also gives the listener time to digest what has been said. So I decided that instead of two lines with four stresses in the middle of the stanza, it could be one of four and one of three followed by a one beat in-breath, then at the end the last line could be a mere two beats long, then six beats of silence. Such an early ending can have a dramatic effect. When you make a dramatic exit, you have to leave before the other person so it’s your words that are left hanging in the air; you have the last word, by leaving earlier than expected. So by ending with a short line then leaving a longer pause, you both get time for a breath before the next verse, and you leave time for the verse to be digested, and you give more definition to the stanza, separating it form the next one, and you also make use of the dramatic, pregnant pause for rhetorical effect. The form of the Sapphic Ode made such use of a short line at the end of a stanza.

The pattern for the stanzas of my next ode in full, with spoken beats in bold and unspoken pauses in brackets), is therefore:

&1 &2 &3 &4 &5 (&6 &7 &8)
&1 &2 &3 &4 &5 (&6 &7 &8)
&1 &2 &3 &4 &5 (&6 &7 &8)
&1 &2 &3 &4 &5 (&6 &7 &8)
&1 &2 &3 &4
&1 &2 &3 (&4)
1 &2 &3 &4 &5 (&6 &7 &8)
&1 &2 &3 &4
&1 &2 &3 &4
&1 &2
(&3 &4 &5 &6 &7 &8)

OK, so without further ado, here is the ode:

An Ode to Titian’s Worship of Venus

(an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis)     

I
Philostratus in his Imagines
Has countless Loves by Aphrodite’s shrine
Place apples, plucked while hov’ring in the trees
In baskets of Hephaestus’s design
   Then Titian used the brush so well
      To paint the apples’ green
And ripen them with cheeks of blushing rose
   You’d swear their fruitful Autumn smell
   Had floated from the painted scene
         To reach your nose.

II
True to the book, with blue he paints the wing
See here he’s shown the little wrestling pair
See there the nymphs beside the sacred spring
See too the tumbling chase to catch the hare
   The scene’s a worthy one to paint
      Upon the canvassed board
And bring to life with skilful master’s art
   The countless loves here represent
   All cherished things that folk adore
         With gladdened heart:

III
The fragrant rose, the flash of halcyon
The singing harp and wood flute’s trilling coo
The warmth upon the face of Summer Sun
And when it sets, the ruddy-golden hue
   E’en Gratitude itself’s a gift
      It leads to Happiness
And Happiness in turn increases Health
   Let now the mental eye uplift
   Appreciate the gracefulness
         Of Grace itself.

 

The Sonnet

English Odes and Sonnets are close relatives, and a sonnet is another option if you’ve been writing lots of odes with the same structure and want to freshen things up.

A sonnet is a poem in the form of one, longish stanza. It has certain similarities both to the Pindaric and the English Ode. Like the Pindaric, it has a three-part structure, but this time it’s within the one stanza: line nine is a “turn”, were the change of rhyming pattern is accompanied by a change of perspective, and it may end with a resolution in the final lines. And the similarity to the English ode is in the rhyming structure. While the English Ode starts with a group of four lines (quatrain), e.g. with alternating rhyme a, b, a, b, followed by six lines in two groups of three (a sestet) i.e. with rhyming pattern c, d, e, c, d, e, so that there are two lines between rhymes rather than one, the original English equivalent of the Petrarchian sonnet, starts with eight rather than four lines as the first chunk, but still ends with the c, d, e, c, d, e; indeed the sonnet is what gave Keats the idea for the English ode. You could call the sonnet a stretched English Ode.

The Elizabethans realised that sonnets sounded good if the last two lines were paired together with a simpler, punchier rhyming pattern: just a rhyming couplet:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

However, to do this while keeping to the 14 lines of the Petrachian sonnet meant you could no longer end with the c, d ,e, c ,d, e pattern of rhymes, The later Romantic poets took issue with this, and went back to the original pattern. However, looking at it from my beats-to-the-bar perspective, they were both right. Howso? Well, what they got wrong is the number of lines. It should be 16, in my opinion.

Why? Well, after your two 4 line chunks (quatrains) and your six line chunk (sestet), you have, if all the lines are the same number of beats, a rather unmusical 14 units. A more rounded, symmetrical, balanced 16 could be achieved if two extra lines were to be added onto the end. 16 = 8 + 8 (and 8 = 4 + 4 (and 4 = 2 +2)). And as luck would have it, we don’t need to cast around very long to find a way to add those two extra lines: that’s EXACTLY what the Elizabethan sonnet gives with it’s final rhyming couplet. It seems almost as if that must have been the original idea, but then this idea was lost when the 14-line assumption took precedence, by a misunderstanding. (Since I reasoned this out myself, I’ve now came across a Sonnet type that also has 16 lines: the Meredithian Sonnet, but I understand that just has four quatrains, rather then the pattern I am suggesting, with two quatrains, a sestet and then a couplet.)

There are no variations in line length here – that’s part of the deal to end up with your round (or rather square) 16.

Keen to try this out, I choose something from my gratitude list: birch trees. I ruddy loves ’em. Notice that the turn at line 9 (the start of the sestet) changes the mode to that of ekphrasis, i.e. description. So this is what I came up with:

The Silver Birch: A Sonnet

My gladness of the silver birch I wish
   To share, that slender goddess of a tree
Her shower of silken hair moves in a swish
   That stirs in me a mystic reverie
As turns this verdant, grassy leaf-fringed glade
   Into her sacred grove, and I, her priest
Mid-frisson in the dancing, dappled shade
   Call druids, bards and ovates to the feast
But let us now the details try to trace
   The little leaves, heart-shaped, serrated trail
      Along each pliant twig to form a spray
That’s bright and airy, made with measured grace
   Cascading sprays together form the veil
      That by the gentle breeze is set to sway
Her stretch of sky she turns to shimmering show
And whispers Summer’s secrets soft and low.

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