11) Lightening the Load of Your Odes : Embracing the Gifts of Thalia

A theme in the Glory of Glad has been the way Odes reframe things in a dignified manner. You could just keep a basic gratitude journal, but if you really feel glad about something, to show that it really matters to you, you can write something far more dignified – a full blown Ode. However, I would also recommend that you include some interspersing comic or at least lighthearted poems in the journal. Why? Partly, just for balance. It doesn’t do to take ourselves too seriously. But also because the very act of dignifying ourselves reminds us that we deserve good things, and laughter truly is one of life’s good things.

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? Perhaps that is why we talk about Soul searching. Those somber emotions are part of our search for the dignity that the Soul is due. To the ancient Greeks, tragedy was an art form that allowed such Soul searching. The myth upon which the Mysteries were based was not ultimately tragic – in fact it had a very happy conclusion – but this triumph, akin to finding the Soul – came after a temporarily tragic incident: Demeter lost her daughter to the land of the dead. As well as fasting, the initiates of the mysteries observed or perhaps took part in a re-enactment of this temporarily tragic story. Tragedy and fasting in the Greek mind had a similar purpose, catharsis, in other words purification. 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.

Let me flesh that out. Firstly, let’s look at the presence of comedy in the Mysteries. 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:

For a long time she sat on the stool, without uttering a sound, in her sadness.
And she made no approach, either by word or by gesture, to anyone.
Unsmiling, not partaking of food or drink,
She sat there, wasting away with yearning for her daughter with the low-slung girdle,
Until Iambê, the one who knows what is dear and what is not, started making fun.
Making many jokes, she turned the Holy Lady’s disposition in another direction,
Making her smile and laugh and have a merry thûmos [spiritedness]
Ever since, she [Iambê] has been pleasing her [Demeter] with the sacred rites.

That last line is a reference to the Mocking Jests. At a certain spot while walking along the Sacred Way to Eleusis the initiates shouted obscenities in memory of when Iambe made Demeter smile.

Of course comedies were performed at the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens as part of the celebrations of the Great Dionysia festival. In Aristophanes’ brilliant comedy the Frogs we find such refreshing elements as Dionysos himself being a figure of fun, and jokes that laugh in the face of death, and even a mock procession of the Elysian Initiates.

Dionysos 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:

And next the breath of flutes will float around you,
And glorious sunshine, such as ours, you’ll see,
And myrtle groves, and happy bands who clap
Their hands in triumph, men and women too.

Dionysos asks who they are and Herakles tells him they are the mystic bands…

Who’ll tell you everything you want to know.
You’ll find them dwelling close beside the road
You are going to travel, just at Pluto’s gate.
And fare thee well, my brother.

Dionysos’ asks his slave to pick up the baggage so they can set off on this journey, but the slave says 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:

Now wheel your sacred dances through the glade with flowers
bedight,
All ye who are partakers of the holy festal rite;
And I will with the women and the holy maidens go
Where they keep the nightly vigil, an auspicious light to show.

Then there’s the next event that took place in the Mysteries following the revelation of the light, the exit to the Rharian Meadow prefiguring the Elysian Fields:

Now haste we to the roses,
And the meadows full of posies,
Now haste we to the meadows
In our own old way,
In choral dances blending,
In dances never ending,
Which only for the holy
The Destinies array.
O happy mystic chorus,
The blessed sunshine o’er us
On us alone is smiling,
In its soft sweet light:
On us who strove for ever
With holy, pure endeavour,
Alike by friend and stranger
To guide our steps aright.


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.

The most obvious evidence that comedy was welcomed in Olympus is the fact that one of the Greek muses, Thalia, included comedy as one of the arts within her patronage. She was 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:

But come, thou Goddess fair and free,
In heaven yclept Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth,
With two sister Graces more,
To ivy-crownèd Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as some sager sing)
The frolic wind that breathes the spring
Zephyr, with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a-Maying—
There on beds of violets blue
And fresh-blown roses wash’d in dew
Fill’d her with thee, a daughter fair,
So buxom, blithe, and debonair.
Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful jollity,
Quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and wreathèd smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides:—
Come, and trip it as you go
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee
In unreprovèd pleasures free;

Notice 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 lighthearted 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.

Lighthearted 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.

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

E.g. Lear’s:

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
and said ‘Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!’

A comic poem I wrote myself with a ti ti tum rhythm similar to the limerick follows here. It’s not an ode, so hasn’t gone in my Grati-Ode Journal, but it shows the effect of choosing this type of lilting rhythm. As is quite common in limericks, some of the syllables are drawn out over two feet. So for example both “stone” and “Scoon” in the phrase “Stone of Scoon” are treated as long syllables, so there’s only one ti between them instead of two.

The Goggle-eyed Laird of St.Claire

Repair to the lair
Of Laird Duncan St. Claire
And behold his fine pink pantaloons
He’s ignited a craze
With twice-monthly displays
And a plate of fresh-baked macaroons

With the finest jugged hare
Served straight from tupperware
That ever has touched mouth from spoon
To his cullin’ry flare
And his savoir-faire
Your tastebuds will not be immune

Then a millionaire
With brill creamed hair
Will softly commence to croon
He’ll delight the whole place
With such elegant grace
As he warbles his favourite tune

But beware of the stare
Of this Duncan St. Claire
For he’s stolen the Stone of Scoon
His goggle-eyed glare
Caused quite a scare
When beheld by a lassie named June

The earlier phase
Of his childhood days
Was spent looking up at the moon
He’d been left in the care
Of a monk with no hair
Who would feed him cold tea with a spoon

He was too debonair
To be left in the care
Of this man who knew nothing of runes
Who had taken his hair
For a wig to wear
And had forced him to feed his baboons

So he slid down the stairs
In a crate of eclairs
With a cry of “I’ll be back soon!”
Then he rolled up his wares
In a pair of green flares
And joined up as a mounted dragoon

And while out on manoeuvre
In far off Vancouver
He met up with that lassie named June
They were soon quite besotted
And together they plotted
To steal that old Stone of Scoon

But when it was stolen
His eyeballs were swollen
Through heaving to lift up the stone
And young June did declare:
“Ma wee Duncan so fair,
Wha d’ye lift it up all o’ yer own?”

So beware of the stare
Of that laird of St. Claire
Who once lifted the Stone of Scoon
And whose goggle-eyed glare
Caused quite a scare
When beheld by that lassie named June.

You get the picture. But how could such lighter pieces sneak their way into your Grati-Ode journal? I managed it with the following, which is really two ballads I co-wrote with friends. They are not themselves odes, but they’re contained within the frame of an ode. I call it a Horation Ode because essentially a Horation Ode has simple stanzas with four lines, as does this, but a rose by any other name and all that. It’s not ti ti tum but it is tetrameter (of the ballad type mentioned above).

On Fine Fellows and Expeditions 

– Horatian ode written upon remembering the days we composed the Avonsong Ballads (included)

My thankfulness I now express
For fine co-roving chaps
For crazy missions, expeditions
Routes drawn out on maps

It makes me glad to think we’ve had
High times on Summer days
While sometimes hiking, sometimes biking
Ancient, sacred ways

From Shepton down to Glaston town
We walked then camped the night
Then joined the flow of Beltane’s show
With dragons red and white 

Reliving all with fond recall
Full well do I remember
How well we liked it when we biked
Through Hengeworld last September 

Then there’s that time we made a rhyme
When out in a canoe
I’ll give it here for it makes clear
How fun it was to do:

Avonsong I, co-written with James Wormel 

There were we two rowers free
So keen, a greenly going
We took a skiff to Avoncliff
The sap was greenly flowing

We calmly coaxed with gentle strokes
The waters with our rowing
A sultry grey hung o’er the day
But softly warmth was blowing

I never saw such calm before
As we did see that day
Such silence and such sleepiness
Soft-settled on the way

We check the clock: a sudden shock!
Enough the spell to break
Our boat fast tied against the side
A land route we must take

And then once more upon that shore
Within a leafy dell
Hear wood doves coo of Xanadu
And reinstate the spell!

‘Twas calm, my dear! So calm to hear
The doves those notes expel
Which echoed round: a soothing sound
To lull a leafy dell.

We took a pew adjacent to
A tavern of renown
And in good cheer we supped on beer
And watched the Sun go down

Much we refilled until they spilled
Those cups, gen’rous and deep
We drunk so much, the strength was such
We neared the verge of sleep.

‘Neath dark’ning skies we did surmise
‘Twas time to wend our way:
Two rovers green right glad to’ve seen
The calm-tide of that day.

That was the rhyme we wrote that time
But later that same year
We rowed again and wrote again
I’ll give the sequel here:

Avonsong II, written with input from Andrew Cowper and James Wormell while canoeing on the Kennet and Avon to Avoncliff Aqueduct and beyond and then visiting the chapel of Mary of Tory in Bradford-on-Avon.

When auburn-red and Autumn dread 
O’er Avon’s vale were cast
Then we once more did take up oar
And rowed our humble craft

With colouring of pheasant’s wing
The chasms boughs o’er vaunted
By distant roar of monstrous boar
The awful vale was haunted

No longer two for to the crew
An extra oar did add
It’s power: a man of noble clan
From crown to heel well clad

The mist half cleared and there appeared
Aloft upon the air
A stone constructed aqueduct 
In crumbled disrepair

A curse is cast on all who pass
Across this ghastly span
But some strange song pulled us along: 
We crossed, to Elvenland

The Elven Queen, mist-cloaked, unseen 
Had caught us in her spell
And planned to keep us locked in sleep
Within her dreadful dell

Had we not prayed we would have stayed
Asleep forever more
But pray we did and somehow hid 
Upon the forest floor

The one who slept we dragged, and crept
And Mary’s chapel found
Safe at last the spell un-cast
 We kissed that holy ground.

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!

  • What was this great light that shone out in the temple? The ancient Greeks did have access to a way to make a very bright light – by burning white phosphorus. In other words the climax of Persephone’s return form the dead might have been celebrated in a way closely related to the rising of Christ from the tomb celebrated by the Greek orthodox church in Jerusalem – in a whole host of ways. The vigil. Extinguishing then relighting of Torches/Candles. Fast followed by feast. I don’t think it’s a hint that we find the first references to this Christian ceremony at the very time that the Eleusis mysteries were closed down. The Greeks were now free to appropriate the pagan ceremony in the new Christian context.

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