When we produce cultural works that we intend to be ‘classical’, one way to judge how successful they are is just to look at the degree to which they invoke a classical vibe. This vibe itself is something most people have probably sensed as some time, with varying degrees of subtlety. It’s not the only vibe of value, of course, but it feels uplifting and has a beautiful ambiance to it that seems to resonate back across the centuries, an aura that is rich and refined, and it provides a haven away from chaos and modernity.
If we take the classical vibe as the underlying aim, we have the basis for an exploration of questions about the necessary constituents for new classical works that we might want to produce, such as poems. How important is meter and how import is matter? In other words, is it all about structure and the flowers of rhetoric, or do we also need to draw from Greek mythology to create the best type of classical vibe? Do classical approaches to meter work when used in non-classical languages and does Greek mythology still have the resonance in other times and places that it had in Ancient Greece itself?
That meter is an effective tool in English should not be in doubt, but it’s interesting to recall that an experiment took place to reach this conclusion. The most natural way to write poetry in Anglo-Saxon was not based in the syllable-count type of metrical organisation; conversely, it allowed for quite a few syllables to be squeezed in, as long as there were a
certain number of stresses per line. When we started writing poetry that took a more syllable orientated approach, as per ancient Greek, it was quite a brave experiment. But it worked. You could argue that the result was Greeker than the Greeks, because the measured feel stood out clearly precisely because it was so clearly set apart from normal speech. It felt different, and that turned out to be a good thing in many cases.
So much for meter. But what about matter? I’ve always had a fondness for Greek mythology, but when I started travelling round Greece, and visiting the places that feature in the mythology, it went to a whole different level. I realised that there is a particular resonance that comes when these myths are at home, in the climate and flora and fauna and landscape of the Mediterranean, as well as something even more subtle and metaphysical to do with memory and tradition and mythologised landscapes… local dreamtime.
Based on such experiences I would argue that you can certainly use Greek mythology if you want to and if it feels right, but that there is a yet more resonant Holy Grail to be sought that takes local culture and landscape more sensitively into account.
A few years ago I became fascinated by the title and sub-title of a book by Barbara Hand-Clow: Signet of Atlantis: War in Heaven Bypass. The author claimed that she had channeled
this title – heard it from a voice booming in her head. A signet ring is a token of identity, and in the context of Atlantis is also refers to the concentric rings described by Plato. But I became interested in further layers of meaning that come from considering the subtitle too, War in Heaven Bypass. The title as a whole clearly meant this: to end the war in heaven, you need to find the signet of Atlantis.
I experienced a moment of shivers as an intriguing interpretation came to me, causing me to fancy that I had uncovered a meaning to this ‘channeled’ title that Barbara herself had not been aware of. What is the war in heaven? The knee jerk response might be the one in Revelations, but that wasn’t where my intuitions lead me. It wouldn’t be the war between the gods and the giants either, as that was a war between Earth and Heaven, not a war in heaven. It must have been a rift between the gods. It had to be the Trojan War. And Barbara heard the
title – she didn’t see it written, so “signet” could easily be a pun. It could refer to identity and heritage (the signet ring) while also being “cygnet” – a child swan. After all, the cause of the Trojan War was the abdication of Helen – who was born from a swan’s egg. She was the cygnet. If the Trojan Prince Paris had found a Trojan swan maiden rather than stealing the Greek one, the war would have been bypassed. And here the story of the Ugly Duckling suddenly becomes highly relevant, a part of the picture. Ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans. Paris chosen Helen because she seemed more beautiful, just as Greek mythology seems particularly magical and beautiful, but really this is just because She had fantastic make up artists who knew their stuff: the poets, artists, sculptors, playwrights, architects and so on. If your local mythology seems like an ugly duckling at the moment, just wait until it is transformed in the same way into a beautiful swan! The walls of Troy were said to have been built by Poseidon himself, which creates an association with Atlantis, the central citadel of which, with its rings, was likewise founded by the sea god.
Atlantis itself has various meanings depending on your personal situation. If you are American, then you’ll be thinking of the great continent in the Atlantic ocean that Plato describes. If you’re British, or the culture of your family goes back to British roots, you will likewise be thinking of Atlantis as an Island in the Atlantic. Either way, the idea is clear: if you can find your own, local, ‘Atlantean’ equivalent of Helen, rather than stealing the Greek Helen, then you will have found the way to bypass the war in heaven. For the purposes of the current analogy, Atlantis is any non-Greek culture that seeks displace its own mythology with that of another culture, due to that other cultures’s mythology having already been beautified by means of classical structuring techniques such as rhetoric and poetic meter. The abduction of Helen followed on from Paris giving the apple to Aphrodite and, in the process, spurning Athena and Hera. In other words, he chose surface beauty over Skill/Wisdom (Athena) and Marriage / Tradition / Law / Family / Loyalty (Hera). Helen is a kind of mortal stand in for Aphrodite, and choosing to have the affair with the foreign queen who was already married was indeed neither wise nor respectful of the institution of marriage. It was an allegorical myth from the start.
And so Helen here could also be a pun. Helen = Hellenic culture. Paris is a philhellene. He’s that Renaissance artist who is enamored by the beauty of Greek culture, but doesn’t realise that this beauty is actually the result not of the matter, but of the skill of the artists, the
time honored traditions handed down from poet to poet, and an honoring of local tradition. The Greek poets were resonating with the myths imprinted into the very landscape in which they lived. A straight abduction of Helen, displacing your own indigenous mythic matter, will not be as successful in invoking the classical vibe as working with local matter, but doing so using the same approach that the ancient poets used, the same attention to form, and
meter, and the time-proven devices of rhetoric.
All this was just theory still, at this stage. To find out whether there was any truth in it, it was obvious what I had to do. I had to have a go at taking a local myth and giving it the classical treatment. Trouble is, first you have to know what that treatment consists of. Then you have to find a suitable story to which to apply this treatment. Initially I homed in on the Irish story of Aengus and Caer, for two reasons. Firstly, of all the Celtic myths I could think of, this one seemed to be inherently the most beautiful, the least brutal and violent and brash. It seemed ideal for classical treatment, especially as the theme of animal metamorphosis had a lot in common with Greek myths. Secondly, I found what I took to be a sign, a good omen. The heroine of the story was indeed a swan-maiden. Every other year she returned to a certain lake and turned into a swan. The hero at a key moment had to pick her out from a whole lake full of swans, and managed to do so because of a gold ring round her neck – just like me picking out the Cygnet/Signet of Atlantis from the body of Celtic myth. (I’m getting those shivers again even now, over decade later, as I recall this train of logic.)
However, my first experiment was somewhat inconclusive. This was a number of years ago and I hadn’t really matured as a poet. I didn’t have a fully appreciation of what the classical treatment consists of. All I did was write up the narrative in heroic couplets, rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter. Just getting the story across within those limits seemed like challenge enough at that time, without bothering to aim for the lofty heights of great poetry. These couplets are both easy to write and to read, which is why they are often chosen to relay long narratives. It’s really only a small step up from a simple narrative. If you’re going to the pub you might change out of your joggers into some clean jeans. That’s basic, unadorned heroic couplets. But if you’re going to the ball, well then you really want to dress in your finest. That’s a Sonnet decked in rhetorical flowers, a lofty English Ode of the Pindaric tradition. It’s not hard to rattle off couplets of iambic pentameter without producing any truly great memorable lines. What was needed was a few real jewels. In a way, the problem was that I had been too ambitious in the quantity of narrative I wanted to take on. Actually, it didn’t need to tell the whole story. It could refer, as Pindar does, to a brief episode, but it must do so through some very carefully crafted and finely honed lines with lofty language and vividness of image. Also, Ireland might have been closer to home, but it was still, for me, a borrowed culture.
More recently, I finally got round to taking the experiment further along these lines and this time the result, for me, confirmed the theory. Reading back the completed poem, it did give me a sense of a rich, resonant, magical and beautiful classical vibe – not exactly the same vibe as for the Greek tradition, but an equivalent.
The poem’s structure was more sophisticated than simple couplets. It was an ode, with three stanzas all having the same structure, with some lines having six stresses, some five, some four – and the rhyming structure was also more sophisticated than the simple A, A, B, B, but all this was done as part of a balanced plan. The imagery and language was also more carefully considered. And the matter was closer to home. It treated a Welsh myth. I live in England, but not so far form the border with Wales, and Welsh and English ancestry is very intermixed, plus Welsh culture is the descendant of pre-Anglo-Saxon British culture. In any case, it’s on the same island, at least, the same landmass. The maiden this time was Branwen, but even here there is a line of logic that can be traced that makes her a swan maiden. She was a child of the god Lir, while in an Irish myth Lir’s children were transformed into swans.
The positive result of this experiment has caused me to now consider that the theory that precipitated out of the mystery or the Quest for the Signet of Atlantis / Cygnet of Troy is correct after all, although of course not in the hyperbolic terms of the mythology. Writing poems that draw on Greek mythic matter is not actually going to cause a war in heaven, but it might cause an imbalance equivalent to the allegorical argument between the three goddesses over who should have the apple. And applying the full classical treatment to local mythology is not going to be the ultimate panacea for all the World’s problems, but I do feel that, for me at least, it opens a new door, leading to a new vista of possibilities for creativity and the classical vibe. There’s any number of indigenous myths around the World that could receive such a treatment without any sense of colonialism.
Oh and by the way, this is the poem I mentioned, the second and, to me, more successful experiment:
Gloom Breaker – an ode on the tale of the heart-healing
power of the songs of the birds of Rhiannon
At dim-lit dawn on Platform 1 in sombre throng
we stand forlorn in flat, sense-numb routine
until from trackside trees bright breaks the redbreast song:
clear, lucent water in a crystal stream
We tend to think that we’ll not hear
such music at this time of year
yet chiffchaff, thrush and finch brave Winter’s squall
Untensing, in my mental eye
I spread my wings; I rise and fly
upon the soothing sound set free, and then recall
how Branwen’s hope lay likewise in her feathered friend
as she in miniature set down her news:
‘Come soon! I, Queen of Eire am by brute force detained
Your sister, Bran, they torture and abuse’
She ring-wise rolls her chosen words
and gently takes the docile bird’s
frail form and round a tiny leg she ties
the note. A kiss, to wish it well
then through the window of her cell
releases it and skyward, swift the starling flies
It lands, it sings, they read, they sail, but sail in vain:
A fire claims her child – she can’t but grieve
and though Bran’s fleet a wood had seemed upon the main
Just queen and seven soldiers live to leave
Eleven leagues from their departure
Branwen dies of broken heart.
So on in gravest grief the Seven sail
Yet, over the ensuing years
they’re healed in Harlech, through their tears
like me – by bird and bard: sweet song and well-wrought tale.