7) Ode Journal as Material Object and Labour of Love : Cards that Care, Craft as Cure and Codex as Conjuration

Cards that Care

Your journal of Gratitude Odes is a collection of thank-you cards to the Universe. When we give a card to someone near and dear, there’s no way one with the writing machine printed shows that you care in the same way as a handwritten one, and a little jolly doodle is a nice touch to go that little bit above and beyond. It personalises it, and shows you took some time over it, put something of yourself into it. The same goes for your journal.

When I talk about keeping an Ode Journal, I do mean an actual material object. And as far as I’m concerned, you must hand write it. I don’t want to sound bossy, but well…you MUST. OK?

My next recommendation is that you show the Universe you care by adding some decorative doodle. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.

My introduction to the power of illustrating a poem came when I was a child. I had written some poem about the wind at school. It wasn’t much – normal sort of thing, rhyming “breeze” with “trees”, but it also contained a long list of wind-related gerunds which I guess must have seemed a bit interesting, and my teacher seemed to see some merit in it, and brought it to the attention of my parents, who also seemed to like it, so they gave it to my grandfather, an amateur artist who knew how to do calligraphy. He wrote it out with his calligraphic pen and added an illustration showing a personified wind with puffed-out cheeks blowing some trees, and then my parents had this framed and put it up on the wall. To be honest I think my grandfathers’ work on it had more merit than the poem itself, but – at least until I grew to an age where it made me squirm with embarrassment – it gave me a nice feeling, a certain sense of pride, and showed me the importance of presentation, illustration and the personal touch.    

As well as making a more satisfying product, the actual process of producing such handwritten and hand-illustrated poetry has benefits. I’m talking about the whole mindfulness thing…

Craft as Cure

When we think of self-illustrated poems, it’s William Blake who comes to mind. And we know from these poems that he felt oppressed by the onset of the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution. The manual act of handwriting the poems and decorating them with interweaving arboreal designs worked as an antithesis to creeping industrialisation. In many ways this was the start of the Arts and Craft movement that gathered pace in the Victorian era, and had exactly the same motivation.

A similar need still exists now, in the Information Age, with its instant but often anxiety-inducing access to alerts, updates, news, politics, and so on. This need is demonstrated by the trend of magazines for getting back to the simple things and adult colouring books for mindfulness. But if you’re a ‘creative type’, or have a creative type inside wanting to get out, you will probably feel disenfranchised by such things. Sure, you like the idea of some time-out doing something artisitc, peaceful and mindful, so you bought one. But after colouring a couple of the pages, you got bored, and it was soon shoved in the bottom of a cupboard never to see the light of day again. Mindful soon tipped over into mindless, because no real attention was required. It’s just not in your nature to sit there colouring in someone else’s design. Essentially, if you’re the sort of person who prefers to write odes than keep a simple list of things you’re grateful for, then you’re also going to baulk at mindless colouring in. When you make your own designs, however, there’s enough involvement to keep you absorbed. When you create something, you learn something about yourself.

It’s clear that ever since the Industrial Revolution started, manual art and craft has played an important role in restoring psychological balance, but in fact magnificent manuscript illustrations go back way before that age…so what’s going on there?

Codex as Conjuration

I was once told by a ‘lightwork practitioner’ – who didn’t know me from Adam at the time – that she saw in her vision that as well as a number of past lives in ancient Greece (including one ‘in the circle of someone like Plato’) and one in Renaissance Italy (‘in the circle of someone like Copernicus’) and one as a Tibetan monk (makes sense if you’ve heard me doing my overtone chanting), that as well as these, I also had a past-life as an illustrator of manuscripts in the Medieval period, during which lifetime I apparently took great delight not in the subject matter of the words, but rather in the beauty of the decorations. If indeed she was correct in any of her assertions, or if we consider them hypothetically, then this last past-life as a manuscript illustrator might be the one that would comes as a surprise to me, but considering it at greater length, I can see how it could be of equal worth.

Books sing with the feeling of what’s in them, shine with the aura of their contents – not just the subject matter, but also the loving care that’s gone into the presentation.

All the more when you’ve read it, and properly know what the contents are.

And even more when you authored it yourself.

And even more when you hand wrote it with loving care and attention.

And even MORE when you also added some hand-drawn decorative illustrations.

As a book that sings with an uplifting mood, your Ode Journal will fast become an object with magical power – a talisman. You need only see it there on the bookshelf, or pick it up and hold it, to feel some of that magic power. It re-radiates the value that you pour into it.

If we go back to the early history of the book, when it first started to replace scrolls, we find that they were already richly illustrated, and that they were used as talismans. Such early books are known as codexes. Originally this name referred to books in general, but now it’s reserved for manuscript books (“manu-script” = “hand-written”.) For example, in the Byzantine period (early Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period), illustrated books were brought out in theatrical contexts, such as religious processions and carnivals, or could be used as personal talismans with the same status as a religious relic. This is not surprising as this is also how ikons – religious images – were used, and still are in some Greek religious processions, for the books contained beautiful religious images, and so they were ikons. There are traditions in the Abrahamic religions of holy books being placed under people’s beds to bring healing, and Sikhs have holy books which they actually put to bed at night in their own little bed, such is the degree to which they value them as objects. A trace of book-as-talisman is still to be found in law courts where a hand is placed on the Bible when swearing an oath (members of other religions may choose a different holy book to use instead of the Bible; I might insist on the Odyssey just to be difficult.)  

The art of the illustrated manuscript reached truly spectacular heights in the British Isles in the Early Medieval period, with wonderful codexes such as the Book of Kells. The intricacy of decoration on these pages is staggering and has to be seen to be believed. Google Book of Kells and have a good look. From the illustrated codex point of view, this was the great flourishing, and the Renaissance, comparatively, were the Dark Ages.

Not that you need to go to anything like such lengths with your journal! All that’s required is a bit of care and attention with the handwriting and ideally the addition of some kind of doodled decoration executed with reasonable diligence.

You can do it light-heartedly, with tongue partly in cheek, hamming up the persona of flowery Elizabethan, Augustan or Romantic poet – but still do it, that’s the important thing. This type of light-hearted tone, half-in-earnest, half-in-jest, was present when I wrote the following short invitation in the form of a poem (actually it was a song) a few years ago, and this is an invitation I now extend to you, as a potential keeper of an Ode Journal:

How would it be were we
The Emerald Poets three (plus one)
To take our verbal daisy chain
And season it with rain…
And sun? (We’ll have some fun.)

Embellished with fine elaboration
And lavender-sprayed perfumeration
We’ll stitch the pages into a book
And give it a most dainty look…
(And decoration.)

Tricks and Tips for Neat Handwriting

If you Google ‘Keats handwriting’ or ‘Keats manuscript’, or do the same with other Romantic poets, you’ll see that they wrote in a measured but flowery hand, in keeping their poems, with an italic (slanting) cursive (joined up) script – not in their rough notebooks, necessarily, but in their final manuscript versions. A cunning trick here is to draw ruled pencil guide lines on the paper, which you then erase to leave only the ink. These lines can be used to set the height of little letters, big letters and letter tails, as well as keeping the writing straight and evenly spaced, and maintaining a constant slant angle. I won’t pretend it’s not a bit laborious to draw all these lines, but it does produce a better effect. My handwriting is naturally pretty messy, but by using guide lines and also slowing down a bit, even a sausage-fingered oaf like me can produce a moderately neat looking result.

Tree of Life – Taking a Leaf Out of Blake’s Book

Both Blake’s illustrated poems and Early Medieval Celtic art share a common motif – the tree. In Celtic art the unbroken line performs the function of a tree of life, from which all life – the animals, plants, and people – spring. It’s a wonderful symbol of our interconnectedness with nature. And a repeating feature of Blake’s illustrations is a tree whose branches snake up around the verses of the poem. This is what we see, for example, in his engravings for The Tyger, The Lamb, Little Girl Lost, Nurse’s Song, The Argument and more.

I decided to take a leaf out of Blake’s book (there’s a double pun there if you think about it) for one of my gratitude poems since it takes a tree as its subject: my silver birch sonnet. In Blakean style, I drew a silver birch decoration around the poem, as shown here. As you can see, I’m no Titian, but it gave me a pleasant feeling while doing it and it gives me a pleasant feel too to look at it now that it’s done. Since it’s more than likely that trees will turn up in some form or other in your gratitude list (if not, why not, may I ask?) and also because stylised tree-images are actually pretty easy to draw, you might like to do something similar… or (as a creative type), you may have your own ideas. This is what I came up with.

And to give you an idea of what I mean by guidelines for the handwriting, this is what it looked like when I was halfway through and had not yet erased the pencils lines:

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.

5) Making a List, Selecting a Topic and Starting to Write an Ode (e.g. my Ode to Books)

Maintaining the List

Keeping an Ode Journal doesn’t so much replace as include and go beyond keeping a simple Gratitude Journal, because you’re still maintaining a list of things you’re grateful for as part of the process; it’s from that list that you will pick things to write odes about. Look to add more to this running list at least once a week.

So the running list serves a double purpose. It is both a tool to help you select topics for your odes, and is itself a mood-elevating reminder of all the good things in your life – which is the purpose of the gratitude journal. Allow the list to have worth in itself, because there may be things on the list that you feel profoundly grateful for, but which you are not going to write an ode about, just because the topic is not suitable. For example, you will likely feel deep feelings about friends and family, but might feel awkward writing actual odes about it. That’s fine. Acknowledge the value, add it to the list, then choose topics for your odes that you feel comfortable with.

So how do we think of things to add to the list? To get yourself in the right frame of mind, you might want to start by just thinking of things you like, and then think about what type of liking it is. Is it the type that is more of a badge of identify – you tell the world you like it to so they know who you are, how good your taste is, how fashionable you are, what you stand for or against – or is it that type of deep, emotional, celebratory liking where identity is neither here nor there? If it’s the latter, then it is something that can go on the gratitude list. (There could of course be things that are both.)

Another thing I recommend when adding things to your list is meditation. Just put on some gently droning ambient meditation music, do some static yoga poses, breathe gently and slowly, allow thoughts to drift by as you go to the calm centre of things, and then, once you find yourself getting into that empty, mindful state, reach up to the spiritual side of yourself and ask it to help you bring to mind things you are genuinely grateful for.

When you come back from this, write down the things you thought of and record your insights in a notebook. This is your basic Gratitude Journal. You’ll have a separate notebook for your finished odes – Your Ode Journal.

Making Your Selection

You may already know which of the things on your list you’re going to write an ode about, or it may take some more mulling over. The ideal here is the over-spill principle. Like an ornate water feature where each tier over-spills and then fills the tier below it, you let your gratitude build up and spill over in an enthusiastic bust of creativity, and just go with it. The gratitude itself provides the motivation. In reality, you may also need to consider the siphon principle – a little bit of applied suction maybe required to start the flow, but then it will self-perpetuate. Fake it till you make it.

There are some things that we all feel grateful for, and for which odes have already written. This doesn’t mean you can’t write your own odes about them, but there is the chance that this could invite unwanted comparison. Most of us are grateful for the invention of music. One of my first attempts at a gratitude ode was a celebration of music, but I then read the equivalent odes by Dryden and Pope and my own seemed rather inadequate by comparison, and I also realised I hadn’t been quite as original as I’d thought. To avoid this type of thing, there is an argument for going for more niche subsets. So for example when I wrote odes to the specific genres of Uplifting Trance and Emotional Trance within my Rhyme of the Hungry Dawn Raver, I felt I could be a bit more confident they wouldn’t be compared directly to the grand odes of the Augustans.

The Creative Process Begins – The Divergent Thinking Stage

OK, so you’ve got you’re running list, and you’ve chosen one of the items from that list to be the theme for an ode. How do you then set about writing it? One technique which I’ve used on a number of occasions is to start just by writing my ideas out as prose. No rhymes, no meter. Then you just tinker and juggle bit by bit. You spot a first rhyme, just by chance, and this gives you an opening, and before you know where you are, it’s taking shape. This, apparently, was a method favoured by Ben Johnson. This is what I did with An English Ode for instance, as I mentioned in Part 2.

Another method I have found enormously fruitful is going for a walk. (Again, it was while walking that I came up with the ideas for An English Ode, then when I got home I sat down and wrote them as prose (or rather free verse), before finally turning it into an ode over the next couple of days.) There’s actually scientific research that confirms that walking leads to better divergent creativity – coming at things from a fresh perspective. See for example this Stanford study: https://news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/ The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking (or when sitting just after a walk) than after extended sitting. In fact there were twice as many creative responses. However, there were marginally lower scores for ‘convergent’ thinking while walking. This is the stage of the process where you concentrate on avoiding mistakes, dotting the i‘s and crossing the ts. For the poet this means a period of working while sitting might be a good idea when it comes to the final polishing, tightening and tidying up.

Another advantage of walking for the writer of gratitude odes is that it will lift your mood and put you in a more positive frame of mind, helping you to bubble over with the type of gushing enthusiasm for the topic that such poems are supposed to embody. Walking also has a natural rhythm to it, and this is conducive to phrasing things in the rhythmical form of a poem; it’s no coincidence the stresses syllables are called feet.

However, when you generate a first draft in this way – i.e. letting it bubble up while walking – it might well have a simple repeating rhyming scheme and a driving ballad-style rhythm. It will therefore need to go through a full re-write to take the form of a more complex scheme and contemplative mood, such as with an English/Keatsian ode. I’ve done this on a number of occasions. For example, the Ode to Bath Locks I shared in the previous section started off with a driving seven-stress ballad meter and simple rhyming pairs. I then rewrote this in the form of an English ode to produce the first stanza, then came up with stanza II and III a-fresh.

I’ll share here another example, to illustrate how this process can work. During a recent meditative siesta, I reached up towards my spiritual side and thought of things I was grateful for. I became flooded with a strong sense of gladness for the human ability to become enjoyably absorbed in the process and products of literary and artistic creativity. This came during a period of ‘media fast’ that I had been trying out – a month with no phone – and so was tied together in my mind with a growing realisation that there are plenty of substitutes for the likes of social media, news alerts and all the rest of it, and that these substitutes are conducive to a more wholesome, calm and enjoyably creative way of life.

I next realised I already had some lines of poetry on a similar theme that I might be able to rework and reuse to start me on the way to my next ode. I struggled with a title for this one, but for simplicity am calling it here An Ode to Books. These lines, written very quickly while staying on holiday in an air b’n’b in Lewes this summer just passed, were as follows:

Here beneath the castle in ramshackle Lewes town
Where tidal Ouse has found a way of exit ‘tween the Downs
The little houses in a line beside the ancient green
Are messy, arty, curious
Chaotic yet serene
In this one where we’re staying
There’s a sense of slower pace
There’s no TV but life gets lived
In contemplative grace
There’s objects perched and dangling
Strange mementos from afar
Seed pods, drums and conches brought from some exotic shore
The summer comes the winter comes then summer comes once more
And still the ivy grows around the whitewashed brick shed door
The summer comes the winter comes then summer comes once more
There’s patterns to be gazed at in the rug upon the floor
The summer comes the winter comes then summer comes once more
There’s books and books and books to read
There’s books to read galore
Gardening and cooking books
Upstairs there’s plenty more
Poetry and history
And Art and How to Draw
There’s books and books and books to read
When winter comes once more
There’s those out on the shelves and then there’s others held in store
There’s no TV but pictures hang in every empty space
There’s no TV but life goes on with slow bohemian grace
The summer comes the winter comes then summer comes once more
There’s novels, poems, books to write
There’s pictures we could draw
But mostly one can sprawl upon the chaise lounge in the hall
And gaze upon the paintings hanging crowded on the wall
Or even at the space between where there is only thought
And let the mind in some creative musing become caught
There’s no TV but books are read as since the days of yore
And still the summer comes and then the winter comes once more.

I could argue that the sense of a long rambling jumble of lines fits with the theme of a house that has a jumble of stuff in it, and as such this version can exist in its own right. This is the present tense version, written while I was still there, within the experience. But I can also now write the contemplative, after the fact version, looking back on the experience with a more ordered arrangement and a more measured mood. How?

Meter: Making a mood more measured

I don’t want to spend too long on poetic meter because it’s obviously something that’s been dealt with a lot elsewhere. Stephen Fry’s Ode Less Traveled is readable and at times highly amusing. I’ll just make some very general points.

Firstly, you don’t have to worry about rhythm and meter. But the thing is, if you want the odes in your glorified gratitude journal to have that measured feel you get from the classic verses of old, then you are going to have get into the practice of thinking about these things. The simplest way to say it is that – if you want that measured vibe – you must work according to a particular scheme whereby you give each line the right number of syllables, the right number of stresses (or feet, or beats of the bar), and think about how the stresses land on the parts of words so it doesn’t sound clumsy.) That’s basically it.

If you want to sound like one of the old greats, five stresses per line could be the way to go.

ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

The stress has to fall on ‘King’ not ‘dom’ or it would sound weird. In the above it falls on “for” which might in another line be odd but in this one it’s kind of OK, as it brings out an assonance with “horse”. The following still has five stresses but they’re not well placed:

A horse! I’ll give you my kingdom for one!

There’s no hard and fast rule, but if you want your odes to have that measured, classic feel, you want to avoid squeezing in lots of syllables in a short space between stresses, even though that’s how we speak. (Bold in the last sentence is stressed, unbold is unstressed. Notice there are anything from zero to five untressed syllables squeezed in between stresses in that sentence. That’s how prose is different from measured poetry.) In measured verse you stick to a pattern. If it’s iambic, the pattern is just one unstressed syllable between each stressed syllable. With pairs of little joining words like “to the” or “for a” etc., you may find it sounds better to treat the pair as a whole as one syllable, and some words also might contain syllable pairs that sound better contracted together. So o-bli-vi-on might work better as o-bliv-yon, for example.

For my Ode to Books I’m going with iambic pentameter for most of it, but because of the pattern there are also the four lines of tetrameter per stanza – four stresses per line, as per the section on stanza structure below.

There are also ti-ti-tum ti-ti-tum ti-ti-tum type rhythms, with two unstressed syllables between each stress. E.g. How can we Harness the Heavenly Power of the Ode? That’s starts on a tum, but the ti’s before the first tum are pretty optional.

There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

Rhetoric: Making a motif more memorable

It’s flabbergasting how many of the famous lines of poetry, the ones people remember, use recognised rhetorical devices, structural techniques that even have their own names. People would’t still read Shakespeare if he hadn’t used them. His name wouldn’t even ring a bell. I’m not going to go over all of them, or go into any great detail here. I recommend Mark Forsythe’s readable and lighthearted Elements of Eloquence. Basically, and without bothering to use their fancy names, we’re talking about structures such as this:-

  1. a, a, a Repeating a word for emphasis. e.g. Location, Location, Location. or Education, Education, Education. A Horse! A Horse!
  2. a, b, c. A list of three, the third often being longer. E.g. Mad, bad and dangerous to know.
  3. ab, ac, ad. E.g Someone, somewhere, someday.
  4. a, b, a (and a, a, b, a) A word sandwich. E.g. Bond, James Bond or To be or not to be or A Horse! My Kingdom for a horse!
  5. a b c ; a b d ; a b e. Pairs or longer groups of phrases that are the same in pattern, have the same grammatical set up, but with variations. E.g. Like father, like son or I came, I saw, I conquered. (which is also an example of 2.) Also Marking a Mood More Measured c.f. Making A Motif More Memorable.
  6. a b c ; c b a An inversion, such as of subject and object around the same verb. E.g. Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
  7. a, b, c, 4, e A deliberate grammatical mistake, a word performing the wrong function. E.g. The Glory of Glad.
  8. ab ac. Alliteration. Using words that start with the same sound. E.g. The Glory of Glad & Making a Mood More Measured & Making A Motif More Memorable & How can we Harness the Heavenly Power of the Ode? etc.
  9. a, b, c? Use of a question for rhetorical purposes. E.g. How can we Harness the Heavenly Power of the Ode?
  10. a leads to b. b leads to c. c leads to d. E.g. Gratitude raises mood. Raised mood lowers stress. Lowered stress boosts health.
  11. a, a-ed, a-ing. Use of the same word in different cases within the same phrase. E.g. Making the moral more moral (see below)
  12. a, b, c, d | e, f, g, d | h, i, j, d. Always ending with the same thing, such as repeatedly ending with the same phrase at the end of a verse, paragraph or section. Very common in poetry and song. E.g. There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

Substance: Making the moral more moral

Memorability is not the sole goal of poetry, nor even necessarily a good thing in every case. Some advertising jingles are simultaneously memorable and hateful. And also be careful not to use rhetoric as a cover up job, to make foul seem fair (that’s alliteration, of course). There are some people, Forsythe included, who say that the beauty of poetry is all in how it’s said, not what’s being said. This is an example of a comical over-steer to make a point. It’s not literally true of course. It’s blatantly obvious that what’s being said is still vitally important – from a point of view of morality if not memorability – and it’s only because that is so self-evidently true that Forsythe and their ilk can get away with claiming the opposite and come across as nothing worse than cheeky rascals.

Using rhetoric as a cover up can be worse than using no rhetoric at all, because it leaves a funny taste in the mouth. For example (and I know I may be expressing a fringe view here, but bear with me) Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 has never worked for me because, for all its flowery devices, it expresses fowl sentiments. This is the ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” sonnet.

What he was basically saying in plain prose was this:

At the moment I find you beautiful because you’re young.
That won’t last long, though, and soon you’ll be old and your beauty will be gone.
Oh, well, at least we’ll still have this poem as a reminder of your former beauty. Aren’t you lucky that I’m such a great poet?

Hmm, way to make a girl feel special, Bill.

Shall you? No, you most certainly shan’t.

When it was dressed up with iambic pentameters and flowery rhetorical questions and nature similes, and structured as a sonnet, it seemed like it must be a sweet. romantic compliment ending with a spine-tingling revelation about the power of poetry, but all that stuff is no more than a floral nosegay used to try to cover the unsavory stench of egotism and cruelty. (Bearing in mind here of course that I should be allowed my own over-steer to make the opposite point.) For me, the whole thing still reeks of the polite but shallow mannerisms and affectations of Elizabethan courtly life. They were cruel and rude times. They may have been walking around with big ruffs and puffy pants but they still poured their wee out of the window and hung people willy-nilly. Really it’s just shallow chauvinism and more a narcissistic compliment to himself as a great poet than to the beloved, and with an ending that’s trite and not even true, because the poem actually spends very little time – only the first two lines – describing the beloved’s beauty. You may say, oh, but it’s so beautifully worded and it’s not really meant for the beloved to read but for other lovers to read, to give them some succor by showing someone else felt the same thing they are now feeling. Well, not to me. I’m not just trying to be politically correct. I’ve genuinely never liked it. For me it’s worse that it’s dressed up with flowers, because that’s what makes it seem so dodgy. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. To me it’s always seemed slippery and snaky, two faced, and fork-tongued, the kind of mendacity you’d expect from a second-hand car salesman or a corrupt politician. I wouldn’t want my daughters hanging around with someone like that. I don’t like it. OK?

How much more lovely would it have been if the same rhetorical skills had been used to glamorise a philosophy of benign Platonism. I.e. I love you but I’m not going to patronise you with florid flattery. The beauty we see in physical forms – including the shape of the beloved’s face – is really just a resonance with the universal, eternal Platonic form – the Idea – of Beauty Itself, and there are many, many was to establish this resonance, including appreciating the beauty of a person’s character. The physical beauty of the lover, says Plato, is just the first stage of a great process of initiation. When you grow old I’m sure you’ll do so gracefully and still look great to me, but the important thing is that I will increasingly see the beauty of your lovely character.

Now imagine that idea dressed up with Shakespeare’s flowers. No, I’m not going to have a go myself – I don’t relish the idea of entering into a poetic dual with Shakespeare! Although it’s about his own growing old rather than a beloved, Coleridge’s poem Youth and Age is the one to stand up against Shakespeare. But anyway, this was only meant to be a short digression to make the point: don’t use rhetoric to make what’s fowl seem fair, or someone out there will get a nasty taste in their mouth, but rather use it to make what’s fair stand out above what’s fowl. So let’s move on.

Politicians themselves have been fooled by rhetoric. The Greek orator Demosthenes once said the three most persuasive aspects of rhetoric were action! action! action! and politicians have been making fools of themselves by waving their hands around ludicrously while speaking ever since. All Demosthenes really showed was that repeating the same thing several times (epizeuxis) is a very powerful theoretical device. Perhaps he should have answered epizeuxis! epizeuxis! epizeuxis!

That’s one type of epizeuxis, anyway. There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

Stanza Structure

In previous sections I’ve given my reasoning for choosing the English Ode as the default form for the Gratitude Ode. To recap briefly, it seems to me to be at the sweet spot between the dignity of the Pindaric Ode and passion of lyric poetry.

There’s no need to think of the Ode as something that has ossified. Whilst the Pindaric Ode traditionally uses the power of poetry to persuade other people in society at large that someone or something is worthy of praise, and the poems of the Romantics used the power of poetry to persuade other people of the value of the poet’s internal feelings, reflections and revelations, the Gratitude Ode uses the power of poetry to spark, stir and amplify feelings of gratitude, whether the poem is kept private or shared, for the sake of the benefits of that emotion.

Neither the Romantic Poets nor those who preceded them had quite the same aim as us. They weren’t just trying to flounce up their gratitude journals; they were trying to be poets by vocation. And if our aim is slightly different, it may also be the case that we could benefit from tweaking the form slightly too. The formal ode is a poem where the order of the pattern becomes apparent across stanzas and groups of stanzas, more than within the individual stanza. There is no need for a Gratitude Ode to be especially challenging, so is there any reason why there can’t be a self-evident order within the stanza too? I don’t see any reason why not. I have come to think in terms of a fairly simple ordering principle. I’m used to thinking in musical terms, with beats in a bar, and groupings of bars that add up neatly into mathematically symmetrical groups, i.e. for the most part, 4s and 8s and multiples thereof.  The ordering principle I’ve been developing works as follows.

While we are used to thinking about how many accented syllables there are per line of verse, why not also count the number of beats to the in-breath between each spoken line? As such, the ode can have its variations in line length without disrupting the timing. For example, one line of iambic pentameter can be treated as 8 beats long, made up of five spoken beats (the accented syllables) and a further thee beats for the in-breath before the preceding line. 5 + 3 = 8 (Fibonacci numbers, you might observe.) So there is an unspoken ‘and six and seven, eight’ at the end of the line, as if chanted by a ballet instructor. This could be why pentameters seem to suit a contemplative mood – they imply a relatively slow in breath, indicative of a calm state. As you read the following, even though you’re not speaking it out loud, breathe out during the spoken bits and in for the three unspoken beats. This encourages us to read more slowly, too, which is good, because poetry should never be speed-read.

 &1 &2 &3 &4 & 5 (&6 &7 &8)

E.g.:
They also serve who only stand and wait and six and seven, eight.

or

To err is human; to forgive, divine, and six and seven, eight.

or

The course of true love never did run smooth and six and seven, eight.

Etc.

The cool thing about this is that you can easily see how one line of pentameter now equals two breathless lines of tetrameters, because 4 + 4 = 8 = 5 + 3:

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

So with the following stanza from my Ode to Uplifting Trance, for example, there might seem to be a somewhat irregular 10 lines of varying metrical length, some of four and some of five feet long, but let’s look at the timing.

      And when, as if a choir of angels sings
      The soft chords sound as drums dissolve away
      My gladness turns to slower types of things
      That drift and float, move fluidly, and sway
           To gentle waves on golden sand
           To cloud-wisps moving in the air
      A gentle, tidal purl, by dawn-light glazed
           Such things surround me where I stand
           I see, and fascinated, stare
      Take stock, breathe slow, consider, feel amazed

The idea is that after line 4 (ending ‘and sway’ and after line 7 (ending ‘glazed’) you take a deep breath ready to read the next three lines all from one breath. If we look at it from a beats-per-line perspective including the in-breath counts for the pentametric lines, then we have 8, 8, 8, 8, 4, 4, 8, 4, 4, 8, and each of those 4s is actually half the length of an 8, so we can just add them up, and realise that really we have a nice, round, musical 8 lines, each of which is 8 beats long, even though, as written on the page, it still looks like the quirkier and the more mysterious 10-line stanza and a, b, a, b, c, d, e, c, d, e rhyming scheme of an English Ode. It’s still a relatively complex pattern that repeats across stanzas, but it also has its own internal order, since it corresponds to a nice, neat 8 x 8 pattern of beats. The reader is given a helpful indication of the shorter 4-beat lines by their slight indentation on the page.

There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

Sleeping On It

Right then, so, what did I come up with for the Ode to Books, taking the quickly written ballad and turning it into a careful structured three stanza ode? I realised fairly quickly that I wasn’t gong to be able to borrow many of the rhymes from Version 1 – essentially, I had used repeated rhymes with ‘more’ – galore, draw, store, floor – throughout the poem, which wasn’t going to lend itself to the more complex rhyming scheme. I also realised there was a lot of repetition in that simple version. I couldn’t use that either. In fact, truth be told, it was a bit of a challenge, until I used another the technique for increased creativity – sleeping on it. I thought about it before bed and then when I woke up the next morning, suddenly the ideas came to me for how to do it.

There’s actually a fair bit of research showing that sleeping on it can enhance creative problem solving. For example there’s this and this and this.

This is what I came up with:

An Ode to Books

I
In Lewes town we stayed a little while
Beneath the castle by the Paddock green
The house had a relaxed bohemian style
Artistic, full, chaotic yet serene
Here life at slow untroubled pace
Is lived, as in the days of yore
With paintings everywhere but no TV
Upon the shelves were books to read
And up the winding stair were more
On gardening and art and cookery

II
Other homes are tidy, smart and new
Appointed with the best technology
A comfy space to sprawl at ease and view
The latest shows and movies on TV
A fortress built against the fear
That screenless time is drear and gloom
‘There’s bound to be some programme we can find’
But rarely do we see what’s here
And gaze in peace around the room
While too much screen-time enervates the mind.

III
But here were shelves crammed full of curios
Mementos brought from some far distant shore
With patterns to be gazed at half in doze
Within the Persian rug upon the floor
The bo-ho richness of this place
Now makes my heart with gladness fill
To think, with screens turned off, I could survive
This thought of life at slower pace
Now makes my gladness over-spill
To think, with screens turned off, why, I could thrive!


Did I actually use any of the rhetorical devices there? Not a huge number, but there was some isocolon, i.e. the use of structures that closely parallel each other. So this:

The bo-ho richness of this place
Now makes my heart with gladness fill
To think, with screens turned off, I could survive

…is obviously closely paralleled by this:


This thought of life at slower pace
Now makes my gladness over-spill
To think, with screens turned off, why, I could thrive!


Mental note: use a bit more rhetoric in my next ode.

To recap then, we’ve looked in this section at a number of methods and tricks of the trade, including:

  1. Meditating while thinking of things to add to running gratitude list
  2. Writing first as prose then tinkering to turn it to poetry
  3. Going for a walk to get the creative juices flowing
  4. Writing first in a simple pattern of rhythm and rhyme and then rewriting as an ode
  5. measured use of meter
  6. use of rhetoric
  7. sleeping on it to get over a difficult block

4) How Keats first smoothed the mood of the English Ode; how I first followed my muse in pursuit of his lead (after a hiatus of exactly 200 years)

As I write, in Autumn 2019, it’s the 200th anniversary of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness that Keats immortalised in the last of his Great Odes, and, to borrow his own phrase, it’s loveliness increases.

Just as Autumn mellows the mood of the Summer, so Keats mellowed the mood of his odes. The Pindaric Ode with its turn, contrary counter-turn and conclusive stand, does have the potential to give the impression that the poet can’t make up their mind, as if they were in the middle of a turmoil of contradictions when they set pen to paper. But what Keats shows in his ode To Autumn is that the shift that occurs between first and second stanzas doesn’t have to introduce a strongly contradictory point of view nor a dramatic shift in mood; it can be a subtler change of approach.

A contrary point of view is voiced only very briefly in To Autumn:

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

But it is given short shrift in the very next line:

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too

To be more Pindaric, Keats could have made the whole second stanza be about a yearning for Spring, before finally batting Spring away in the third stanza and concluding that Autumn has her beauty too. But he didn’t, and I think he made a good choice. Instead he continues in II to describe beautiful Autumn scenes as in I, with the only shift being that now he has gone out of the cottage garden into the wider countryside, and also now he personifies Autumn as a goddess. No turmoil, just a continuing mellow mood in keeping with the mellow season.

This subtler and more mellow approach provides, I think, a great model for the odes to go in our glorified poetical gratitude journals, unless in particular cases your muse steers you towards something more dramatic.

The series of odes that Keats wrote in 1819 – the Great Odes – all take the form of the English Ode, or variations thereon. Indeed the English Ode is alternatively known as the Keatsian Ode. The earlier odes of this series have a somewhat restless, agitated feel, and it’s more in their stanza structure than in their content that they relate to our own topic: the Gratitude Ode, simply because that structure is a good choice for a poem that combines lyric and dignified qualities to sing the praises of something in a suitably measured and respectful yet still impassioned manner.

Then he wrote his ode On Melancholy, and now found a more settled philosophy with which to move forward. To summarise, the ode advises us that when faced with the sorrow at beauty that fades, instead of drowning out that emotion, we should listen to it and act upon it by going out and absorbing the beauty of things as much as possible before they fade.

Then in is last ode, To Autumn, he not only took his own advice, but also found the missing part of the puzzle, the key realisation missing from On Melancholy. When I say he followed his ow advice, I mean he actually does what he recommends in On Melancholy, rather than just talking about it, and simply focuses on the beauty of nature, rather than letting various conflicting winds of thought distract him from it, as he does rather in the earlier odes, and without the restless agitating and excessive flights of fancy of those earlier poems. And when I say he found the missing piece of the puzzle, I mean he realised that the whole business of beauty that is doomed to fade was really a bit of a melodramatic, maudlin, Shakespearean illusion. When Spring and Summer fade, new seasons come that have beauty of their own. Bravo!

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too

So now not only does he drink beauty in deeply when he finds it, but also knows that even while beauty is fading in one form, it is appearing in another. The first handwritten version shows that for a moment he was considering starting the second verse with ‘Who hath not seen thee, for thy haunts are many?’ rather than the line he ended up choosing, perhaps for rhyming purposes: ‘ Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?’ These many haunts mirror the new found realisation that the haunts of beauty are many. No need then to sorrow excessively at the fading of its expression in one particular form. This also hints at Platonic philosophy: there are many beautiful things and they come and go, but the universal, eternal essence of beauty which they all share exists without tarnishing on a different level of existence, the Realm of Ideas. Not that this makes it OK to bugger nature up with a man-made mass extinction, of course. (Autumn season of tropical fruitfulness?)

So On Autumn, the greatest of the Great Odes, is a fine model for the Gratitude Ode: a descriptive English ode with subtle rather than dramatic shifts between the stanzas, as gratitude cannot exist very well in a mind consumed with swirling tempests of contradicting thought, but comes through better in a calmer, more mindful state.

A few thoughts about the structure and rhyme scheme of To Autumn. It’s a slight variation of the standard English/Keatsian ode. Instead of the ten line a,b,a,b,c,d,e,c,d,e, it’s eleven lines with two ds at the end before the final e: a,b,a,b,c,d,e,c,d,d,e. Or at least it is in stanzas II & III. In the first stanza there is a slight variation to the order. It’s actually, a,b,a,b,c,d,e, d,c,c,e. I don’t know why. I like to think he had his reasons, although ‘even Homer nods’. In fact in some of the other Great Odes we similarly find the odd errant verse where he was relaxed about the order of his c,d,es. As long as each c,d and e had it’s rhyming partner, he wasn’t overly bothered about the order.

He could very easily have adjusted verse I of To Autumn to make it fit with the same, more logical scheme of II and III. In fact this could be used here as an illustration of how easy it is to juggle things around to make them fit a scheme. You might be able to do better, but what I would do first of all is swap these two lines:

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

And also swap the ‘and’ and ‘to’ in their beginnings.


To fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
And bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees

But then we have ‘fruit’ in two consecutive lines, as the previous lines are:

Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

We can’t have such a clumsy repetition of ‘fruit’. Also, by swapping these two lines, we’re mentioning ‘core’ before we’ve introduced ‘apples’, which is a little arse-about-face. OK, so a couple more tweaks and these things are quite easily resolved. So, I give you: To Autumn, the 200th Anniversary Version

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
With ripeness fill all apples to the core
And with their weight bend the moss’d cottage-trees.
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Only the most ardent Keats fan would notice the difference, I think.

Anyway, just as Keats took his own advice rather than just talk about it, I felt I ought to try a mellow mood ode myself. When I wrote An English Ode I liked the shift to a contrary point of view in stanza II prior to a resolute reaffirmation of stanza I in stanza III. I guess it made me feel like a Proper Poet, but it was also an authentic replication of my thought process.

But I wouldn’t want to be constricted by that pattern; I wouldn’t want to churn out the same type of thing again and again just for the sake of it. The idea of an English Ode that was still tripartite but where the shifts between stanzas were more subtle and less dramatic became appealing. So I wrote this ode to a lovely stretch of the canal on the edge of Bath near Widcombe, and of the opportunities it affords for relaxing and picturesque lunch hours for those prepared to walk the short distance out of town.

An Ode to Bath Locks

I
The walk is short from bustling Bath’s South Gate
To where the towpath leads to Yesteryear
Although the walk is short, the change is great
The city’s noises fade and disappear
    There by a trickling lock I sat
    And of old verse read this and that
Of Pope and Shelley, Tennyson and Keats
    The skylark with its song sublime
    The Odyssey in coupled rhyme
The tale of what the Lotus Eater eats

II
The town below has treasures of its own
Those houses built in stately Georgian style
With classic forms carved into local stone
From bridge to Holbourne is a golden mile!
    There’s courtyards, cafes, shops and nooks
    And all the World, from cops to crooks
Goes in a great parade before the eye
    And varied music fills the air
    As buskers placed in every square
Compete to stir the hearts of passers by

III
But if I never chose to make the climb
Up here above the noisy urban bowl
There would be in such laziness a crime
Against myself, and Nature, and the Soul 
    This place removed, this place away
    Affords a lunch-time holiday
That leaves the office workday far behind
    There’s nowhere that could better feed
    The hunger of my present need
For quiet time, and calm, and peace of mind.

3) Various Perspectives on Gratitude through the Ages

Gratitude in Religion

Religions have long recognised the importance of gratitude. Pagan gods were largely givers of particular gifts, or of categories of gift. Dionysos/Bacchus gave the grape, and the art of its cultivation, and wine, and the method by which it was made. Athena/Minerva gave the olive, and by extension its oil, with all the uses and benefits that brought. Demeter/Ceres gave agriculture and its fruits and products, plowing, sowing, reaping, the grain, bread etc. And so it goes on.

An inclusive paganism worked for a while as the Roman empire expanded, but eventually there were so any foreign gods to include that it all got a bit confusing. So they rationalised. They whittled it down to just one, for the sake of convenience, by adopting a recently updated version of the Jewish model. There was only one god you needed to thank now, even if that did rather dilute the special qualities of the particular gifts. But the importance of gratitude was still recognised, as we can see from the practice of saying Grace. Personally, I find the wording a bit odd though:

For what we’re about the receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.

When I was a child, and actually had to say this at school, the meaning of the first half of that wasn’t as clear as it could have been. Those two phrases are kind of the wrong way round aren’t they? Why not:

May the Lord make us truly thankful for what we’re about the receive.

Much clearer. Still a bit odd though. Why are we asking the Lord to make us grateful? Surely that’s the one bit we have to do ourselves, if it’s going to be a true, meaningful expression of gratitude. Why not:

May we be truly thankful to the Lord for what we’re about the receive.

But it’s still a bit odd. Why state your intention to be thankful for something that’s about to happen? Why not just express gratitude that the food is already there waiting to be eaten? Why not just a simple thank you:

Thank you Lord for the food we’re about to eat.

There we are. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Personally, I’m not so keen on this ‘Lord’ business though. I’d prefer just a general thank you to the Universe. But already, phrased as a thank you rather than a request to be made thankful at a future time, it feels better. When we express thanks, the heart naturally opens and mood improves.

Even so, just saying the same stock phrase as a matter of ritualised habit before every meal seems to me to lack sincerity. Shouldn’t it be a bit more of a gushing ode to the specific gifts that await? Remember the power of the placebo effect. Give it some good positive spin and you enhance the health benefits.

What fantastic peas! How green they are! Thank you Universe for such nutritious looking peas! What wonderful vitamins and antioxidants there must be in peas such as that!

That’s a bit better. Already we’re getting closer to the creativity and passion of an ode. It’s starting to mean something.

But perhaps I’m being too critical. The point I was making is that religions have long recognised the importance of expressions of gratitude. Scientific studies have shown that there are certain benefits to having some kind of spiritual belief. People who have these beliefs tend to be more cosmically at ease and, as a result, healthier, if you look at statistics.

But what if you’re a rational type, a scientist perhaps, who has to stay rational to keep their job, apart form anything else? Does this mean you can never be as cosmically relaxed as someone who’s thinking is a bit more fuzzy? Well actually, if we’re honest, we have to admit that there are ways of expanding our ways of thinking to more open minded levels without sacrificing the valuable tool of scientific method. For example, I like to think of Evolution as being a bit like a publisher. Let’s say you were inspired to write a book, to communicate an idea for some altruistic purpose. Your publisher was interested in the business aspects of the matter. If it wasn’t going to sell, then it wouldn’t want to touch it. So a compromise needed to be made, but you managed to find ways to tick the publisher’s list of boxes while still retaining a good amount of your original vision.

Darwin pointed out that flowers are probably brightly coloured to attract pollinating insects. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the full story at a more holistic, multidimensional level. What if the universe at large had this desire for Beauty to manifest, and then the whole flower-bee combo gradually evolved into being out of that desire, complete with a strategy for successful self-replication. The process by which this came into being was just the standard genetic mutation leading to advantage, but the randomness of the mutations was just slightly affected by the desire of the Universe, by synchronicity, mind over matter, so that over Deep Time, Beauty came into being, while still ticking Necessity’s boxes. This can’t be proved, but neither can it be disproved, and the question in this case is not actually whether or not it can be proved, but rather whether it is possible to entertain this idea while still operating as an effective, rational scientist, and the answer, clearly, is yes.

And the benefit is that when you come face to face with the meadow of flowers, you can expand to a deeper appreciation, feeling grateful to the Universe. Even if you can’t entertain this idea, you can still feel grateful for your ability to feel grateful for the flowers, or for the timing that brought you here in front of them in this unique moment within the infinite flow of time. And if you can’t manage that either…suit yourself then. I’m only trying to help.

OK great so most of us can still tap into the spiritual type of gratitude, at some level, without immediately turning into fuzzy headed weirdos. Next I want to look at various other perspectives on gratitude through the ages, starting with the classical conception of the Three Graces.

Seneca and the Three Graces

Seneca recorded a rather brilliant perspective on the symbolism of depictions of the Three Graces. There were three, he said, because they are representative of the three-fold process of giving good things, receiving them, and reciprocating.

According to Seneca, they dance in a circle holding hands to show how generosity flows from one person to the next, including returning to the original giver. As such he pre-empted those scientific studies on emotional contagion a mentioned in the first part.  

He says the reason they are shown with joyful expressions is because that’s the nature of people who give and receive good things. As such he pre-empted those scientific studies on how gratitude improves mood.

He says they wear loose, un-belted garments to show the freedom of true generosity, the lack of obligation or bind.

He even extends the analogy to the translucency of their robes; true generosity doesn’t have hidden agendas.

Seneca didn’t invent this stuff, but drew on earlier sources. Whether or not it is a correct interpretation of the original artistic intention, it does show genuine insight into the nature of giving, receiving and gratitude.

Neoplatonism and the Graces

The Neoplatonists of the Italian Renaissance, such as Marsilio Ficino, found a rather lovely way to extend this idea. This circular flow not only exists in social groups of people; it also occurs in our relationship with the divine. There is a flow of love, says Ficino, that moves out from the creative source, creates a state of rapture, and then flows back to the source. To quote Edgar WInd in Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, in Ficino’s philosophy the following role was assigned to the Graces: ‘the bounty bestowed by the gods upon lower beings was conceived by the Neoplatonists as a kind of overflowing (emantio), which produced a vivifying rapture…(raptio)…whereby the lower beings were drawn back to heaven and rejoined the gods (remeatio)’ and in these three stages they recognised ‘the divine model of what Seneca had defined as the circle of grace: giving, accepting and returning. ‘

Let’s return to those flowers and bees we spoke of a moment ago, above., which we were happy to entertain as an unproven possibility on the understanding that our rational faculty could stay functional. In light of the Neoplatonist ideas, we would say that the Universe held the desire for Beauty to become manifest; this desire flowed down in the form of a subtle influence over chance mutations so that across Deep Time it gradually came to bear and allowed the creation of flowers, while still ticking the tick boxes of Necessity. The creatures like ourselves came along, saw the beauty, felt joy, and this joy itself over-spilled in the form of gratitude flowing out as a wave back up to the creative source, thus completing the cycle and repaying the original investment, not by obligation, but freely, willingly.

It’s a wonderful conception and at the end of the day, it just harmonises so beautifully with how humans operate that there’s little point trying to come up with an alternative philosophy.

There are optional add-ons though. For example, there is the idea is that when you value something – appreciate it and are grateful for it – you actually imprint its morphic fields, which then have an nourishing, uplifting effect for those who can resonate with the fields. For example, treasure your home, and that sense of value will shine out from it as an aura of good feeling.

Then there is the New Age idea that gratitude not only nourishes benevolent intelligences in other realms that have showered us with good things, but it also serves as a message to the Universe about what we would like more of. By this understanding, it’s worth feeling gratitude because it helps the Universe give you more of what you like, yet another reason to practice gratitude.

What’s certainly true is that this principle operates at the human level – the giver will be more inclined to give more if the receiver expresses gratitude. Could that be one of the reasons why our ability to feel gratitude upregulates so powerfully when we have properly entered the fasting state? For most of the evolution of our species, there were certain food acquiring activities that were carried out by a few for the whole tribe. An example is hunting. But hunting meant going off, sometimes for days at a time, into dangerous environments. How can such a social structure be supported? Well one thing’s for sure, if the successful hunt is celebrated gratefully by the tribe as a whole, this will have a strongly reinforcing effect. The hunters will be imprinted with positive feelings about the process, which will encourage them to go off and do it again next time. Given that this process itself was key to tribal success and even survival, it’s not hard to see how the upregulation of gratitude in response to a period of scarcity would give be a strong evolutionary advantage. So just to be clear, sets of genes actually switch on and others switch off so that we genuinely enter a different mode.

And what it means for us is that one of the things you can do if you want to experience more gratitude, and remind yourself what gratitude feels like – in addition to keeping a gratitude journal or the glorified version – the Ode Journal – is to do a bit of fasting from time to time.

I do this myself, and as a result I have noticed a phenomenon I call The Celebration Response. Our hunter gatherer ancestors celebrated the successful hunt with joyful dances, and I believe this is actually hardwired into us, and that we can still activate it. First you fast, then once you’ve decided to end the fast, and just before you do so, you listen to dance music, and dance to it. It can be jaw-droppingly euphoric. I find it works particularly well if following this formula:

Black coffee-fueled Trancercising to Uplifting Trance music before breakfast in a grateful state of mind having fasted (600 kcals) the day before and ideally having had a full night’s sleep.

I call this Hungry Dawn Raving, and I’m so keen on it, I’ve written a gratitude ode about it. Actually, it’s a medley of poems in a logical sequence. Here it is:

The Rhyme of the Hungry Dawn Raver

(a poem in four parts) 

PART I : Ode to Emotional Trance

I
Sometimes the Gate Elysian swings wide
At lightest touch, and easily we glide
Straight to the centre of the happy throng
No sooner than we hear the happy song
When comes the beat, we leap to dance
Repeat, repeat: we enter trance
And freely flows the kundalini fire
The happy strains sound honey sweet
Their joys not hard to rise and meet
We quickly gain the heights that we desire

II
But sometimes joy is weak till tears release
We cannot smile till we our smiling cease
And cannot reach the Fields of Asphodel
Until we plumb the Styx’s swirling swell
Then in the moment we surrender
Feel the frisson, wild yet tender
In a flash intensity’s regained
Intensity provides the wings
We rise and fly on soaring strings
And now the happy meadow is attained

III
So if Uplifting Trance won’t hit the mark
Another genre may ignite the spark
The type that’s styled Emotional. But then
One sparked, the former style rings true again
When comes the beat, we leap to dance
Repeat, repeat: we enter trance
And freely flows the kundalini fire
The happy strains sound honey sweet
Their joys not hard to rise and meet
We quickly gain the heights that we desire.

PART II : Ode to Uplifting Trance

So oft, like-a little, softly floating, feather wingéd seed
 Aloft on-the thrill of-the sound-strobe* has my happy Soul been freed
 And soothed by-the shock of-the shaking, quaking, stutt’ring drone-strobe haze
 Staccato, as a flutt’ring slatted shutter stripes bright rays

 While-the fat of-my fast in-a smokeless fire on-the Dawn’s stone altar plinth
 Sweet-sublimates in sacred flames in-the blaze of-the saw-tooth* synth
 And, spiralling in eddies, fumes of fragrant vapour rise
 A gift of thanks sent upward to the bright’ning morning skies

 Such life as if I’d leapt up in a state of dread alarm
 Yet joyous, free from care nor plagued by nagging thoughts of harm
 With centred mind upon the sound, why, I will even state:
 For neither fight nor flight I’m apt; just now: I meditate!

 And dance and step and dance and step and dance with sprightly ease
 So, does the slatted drone imprison? Heavens no! It frees.
 As-I dance and step and dance and step and dance and step and bound
 To-the pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, side-chain* sound

 As-I dance and step and dance and step and dance and move my feet
 To-the pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding beat
 As-I dance and step and dance and step and dance and step and bound
 [>(dim.)]
 To-the sound
 To-the sound
 To-the sound
 To-the wooshhhhhhhhhhhhh….……

      And when, as if a choir of angels sings
      The soft chords sound as drums dissolve away
      My gladness turns to slower types of things
      That drift and float, move fluidly, and sway
           To cloud-wisps moving in the air
           To gentle waves on golden sand
      A gentle, tidal purl, by dawn-light glazed
           Such things surround me where I stand
           I see, and fascinated, stare
      Take stock, breathe slow, consider, feel amazed

      Exertion brings satiety; from this
      A slowness calms the step and heaving breast
      This calm, if nurtured, grows in waves of bliss
      A peaceful mood descends affording rest
           And Oh! To-be out in-the morning when
           As yet unspun is-the wordly wheel
      And Nature undefiled to us is shown
           We suddenly recall again
           That paradox: we sometimes feel
      Fine comp’ny on our own; in crowds, alone.

      A mystic chill at this creeps ‘cross my crown
      That causes me to open wide my eyes
      It finds the junction at the nape, then down
      The spine this scintillating frisson flies
           Thus quiet contemplation can
           Bring more than rest – it can inspire
      Emotions. Our resolve is galvanised
           So peaceful thought has power to fan,
           More than before, the passion’s fire
      Excitement grows, the limbs are energised     

 [< ( poco a poco cresc )]
 And the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat will surely come
 And the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat of the drum
 And the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat
 And the beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- beat…

 And it DROPS! and I step and dance and step and dance and step and bound!
 To the pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, side-chain sound!
 And I dance and step and dance and step and dance with sprightly ease
 So, does the slatted drone imprison? Heavens no! It frees!

My joy explodes on inner planes through which it flows to meet
 Co-celebrants, those now or then united by the beat
 There’s more to life than gloom and strife – this much we all agree
 So not in this crowd lonely, then, but joined in revelry! 

 Such life as if I’d leapt up in a state of dread alarm
 Yet joyous, free from care nor plagued by nagging thoughts of harm
 With joyous leaping to the beat, why, I will even state:
 For neither fight nor flight I’m apt; just now: I celebrate!

 And a pillar to the left stands tall, and a pillar to the right
 Bridged by a marble portico, we wonder at the sight*
 And carved there in the moon-white stone, the crowd sees writ this rhyme:
 “Enter here, in holy fear, the space of Elysian Time”

 We feel the thrill, the sacred thrill, of holy, joyful dread
 To see the entrance to the dance ground of the Happy Dead*
 Driv’n on by the din, all the crowd pours in, in wonderment sublime
 And we dance and step and dance and step in the space of Elysian Time.

 Here in this garden dancing ground, the dancers go in troupes
 And trains that intertwine around the marble statue groups
 And here you’ll hear no mundane, mortal clockwork timepiece chime
 Within these garden walls this is the space of Elysian Time.

 And as they go they trail and throw their wreaths of rosy flowers
 Which fly and spin amid the din and rain in petal showers
 And the flowers grow abundant in this ever summery clime
 For the Winter never enters in the space of Elysian Time.*

PART III : The Mystic Revel Fades

But Farewell sweet Terpsichore*
Our twilight hour has passed
And I must end my dancing now
And I must end my fast

For matters of the day now call me
Back across the sea
But I will not forget the hour
In which I danced with thee

For one full day we kept the fast
With fragrant herbal tea
Thin soup of vegetables with spice
Fresh, verdant greenery

Well-slept, we woke and rose in bright
Anticipating mood
And then the rich, dark roasted bean*
in boiling water brewed

d0fdee113581478f4ab991d1e6ce9908--beautiful-beautiful-neoclassical

And so in pure and foodless joy
We joined the maenads’ dance*
From out the eastern heaven came
Ecstatic, painless trance

maenad dance

As Rose-Dawn flushed the marbles*
Of the three-fold goddess Grace
(Giving, Getting, Giving Back 
united in embrace)*

three graces
The Three Graces

We wove our steps around them
On the flow’ry dancing floor
Giving back by sending out 
Our grateful, mystic awe

Dance around Graces
Maenads dancing around a statue of the Three Graces

So farewell Fields Elysian
How lightly we did tread
In circles round the dance-ground
Of the happy, blessed dead!

While fed on beauty only 
How we circled hand in hand!
But I am called away by business
In the mortals’ land.

Eleusinian-Mysteries

So farewell sweet Terpsichore
Until some other day
For I must loose my grip now
Pull my hand back, turn away

The echoes of the Revel fade
To soft and softer strain
‘Though I must sail away awhile
 I’ll soon be back again

So Farewell fair Persephone*
It won’t be long to wait
Until I walk the Sacred Way*
And pass the pillared gate*

Where opens up the holy view
As mental curtains part
And once again that deep
Soul-shocking Beauty floods the heart

The time between is short
Before this very week is past
I once again will burn away
Dull sloth with cleansing fast

And then, well-rested, rise and rave
Dream-healed, in Twilight’s space
By thy sweet lyre entranced
Terpsichore, in state of grace.

So farewell sweet Terpsichore
I cannot keep on stalling
The dance is sweet as honey
But the Ferry Man is calling

Goethe_Elysium_crop

This dawn dance is a treasure
That’ll I cherish with the rest
But I must sail away now
From these Islands of the Bless’d.

So farewell to the meadows
Where our steps the wild thyme pressed
And farewell to the grasses
Which our shins gently caressed

scene

And farewell to those shorelines
Kissed by Zephyr from the West
For I must leave these islands now
The islands of the Bless’d

So farewell sweet Terpsichore
Our twilight hour has passed
And I must end my dancing now
And I must end my fast

ask-me-no-more-1906.jpg!Large

Matters of the day now call me
Back across the sea
But I will not forget the hour
In which I danced with thee

fd33b79decfae4045a07f1d9f54e2f63

PART IV : The Bright, Re-Building Brain

I felt the tug of-the worldly wheel returning
When first I broke the fast and took of food
But as the day goes on there’s something happ’ning:
An intellectual tune inspires my mood

Not now the love of-the dancing beat a-pounding
Nor shivers of emotion down the spine
But yet arpeggios, fast, bright and sparkling
Now stimulate my newly growing mind

Melodic lines like Summer swallows darting
Now dive, now turn, now soar, and dive again
The playful notes call out to me, inviting
The eager muscle of my bright’ning brain

Had I from only meals sought compensation
For sailing from the Islands of the Bless’d
And equally if I’d thought restoration
Could only be achieved through slumb’rous rest

Too short a spell I’d have of satisfaction
Before the temp’r’y fix of food would fade
My brain, made deaf by sleep’s potent distraction
Would miss this wholesome musical upgrade

By all means, plates piled high to me keep bringing
And sure, let me recline on cushioned chairs
But also bring the lute and set to singing
And feed my brain with bright and dexterous airs.

  • sound strobe – the fast-staccato drone-pulse used in all Uplifting Trance
  • saw-tooth synth – the sawtooth waveform sound frequently used Trance music, especially in anthem riffs
  • side-chaining – a reference to the use of side-chaining pumping in Trance – a production technique where the level of one audio source is reduced by the presence of another audio source – to achieve a pumping effect where the volume swells offset from the side-chained source (i.e. the base kick) by a selected release time
  • marble portico – this refers to the entrance to the sacred precinct of Eleusis, site of the Great Mysteries, an initiation festival involving fasting and celebratory dancing. For info on the layout of the precinct, see here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Eleusis
  • dance-ground of the happy dead – The initiates of Eleusis looked forward to having access to the Elysian Fields, a paradise region within the Greek afterlife, where they would dance much as they had done during the festival
  • Winter never enters in – Elysian Fields as paradise Isle of the Bless’d, free from death, Winter, pain etc.
  • Terpsichore – one of the nine Muses and goddess of dance and chorus.
  • dark-roasted bean – coffee
  • maenads – the female followers of Dionysus, the god of wine an pleasure. They were often pictured dancing ecstatically.
  • marbles – i.e. statues, as in the Elgin Marbles, in this case the common statue group of the Three Graces
  • Giving, getting, giving back – the identities of the Three Graces
  • Persephone – the return of the maiden goddess Persephone fro mthe Underworld was celebrated in the Eleusis festival and she as Queen of the dead she also had a strong connection to the Elysian Fields
  • Sacred Way – the route taken by initiates between Athens and Eleusis
  • pillared gate – the entrance to the Eleusis precinct, as above.

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

images

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…’

1) Why Keep a Ode Journal?

Gratitude raises mood. Raised mood lowers stress. Lowered stress boosts health.

This is all in keeping with what scientific studies are showing us. And gratitude itself can be sparked intentionally, seemingly out of nowhere, just by choosing to bring to mind a list of things you’re glad about. A technique often recommended is the Gratitude Journal – an ongoing list of things day to day that you feel thankful for.

However, gratitude is an emotion, and emotions respond to rhyme, rhythm and rhetoric…to poetry. What’s more, a poetic form already exists that’s perfect for stirring and amplifying gratitude…the Ode.

If you’re a creative soul who likes to take pride in their writing, and keeping a run of the mill journal seems like a bit of a chore; if you like to push the envelope and feel not just good but amazing…a glorified, poetical version is what you’re looking for. Well I never – that was almost a poem itself. Bit of tinkering and it could easily be made into one – but I’ll save my tinkering for my Odes for now. Oh alright, just a very quick one:

Keep a running list, they say
Of things that make you glad
Just jot them down in note form with
A biro in a pad

But if you’re a Creative type
A simple list will bore
A flounced-up thing with full-blown odes
Is what we’re looking for.

It’s not enough for us, you see
To simply note them down
If it’s worth doing, do it well
Come on – go to town!

Useful tip though – write your ideas as simple prose first, then keep tinkering to get the rhymes and rhythm you’re after and in no time you’ll have formed it into a poem. Don’t be put off by thinking it’s hard – it’s not. It is a good mental workout though – equivalent to doing the cross-word or some such – but with more feeling and you get to keep the result, and get joy back from it in the future. You could do that with a completed cross-word, but I doubt the effect would be the same.

So, simply, the Glory of Glad looks at how we can harness the power of the Ode to give a gratitude journal more power, more dignity, more grandeur even, with the aim of supercharging its power to raise mood, and help you achieve better mental, emotional, physical and (dare I say it?) spiritual health (any spiritual practice worth its salt ought to make you more appreciative of stuff, which is basically the same as feeling gratitude).

So yes, you’re still keeping your journal, as a physical object (not just a file on a hard drive or online collection), but it’s very much a glorified version. More creative. More fun. More powerful.

Another thing actual scientific studies have shown is that emotions are contagious – they spread socially in groups – and that more expressive people are more effective mood spreaders. And of course, by expressing your gratitude in the form of an ode, you’re also turning it into something you could – if you felt like it – share. In this way you could help infect a social group with uplifted mood, which could then echo that back at you like a wave off a harbour wall. Authority is also thought to amplify the degree of contagion, and the dignified, well-measured tones of your odes will give oodles more authority to your expressions of gladness. Just don’t’ share them with people who may be critical of their literary qualities if you’re sensitive about such things – this is about raising mood, not risking a big downer.

Before you say anything, yes, I know ‘The Glory of Glad’ is not standard grammar. It’s deliberately a bit wonky to make it more memorable – a cunning trick. It’s a standard rhetorical device with its own name – enallage:  shifting a word from its usual part of speech to an uncharacteristic function to draw attention. Like Coke with their tagline: ‘I’m lovin’ it.’ Correct the grammar to ‘I love it’ and you instantly lose its memorability.  Whether this works for my own title, only time will tell, but I thought it worth mentioning here because rhetorical tricks of the trade will be one of our themes.

What is gratitude? Here’s a broad definition: positive feelings from noticing the presence of something good in your life, inspiring some kind of desire to reciprocate by expression of those feelings. So it’s not just when you come into ownership of something solid; it can be inspired just by the opportunity to see a beautiful view, hear a beautiful sound, and so on.

What does Science have to say on the benefits of gratitude?

Gratitude has been shown in studies to have a strong and consistent correlation with increased happiness, and it even helps people to improve their health. Much research has been carried out, for example by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. For example, they carried out a study where participants wrote a few sentences per week, with different groups focusing on different types of sentence. One group focused on things from the week that had made them feel grateful, another wrote about things that had irritated them, and a third wrote non-specifically about events that had affected them, whether positive or negative. The first group, who focused on gratitude, not only became more upbeat about their lives but also exercised more and needed less visits to doctors!

So the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal are pretty clear.  But we’re the kind of people who like to do things with a bit of pizazz, am I right? The idea of keeping to a regimen of humdrum journaling seems a bit dull to us, yes? So we’re choosing to tart it up a bit, by writing odes. Which brings us to our next (rhetorical) question:

What is an Ode?

At the most generalised level, an ode is a poem with a formal structure that expresses praise for something in lofty tones.

There are various forms you could choose, or you could invent your own, but there are certain traditions which provide some excellent food for thought. Generally, in an ode the structure of the verse (or stanza) will not be too simplistic, either in terms of its rhyming or metrical arrangement, but the counterpart to this complexity is that exactly the same arrangement will be used in the next stanza. Hence ‘formal’. There may also be a pattern that plays out over the stanzas, a common one being the triad. This is known as a Pindaric Ode. The tradition is that the structures of the first two stanzas are identical, but the third introduces a variation to that structure, and then you get another two going back to that orignal structure, and then the sixth has exactly the same variation that the third had, and so it goes on, reiterating that pattern. The variation in the the third helps to define the repeating structure of three stanzas., and so it serves a purpose, but everything about the Pindaric structure should have some kind of symmetry, so the same variation has to occur i the 6th, 9th, and so on. If you’re only writing three stanzas in total though for an ode, it no longer makes sense to introduce variation in the third, because you won’t be able to repeat that pattern, and it would just be randomness for no reason. The idea is that the perspective changes from stanza to stanza, with the first one offering up some relatively simple praise for the thing in question, the second coming at it from another perspective that might perhaps introduce some contrary points of view, but then the third either producing a new synthesis or else finding a reason to bat off that other point of view and go back with renewed resolve and justification to the original assertion.

Sometimes, you might find your thoughts about something following this type of course naturally: you feel grateful about something, then other thoughts crop up that bring in a different perspective, but then you rise to the challenge and like a protagonist in a film, you triumph over the change of fortune and end up even happier than you were in the first place. If you do find yourself following that type of train of thought – take note of it: it might be the perfect subject for a three stanza ode.

Alternatively, you might come up with a great opening stanza full of gushing praise for something you like, but then feel unsure of where to take it from there to extend the poem. Here, the form comes to the rescue. You could deliberately – artificially you could say – produce the other two stanzas based on a deliberate choice of some contrary perspective followed by a resolution or revelation. You may well, in the process, cover ground you feel just as sincere about as your initial gushing, but which wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to you. So don’t be frightened of form.

But don’t feel imprisoned by it either. It’s not a law. There may be aspects of form that you want to drop, just as I have launched straight into The Glory of Glad without bothering to write an introduction. Introductions have a bit of an optional feel to them, like they’re not really important, or they’re just a bit of fleshing out for the sake of it ‘cause everyone knows you have to have one. Right now, I can’t be doing with it. Either it’s worth saying or it isn’t. So, this is not an introduction, OK? Skip this bit and you’ve missed key features of the main thread of the thing.

A third thing Science is now telling us is that the Placebo Effect, within certain limits, is definitely real. If a doctor gives you a pill for something, there’s a pretty good chance it may help in some way even if the pill itself has no inherent chemical effect. The Placebo Effect is very strong where the results are under the influence of the body’s own pharmacopoeia of pain-relievers, relaxants, pleasure-inducers, mood raisers and so on, which makes sense when you recall this is about the power of belief. What’s more, the doctor’s manner is an important aspect, as shown by a Stanford University study entitled Harnessing the placebo effect: Exploring the influence of physician characteristics on placebo response. What this tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that the spin you put on a thing is important, and poetry is all about spin. Write about one of your gratitude-inducers in lofty, expansive terms, and you put a spin on it that amplifies its power for good. So, for example, you might write about a place you like to visit as if it has a kind of magical power, and then because of the spin you’ve put on it with your ode, it kind of does!

It’s very much a reframing exercise. I learnt about the power of this while scrapbooking, something I started doing with our children. But I soon found I was doing it just as much for me as for them! You select occasions to write about, choosing the most fun things. Then you select the most fund aspects of those occasions. And your write about them in a fun way, throwing in lots of exclamation marks! Add some fun drawings! Scraps of this and that as mementos! Before long you’ve got a whole book of the stuff, and as you read back through it you’re thinking: ‘my goodness, we have a great time, don’t we?!’ As such, a scrap-book basically is a gratitude journal, but a much more enjoyable one. You’ll get very funny looks from the family though if, as an adult, you start your own scrap book about things that didn’t even involve the children, places you went by yourself, and so on. So you have to do something more grown-up, something with a bit more gravitas, a less facetious tone and more sophisticated use of words…and a journal of odes is just the ticket! (he wrote, facetiously.)

A couple of disclaimers. 1) This is not about achieving accolades of literary greatness from others. You’re not looking for criticism, however ‘constructive’. It’s not about being the next poet laureate. It’s just about feeling good. 2) Although the Glory of Glad poses as an example of the self-help genre, it’s not really, and it’s not written by a guru. If someone was to suggest that sprucing up your kitchen with a new decorative scheme might give you a mood boost, and then shared a few tips on how you might go about that, you wouldn’t instantly bow at their feet and consider them a great sage. That’s no different to what I’m doing here. I’m suggesting you use the Ode to spruce of the decorative scheme of the landscape of narratives you tell yourself about your life. We inhabit that landscape just as much as we inhabit a kitchen. In fact, you could write an ode to your kitchen, come to think of it, if you felt so inclined.