The Quest for the Cygnet of Troy: The Duckling wasn't ugly – She just needed a makeover

When we produce cultural works that we intend to be ‘classical’, one way to judge how successful they are is just to look at the degree to which they invoke a classical vibe. This vibe itself is something most people have probably sensed as some time, with varying degrees of subtlety. It’s not the only vibe of value, of course, but it feels uplifting and has a beautiful ambiance to it that seems to resonate back across the centuries, an aura that is rich and refined, and it provides a haven away from chaos and modernity.

If we take the classical vibe as the underlying aim, we have the basis for an exploration of questions about the necessary constituents for new classical works that we might want to produce, such as poems. How important is meter and how import is matter? In other words, is it all about structure and the flowers of rhetoric, or do we also need to draw from Greek mythology to create the best type of classical vibe? Do classical approaches to meter work when used in non-classical languages and does Greek mythology still have the resonance in other times and places that it had in Ancient Greece itself?

That meter is an effective tool in English should not be in doubt, but it’s interesting to recall that an experiment took place to reach this conclusion. The most natural way to write poetry in Anglo-Saxon was not based in the syllable-count type of metrical organisation; conversely, it allowed for quite a few syllables to be squeezed in, as long as there were a
certain number of stresses per line. When we started writing poetry that took a more syllable orientated approach, as per ancient Greek, it was quite a brave experiment. But it worked. You could argue that the result was Greeker than the Greeks, because the measured feel stood out clearly precisely because it was so clearly set apart from normal speech. It felt different, and that turned out to be a good thing in many cases.

So much for meter. But what about matter? I’ve always had a fondness for Greek mythology, but when I started travelling round Greece, and visiting the places that feature in the mythology, it went to a whole different level. I realised that there is a particular resonance that comes when these myths are at home, in the climate and flora and fauna and landscape of the Mediterranean, as well as something even more subtle and metaphysical to do with memory and tradition and mythologised landscapes… local dreamtime.

Based on such experiences I would argue that you can certainly use Greek mythology if you want to and if it feels right, but that there is a yet more resonant Holy Grail to be sought that takes local culture and landscape more sensitively into account.

A few years ago I became fascinated by the title and sub-title of a book by Barbara Hand-Clow: Signet of Atlantis: War in Heaven Bypass. The author claimed that she had channeled
this title – heard it from a voice booming in her head. A signet ring is a token of identity, and in the context of Atlantis is also refers to the concentric rings described by Plato. But I became interested in further layers of meaning that come from considering the subtitle too, War in Heaven Bypass. The title as a whole clearly meant this: to end the war in heaven, you need to find the signet of Atlantis.

I experienced a moment of shivers as an intriguing interpretation came to me, causing me to fancy that I had uncovered a meaning to this ‘channeled’ title that Barbara herself had not been aware of.  What is the war in heaven? The knee jerk response might be the one in Revelations, but that wasn’t where my intuitions lead me. It wouldn’t be the war between the gods and the giants either, as that was a war between Earth and Heaven, not a war in heaven. It must have been a rift between the gods. It had to be the Trojan War. And Barbara heard the
title – she didn’t see it written, so “signet” could easily be a pun. It could refer to identity and heritage (the signet ring) while also being “cygnet” – a child swan. After all, the cause of the Trojan War was the abdication of Helen – who was born from a swan’s egg. She was the cygnet. If the Trojan Prince Paris had found a Trojan swan maiden rather than stealing the Greek one, the war would have been bypassed. And here the story of the Ugly Duckling suddenly becomes highly relevant, a part of the picture. Ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans. Paris chosen Helen because she seemed more beautiful, just as Greek mythology seems particularly magical and beautiful, but really this is just because She had fantastic make up artists who knew their stuff: the poets, artists, sculptors, playwrights, architects and so on. If your local mythology seems like an ugly duckling at the moment, just wait until it is transformed in the same way into a beautiful swan! The walls of Troy were said to have been built by Poseidon himself, which creates an association with Atlantis, the central citadel of which, with its rings, was likewise founded by the sea god. 

Atlantis itself has various meanings depending on your personal situation. If you are American, then you’ll be thinking of the great continent in the Atlantic ocean that Plato describes. If you’re British, or the culture of your family goes back to British roots, you will likewise be thinking of Atlantis as an Island in the Atlantic. Either way, the idea is clear: if you can find your own, local, ‘Atlantean’ equivalent of Helen, rather than stealing the Greek Helen, then you will have found the way to bypass the war in heaven. For the purposes of the current analogy, Atlantis is any non-Greek culture that seeks displace its own mythology with that of another culture, due to that other cultures’s mythology having already been beautified by means of classical structuring techniques such as rhetoric and poetic meter. The abduction of Helen followed on from Paris giving the apple to Aphrodite and, in the process, spurning Athena and Hera. In other words, he chose surface beauty over Skill/Wisdom (Athena) and Marriage / Tradition / Law / Family / Loyalty (Hera).  Helen is a kind of mortal stand in for Aphrodite, and choosing to have the affair with the foreign queen who was already married was indeed neither wise nor respectful of the institution of marriage. It was an allegorical myth from the start.

And so Helen here could also be a pun. Helen = Hellenic culture. Paris is a philhellene. He’s that Renaissance artist who is enamored by the beauty of Greek culture, but doesn’t realise that this beauty is actually the result not of the matter, but of the skill of the artists, the
time honored traditions handed down from poet to poet, and an honoring of local tradition. The Greek poets were resonating with the myths imprinted into the very landscape in which they lived. A straight abduction of Helen, displacing your own indigenous mythic matter, will not be as successful in invoking the classical vibe as working with local matter, but doing so using the same approach that the ancient poets used, the same attention to form, and
meter, and the time-proven devices of rhetoric.

All this was just theory still, at this stage. To find out whether there was any truth in it, it was obvious what I had to do. I had to have a go at taking a local myth and giving it the classical treatment. Trouble is, first you have to know what that treatment consists of. Then you have to find a suitable story to which to apply this treatment. Initially I homed in on the Irish story of Aengus and Caer, for two reasons. Firstly, of all the Celtic myths I could think of, this one seemed to be inherently the most beautiful, the least brutal and violent and brash. It seemed ideal for classical treatment, especially as the theme of animal metamorphosis had a lot in common with Greek myths. Secondly, I found what I took to be a sign, a good omen. The heroine of the story was indeed a swan-maiden. Every other year she returned to a certain lake and turned into a swan. The hero at a key moment had to pick her out from a whole lake full of swans, and managed to do so because of a gold ring round her neck – just like me picking out the Cygnet/Signet of Atlantis from the body of Celtic myth. (I’m getting those shivers again even now, over decade later, as I recall this train of logic.)

However, my first experiment was somewhat inconclusive. This was a number of years ago and I hadn’t really matured as a poet. I didn’t have a fully appreciation of what the classical treatment consists of. All I did was write up the narrative in heroic couplets, rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter. Just getting the story across within those limits seemed like challenge enough at that time, without bothering to aim for the lofty heights of great poetry. These couplets are both easy to write and to read, which is why they are often chosen to relay long narratives. It’s really only a small step up from a simple narrative. If you’re going to the pub you might change out of your joggers into some clean jeans. That’s basic, unadorned heroic couplets. But if you’re going to the ball, well then you really want to dress in your finest. That’s a Sonnet decked in rhetorical flowers, a lofty English Ode of the Pindaric tradition. It’s not hard to rattle off couplets of iambic pentameter without producing any truly great memorable lines. What was needed was a few real jewels. In a way, the problem was that I had been too ambitious in the quantity of narrative I wanted to take on. Actually, it didn’t need to tell the whole story. It could refer, as Pindar does, to a brief episode, but it must do so through some very carefully crafted and finely honed lines with  lofty language and vividness of image. Also, Ireland might have been closer to home, but it was still, for me, a borrowed culture.

More recently, I finally got round to taking the experiment further along these lines and this time the result, for me, confirmed the theory. Reading back the completed poem, it did give me a sense of a rich, resonant, magical and beautiful classical vibe – not exactly the same vibe as for the Greek tradition, but an equivalent.

The poem’s structure was more sophisticated than simple couplets. It was an ode, with three stanzas all having the same structure, with some lines having six stresses, some five, some four – and the rhyming structure was also more sophisticated than the simple A, A, B, B, but all this was done as part of a balanced plan. The imagery and language was also more carefully considered. And the matter was closer to home. It treated a Welsh myth. I live in England, but not so far form the border with Wales, and Welsh and English ancestry is very intermixed, plus Welsh culture is the descendant of pre-Anglo-Saxon British culture. In any case, it’s on the same island, at least, the same landmass. The maiden this time was Branwen, but even here there is a line of logic that can be traced that makes her a swan maiden. She was a child of the god Lir, while in an Irish myth Lir’s children were transformed into swans.

The positive result of this experiment has caused me to now consider that the theory that precipitated out of the mystery or the Quest for the Signet of Atlantis / Cygnet of Troy is correct after all, although of course not in the hyperbolic terms of the mythology. Writing poems that draw on Greek mythic matter is not actually going to cause a war in heaven, but it might cause an imbalance equivalent to the allegorical argument between the three goddesses over who should have the apple. And applying the full classical treatment to local mythology is not going to be the ultimate panacea for all the World’s problems, but I do feel that, for me at least, it opens a new door, leading to a new vista of possibilities for creativity and the classical vibe. There’s any number of indigenous myths around the World that could receive such a treatment without any sense of colonialism.

Oh and by the way, this is the poem I mentioned, the second and, to me, more successful experiment:

Gloom Breaker – an ode on the tale of the heart-healing
power of the songs of the birds of Rhiannon

I

At dim-lit dawn on Platform 1 in sombre throng 
we stand forlorn in flat, sense-numb routine 
until from trackside trees bright breaks the redbreast song: 
clear, lucent water in a crystal stream 
We tend to think that we’ll not hear 
such music at this time of year 
yet chiffchaff, thrush and finch brave Winter’s squall 
Untensing, in my mental eye 
I spread my wings; I rise and fly 
upon the soothing sound set free, and then recall 

II

how Branwen’s hope lay likewise in her feathered friend 
as she in miniature set down her news: 
‘Come soon! I, Queen of Eire am by brute force detained 
Your sister, Bran, they torture and abuse’ 
She ring-wise rolls her chosen words 
and gently takes the docile bird’s 
frail form and round a tiny leg she ties 
the note. A kiss, to wish it well 
then through the window of her cell 
releases it and skyward, swift the starling flies 

III

It lands, it sings, they read, they sail, but sail in vain: 
A fire claims her child – she can’t but grieve  
and though Bran’s fleet a wood had seemed upon the main 
Just queen and seven soldiers live to leave  
Eleven leagues from their departure 
Branwen dies of broken heart. 
So on in gravest grief the Seven sail  
Yet, over the ensuing years 
they’re healed in Harlech, through their tears 
like me – by bird and bard: sweet song and well-wrought tale.  

Three Poems for Burns Night

Address to a Feast of Burns

A dreary gloom’s hangs o’er the town
For Christmas tinsel’s taken down
But Spring’s not yet put on her gown
Of finery
Dark Winter still retains his crown
In January.

So at this time what we desire
Is merriment and warming fire
With blazing logs heaped higher and higher
And hearty food
These are the things that we require
To raise our mood.

And so we’d do well to embrace
Cold January’s one saving grace
The meal that Scots folk love to taste
Where all take turns
Hot haggis with strong whisky laced:
The Feast of Burns.

And by this feast that they hold dear
A second burst of festive cheer
Lights up the dark part of the year
To warm the heart
So call the piper here
And let it start!

The Beast of Dumgilly

In the deep dingly dells of Dumgilly
Where the mists saunter up from the sea
Blown by winds that can be a touch chilly
Stands the Castle of Bonnie King Willy
By a loch that’s as deep as can be (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Now each year a great haggis is made
On the day of the Haggis Night feast
And then into the loch they all wade
As a tune on the bagpipes is played
To call out of the water a beast (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Then deep down in the loch’s murky green
Something wakes from its sleep in a cave
First the surface stays still, nothing’s seen
Then a ripple will break through the sheen
Which grows bigger, becoming a wave (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Up he comes from the far off loch floor
Swimming straight to the source of the sound
Till he comes to a stop at the shore
Where he lets out a monsterry roar
Shakes his fins, says hello, looks around (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Now the people aren’t scared of this meeting
For they know he’s not one for a fight
They just calmly return his warm greeting
Then he puts on a bib and starts eating
And my word! How he loves every bite! (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

But one year as they carried this gift
An old wheel on their cart broke in two
There was no other way they could lift
Up the sausage which made them quite miffed
Cause they just couldn’t think what to do (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Then at last the wise king of Dumgilly
Who I think that I mentioned before
(If I didn’t, his name is King Willy
And his kilt is quite famously frilly)
Now this chap quickly raced to the shore (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

“We’ve got plenty of room in our hall,”
Bonnie Willy called out to the beast
“So don’t worry about being tall
You’re most welcome to come join us all
And take part in our Haggis Night Feast.” (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

So each year the loch monster now sits
In the hall feeling less and less shy
And still over the Moon that he fits
And in fact he’s just tickled to bits
To have friends and be cozy and dry. (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

The Festive Flame

Piping Goat-Pan’s* stars** now frame
The Sun,*** and so it’s time again
To sing of that great Festive Flame
          With cheering glow
How Piping Pan the flame reclaims
          And routs the foe

When scarcely passed was Yule’s twelfth night
The winter giants, waxed in might,
From Jotenheim, their home, took flight
           And swiftly came
To steal from human sight
           the Festive Flame.

Their general was Despondency
Then came Despair and with him he
Brought Boredom and Mundanity
         And many more
They came against all human glee
         To wage their war.


Our hearts to them were held in thrall
And drear and sickly was the pall
That billowed darkly over all
         Of Midgard’s plain
So Thor from Asgard gave the call:
         “Let gloom be slain!”

He takes his hammer in his hand
And leads his mighty hero band
They track and chase from land to land
          For three long weeks
At last before their foes they stand and
          Thor now speaks:

‘Give up to us the Festive Flame
This thing alone we’re here to claim
We will return wither we came
         And go in peace
Now end this little game;
         the flame release!’

This was met with blank defiance
From the icy-hearted giants
It was Thor who broke the silence
         With request
To gods to form alliance
         ‘Gainst this pest.

In answer Bacchus brought his crew
With Pan, who on the bagpipes blew,
And Hestia, the goddess who
       Makes hearth-fires glow
And Fast and Feast and Dance as well
       Were brought in tow.

Arriving on his festive float
His ‘Car Naval’, his chariot boat
Came Bacchus, drawn by Pan’s shrill note
          In flowers decked
The giants’ defensive line he smote
          And rear guard wrecked

Hear Bacchus’ donkey loudly bray
As now the god rides to the fray
And sends a fiery whiskey spray
           Into their eyes
The giants for their evil pay
            With painful cries

Pan’s drone and chanter intertwined
To hypnotise the baser mind
But freed the one of higher kind
                  So in that brood
Of giants it spread panic blind
                  But raised our mood.

And as the pipes’ loud skirl flew round
The giants fell upon the ground
And loudly did the Earth resound           
              As down they fell
The pipes for us were heaven’s sound
              For them: death’s knell.

And on the fire fresh wood was thrown
And in the heart new hope was sown
And from the jug of polished stone
                Wine filled the bowl
And wildly were the bagpipes blown
                To cheer the soul

And still the ever-building drone
The timeless, blazing monotone
From out the leather bag, well-sewn
                Cast this fierce charm:
“On giants bring down moan and groan  
                On men, no harm.”

As cheering flames the hall pervade
The brutes retreat, regret their raid
Our captive human hearts now fade
                from their control
And still the piper’s notes cascade
                to cheer the soul.

And so the Festive Flame burned bright
Through Thorablot and Haggis Night
And Carnaval and burned on right
         Through Pancake Day
The Winter Giants’ blight
         Was kept at bay.

* The technical term for the double-reed mouthpiece of the double-piped Ancient Greek aulos was syrinx (“reed”) and it seems that, since Pan was often depicted playing the double aulos pipe, the mythic theme of Pan with his syrinx (the nymph who, when chased by Pan, turned to a clump of reeds which Pan then cut and used to make a musical instrument) at some point referred not to a set of Panpipes (hollow reeds), but to the mouthpiece of the aulos. The double reed is also the type of mouthpiece used in bagpipes, and indeed the aulos with its double pipe sounded much like the bagpipe. So here we have Pan as the god of the bagpipes. See also the following note on the instrument Pan/Capricorn invented and used to spread panic among the Titans, causing them to flee. Hence here we have the bagpipes similarly causing the giants to retreat.

** A standard member of Dionysos’ retinue, and one present early on in Greek material, is Pan, or Aigipan: ‘Goat Pan’. Goat-legged Pan is in the retinue in the mosaic of the fifth century B.C.E. Villa of Good Fortune, Olynthus, and in Euripides’ Bacchae, and in later iconographical examples such as the Triumph of Bacchus and the Seasons sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the mural from the tomb near Ostia now in the Archaeological Museum, Ostia. We have explicit Roman and earlier Greek testimony to this figure being represented in the stars by the constellation of Capricorn. Hyginus (b.64B.C.E.) wrote (Poet. Astr2.28) that ‘Capricorn’s appearance is very similar to that of Aigipan.’ He goes further: ‘Pan reportedly jumped into the river, changed his hind parts into a fish, and the rest of his body into a goat… Jupiter, admiring Pan’s ruse, placed that image among the stars.’ Going back to the earlier Eratosthenes Constellations text (what we have is Pseudo-Eratosthenes’ first century C.E. epitome of a lost original attributed to Eratosthenes) we find the same idea. ‘Aegoceros [Capricorn] is similar in appearance to Aegipan…. Aegoceros is thought to have invented the trumpet which is called Panicus…. the sound of his trumpet caused the Titans to flee…[so]…after he assumed power, Zeus placed Aegocerus among the stars.’ It was, of course, really Pan himself who invented panic.

*** The constellations have moved on from the positions they held when astrology was formulated, so whilst originally the Sun moved into Capricorn towards the end of December around the time of the Saturnalia festival, now it enters that constellation towards the end of the January. In fact, it currently moves into the Goat-Pan constellation just a few days before Burns Night. See for example http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/dates-of-suns-entry-into-each-constellation-of-the-zodiac

The Beast of Dumgilly

In the deep dingly dells of Dumgilly
Where the mists saunter up from the sea
Blown by winds that can be a touch chilly
Stands the Castle of Bonnie King Willy
By a loch that’s as deep as can be (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Now each year a great haggis is made
On the day of the Haggis Night feast
And then into the loch they all wade
As a tune on the bagpipes is played
To call out of the water a beast (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Then deep down in the loch’s murky green
Something wakes from its sleep in a cave
First the surface stays still, nothing’s seen
Then a ripple will break through the sheen
Which grows bigger, becoming a wave (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Up he comes from the far off loch floor
Swimming straight to the source of the sound
Till he comes to a stop at the shore
Where he lets out a monsterry roar
Shakes his fins, says hello, looks around (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Now the people aren’t scared of this meeting
For they know he’s not one for a fight
They just calmly return his warm greeting
Then he puts on a bib and starts eating
And my word! How he loves every bite! (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

But one year as they carried this gift
An old wheel on their cart broke in two
There was no other way they could lift
Up the sausage which made them quite miffed
Cause they just couldn’t think what to do (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Then at last the wise king of Dumgilly
Who I think that I mentioned before
(If I didn’t, his name is King Willy
And his kilt is quite famously frilly)
Now this chap quickly raced to the shore (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

“We’ve got plenty of room in our hall,”
Bonnie Willy called out to the beast
“So don’t worry about being tall
You’re most welcome to come join us all
And take part in our Haggis Night Feast.” (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

So each year the loch monster now sits
In the hall feeling less and less shy
And still over the Moon that he fits
And in fact he’s just tickled to bits
To have friends and be cozy and dry. (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

The Mystic Revel Fades – As Sapphic Ballad

I’ve tweaked the stanza structure of The Mystic Revel Fades, to what I call a Sapphic Ballad.

The Mystic Revel Fades – A Sapphic Ballad

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

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

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

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

And so in pure and foodless joy
we joined the maenads’ dance
From out the eastern heaven came
ecstatic trance

As Rose-Dawn flushed the marbles
of the three-fold goddess Grace
(Giving, Getting, Giving Back 
in one embrace)

We wove our steps around them
on the flow’ry dancing floor
Giving back by sending out 
our mystic awe

So farewell Fields Elysian
how lightly we did tread
In circles round the dance-ground of
the Blessed Dead!

While fed on beauty only 
how we circled hand in hand!
But now I’m called by business in
the mortals’ land.

So farewell sweet Terpsichore
until some other day
For I must pull my hand back now
and turn away

I’m sad to break the circle but
The Ferry Man is calling
Alas, the time has passed for me
to keep on stalling

The echoes of the Revel fade
to soft and softer strain
‘Though I must sail away I soon
will come again

And Farewell fair Persephone
it won’t be long to wait
Till down Sacred Way I walk
and through the gate

Where opens up the holy view
as mental curtains part
And once again Soul-shocking beauty
floods the heart

The time between is short before
this very week is past
I once again will burn dull sloth
with cleansing fast

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

This dawn dance is a treasure that
I’ll cherish with the rest
But now it’s time to leave these Islands
of the Bless’d.

So farewell to the meadows where
our steps the wild thyme pressed
And farewell to the grasses that
our shins caressed

And farewell to those shorelines kissed
by Zephyr from the West
For now it’s time to leave these Islands
of the Bless’d

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

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

Ode to a Car Key

O fine, faff-free and labour-saving key
That lets me lock and unlock, with one press,
The car remotely and most easily
For you my heart now fills with thankfulness
Let’s say it’s raining and one stands
With luggage in both hands
It’s been a busy day and one is tired
How glad one feels to then recall
A single button press is all
That is required!

Hephaestus for the gods with rarest skill
Did many a shining bronze device design
Some tool that leapt to action at their will
Performing tasks befitting lives divine:
Their gold cars pulled by brazen steed
Through air at such a speed
As lighting that precedes the thunder’s rumble
We feel ourselves to be their kin
When gracefully we enter in
Without a fumble

Helios the Sun in chariot made by Hephaestus, with animated bronze horses

So unimpeded in the car I climb
And like a king upon a throne I sit
And cruise the country lanes in state sublime
Like Bacchus in his magic vine-filled ship
And as my homeward way I wend
I know at journey’s end
There waits for me a happy circumstance:
I’ll loose the safety belt and out
I’ll get and walk away without
A backwards glance.

Bacchus in vine-filled ship

12) Another Road to Elysium?

In the previous blog posts I’ve looked at the ode as way poetry can confer on us the dignity that the Soul is due, like the way the ancient Mystery initiations created a self-image of kinship with those of starry heaven (the gods) and thus the right to pass along the Sacred Way to Elysium rather than flitting around as a mere shade in the Afterlife. So Pindar says his ode is an arrow with the power to confer the same type of glory as that present in the heroes who have passed to Elysium, a power only initiates will understand.

But as well as conferring the dignity of the hero / demigod on your life, there is another road to Elysium, which is about conferring dignity upon the landscapes you inhabit by means of the status that comes from the idea that epic adventures of heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses have taken place within it. This is the realm of the epic. It’s about mythic geography, and Dreamtime, and morphic resonance, and sacred space. It’s about narrative and quest. It is not, therefore, the zone of odes. A different type of poetry works best here: heroic verse. There is a different muse: Calliope rather than Euterpe. 

Heroic verse generally consists of rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. The simple a, a, b, b, c, c, d, d (etc.) rhyming pattern, plus constant use of lines of the same meter and the lack of structured stanzas means it’s relatively easy to write and easy to read. It has to be, because it’s used to tell long stories, stories that you will inhabit for weeks at a time. It’s heroic in the sense that it follows the adventures of heroes but also because it gives the impression of being the result of a heroic creative effort, just because the poems are so long. Yes, it is a big effort, but actually once you get into the rhythm of it, these couplets of pentameter are easier to rattle off than you might think. The reader isn’t really expecting or looking for mind-blowing particular lines – they’re in it for the long haul and are thinking of the bigger picture, but all the same, because the structure is simpler, I find it’s much easier to work in those rhetorical devices we looked at in Section 5.

In what way is this a road to Elysium? Although it’s not about expressing gratitude in rapturous tones, it is still about conferring dignity. In this case, it’s the dignity of place that comes from a myth about great events happening in that location, and it weaves together various locations by means of the journey of the protagonists. If the myth catches on, a resonance then occurs, transpersonally, in morphic fields, so that the story becomes imprinted into the Idea of Place. Have you travelled round the Greek islands with an awareness of the stories of place? It’s quite something. If the mythic imprint becomes strong enough, there is an expansive feel in that place if you go there and activate the field, just because transpersonal resonance is by nature a kind of magical thing – it lifts us out of the cave of the particular and reminds us of our interconnection with Universal Mind.

That is why in aboriginal Australian tradition, going walkabout in the landscape of the ancestors and re-singing the myths of place as you walk through them is called entering the Dreamtime. This recognises a shift in consciousness to a more collective level, closer to the creator spirits (the gods).  So a location where events of the heroic age are held to have taken place has an enriched Dreamtime that takes it one step closer to the gods. While in the Mysteries you said ‘I can pass along the Sacred Way to Elysium because I am a child of the gods of starry heaven,’ a mythic geography on the other hand says that the energy of starry heaven actually infuses and interpenetrates the place I live in because of the stories that hover in its aura. In fact, these myths can get extra potency by grounding the patterns of the stars or planets in Hermetic fashion – as above, so below, thereby tapping into the resonance of the old star myths and grounding this into the local setting. So it takes you closer to Elysium by bringing Elysium closer to where you are, bringing the Universal into the Particular.

This is not, however, the place to look at this in any detail, because this site is about gratitude poems, primarily odes, but also sonnets, as well as the lighter gratilude. There is scientific backing for the benefits of regularly expressing gratitude, but I don’t know if any studies have been done on the direct benefits of activating resonance with mythic geographies. Although I don’t doubt such benefits exits, the lack of science means I can’t assume that this idea would appeal to the same audience.   

I have dabbled in heroic verse. In fact, I have almost completed a mini epic set in Britain, all based on a sacred geometric plan for the nation. This poem just needs finishing off. Who knows, it could find its way into a later publication. It might seem like a vain project given that such mythic geographies in the past have become effective only after many generations of fame have strongly imprinted the morphic field, but I hoped to speed things up by developing out of the geometric plan a Hermetic as-above-so-below planetary scheme (using the associations of planets with gods) plus the enhanced resonance that comes from following the muses and enlisting the help of synchronicity. But it would be wrong to include the poem here, in a site about gratitude poems.

Why then, do I mention heroic verse here? Partly, I always wanted this series of posts to have twelve sections, even though the plan I had roughed out for it didn’t have that many. Twelve’s a good round number, isn’t it? Twelve months, twelve astrological houses, twelve hours in the day and twelve in the night, twelve disciples, twelve tribes. 2 x 2 x 3. Three squares or four triangles. But it’s also because I think it’s worth admitting that there’s more than one way to do these things. A river generally keeps its bounds for the full extent of its journey but ultimately joins the sea, and it’s the same for these posts – they deal with odes but now as we get to the end we can look up and remember there’s a wider landscape; there’s not just one type of poem.

Are there yet other poetic roads that lead to Elysium, beyond ekphrasis, odes and heroic verse? Probably, but I can’t at present think what they would be. But what can definitely be said is that there are other roads using different modes other than poetry. For example, there is song. In song you don’t just assign one beat to a syllable. You can stretch a syllable out over several notes. You can also place the stress in syncopated places. Some use this as an excuse to be less precise about things, but actually it doesn’t necessarily mean taking short cuts and saying what you want to say with less crafting. It can actually work the other way round. You can do it artfully, only stretching or syncopating or squeezing for deliberate musical reasons, with a very skilled level of crafting to the wording to make it fit this chosen musical pattern. When you get “take a sad song and make it better” in one verse, and “you have found her, now go and get her” in the next, not only is there a rhyme occurring across verses, but also the same pattern of the last syllable of the line moving over the same notes, in the same rhythm, and not to make the words fits, but conversely to improve the melody. And of course the melody itself, as well as the harmony and overall progression and the sonic textures and rhythm, add further levels of feeling and beauty and dynamism. And from music are born other modes of expression, such as dance.

Music is definitely worth mentioning here before we end, because it is undoubtedly an enhanced way for humans to get to know what amplified, intense rapture feels like. In other words, music, like fasting, can help you learn about gratitude (and as you know, I think you should combine the two with Hungry Dawn Raving).

What is the musical equivalent of a gratitude ode? It depends whether you’re talking about i) the rapturous emotion itself upon which the poet is reflecting, or whether you are thinking of ii) the ode as an act of calm reflection after a moment of rapture, or instead you could have in mind iii) the longer term general boost to mood that comes from regularly expressing gratitude.

  1. There’s no doubt in my mind that there is no other form of music that comes anywhere close to certain sub-genres of electronic Trance music for invoking the feeling of rapture. These subgenres (which overlap a fair bit) are Uplifting, Emotional, Progressive, Epic and Orchestral. You can’t communicate the rush of rapture without that racing pulse, that throbbing, shamanic beat at the human celebration/bounce frequency of between 130-140bpm (i.e. the most comfortable leaping/jumping pace – the speed at which we naturally dance when dancing means leaving the ground between steps). This beat is firmly hardwired into us as the activator of the Celebration Response.
  2. If you’re thinking of the ode as a later moment of calm, considered reflection, on the other hand – well-measured, carefully composed, highly ordered – then you’re probably looking at some kind of mellow classical music on piano or lute or strings, perhaps an adagio or sonata or prelude, or something like that.
  3. If you’re thinking of the longer term mood boost from regular expressions of gratitude, then it’s just going to be something upbeat and positive and chirpy.  It could be some summery reggae, or some jaunty jazz, some perky bluegrass, or, well, whatever happy music takes your fancy in the moment. Communal group singing has been shown to be a great way to uplift mood, and I can see how something like, say, gospel, could carry feelings of gratitude.

Having opened things up to consider other artistic modes, finally it remains for this river, in its final moment of dissolving into the sea, to open up completely by reminding you that I’m just one writer with my own take on these matters, but there are many other valid takes out there, including your own, so…over to you.

I’m going to continue with my own ode journal, and may continue to post some of the odes to this site, but I won’t be doing any more blogging about the process of it. I may go off and turn the 12 post into some kind of book, but this won’t be posted online.

An Ode to Herbs

I

For aromatic oils in herbs and shrubs
Let thanks rise to the gods, from whence they fell
When one but holds the leaves and gently rubs
There issues forth a mystic, fragrant smell
   The living plants will ornament
      A tended garden plot
The plants will then provide yet further gifts
   For sprigs of these ingredients
   When added to the cooking pot
         The taste uplifts

II

Hellenic folk in golden ages old
These perfumes of the plants sought to explain
With stories down the generations told
Of how such shrubs some pretty nymph contain
   How when Apollo yearned to kiss
      Sweet Daphne, she, forlorn
With all speed did attempt to run away
   Then saving metamorphosis
   The pretty maiden did transform
         To odorous bay

III

O Sage! O Thyme! O Rosemary! I praise
Your power to boost our health, our pain to ease
Our memory to strengthen, moods to raise
Our sense of sight and smell and taste to please
   It must have been when we first burnt
      Dry incense, or with mint
We first less pleasant tastes and smells disguised
   That we, now that at last we’d learnt
   To add a subtle herbal hint
         Were civilised