An English Ode – Video

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.

What’s Freyja’s meadow Folkvang after all 
Where valkyries take half the great and best
If not the field with rushes growing tall
Where Hathor greets arrivals in the West?
And what’s that place where Arthur dwells
Where all of Nature’s fruitful gifts
The generous soil untended freely yields –
That apple isle, which by their spells
Nine sisters shroud in faery mists – 
What’s Avalon if not the Elysian Fields? 

"An English Ode" – now with a fourth stanza

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.

What’s Freyja’s meadow Folkvang after all 
Where valkyries take half the great and best
If not the field with rushes growing tall
Where Hathor greets arrivals in the West?
And what’s that place where Arthur dwells
Where all of Nature’s fruitful gifts
The generous soil untended freely yields –
That apple isle, which by their spells
Nine sisters shroud in faery mists – 
What’s Avalon if not the Elysian Fields? 

An Ode to Bradford-on-Avon Station Garden

A garden by the platform has been made 
not seen by those who wait for trains, frustrated 
I turn and wander through this well-kempt glade 
and quickly find my own mood is placated.  

Some stepping stones a rustic pathway make 
through beds with shrubs and flowers decorated 
What would be waste is tamed by hoe and rake 
now seen by me and much appreciated. 

A secret sidestep from the mundane march 
How long in humble silence has it waited 
For someone to step through the bowered arch? 
How long to be enjoyed, appreciated? 

Who planned ahead and knew the time to toil? 
Our need for cold-month cheer anticipated 
by planting bulbs for colour in the soil? 
Their caring forethought is appreciated. 

Still further in, the glade becomes a copse 
A host of lofty trees is congregated 
And woodland birds sing out from in their tops 
As if to say they too appreciate it 

To those who’ve conjured spaces of respect 
sweet public plots to Calmness consecrated 
in places that had suffered from neglect 
Just so you know: it is appreciated. 

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.