The Silver Birch – video

The Silver Birch
a caudate 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.

Songbird Stay (spoken word video)

Songbird Stay

O key ingredient of the harmony
   Of Spring, dear Songbird stay, we beg you, stay!
The dead must feel an equal agony
   To hear you not, nor see the light of day
Should silence fall within the woodland dells
   We’d mourn as if the Sun had left the sky
Or all the flowers lost their honey smells
   As from their petals drained the coloured dye
We love those trills that irrigate the mind
   With water from a laughing, babbling stream
      Your calls explore a secret sylvan space
And by the echoes somehow is defined
   Within our human thought a painted scene
      Of all that’s filled with natural, verdant grace
Sweet Songbird stay and ever, ever sing for once you’re gone it never could be Spring

We’ll take whatever course for you is best
   Ensure the fields from poisons are kept free
Keep dogs instead of cats, to spare your nest
   And anywhere you need it plant a tree
We’ll plant such bowery covert as you need
   We’ll plant so you can shelter, roost and call
We’ll plant the plants that give you food to feed
   We’ll plant them if we value Spring at all
We love each sound you sing, o darling bird
   All notes that issue from your quavering throat
      Each lilting warble, chirrup, cheep and coo
By which the silent sleeping air is stirred
   These sounds now through my open window float
      To broach the Gates of Dawn, and bring the New!
Sweet Songbird stay and ever, ever sing for once you’re gone it never could be Spring

To Wine – an incantation (spoken word / video)

To Wine – An Incantation

O Effortless Discoverer! O Wine!
   Two-Things-at-Once! Dark Sunshine! Old-but-Young!
Bestir to tripping dance the Muse of Rhyme
   Great Uninhibitor, loosen her tongue
Send forth your shelt’ring leaves over my mind
   Embrace with dappled shade the grapes of thought
Protect them from the light of Trying-to-Find
   Lest nude in Reason’s burning glare they’re caught
For season after season we entrust
   This treasure to the cave of rustic stone
      As silently the ruby liquid dreams
Long slumb’ring in the cellar’s dark and dust
   What secret mysteries to you were shown
      By under-dwelling nymphs of chthonic streams?
O gen’rous partner in the poet’s art
Now set the pen in flight, and help me start!

To Chamomile – Video

To Chamomile – An Incantation

O soft enchantress of the candle glow,
   With gentle, caring fingertips caress
Our eyelids, with a stroke soothing and slow
  Dissolve our thoughts in sweet forgetfulness
Thou angel of the cup, kind Chamomile,
   Thy golden tisane, warming, wets the lip
We feel the face relax into a smile
   Then raise the cup and take another sip
But how’s the mixture made? First fill the pot
   And heat the water till the bubbles roar
      Then add your spoon of flowers and let steep
Until the liquid’s neither cool nor hot
   Now take your chosen cup and carefully pour
      The potion, and partake before you sleep.
  While drinking, say aloud or read this spell,
  Which calms you and by calming keeps you well.

8) Poetry and the Power of Placebo : Invocation, Incantation and Inspiration (including my sonnets to Wine and to Chamomile)

Thus far we’ve focused on gratitude, inspired by the studies which show how keeping a gratitude journal is good for happiness and health, and using the poetic genre of the ode to create a glorified version of the gratitude journal, with a correspondingly amplified potential to uplift.

When we compose such odes, it’s inevitable that at some point there will be an overlap with the placebo effect, if you’re singing the praises of something because of its healthy benefits. For science is also well aware that, within certain limits, this effect is real. There are certain areas where this gives more leverage than others. Some areas where it has been shown to be particularly effective are inflammation (e.g. skin rashes and irritable bowel syndrome), pain (e.g. chronic lower back pain), cognitive performance, creativity, fatigue, anxiety and depression. 

What part could poetry play here?

Incantations

Studies have shown some very interesting features of the placebo effect. Firstly, the doctor’s ‘bedside manner’ has an effect. A study showed that the placebo effect was enhanced when the doctor had a demeanour that seemed both warm and competent. Another study, widely reported, showed that the placebo effect still works even when you know it’s a placebo, while others have shown that even branding can enhance the effect.

This is great news for us poets. What we do is basically an act of branding, re-framing, adding spin. And this begins to explain why spells are almost invariably little rhymes, little pieces of poetry, and indeed why poetry can be so enchanting. We’re simply going to use the power of poetry to create an enchantment, sitting somewhere between marketing, medicine and mesmerisation.

Does this represent a lapse back into the dark ages, back into quackery? There’s an easy way to avoid this. Just as with rhetoric the rule is: don’t make what is fowl seem fair, but rather make what is fair stand out above what is fowl, in the same way, with our placeboeic incantations, rather than giving a placebo effect to something neutral, we’re going to amplify the effect of something which science has shown to have an inherent effect, stronger than placebo alone.

Not that this balance was not attained in the ‘dark ages’. For example, there is an Anglo-Saxon poem known as the Nine Herbs Charm which was to be said aloud while administering a potion made from several herbs, many of which do indeed have healing qualities. So we are suggesting nothing new here as this already meets the description of what we’re after – a potion with genuine health-promoting properties which are then further amplified by the addition of a placebo effect, generated by means of a poem.

If we’re adding anything new to this idea, it is by taking this intuitive witchy wisdom and combining it with voice that sounds more authentic and authoritative to our civilised post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment ears : the language and style and structure of Romantic poetry. This will be more powerful for us than something redolent only of dark ages quackery. Here below is an example of an incantation I’ve written myself about chamomile tea. Chamomile’s relaxing properties are very real – it contains a chemical that connects to the same GABA receptors in the brain as the tranquilizer Valium. So by singing its praises as a bringer of calm I’m not descending into quackery. I’ve used that same sixteen-line sonnet form that I used in my Silver Birch poem. It’s got the odd “thou” and “thy” in there – normally I wouldn’t dabble with these, but in the language of incantations it is common to find archaisms. I was a bit cheeky with the way I wrote this. I took Keats’ sonnet To Sleep, and changed first a word, then another, moved things around, then removed whole lines, substituted different lines with different themes and different rhymes, and kept tinkering and changing until at last it was a totally different poem that said what I wanted it to say, with only the first line having an obvious similarity to Keats’ poem. This is what I came up with:

To Chamomile – An Incantation

O soft enchanter of the candle glow,
   With gentle, caring fingertips caress
Our eyelids, with a stroke soothing and slow
  Dissolve our thoughts in sweet forgetfulness
Thou angel of the cup, kind Chamomile,
   Thy golden tisane, warming, wets the lip
We feel the face relax into a smile
   Then raise the cup and take another sip
But how’s the mixture made? First fill the pot
   And heat the water till the bubbles roar
      Then add your spoon of flowers and let steep
Until the liquid’s neither cool nor hot
   Now take your chosen cup and carefully pour
      The potion, and partake before you sleep.
  While drinking, say aloud or read this spell,
  Which calms you and by calming keeps you well.

Invocation

Closely related to such incantations is the invocation. A figure, such as a god or goddess, is used as a personification of a quality, and then in the poem you invoke that figure, in order to conjure that quality. There is an ancient poem by Sappho where she starts by calling Aphrodite, as follows:

Leave Crete and come to this holy temple
Where the pleasant grove of apple trees
Circles an altar smoking with frankincense.

Of course for Sappho this was, more than likely, intended as an invocation of a goddess that was believed to be real, but this cannot really be separated from the invocation of qualities, because such pagan deities were closely identified with particular aspects, in contrast to a monotheistic god who must be all things, and therefore stands for nothing specific. When I lived in Brighton&Hove I felt inspired to borrow Sappho’s opening for my own poem – written in the form of a Sapphic ode – which is both a celebration of the beauty of one of the seafront squares there – Brunswick Square – but which is also an invocation to Venus to come there and further enhance the sense of place with her divine qualities:

The Venus of Brunswick Square

Leave Crete, Surf-Born, for Brunswick’s glade
Where sea-breeze whispers in the tops
Of thick-grown firs that cast their shade
Under the copse

Around the green the terrace lies
Where frontages, curved round in bays,
Make lookout posts for seaward eyes
To cast their gaze

The column curves catch varied light,
With spiral capitals of cream,
And finely frame a bounteous sight
Where wavelets gleam.

Corinthian pilasters hold
Their load upon acanthus leaves
Still spiralled, as their curves unfold
Under the eaves

Aphrodite, come, we pray
And grace this finely crafted cove
And softly smile upon our play
In surf-flecked Hove.

 

What I didn’t realise, when I wrote this, is that the Italian Renaissance prince, patron and poet Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote a poem which also borrows this idea from Sappho, this time calling the goddess to some spot in the Tuscan countryside around Florence. The first lines, in English translation, read:

O LEAVE Cithera, your beloved isle,
O leave your gentle kingdom, come away
And rest, O goddess, by this stream awhile
That sprinkles every tender green grass spray.

Inspiration

We pen poems. That is the business which we’re about. That’s how we come up with our gratitude odes. As such, there’s one area of effective placeboeic leverage that is of particular interest to us here. The placebo effect has been shown to enhance creativity. In a study described in a paper published in 2017, participants were given an odour to smell. Some were told that this odour boosted creativity, while others weren’t told of any particular benefits. Those that had been told it would make them more creative then proceeded to excel on tests that measure creativity, outperforming the other group!

 There have been potions used in cultures of the past with the intention of boosting creativity. In ancient Greece there were springs that were held to be sacred to the Muses, with the obvious implication being that if you drank their waters you would be inspired, and it was also believed that the genius of Dionysos was present within wine, and the composers of a type of Dionysian song, the dithyrhamb, believed they were giving birth to the god when they wrote these songs under the god’s influence, i.e. when drinking wine. Similarly, the Taliesin poems of medieval Wales make it clear that invocations of the Muses and words of blessing were said over fermented beverages, e.g. mead, so that bards would be filled with awen, poetic inspiration. 

Of course, there are many other substances that people have used believing they will enhance creativity. How often is this really the placebo effect?And is there anything that science tells us a real beneficial effect on creativity beyond placebo? If so, we can embrace the placebo aspect while knowing that it’s not pure spin.. As it happens, Austrian scientists carried out a study involving two types of beer, one that contained alcohol, and one that was alcohol free, but tasted like the real thing. They were then given tasks that tested creative problem solving. Those that had drunk the alcoholic version did indeed perform better! 

Great, so a moderate amount of a boozy beverage really can help to get the creative juices flowing, just as the Greek and Welsh bards of old believed. Not something to overdo, of course, as the whole point of from the point of view of Glory of Glad is the art of living well, and healthily. Here’s my sonnet to wine.

To Wine – An Incantation

O Effortless Discoverer! O Wine!
   Two-Things-at-Once! Dark Sunshine! Old-but-Young!
Bestir to tripping dance the Muse of Rhyme
   Great Uninhibitor, loosen her tongue
Send forth your shelt’ring leaves over my mind
   Embrace with dappled shade the grapes of thought
Protect them from the light of Trying-to-Find
   Lest nude in Reason’s burning glare they’re caught
For season after season we entrust
   This treasure to the cave of rustic stone
      As silently the ruby liquid dreams
Long slumb’ring in the cellar’s dark and dust
   What secret mysteries to you were shown
      By under-dwelling nymphs of chthonic streams?
O gen’rous partner in the poet’s art
Now set the pen in flight, and help me start!

Explanations

Two-Things-At-Once – Dionsysos was called He-Of-The-Two-Natures, the Paradoxical God, He-of-the-Two-Gates and such like. Here this fits the theme of wine as Effortless Discoverer – creative insight comes from linking previously unlinked frames of reference, i.e. finding something that is in both frames, and is so is two-things-at-once. Alcohol has been shown to increase the ability to make such creative leaps.

Dark Sunshine! Old-but-Young – two examples of how wine is two-things-at-once, being both bottled sunshine and a dark liquid, and being both long matured and playful/energy-giving.

Loosen her tongue – i.e. uninhibit the Muse of Rhyme and encourage her to speak, inspiring poetic ideas.

Send forth your shelt’ring leaves over my mind
   Embrace with dappled shade the grapes of thought
Protect them from the light of Trying-to-Find
   Lest nude in Reason’s burning glare they’re caught

These lines refer to the myth of Dionysos – the infant was protected from the fire of Zeus by a covering of ivy leaves, just as in the vineyard grapes need the shelter of vine leaves to grow under hot summer Sun. Simultaneously it represents the way that increased creativity can result when the bright glare of rational thought is kept at bay, as this doesn’t allow the creative insights of lateral thinking. This is thought to be how wine can help creativity.

For season after season we entrust
   This treasure to the cave of rustic stone
      As silently the ruby liquid dreams
Long slumb’ring in the cellar’s dark and dust
   What secret mysteries to you were shown
      By under-dwelling nymphs of chthonic streams?

This poem is supposed to harness the placebo effect, and branding has been shown to enhance the placebo effect, while at the same time the wine industry has a masterful, artful and rather beautiful tradition of branding wine. I join in with this here, with romantic-classical images of the wine cellar, as a cavern of rustic stone, a place of dark and dust, and a grotto of the nymphs. Simultaneously it continues the theme of mysterious creativity thats occur away from the bright glare of the rational.

cthonic – relating to or inhabiting the underworld.

O gen’rous partner in the poet’s art
Now set the pen in flight, and help me start!

The last rhyming couplet of the sonnet is a final reminder of the intention underlying the incantation, i.e. to invoke the power of wine to assist with creative insight while writing poetry.

Alternative title: A Decantation Incantation.

Interesting fact: Although this poem makes me sound like an old soak, it was actually written while stone cold sober, while in the zone not through alcohol use but rather by means of the early morning aerobic dance workout I had just finished. So wine here could be a symbol of anything that allows this kind of creativity.

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.

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.