The Tryptych

I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science…the next five to the composition of the poem—and the five last to the correction of it. So I would write haply not unhearing of the divine and rightly-whispering Voice, which speaks to mighty minds of predestinated Garlands, starry and unwithering.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

For almost two decades, between 1999 & 2017, I was an active participant in the pursuit of the creation of an epic poem, Axis & Allies. It first sprang to life in the Autumn of 1999, while I was working on a relatively long poem called Testamundi Imperatrix. Both a salute to the coming Millennium & a celebration of Britain’s lost empire, Hong Kong had only been handed back to China in 1997, the composition period spanned the months between July 1999 & April 2000. The form I had chosen was the same as that developed by John Keats in his magnificent series of odes of 1819. Of all the poets I was connecting with at the time, my 23 years seemed to match well with Keats’ own 23 years in 1819. A stanza from his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ shows the form well.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Keats has here created a new a ten-line stanza out of the English & Italian sonnet forms. Of the genesis behind hi sinnovation, Keats wrote his brother;

I have been endeavouring to discover a better Sonnet stanza than we have. The legitimate does not suit the language well, from the pouncing rhymes; the other appears too elegiac, and the couplet at the end of it has seldom a pleasing effect. I do not pretend to have succeeded. It will explain itself.

The Imperatrix takes the form of 20 narrative set pieces, divided into three parts, such as this one concerning the English scholar, Bede;

Twin bearded stars circle a purple sun,
For he who transcended life’s tribalhood,
The first very ven’rable Englishman,
Lies down in his death bed, coughing up blood.

This proud patriot, tho’ pale & sickly,
Who gather’d up the knowledge of the West,
Still fires the flame of learning in his eyes.

“Take up thy pen & ink & write quickly,”
He dictates the last sacred scriptures blest,
Pleads grace & mercy, signs the cross & dies.

Midway during the compostion period, in October 1999, I decided to write a long poem on the Battle of Waterloo. For the poem’s form I was ready to try something more ambitious. Just like Keats, I had become enthused with the desire to develop a stanza of my own, something more flexible to handle the narrative. It would be called a Tryptych, after the three-part picture-stories so popular In Christian art, & after sketching a few ideas for its infrastructure, I composed the following poem;

Once…Romance, regent ruler of an age,
Dwelt deep in the beatings of great men’s hearts
And conjured the captain that helped to cage
The grand thief of Europe…My tayles lay starts;
He halts his ride
At the edge of tall trees,
Surveys a countryside of swaying yellow seas.

With knowing eyes he scann’d the scene,
“I have seen it’s like before,”
Then spurr’d his mount past Mont Saint-Jean
To pause upon the contour,
Thereby thro’ blue sky flew, serene,
A Dove from a lovely shore,
On which Wellington, warlord of dead men,
Says, “Swiftly, De Lancey, pass me my pen!”

Unto the Dove the Duke did call
While scribbling down one word…
White wings in fall, how soon the scroll
Tied gently to that bird,
Which flutter’d up to lofty heights where nothing mortal stirr’d.
THE HEAD

In order for future ‘form-designers’ to get a feel behind the necessary thought-processes, I shall now elucidate the mechanics underlying my invention of the tri-staved Tryptych. When conceiving the form, to begin with I thought there was no better stanza than the heroic quatrian used by Dryden in his excellent Annus Mirabilis poem of 1666;

In thriving Arts long time had Holland grown,
Crouching at home, and cruel when abroad:
Scarce leaving us the means to claim our own;
Our King they courted, and our Merchants aw’d.

These four lines are capable of setting the scene. To complete the opening stave I utilized a metrical device used in a number of odes, especially in Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality,’ where he writes;

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more

We have already seen how Keats would use the device in his odes;

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

The last three-lines struck me as especially resonant – in particular the closing alexandrine. After a wee inversion I added them to my quatrain to create a stave both lovely-sounding & aesthetically pleasing. Notice the internal rhymes in the second part of the stave (eye/by).

‘What is it all for, love & peace & war,
When both the wide way’d Earth & man’s action
Remain as constant as the Northern star?’
Mused three old madonnas down the station;
Their wise old eye
Translates the censor’d news,
Watching the trains pass by pack’d with Sicily’s Jews

THE BODY

For my Tryptych’s middle section I thought the 8-lined Ottava Rima would be perfect, as introduced into the English language by Byron in his epic, Don Juan. A typical Byronic stanza reads;

Her sweet smile, and her then majestic figure-
Her plumpness, her imperial condescension,
Her preference of a boy to men much bigger
(Fellows whom Messalina’s self would pension),
Her prime of life, just now in juicy vigour.
With other extras which we need not mention, —
All these, or any one of these, explain
Enough to make a stripling very vain.

Byron had come across the form in the works of the Italian poets, who had chosen Ottava Rima as the chief form for their epics. Keeping with tradition, for my own version, I shorten’d the lengths of the first six lines, reducing them from iambic pentameter to an 8/7/8/7/8/6 sequence. The sixth line, as invented in 1999, had originally consisted of seven syllables, but I found by reducing it to six I set up nicely the stave’s closing couplet. The couplet would also serve as a platform upon which the rest of the stave would stand, like the Alexandrine line of each Tryptych’s head.

He rode his luck to Switzerland,
Compassment the Northern Star,
At Geneva he shook the hand
Of a man named Jean-Francois,
They drove thro checkpoints seldom mann’d
To Perpignan, by car,
Where with a gourd of wine, & quart of cheese,
Young Miguel guides him cross the Pyrenees.

THE TAIL

For the final stave, I thought the traditional & primal British ballad stanza would be perfect, followed by a thundering ‘fourteener’ which would aesthetically support the whole Tryptych like a long slab of concrete. The measure would also close off the entire poem with a flourish. To my mind the fouteener is the actuall natural poetical breath of the English language, & as such I hope our future poets compose more in the form. One of the typical tail staves from A&A reads;
“Our Jack is missing, presumed dead!”
The whole street ‘eard ‘er shout,
Base fears that fed on common dread,
Calamity & doubt
Rudely releas’d into the world while scrikin’ ‘er eyes out.

Of the fourteener C.S Lewis writes;

The medial break in the alexandrine, though it may do well enough in French, becomes intolerable in a language with such a tyrannous stress-accent as ours: the line struts. The fourteener has a much pleasanter movement, but a totally different one: the line dances a jig.

Aesthetically, the Tryptych offers an overall effect as something like a candlestick. It is also reminiscent of an insect, which possesses a head, a body (thorax) & a tail (abdomen). Whether I will be the only poet to use the form only time will tell – but for the composition of a lengthy epic I found it perfectly suitable. Each Tryptch prevented me from lapsing into diffuseness, while allowing for complex variety. With such changes in tempo & mood, the Tryptych also allowed a complete exploration of each historical scene chosen for my materielle. I would write approximately 1500 Tryptychs during the composition of Axis & Allies, not all of which made the final cut. But of those that did, of some I am extremely proud.

May 16th

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