The Brunanburh Poem & Egil Skallagrimsson

Brunanburh! Brunanburh! Brunanburh! This antique name was once attached to an Anglo-Saxon fortification, in whose locality was fought one of the most important battles in British history (937 AD). A massive showdown, it saw King Athelstan of England face off against a grand alliance of Scots, Vikings & the ‘Northern Welsh’ of Cumbria & Galloway. This confederacy had been galvanized into action by a young Viking prince called Analf Guthfrithson. Normally based in Dublin, Analf had momentarily managed to unite the entire Viking world behind him in an attempt to wrestle back their former control over England which had been lost to Athelstan’s grandfather, Alfred the Great. Despite such powerful forces arrayed against them, the Battle of Brunanburh was a comprehensive victory for the Saxons, since which day the borders of Britain’s three nations have been more or less constant. One could fairly admit that the Battle of Brunanburh was the moment when the British Isles were truly born.

The first mention of Brunanburh in the annals comes within the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that wonderful storehouse of early English history without which the Dark Ages would have been much, much darker. The entry for 937 is actually one of the most famous pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the first & best of a series composed throughout the 10th century. Most entries in the ASC are written in rather mundane prose, but the rendering of certain events in poetry would naturally amplify their cultural importance. It is only through the Pegasus-flight of the poetic voice that humanity may truly record the incredible passions felt in the most turbulent of times. A fine example is the poetry of Wilfred Owen, without whose words our ability to feel the sensations inspired by the trenches of World War One would be much diminished. Similarly, the composer of the Brunanburh poem manages to reflect with consummate skill the spirit of battle, basing his words upon what appears to be genuine eye-witness accuracy.

In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
Ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
In battle with sword edges
Around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
They hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard,
It was only befitting their noble descent
From their ancestors that they should often
Defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
Horde and home. The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
Fated they fell. The field flowed
With blood of warriors, from sun up
In the morning, when the glorious star
Glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
Eternal lord, till that noble creation
Sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
By spears destroyed; Northern men
Shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
Weary, war sated.
The West-Saxons pushed onward
All day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
With swords sharp from the grinding.
The Mercians did not refuse hard hand-play
To any warrior
Who came with Anlaf over the sea-surge
In the bosom of a ship, those who sought land,
Fated to fight. Five lay dead
On the battle-field, young kings,
Put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven
Of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,
Sailors and Scots. There the North-men’s chief was put
To flight, by need constrained
To the prow of a ship with little company:
He pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
On the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life.
Likewise, there also the old campaigner
Through flight came
To his own region in the north–Constantine–
Hoary warrior. He had no reason to exult
The great meeting; he was of his kinsmen bereft,
Friends fell on the battle-field,
Killed at strife: even his son, young in battle, he left
In the place of slaughter, ground to pieces with wounds.
That grizzle-haired warrior had no
Reason to boast of sword-slaughter,
Old deceitful one, no more did Anlaf;
With their remnant of an army they had no reason to
Laugh that they were better in deed of war
In battle-field–collision of banners,
Encounter of spears, encounter of men,
Trading of blows–when they played against
The sons of Eadweard on the battle field.
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
Sought Dublin over the deep water,
Over Dinges mere
To return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
Likewise the brothers, both together,
King and Prince, sought their home,
West-Saxon land, exultant from battle.
They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
The dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
And the dusky-coated one,
The eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
Greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
The wolf in the forest.
Never was there more slaughter
On this island, never yet as many
People killed before this
With sword’s edge: never according to those who tell us
From books, old wisemen,
Since from the east Angles & Saxons came up
Over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
Glorious warriors they took hold of the land.

Leaving aside for a moment the quest for the battlefield’s location (Burnley), I would now like to turn our digressional attention to a certain Egil Skallagrimsson. This guy is a true Icelandic legend, a warrior-poet of the 10th century who is the movie-star of the anonymously-penned 13th century Egil’s Saga. For me, he is the leading contender for authorship of the poem that was used by the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers for 937 AD.

Egil was a widely praised poet – he composed his first at the tender age of three – & could well have been commissioned by Athelstan to compose a triumphant piece of propaganda. We know the poem was more or less contemporary to the battle, finding itself inserted into the ASC at least as early as 955, when it was written into the so-called “Parker Chronicle” ( Whitelock 1955). Egil was the best poet of his time & the poem is clearly the best in the Chronicle. Alistair Campbell (1938) notices how the original version of the poem contained many, ‘non-west saxon & archaic forms’ & declares, ‘who the poet was is impossible to say.’ He does, however, go on to describe the spirit of the poet, as in;

Although he owes much to his predecessors, the poet of the Battle of Brunanburh is by no means without merits of his own. He uses the conventional diction neatly & cleverly, & never becomes swamped in phrases… the two feelings which breathe through the poem are scorn & exultation, & they are perfectly expressed. Lastly, despite the wealth of poetic diction at his command, he can be, at times, astonishingly simple & direct; the chief example of this is the description of battle from 20 to 40, where there is little repetition, & nearly every half-line advances the narrative… the poets subjects are the praise of heroes & the glory of victory… his work is a natural product of his age, an age of national triumph, antiquarian interest, & literary enthusiasm

My gut instinct tells me that Egil was the author of the poem, based undeniable facts such as;

1 – Egil fought at Brunanburh

His presence at the battle is without question & recorded extensively in the saga of his life by Snorri Sturlsson

B – Egil stayed at Athelstan’s court

2 year or two after the battle, Egil returned to Athelstan’s court, & I believe it was at this time in & in the post-Brunanburh climate that the poem was produced. Although giving very little detail of Egil’s visit to Athelstan, the Saga definitely places him there, as in;

During the second winter that he was living at Borg after Skallagrim’s death Egil became melancholy, and this was more marked as the winter wore on. And when summer came, Egil let it be known that he meant to make ready his ship for a voyage out in the summer. He then got a crew. He purposed to sail to England. They were thirty men on the ship. Asgerdr remained behind, and took charge of the house. Egil’s purpose was to seek king Athelstan and look after the promise that he had made to Egil at their last parting.

It was late ere Egil was ready, and when he put to sea, the winds delayed him. Autumn then came on, and rough weather set in. They sailed past the north coast of the Orkneys. Egil would not put in there, for he thought king Eric’s power would be supreme all over the islands. Then they sailed southwards past Scotland, and had great storms and cross winds. Weathering the Scotch coast they held on southwards along England; but on the evening of a day, as darkness came on, it blew a gale. Before they were aware, breakers were both seaward and ahead. There was nothing for it but to make for land, and this they did. Under sail they ran ashore, and came to land at Humber-mouth. All the men were saved, and most of the cargo, but as for the ship, that was broken to pieces.

When they found men to speak with, they learnt these tidings, which Egil thought good, that with king Athelstan all was well and with his kingdom… in that same summer when Egil had come to England these tidings were heard from Norway, that Eric Allwise was dead, but the king’s stewards had taken his inheritance, and claimed it for the king. These tidings when Arinbjorn and Thorstein heard, they resolved that Thorstein should go east and see after the inheritance.

So when spring came on and men made ready their ships who meant to travel from land to land, then Thorstein went south to London, and there found king Athelstan. He produced tokens and a message from Arinbjorn to the king and also to Egil, that he might be his advocate with the king, so that king Athelstan might send a message from himself to king Hacon, his foster-son, advising that Thorstein should get his inheritance and possessions in Norway. King Athelstan was easily persuaded to this, because Arinbjorn was known to him for good.

Then came Egil also to speak with king Athelstan, and told him his intention.

‘I wish this summer,’ said he, ‘to go eastwards to Norway and see after the property of which king Eric and Bergonund robbed me. Atli the Short, Bergonund’s brother, is now in possession. I know that, if a message of yours be added, I shall get law in this matter.’

The king said that Egil should rule his own goings. ‘But best, methinks, were it,’ he said, ‘for thee to be with me and be made defender of my land and command my army. I will promote thee to great honour.’

Egil answered: ‘This offer I deem most desirable to take. I will say yea to it and not nay. Yet have I first to go to Iceland, and see after my wife and the property that I have there.’

King Athelstan gave then to Egil a good merchant-ship and a cargo therewith; there was aboard for lading wheat and honey, and much money’s worth in other wares. And when Egil made ready his ship for sea, then Thorstein Eric’s son settled to go with him, he of whom mention was made before, who was afterwards called Thora’s son. And when they were ready they sailed, king Athelstan and Egil parting with much friendship.

3 – The poem is Bookish

Where JD Niles notices that scholars have, ‘drawn attention to the poem’s studied artistry, including its use of syntactic variation, studied antithesis, aural patterning, and an array of rhetorical figures that may be patterned on Latin models,’ Campbell (1938) tells us, ‘the poem is remarkably ‘correct’ in metre : that is to say, its half-verses are constructed with regard to the limitations, & bound together by alliteration with regard to laws, which are found in the earlier Old English poetry… the diction is almost entirely composed of elements to be found in earlier poems…. a large number of word s & expression which forcibly recall the older poetry.’ We must also observe that the poem does not rhyme, with Campbell stating, ‘as a final instance of the conservative nature of the versification of the Battle of Brunanburh, the absence of rhyme must be mentioned.’

I am a poet myself, & I understand the very tidings of poetic construction. Scholars have observed how the Brunanburh poem is packed full of direct lifts, or half-lifts, from the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature. To my mind, although Egil would have been fluent in Old English, he may not have been so observant in its literature. To remedy this, during the composition of the Brunanburh poem I believe he made use of Athelstan’s library, in order to paint his epic, panygerical pastiche. Where Campbell tells us ‘it is evident that the Battle of Brunanburh shows no changes in the structure of the half-line : all its types can be paralleled in the older poetry, & practically all of them in Beowulf,’ in the poem, 21 half-lines occur identically in other OE poems, such as

eorla dryhten (Beowulf)
on lides bosme (Genesis)
wulf on wealde (Judith)


While 23 half-lines are nigh identical, as in;

faege feollan (Beowulf) = faege gefealled
on folcstede (Judith) = on dam folcstede
bone sweartan hraefn (Soul & body) = bonne se swearta hrefen

4 – The poem is Skaldic

In the 10th century, the Icelandic poets – the Skalds – were the best in Europe, & their professional services were sought by many a wealthy king. Their praise poems were widely sought, & it is in Athelstan’s reign that they first arrive in Britain. That the Brunanburh poem has Skaldic roots is supported by JD Niles, who tells us;

By Old English standards, there is something unconventional about the poet’s voice as well. Granted that the distribution of praise and blame is central to the purposes of early Germanic poetry, still nowhere else in Old English is there such a quintessential poem of boasting and scorn. Athelstan’s triumph is celebrated not by a sober account of his actions, but by exultant allusion to the enemy blood spilled on the field and the number of enemy kings and noblemen cut down. The poet’s bloody-mindedness is matched by his emphasis on the losers’ shame. The survivors take to their ships xwiscmode ‘humiliated’ (56b), while the victors proceed home wiges hremge ‘gloating in battle’ (59b). The satiric element that runs through the poem is most prominent in the threefold repetition “hreman ne £>orfte. . .Gelpan ne J)orfte. . .hlehhanne Jjorftun,” 39b, 44b, 47b (“he had no need to gloat. . .He had no need to boast. . .they had no need to laugh”). The poet here makes sardonic reference to the grief of the aged Scottish king Constantine, who not only lost his son on the battlefield but was unable to recover the young man’s body.

The poet’s brusque indifference to carnage may remind one of the hard, cold tone that is characteristic of skaldic verse more than it calls to mind the heroic spirit of Beowulf or Maldon, let alone the melancholy and philosophical mood in which both the Beowulf poet and the poet of the Wanderer contemplate the spiraling tragedies of earthly mutability.

If Brunanburh has affinities to other early medieval verse, they are to such a poem as the Battle of Hafsfjord rather than to anything in Old English, as Kershaw has pointed out (vii). Both these poems celebrate a decisive battle by which a king established authority over the whole of his realm. In the Norse poem the king is Harald Fairhair, and his opponents are a coalition of Norwegians who opposed his expanding power in 872. Even more than the author of Brunanburh, the Norse poet takes delight in the image of boats manned by fleeing survivors, who in this poem are pelted with stones from behind while the wounded hunch shame-faced under the rowing-benches:

In Hafsfjord as in Brunanburh, the poet follows the customary mode of panegyric and calls attention to the distinguished ancestry of the victorious party: “konungr enn kynstóri,” 1.2 (“the king of noble lineage”). He also alludes in conventional fashion to the din of battle: “ísorn dúõu,” 2.4 (“swords clashed”), “hlömmum vas á hlífum,” 3.4 (“shields clanged together”). Brunanburh resembles nothing else so much as Hafsfjord drawn out to a more substantial and dignified length by an author who had at his command the full resources of Anglo-Saxon poetic speech and used those resources to honor his English king. In commenting on the “elliptical, allusive , non-narrative style” of the six encomiastic poems that are embedded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Opland suggests that this group of poems emerged due to the influence of the court poetry of the skalds (173). Leaving the other five Chronicle poems aside, since (with the possible exception of the poem on the capture of the Five Boroughs) they do not seem much like Brunanburh except in being occasional pieces, there is reason to think that the Brunanburh poet had at least passing acquaintance with the Norse language and skaldic poetic models. Several of the points of influence have been reviewed by Dietrich Hofmann (165-67); these consist of cnear ‘warship’ (35a) as a loanword, sceard ‘deprived’ (40b) used in a manner suggestive of Old Norse idiom, guöhafoc ‘war-hawk’ (64a) as a kenning for ‘eagle’, and – with less certainty – eorlas (31a) in the Norse sense of ‘jarls’.

Over the years Brunanburh has been compared to Norse praise poetry by Alistair Campbell (The Battle of Brunanburh, 1938, 37-38) Nora Kershaw (Anglo_Saxon & Norse Poems 1922, 64-65), Heinrich Naumann (Das Ludwigslied… 1932) & Heinrich Beck (Zur literaturegeschichtlichen… 1974, 37-51).  There is a passage from the 10th century Icelanic Skald, Kormákr Ögmundarson, that resonates with some of the language of the Brunanburh poem;

The dew-of-deep wounds (blood) resounded on the beach out of the blow-of-the-sword (wound); I bore the bloody word together with brave men; swords-of-Odin (warriors) bore the broad blood-wand (sword)

There are even a number of echoes between the Brunanburh poem & the poetry composed by Egil himself.  Let us compare;


A

The warriors revenge
is repaid to the king
wolf & eagle stalk
over the kings sons;
Hallvard’s corpse flew
in pieces into the sea
the grey eagle tears
as Travel-quick wounds ES

They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
the dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
and the dusky-coated one,
the eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
the wolf in the forest. ASC


B

There the North-men’s chief was put
to flight, by need constrained
to the prow of a ship with little company:
he pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
on the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life. ASC


My mother said
I would be bought
a boat with fine oars
set off with Vikings
stand up on the prow,
command the precious craft,
then enter port ES

 


C

The field flowed
with blood of warriors, from sun up
in the morning, when the glorious star
glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
eternal lord, till that noble creation
sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed ASC


there before sunset we will
make noisy clamour of spears ES

 


D

They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting their noble descent
from their ancestors that they should often
defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
horde and home ASC


I have wielded a blood-stained sword
and howling spear; the bird
of carrion followed me
when the Vikings pressed forth;
In fury we fought battles,
fire swept through men’s homes,
we made bloody boodies
slump dead by city gates ES


E

They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers. ASC

I raise the ring, the clasp that is worn
on the shield-splitting arm ES


F

In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
in battle with sword edges
around Brunanburh. ASC

The wager of battle who towers
over the land, the royal progeny,
has felled three kings; the realm
passes top the kin of Ella. ES

 

In his essay ‘Brunanburh 12b-13a & some Skaldic Passages (Master Regis, 1986), on the poem’s use of the verb ‘dennade’ – resounded – Joseph Harris writes; ‘all in all, then, the poetic occurrences of ON dynja tend to support the interpretation of the OE as ‘the earth resounded with blood,’ since we find the same verb in ON collocated with words for earth & with synesthetically resounding blood of battle.’ Harris adds;

Stanza 5 of Egill’s famous poem Hofudlausn, supposedly compsoed in York in 948, has already been juxtaposed to the Brunanburh passage by T.M. Andersson in the course of his discussion of the shining blood on the ‘fields’ of Ludwigsleid. Sigurdur Nordal’s text reads;There where the weary sea-shore lay bathed in blood, it resounded in/on it (the shore) under the banners (when the war-banners were borne forward).’  Harris then writes of an alternative version of the text even more Brunanburhesque; ‘Finnur Jonsson’s interpretation offers a ‘field’ (vollr) that resounds (prymja) ‘in blood’ (i blodi) – feld dennade secga swate.’

 

5 – Egil was writing court poetry at that very time

Between arriving in Scotland & spending time with Athelstan (as given above) Egil found himself in York with Eric Bloodaxe, & ended up writing a substantial poem there. He’d got himself into a bit of bother alongside a certain Arinbjorn & ended up writing the poem to save their skins. The saga tells us;

Then they went in. Arinbjorn went before the king and saluted him. The king received him, and asked what he would have.

Arinbjorn said: ‘I lead hither one who has come a long way to seek thee in thy place, and to be reconciled to thee. Great is this honour to thee, my lord, when thine enemies travel of their own free will from other lands, and deem they cannot endure thy wrath though thou be nowhere near. Now show thyself princely to this man. Let him get of thee good terms, seeing that he hath so magnified thine honour, as thou now mayst see, by braving many seas and dangers to come hither from his own home. No compulsion drove him to this journey, nought but goodwill to thee.’

Then the king looked round, and saw over men’s heads where Egil stood. The king knew him at once, and, darting a keen glance at him, said: ‘How wert thou so bold, Egil, that thou daredst to come before me? Thy last parting from me was such that of life thou couldst have from me no hope.’

Then went Egil up to the table, and clasped the foot of the king. He then sang:

‘With cross-winds far cruising
I came on my wave-horse,
Eric England’s warder
Eager soon to see.
Now wielder of wound-flash,
Wight dauntless in daring,
That strong strand of Harold’s
Stout lineage I meet.’

King Eric said: ‘I need not to count the crimes on thy hands, for they are so many and great that each one might well warrant that thou go not hence alive. Thou hast nothing else to expect but that here thou must die. This thou mightest know before, that thou wouldst get no terms from me.’

Gunnhilda said: ‘Why shall not Egil be slain at once? Rememberest thou no more, O king, what Egil hath done to thee—slain thy friends and kin, ay, even thine own son to boot, and cursed thyself? Where ever was it known that a king was thus dealt with?’

Arinbjorn said: ‘If Egil have spoken evil of the king, for that he can now atone in words of praise that shall live for all time.’

Gunnhilda said: ‘We will hear none of his praise. O king, bid Egil be led out and beheaded. I will neither hear his words nor see him.’

Then said Arinbjorn: ‘The king will not let himself be egged on to all thy dastardly work. He will not have Egil slain by night, for night-slaying is murder.’

The king said: ‘So shall it be, Arinbjorn, as thou demandest. Egil shall live this night. Take thou him home with thee, and bring him to me in the morning.’

Arinbjorn thanked the king for his words: ‘We hope, my lord, that henceforth Egil’s cause will take a better turn. And though Egil has done great wrong against thee, yet look thou on this, that he has suffered much from thee and thy kin. King Harold thy father took the life of Thorolf, a man of renown, Egil’s father’s brother, for the slander of bad men, for no crime at all. And thou, O king, didst break the law in Egil’s case for the sake of Bergonund; nay further thou didst wish to doom his death, and didst slay his men, and plunder all his goods, and withal didst make him an outlaw and drive him from the land. And Egil is one who will stand no teasing. But in every cause under judgment one must look on the act with its reasons. I will now have Egil in keeping for the night.’

Then Arinbjorn and Egil went back to the house, and when they came in they two went into a small upper room and talked over this matter. Arinbjorn said: ‘The king just now was very wroth, yet methought his mood rather softened before the end, and fortune will now decide what may be the upshot. I know that Gunnhilda will set all her mind on marring your cause. Now I would fain that we take this counsel: that you be awake through the night, and compose a song of praise about king Eric. I should think it had best be a poem of twenty stanzas, and you might recite it to-morrow when we come before the king. Thus did Bragi my kinsman, when he was under the wrath of Bjorn king of Sweden; he composed a poem of praise about him in one night, and for it received his head. Now may we also have the same luck with the king, that you may make your peace with him, if you can offer him the poem of praise.’

Egil said: ‘I shall try this counsel that you wish, but ’twas the last thing I ever meant, to sing king Eric’s praises.’

Arinbjorn bade him try.

Then Arinbjorn went away, and had food and drink carried to the upper room. Egil was there alone for the night. Arinbjorn went to his men, and they sate over drink till midnight. Then Arinbjorn and his men went to the sleeping chambers, but before undressing he went up to the room to Egil, and asked how he was getting on with the poem.

Egil said that nothing was done. ‘Here,’ said he, ‘has sate a swallow by the window and twittered all night, so that I have never got rest for that same.’

Whereupon Arinbjorn went away and out by the door leading up to the house-roof, and he sate by the window of the upper room where the bird had before sate. He saw that something of a shape witch-possest moved away from the roof. Arinbjorn sate there by the window all night till dawn. But after Arinbjorn had come there, Egil composed all the poem, and got it so by heart that he could recite it in the morning when he met Arinbjorn. They watched for a fit time to go before the king.

King Eric went to table according to his wont, and much people were with him. And when Arinbjorn knew this, then went he with all his followers fully armed to the king’s palace while the king sate at table…. then Egil advanced before him and began the poem, and recited in a loud voice, and at once won silence.

‘Westward I sailed the wave,
Within me Odin gave
The sea of song I bear
(So ’tis my wont to fare):
I launched my floating oak
When loosening ice-floes broke,
My mind a galleon fraught
With load of minstrel thought.

‘A prince doth hold me guest,
Praise be his due confess’d:
Of Odin’s mead let draught
In England now be quaff’d.
Laud bear I to the king,
Loudly his honour sing;
Silence I crave around,
My song of praise is found.

‘Sire, mark the tale I tell,
Such heed beseems thee well;
Better I chaunt my strain,
If stillness hush’d I gain.
The monarch’s wars in word
Widely have peoples heard,
But Odin saw alone
Bodies before him strown.

‘Swell’d of swords the sound
Smiting bucklers round,
Fiercely waxed the fray,
Forward the king made way.
Struck the ear (while blood
Streamed from glaives in flood)
Iron hailstorm’s song,
Heavy, loud and long.

‘Lances, a woven fence,
Well-ordered bristle dense;
On royal ships in line
Exulting spearmen shine.
Soon dark with bloody stain
Seethed there an angry main,
With war-fleet’s thundering sound,
With wounds and din around.

‘Of men many a rank
Mid showering darts sank:
Glory and fame
Gat Eric’s name.

‘More may yet be told,
An men silence hold:
Further feats and glory,
Fame hath noised in story.
Warriors’ wounds were rife,
Where the chief waged strife;
Shivered swords with stroke
On blue shield-rims broke.

‘Breast-plates ringing crashed,
Burning helm-fire flashed,
Biting point of glaive
Bloody wound did grave.
Odin’s oaks (they say)
In that iron-play
Baldric’s crystal blade
Bowed and prostrate laid.

‘Spears crossing dashed,
Sword-edges clashed:
Glory and fame
Gat Eric’s name.

‘Red blade the king did wield,
Ravens flocked o’er the field.
Dripping spears flew madly,
Darts with aim full deadly.
Scotland’s scourge let feed
Wolf, the Ogress’ steed:
For erne of downtrod dead
Dainty meal was spread.

‘Soared battle-cranes
O’er corse-strown lanes,
Found flesh-fowl’s bill
Of blood its fill.
While deep the wound
He delves, around
Grim raven’s beak
Blood-fountains break.

‘Axe furnished feast
For Ogress’ beast:
Eric on the wave
To wolves flesh-banquet gave.

‘Javelins flying sped,
Peace affrighted fled;
Bows were bent amain,
Wolves were battle-fain:
Spears in shivers split,
Sword-teeth keenly bit;
Archers’ strings loud sang,
Arrows forward sprang.

‘He back his buckler flings
From arm beset with rings,
Sword-play-stirrer good,
Spiller of foemen’s blood.
Waxing everywhere
(Witness true I bear),
East o’er billows came
Eric’s sounding name.

‘Bent the king his yew,
Bees wound-bearing flew:
Eric on the wave
To wolves flesh-banquet gave.
‘Yet to make more plain
I to men were fain
High-soul’d mood of king,
But must swiftly sing.

Weapons when he takes,
The battle-goddess wakes,
On ships’ shielded side
Streams the battle-tide.

‘Gems from wrist he gives,
Glittering armlets rives:
Lavish ring-despiser
Loves not hoarding miser.
Frodi’s flour of gold
Gladdens rovers bold;
Prince bestoweth scorning
Pebbles hand-adorning.


‘Foemen might not stand
For his deathful brand;
Yew-bow loudly sang,
Sword-blades meeting rang.
Lances aye were cast,
Still he the land held fast,
Proud Eric prince renowned;
And praise his feats hath crowned.

‘Monarch, at thy will
Judge my minstrel skill:
Silence thus to find
Sweetly cheered my mind.
Moved my mouth with word
From my heart’s ground stirred,
Draught of Odin’s wave
Due to warrior brave.


‘Silence I have broken,
A sovereign’s glory spoken:
Words I knew well-fitting
Warrior-council sitting.
Praise from heart I bring,
Praise to honoured king:
Plain I sang and clear
Song that all could hear.’

King Eric sate upright while Egil recited the poem, and looked keenly at him. And when the song of praise was ended, then spake the king: ‘Right well was the poem recited; and now, Arinbjorn, I have resolved about the cause between me and Egil, how it shall go. Thou hast pleaded Egil’s cause with great eagerness, since thou offerest to risk a conflict with me. Now shall I for thy sake do what thou hast asked, letting Egil go from my land safe and unhurt. But thou, Egil, so order thy going that, after leaving my presence and this hall, thou never come before my eyes, nor my sons’ eyes, nor be ever in the way of myself or my people. But I give thee now thy head this time for this reason, that thou camest freely into my power. I will do no dastardly deed on thee; yet know thou this for sure, that this is no reconciliation with me or my sons or any of our kin who wish to wreak their vengeance.’

Then sang Egil:

 

‘Loth am I in nowise,

Though in features loathly,

Helm-capt head in pardon

From high king to take.

Who can boast that ever

Better gift he won him,

From a lordly sovereign’s

Noble-minded son?’

 

Arinbjorn thanked the king with many fair words for the honour and friendship that he had shown him. Then they two, Arinbjorn and Egil, went back to Arinbjorn’s house. After that Arinbjorn bade horses be made ready for his people. He rode away with Egil, and a hundred fully armed men with him. Arinbjorn rode with that force till they came to king Athelstan, where they were well received. The king asked Egil to remain with him, and inquired how it had gone between him and king Eric. Whereupon Egil sang:

‘Egil his eyes black-browed
From Eric, raven’s friend,
Welcomed. Wise help therein
Wife’s loyal kin lent.
My head, throne of helmet,
An heritage noble,
As erst, from rough rainstorm
To rescue I knew.’

I know thats quite a large extract, but its all pretty interesting stuff. I’ve put it in early to show how there is so much to the Brunanburh case as yet to be uncovered. Up until now, the best academics in the field halted before the Brunanburh poem’s author & declared him ‘unknowable.’ However, by simply suggesting that it could be Egil , suddenly all the strands of evidence suddenly coalesce & make him the clear favorite.

More evidence can be seen when immediately after the battle, Egil is writing militaristic, kenning-heavy praise poetry to Athelstan, as in;

‘Land-shielder, battle-quickener,
Low now this scion royal
Earls three hath laid. To Ella
Earth must obedient bow.
Lavish of gold, kin-glorious,
Great Athelstan victorious,
Surely, I swear, all humbled
To such high monarch yields.’

But this is the burden in the poem:

‘Reindeer-trod hills obey
Bold Athelstan’s high sway.’

Then gave Athelstan further to Egil as poet’s meed two gold rings, each weighing a mark, and therewith a costly cloak that the king himself had formerly worn.

This giving of rings even fits in with the ASC poem’s, ‘In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors, ring-giver to men.’ Using all this as a platform for investigation, I wondered if it could be at all possible that Egil Skallagrimsson could also have penned the great Old English epic – Beowulf. In support let us examine the following ‘flags.’

1 – Beowulf uses Icelandic folk motifs

In the introduction to Beowulf, edited by CL Wren & WF Bolton, we read the following passages;

The saga of the historical & well-authenticated Icelandic hero Grettir… attributes to him two fights against supernatural beings – the one closely resembling Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, & the other that which he had with Grendel’s mother in the demon-haunted mere. The resemblances are too close to be fortuitous; & one must suppose common folklorist elements lying behind both – since the late thirteenth-century Grettissaga cannot be supposed to have ‘borrowed’ these ideas from Beowulf, which was not known in Iceland.

What this tells us is that the author of the Icelandic Grettissaga was using the same motifs as the author of Beowulf, a situation which has baffled the academics. Peter A Jorgensen (Grendel, Grettir & Two Skaldic Stanzas: Scripta Islandica 24 / 1973) writes, ‘the most striking parallels are to be found in Beowulf’s battle with Grendel in the beleaguered Heorot, in which the hero eventually kills the intruder by tearing off its arm, & in Grettir’s fight with a monster in the harassed house at Sandhaugar, where the marauder is dispatched in the identical manner.’

If we see these folk-motifs as purely Icelandic, then we may assume that the author of Beowulf had access to Icelandic material – & thus most probably Icelandic.

2 – Haeft-mece / Heptisax

There was evidently something important about a long-handled sword in the folk material which lies behind a fight with Grendel’s mother: for in Beowulf we find the unique haeft-mece & in Grettissaga an otherwise unrecorded instrument called a heptisax plays a part in the fight of Grettir against the female monster. Jorgenson writes that most convincing;

is the occurrence of the much-discussed nonce word heptisax, found both in the second stanza & in the alleged prose expansion of the verses, corresponding to its generally accepted counterpart in Old English, the hapax legomenon Haeftmece (in Beowulf line 1457). It seems highly improbable that the word should occur only once in all of the extensive battle descriptions in Old Icelandic prose &, by chance, at precisely the same point in a narrative where the corresponding English text employs the cognate form.

There is a difference between the two poems, for in Beowulf it is the eponymous hero who uses the haeftmece, while in the Grettissaga it is the monster who wields the heptisax. In his paper Jorgenson concludes that, ‘the material to which the skaldic verses are eventually indebted stems from the same legend which also became part of the Beowulf epic.’ Again, we may suggest that the Beowulf author had access to Icelandic material – & was thus most probably Icelandic.

3 – Compensation

In Beowulf, where Hrothgar pays compensation for the death of Beowulf’s warrior, Hondscioh, at the hands of Grendel, there is a parallel in Egil’s Saga. Here, Athelstan grants Egil two chests of silver as compensation for the death of Throrolf.

4 – The Dates fit

Egil was clearly around in the mid 900s, a period when the English had a great respect for the Danes. Nicholas Jacobs (Anglo-Danish relations, poetic archaism & the Date of Beowulf:Poetica 8 1977) writes; ‘from 927 onwards the Danes constitute a widely accepted element in English society, & an English poem complimentary to them is conceivable at least Down to the resumption of raids in 980.’ Roberta Frank (Skaldic Verse & the Date of Beowulf), remarks, ‘no linguistic or historical fact compels us to anchor Beowulf before the tenth century; if we do so, it is more from our emotional commitment to an early date rather than from hard evidence. Our one secure terminus is the palaeographic dating of the manuscript to around the year 1000.’

In her THE DATE OF “BEOWULF” RECONSIDERED: The Tenth Century? (Neuphilologische Mitteilungen Vol. 82, No. 3 (1981), chas some interesting findings in relation to Beowulf’s 10th century origins. She writes;

Battle poems & occasional poems were certainly a feature of Scandinavian culture, however. Eric Bloodaxe was said to have spared Egil Skallagrimsson’s life in return for a eulogy, & Snorri Sturluson recounts that at the battle of Stamford Bridge Harald Hardrada encouraged his troops by extemporising verses in two different styles. Panegyrics of Athelstan survive in English & Latin, & William of Malmesbury comments on Athelstan: ‘Nemo literatius rempublicam administravit.’ It appears therefore we cannot rule out the tenth century from c.930 onwards on cultural grounds.

Where Walter Goffart estimated that Beowulf could not have been written with these historical details before 923 (Johnston Staver, Ruth (2005) : Placing Beowulf on a Timeline – A Companion To Beowulf), Jacobs gives us a probable terminus ad quem of the poem when he writes, ‘the first reference by a skald to an event associated with one of the Scyldings of Beowulf occurs around 965 when Eyvindr Skaldaspillir calls gold ‘the seed corn of Fyrisplains’ alluding to the story.‘ Eyvindr was the court poet of Hakon the Good, the English-speaking foster-son of Athelstan, who may well have heard the poem at first hand. His epithet skáldaspillir means literally ‘spoiler of poets’ – which could mean plagarist.

This means that the poem was written between 923 & 965.  Returning to Frank for a moment, she tells us ‘the political geography of Beowulf fits comfortably into the period between Alfred & Aethelweard,’ & also suggests the presence of the Geats in Beowulf is a 10th century skaldic theme; ‘The fact that the Geats held together as a people into the eleventh century does not pinpoint the date of Beowulf, but it does suggest that they were as known & topical in the tenth century as in any preceding one – & perhaps more so.’ 

 

5 – The Language

The Beowulf poem uses a conglomerate of Anglo-Saxon dialects, suggesting its author was Bookish rather than a native speaker. Klaeber points to an ‘unnatural medley of spellings’ & its ‘mixture of forms, early & late, West Saxon, Northumbriam, Mercian, Kentish & Saxon patois.’ Elsewhere S.O. Andrews comments on some late stylistic features such as the temporal clauses.

Patricia Poussa adds that the poet could possibly be ‘introducing deliberate archaisms, based on written sources.’ Perhaps it was while visiting Athelstan’s royal library that Egil found these ‘written sources’ to help his creation of the poem, including the Liber Monstrorum, which refers to Hygelac the king of the Geats & his last raid, as does Beowulf. He might also have looked the Blickling Homilies, number 17, from which the description of Grendel’s Mere seems to have been taken. According to Carleton Brown, ‘the phrases common to the two texts… not only demonstrate the far closer relationship of the Homily to Beowulf than to the Visio, but also make it evident that the Homilist’s source was in English.’

From – Beowulf and the Blickling Homilies and Some Textual Notes
Carleton Brown PMLA
Vol. 53, No. 4 (Dec., 1938),

All this essay is meant to do is scrape a little topsoil off the Egil-wrote-Beowulf theory. The thing is, he was the greatest poet of the age, he did spend time at the Royal English Courts, the Beowulf poem does contain Icelandic motifs & the poem seems to have been composed in his lifetime. This definitely makes him a serious contender not to be dismissed with ease.

July 14th 2020

The Tomb Of Achilles

With the world some weird kind of pagan ritual lockdown, I thought it a better time than most to head off the beaten tracks & go searching for the fabled burial mound of Achilles & his best pal, Patrocolus. Since Schliemann digging Troy out of Hisalrik Hill in the 19th Century, the idea that Achilles fought & died in the Troad moves from phantasy to possibilty – the next two stages are plausible & probable, but we’re not there yet.

So, leaving rainy Edinburgh behind I caught a train to Burnley for a pleasant couple of weeks family time – the first in months with train after train from Edinburgh being cancelled on me. Then it was off to Manchester airport & a 6AM flight – I spent the overnighter chatting to a homeless guy who sleeps there, recently turfed out on the streets again about the same time medical staff were ordered to pay hospital parking again!

Anyway, I’m leaving the UK to get away from all that, so off I tripped to Thessalonika on a plane full of mask-wearers. I stayed in the steep old town a couple of days – full of hundreds of street cats who apparently are fed by all & sundry & get routine visits from the vets. From there I went to Sithonia, the middle finger of the Chalkidki peninsular, with Mount Athos – the holy mountain – rising gloriously across the bay. I’d set off walking at 6.30 AM, at sunrise, & got as much as I could in while the sun wasn’t yet blazing – its reached the late thirties most of the week.

There’s also a lot of blooming steep bits! Anyway, as soon as I’d get tired I’d settle at the nearest campsite – VouVouro was nice & also the latest one – Paradise Beach – a few k north of sea-girt Sitra, where I am writing this now over some strong double greek coffees & uploading the video below. Trust me, Paradise, is, well Paradise, & they even let me DJ on the beach after I imposed my audition on them – they were loving my skills!

The above video basically has me blethering on about a series of clues latent within Book 23 of the Iliad – Patroclus tear-stained funeral & mourning games – which give some interesting pointers for a would-be investigation into the site of Achilles’ tomb, being;

THE BEACHED SHIPS

‘The Acheans withdrew to the Hellespont’

In recent years a theory has arisen that Besika Bay – to the west of Troy – is where the Greeks landed their ships. Homer clearly states it was to the north, by the Hellespont. Two stalwart contenders for the tomb have been the burial mounds of Kum Tepe & Kesik Tepe, both facing the Hellespont. However, archeaology at the sites has only ever gone back as far as the 6th Century BC, meaning the real tomb is out there, elsewhere.

THE TURNING STONES

There is a dead tree stump, an oak or a pine, rotted in the rain, & it is flanked by two white stones. The road narrows at this point, but the going is good on both sides of the monument, which either marks an ancient burial or must have been put up as a turning-post by people of an earlier age.

Homer is here describing the mid-way point of a chariot race. The turning post will be long gone, of course, but the two white stones might well stand in the same spot still. Homer also describes the turning-point as being ‘far away on level ground,’ giving us further detail.

THE GULLY

Antilochus, that veteran campaigner, saw a place where the sunken road grew narrow. It ran through a gulley…

Between the beach & the turning point Homer is describing a narrowing of the road.

THE BARROW OF ILUS

There is one final clue found in Book 24, in which Priam goes to plead with Achilles to stop dragging his son Hektor’s body about & leaving it the dogs. On the way we learn that once the old king of Troy & Hermes (in disguise) ‘had driven past the great barrow of Ilus & stopped their mules & horses for a drink at the river.’

So that’s plenty of info to start visualizing what to look out for when I get to the area. Also helpful is the fact that the Bronze Age coastline was apparently much closer to Troy than it is today, making my job that little bit easier. I’ll also be studying the rest of the Iliad for my clues – I’m reading it backwards at the moment actually, I find the first few books a bit heavy & stifling, & I want to retain my excitement about the project, to be frank.

I shall finish the first of my Aegean Edicts with a couple of sonnets from my time so far in Greece. In the morning I am heading to Alexandroplis & from there by ferry to the island of Samothrace, arriving at sunset & within spitting distance of the Troad. Its good timing really, the Greek government this week has gone mask crazy making folk wear them in hotels & hostels & all public space. I think a rugged island away from all the world’s worries is the best place to be right now.

Sitra
29-07-20

Recreating The Samothrakian Mysteries

The Argonauts sail towards the isle of Samothrake: Electra’s island grows larger, guarding the secret of the Thracian rites of the Kabeiroi and other gods… Thyotes the priest meets the Argonauts and bids them welcome to the land and to the temples, revealing their Mysteries to his guests. Thus much, Samothrace, has the poet proclaimed thee to the nations and the light of day; there stay, and let us keep our reverence for holy Mysteries. The Argonauts, rejoicing in the new light of the sun and full of their heavenly visions, seat themselves upon the thwarts and depart from the island Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica

O Samathraki, what a joy! Where have you been all my life. I got here via Thessalonika on an A/C coach for 30 euros to the port of Adrianopolous. Then it was a 14 euro ferry to the island, which on the approach really feels like you are crossing over to Arran. I’ve been staying at the municipal campsite for almost a fortnite: its like a musical festival in the woods by the sea, but without any music stages or stalls – its quite the young team but they all think I’m in my 30s so I’ve blended in well enough!

Samothraki is an island of oak trees, pebbly beaches & waterfalls; & in these twelve days I’ve managed to climb most of Mount Saos -the highest mountain in the Aegean – an eight hour mission, just halting shy of the 1.611 metres ‘Fengari’ (moon) summit, followed by some canyoning in the rocky gullies back to Therma. My favorite pasttime, tho, is the morning ritual of walking to Therma, having some coffees, then spending an hour in the hot sulphuric springs, from where I’d buy fresh bread & take the meandering back roads to the campsite. Very conducive for literary thought!

He first came to prominence among the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace, now mostly in modern Bulgaria, strumming his magical creations on an equally magical lyre. Pindar called him the Father of Songs, his voice being so sweet and powerful that he could charm wild animals, divert rivers & even lull the rocks to sleep. He was also said to be one helluva wise king, accredited with teaching humankind a long list of subjects such as healing, prophecy & astrology. Diodorus Siculus gives a good account of him;

Since we have mentioned Orpheus it will not be inappropriate for us in passing to speak briefly about him. He was the son of Oeagrus, a Thracian by birth, and in culture and son-music and poesy he far surpassed all men of whom we have a record; for he composed a poem which was an object of wonder and excelled in its melody when it was sung. And his fame grew to such a degree that men believed that with his music he held a spell over both the wild beasts and the trees.

And after he had devoted his entire time to his education and had learned whatever the myths had to say about the gods, he journeyed to Egypt, where he further increased his knowledge and so became the greatest man among the Greeks both for his knowledge of the gods and for their rites, as well as for his poems and songs.

A single literary epitaph, attributed to the sophist Alcidamas, credits him with the invention of writing. He was also the official bard of Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece, & it is probably through him the story was recorded for posterity. A more positive literary accreditation comes thro’ Diogenes, who claims Orpheus to be the author of a cosmogony on the course of the sun and moon & a poem on the generation of animals and fruits. Then there are the Orphic hymns, of which Pausanius writes;

His hymns are known by those who have studied the poets to be both short & few in number. The Lycomedes, an Athenian family dedicated to sacred music, have them all by heart, & sing them at their solemn mysteries. They are but of the second class for elegance, being far excelled by Homer’s in that respect. But our religion has adopted the hymns of Orpheus, & has not done the same honour to the hymns of Homer.

Some historians, and Ephoros is one of them, record that the Daktyloi Idaioi were in fact born on the Mt Ide which is in Phrygia and passed over to Europe together with Mygdon; and since they were wizards, they practised charms and initiatory rites and mysteries, and in the course of a sojourn in Samothrake they amazed the natives of that island not a little by their skill in such matters. And it was at this time, we are further told, that Orpheus, who was endowed with an exceptional gift of poesy and song, also became a pupil of theirs, and he was subsequently the first to introduce initiatory rites and Mysteries to the Greeks.

We get the idea here of Orpheus being taught a series of ‘initiatory rites and mysteries’ which had come to Samothraki via Phrygia, in modern-day Turkey. It is the purpose of this Edict to attempt at least a partial reconstruction, or reimagining if you will, of the long-lost, highly secret Samothracian mysteries, of which Diodorus Siculus said;

The details of the initiatory rite are guarded among the matters not to be divulged and are communicated to the initiates alone; but the fame has travelled wide of how {the Kabeiroi} appear to mankind and bring unexpected aid to those initiates of their who call upon them in the midst of perils. The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before.

The chief object of the Samothrakian mystery rite is to make somebody ‘more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before.’ The initiate will also have some kind of protection laid on by the Kabeiroi whenever these dieties are summoned to help. We also learn from Diodorus that Orpheus was an initiate into the Samothrakian Mysteries, being taught it by the Kabeiroi themselves;

What Orpheus learnt on Samothraki would form the basis of early Greek religion – so pretty seminal stuff really. There is a nice section in the third century BC ‘Argonautica’ by Apollonius Rhodius, which shows Orpehus in connection with the rites.

The Argonauts beached this ship at Samothrake . . . Orpheus wished them, by holy initiation, to learn something of the secret rites, and so sail on with greater confidence across the formidable sea. Of the rites I say no more, pausing only to salute the isle itself and the Powers [the Kabeiroi] that dwell in it, to whom belong the mysteries of which we must not sing.

Again we sense the superstitious fear of recanting the rites; some folk got struck by lightning & stuff, so, the fear was genuine. Luckily for me I’m in no position to retell the Mysteries as they were, but only as I conject. I’m relying on getting something wrong, or missing something out, to survive my personal sojourn on Samothraki. But anyway, without further ado, lets see if we can reconstuct at least some of the essence of what the Samothakian Mystery was all about.

The physical evidence of the Mystery ceremony can be found at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothraki, a sprawling religious pan-centurial site which contains the three sacred precincts which the initiate had to move through in order to complete the Mystery procession. These were the preliminary Myeses, the Telete & the Epopteia. One schol of thought states that after a prosective initiate had been prepared in the Sanctuary’s Sacristy, the Myesis took place in the Anaktoron’s main hall, followed by the Telete in the inner adyton at the building’s north end. Once this concluded, the mystai (initiates) could proceed to the Hieron where they acquired the higher degree, the epopteia. Another school of thought prefers to place the initiation in the recently excavated Hall of Choral Dancers.

I visited the Sanctuary this morning, getting there at 8 to have the place to myself & get into the zone. They key element to the visit was discovering the theatrical circle of the entry complex that connected to the old city – Paleopili – whose cyclopean walls stretch up mount Saos – extremely beautiful. From here the initiates would descend along the paved sacred way into the holy valley for the Mystery itself. It was on such an occasion that Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II, met his mother, Olympias. With the Mystery procession being divided into three seperate parts, we are looking for the general outline to three different aspects of the Samothrakian Mystery. These are actually findable, tho’ contained in scattered texts.

THE FRATRICIDE
Myeses

In his ‘Exhortation to the Greeks’ the second century AD Christian writer, Clement, pretty much divulges the theatrical contents of the first part of the mystery.

If you would like a vision of the Korybantian Orgies, this is the story. Two of the Korybantes (Kabeiroi) slew a third one, who was their brother, covered the head of the corpse with a purple cloak, and then wreathed and buried it, bearing it upon a brazen shield to the skirts of Olympus. Here we see what the Mysteries are, in one word, murders and burials! The priests of these Mysteries, whom such as are interested in them call ‘Anaktotelestes’, add a portent to the dismal tale. They forbid wild celery, root and all, to be placed on the table, for they actually believe that wild celery grows out of the blood that flowed from the murdered brother .

If we are to recreate a mystery, some people, a number undetermined, need to be presiding over proceedings & call themselves the Anaktotelestes. We also need to tell a stoy of two brothers turning on another brother, then carrying his head on a shield to Olympus – possibly in penitence or perhaps as a votive offering. I’m not so sure we need to include the celery, but there’s enough detail there to paint a good opening section of this initiatory tryptych.

THE PENIS of ZAGREUS
Telete

Its an interesting feature of the Greek language that if you rearrange the letters of EPOS – Epic of the testosterone-fuelled Iliad kind – you get PEOS. Continuing with the penis theme, the Cabeiri were famous for recovering the phallus of Zagreus, which had been dismembered by the Titans, & establishing it in the shrine of their Mysteries. This piece of theatre should then constitute the second section of the tryptych – so where there was a head on a shield in the first part, there is a penis in a casket in the second, kinda thing. Its very much like the grail ceremonies ascribed to 12th & 13th century Templars, & there could very well be a connection.

Zagreus was worshipped by later followers of Orpheus & seems to be a Dionysian figure, born of the union between Zeus & Persephone. The story goes that he had his tackle hacked off by the Titans, only for it to grow back at a later date. Herodotus himself gives us some great background.

The Korybantes are also called by the name Kabeiroi, which proclaims the Rite of the Kabeiroi. For this very pair of fratricides got possession of the chest in which the virilia of Dionysos [Zagreus] were deposited, and brought it to Tyrrhenia [i.e. Lemnos], traders in glorious wares! There they sojourned, being exiles, and communicated their precious teaching of peity, the virilia and the chest, to Tyrrhenians for purposes of worship.

So here we have an account of the Kabeiroi worshipping the penis of Zagreus/Dionysis which was placed in a chest. The second part of our mystery should tell the story of how they found the chest & the penis. Simple Mystery Play stuff, really, straight from the Towneley manuscript.

HERMES & PERSEPHONE
Epopteia

The final part of the ceremony involves a story between Hermes & Persephone, which if we connect with the orgiastic nature of the Mysteries leads to only one workable plausiblity. This would be something like Hermes & Persephone getting it on big time & then the initiates joining in the party. Herodotus tells us;

The Athenians, then, were the first Greeks to make ithyphallic images of Hermes, and they did this because the Pelasgians taught them. The Pelasgians told a certain sacred tale about this, which is set forth in the Samothrakian Mysteries

The Athenians received their phallic Hermae from the Pelasgians, and those who are initiated in the mysteries of the Cabeiri will understand what I am saying; for the Pelasgians formerly inhabited Samothrace, and it is from them that the Samothracians received their orgies.

Looking elsewhere in the classical ouvre, we find a sacred legend spoken of by Cicero, which states that Hermes was the son of Coelus and Dies, and that Proserpine desired to embrace him. So we can now create a general outline of the entire Samothrakian Mystery.

Part 1: Two brothers – the Kabeiroi – kill a third & carry his head to Olympus on a shield.
Part 2: The Kabeiroi discover the castrated penis of Zagreus & place it in a chest.
Part 3: Persephone seduces Hermes & all the initiates join in & form an orgy.

This would the followed by the initiate becoming initiated, ie taken under the wing of the Kaberoi. Aristophanes intimates that the mysteries were particularly calculated to protect the lives of the initiated. Herales & Alexander the Great were both big fans & put their successes down in no small part to their initiations into the Samothrakian Mysteries. An example of the Kabeiroi protecting an initiate can be found in the vita of our very Orpheus;

There came on a great storm and the chieftains the Argonauts had given up hope of being saved, when Orpheus, they say, who was the only one on ship-board who had ever been initiated in the Mysteries of the deities of Samothrake, offered to these deities prayers for their salvation. And immediately the wind died down  Diodorus Siculus

BOOZE

Alcohol is the definitive lubricant to orgiastic behaviour, & it seems the Samothrakian ritual orgy was no different. In the lost play, Cabiri, by Aeschylus, the two gods welcomed the Argonauts to their island and initiated them in a drunken orgy. So we’re gonna need booze, & lots of it!

CAST

Now then, who will be playing out the mystery for our initiates. Well, besides the presiders of things, the Anaktotelestes, we’re gonna need three Kabeiro & a three nymphs. The 5th Century BC mythographer Akousilaüs the Argive, calls Kadmilos the father of three Kabeiroi, who in turn are the fathers of the Nymphs called the Kabeirides. Pherecydes states that there were three Nymphai in total, and that sacred rites were instituted in honor of each triad.

According to Herodotus, the Cabeiri who were worshipped at Memphis in Egypt resembled the dwarf-gods (Pataïkoi) whom the Phoenicians fixed on the prows of their ships. So maybe that means our Kabeiri will need to be a little short, or even boys, which is gonna be a bit weird at an orgy, right? That the Kaberoi were boyish is suggested Pausanias.

The Amphisians also celebrate Mysteries in honour of the Boy Kings as they are called. Their accounts as to who of the gods the Boy Kings are do not agree; some say they are the Dioskouroi, and others, who pretend to have fuller knowledge, hold them to be the Kabeiroi.

The Korybantes: Pherecydes also tells us that the Kyrbantes/Corybantes had taken up their abode in Samothrake. Strabo has a lovely passage about the Korybantes

They poets invented some of the names by which to designate the ministers, choral dancers, and attendants upon the sacred rites, I mean Kabeiroi and Korybantes and Panes and Satyroi and Tityroi.

The Tityroi were flute-playing, rustic daimones in the train of the god Dionysos. A future director could chuck them in alongside some satyrs if they wished, but our main focus are the Korybantes, of whose activities at the sacred rites Strabo saying they were;

Subject to Bacchic frenzy, and, in the guise of ministers, as inspiring terror at the celebration of the sacred rites by means of war-dances, accompanied by uproar and noise and cymbals and drums and arms, and also by flute and outcry

We can now see the Korybantes as a backing band / dancing troupe. There is an ode said to have been composed by Orpheus himself which really brings the Korybantes to life;

Tis yours in glittering arms the earth to beat, with lightly leaping, rapid, sounding feet; then every beast the noise terrific flies, and the loud tumult wanders through the skies. The dust your feet excites, with matchless force flies to the clouds amidst their whirling course.

We also have accounts by later classical authors which any future director or choreographer of this recreated Mystery should get their head around. Nonnius provides some poetical & brilliant details, who is followed by Strabo, whose equally poetical description should also be taken into account.

The helmeted bands of desert-haunting Korybantes were beating on their shields in the Knossian dance, and leaping with rhythmic steps / The oxhides thudded under the blows of the iron as they whirled them about in rivalry, while the double pipe made music, and quickened the dancers with its rollicking tune in time to the bounding steps / Lions with a roar from emulous throats mimicked the triumphant cry of the priests of the Kabeiroi Nonnius

The instruments… are mentioned by Aiskhylos for he says… ‘stringed instruments raise their shrill cry, and frightful mimickers from some place unseen bellow like bulls, and the semblance of drums, as of subterranean thunder, rolls along, a terrifying sound Strabo

DEMETER

It is now time to introduce the Earth Goddess, Demeter, into the mix. Pausanias tells us:

I must ask the curious to forgive me if I keep silence as to who the Kabeiroi are, and what is the nature of the ritual performed in honour of them and of the Meter (Mother).

Demeter is an interesting addition to the Mystery, & thro’ her we get a little more, tho’ quite garbled, information. Pausanius again;

Demeter came to know Prometheus, one of the Kabeiroi, and Aitnaios his son, and entrusted something to their keeping. What was entrusted to them, and what happened to it, seemed to me a sin to put into writing, but at any rate the rites are a gift of Demeter to the Kabeiroi.

Here the names are wrong – Prometheus & Aitnaios – but they are two males together like the Kabeiroi should be. From here we can ascertain that Demeter entrusts them with an object, which has to be the penis of Zagreus. It is also interesting that the rites are a gift, so we kinda have to mention that & have the Kabeiroi say thanks – probably in some kind of opening prologue.

So here’s the final outline of the Mystery, which Id like to actually compose while I was on the island.

Cast

Three Kabeiroi
Three Kabeirides
Demeter possibly, tho she may just be invoked
Persephone
Hermes

There will also be the presiding Anaktotelestes & nine Korybantes to provide the music, when, ‘subject to Bacchic frenzy, and, in the guise of ministers, as inspiring terror at the celebration of the sacred rites by means of war-dances, accompanied by uproar and noise and cymbals and drums and arms, and also by flute and outcry.’

Part 1: Demeter introduces the Mystery. Two brothers – the Kabeiroi kill a third & carry his head to Olympus on a shield.
Part 2: The Kabeiroi discover the castrated penis of Zagreus & place it in a chest. The wine starts to flow in the name of Zagreus/Dionysis.
Part 3: Persephone seduces Hermes & all the initiates join in & form an orgy. Demeter is thanked.

THE VENUE

To finish, where would be the best place to put on this Sweet Little Mystery. Well, Samothraki of course, & its famous site of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. The most famous artifact ddiscovered there was the 2.5-metre headless marble statue of Nike, now known as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, dating from about 190 BC. It was discovered in pieces on the island in 1863 by the French archaeologist Charles Champoiseau, and is now in the Louvre in Paris. The Winged Victory is featured on the island’s municipal seal.

The Sanctuary of the Great Gods is to be found at Palaeopoli (“old city”), the ruins of which are situated on the north coast of Samothraki. Considerable remains still exist of the ancient walls, which were built in massive Cyclopean style. The museum was closed when I went along, but I wondered if they still had the bowls mentioned by Diodorus Siculus

The Argonauts, they say, set forth from the Troad and arrived at Samothrake, where they again paid their vows to the Kabeiroi and dedicated in the sacred precinct the bowls which are preserved there even to this day.

August 13th

Poetry

Novels & essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.
Czeslaw Milosz

As I stand at the threshfold of a new millennium, I stand reassured that in a thousand years from hence poetry shall thrive still, for wherever there is human existence there dwells, as always, the sovereign art of Poetry. She -for surely the poetic spirit is of the fairer sex – exists from age to age in perpetuam; the verve of life & the ebullience of every age. As man invented boats to cross the oceans of the world, he invented poetry to cross the waters of the soul. Her vessel is metaphysical with William Hazlitt praising her omniscient abilities;

She cannot be constrained by mastery, she has the range of the universe, she traverses the empyrean, & looks down on nature from a higher sphere.

But what exactly is poetry? Observe the secret ingredient which raises the ordinary to a higher station. Let us take a football… on its own not a very poetic object. But, when slam’d into the back of the net in the last minute of a World Cup Final… that ball has become infused with poetry. Poetry is everywhere. She can be found in actions, events, emotions, thoughts, places. She can be found in the hills & lanes of nature; from a flight of dragonflies dancing cross your path to the ruins beneath smoking Vesuvius; She can be found in the gardens at Giverny to Scott’s last, frostbitten entry in his snow-sprinkled diary. Wherever she abides, poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, shedding elysian light upon the secret chambers of the brain, & grants an expression to many unsaid things. Thro’ the blossom, fragrance & golden cadence of her elegant wordsmiths, Humanity is taught best how to articulate the particular rhythms & diction of each birthright, the language of our mother & of our native land. Poetry is the natural arbiter of speech, whose champions have enriched, refined & deepened the way we talk to each other, preserving all our twanging dialects within her numerous folds.

She is music, philosophy, painting, mathematics, language, science, geography… & at the same time a mystery on the fringes of Human reason. She is an inspiration for art… without the German epic poem, The Neibelungen, Wagner would not have perceived the grandeur of his majestic operatic cycle. Even then, without the poetry of his libretto, could he have ever put words into the mouth of Seigfried. ‘Genuine poetry,’ said T.S. Eliot, ‘can communicate before it is understood.’ It is was when, as a young man, as I was sitting in the magnificent opera house in Vienna, listening to Parsifal sung in an unfamiliar tongue, that I for the first time truly sens’d the power of my art. The poetry of a foreign language is still poetry, when true meaning is less understood & more felt in the soul.

The breadbasket of Poetry is the creative imagination; a superb palatial hall, resplendent in the mind, where reside, ‘the best & happiest moments of the happiest & best minds,’ where experiencing poetry should, ‘strike the reader as a wording of their own highest thoughts.’ She is a glue which binds together many differing things, some vast repository of truth at once at the center & at the circumference of human existence, commingling together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society,

Like a tangible & grandiose mirror she reflects ages past, a living fossil which stores multiple zeitgeists within her sculptur’d pages. Who remembers the Merovingian kingdoms of the Franks? They had little culture to speak of & this great empire has slid into the shadows of posterity. Oppositewise, the ballads of Iolo Goch, Owen Glendower’s partisan poet, both contributed to & archived the Welsh rebellion against British rule, a body of work which has subsequently raised that prince to the mantle of international hero.

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One of her highest achievements of is to paint a sequence of images in the malleable mind, a narrative of the imagination, connecting the receiver one-by-one to a variety of human emotions, inviting us to create mental pictures to the words supplied – in short, a cinema of the mind. In the twelfth century, an Arabian poet called Averroës stated that poetry’s function is takhyil, the invoking of wonder-arousing images in the listener’s imagination. Sidney summ’d up this chief function when he proffer’d that, ‘poetry has the power to reproduce an ideal golden world!’ To assist the receiver, these images are wrapp’d up in the inate music latent within words, whose hypnotic rhythms lull the listener into an open state of mind. This is known as the CHAUNT, & from the sonneteer reading a sonnet to his beloved by a stream, or the mass Mushaira readings of Pakistan, a recital is Poetry in its most natural state. Witness the unique & magnetic tone of the reciter altering their voice in the same manner as when we change ours to speak to elderly ladies, students, babies or dogs. Recitation casts a spell over the audience, the soul-vibrations of the reciter lending their own faculties to the original text as their voice rises, ‘like a steam of rich, distill’d perfumes.’ The listener exists, for a time, in the dilated sphere of the poet’s intellect, listening to the words & music in a mystical meeting of souls.

There is a problem, & probably one of only fallow, but in this modern age of digital television & playstations, where everything is done for the imagination, the glory of Poetry, this majestic phantom of the human mind, has fallen into much neglect. The Entelechial nature of poetry as a teacher of truth is easily realised these days by drama & tragedy in film, television & book form. Bereft of its originial purpose, Poetry has rather become like a rudderless raft set loose on the seas of Humanity, with no real purpose of being. To address this sad matterstance must become the chief pursuit of the poets.

Poethood

The poet must have an ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest & the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child
Coleridge

What of these champions of poetry, the poets themselves, or in Shelley’s words those, ‘ministers of a benificient power seated on the throne of their own souls.’ To sucherrant knights (&, of course, knightesses) the spirit of Poetry is a burning fire inside the psyche, sometimes fierce, sometimes embers, but always, always there. Transmigrating mind-to-mind thro’ the means of metempsychosis, Poetry is a symbiotic & tutelary spirit which latches itself onto the soul & mind of a poet; when, as Wordsworth said with perfection, these especial individuals ‘cannot chuse but feel.’ Imagine a tree reflected in a river… we can all see the image shimmering on the surface, but the poet possesses an innate ability to reach into the water, pluck out a leaf & place it on a page. The elaborate & noble diction adopted by the poets to portray their inspirations effects a certain uniform & harmonious recurrence of sound that is at once recognized only as poetry. ‘I wanted not only height of fancy,’ said Dryden, ‘but dignity of words to set it off:’ as the poets write they instantly know what is worthy of immortality, what is half-born & better kept for later editorial, & what is mere dross to be discarded at once.

On completing their poems, the creators are propell’d to sing their discoveries to the world, a driving spirit describ’d by Shelley as the, ‘essential attribute of poetry, the power of awakening in others sensations like those which animate my own bosom.’ Alas, as Don Marquis states with saccharine accuracy, ‘publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ Some of these petals are whipp’d back over the poets’ heads on a wafting breeze, to enter the clouds of fame, waiting for those stressless moments whenever denizens of the world feel at enough to lie on their backs & gaze in wonder at the skies. These heaven-set works belong to all time, whose immortality was expertly reflected by the Roman poet, Horace, when he declared;

I have completed a monument, more lasting than bronze & loftier than the majestic plan for the pyramids

According to Indian poetics, the principle cause of poetood is Pratibha, or genius, a certain gift received at birth. ‘I have discovered I am a poet, it is not my fault at all,’ said the vernal Rimbaud, as to be a poet is not a vocation, but a life. With the human accession to Poethood, there first comes a feeling of stupendous affinity to the art, a moment of high epiphany, when the young & fertile mind is, as Alexander Pope reports, ‘fired at first sight with what the muse imparts!’ The British poet CS Lewis recorded such a poetical awakening in his poem Dymer;

For nineteen years they worked upon his soul
Refining, chipping, moulding & adorning
Then came the moment that outdid the whole
The ripple of rude life without a warning!

In his Prelude, William Wordsworth excellently describes the earliest energies of Poethood when he ‘wantoned in wild poesy… with fancy on the stir from day to day & all my young affection out of doors.’ Other poets have remarked on the sensations of falling in love with poetry.

I am seventeen. The hopeful, dreamy age, as they say – & I have begun, a child touch’d by the muse, to express my beliefs, my hopes, my feelings, all those things proper to poets – this I call Spring Rimbaud

In this poor body, composed of one hundred bones and nine openings, is something called spirit, a flimsy curtain swept this way and that by the slightest breeze. It is spirit, such as it is, which led me to poetry, at first little more than a pastime, then the full business of my life Basho

‘The first study for a man who wants to be poet,’ declared Rimbaud, ‘is the knowledge of himself, complete… as soon as he knows it he must cultivate it.’ A poet must daily attend the University of Life in order to generate enough varied experiences to fill the memory banks, creating a stock of images to draw upon when their rhyming manua is aroused. Longinus connects poetry directly to the life of the poet, laying down the principle that nothing short of sublime living yields sublime poetry. A larger portion of the poet’s task is directed to the assimilation of poetic experience, the accumulation of which inevitably increases the poetical ability. To define the true poetic experience one must perceive it as a moment of exultation, the drawing together of electrical aspects of existence in an epiphany of feeling. How was Spenser as he laid the scrolls of the Faerie Queene at the feet of Queen Elizabeth… how was Keats as he wrote a sonnet at the summit of Ben Nevis… how was Owen as he composed to the roar of the Kaiser’s shellfire… how was Byron as he swam the tantalising waters of the Hellespont betwixt Asia & Europe… how was Wordsworth as he took a first walk beside Rydal Water with his sister Dorothy… how was Dante as wrote Abandon hope all ye who enter here a moment before entering the cantos of his Inferno. These moments, & the effect they have on a poet, have been perfectly summarized by Shelley, who declared;

I have been familiar from boyhood with mountains & lakes & the sea, & the solitude of forests: Danger, which sports upon the brink of the precipices, has been my playmate. I have trodden the glaciers of the Alps, & lived under the eye of Mont Blanc. I have been a wanderer among distant fields. I have sail’d down mighty rivers & seen the sun rise & set, & the stars come forth, whilst I have sail’d night & day down a rapid stream among mountains. I have seen populous cities, & watched the passions which rise & spread, & sink & change, amongst assembled multitudes of men. I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny & war; cities & villages reduced to scattered groups of black & roofless houses, & the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds. I have conversed with living men of genius

The majestic spirit of Poetry contains a spark of divine fire, & when placed upon a page inwoven into a line of true poetry, the fire should glimmer before the eye, & upon intonation enrapture the mind. This is a proces known as analeptic mimesis, & the poet should be able to recognize these moments which drive an art. Thus, when following a course of study in which these scattered divine moments are identified, appreciated & subsequently absorbed; the divine spark shall settle in the poets themselves.

The three pillars upon which the poet must stand are literature, travel & love. ‘I believe that every English poet should read the English classics,’ said Robert Graves, ‘master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them, travel abroad, experience the horrors of sordid passion, and – if he is lucky enough – know the love of an honest woman.’ As for a poet’s technique, the poetic theories of India lays distinct emphasis on scholastic Vyutpatthi (training) and Abhyaasa (steadfast practice) to fortify and regulate the gift of genius. The poet must be both industrious & a master of technique, for only a natural spirit backed up by artful skill, exploration of new methods & learning of the solid type may produce a work to treasure for its, as Mary Shelley noted, ‘complete enginery of a poet.’
What is to be insisted upon,’ stated TS Elliot ‘is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past & that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.’ Each poet is an inheritor of a great tradition, & also it’s interpretor. It seems as if an engraved baton is pass’d down from poet to poet, with each new acolyte making their own individual notches in the wood. Of such a process Elliot has given us an excellent description of the Poetic Tradition;

Tradition… cannot be inherited, & if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; & the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer & within it the whole of the literature of his own country had a simultaneous existence & composes a simultaneous order

What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that proceeded it. The existing monuments are an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for the order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered

This sense of the past constitutes the living fibre of all proper poetry, a light of direction with which ‘poets of genius,’ as Voltaire so prosaically stated, ‘make a completely new path thro’ Parnassus that never existed before, into a region where no man has yet trodden, & there seeks out & explores the unknown.’ Eventually, the new poet will find an untouched spot beside the streams of Parnassus & begin to brew their mead. ‘You must,’ wrtote the German poet Rilke ‘require a great deal of talent & maturity before contributing something of your own.’ Adding the ambrosia of their personal inspirations & the herbs of their own artistry, the new poets produce a new & unique manna, when they become, in Shelley’s words, ‘a portion of the loveliness which they make more lovely!’

If you feel yourself a poet, when composing you should find or invent forms you feel most comfortable with, thro’ which you may continue your personal conversation with the muse. You will see in these future works of art your own precious & appropriate inheritance, a piece of your spirit which speaks with your own voice, & for the lucky few a voice that can speak down the ages. Most will find it difficult to be married to one’s muse for a lifetime, & there shall inevitably come a time when, following a gradual estrangement & diminishing of power, the muse abandons the poet. Sir Walter Scott captur’d perfectly the sensation of losing inspiration with;

Receding now the dying numbers ring
Fainter & fainter down the rugged dell
& now the mountain breezes scarcely bring
A wandering witch-note of a distant spell
& now tis silent all

When Byron noted, ‘my task is done, my song hath ceas’d, my theme has died into an echo,’ we may observe how a poet’s life & words are connected intrinsically, that being a poet is akin to writing a poem itself. The first onrush of poetry in youth matches a poem’s initial burst of life. This is followed by the calm & mature thought of a poem’s polishing, which mirrors the mature poet happy in their creative work. Then, when the poem is finally set in stone, the reign of fancy over, it hovers like an epitaph above a dead poet’s grave.

Eventually a poet’s work shall be concluded, thro’ retirement or death, or as Robert Graves opined, ‘something dies in the poet. Perhaps he has compromised his poetic integrity by valuing some range of experience or other – literary, religious, philosophical, dramatic, political or social – above the poetic.’ It is now that the true Parnassian prize awaits; a slow-moving posthumous accession into the eternal pantheon by the mutual agreement of Futurity. Even Shakespeare was slow to permeate into society, for the court of posterity is measured in centuries & not years. But he knew he would be famous, he knew posterity would be kind to his creations, he could feel it, & wrote in a sonnet;

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;

As the poet becomes dust, words & memories, time sits in judgement upon their contributions to the art. As the years pass by, a poet’s posthumous fame solidifies until they earn their place in the Immortal Arena, upon the slopes of Parnassus, where are gather’d the pantheon of poets. In the mortal planes, a poet’s essence is contain’d in more than just the poetry they left behind. Minds & souls are reflected in their prefaces, letters, influences, life, libraries & those pencil-mark’d footnotes that litter the books therein, for poets comment upon their role even as they perform it.

Poesis

 

Breathe-in experience,
Breathe-out poetry
Muriel Rukeyser

We have now come to the metaphysical energy that I shall from hereon in call POESIS, which is the true source of poetic inspiration? The world exists in an eternal state of flux, constantly generating this electrical charge that drives artistic inspiration. Our poets are the beacons which attract this poesis, which builds up until it is released & converted by certain laser beams which sear their serried thoughts onto the page. ‘The poet’s mind,’ said TS Elliot of the same process, ‘is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.’ Poesis is the force which acts both like a magnet to those ‘numberless feelings, phrases, images’ & their transporter into the poet’s psyche. In the natural spheres, poesis blankets poetic sites & scenes, such as bluebell woods & open plains in the early morning mist. We have on record a visionary account of seeing poesis, made by the 25-year old Protestant mystic, Jacob Boehme, in 1600.

Sitting one day in his room his eyes fell upon a burnished pewter dish, which reflected the sunshine with such marvellous splendor that he fell into an inward ecstasy, and it seemed to him as if he could now look into the principles and deepest foundations of things. He believed that it was only a fancy, and in order to banish it from his mind he went out upon the green. But here he remarked that he gazed into the very heart of things, the very herbs and grass, and that actual nature harmonized with what he had inwardly seen.

Poesis is the very same force which Lao-Tzu defined as the Tao, which flows, ‘through all things, inside & outside, & returns to the origin of all things.’ In the human spheres, poesis can be gained from society, the interaction of people such as deep friendships & intimacies, company & conversation. Within the poet himself, poesis bubbles forth from the ferment of his emotions; Passion, Grief, Lust, Dejection, Love, Anger & Joy can all move a poet. Where Rimbaud says ‘the poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious & rational disordering of all the senses – every form of love, or madness he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him & keeps only their quintessences,’ this quintessence is the poesis which he retains for future use. The constant barrage of stimulation that comes with travel is one of the greatest sources of poesis, as is a hearty diet of culture. Immersion in the arts leaves a lingering hint of poesis in the poet’s soul-pool. It is important for a poet to engage in culture; whenever Lord Byron would come to a new residence his first transaction would be the purchase of a box at the Opera House, for example. One should also study the richest sources of poesis; the old poems themselves, which ever contain a portion of the original poesis channeled by the poet of origin. The state of the poet’s inner self also has an important contribution; Stability, Confidence & Ambition can all stimulate their art. One of the most important, & perhaps the most essential sources of poesis stems from solitude. These moments of tranquil communion tap the poesis latent in a poet’s psychic store-rooms as they converse with both their soul & the art, whereby through deep & thoughtful musing they gain fresh insight & envision new projects.

There is a drawback. With all this poesis swimming about the psyche the poets have always been treated as ‘mad’ & this may be true – but it is a finer sort of madness, but if poesis is allowed to build up too much, & is not channeled out properly, the clogging may cause madness & perversions in the artist’s work. Many poets have had periods of madness, from asylum-bounden John Clare to the breakdowns of Sylvia Plaid. The American poet Jones Very, started writing a series of exceptionally & beautiful & mystical sonnets when he was locked up ‘safe’ in an asylum for a month. Likewise, the great work of the twentieth century, TS Elliot’s Wasteland, was composed in a sanitarium in Lausanne.

A poesis-pregnant poet often feels ready to write, but does not know what about. They will think of several topics, looking around them frantically until, like a child finally fitting a square peg into a square hole, something inspirational comes along, the poet’s psyche connects with a tangible subject & the poem may flow. It all begins with the poet’s drifting mind, as soft as blossom in Springtime, until from some divine perch the Pegasus of Poetry swoops down. Picture if you will a lightning flash, a grand epiphany that sparks off the creative process. This starting point, the inspiration-trigger known as the CATALYST, forms a bridge that links the outside world to the poet’s deep psyche in which pools of built-up poesis are stored. The poet is taken beyond the mortal coil… it is a visionary moment where an image, a word, a line, or even an entire poem is laid before the eyes. ‘We who are priests of Apollo,’ said John Dryden, ‘have not the inspiration when we please, but must wait til the god comes rushing on us, & invades us with a fury which we are not able to resist, which gives us double strength while his fire continues, & leaves us languishing & spent at his departure.’ The catalyst can be anything; the daffodils that lined Ullswater as Wordsworth walked by them are a prime example. The Nightingale Ode of John Keats contain a number of feelings which have nothing to do with the bird; it is as if her sweet warblings suddenly sparked of an onrush of sentiment that had been building up within him. An individual catalyst may provoke differing responses… for one poet a mound of earth could be perceived as a Faerie Barrow, which inspires a pastoral sonnet, while for another poet may see a Saxon burial ground & compose an elegy to fallen warriors. One of my favorite examples of the catalyst in action is the French poet, D’Aubigne, who conceived his great epic poem Les Tragiques whilst lying wounded by the road after an attempt on his life. Another instance can be identified in the life of Charlotte Bronte, who wrote little poetry, but when her sisters died in swift succession, these tragic events formed a catalyst for to write some beautiful poetry.

Once the poesis is beginning to flow, we enter the art’s kitchen, where the raw ingredients may be cooked up into something recognizably poetic. This brings us to the most mystical section of an art – the act known as composition. The vehicle for this process is the mind, or PSYCHE, made up of the creative imagination & its memory banks. To this is added REASON, which forms the balance & the bind between the two. When the Psyche is operating at a compositive level, it may be described as performing an act of CREATION, where in the poem’s world, the poet is omnipotent. Poets find the deepest pleasures during composition, for when the mind knits all together in this way, the poet has surely made a connection with the infinitismal.

Composition is an intuitive sensation, driven by the poet’s suspicions as to what is good; a sense of the chase where the poem’s ‘vision’ is a stag to be hunted down. The first poetical pre-requisite is an open mind, free from clutter & focus’d on the matter at hand. The French word for this openness was vertueux, & without this state of mind no poesis can be drawn into the psyche, nor chanelled outward onto the page. ‘If you think of consciousness as a lake,’ suggests Colin Wilson, ‘it becomes plain that if the lake freezes – or becomes thick & muddy – a stone thrown into it will have far less effect than when the water is clear. When you are tired, events hardly cause a ripple in your consciousness. You hear a piece of music that normally moves you, but nothing happens. The stone has plopped into an almost solid jelly, & it merely vibrates slightly. On the other hand, if I am wide awake & full of vitality, the same piece of music may cause something like a tidal wave in my lake, an overwhelming emotional experience.’ In a letter to the composer Tchaikovsky Mily Balakirev, ably described the magical way creation begins when the artist is verteux;

Inflame yourself with a plan. Then arm yourself with galoshes & a stick, set off for a walk along the boulevards, starting at the Nikitsky, inspire yourself with your plan – & I’m convinced that before you reach the Sretensky boulevard you’ll already have some theme or at least an episode

Entering the poetic trance can be compared to an eastern mantra, & it is while under this spell, akin to the reverie that shamans enter when drawing on their incantations, that the poets will produce the mystical manna which invigorates their words. The Islamic word baraka means ‘sudden divine rapture’ & represents the religious exstasi that many poets feel when entering the trance. The most genuine poetry has been written spontaneously & immediately in a state of baraka, with some poems often arriving fully blown in the poet’s mind, testament to the gigantic powers a poet can command when under the trance. This state of self-hypnosis, this nascent existence in the twilight of imagination, perches just on the vestibule of consciousness.

When poets enter the baraka they seem to be sleepwalking in a heighten’d sense of relaxed receptivity. As a powerful atmosphere envelops the spirit, a period of vivid & violent activity engages the mind. Here, a series of formless feelings & images – given the name MIMESIS by the ancyent Greeks – issue forth into the Psyche, ready to be worked into poetry by the poet. ‘Mimesis is innate in human beings from childhood,’ wrote Aristotle, ‘indeed we differ from other animals in being most given to mimesis & in making our first steps in learning through it – & pleasure in instances of mimesis is equally general. This we can see from the facts: we enjoy looking at the most exact portrayals of things we do not like to see in real life, the lowest animals, for instance, or corpses.’ It is upon such raw mimesi that the poets stamp their signature, coating them in raw poesis & sculpting wonderful words & phrases of great intensity & clarity. ‘The poet,’ mused Rimbaud, ‘must see to it that his inventions can be smelt, felt, heard,’ & as the word-constructs are flung by the psyche to the forefront of thought, their curious & peculiar syntax transcend the emotional force of even the most consider’d rhetoric. Here we may observe the conversion of raw poesis into vivacious living matter. Sometimes all the poesis will flow out at once, like milk from a broken bottle, but it is very rare that an entire poem contains true poesis, for the poetic faculty is by nature an evanescent mist that arrives unexpectedly & disappears just as quick. A poet of at least some mastery should be able to identify the patches of poesis within any given line of poetry, both by its inherent beauty & also that magical, spark-like trigger-glimmer which shoots through the psyche as one hears or reads the line.

‘Open yourself to the tao,’ taught Lao-Tzu, ’then trust your natural responses & everything falls into place.’ What is created is very much a mosaic, where the moments of pure inspiration are connected by artifice. ‘I have simply clothed my thoughts,’ said Shelley, ‘in what appeared to me the most obvious & appropriate language.’ Sometimes, however, the creation is still-born, something went awry in the womb, so to speak. No matter how much poesis is bubbling in both the poet’s soul-pool & psyche, no matter how inspiring the catalyst, if the poet is not properly ‘in the zone,’ so to speak, then nothing magical may happen. ‘If conditions aren’t right,’ poeticized Ed Northstrum, ‘the poem won’t come out, it will sit inside & stew & emerge a different beast.’

‘It is not the ‘greatness,’ the intensity, of the emotions, the components,’ wrote Eliot, ‘but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes places, that counts.’ It is this quality which makes poetry so special, for it vastly reduces the chances of creating good poetry; so many factors must be in combination to both discover the matter of poetry, & then portray it in its most beautiful way. When composing poetry onself, one should always keep in mind & combine two brief but brilliant statements by famous poets; Coledridge’s, ‘the best words in the best order,’ with Elliot’s ‘use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.’

When a poet is attempting the composition of something longer; just as the farmer learns how to cultivate the land year-in, year-out, the dedicated poet must learn how to harvest & sustain their stores of poesis. They must be able to enter Baraka at will, to maintain & sustain this state of conscious lucid dreaming over great periods of time, in order to complete their longer compositions, when, according to Oscar Wilde, ‘the energy of creation hurries him blindly to his goal.’ Then, when the poem is completed, they will be, as Rimbaud declared, ‘always filled with Number & Harmony, these poems will be made to endure.’

Poems

 

I have sought to enlist the harmony of metrical language, the ethereal combinations of the fancy, the rapid & subtle transitions of human passions, all those elements which essentially compose a poem
Shelley

To many people, including the poets themselves, Poetry is the mysterious force which guides their pen. Then how does the process work? What is the product of the matrimonial union between the poets & their art? These are known by the universal name of Poems, the literary legacies of a Poetic Trinity ruled by the formula;

Poet + Poesis = Poem

Just like the Law, the corpus of poetry is based on procedure & precedent. What poetical nuance once discover’d about the art by a daydreaming spirit, will one day be taken for granted by subsequent generations. The creative forces which furnishes the world with each new poem is a steadily evolving entity that can never be readily explained; she is like snake, always shedding skin that has grown old & tatty. Originality in poetry is difficult, for as Anne Bradstreet remark’d, ‘there is nothing that can be sayd or done, but either that or something like it hath been done and sayd before’. This lack of originality, however, is what binds poets to both to each other & to their tradition. As Rimbaud said, ‘the poet would define the amount of the unknown awakening in the universal soul in his own time,’ – i.e. recording the poesis of a particular zeitgesit for posterity, but it must be done in something of a fashion which indicates a poet lurks behind the words.

When the poet is verteux, even to the minutest extent, then they are ready ready to compose. Some poems may fly onto the page & some shall be wrestled, but in the final account they will be wonder’d at, for as Sri Aurobindo said, ‘all great poetic utterance is discovery.’ Imagine the creative process as ignean rock pouring from the volcano of the psyche. At first it is malleable as lava pours onto the page, & may be steered into shape by the poet. This ‘molten verse,’ as Alfred de Musset called the poetry of Racine, will slowly cool & sculpted until it is a finished article set in stone. The process reminds me of the statement by the Renaissance artists Michaelangelo, who said his sculptures were already immured in marble… & were slowly brought to light by chipping away the encasing marble.

Coleridge once opined that, ‘poets diffuse a tone & spirit of unity that blends & fuses; each into each, by that synthetic & magical power of the IMAGINATION.’ Picture the imagination as an eagle flying through the vast skies above the swampy subconscious, whose waters become a boiling ferment when a poet’s mind is on fire. The more powerful the eagle the better the prey as it swoops & snatches some ‘thing’ from the ooze, dripping in gunk, ready to be treated with mead. This is the metaphysical stimuli known as ‘mimesis;’ some vision, sound or emoti2015on, ready to be given a recognizable & conscious existance with words. In Arabian poetics & the poetics of classical Greece, there are the two notions of Takhyil & Phantasia. In essence this means painting pictures in the mind, & it is the poet’s manipulation of their mimesi which enables the painting of these mental tapestries.

Although all men possess the subconscious, it is only the poets who have command & control enough over their creative faculties to regularly fetch the mimesial substance from the mind to be converted into a living object. As Neruda reported, ‘words, sounds or images buzz past us like bees – they must be caught quickly & put in one’s pocket!’ Other poets have described the process in their verse;

The poet’s eye in a fine phrenzie rolling
doth glance from Heaven to Earth,
from Earth to Heaven,
& as imagination bodies forth
the form of things unknown,
the poets pen turns them to shapes
and gives to airy nothing a local habitation & a name

Shakespeare

A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory,
Of calling shapes, & beck’ning shadows dire,
And airy tongues that syllable men’s names
On sands & shores & desert wildernesses

Milton
The heightened awareness of life & sound
Twin focus of energies light & space,
Then a more refined moment gathers round,
Calms the cortex, with a deft touch of grace
All settles in that sweet, especial place,
And thoughts of poets turn to poetry

Damo

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: A thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us, so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out & stood in the light, lashing his tail. That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion, though it is an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel

Milosz

Victor Hugo once said, ‘poetry uses a language composed of special ingredients out of reach of normal education.’ Imagine if you will a cauldron. The imagination mixes the poesis by a ‘thinking’ act of invention, creating the poetic mead that shall be used during composition. To this ambrosial mead are added the herbs, representing the poet’s skill with the art. Further thinking-heat is added until the moment the mead is fully cooked, when it shall be strained & purified through the poet’s persona, that mask from which the personality is projected, or in other words the poets ‘voice.’ This cocktail blend of liquid inspiration is then used to coat the incoming mimesi, bringing them to a recognizable shape, & thus to life! The poets, as Rimbaud noted, must ‘see to it that their inventions can be smelt, felt, heard. If what they bring back from ‘down there’ {the psyche} has form, he brings forth form, if it is formless he brings forth formlessness {untreated mimesis}. A language has to be found for that matter, every word being an idea.’

The greatest influence on any poem are the the lives of the poets themselves; who bring trained experience, both technical & spiritual, to the act of composition. ‘Even the most ‘occasional’ poem,’ said Auden, ‘involves not only the occasion but the whole life experience of the poet, who themsleves cannot identify all the contributing elements.’ Every line & every word a poet writes depends upon their own particular & peculiar set of circumstances which brought them to the exact moment when they sat down to write. Extraneous influences also effect composition; the place of composition is important, for each setting conjures a unique atmosphere. Many poets enjoy the bracing air of the seaside, for example, while others prefer the prehistoric splendour of the mountains. When entering nature, a pleasurable warmth comes over poets… their pace slows & they begin to jabber with the trees. It is in such places that a poet works best, for humans inherit a quiet of mind from uncontaminated scenes. Movement through these places is also important, for such activity helps fan the poesis into around the poet’s psyche, like the breeze that feeds the fire. It is also an amazing quality of poetry that natural habitat can seep into a line, influencing the work. Neruda buried himself, ‘deep in nature’s woods, before a rock or a wave, far from the publishing houses, far from the printed page,’ where, ‘in whose ennobling stir,’ Lord Byron would ‘feel myself exalted.’ Write a poem in a daisy-peppered meadow in May & your lines shall be heady with the rejuvenative joys of Spring. Come late November, the line will burthen an increas’d feeling of melancholia.

Following the initial composition period – when treated poesis surges & gushes onto the page with unchecked abandon – the mind enters subconcious process of creative correction or improvement; to remove the unsightly & ungainly from the text, to correct & polish words according to one’s critical intelligence. This of poetry is known as Apollonian, an ornate tapestry composed by a conscious artist. In ancent times, Pindar proclaimed the superiority of natural inspiration, but Hellenistic poets would stress the importance of art. The answer lies atwain the two, for as Horace noted, the poet needs both abilities. The very best poems will mix the two sails; a yin & yang of guided spontaneity, combining sonorous aesthetics with deep inspirations. This should sufficiently provide a pleasant effect overall, & the greater the poet the harder it should to be to notice the seams between the pegasus & the alchemist, to distinguish calculated artifice from reflex inspiration. ‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,’ wrote Pope, ‘as those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.’ This editorial may take place immediately, as in the frantically revised worksheets of Dylan Thomas, or fifty years later as in the life-evolving Prelude of Wordsworth. One could even ask the question, is a poem ever truly finished?

Like a child that has been nursed from the world to adulthood, the poet is happy enough with the poem to present it to the world; the end product of the multiple strands of the art, the culmination of cultivation, the tips of icebergs & the flowers of plants. Poems are independent entities in their own right, a mysterious presence whose life endures long after our own perishable ones. They are minature caches of literature which store moments of high creativity within the confines of their form. As the ancient Greeks held spots of ground struck by lightning as sacred, building fences around them in the process, so do we hold the greatest poems of inspiration wonderful by fencing them off with acclaim & praise. Each new poet will find themselves one day stood at the yawning gates of the poetic corpus, searching for those lightning strikes of Pegasis hooves. ‘The poem is not a thing we see,’ mused Robert Penn Warren, ‘it is, rather, a light by which we may see – and what we see is life.’

When studying an individual poem, the best way is to walk thro’ the poet’s shoes & gather the mimesis analeptically, then reason why each word was chosen in order to bring an idea to life. Then apply the principle of Mathesis as designated by Aristotle, when the art-eater can identify ‘concidences’ in the work both within itself & at the larger bodies of art outside. Eventually the student poet will realise that a lot of writing may appear like poetry, but is actually far from it – they have learned to tell the difference. It is all rather akin to wandering the star systems of space, where the vast majority of rocky spheres are sterile & intemperate, but every now & again you may stumble across a fertile planet like our own.

Try not to listen to the voices of the ages too much, but decide instead for yourself; for as TS Elliot once admitted, ‘the less I knew about the poet, before I began to read, the better.’ By reading the erudite criticism of a poet before the actual works themselves, you will be entering the reading with preconceived attitudes, diminishing the pleasures of discovering the jewels for oneself. ‘It is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry,’ decreed Elliot, ‘than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.’ No-one is indespensible either. As the millennia progress, those poets who are considered valuable today may be forgotten in the entirity. It is up to each generation to decide.

Poetics

Poetry, even that of the loftiest &, seemingly, the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as ever as that of science; & more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, & dependant on more, & more fugitive causes
Coleridge

The scientific branch of poetry that is its Poetics has been studied & utilized by the poets since classical times. It may be defined as the technical actions the poet employs upon the mimesis which bubbles up from the psyche; the art’s nuts & bolts, if you will. Of the institutions, form is a major component, while verse is also higly ranked as rhyming falls easily on the ear & knits the memory together for future recital. These & other learned devices influence how the pure mimesis that arrives at the threshfold of the consciousness will finally appear on the page, there handled, as Ezra Pound said, ‘as a musician would expect to know harmony & counterpoint & all the minutiae of his craft.’ From abbreviation to macaronics, from metaphors to epic similes, from conceits to hypercataletics, from the Dyfalu to the Cyghanned of the Welsh bards, there are many spices that give a poem its taste & texture.

I do not have enough time or space here to create a guidebook to creating poetry. There are far too many of these type of books out there as it is. Among them is the ‘Poetic Craft & Principle’ of Robert Graves, in which one may read just about the best advice on poetics & poetical creation the budding poet may read;

An important rule of craftsmanship in English Verse is that a poet should never tell his readers how romantic, pathetic, awe-inspiring, tragic, mystic or wondrous a scene has been. He must describe the details himself in such powerful but restrain’d language (nouns & verbs always outnumbering the adjectives), that it will be the reader who catches his breath, looks up from the page & says: ‘How romantic, how pathetic, how awe-inspiring, how …

The essence Graves is capturing here, the stuff which takes ‘ordinary verse into the region of poetry,’ was described by the Roman author, Longinus, as Sublimity, describing it is

A kind of eminence or excellence of discourse. It is the source of distinction of the very greatests poets & prose writers & the means by which they have given eternal life to their own fame. For grandeur produces ecstasy rather than persuasion in the hearer; & the combination of wonder & astonishment always proves superior to the merely persuasive & pleasant. This is because persuasion is on the whole something we can control, whereas amazement & wonder exert invincible power & force

Me at the end of my travels.jpg

There has always been a metapsychotic side to poetics. Since the tribal shaman of the North American Plains regularly took peyote to help their spiritual celebrations, the elevation to the baraka has been assisted by narcotic stimulation. From a sip of the Pierian spring to the electric flush of an ecstasy tablet, taking drugs helps push back the barriers of the mortal mind & leads the poet to regions of his psyche hitherto unexplored. If strong of mind they can return from these journeys as though they had travelled abroad, a wiser man for a now wider understanding of the world. Many poets, including Yeats, were smokers of Hashish, but few have moved onto the heavier drugs… for poets prefer to live their lives rather than give it up. Opioids, however, have been the inspiration of poets for millennia. The most famous was Coleridge, whose dalliance with the drug at first inspired then destroyed his art. Taken as Laudanum, a readily available counter drug until recent years, it would soothe the poet & help conjure wildly poetic visions. The relaxing effect alcohol has on the personality is the first stimulant among the senates of the poets. From the Whiskey of Burns, thro’ the Brandy of Coleridge to the Absinthe of the Van Goch, these nectars have been the friend of many an artist & writer. But of all the stimulants, it is with Wine that the poet rests his chiefest favours. The mellowing effects of this fermented grape-juice have seeped into poetry over the ages, where monarchs would always present their poets with free wine, to help with their inspiration. Alcohol also has its downside, unfortunately, contributing to the early deaths of many poets, such as Rabbie Burns & Dylan Thomas. Elsewhere, the Chinese poet Li bai drown’d trying to capture his reflection in the Yangtzee river while rather the worse for wear, while Christopher Marlowe was stabbed in the eye during a drunken brawl.

Only a select & industrious reading of the canon, combined with a rigorous course of study, will enable the poets to sharpen their poetical abilities. Technique is clearly important, but this is no guarantee to writing true poetry. ‘The poet,’ commented Sri Aurobindo, ‘least of all artists needs to create with his eye fixed anxiously on the technichalities of his art. He has to possess it, no doubt, but in the heat of creation the intellectual sense of it becomes a subordinate action or a mere undertone in the mind.’ When composing for yourself, please try not to stray far from the Longinus’ maxim in which, ‘sublimity is an echo of a noble mind.’ One should keep one’s thoughts as free from turgidity, puerility, false emotion & frigidity as possible. Instead, approach emotion from a lofty height, engage with heart-felt feelings your subject, at all times rise from the swamps of common opinion & look at something in your own, rather fresh, way.

Epic Tradition: Homer to Dante

I think that the poet is master of his art who by means of skilful words alone stirs my soul, grieves it, soothes it, fills it with his imagined terrors, and like a magician places me now in Thebes, now in Athens
Horace

In his ‘Discourse de la Posie Dramatique,’ Denis Diderot observed that ‘poetry wants something enormous, barbarous, savage.’ It is only with epic poetry that such an ideal is realised. The Epic sits on a lofty pinnacle, observing every facet of humanity & encompassing every genera of poetic utterance, from the love lyric to the dramatic battle scene. If one was to put all the world’s epics on a bookcase… & they would only need a couple of small shelves… you would find so much human existance in so little a space. These are are the mountains that jut out of the clouds of time; the great peaks of literature, towering over the valleys & the lower hills where reside the lesser hillocks of poetry & prose.

The true epics are the literary representatives of a culture; here the lore, legends, & language of a people passes onto the page, when, as Tasso declared, ‘the theme of epic is best taken from history.’ The prehistory of epic poetry begins with the shamen of primeval peoples, those namers of things, who in some bizarre firelit ceremony I imagine to utter strange & new sounds, teaching the tribe to speak as they recanted their tribal tales. As humanity evolved into the higher cultures of the Bronze Age, so too these shamen, who had now taken on a more bardic role, the tribal spokesman & a living treasure trove who would memorise the annals & traditions of the people. As time strode further, & history got deeper, the tales these bards would sing became larger & more complex. They would be called upon to entertain a king & his court, often accompanying their words with music. ‘The Germans celebrate their gods in ancient songs,’ noted the Roman Tacitus in 98AD, ‘which are the only kinds of records & annals they possess.’ These celebrations were preserved in the memory banks of the poets, an oral tradition passed down from poet to poet over the ages, with each new reciter tapping into their poetical facilities & enhancing the action with fresh phrases & interesting embellishments of the plots.

It was from such repositaries of imagination & legend that epic poetry was born, & with one tribe in particular. The tradition flourish’d in the minds of the Greeks like no other race before, or perhaps even since, whose poets were determined to analyze man, the cosmos & our role in it throuhh the device of the epic. It is with the swift-flying poems of Homer that the Western mind finds its first expression, whose wine-dark words issued the language of the gods from his mortal-yet-immortal mouth. Homer has been translated into every Western language, the collossus of poetry. He was also the first to convert the oral stories of the Trojan War into written literature, enacting a process known as the ‘diaskeue,’ which would be repeated over the centuries; the Sumanguru of the Sudanese, the Finnish Kalewala, the Estonian Kalewipoeg, the Shah Nameh of Persia & the Niebelungen of Germany would all be created through this process.

Homer’s two masterpieces, the Iliad & the Odyssey, are the immeasurably influential standards to which all epic must be valued. With the ancient Greeks visiting India; it is with their traders, perhaps, or even Pythagoras on his own visit to India, those sultry lands that the Homeric tradition was transplanted in the Indian courts. One may surmise that is after certain Hindu princes were regaled with the heroic tayles of Troy, that the two great Hindu epics began to be created. Composed in the voluptuous Sanskrit language, the Ramayana & the Mahabarata echo the Odyssey & the Iliad. Just as Odysseus goes on many adventures in order to be reunited with his wife, so does Rama seacrh India for Sita, while a great battle ensues in both epics when the heroes eventually find their loved ones. The comparisons between the Iliad & the Mahabharata are clear; when massed battles & dynastic conflicts mingle with the machinations of the gods.

me5.jpg

After the legions of Rome marched into Greece, closing the country within the folds of empire, the ancient culture of Plato et al. was absorbed into the Latin psyche. The poet Andronicus soon translated Homer’s Odyssey in order to teach his Latin-speaking children the wonders of the Muses. Greek models were used by the Romans to create a literature worthy of the greatest empire ever to grace the Earth. The plant of Latin literature would grow. The Romans produced many great poets, from Horace to Ovid, but the laurels of epic glory are reserved for one Roman poet in particular, Virgil. After learning Greek & studying Homer, indeed claiming possession by that ancient poet, he settled under the shadow of Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples & began his great poem, The Aenied. Drawing from the lost epic by Gnaeus Naevius for its content, the poem concerns the foundation of Rome, tracing the lineage back to the walls of Troy. The poem consists of twelve books; the first six mirroring the voyages of Odysseus & the last six echoing the military endavours of the Iliad. Containing a harvest store of mythology & legend, the Aenied was soon to become the ‘bible’ of Rome.

The next true epic poet was an Italian, Dante Alighieri. In an essay on epic poetry, Voltaire wrote, ‘after we have lifted up our eyes toward Virgil, and Homer, we need not look down on the other Roman Authors who have been stumbling in the same Carrier.’ Over a thousand years separates Dante from Virgil, with the Fall of the Roman Empire inbetween. During the fifth century AD, in Western Europe a thousand years of high culture became a distant memory as the Roman Empire dissolved & the Classical Age drew to a close. Much of its literature was lost, but the greatest classics were fanatically preserved from the barbarian flames, for as Sri Aurobindo remark’d, ‘the poetic mind of Greece & Rome has pervaded & largely shaped the whole artistic production of Europe,’

It is like a phoenix that the spirit of poetry would rise up from the ashes of the defeat of Rome. This all appears to be down to one man, Charlemagne, the first soul of the Holy Roman Empire. It is his gift of the golden coasts & verdant massifs of Provence to musicians & poets that gave modern poetry its true foundation. The wandering jongleurs would compose their poems in the Provencal tongue – Langue d’oc – using increasingly intricate forms, such as the Rondeau & Chant Royal, & almost from the beginning of the movement the epic tradition was reborn. The poems these troubadors sung at the great courtly feasts of Europe are known as the Chanson de Geste (songs of deeds), lyrico-epics concerning tayles of heroic action. The oldest extant epic in French is also the greatest of the era, the Song of Roland. The anonymous poet records Charlemagne’s defeat by the Moors at the Pass of Roncevaux & the subsequent slaying of Roland, the emporer’s son. The poem has been found across Europe, translated into many languages, it’s four thousand lines ressuscitating the complex plots, fiery clash of arms & stirrings of humanity in a way that would have made Homer proud. As the violin-twanging Jongleurs wander’d beyond the courts of Provence they took their poetry with them, reaching all the corners of Europa. It was in Sicily, half-way to the Arab world, that they would meet the stream of texts on poetics, & fuse into the Sicilian School. This was a body of high & like-minded poets, who served the brilliant court of King Frederick the second at Palermo. It was here that the sonnet was first invented & an innovative attitude steered the poet to original pastures of thought. These poets in turn would influence the Tuscan school of the thirteenth century, chief among whom was the poet Dante Alighieri. It was from his majestic poetry that the Italian language was born – to this day the legacy of his ‘sweet new style’ can be heard upon the tongues of all Italians. It is no surprise that Italy would become the mother of modern Western poetry, for as Neruda said she, ‘holds the voices of the ancient poets deep within her earth, where it is purest.’

Following political exile from Florence, Dante went to work on the first great religious epic. His three-part ‘Comedy’ (three centuries would pass before the ‘Divine’ was added), would take him from the gates of Hell, up the slopes of the mountain of Purgatory & into the halls of Heaven, where the beatific vision formed the climax. Guided upon his journey by Virgil & his muse, Beatrix, he excelled in his word-artistry & succeeded in capturing the sentiment of an age like only the epic poets could. He is the bridge thrown between the ancient & modern worlds, the true rediscoverer of the epic tradition & all its nuances. It would be the first of several such epics to grace the global bookshelf in the three quarters of a Millenium since Dante first wrote;

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

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