Transcreating The Gododdin

Who do you think I have at my elbow, as happy as ever Alexander thought himself after a conquest? No less a man than Ieuan Fardd who hath discovered some old MSS. Lately that nobody of this age or the last ever dreamed of. And this discovery is to him & me as great as that of America by Colombus. We have found an epic poem in the British called Gododin, equal at least to the Iliad, Aeneid or Paradise Lost.
Lewis Morris (1758)

The transcreation is an important part of any poetical training, when for a briefish period of time a poet may enter the very spirit of one of the past masters. The essence of transcreation is the breaking down of an old text into its composite parts & the rebuilding of them again, in the hope of making something different, something modern, something new. During my own training I have attempted two transcreations; the Kural of Thiruvalluvar & the Gododdin of Aneirin, the processes behind the latter of which we shall be looking at in this lecture.

The Gododdin of Aneirin is the first great vernacular poem produced in these islands, or at least the first one that survived the ravages of time. We are told the story of the battle of Catraeth, a seminal event in the early history of the British Isles. At the of the seventh century, the embattl’d British tribes embarked upon a noble expedition in an attempt to stem the relentless tides of Saxon invaders, among which were a contingent of warriors called the Gododdin, from the Lothian region about Edinburgh. Their gruesome fate was discovered in the pages of a single 13th century manuscript, which contained poetry penned by the bard Aneirin, an actual eye-witness to the battle. In the poem he tells us of his march to Catreath with the British army, where he would become one of only four survivors of the slaughter. He goes on to describe how he endured captivity at the hands of his enemies, before his ransom was paid by Ceneu, the son of the poet-king, Llywarch Hen.

On surviving the slaughter of Catraeth, Aneirin sang his song. Y Gododdin, considered by the Welsh bards to be the supreme poem. Its parallels with the other surviving poetic masterpiece of British antiquity, Beowulf, are palpable. As Beowulf is the pedigree literary representative of the early English, so Y Gododdin is the hallmark of the Old Welsh. It is clear that Aneirin’s command of his language could only have come from the Bardic school & its years of intensive training; a combination of endless compositive exercises & the memorizing of the vast canon of Welsh bardic poetry. Among the bards, Aneirin stands out as a special talent, whose masterpiece tells us at first, in the most beautiful fashion, of a great meeting of the Kymric nobility, when;

From Eidyn’s fort no force like this e’er flow’d.

Edinburgh, or Dun Eidyn as the poem names it, was the seat of the Gododdin, a later evolution of the Brythonic tribe that the Romans named ‘Votadini.’ Their realm spanned both shores of the Firth of Forth, with its southern regions corresponding roughly to the three Lothian counties of modern times. During the Roman era, the capital of the Votadini tribe sat on the summit of Traprain Law, near Haddington in East Lothian. Come the late sixth century, the tribe had moved its main base to the grand, volcanic & precipitous crag on which Edinburgh Castle sits today. The lands controlled by the Gododdin lay on the north-eastern limits of a Brythonic world which stretched westwards to the Kingdom of Strathclyde, then turned south through modern-day Lancashire, then carrying on through Wales & into Cornwall. Since the departure of the Romans, the eastern parts of Britain had been settled by tribes of German warriors known as the Anglo-Saxons, year-by-year encroached on the territory of the native British, & it was only when the messiah-like figure of King Arthur rose up & inspired his countrymen to battle that the Saxons were stopped in their tracks. The Annals Cambrae tell us that Arthur died in the year 537, after which the unity of the British once again began to disintegrate. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, ten years after Arthur’s death, the Angles had established themselves on the Northumbrian coast.

A.D. 547 : This year Ida began his reign; from whom first arose the royal kindred of the Northumbrians… He built Bamburgh-Castle, which was first surrounded with a hedge, and afterwards with a wall.

Bamburgh Castle was built on the site of a Brythonic fort known as Din Guarie, whose occupation showed the Angles meant business in the area. The fortress pressed a sharp dagger point on the territories of the Gododdin, whose capital lay only fifty miles to the north-west at Edinburgh. Fifty years later, this dagger was picked up by a new & powerful king of the Angles called Aethelfrid, of whom the English historian Bede tells us;

At this time, Aethelfrid, a most worthy king, and ambitious of glory, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English for he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune

This brings into perspective how vital a battle was Catreath was to the Gododdi, a life or death struggle for their very existence against a ruthless enemy whose star was very much in the ascendence. Aneirin describes how warriors from all over the Brythonic world fought at Catreath, amplifying the significance of the battle & catapulting its legacy into the halls of immortal fame. Catraeth was fought, according to my historical investigations, in the year 598 AD. Four decades later, Irish chronicles speak of a ‘Siege of Etain,’ after which the Gododdin are never formally heard of again. This gives an added importance to the poem, for it records forever the valorous deeds of a long, lost British tribe, whose back had been broken at the battle of Catraeth.

The brilliance of Aneirin’s poetical remembrance was soon recognized. An 9th century monk called Nennius lists the five great bards of ‘Y Cynfeirdd,’ those Early Poets of Welsh tradition, among whom Aneirin proudly appears;

Then Dutgirn at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles. At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry

Roll on a few more centuries, & medieval poets were proclaiming Aneirin a ‘Medeyrn Beirdd’ – i.e. the King of Bards. The tradition he belonged to is one of the treasures of British history, most of whose ouput has been been lost to the ravages of time. Enough of their material has survived to modernity, however, that we can gain a fairly decent idea of the bardic mindset, & also a healthy picture of their life & times. The poetry we possess is deposited in a number of medieval literary anthologies, known by such delightful names as the White Book of Rhydderch & the Black Book of Carmarthen. Of these collections, there is one tome that concerns us the most. Known to curators by the unassuming title of ‘Cardiff MS2.81,’ but to the rest of the world as The Book of Aneirin, it consists of nineteen sheets of parchment, with text covering both sides of the paper – giving us thirty-eight pages of beautifully written Welsh poetry in total. Dated by J Gwenogvryn Evans to the year 1250, the Book of Aneirin contains four small poems known as the ‘Gwarchan,’ & two different versions (A&B) of a longer stanzaic poem called ‘Y Goddodin’. When combining the Gododdin recensions together, we obtain 140 stanzas of moving & deliciously detailed verse, attributed in their entirity to Aneirin. By the creation of Cardiff MS2.81, the language used had evolved in the main to Middle-Welsh, which has influenced academic dating of the poem. A number of portions, however, contain a much older version of Welsh, indicating that at least some of the poetry we read today does indeed herald from Aneirin’s time. ‘The historical arguments,’ wrote Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘suggest that the poem is the authentic work of Aneirin; that we can establish the essential nature of the poem from the two surviving versions; but that we cannot, except in favourable circumstances, establish the wording of the original.’

The nature of Y Gododdin is elegaic, a series of florid reports upon the heroes who fought & died at Catraeth. Of the 300 men who marched, Aneirin gives us the names of 90 warriors, less than a third of those who fell, suggesting a great many stanzas are lost to us. The abrupt breaking off of the text at the end of page 38 of the manuscript does suggest we have lost some of the text forever. What survives is full of vibrant, militaristic bombast, & has been a joy to transcreate. My own rendition of the poetry of Aneirin is different to all others in that I have blended the two versions of YG into a composite whole, rearranging the stanzas into what I believe is the best chronology possible. I have found that many of the stanzas of the B recension were similar to those found in the A, & often merged them into a single stanza, choosing the best passages from each. I have also added select passages from the gwarchans, & certain passages from the poetry of Taleisin which concern the battle. The final production consists of twelve cantos of twelve stanzas each, bringing an epic feel to what is essentially the first epic poem of the British Isles.

My transcreation caps a long line of translations, the first of which soon followed the discovery of the manuscript by Evan Evans in the 18th century. He printed ten stanzas with a Latin translation in his book, Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Antient Welsh Bards, published in 1764. The first English translation of the poem was published by William Probert (1820), followed by John Williams (1852), WF Skene (1866) & Thomas Stephens (1888). The twentieth century saw further translations by Ifor Williams (1938), JP Clancy (1970), KH Jackson (1969), AOH Jarman (1988) & JT Koch (1997). I had many of these translations at my desk, nibbling on both their spirit & phraseology, before regurgitating my own lines.

During my transcreation, I have attempted to furnish the reader with something of the music of the original. The Welsh bards infused the concept of Cynghanned throughout their poetry – that is the use of rhyme, assonance & alliteration, assembl’d in the most harmonious of wholes. An example of the practice in English can be discerned from my line, ‘Like quaffing liquer mead in laughters midst.’ Listing the individual phonetic sounds & their repetitions we can see how a great deal of music can be obtained from just ten syllables of poetry.

L-3 / K-3 / F-2 / M-2 / T-3 / S-2 /IN-2

Another example comes from the line, ‘Clove spear path kinks of light thro phalanx’d foes.’

K-3 / L-3 / F-4 / S-3 / P-2 / TH-2 / N-2

Another mainstay of Cynghanned is the frequent use of end-rhymes. Aneirin was a wonderful exponent of this, as can be seen from an example stanza from YG;

Kaeawc kynhorawc aruawc eg gawr
Kyn no diw e gwr gwrd eg gwyawr
Kynran en racwan rac bydinawr
Kwydei pym pymwnt rac y lafnawr
O wyr deivyr a brennych dychiawr
Ugein cant eu diuant en un awr
Kynt y gic e vleid nogyt e neithyawr
Kynt e vud e vran nogyt e allawr
Kyn noe argyurein e waet e lawr
Gwerth med eg kynted gan lliwedawr
Hyueid hir ermygir tra vo kerdawr

To keep the correct sense of the poem I have had no choice but to dispense with Aneirin’s protracted use of rhyme. Despite this loss, there is enough Cynghanned latent in the English language to recreate something of the atmosphere of Aneirin’s recitations, or as the poet Dafydd Benras gushed in the 13th century;

To sing as Aneirin sang,
The day he sang the Gododdin

May 13th

Transcreating Thirukural

Banyan & Margosa are good for teeth
Nalatiyar & Thirukkural are good for tongue
Tamil Proverb

As I showed in my last lecture, one of the most interesting avenues a poet may scribble along is the process of recreating creation – transcreation – that arduous rewording of the great works of ancient masters. This method was the core of the 16th century Renaissance, where lore-caskets of Arabian, Greek & Latin wisdom were studied, assimilated & regurgitated by European writers. A century later came the Georgian translations of Homer’s epics, while in more recent times we have seen Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. It is in a similar capacity that I have been engaged on a version of the Kural of Thiruvalluvar, or as it is more commonly known, Thirukkural. This 2000-year-old treatise on the art of living is ranked as the first book of the Tamils – an ancient, heroic, dark-skinned race that dwells in both Tamil Nadu & Sri Lanka. As I.A. Richards noted, ‘great cultures start in poetry,’ & it is with the Tamils that this is particularly notable. Literature is held in their national esteem far greater than any other land upon the globe, whose writers are elevated to the level of saints. Foremost among them is Thiruvalluvar, the creator of Thirukkural, a timeless text that, as the giant of Tamil studies GU Pope observed; ‘outweighs the whole of remaining Tamil literature, & is one of the select number of great works, which have entered into the very soul of a whole people & which can never die.’

Over the past few decades, Humanity has slowly become obsessed with books on self-improvement written by an assorted collection of lifestyle gurus. I believe the Kural to be the ultimate self-help book, a treatise on the unchanging realities of human existence, tracing in its pages the outline of an ideal life. The thing is, despite its universal brilliance, hardly anyone outside of Tamil Nadu knows about this book. Perhaps it is the quite unwieldy, clumberous translations into English that formed the problem; dense & wordy phrases that lose the beauty & immediacy of the original. As a poet, & the poet who rediscovered the poem in the post-imperial world, it was a challenge worth rising to.

As we are striding through the twentieth century, a new culture awaits mankind; that of a unified global village, needing its own international literature, where the non-sectarian, anti-nationalistic Thirukkural fits the bill astonishingly well. It is a book to live by; a code of moral conduct to which all creeds, castes & colors can pay fealty, whose lofty idealism has been acclaimed by all the religions of the world. ‘The Holy Kural,’ claims EV Daniel, ‘may well be the meeting ground, the common ground, of all religions.’

In every way conceivable
Practice virtue incessantly

What are the Kural? In Tamil, the word means ‘dwarfish,’ & has been applied to the shortest measure in Tamil poetry, the Kural Venba. This is a couplet of only seven words; four in the first line & three in the second. Such uniform curtness insists on an epigrammatical nature of composition, such as that of the English proverb, ‘a stitch in time, saves nine.’ This means that the Kural seem simple, similar to the Japanese Haiku where ideas & sensations are expressed with a modicum of words. In the hands of Valluvar, however, through the act of ellipsis, he condenses his world-view into phenomenal couplets which have become sharpened knives to unstitch the fabric of mortal existence & expose it to the world. The Kural are no less than a blueprint for life; & these neat, ordered rows of words have stamped an indelible order onto the chaos of human existence. As Reverend P Percival once wrote, ‘nothing in the whole compass of human language can equal the force and terseness of the couplets in which the author of the Kural conveys the lessons of wisdom.’

The legend says that roundabout the year 100 BC, Valluvar submitted the palm-leaf manuscript of his Kural to the 49 Pandits of the second Sangam, the high-browed judges of the Tamil literary establishment. He found the Pandits sat on a raft which floated on the serene waters of the Golden Lily tank, the fabulous centre-piece of the great Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple of Madurai. At first these judges scoffed at Valluvar, throwing scorn on the work of an unlearned man from the lower castes. Valluvar remained unphased by their mockery, & according to the set custom simply placed the manuscript on the raft. Much to the Pandit’s astonishment, the raft immediately shrank, ducking these conceited men into the water & leaving just enough room on the boards for the manuscript. Once on dry land, the sodden scholars recognized through this miracle that the Kural were indeed divine, an opinion which has remained unchanged for two millennia.

Once the Kural had been accepted by the Pandits of Madurai, their influence would penetrate every facet of Tamil society. Common Tamils took this rare blend of vibrant mysticism & pragmatic realism to their hearts, concerning as it does the everyday matters which affected their lives. By 1272, the poet Parimelazhagar had arranged the 1330 kural into the order which the modern world now knows them; divided by 133 chapters of ten Kural each. These were then divided into three sections – the Muppaal – being Virtue, Wealth & Love. The theory goes that if one fully adheres to the three Muppaal, then a fourth, Moksha (salvation), shall be achieved.

The Kural were first brought to the attention of the European mind by a series of missionaries entering Tamil Nadu via Madras (British), Pondicherry (French) & Tranquebar (Danish). The very first translation was conducted in Latin in the early eighteenth century, by an Italian priest, Father Constantius Beschi. The next translator was the German AF Cammera, whose work was published in Leipzig in 1803. Next up was a French Savant, Monsieur Ariel, who released his translation in 1848. It was Ariel who proclaimed the Kural as, “one of the highest & purest expressions of human thought.” Once the world became aware of these compact distiches of quintessential wisdom, their assemblage into the Kural has been translated into over 6o languages across the world, including 13 other Indian languages. The first English translation was published in 1853, by the Reverend Drew, whose work would go on to inspire GU Pope, a gargantuan figure of Kural lore.

History sees George Uglow Pope as the great standard bearer of Tamil, that ‘noble language’ as he called it, immersing & devoting his entire life to its study & translation. His first lesson in the language occurred when he was an eighteen-year-old in England. Later that year he arrived in Madras, where, upon first hearing the true beauty of Tamil on the lips of a humble fisherman, he became determined to learn all about the language & to be able to speak it as fluently as a native. Setting about meeting the greatest Tamil scholars of the day, he had soon unleashed his genius upon its life-long mission. By 1840 he was staying at Mylapore, about which place he would later write, ‘while visiting the villages around here, that enthusiasm for the great Tamil poet was first kindled which has been an important factor in my life.’ After mastering the language, Pope soon set about translating its literary masterpiece, & after almost fifty years, on September 1st, 1886, he completed his noble task, which he declared to be the ‘masterpiece of human thought.’ By February 1893 he would add an excellent, poetic translation of the Nalatiyar to his many achievements in Tamil, which included an unfinished, yet massively comprehensive dictionary of Tamil. For his erudite efforts he was given honorary degrees by Oxford and Lambeth, & was awarded the much-coveted Gold Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1906. After a ‘long and useful’ life of 88 years, he died in 1908, when one of his last requests was to have his tomb decorated with the words, ‘A student of Tamil.’

My personal journey into Thirukkural began in February 2002. Two years previously, to celebrate the Millennium, the Tamils had erected a giant statue of Thiruvalluvar off the coast of Kanyakamari, India’s most southern point. It was this very glorious statue that I first noticed on arriving at an astonishing confluence of three seas; where the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea & Indian Ocean fling their waves at the rocky shore from three different directions. Where the monument is 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of the Kural, the pedestal on which the statue stands is 38 ft high, representing the 38 chapters in the Virtue muppaal of the text. The remaining 95 feet of the statue represent the total number of chapters in the second and third parts of the Kural; Wealth & Love. The three muppaal are also echoed by the statue’s right hand, whose trinity of fingers point to the heavens. As I gazed upon the statue for the first time, all these clever nuances were completely unknown to me. Kanyakamari had seen my first steps into the land of the Tamils, & all I had gleaned from this visit was that the man who towered before me was the, ‘holy poet of Tamil Nadu.’

Several sunny days later I found myself in the fascinating city of Madurai, & it was here that I was first flung into the world of the Kural. In the lanes close to the great temple that forms the city’s heart, I came across one of the Manivasagar Pathippagm bookshops that are scattered across Tamil Nadu. These are both publisher & bookseller, & one of their publications caught me eye. It was a small red book, with the famous image of Thiruvalluvar sitting cross legged in flowing white robes, a pen in his right hand & a scroll in his left. Recognizing the image as identical to that of the statue at Kanyakamari, I immediately bought the book & rushed back to my hotel. Reclining under a fan in my room to avoid the heat, I plunged for the first time into the Kural, a moment which will stay with me forever. I was touched by its beauty & simplicity, & though my young western mind was finding some of the maxims a little difficult to digest, I felt there & then an affinity for the text. The copy I had to hand was the famous co-translation by Reverend Drew & John Lazurus, & on that very first evening I transformed two or three of their translations back into the Kural form. It was a small step on a journey that would take many years, but as I scribbled those first words in my Drew-Lazarus, I knew one day I would like to translate all 1330 Kural.

On my return from India in April 2002, I tucked my copy of Thirukkural away in my bookshelf, where it would gather dust while I pursued other projects. For the next six years it would be intermittently looked at, on one of which occasions I even translated about 200 of the Kural. It seems the dedication I had made to translate them in their entirity seemed always to be niggling away at the back of mind. As my literary abilities were strengthening, it felt as if I was waiting for the right moment, some catalyst to trigger off the resolution of my promise. This event came in September 2008, when I was visited by a friend. She had brought with her a young Tamil gentleman, & conversation turned to the subject of the Kural. The fact that a non-Tamil (me) could enjoy his native literature quite amazed him, & during the course of our evening together I resolved to once & for all translate the book for my peers.

Two months later I flew to Mumbai, from which place I traveled overland to Tamil Nadu. My first port of call was Thiruvannamalai, a bustling town nestled beneath the holy red mountain of Aranachala. It was here that the 20th century Sri Ramana Maharishi had spent most of his life in deep contemplation. A famous ashram had developed about his mediations, which still thrives to this day, many decades after his death. One part of the ashram houses a library, & it was to its silent desks that I found myself drawn. To my delight, there were many books on the Kural, whose pages I plundered in order to create as exact & enjoyable a rendition of the Kural as possible. While I sat at the long desks, keeping cool beneath a spinning fan, several hefty tomes spread before me, I was helped many times by the librarian, Ramesh Babu, who would assist me upon awkward points of classical Tamil.

After two weeks in Thiruvannamalai I took to the road, absorbing Tamil culture & its appreciation of the Kural. I came first to the famous beach at Mamallapuram, where under the statue of Thiruvalluvar I reached the half-way point in my translation. Next port of call was chaotic Chidambaram & its famous Annamalai library at the university there. Unfortunately, recent terrorist massacres at Mumbai prevented me from using the facilities. Instead, I found a municipal library in the town which was quite adequate. My further travels would take me through the watery wonders of the Karveri Delta, the whitewashed former Danish colony at Tranquebar, the multi-templed town of Kumbakonam, & the fabulous fortresses of Thanjavur & Trichy. I next found myself on an overnight train heading to Rameshwaram, arriving early on Christmas Eve. By this point I had almost completed my task & was hoping to finish the Kural over the festive season. Predicamently, every hotel on the island was full, & I felt rather like Joseph & Mary as trawling the inns of Bethlehem looking for somewhere to sleep. This exact same scenario was repeated fifty miles away in Ramanathapuram, which was full of Gujuratis who would take a fleet of buses down to Rameshwaram to join in the festivities. Eventually, late on Christmas Eve, after a hard day’s room-searching, I arrived in Madurai once again, & was very much relieved to find a hotel with vacancies.

As I awoke on Christmas Day my spirit was taken aback by the fact that I was to finish my version of the Kural in the same city in which I had first delved into its pages. Finding a small, empty shrine in the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple, I went to work to the bubbling babble of human voices & the jazz-like strains of an Indian trumpet. Six 2-foot-tall, black statues of gods, each sporting a ‘skirt’ & a garland of yellow flowers, sat watching me as I scribbled frantically. They were joined by a giant wall-painting of the green-skinned Siva & potraits of famous Tamil saints. It was a lovely moment to finally lay my pen to rest in such a place, & as I stepped outside into skintingling sunshine, the fact I had just finished the divine Tamil text, in one of the holiest Hindu temples, on the most sacred day in Christendom, was not lost on me at all. In my elation I found the same bookshop where I had originally bought the Thirukural, & there babbled out my story, on the conclusion of which the bookseller brought out another book. It was the Nalatiyar.

Up until this point I had known nothing about its existence, but a brief glance at its introductory proverb, which proclaimed it as an equal to Thirukkural, immediately piqued my interest. The timing was also exceptional. Only a few minutes previously I had completed the Kural, & now its sister text was in my hands! I felt the same sensation springing up as I had had on first looking into the Kural, & resolved once more to translate an ancient Tamil text into English. This activity commenced straightways as I continued my tour of Tamil Nadu; passing through salubrious Kodaikkanal, the plains of Palani & the Mancunianesque Coimbatore, before reaching the gorgeous tea plantations of the Niligris Hills. It was there, in the remarkable town of Coonoor, that I would spend a lovely two weeks editing the Kural & translating the Nalatiyar. Coonoor was to be my last place of residence in Tamil Nadu, & I finally left that wonderful Indian state in January 2009. With me in my luggage was the same red copy of the Kural I had brought seven years previously, but alongside it now was my own completed version, complemented with a rendition of the Nalatiyar!

Thirukkural is a wonderful book, but to an English speaker it might as well be written in Gaelic. Despite being among the most widely translated texts in the world, outside of Tamil Nadu it is one of the least read. Even the vast majority of the multi-lingual Indians cannot read a word of it. On top of this, to the English-speaking mind, the translations of the Kural we possess are often too wieldy or fanciful to absorb. The most widely known & respected translations in English are the poetical couplets of GU Pope, & the transliterations of Reverend Drew & John Lazurus. I offer their renditions of Kural 36-9 as an example.

The True ‘support’ who knows – rejects ‘supports’ he sought before
Sorrow that clings all destroys, shall cling to him no more
GU Pope

He, who so lives as to know Him who is the support of all things & abandons all desire, will be freed from the evils which would otherwise cleave to him & destroy (his efforts after absorption)
Drew & Lazurus

A modern rendition of the D&L Kural above, made by a Tamil, Kalaimamani Kalladan, reads; ‘the mind’s nature is to cling to every thing; but that should realize the true thing & cling to it; & that should abandon all desires. If done so, any suffering destined to inflict a person, shall not occur.’ My own rendition of this particular Kural, forced as I was into only seven words, goes as follows;

By choosing true virtue
Bruising ruin debarred

Perhaps it has lost a little in the translation, but the essential essence of Valluvar’s original teaching remains. It has been my intention to create something new from the wellsprings of each kural – not just a vague paraphrase, but a simple maxim for the modern human mind. I felt each Kural needed to be immediately understood & when communicating universal teaching, less is always more, which Thiruvalluvar well understood. One of the chief beauties of the original is the compactness, or as PS Sundram observed, ‘its soul is brevity, & with it least is most.’

The saint’s succinct & subtle style, operating in such a short space, uses many poetic techniques; from rhyme & repetition, through strict rules of consonance called the Ventotas, to those intricate word-play & clever puns which expose the very heart of his philosophies. I have attempted to emulate as much of all this as best as possible, rendering a version that is as close to the original as I could possibly render. The project has been helped by the English language, that most flexible & comprehensive of our modern tongues. On our planet there are about 400 million native English speakers; second only to the Mandarin of the insular Chinese. When you add the billion Indians unified by the English tongue, plus the fact that English is the one true lingua franca of commerce & culture, then it is only right that the ‘global gospel’ of Valluvar should be funneled through the English language into the world at large. ‘It is our bounden duty,’ writes MS Venkatchalam, ‘to make the world realize the richness of Kural & that can be done, only by rendering it into English & thus making it reach all the nook & corners of the world.’ Despite Tamil being a beautifully sonorous language, it is extremely complex – a single word may need two pages of explanation. Comparatively, one of the traditional strengths of the English language is that flexing its inherent linguistic muscles has enabled the easy adoption of foreign lexicon, syntax & grammar. The subtle nuances & inflections of the English language have made it possible to translate the complexities of Tamil, for our words may also be variously expressed & when placed in combination can offer multitudinous shades of meaning.

One bonus of being a fluent speaker of English was having the relative freedom of Tamil Nadu, where my native tongue is widely spoken in the wake of the imperial Raj. I was able to both converse with educated Tamils on the nature of the Kural & make travel arrangements between their widely scattered libraries. Once cloister’d within these dusty halls of academe, stuffed with books in both Tamil & English, I discovered many good translations of the Kural which would assist me in my task; including those of PS Sundaram, VR Ramachandra Dikshitar, FW Ellis, VVS Aiyer, Suddhananda Bharati & Kasthuri Srinivasan. Journeying thro’ the Kural was, on so many levels, the greatest of pleasures I have undertaken. For any future poet, during your period of training it is almost a necessity to travel foreign lands in the manner of Indiana Jones in search of obscure yet beautiful poetical texts. Such adventures shall enrich the spirit of the poet in you, & through a proper transcreation of an exotic text, the literary culture of your own, native land.

May 14th

The Tryptych

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Of the fourteener C.S Lewis writes;

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

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

May 16th


It seems that, in poetry terms, being PC means being Politically Correct, & that means liking excessively intellectualised poetry & felling superior about it
David Sneddon

So, this is gonna be my last lecture of the series. Along the way I hope to have introduced two new poetic forms into the English medium; the Tamil Kural & my new adaption of the Chaunt Royale. I have also unearthed some of the greatest Romantic poetry in a dusty corner of Walter Scott’s long forgotten oeuvre. I have also suggested that modern poets have somehow lost diverted from the true, Parnassian path, replacing meaningful didacticism with a cliquey, post-graduate pomposity that has alienated the common man, & has been reflected in those ever-dwindling book-sales. The glorius, wondrous artform that compelled poets to create stuff as splendid as the Divine Comedy is stuck in a rut of what I would call overintellectualisation. A clear example can be found in an elegy to a young love, Mary Farl Powers, by Irish poet, Paul Muldoon (b.1951, Armargh) called Incantata.

I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow
colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera,
as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca
glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink
spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,
when you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy,
and held the print of what looked like a cankered potato
at arm’s length—your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh’s.

Even Lugh of the Long (sometimes the Silver) Arm
would have wanted some distance between himself and the army-worms
that so clouded the sky over St Cloud you’d have to seal
the doors and windows and steel
yourself against their nightmarish déjeuner sur l’herbe:
try as you might to run a foil
across their tracks, it was to no avail;
the army-worms shinnied down the stove-pipe on an army-worm rope.

It goes on… & on… & on… just like that for ages & ages. A confusing morass of mimesis that I bet Mr Muldoon doesn’t himself quite understand. Richard Eder, a reviewer for the New York Times, calls Muldoon, ‘a shape-shifting Proteus to readers who try to pin him down. And those who interrogate Muldoon’s poems find themselves changing shapes each time he does.’ Maybe I’m just too dumb to get it, but experiencing poetry should not be about changing shape to fit the poetry, but really about the people it speaks to. The key is communication, & the driving force behind poetry should be the living entity that is the language of a poem. If nobody understands the language, then what is the point? How can we conjoin in a public, poetical mourning if we are prevented from making an emotional connection to the deceas’d spirit because the sound & imagery are too distorted to engage with. The next poem is also by an Irish writer of the same era, Paul Duncan (b.1944, Dublin). I’m going to give in full;

I am hiding from my father
On the roof of Joyce’s Tower
In Sandycove.
He is downstairs in the gloom
Of the Joyce Musuem
Exchanging euphemisms with the curator,
The poet Michael Hartnett,
Meteorological euphemisms
Wet & cold for June.

I am standing at the battlements.
I am eighteen years old.
The battle is whether or not
He will buy a copy of Ulysses.
It is a battle about money
But it is a battle alos about morality
Or ‘morals’ as it is called.
It began this morning at the breakfast tabnle
When I asked him for twenty-one shillings
To buy a copy of Ulysses.
He refused on the grounds that on top
Of it being an outrageous sum of money
Which a poorly paid judge could ill afford
It was a notoriously immoral book.
Even the most liberal-minded Jesuits
Had condemned Ulysses
As being blasphemous as well as pornographic.

My mother jumped around form the kitchen sink:
‘Give him the money for the wretched book
And let the pair of you stop this nonsense
For pity’s sake.
Will we ever see peace & sense in this house?’
My father stomred out of the kitchen,
The Irish Independent under his arm:
‘I’ll not be party to subsidising that blackgaurd
Bringing works of blasphemy into this house.
In the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred & sicty-three
I will not be an accessory to blasphemy.’

I caught the 46A bus out to Joyce’s Tower
Newly opened as a museum.
The curator offered to share with me
A carafe of vodka left over
From a literary soiree of the night before.
It was the day after Bloomsday.
Monday, 17 June 1963.
We sat in a compatible silence,
Contemplatively, affably,
Until upheaval of gravel
Eradicated reverie.
I rushed to the door & glimpsed
My father at the foot of the iron steps.
I climbed up to the roof, hoping to hide
From him up there in the marine fog,
Foghorns bleating in the bay.

I hear footsteps behind me, I know it is he.
He declares: ‘I suppose we will have to but that book.
What did you say the name of it is?’
I tell him that the name of it is Ulysses.
I follow him down the staircase & he submits:
Mr Hartness, I understand
You stock copies of a book entitled Ulysses.
I would like to purchase one copy of same.’
‘Certainly, Your Lordship, certainly,’
Replies the ever-courteous, Chinese-eyed curator.
When from his wingbacked chair behind his desk
He takes from a drawer
A copy of the jade-jacketed Ulysses,
The Bodley Head edition,
My father asks him if he would have brown paper
With which to wrap the green, satanic novel,
Make a parcel out of it.
The curator peers into a wastepaper basket
‘Made by the Blind’,
As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.
Formally, he hands it over to my father,
As if delivering to some abstract & intractable potentate
A peace gift of a pair of old shoes.
My father pronounces: ‘Thank you, Mr Hartnett.’
The curator, at his most extravangantly unctuous, replies:
‘Very glad to be able to oblige you, Your Lordship.’

My father departed Joyce’s Tower with the book.
The next day when I asked my mother if she’d seen it
She said it was in their bedroom beside my father;’ sbed.
Her bed was beside the window & his bed
Was between her bed & the wall.
There it was, on his bedside table
With a bookmarker in it – a fruitgum wrapper –
At the close of the opening episode.
When a few weeks later
I got to reading Ulysses myself
I found it as strange to my father
And as discordant.
It was not until four years later
When a musical friend
Gave me my lessons
That Ulysses began to sing for me
And I began to sing for my father:
Daddy, Daddy
My little man, I adore you.

There’s no accounting for taste, but for me that is one hell of a beautiful poem. There is even a wee-spot of overintellectualisation going on, as in the big-worded;

As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.

But, in the context of the poem’s entirety, this spot of effluent wordiness hardly jars inappropriately, for the rest of the poem possesses a beautiful & eerie sublimity, a quality so perfectly understood by a first century AD writer called Longinus. His great work, ‘On the Sublime,’ is an important classical text on the poetic art, as these extracts easily show;

Sublimity is an echo of a noble mind… 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 alweqays proves superior rto the merely persuasive & pleasant. This is becasue persuasion is on the whole something we can control, whereas amazement & wonder exert invincible power & force & get the better of heevery hearer…

All such lapse in dignity arise in literature through a single cause: that desire for novelty of thought which is all the rage today… nothing is so damaging to a sublime effect as effeminate & agitated rhythm, phyrrics, trochees & dichorei: they turn into a regular jig. All the rhythmical elements immediately appear artificial & cheap. Being constantly repeated in monotonious fashion without the slightest motional effect.

Phrases too closely knit are also devoid of grandeur, as are those which are chopped into short elements consisting of short syllables, bolted together, as it were, & rough at the joins

Excessively cramped expression also does damage to sublimity. It cripples grandeur to compress it into too short a space. I do not mean proper compression, but cutting up into tiny pieces. Cramping mutilates sense; brevity gives directness. Conversly with fully rextended expressions; anything developed at unseasonable length falls dead

In these scathing comments of Longinus, who riles against the poetry of the unsublime, we can see modern poetry’s prediliction for overintellectualisation. The infectious spread of verbose smugness through our poetical zeitgeist is a common trend. Such a pattern of popular development is best described by Shelley, in whose preface to the Revolt of Islam stated that writers;

Cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live; although each is in a degree the author of the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded.

A poet should be striving for sublimity – to say what they have to say with a simplicity & a beauty not found in high-minded, cleverly rampant wordplay where no-one has a clue whats going on. In their epoch-shattering ‘Lyrical ballads,’ Wordsworth & Coleridge felt rather much the same when they rebelled against the polished parlour-house couplets of 18th century England, & simplified their own verse-making into the mouths of rustic sorts. As for 2015, I shall leave you with an example of one of my own poems. At first it appears rather simple, but into its spirit have grown & entwined together the most vital vines of modern, capitalist society; sex, greed & carpe diem!


She lusted for my custard
As it dribbled down my chin,

She lusted for my custard
But she knew this was a sin.

She lusted for my custard,
She licked it with her tongue;

As she licked the custard clean
She knew that lick was wrong.

‘My word, what are you doing?
& what’s more, good lady, why?

You seemed so happy chewing
On your whip-cream, apple pie.’

‘I must apologize, kind sir,’
She’d got so hot & flustered,

‘That moment was a manic blur,
I just had to have your custard.’

May 23rd

The Homeric Answer: Iliad

A poem is never finished, only abandoned
Paul Valéry

I am currently sat at an outside restaurant table amidst the sunswingingly sensuous delights of Star Beach, a free-to-all leisure resort on the northern shores of Crete. The family & I arrived late last night, hiring a car & eventually tracking down our residence for the next three nights; Petra Village, a cool set of apartments with a pool, a bar & a trillion cicada piping a rickety cacophony. This coming period shall see me complete my training as a Pendragon, with the essays being constructed from both my notebooks & from my experiences on the ground as we tour Megalonisi, the ‘big island’ of the Greeks. During this ‘duesettimane,’ the lava that has been my poetic studies is set to finally cool, & the volcano that has spewed forth two decades worth of poesis from my animated soul finally return to a dormant state (for now).

I shall begin my dissertation with an account of the mesmerizing energy of Homer’s mind-music, that weaver of disparate strands of ancient subject matter into the world’s earliest & most majestic epic poems. That an individual author composed them, however, is simply not the case. This ‘Homeric Question’ has tested academic minds for many an age, with Frederick Nietzsche declaring ‘the primary form of this widespread and honeycombed mountain known as the Homeric question can be most clearly observed by looking down at it from a far-off height.’ The ‘far-off height’ is the tall mountain eyrie on which the chispologist builds a weather-station & shouts into the gusting breezes that Homer was a quasi-mythological deity, to whom only the highest examples of streaming elysium would be associated, less of an individual genius & more the poetic soul of an entire people.

For ease of dictate, however, we shall call Homer by his antique identity, that of the singular author of the Iliad & Odyssey. His subject was the Trojan War & its aftermath, an event of deep history whose war-drums still beat resoundingly today. His ‘Iliad’ centers on a small series of events that took place towards the end of a ten-year siege of the city of Troy, while his ‘Odyssey’ sings of the return from that war of the Grecian hero Odysseus. The poems are, in a word, magnificent, full of comprehension for the ways of men, while at the same time possessing some of the greatest phraseology ever uttered by a human tongue. The most astonishing thing about these two epics is their sheer antiquity, & it is through the mists of deepest time that the creation of the poems, & of course their creator, have been obscured.

It was as early as the Classical period that the first doubts to the origins of the epics was raised. The oldest complete copy of the Iliad, the 10th-century manuscript ‘Venetus Marcianus Graecus 454,’ first published by De Villoison in 1788, has marginal notes which preserve substantial remnants of ancient scholarship on the poems; nuggets of studied wisdom obtained from the intense erudition of Didymus, Aristonicis, Herodian, Nicanor & Antoninian. A century later, a similar note-smitten codex was created which eventually ended up in the library of the Townleys of Townley Hall, in my hometown of Burnley. Of the scholia it contained, we encounter the thoughts of two obscure figures known as Xenon & Hellanicus, antique scholars who speculated that the Iliad & Odyssey had been composed by separate authors. Such a notion makes sound sense, for where the Iliad contains four times as many similes as the Odyssey, the language of the Odyssey is less archaic, to which we may add that words for many common items are different in each poem. Aristotle further highlights the differences between the epics when he muses, ‘the composition of the Iliad is simple & full of pathos, that of the Odyssey complex, as there are recognitions throughout & full of character.’

So far so different, & as the Aegean blows a refreshing wind into my beachside boudoir, let us acknowledge that, long before the days of word-files & photocopying, the preservation of Homer’s poetry, spread over many centuries, suggests a great number of scribes have handled the text. Along the way, each new copyist would add something of their own making, maybe respelling a word, or perhaps re-writing whole passages in order to please an ever-changing audience. As the poems evolved, two vast transchispering chains would slowly but surely fossilize themselves into the epics we whimsically attribute to a single Homer. A loose remembrance of such a transmission as this may be traced in a passage by the early Christian churchman, Tatian, whose ‘Address to the Greeks’ identifies the scattered strata of Homeric composition;

Now the poetry of Homer, his parentage, and the time in which he flourished have been investigated by the most ancient writers,—by Theagenes of Rhegium, who lived in the time of Cambyses, Stesimbrotus of Thasos and Antimachus of Colophon, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, and Dionysius the Olynthian; after them, by Ephorus of Cumæ, and Philochorus the Athenian, Megaclides and Chamæleon the Peripatetics; afterwards by the grammarians, Zenodotus, Aristophanes, Callimachus, Crates, Eratosthenes, Aristarchus, and Apollodorus. Of these, Crates says that he flourished before the return of the Heraclidæ, and within 80 years after the Trojan war; Eratosthenes says that it was after the 100th year from the taking of Ilium; Aristarchus, that it was about the time of the Ionian migration, which was 140 years after that event; but, according to Philochorus, after the Ionian migration, in the archonship of Archippus at Athens, 180 years after the Trojan war; Apollodorus says it was 100 years after the Ionian migration, which would be 240 years after the Trojan war. Some say that he lived 90 years before the Olympiads, which would be 317 years after the taking of Troy. Others carry it down to a later date, and say that Homer was a contemporary of Archilochus; but Archilochus flourished about the 23d Olympiad, in the time of Gyges the Lydian, 500 years after Troy.

It is through all these ‘Homers’ that the story of the Trojan War & its aftermath would pass, until the Iliad as we know it began to take shape in – I believe – the 9th century BC, under the auspices of the Spartan King, Lycurgus. The task was given to a certain verse-maker called Thales, whom Lycurgas had met on Crete. It is through the vita of Lycurgas, as given by Plutarch, that we gain a heady hint of just how powerful a thinker was Thales. We join the story with Lycurgas on some kind of state visit to Crete;

One of the men regarded there as wise statesmen was Thales, whom Lycurgus persuaded, out of favour and friendship, to go on a mission to Sparta. Now Thales passed as a lyric poet, and screened himself behind this art, but in reality he did the work of one of the mightiest lawgivers. For his odes were so many exhortations to obedience and harmony, and their measured rhythms were permeated with ordered tranquillity, so that those who listened to them were insensibly softened in their dispositions, insomuch that they renounced the mutual hatreds which were so rife at that time, and dwelt together in a common pursuit of what was high and noble.

This description of Thales tells us he was a poeticsal teacher, who instilled in the soft & easy words of the lyric plenty of subtle meaning in order to educate the Cretans in how to lead a good life. I have only been on the island a few hours, as if I was one of the German gliders crash-landing in advance of the German Fallschirmjäger in 1941, but so far all the Cretans we have encountered have been decent folk & the most openhearted; from the young couple on a moped who led us to the beach road in the dark last night, to our cool & friendly waiter here at Star Beach, the appropriately named ‘Adonis.’ ‘Don’t worry be happy’ is the mantra, & if these easy vibes I am experiencing emanated from the original wisdom of Thales, to have been present in his actual company would have been a tremendous sensation for Lycurgas. It is no wonder that Thales was invited to join the royal Spartan party, to leave this gorgeous rock at the edge of Europa & to return with Lycurgas to Sparta. En route, according to Plutarch, Lycurgas visited Asia Minor, where he;

Made his first acquaintance with the poems of Homer, which were preserved among the posterity of Creophylus; and when he saw that the political and disciplinary lessons contained in them were worthy of no less serious attention than the incentives to pleasure and license which they supplied, he eagerly copied and compiled them in order to take them home with him. For these epics already had a certain faint reputation among the Greeks, and a few were in possession of certain portions of them, as the poems were carried here and there by chance; but Lycurgus was the very first to make them really known.

At this point in time we have a certain Spartan king in possession of the two foundation stones of what would become the Iliad; i.e. fragments of the early Homeric materials, & a poet who could turn them into something cohesive & infinitely beautiful. Such a moment provided the perfect conditions for what can only be called a transcreation of Homer, an occasion remembered by Demeterius of Magnesia, who placed the author of the Iliad in the same ‘very ancient times’ of Lycurgus. With all the pieces in position, all that was needed was a catalyst to spark off the creative furnace that would produce the Iliad as we know it, & there are certain evidences which point towards the first Olympic Truce. We must return to Plutarch once more, who writes of Lycurgas; ‘some say that he flourished at the same time with Iphitus, and in concert with him established the Olympic truce. Among these is Aristotle the philosopher, and he alleges as proof the discus at Olympia on which an inscription preserves the name of Lycurgus.’ The truce forged by Lycurgas, Iphitus of Elis & Cleosthenes of Pisa was designed to bring peace to the Peloponnese; all three sides were bogged down in endless rounds of bloodshed, and it was mutually agreed upon that they would try to soothe their differences by staging a games at Olympia. This is where I think Thales entered the picture, for to celebrate the event, an artistic tribute to Pan-Grecian unity was needed. The 5th Century BC Athenian historian, Thucydides, backs up the necessity of a unifying model;

The weakness of the olden times is further proved to me chiefly by this circumstance, that before the Trojan War, Hellas, as it appears, engaged in no enterprise in common

The squabbling Greeks of the Olympic Truce needed reminding of when they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity. If anything could convince them to settle their differences, Homeric poetry recreated by a noble-minded Thales would definitely do the job. That Thales handled the Iliad is unconsciously supported by Pausanius; where he describes the Greece of Lycurgas’ time as being grievously worn by plague, the Iliad actually begins with a plague. Pausanius tells us that Thales, ‘stayed the plague at Sparta,’ during which time, I conject, he was likely to have been composing the Iliad. The dates also fit, for where Herodotus tells us, ‘Hesiod and Homer I suppose were four hundred years before my time and not more,’ i.e. 850 BC, the Olympics of Lycurgas can be approximately dated to the same period. The Greeks counted their Olympiads from 776 BC, but the Olympic Games of Lycurgas were said to have taken place much earlier. Sources vary as to when; both Polybius (quoting Aristodemus of Elis) & Eratosthenes tell us that the 776B.C. victors were recorded 27 Olympiads from that of Iphitops & Lycurgas, whereas Callimachus differs by saying 13 Olympiads had passed. If we average these out, & say 20 Olympiads – a timespan of 80 years – we obtain a date of 856 BC for the Lycurgan Olympics.

Returning to Tatian’s Address to the Greeks, where he says, ‘some say that he lived 90 years before the Olympiads, which would be 317 years after the taking of Troy,’ we gain the following timline.

776 BC: First Olympiad begins
866 BC: Homer
1183 BC: Fall of Troy

According to calculations made by Eratosthenes, Troy fell in 1184 BC, a date backed up by archaeological evidence showing a destruction layer to Troy VIIa in that very period. Wherever Tatian got his information from, it seems certain that one layer of the Homeric material was set in stone at the heart of the 9th century BC. Delving further into the ordinance of what I shall from now on call the Thalian Iliad, its form appears to be based upon the ritualistic & theatrical mystery plays of Greece & Egypt, played out over several days like the Ring Cycle of Wagner. Plutarch places Lycurgas in Egypt at one point, where he would have encountered Egyptian theatre full of soliloquies by narrator-style priests, actors’ dialogue & dramaturgical expressions of stage-craft which are all still used in the theatres of today. Egyptian theatre of the Lycurgan period was quite sophisticated; consisiting of a prologue, three acts divided into scenes, & a concluding epilogue. Two of the plays have come down to us whole, the ‘Ramesseum Coronation’ & the ‘Myth of Horus at Edfu.’ In the latter, it must be noted, both mortals & immortals play out the action, a motif present also in the Iliad.

Over the centuries, academics have subconsciously suspected that the Iliad was originally intended for dramatic performance. The Roman writer Quintilian praises the second book of the Iliad for the greatness of its speeches, while the 17th century English poet, Alexander Pope, stated, ‘for a farther preservation of this air of simplicity, a particular care should be taken to express with all plainness those moral sentences & proverbial speeches which are so numerous in this poet. They have something venerable, & as I may so oracular, in that unadorned gravity & shortness with which they are delivered.’ In recent years we have Jenny Strauss Clay’s description of the Iliad’s, ‘extraordinarily high percentage of direct speech – much more than any other epic;’ Bernard Fenik’s, ‘direct discourse comprises 67 percent of the Iliad;’ & Laura M Slatkin’s, ‘extraordinary refinement & complexity of oral performance.’ From such erudite opinions we may not be so foolish to suggest that the Iliad was in fact played out through a series of scenes in which actors & actresses were given lengthy speeches. Interspersed are the battle scenes, which may have been acted out in the manner of the Egyptian dramas, reminiscent of gladiators in a Roman arena – beautifully choreographised physical theatre, but without the actual bloodshed.

One expects that the creation of the Thalian Iliad would have called for a written script to be shared around the actors. Indeed, Josephus in the first book of his history states the Greeks did noot have an alphabet until the time of Homer. It is interesting that before 850 BC we find no record of the Greek alphabet anywhere, but within a few decades of the Lycurgan Olympics its first relics were preserved for posterity. The earliest recognizable sample of the Greek alphabet was based upon that of the Phoenicians, who were positively active in Crete c.900 BC – when Thales would have been a boy – depositing objects at Knossos, Kommos & the Idaean cave. One can only imagine the young, studious Thales learning Phoenician & its script, realising how wonderful an entity was the recorded word, & understanding how vital such a recording would be when promulgating the script of the Iliad among the actors. In doing so, he consolidated all the dialects of Greece into a single, slightly artifical literary lingua franca, creating the unifying language of the ancient Greeks.

The original theatrical purpose of the Iliad would be slowly eroded by time, when the mega-money spectacular of Lycurgas would gradually give way to performances by individual singers called Rhapsodes, such as the Homeridae. In a modern context it would be like the script of a meg-money Holywood movie being reduced to being aired as a radio-play. Eventually, from the memories of the rhapsodes, or perhaps a well preserved piece of papyrus that contained the Thalian script, that the Iliad was transcribed into literary life by the librarians of Alexandria. So that is all for today. Some chilli olives & a soft Cretan red await me back at the Petra Village, to where I shall be idly sidling the now!

Star Beach: 5th July

One Night with Thiruvalluvar

Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts
John Keats

Today was a fine Cretan summer’s day, beginning with a climb to the summit of the hill which towers over Petra Village to the south. An interminable, skin-scratchy mix of jagged shrubbery & bouldering slopes, it was a perfectly poetical & stalwart way to begin the daylight. About half-way up my ascent a red sun rose from the Aegean, & by the time I had surmounted the steep I could already feel the heat of a day which would hit 30 degrees. After my scrambly descent, the next few hours were spent traversing the Stromboli range in order to track down Manoles, the man who kicked off my whole Princess Scota quest through a conversation a few years ago with my friend, Gregor Sloss. He was still very much alive, fortunately, & we managed to find him in in his village – Kryoneri. As he confirmed the Scota-was-a-Minoan conversation, the famous & customary Greek hospitality was shown, including portions of delicious honeyfied figs. I found nothing especially new was added to what Gregor had initialy recorded, but enjoyed both the figs & the validation of my work.

From Kryoneri we came to a delightful village, surrounded by olive groves, where an old man in a shop began a vignette of some hilarity. After choosing a bottle of Cretan red from a rack of dusty bottles, I found a nearby café whose owner attempted to open the bottle with a too-small corkscrew. Cue broken cork & some rather bizarre attempts by the stocky, bearded Greek to move the cork by banging the bottle sideways against a wall. In the end I walked into his kitchen, got a wooden spoon & forced the cork into the bottle – as I had done many times before when the cork was broken – & on doing so poured out a glass for my erstwhile new friend, who responded with alacrity & a stupendous ‘VIVA!’

From here we descended the rough & royal peaks to seagirt Bali, an excellent scatterdash of beach-dwellings where I dined on pork-in-wine while the ladies splashed in the warm seas. Then it was the drive home to Petra Village for our weary, but happy, late-evening siesta; from which I have recently arisen. Leaving the ladies at the ranch I have idled into the old & lazy tourist-trappy streets of Koutouloufari, ordered a pizza & got to work assembling this ‘letter’. As I said in my last outing, this series of essays shall be something of a dissertation to my status as a Pendragon, & so I need to return to a piece of prose I created some years ago when I was at the height of my sonneteering craze. Let us imagine ourselves in the company of a poet – The Silver Rose of course – as he makes his way along the Beaches of Tamil Nadu.


I met the ascetic mystic Thirruvallavar one morning in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I was resting on a fine, empty beach, watching the white waves sweep sublimely across the Bay of Bengal. In a soft second of existence I was alerted to a flutter of birds & saw a mile or so along the coast a distant figure approaching. I couldn’t help but watch him come steadily nearer, a middle-aged man with a thick, black beard, swathed in white robes, his bare feet leaving footsteps in the sand. I expected him to pass me by, but as he came to within a few meters he suddenly veered off in my direction & tho’ he was walking slowly was at my side in a flash.
“What is your profession?” he curtly asked, his voice gravelly with wisdom, his gaze penetrating my soul.

“I am a traveler from a distant land.”

“Rider,” he replied, “Saraswathi, I see, has smil’d on you, then welcome to India. Are you wise, traveler?”

“I have studied a little, sir.”

“As the city-dwellers know most animals only from photographs, your wisdom seems second-hand. You shall be my guest, for there appears much you are yet to learn in this life.”

He invited me to dine at his home, an offer which I readily accepted. Walked together along the sands he engaged me in conversation & I could see already I was speaking to no ordinary soul.

“Are you creative?” he asked.

“I write sonnets, sir.” He suddenly froze on the spot & gazed with those magnificent eyes, burrowing into the heartlands of my mind.

“By any chance, are you carrying a silver rose?”

My startled hand suddenly went to finger the small piece of flower I had hung around my neck.

“May I see?”

“Of course,” I replied handing him the necklace. After a moment’s curious examination the mystic said, in esoteric tones, “I have been expecting you.”

“You have?”

“I once had a dream – in it I saw a young man who looked very much like yourself plucking a silver rose.” I was stunned a little by his words & prescience. “Could you tell me,” asked the mystic went on, “where you found your rose.”

“It was in Italy,” I replied, “I was twenty-one years of age & taking my first steps into the poetic art. I had been inspired to write a poem on the death of the English, poet Shelley, & my journeys had brought me to the Gulf of Le Spezia, where he spent his last days. At one end of the bay lies the charming idyll of Portovenere, the ‘Port of Venus.’ There was a castle & an old Norman church on a rocky outcrop jutting into the azure sea, & behind me the giant cliffs of the Cinque Terra stretched away into the distance. Before setting out to Italy, I too had had a dream. In it I saw myself climbing a cliff, a wonderful panorama all around, & in my dream, as the light of the sun cascaded upon the world below, I was filled with both peace & exultation of the heart. I did not know what my dream meant, but I grew determined then to climb cliffs until it came true. Indeed, by the time I reached Italy I had climbed many along the coast of my native land.”

“Go on,” said the saddhu.

“As I began my ascent of the cliffs above Portovenere the still air was suddenly filled with an elemental wind. Up her stony slopes I huff’d, puff’d & scrambl’d, all a fluster in the blustery gale that was growing all the time. As I climb’d further my clothes were torn by the claws of thorny bramble as an angry Zephyrus summon’d yet more of his strength. My head told me to turn back, but my young heart had call’d upon the soul of our being, for being conquers all. As I reach’d the clifftop, glorious realm of deity, the winds suddenly settled & I began to write a poem. It was there, as the sun was setting, that my eyes were drawn to a flash of colour, reflecting the golden light of the sun as it slipped neath the clouds on the horizon. Investigating further I found a wee silver rose, & I wonder’d how such sweet tenderment grew, like a heavenly star. I spent what seemed like an eternity gazing at its lovely shape & immersed in its fragrance & every sinew of my body, & every fibre of my mind, was at peace. During this flush of pure nature I suddenly thought perhaps my dream had come true? I wasn’t sure, but if it had, & wishing for a memento of the occasion, I pluck’d that gorgeous flower.”

“Yes, these events you recant I saw in my dream,” said the wiseman, “& you are very welcome as my guest, come, my village is still a good way yet.”

On the way to receive his unadulterated hospitality, the sage asked me if I had any examples of my work. On answering in the positive I handed him a notebook containing my scribbled notes & polished pieces, the detritus of several years of sonnets & song. He picked up the book & skimm’d thro’ them at speed, seemingly absorbing each into his psyche.

“I notice you have master’d the fourteen feelings.”

“The feelings?” I asked.

“Yes, the fourteen impulses that drive poetic thought.”

“I did not realise I had.”

“Yes, for you have written didactic sonnets, philosophical sonnets, love sonnets, sonnets for the zeitgeist, sonnets memorializing historical events, sonnets composed before splendid vistas, elegaic sonnets, pastoral sonnets, autobiographical sonnets, & so on… this is the work of the Silver Rose, my friend, for those that pluck its petall’d paradise shall become enchanted. you are, in fact, a sonneteer & the rose is its emblem.”

“Well, I do enjoy the sonnet, it is a very venerable form. Do you know much of it,” I asked the sage.

“I do, traveler, for within its scanty plot of ground, as Wordsworth noted, many forms of poetry may be contain’d. It can be seen as the great compositive form, which draws components from all the others. It can use the monoverse of blank verse & vers libre, polyphonics, the couplet, the triplets, quatrains, cinquains, sestets, septets & octets – even Spenser has weaved his novtet into a sonnet.”

“There are many forms of poetry,” I remarked, “I have identified several different forms of the sonnet itself, from the Terza Rima of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind to the concrete sonnets of the modern surrealist; I have utilised many of these forms in creation of my own sonnets.”

The mystic held me a moment in his velvet eye, & then said, “a revered ancestor of mine also met a poet, very much like you, a troubador from Provence who composed entirely in a thirteen line form.”

“The Rondel,” I replied.

“That is right. But then the young French man added another line to his form & created a Rondel Prime.”

“The French sonnet!” I replied in astonishment.

“If that is what it is called in the West, yes,” smiled the sage, “young poet, you are here to learn of a new form of sonnet. I shall introduce you to an acquaintance of mine, who is able to help you in your quest.”

“My quest?” I asked, “I did not know I had undertaken a quest.”

“But, of course you have, for from the moment a poet plucks the Silver Rose, they can never rest until she is satisfied.”

Our discourse was all of a sudden dispersed by the spreading of a smile across the mystic’s face.

“At last,” he said, “welcome to my village.”

The first house in the village was an unassuming cottage, but inside was all a-bluster with activity. Of those present in that room one was an old woman, racked with disease, led in her bed & very ill indeed. Nearby a young woman was in the final agonizing throes of labour, about to give birth to her first child. Others were watching on attentively as before them two cycles of life were fusing as one. The old woman was desperately drawing her last mortal breaths to the sound of a far younger woman gasping through childbirth, for as one soul was leaving this world another was entering. The old woman’s health had been failing her for several years, & now, surrounded by her family, she was ready to depart from her mortal coil. Everybody was very distraught, slowly soaking the silken sheets with their tears. But the old woman was smiling. She said she knew it was time for her to leave this life, but she had had a good life. It was beautiful to be surrounded by her loved ones & they should not be sad, but happy they had the chance to dwell together. Then in a blaze of epiphany at the same instantaneous moment the old woman passed away & a new life was brought into the light of the world. It was a baby boy, red & raw with the onset of life. A fine babe, whose eyes stared back at his mother full of innocence. All around him grew & rushed the world & his gurgle was laced with a hint of expectancy. I smiled at the babe as the mystic turned to me.

“In this room today, you saw a birth & a death – so life begins & life ends, thus is the circle of life. But there is also an inbetween. If you stay with me I hope you shall learn of this. I was born here too, in a hut just like this one. Before too long I was was running around the village, bringing delight to the wise old elders with my youthful affection for everything about me. I had a very inquisitive mind & was always asking what everything was, from the trees & the rocks, to the lizards & the birds. I would then ask why the birds lived in the trees & why the lizards crawled under the rocks. One day my father placed me upon his cart & I left the village for the very first time. We were travelling to a nearby town to buy some food, & we passed by many new places. I saw the rivers & the mountains, & saw other villages where the houses were different from those in my own. At length we came to a town where I was amazed at the many people busying about. My father held my hand tightly as we walked through the market. My eyes lit up at the new fruits father bought, & the shiny new coat he put on my back.”

I watched the mystic as he told his story, seeming both close to me & very far off in another place.

“On the walk back home, I asked father many questions. I found out our village was just one of many that surrounded the town, & that town in turn was one of many that surrounded the city, & that city was not even the capital of the country where we lived. Then father told me that the world was made up of many countries & the Universe of many worlds. It was only then that I realized I wasn’t the universe, but only a part, & a very small part indeed! Then father took me to a hill that overlooked the village, where we could see the business of every villager. We sat beside a gully that by some quirk of nature carried the conversations of the villagers up the hillside. I sat by my father listening attentively to all we heard & how the villages interacted with each other. At every turn he would try & explain the good & the bad in every situation & how best to be true to oneself. Once the sun had set he led me back down to the village & I had my first epiphany as to the nature of the world. I decided at that moment to help the people of the world to understand themselves.”

Then the mystic sunk into silence & we continued on our way.

We arrived at his home a little later, a simple two-storey building of white washed stone stood within a luscious jungle of tall toddies. He was greeted by a young woman, fresh as unstirred snow.

“Gita, you shall make a bed for our guest, he shall be staying with us.”

The woman went away & the mystic led me onto the roof of his home.

“Tonight, the moon is completely dark, as it will be again in a month’s time. Between now & the morrow I hope you will become wise, illumed by the light of the moon.”

“Thank you for this opportunity,” I humbly said.

“You are very welcome, traveler, now if you do not mind, I must meditate. You will be looked after. But while I am gone, you must search for the moon.”

After he left with a gracious bow I began to scan the entire span of the starry skies, until I found the dark outline of the dark side of the moon, nestled between the Plough & the Bear. As I gazed upon that black sphere I found myself urging on its silvery light.

“Patience,” said the sage, who had silently re-appeared on the roof with Gita, “The light shall come!”

“Tis a vast universe,” I said, “so many stars.”

“Yes, so many stars… & so many worlds. Every action on every planet is governed by a mysterious, invisible force called ‘Divinity,’ existing everywhere at once & gives life, form & substance to all things in its sway.”

I pondered on what he had said in silence.

The sage broke the silence once more, saying, “thoughts & ideas are pure & simple, & when a series of these are placed together arranged in power-punching brevity, the assemblage is the nearest thing to God we can get on this Earth. As one candle burns, it shall only light a portion of the room, but when many are burning together, the room is cast in a blaze of light. To the poets who utilize the Kural, the world is a room, & their thoughts are its candles.”

“Mystic,” said I, “What are the Kural?”

“A Kural is a form of arranging words in simple combination. It consists of seven words divided into two breaths, each forming a line. With the first breath four words are spoken & with the second, three. These Kural shall contain the best ideas using the best of words in their best order & it is the orator’s purpose to condense as much depth, meaning & subtleties into each of them as possible. A kural could be in the most simple words, or pregnant with complicated scientific terms, but at all times should they be perfumed with poetica absolute, for it is thro’ the music, rhythm & rhyme of speech that ideas are easily absorbed by the memory.”

At that moment a scribe entered the roof carrying a gold-tinted scroll, a bowl of sparkling ink & a mighty swan’s quill, which was placed upon a table near to where the mystic was sat. Upon examining his writing tools he whispered in the servant’s ear, who left the room & soon returned with another scroll, ink bowl & quill. To my astonishment they were placed in front of me.

“Traveler,” he called across the room, “can you make Kural?”

“I have never tried, sir!”

“Are you willing?”


“All our words are nothing without understanding. Will you make kural?”

“I shall try.”

“Good, then let us begin. Listen to my speech & then condense… I shall begin?” The thinker-philosopher squatted in the yoga position, cross-legged, & began to speak with a ghostly air,

“It is with god that everything begins. God is everywhere at once, from the beginning of time to the end. He is without bounds & infinite, & beyond the range of mortal comprehension. All we know is that he is here & this force pulses thro’ all it has created, uniting humanity with its energy, giving us life. The greatest manifestation of divinity being that of the rain that falls from the skies. This is the vital life juice of creation, without which everything would wither away & only a lifeless desert would remain.”

“Life is a precious gift, created by the natural laws of the universe & improved upon by the movement of the aeons. The planet, our planet, is home to millions of different organisms of which we are only a small, yet significant number. Every one of these organisms is bound together intrinsically by the natural laws defined by the entity of creation.”

“Why does our planet teem with such a multitudinous variety of species, you may ask yourself? This is evolution; all life began the same, but environment & chance allied together to alter the offspring of the original organisms, & upon their offspring in turn, until over billions of years we have reached the state we are in today. Indeed, give another billion years the organisms of our world will be very different again.”

“Like the years are divided by four seasons & the world divided into four elements, each person on the planet exists upon four planes. Everyone of us possesses a soul, a heart to feel the passion of the world, a mind to think thoughts & a body in which to live.”

As the day began to dawn, the sage began to wrap up his elucidations of the human condition.

“Traveler, how did you find the night?”

“It was inspirational sir.”

“Excellent, & have you made any Kural?”
“A small amount, sir.”

“Well, I shall leave you in tranquility to finish… Gita!” he shouted, his call soon answered by her soft smile, “get some candles for our guest, & a little wine I think.”

She returned a few moments later with several candles, which she placed upon the roof & lit. A charaff of wine & a golden goblet were placed before me & with a smile & a bow she left.

“Happy voyaging,” said the sage & with a bow he also left, leaving me alone. As my mind could still hear the profound statements spoken thro’ the night, I became heady with ideas, their words fueling my imagination until I was pregnant with creation & I began to write.

As the red orb rose in glory & the pinkening sky transmorphed to cyan; when the last pearls of wisdom had been written down & the sun was casting ethereal shadows across the wax-warped candles, the sage return’d.

“So traveler, have you made your kural?”

“I have tried sir!”

“Good, may I read them?”

I was a little tentative as I passed over the ink-wet scrolls & held my breath as he began to read them.

Rain’s continuance preserves existence
Speaketh celestial ambrosia

Stances, glances, chances, dances
Epitomise youthful romances
As ant-holes collapse embankments
Civilians topple governments

Exquisite fortresses become rubble
Without excellent inmates

Her chrysoberyls perplex me –
Celestial? Peahen? Woman?

Promises, poetry, flowers, flattery
Produce sensuous pleasure-rooms

Hatred, sin, fear, disgrace –
Stain bedswervers imeperishably

Candles of knowledgable beings
Light many millions

Ancyent civilisations indecipherable pages
Futurity’s erudite manna

Splashing thro’ Parnassian streams
Mankind’s glorious attainment
He read in relative silence, broken only by the sporadic, ‘hmmm,’ laced with an occasional, ‘interesting!’ Outside, commanding the morning sky, there was the thin sliver of a new moon, shining silvery against the divine canvas.

At last Thiruvalluvar had finished reading thro my meagre lines & I waited tentatively for his reaction. It was a moment of awesome proportion as I felt & saw everything around me. I admired my host, his handsome beard & endless eyes, his gleaming robes & noble stance & smile, twinkling in the sun.

Looking up from the pages the sage eventually & quite neatly said, “you have the thread.” His voice was sweet, like the warbling of birds greeting the sun after a storm. “You are now ready to create a Tamil Sonnet, that is the placing of seven connecting Kural together into one poem. Seven sets of couplets come to fourteen lines, yes, & that is how many lines are in a sonnet, correct?”

“That is right,” I replied.

“There are seven words in a Kural,” said the mystic, “thus making a Kural sonnet a grand Kural in itself – do you understand?”

As he said those words a moment of epiphany lit up my soul.

“Do you understand?” repeated the poet.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Then you are ready,” said the mystic.

“Ready for what?” I asked inquisitively.

“The next stage of your quest,” said the poet, “I undertook it myself many years ago.” to my astonishment he opened a shirt & reveled a wee, silver rose hung round his neck on a chain. “I am a barer of the rose & a master of the sonnet. Many moons ago I plucked my own flower & she led me on a literary quest. I see, tho you have not realised, you have also set your feet upon the path.”
The mystic sighed woosily, “you must return to the path now, traveler, & follow the will of the rose, for she shall guide your thought thro’ the fertile fields of creative experience. Keep writing & exercising in the sonnet form & continue a dedicated spirit, like those of the East who engage in the martial arts. The higher echelons of sonnetry are marked by discipline, focus of thought & dedication to the craft. Do you have these mental properties?”

“In a small degree. I hope they will be sufficient, for after hearing your words I wish to embark on this quest.”

“To attain the title of master sonneteer you must attain two more levels of proficiency, each marked by the composition of a polished sequenza. The first shall be a set of 14 sonnets – play with them how you will, blending feelings & forms into a pretty constellation of sonnets. The next level of proficiency will see you compose a set of 14 sequenzas… a total of 196 sonnets. This is the Sequenza Grande, or a sonnet ‘Galaxy.’ Again, blend them how you wish. One sequenza you may wish to compose entirely in the Alexandrine metre, in couplets, espousing unrequited love. In another you may wish to utilize the Sanskrit measure, in the Petrachian mould, singing of pastoral scenes. In yet another you may wish your staves to be heterometic, in free verse, upon choice matters of the zeitgeist. Anything goes, my boy, but remember at all times you are the godlike creator of the suite of sonnets that is your sonneverse!

“That seems an awful amount of experience & thought to pour into a single form?” I opined nervously.

“You are young & youth is marked by impetuousness & restlessness. This restlessness is the mystical energy which will drive you to the mastery of the sonnet.”

“How?” I asked.
“Your restlessness has brought you here, yes. Well only through travel can the sonneteer generate enough poesis to fill the major sequanzas. Before attempting the higher levels, I suggest you record your voyages; the emotions invoked, scenery, the history, the very essence of a country, in the same way you poeticized your own. These new sonnets may be of any form or feeling, even of an experimental nature, but the primal essence is exploration. When learning how to turn your experiences into sonnets, & on reaching the next stages of the art, your thought will be focused upon increasing discipline & you will be able to summon the poesis of your experiences at will. On completing this apprenticeship, as the acolyte will one day become a wise old sensei able to defend himself from attack, so shall the master sonneteer be able to produce exquisite sequanzas when they themselves are attack’d – not by an enemy but by the desire to compose poetry! You should commence your apprenticeship in Italy; for it is there that both the sonnet & the rose originated, for as nature is a constant wheel, & all things once commenced will come full circle, then you should return them both to their places of birth.”

“Yes,” I said, “the sonnet was born in Sicily, out of the Canzone, those sweet & moving songs the shepherds sang as they tended their flocks on the pastures of that wonderful island. I sometimes feel very much like them, wandering the earth & singing my own little songs.”

“Well spoken,” said the mystic, “the Rose is truly with you. Even when her powers fade, the petals shall always remain a part of you, including the occasional flight of psychic fancy. You should expect many moments of verbal lucidity like these when you are treading the bloom d’argent. Please continue with your description of the canzone.”

“Ah yes, the ancyent songs of the Sicilian shepherds. Over the course of many centuries these songs evolved into a fourteen-lined piece, with a turn, or volta – to a modern mind this would be where the chorus begins after the verse of a song.”

“Like the turn in an Italian sonnet,” offered the sage.

“Precisely, for indeed it was from the spirit of these canzone that the first sonnets found expression at the Magnia Curia, the court of the Sicilian King eight hundred years ago. Shortly afterwards it was brought to an early perfection by Dante & the school of Tuscan poets blessed with their “Sweet New Style.”

“Well explained,” said Thiruvalluvar, “& it is only natural you should travel to that country, where nature, weather, culture, history, architecture & society combine to such a pleasant degree that she has no comparison on earth.”

“I shall,” I replied, “& thank you. The time I have spent in your immaculate house has enriched me like the mountains of Parnassus.”

A silence passed between us & the wind made noises I had never heard before. They sounded like the voice of a familiar song, summoning me to its native land. From the warmth of the melody & strength in the words I knew it to be that of the Tuscan sun & the song of the Arno.

“Then I am for Italy,” I told them, “The music of the sea-breeze bids me there return.”

“Saraswathi go with you,” spoke Thiruvallavar, & bowing my head I left his house, & returned to the shore where we first met.

July 6th

Finding Menaleus

I am currently sat on the patio of an air B&B in Karemas, southern Crete, overlooking the Libyan Sea. It is morning. In the foreview to my left are the double rocks of the pretty Paximadian Islands, upon which the Cretans say Apollo was born. To my right is Gavdos, the most southerly point of Europe. There is a high wind blowing fiercely, as it has been for four days now, we are told. We drove here yesterday, first calling in at the many-peopled ‘funfair’ that the Knossos site has become; then entering & crossing the Cretan hinterland, a mixture of beautiful hills dotted with olive trees as if they were woven into some starlet’s hair, roughed up here & there by rather desolate villages. After stopping in at the oasis watering hole that are the Goanesque beaches of Agia Galini, we took a serendipitous wrong turn which snaked us out through the heart of the quite breathtaking Kedros range, via the villages of Apodolou, Nithavris, Agios Ioannis & Agia Pareskevi. Another wrong turn later & we were high up in the idyllic hilltop village of Vrisses, where, finally swapping our tourist map for a more detailed & accurate one contained in my portable library’s 1995 book on Crete, we finally came to Kerames.

On arrival we were met at the mini-market by stylish Kleopatra, a teacher of ancient Greek & Latin in Athens, who returns to her home village to rent out the house to erstwhile travelers. Built in the 16th century, it has been the home of two saints & a Cretan governor, & has also played host to many a village dance. An excuisitely beautiful building, made from a mixture of searocks & quarried stone, it is a geologist’s dream, & is ours for last night & the next two to come. Kleopatra delighted in showing us around the house, its history, & also walking us through the village so the locals knew we were with her. The encounter with her plump mother was amusing to say the least; with the mother mocking Kleopatra’s slight build & saying she was far too thin, that she was like a little girl, & that she needs to eat more… much to the agreement of the other plump women of a certain age sat on chairs in the vicinity.

Roll on three days & I am finishing this off in the pinkening sunrise on the lazy morning on the 10th of July. On tour first full day, upon a visit to the amazing Preveli Beach, via a rough & twisting Himalayanesque mountain road & reached only by footpath as in Gokarna; after swimming in a lagoon I suddenly found my foot pierced by a palmleaf spine &, well, ouch. The next dawn, me & Emily left the girls sleeping & drove to nearby Spili & its free health centre. Cue two female doctors writhing at my poor wound, trying to drag the thorn out. At one point one of the nurses turned her to mine & looking at me with a most solemn stare, said quite plainly, ‘pain?’ Through my acute grimacing I could only nod. The thorn, alas, was buried too deep & so with prescription in hand we returned to Agia Galini for another day at the beach & to buy some antibiotics. During that sunkissed day I collated my notes for this essay, which I am polishing off the now. Last night was very special, with us all getting dressed up & hitting the village square for a wonderful meal of native meat & salads which cost only 22 euros – our hostess refusing a tip & also joining us in the complimentary ouzo shots!


Kerames village is a white-washed, narrow-streeted affair in the Italian style, & rather the perfect place to work upon one of my thornier essays – that of the character of Menaleus, appearing in the Homeric epics. In summary, I believe he was not actually around in the thirteenth century BC to fight the traditionally dated Trojan War, but was instead active three centuries earlier, & that his deeds were later superimposed upon the story of the Trojan War by Thales. I believe his story was one of the ‘Homeric fragments’ discovered by Lycurgus & that the Trojan War in which Achilles fought was a different fragment altogether, with Thales splicing them together into a single story. I also believe that the War which Menaleus fought – in order to retrieve Helen – was not in NW Turkey, but in Egypt.

We shall anchor our investigation upon a figure in Greek mythology called Phineus, son of Bellus, the brother of Aegyptus & Danaus. Analyzing the contextus of Phineus, we discover a certain tale – as given by Ovid – in which he brandishes a spear against Perseus while squabbling over the daughter of Casseiopeia, who had been declared by her mother to be more beautiful than the Nereids. The names & situation massively reflect a Biblical figure called Phinehas, in whose tales we see an incident with remarkable echoes to that of Phineus. For Casseiopia we have a certain idolatrous Cozbi, & we may observe the Biblical Phinehas also brandishes a spear. The ‘most beautiful woman’ motif contained in Ovid finds its Biblical reflection in Flavius Josephus, who asserts that the enemies of the Israelites sent their most beautiful women to seduce the Jews into idolatry. Josephus explains the result was the slaying of Cozbi by Phinehas, after which God rewarded him & his posterity with the covenant of an everlasting hereditary priesthood.

The Biblical priestly Phinehas is said to have assisted Moses throughout the Exodus, even being master of the sacred Ark of the Covenant. Also active in those ‘days of Moses’ was a certain Gaythelos, or Goidal Glas, whose name seems to contain part of the Hebrew moniker for High Priest – the ‘Kohen Godal.’ According to Irish sources, the grandfather of Goidal Glas was a certain Fenius Farsaid. Thus Fenius, the grandfather of a Hebrew High Priest, can be matched on ethnological & phonetical grounds with Phinehas, one of the holiest men in the entourage of Moses.

The crux of the matter comes with the observance that between Fenius Farsaid & Gaythelos comes, according to John of Fordun, a ‘certain king of the countries of Greece, Neolus.’ Variant names given in other medieval sources include Nel (Lebor Gabala Erenn), while Geoffrey Keating gives Fenius two sons, Nenual & Niul, which seem to be a genflation of the same person. It is time for a wee babel-chain.


At the heart of this babel chain we see the name of Menaleus, whose eloping wife Helen initiated the Homeric Trojan War. In support of the Menaleus-Neolus connection, three ancient sources state that Menaleus had a son called Aithiolas, being the Scholion to Homer’s Iliad 3 (175th); Eustathius of Thessalonica & the Byzantine Suda (alphaiota 124). It is by no stretch of the imagination to see how the name Aithiolas transchispers into Gaythelos, or better still Gaithelos, as given by other records.

In my book, The Chisper Effect, I showed how Gaythelos was a prince with connections to Minoan Crete, & by studying the lineage of Menaleus, we can see why. The old tales have it that a certain Cretan king called Catreus begat a daughter called Aerope, who became the mother of Agamemnon and Menelaus, either by Plisthenes or by Atreus, in Mycynae. This means that Gaythelos was Minoan on his mother’s side, explaining why the treasures found at Mycynae contain, according to Martin Bernal, ‘an increase of the Minoan influences.’

The ancient city of Mycenae was sited in the northwest corner of the Plain of Argos, on the Peloponnese, in which place Pausanius, the Greek travel writer of the 2nd century AD, recorded, ‘the underground chambers of Atreus & his children, in which were stored their treasure. There is the grave of Atreus, along with the graves of such as returned with Agamemnon from Troy.’ In the late 19th century, a renegade amateur archeologist from Germany called Albert Schliemann excavated the site, discovering fabulous grave treasures which included the ‘Mask of Agamemnon,’ proving that the Homeric epithet, ‘Mycenae, rich in gold,’ was no exaggeration. Dated to 1550 BC, scholars have suggested that the treasures cannot be connected to the Mycynean leadership fighting a Trojan War in the 13th Century BC. But unraveling the factochisp & moving Menaleus & Agamemnon back three centuries, when Schilemann telegraphed the King of Greece that he had, ‘gazed on the face of Agamenon,’ his proud & swoony statement may bear out to be true, although not in the way standard Homeric scholarship has imagined.

When examining the other Homeric epic, the Odyssey, we encounter certain adventures of Menaleus which may be dated to the 16th Century BC. ‘It was nearly eight years,’ he says, ‘before I could get home with my fleet. I went to Cyprus, Phoenicia and the Egyptians; I went also to the Ethiopians, the Sidonians, and the Erembians, and to Libya.’ Each of these regions saw military activity during the reign of Amenhotep I (1546 -1526 BC); where the tomb biography of Ahmose Pen-Nekhebet says Amenhotep fought in Kush (Ethiopia) so Menaleus places himself in that same land; where Pen-Nekhebet states Amenhotep campaigned in Kehek – ie against the Qeheq tribe – so Menaleus places himself in Libya; where, in the tomb of Amenhotep I, we find a hostile reference made against the Transjordanian Qedmi, so Menaleus places himself among the Erembians, or the Arameans, the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Syrian Desert.

It seems that the Mycyenean leadership of the 16th Century BC has been poetically superimposed onto the basic narrative infrastructure of the Trojan War. On investigating the matter deeper, it seems that there was a siege of Troy in order to reunite Menaleus with his errant wife, but this was not the citadel in NW Turkey, but was a site near Memphis in Egypt. In the Bronze Age, the city we now know as Troy was in fact Illium, or Wilusa, hence the Iliad. The earliest time the name ‘Troy’ is applied to Ilium was Homer’s poetry, i.e. the 9th century BC. As we are slowly discerning, the poet appears to have blended several strands of material from different periods & places in order to create his poems. That the Trojan siege occurred in Egypt fits well with the question mark that has hung since antiquity over the war’s causus belli. Stesichorus, for example, stated that Helen never went to the Turkish Troy & that the war was fought for a phantom. Euripides elaborated further, saying that Hermes took Helen to Egypt where she would spend the entire war. The grand old donjon of history himself, Herodotus, also raised serious doubts as to a Turkish Troy, making a serious study of the matter, from which we may read;

When I inquired of the priests, they told me that this was the story of Helen. After carrying off Helen from Sparta, Alexandrus sailed away for his own country; violent winds caught him in the Aegean and drove him into the Egyptian sea; and from there (as the wind did not let up) he came to Egypt, to the mouth of the Nile called the Canopic mouth, and to the Salters’. Now there was (and still is) on the coast a temple of Heracles; if a servant of any man takes refuge there and is branded with certain sacred marks, delivering himself to the god, he may not be touched. This law continues today the same as it has always been from the first. Hearing of the temple law, some of Alexandrus’ servants ran away from him, threw themselves on the mercy of the god, and brought an accusation against Alexandrus meaning to injure him, telling the whole story of Helen and the wrong done Menelaus. They laid this accusation before the priests and the warden of the Nile mouth, whose name was Thonis.

This mention of Thonis is interesting, as a remembrance of Helen in Egypt slipp’d into the Odyssey, where she is said to have had, ‘such ingenious drugs, Good ones, which she had from Thon’s wife, Polydamna, an Egyptian.’ Homer continues;

When Thonis heard it, he sent this message the quickest way to Proteus at Memphis: “A stranger has come, a Trojan, who has committed an impiety in Hellas. After defrauding his guest-friend, he has come bringing the man’s wife and a very great deal of wealth, driven to your country by the wind. Are we to let him sail away untouched, or are we to take away what he has come with?” Proteus sent back this message: “Whoever this is who has acted impiously against his guest-friend, seize him and bring him to me, that I may know what he will say.”

Hearing this, Thonis seized Alexandrus and detained his ships there, and then brought him with Helen and all the wealth, and the suppliants too, to Memphis. When all had arrived, Proteus asked Alexandrus who he was and whence he sailed; Alexandrus told him his lineage and the name of his country, and about his voyage, whence he sailed. Then Proteus asked him where he had got Helen; when Alexandrus was evasive in his story and did not tell the truth, the men who had taken refuge with the temple confuted him, and related the whole story of the wrong. Finally, Proteus declared the following judgment to them, saying, “If I did not make it a point never to kill a stranger who has been caught by the wind and driven to my coasts, I would have punished you on behalf of the Greek, you most vile man. You committed the gravest impiety after you had had your guest-friend’s hospitality: you had your guest-friend’s wife. And as if this were not enough, you got her to fly with you and went off with her. And not just with her, either, but you plundered your guest-friend’s wealth and brought it, too. Now, then, since I make it a point not to kill strangers, I shall not let you take away this woman and the wealth, but I shall watch them for the Greek stranger, until he come and take them away; but as for you and your sailors, I warn you to leave my country for another within three days, and if you do not, I will declare war on you.”

This, the priests said, was how Helen came to Proteus. And, in my opinion, Homer knew this story, too; but seeing that it was not so well suited to epic poetry as the tale of which he made use, he rejected it, showing that he knew it. This is apparent from the passage in the Iliad (and nowhere else does he return to the story) where he relates the wanderings of Alexander, and shows how he and Helen were carried off course, and wandered to, among other places, Sidon in Phoenicia.

In the 16th century BC, there was an Egyptian city called Troy, of which Diodorus Siculus recorded (in the first century BC); ‘even to this day exists on the bank of the Nile.’ Strabo gives us more gloss on the Egyptian Troy;

In the neighbourhood of the quarry of the stones from which the pyramids are built, which is in sight of the pyramids, on the far side of the river in Arabia, there is a very rocky mountain which is called “Trojan,” and that there are caves at the foot of it, and a village near both these and the river which is called Troy.

Diodorus describes Menaleus crossing into Egypt where facing the Trojans of the Egyptian Troy he, ‘maintained a warfare until he granted them safety and freedom.’ The actual story behind the original Trojan siege may be embedded in an account of Herodotus, who places both Menaleus & Helen in Egypt;

When I asked the priests whether the Greek account of what happened at Troy were idle or not, they gave me the following answer, saying that they had inquired and knew from Menelaus himself. When these were let inside the city walls, they demanded the restitution of Helen and of the property which Alexandrus had stolen from Menelaus and carried off, and they demanded reparation for the wrongs; but the Trojans gave the same testimony then and later, sworn and unsworn: that they did not have Helen or the property claimed, but all of that was in Egypt, and they could not justly make reparation for what Proteus the Egyptian had. But the Greeks, thinking that the Trojans were mocking them, laid siege to the city, until they took it; but there was no Helen there when they breached the wall, but they heard the same account as before; so, crediting the original testimony, they sent Menelaus himself to Proteus.

Menelaus then went to Egypt and up the river to Memphis; there, relating the truth of the matter, he met with great hospitality and got back Helen, who had not been harmed, and also all his wealth, besides. An idea is arising here that Menaleus thought Helen was at a city by the ‘Trojan’ mountain, known today as the Hill of Toorah near Memphis. After raising its citadel he discovered that Helen was in fact at Memphis, perhaps whisked there by the Pharaoh on discovering Menaleus was attacking the Egyptian Troy. That is all a great big ‘perhaps’ of course, but there are too many factors & facts pointing to an Egyptian locality for denoument of the kidnapping of Helen. Other memories of Menaleus in Egypt can be found at Canopus, an ancient coastal town, located in the Nile Delta & named after Menealeus’ pilot. Legend describes how Menelaus built a monument to his memory on the shore, around which the town later grew up. This leads us to a passage in the Odyssey, one of the ‘Cretan Lies’ told by Odysseus which distinctly remembers a military campaign in Egypt;

We came to fair-flowing Aegyptus, and in the river Aegyptus I moored my curved ships. Then verily I bade my trusty comrades to remain there by the ships, and to guard the ships, and I sent out scouts to go to places of outlook. But my comrades, yielding to wantonness, and led on by their own might, straightway set about wasting the fair fields of the men of Egypt; and they carried off the women and little children, and slew the men; and the cry came quickly to the city. Then, hearing the shouting, the people came forth at break of day, and the whole plain was filled with footmen, and chariots and the flashing of bronze. But Zeus who hurls the thunderbolt cast an evil panic upon my comrades, and none had the courage to hold his ground and face the foe; for evil surrounded us on every side. So then they slew many of us with the sharp bronze, and others they led up to their city alive, to work for them perforce. But in my heart Zeus himself put this thought—I would that I had rather died and met my fate there in Egypt, for still was sorrow to give me welcome. Straightway I put off from my head my well-wrought helmet, and the shield from off my shoulders, and let the spear fall from my hand, and went toward the chariot horses of the king. I clasped, and kissed his knees, and he delivered me, and took pity on me, and, setting me in his chariot, took me weeping to his home. Verily full many rushed upon me with their ashen spears, eager to slay me, for they were exceeding angry. But he warded them off, and had regard for the wrath of Zeus, the stranger’s god, who above all others hath indignation at evil deeds. “There then I stayed seven years, and much wealth did I gather among the Egyptians, for all men gave me gifts.

Further support for a 16th century BC date for the Menaleus-Helen story turned up in finds excavated at the 16th century BC palace near Xirokambi, just to the south of the Menalean kingdom of Sparta. Cups excavated at the site are both Minoan & Mycynean in origin, while Xirokambi’s bull motifs are evocative of images found at Knossos & Avaris. The latter connects with Menaleus’s Minoan son, Gaythelos. Furthermore, tablets found at Xirokambi indicate that the palace there was a center of two productions – perfume & fabric – which have strong echoes in the Odyssey. The following passage sees Helen at home in her native Sparta;

While he was thus in two minds Helen came down from her high vaulted and perfumed room, looking as lovely as Diana herself. Adraste brought her a seat, Alcippe a soft woollen rug while Phylo fetched her the silver work-box which Alcandra wife of Polybus had given her. Polybus lived in Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world; he gave Menelaus two baths, both of pure silver, two tripods, and ten talents of gold; besides all this, his wife gave Helen some beautiful presents, to wit, a golden distaff, and a silver work-box that ran on wheels, with a gold band round the top of it. Phylo now placed this by her side, full of fine spun yarn, and a distaff charged with violet coloured wool was laid upon the top of it. Then Helen took her seat, put her feet upon the footstool, and began to question her husband.

One final piece of evidence I shall include in my lecture are a couple of references to a Bronze Age Libyan peoples called the Meshwesh. Their first historical mention occurs during the 18th Dynasty during the reign of Amenhompet III (1386-1349 BC), being cited as a source of cattle provided to the palace at Malkata. The actual origin of the Meshwesh is defined by Herodotus himself;

West of the Triton river and next to the Aseans begins the country of Libyans who cultivate the soil and possess houses; they are called Maxyes; they wear their hair long on the right side of their heads and shave the left, and they paint their bodies with vermilion. These claim descent from the men who came from Troy.

This definitively places the Meshwesh after the ‘Trojan War’, which means that, as they existed during the reign of Amenhomet III, the Trojan War must have occurred before his floruit in the the 14th century BC. That the name of the tribe, Maxyes or Meshwesh, can be transchispered into Mycynae with relative ease suggests that the tribe was indeed founded by the soldiers of Menaleus. To conclude, it appears that Homer discarded true story of Helen’s kidnapping & instead wanted to resituate his epic during the siege of Ilium in the 13th century BC, rather than in Egypt in the 16th century BC. In my next lecture I shall attempt to understand why.

10th July

The Trojan War

I am writing this overlooking the Libyan Sea, high up in the mountain village of Agios Ioanis. We reached here three days ago, calling in at Gortys along the way – the ancient capital of Crete – in 39 degree heat, & far too hot to explore very much. I did pick up a copy of the oldest Law Code in Europe however, & have a mind to mixing it in with some classical poetry Emily gifted me as translated by Robin Skelton. All in the relatively near future of course. From Gortys, we took a wrong turn & ended up back at busy Heraklion, which was perhaps serendipitous as it allowed the girls to have another blast at Star Beach.

At 5 in the evening we set off for our next residence, crossing the island again from sea-to-sea as far as Ireapetra. As we drove south I was delighted to see the stone boat sunk by Poseidon near Pseria, the island I presume to be that of the Phaecaens of the Odyssey. I had searched for the stone boat in vain on Google Earth, thinking it would be hard at the Pseria’s twin Minoan harbours – but is instead closer to the mainland & the Minoan city of Gournia, which may be of some significance.

Agios Ioannis is a 9K drive to the head of a wonderful olive-smitten U-shaped mountain recess. Stacked white against the mountains, it is half dilapidated & half regenerated in the Calcata fashion. Once a bustling town, in the 70s & 80s the inhabitants drifted to easier lives in the city & by the coast, leaving an insanely beautiful ghost-town. Even today, in the winter, there are only six full-time residents. Our house is large… two wings behind an excellent garden tended by the grey-bearded Adonis. Five cats, three dogs & a timid goat contribute to the safari-like nature of our domicile, along with all those grievously nasty mosquitos that are ravaging the girls. There are no shops & only two places to eat; the modernistic, uniquely-detailed Route 55 Café Bar & Kristina’s tavern, where we can take away genuine Greek food to eat at varius places at our homestead & garden. It is over one of these meals, with wine to hand, in the gentle evening light, sat at the table on our porch, that I shall now ruminate on the true Trojan War.

As I have stated in previous essays, the Homeric epics are a grand jumble of creochisps; a wooly ball of well-woven threads of numerous origins. Having extracted the Menalean string at Karames, let us now examine the orgins of the war which Homer clearly sets in NW Turkey. We begin with the supposed date, deduced by examining The Life of Homer – said to have been penned by Herodotus (scholars prefer to call him Pseudo-Herodotus) – which tells us that the poet was born 168 years after the Trojan War & 622 years before the Persian invasion of Greece by Xerxes I. With the Xerxean battle of Thermopyles taking place in 480BC, if we wind back another (622+168=) 790 years, we may assume the Trojan War ended in 1270 BC. This year also fits information supplied by Herodotus’, ‘Pan who was born of Penelope… came into being later than the wars of Troy, about eight hundred years before my time.’

To Herodotus the Trojan War was fought before 1250 BC. To this period, we may also pin the Locrian Curse, which gives us the exact year of the fall of Troy, 1264 BC. The story goes that the Locrian hero Ajax was shipwrecked by Poseidon for raping Cassandra in the temple of Athena just after the fall of Troy. Swimming for his life, when he reached the coast of Eobea he was struck by a bolt of lightning & slain. Lycophron, in his ‘Alexandria,’ describes the Locrians as being subsequently cursed for a thousand years, & were forced to send two unmarried maidens to the temple of Athena at Ilion of Athens each year, where they would spend the remainder of their lives. It was only in 264 BC that the Locrians finally satisfied the curse’s conditions.

Another route comes via combining the date given by ‘Timaeus the Sicilian,’ for the foundation of Rome, who says it was founded at the same time as Carthage, in the thirty-eighth year before the first Olympiad. This year would be 814 or 813. Anchoring our investigation on this date, when we examine the writings of the celebrated 2nd century BC orator Porcius Cato – Cato the Elder – we learn that the Trojan War occurred 432 years before the foundation of Rome. This gives a date of 1246/45.

As for where this war was fought, up until the end of the nineteenth century the enlightened opinion of academia considered the Trojan War to be a battle non gratia, on the basis that nobody could actually find a city called Troy. It took the financial fortune & dogged persistance of Heinrik Schliemann to uncover the long-lost capital citadel of Ilium. As a boy he had been entertained upon his father’s knee by the tales of Achilles, Helen, Paris & Menaleus. Growing into manhood, these stories gripped his imagination more & more, until he decided to plunge his business fortune into a search for the city of Troy. Choosing a site where the Roman ‘New Troy’ had been built – & very much to the scoffs of the scholars – Schliemann began to excavate a certain Hisalrik Hill in NW Turkey. The results were simply astonishing as he & his team of Turkish workers, toiling daily in the sun, slowly unearthed the massive cyclopean walls of a great citadel; the long-lost ‘high-towered Troy.’ Schliemann also discovered a great entranceway, which he dubbed the Homeric ‘Scaean Gate,’ leading him to declare to the planet, ‘I have proved that in a remote antiquity there was in the plain of Troy a large city, destroyed of old by a fearful catastrophe, which had on the hill of Hisalrik only its Acropolis with its temples and a few other large edifices, southerly, and westerly direction on the site of the later Ilium; and that, consequently, this city answers perfectly to the Homeric description of the sacred site of Ilios.’

Scholars were unsurprisingly skeptical as to the size of the city; such a palace, though undoubtedly large, could never have housed the massy legions which swarmed on the Trojan side. Schliemann would eventually die dissapointed that he had not discovered the true Troy. But, to please his ghost, since his passing, layer by layer, like the skins of a field-fresh onion, archeologists have uncovered a series of Troys dating back thousands of years, including parts of a long wall which would have encircled Hisalrik hill, vastly enlarging the city’s size. In total, there are seven ‘layers’ to Troy, ranging from 3000 BC to the aforementioned ‘New Troy,’ built by the Romans c.100 AD. These seven cities are divided into sub-stratific layers, of which Troy VIh & VIIa are the most interesting. Troy VI was initially built on massive scale c.1400 BC, a solid edifice of carefully fitted ashlar blocks, with two of its towers erected not long before the destruction of VIh by an earthquake, about the year 1300 BC.

It is possible to match these events to a creochisping mythomeme of a demigod called Herakles, & his own destruction of Troy. According to Herodotus (c.450 BC), Herakles was born ‘about nine hundred years,’ before his own time, ie c.1350. The legend of the demi-god’s destruction of Troy, as found in the Iliad & the Bibliotheke of Apollodorus, shows Poseidon, The Earthshaker, attacking Troy with the help of a sea-beast, a probable euhemeristic account of an earthquake & tsunami striking the shores of Asia Minor. The Roman historian Strabo tells us;

Poseidon, as the story runs, became angry with Laomedon the king of Troy in connection with the building of its walls, and sent forth from the sea a monster to ravage the land. By this monster those who made their living by the seashore and the farmers who tilled the land contiguous to the sea were being surprised and carried off. Furthermore, a pestilence fell upon the people and a total destruction of their crops, so that all the inhabitants were at their wits’ end because of the magnitude of what had befallen them. Consequently, the common crowd gathered together into an assembly and sought for a deliverance from their misfortunes, and the king, it is said, dispatched a mission to Apollo to inquire of the god regarding what had befallen them. When the oracle, then, became known, which told that the cause was the anger of Poseidon and that only then would it cease when the Trojans should of their own free will select by lot one of their children and deliver him to the monster for his food, although all the children submitted to the lot, it fell upon the king’s daughter Hesionê.

Luckily for Hesione, Herakles turns up just in time & offers to slay the monster in return for some of Laomedon’s quality horses. After Herakles upheld his side of the bargain & slew the beast, Laodemon then went back on his word, resulting in a very angry demigod sacking Troy. Another Roman historian, Diodorus Siculus, writes;

Aye, what a man, they say, was Heracles in might, my father he, steadfast, with heart of lion, who once came here to carry of the mares of King Laomedon, with but six ships and scantier men, yet sacked he then the city of proud Ilium, and made her streets bereft.

During the slaughter, Herakles killed Laodemon & all of his sons except a young Priam, the Homeric king of Troy. Hesione also survived, marrying Herakles’ companion Telamon & settling in Greece. According to the myths, Herakles placed the young Priam on the throne of Troy. The actual foundations of this story can be discerned through certain letters discovered at Hattusa, the capital of a Near Eastern empire ruled by the Hittites. In them we may read how, in about the year 1290BC, a certain Tawagawala, the brother of the King of Ahhiyawa (Grecian Achaea), supports a certain Piyamaradu in southern Turkey. It is time to assemble a couple of babel-chains;



That Herakles is Tawagalawa is supported by the Hattusa letter placing him in Lycia, a region on the southern Turkish coast. ‘When the men of the city Lukka transferred their allegience to Mr. Tawagalawa, he came into these lands. They transferred their allegience to me in the same way, and I came down into these lands.’ These events are also mentioned by Panyassis of Helicarnassus – a student of Herodotus – whose epic poem on Herakles, the Heracleia, has the hero rescuing certain Cretan colonists in Lyica. ‘It is certain,’ states Christoper Prestige Jones, ‘that Panyassis’ epic brought Heracles to Lycia, & here too the poet may well have followed local tradition.’

The Hittite letters describe Piyamaradu as a renegade ‘adventurer,’ who at one point tries to reassert his dynastic claim to the throne of Troy, called Wilusa in the letters. We also learn how he married his daughter off to Ata, the ruler of Millawanda, or Miletus, the very same city where Hesione is said by the Greeks to have sought refuge from her unwanted marriage to Telamon. From Miletus, Piyaramadu launched his quest to regain the throne of Troy, at which time was occupied by a certain Alaksandru. This name is the Hittite philochisp of Alexandros, a confusing alternate name given to Paris in the Iliad. According to the Hattusa letters, Alaksandu wrote to Muwatalli II asking for assistance against Piyaramadu, which resulted in a treaty between Troy & the Hittites, concluded about 1280 BC. Troy was now a vassal state of its neighbouring superpower, & the treaty was guaranteed by a god named Apaliunas, ie Apollo, a diety of the Iliad who stands firmly on the side of the Trojans. Just after the treaty was signed, the ancient world was witnessing an epic conflict being played out between the Hittites & the other near-eastern superpower, Egypt.

It very much seems that the battles of Troy were less the greatest conflict of the heroic age, more a side-show in a much larger conglagaration in which was fought the famous Battle of Kadesh on the Orontes River near the border between Syria & Lebanon. The gargantuan struggle would last for two decades, between 1278BC & 1258BC, into which time-frame fits the historically dated Trojan War. That the Trojans were involved in a larger war can actually be seen in the Iliad, where Hittites are listed as among the allies of Troy. The city’s location as the watchtower over the vital Dardanellian gateway to the Mediterranean, would have been motive enough for either side to want its control.

There is a problem, however, & that is the date given for the fall of Troy by the normally reliable & accurate 3rd Century Greek geographer, Eratosthenes; 1184BC. This date. However, falls extremely close to the destruction layer of the next Troy. After the destruction of Troy VIh the builders of its successor, Troy VIIa, patched up the fortification walls & created a city which would last until 1190 BC – the date of its destruction layer being supported by pottery styles discovered in that strata. This layer seems to record the city being razed during the invasions of the so-called Sea Peoples. King Ammurapi of Ugarit, writing about 1185, describes the onslaught;

My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka…Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.

What exactly went on up there in turbulent, windy Troy is uncertain. The Sea-Peoples attack may even be remembered in the Iliad as the army of ships beached on the sands of Ilium, forming another ingredient in the Homeric soup. Mixing all the names & dates together suggests that Priam was replaced on the throne of Troy by a man – Alexandros – who could not have been his son as stated by Homer. A chispological embellishment seems evident, with Homer understanding Priam & Alaksandu were both in Troy at the right time, but got things muddled up whether purposefully or not. As for Alexandros being also called Paris, this supports my theory that the Helen abduction motif was played out in Egypt three centuries before the battles in NW Turkey. Paris was perhaps the name of the 16th Century BC abductor of Helen, while Alexandros was the chieftan of the 13th century BC citadel at Ilium. In the same way, the Egyptian Troy was conflated with the Turkish Ilium by Homer, the fusion of which created something more-than-real, something majestic enough to become the subject of his superhuman poetry.

Agios Ioanniss
13th July

Framing the Sonneverse

While lazing in the Cretan hills these past few days I have been chiefly editing my sonnet sequence, The Silver Rose, which has led me to finally finalize the contents of this essay. The Sonneverse has been running around my head since about 2008, when I used to muse on its essence on the long walk from Heather Lodge to Dunbar. One occasion is especially memorable, as I sat on Spott Dod overlooking East Lothian, with the universe surging from my mind. The general thesis is that there is a corpus of human works known as the Sonneverse, an ever-expanding collection of poetry in the sonnet form. Imagine the very first sonnet ever written to be the Big Bang, kinda thing. I have written a sonnet, of course, elucidating its properties;

Every stanza is a planet
Every sonnet is a star
Fourteen sonnets constellations make
But brighter skies by far
Are galaxies of constellations
Fourteen in each one
Stretching epic metaverses,
& when one’s works are done
A host of sonnets ye shall choose
Full seven score & fourteen gems
Most lucious whisp’rings of thy muse
Set in those precious diadems
Crowning the sonnetteer who sings
From Ceasars to our petty kings

When the opening couplet reads, ‘Every stanza is a planet, Every sonnet is a star,’ the meaning is simple. A sonnet is powered by the same energy which emanates from a star; i.e. the fiery light-giving force which giving life to its planetary system. In terms of the sonnet, this energy will then bring to life the poem’s planets – the stanzas – & whether the star’s energy is powerful or weak will depend upon the quality of the sonnet. William Blake once said that the genius & creative spirit of mankind was poetry & it is in the sonneverse that we gain our most natural reflection of the Untold Universe at large.

In one of my Pendragon Lectures of two years ago, I formulated the theory that poems stood upon four pillars – Music, Mood, Mould & Measure. Let us now apply this theory to the exploration of the sonnet form, retaining the ‘quatordicci’ element that seems natural in soneteering, ie the omniprevalent usage of the number 14. The MOULD of every sonnet is bound by a 14-line restriction. Each sonnet, however, may be divided into staves, or stanzettas as I like to call them. These are the planets in orbit around the sonnet’s star. The Petrarchean, for example, contains two stanzettas, of 8 & 6 lines respectively. During my time as an explorer of the Sonneverse, I have mapped out a number of typical planetary systems.
X X X X X X X X – X X X X X X

X X X X – X X X X – X X X X – X X

X X – X X – X X – X X – X X – X X – X X

X X X X X – X X X X X – X X X X

Each planet of a starsystem can be mapped out via its MEASURE. There may be seven Archilochian Couplets, for example, or the 3/3/3/3/2 Oriental system, i.e. four stanzettas of 5-7-5 Haiku, follow’d by the concluding 7-7 couplet. If one had decided upon a structure of 5/5/4, then for your pentet staves you could use a Limerick, perhaps, or the South American Wayra, whose syllable counts are 5-7-7-6-8. There are vastly numbered variants; including irregular sonnets which look & feel like Free Verse, hefty Alexandrines in solid blank verse blocks, & so on, into infinity, one expects.

Every planet also possesses an atmosphere, or MOOD. These could be a Prosodion to Apollo perhaps, or a precious Paean to a new-found paramour. A bubbling Barzelletta; a sensuous Ghazel; a Senryu to a silly friend, a weeping Epicedium; a Protreptic plea to passion; or a soul-stirring Aubade. For the budding sonneteer there are many, many possible ways in which to create one’s words. These are instilled with a poem’s MUSIC, the animated life of both line & the stave, where the poets weave their symphonies utilising elements such as cynghanned & rhymes both internal & line-ending.

The planetary systems creayed by the sonetteers oscillate between barren anisometric rocks of sterile worlds, or are occupied by single & gigantic fertile planets, buzzing with the operatic voices of man, beast, bird & insect, just as is heard in this fabulous land of Creta. In one corner of the sonneverse, for example, the hardy explorer may encounter the Onegin giant devised by Alexander Sergevich Pushkin for his Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse. Stanzas have 14 lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming ababccddeffegg, & the rhymes may be feminine & masculine.
Returning to my sonnet given earlier, where we read ‘fourteen sonnets constellations make,’ in the purest sense of the physics, fourteen sonnets make a traditional sequenza, ie 14 star-systems closely linked in time, in space & by them, the aforemention ‘constellation’ of sonnets. ‘The Fourteen Sonnets, Elegiac and Descriptive. Written During a Tour. Bath and London, 1789,’ by William Lisle Bowles are a perfect example. Each sonnets is Petrarchian in mould, iambic pentameter in measure, & are unified by the observatory mood of a travelling poet. In my own experimental periods with the constellation, I tried diversifying the measures, sometimes utilizing the same one for 14 stanzas, sometimes using 14 different ones. I also did the same with the Moods, such as;

Vista : Composed from a high viewpoint
Odes : A tribute to people or places
Pastoral : Poetry describing rural scenes
Amoebean : A conversation between 2 speakers
Ensenhamen : A didactic poem
Epistle : A poem addressed to a friend
Barzelletta : A funny story
History : A poem about a past event
Ghazel : A poem concerning lovemaking
Quasida : A place which recalls lamented lost love
Sutra : A treatise
Tantra : A religious treatise/sermon
Fable : A moral narrative
Geste : An account of deeds / adventures

Of the next step up in the Sonneverse, I wrote there are, ‘galaxies of constellations, fourteen in each one.’ i.e. 196 sonnets again unified by a grand theme we shall call the Gestalt. I have composed several of galaxies; a tour of the far North of Scotland, a tour of Edinburgh, & a tour of India. Of these, the Ediniad galaxy was the most technical, for each of the 14 constellations were unified by a singular measure, such as 14 alexandrines, 14 ottosyllabics, etc. As for the mould, the first sonnet of each constellation would be a dense block of fourteen lines, the next would be seven couplets, the next would be 3/3/3/3/2, the next would be 4/4/4/2 & so on. A incredibly complex, but quite satisfying essay into the possible architectronics of sonnetry. For me, a royal suite of sonnets would be a galaxy in which every sonnet would have a different mould of fourteen varieties, a different metre of fourteen varieties & a differnt mood of fourteen varieties. I have never attempted to create one, but on those lofty walks in the foothills of the Lammermuirs I definitely ruminated upon such… a glimpse through my psychic telescope into the far-flung reaches of the Sonneverse.

Agios Ioanniss
13th July

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