An Iliadic Epic
Sung in a Hundred Cantos
It is not every lifetime that one writes an epic poem… let alone two, & it is with a certain sense of excitement, laced with a barrel’s worth of personal achievement, that I present my double epics to the world. When accepting my role as an epic poet, I ruminated on my predecessors & the models they supplied to posterity. In this I realised that while Virgil created one epic out of Homer’s two – the Odyssean voyages of Aeneas to Italy, follow’d by Iliadic warfare in Latina – I would rather compose an Odyssey & an Iliad as individual poems. As for the length of my epics, Dante’s 100 cantos seem’d both a simple & harmonious number.
As a poet waking to consciousness at the end of the twentieth century, my Iliad had no choice but to concern the dramatic double world wars in which some of those who participated I could still reach out to & converse. I remember fondly my now departed dear grandmother telling me how much fun she had as a teenager during the Burnley black-outs, & how a downward-pointing ‘dickie shine a light’ would guide her home.
Axis & Allies has also branched out both into deep history – to achieve some kind of understanding of how the World Wars came to pass – & into my own age, where I witness’d at first hand events such as 9-11 & the terrorist attack on Mumbai. Meanwhile, my personal Odyssey is a journey thro’ England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Sicily, Malta, Gozo & the entire subcontinent of India, at the end of which I return to my own veritable Penelope, Sally Cinnamon.
The first sonnets of the Sylver Rose were composed in the Autumn of 1998, when I was 22, & the last in January 2021, only yesterday. The latter sequanto saw the recreation of the Samothracian Mysteries of that island’s Sanctuary of the Gods. This was the same site where I composed my penultimate tryptych of Axis & Allies in August 2020. Then, on the next morning, I would complete my Iliadic epic at the waterfall source of the Gria Vathra, towering high over the Aegean Sea.
Sonnets & epics go together. Both Dante & Shakespeare were avid sonneteers before creating their epic poems – I would include the Dramatic oeuvre of Shakespeare as an epic poem of sorts, especially the historical plays. What makes my work different is that I turn’d my sonnets into an epic poem, as well as writing a non-sonnet epic. For this I would invent an even larger line-count than the 14 offer’d by the sonnet – the trytptych.
The first lines of Axis & Allies were composed in Brighton in October 1999, when I was a twenty-three year-old hedonist with a thirst for travel & fun. My art, however, seem’d to be possessed of a much serious substance. In my Imperatrix ode to the British Empire, composed 1999-2000, I began to employ the first vestiges of epic tradition. There followed a beautiful period of composition, enlivened by the salty surf of the sea, when certain poetic fires were kindled within me. The Imperatrix saw my departure from writing poetry for the self to writing for society, the true nature of an epic calling, where the theme is the fascinating & tangl’d complexity human life.
The Imperatrix was both a salute to a new Millennium & a celebration of Britain’s lost empire – Hong Kong had only been handed back to China a couple of years before I composed the ode. It’s form was the same as that used by Keats in his magnificent series of odes of 1819. He had developed his new 10-line stanza out of the English & Italian sonnet forms, stating in a letter to 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.’ It was this evolution of form that would soon inspire me to create a new stanza of my own for a new poem that came to mind during the composition of the Imperatrix.
I feel the need for form in poetry is as natural as swans coming to a lake, or bobbing in the seasurf on a windy day for fun. As a poet awakening to the art, I felt that the cultivation of vers libre had blown it’s course. It had moved far from it’s original raison d’etre, as an alternative to form, & had now claimed the empire of poetry for itself. But by doing so, it had placed shackles upon the poet, & it would only be by returning to form would any progress be made in the art.
In the Autumn of 1999 I spent several weeks designing a stanza of my own invention, which I named the Tryptych. In classical art the Tryptych is a form of painting, where the artist will paint three separate pictures, all relating to an event in history, the most common being the crucifixion of Christ. The stanza I created is itself a sort of Gryphon, whose elegant aesthetic is made up of the better parts of forms past. I wrote the first one October’s night in Brighton, 1999. The earliest germ of the Waterloo poem was grasping for breath, & I felt my new stanza would be appropriate, something weightier & more flexible, in order to contain more factual information. My first ever tryptych, however, was something of an invocation to the muses;
There is a glade in an ancyent forest
Where pools lie glitteraund molten azure,
I wade within the one most moonbeam blest
To bathe in blissful dreamtimes gleaming pure;
The nine naked maidens
Like a lost lullaby lilting thro’ love’s garden.
She harps a song, she summons stars,
She waltzes round the waters,
She treats these tender battlescars,
She paints the floating lotus,
She strums the summergold guitars,
Lord Apollo’s daughters!
Who whisper as she grips this dripping hand,
Soul cleansed, slow led, we tread the mossy land.
They wing & weave thro’ tryptych tones,
Sing rich enchanted chime,
Soft music hones their mystic moans,
& so… my all must rhyme,
With hopes of flashing heroes up Parnassus slopes I’ll climb!
In this first triptych we see a summoning of not one, but all the muses, coupled with the first footsteps taken along the metaphysical paths up Mount Parnassus, the traditional home of the Muses as given in Greek mythology. On that same evening in Brighton, I then turned the form I had just crystallised to converting a spot of history, in this case concerning the country ride in 1814 on which the Duke of Wellington first noticed the reverse slopes at Mont Saint Jean. The next summer, 2000, I wrote the rest of the Waterloo poem, & would write the last of my tryptychs upon Samothraki two whole decades later.
Between first & last I lived & breathed my epics, sometimes symbiotic, sometimes from afar. Those years match the twenty designated to a potential epic by the English romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote; ‘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. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine — then the mind of man — then the minds of men — in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years — the next five to the composition of the poem — and the five last to the correction of it.’ Having completed two epics in that time is simply down to having modern access to the internet coupl’d with swifter modes of travel. I was also struck constantly by Coleridge’s definition of my beloved Romantic Age being, “a happy [one] … for tossing off an Epic or two.”
Just as the world needs its plumbers its painters & its pimps, it also happens to need its epics. I’m not exactly sure why we pop up from time-to-time, but we most definitely do; it is like a relay race where the baton is dropped for a few hundred years then gets picked up again by the next lucky fellow compel’d to spend the better years of their life on a single poem (or two). As I picked up the baton & began my leg, I appear’d more of a misnomer to the modern poet – but to me it seemed as if a devastating plague had ripped through my species like some needle blights through the forest of Parnassus. Poetic offerings from the later 20th century & early 21st were slender to see the least – like skinny foals grazing in a field barren. At the same time I roamed in the open expanses of countryside beyond those farm fences, fattening myself on the verdure of life amidst the solemn mountains of an echoing tradition. I found a nobleness of action accompanied me as I composed, for the epic is the phoenix of poetry. They live gloriously then die… but when they rise again, they do upon pinions of golden fire.
The epic species is the pinnacle of poetic achievement & the supreme measure of a poet. It reflects & displays the grandeur of man & within its multi-lined confines can be found every other species of poetry. It is a grand summation of the art, if you will. If one were to put all the world’s epics on a bookcase… & they would only need small shelves… you would find so much human existence in so little a space. To throw my own hat into this small but viciously proud arena, I really had no choice… it was the only poetic sphere I felt truly comfortable working within. Before I began, I examined the epic poems of the English, to measure my work against & from which to draw the correct materials. In the English language there have only been a few attempts at an epic, proper. Chaucer had all the trappings with his Canterbury Tayles, tho’ his point of focus reneged on the epic theme. Spenser gave us his sprawling Faerie Queene & Milton his great English poem, Paradise Lost. Since then we have Byron’s Don Juan & the prelude of Wordsworth, but both can be counted as not of the true vein. Chapman & Pope both presented poeslations of the Iliad, but these are but mere imitations of another poem. Keats’ came close with his Hyperion, but his untimely death left it unfinished. In more modern times, Tennysson’s Morte D’Arthur is too staid to be considered epic, while Pound’s Cantos are an incomprehensible personal voyage, far from the true ideal.
So where did that leave the epic muse. A handful of ultra-modern poets have tried to write epic – but have fallen far short of connecting with the planet, or even the nation, whose efforts should be placed in the epyllian baskets. The general sentiment of my times is that epic is impossible, that poetry had become too personal. Yet, as long as there is human life there shall be, tho’ all of a scarcity, the capability within the human mind for epic poetry. If let us say that in the human brain there is one percent attuned to poetry, then within this one per cent there is again a very small percentage capable of epic poetry. Because of the dispropensity of human nature to carry on with the very difficult nature of composing epic, then this percentage is again divided. So the lot fell to me & by going backwards, back to the classical epic, I believe I am going forwards. With this in mind I began to reflect the poetry out into the world, into the lives of my dramatis personae, & mirror the world in which they lived then & so we live now. In one of his excellent essays of the early 1980’s, William Oxley shed light upon the true nature & mechanics of my task;
The concept of the modern epic cannot be properly understood without an accurate grasping of the true nature of tradition. For without such understanding of the full implications and accretions attaching to the word “epic,” it cannot in its turn be understood. Once, however, tradition is properly understood, and the word “epic” placed within that context, it is possible to begin to think of a modern epic. And I think it fair enough to jump in at the deep end – assuming all that has been said hitherto has been grasped and is now firmly borne in mind by the reader – and say that for an epic to be modern it must first and foremost, in Daniel Pearlman’s expression, “nucleate” the information and experience of contemporaneity. Which means, remembering the earlier idea of a poem of epic proportions integrated in a continuing tradition, that while the poet’s art will nucleate the contemporary data, it will at the same time draw in this information to an already existing centre composed of past accretions. Which further means that the successful modern epic (as any successful modern poem of whatsoever proportions) will be an engrafting of new branches on an already existing tree.
I am now 44 years old & have given 22 years & the last of my youth to the creation of my two very traditional, yet very modern epics. Not with any sense of regret, however, for these two decades gone have sent me travelling the world composing the purest of poetries. Of this corpus, 1400 sonnets & 900 tryptychs have made the final cut, resulting in 37,600 lines of poetry. 22 years (1822-44), is also how long the Thai poet Sunthorn Phu – the Bard of Rattanakosin – spent over his own epic poem, the 48,700-line Phra Aphai Mani. As he did then & as I do now, it is time to pass the baton on to whenever & whomever finds it next.
Damian Beeson Bullen