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. 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
Between 1999 & 2011 I would say I was active in the creation of an epic poem, entitled Axis & Allies – the latest version of which YOU CAN READ HERE. The poem began, I would say, in the summer of ’99, when I started work on a poem called Testamundi Imperatrix. I kinda published it myself through the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme down Brighton (I was 23), but by the time I’d finished it I was already ready to try something more ambitious.
The Imperatrix was both a salute to the coming 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.
Here is one of Keats’ stanzas from his Ode to a Nightingale.
Like Keats, on completing the Imperatrix, I was enthused to develop a stanza of my own, something more flexible with which to handle the narrative three-part set pieces I was developing in the Imperatrix, as in;
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.
At some point in October 1999, I decided to write a poem solely on the battle of Waterloo – which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year by the way, & something I have recently began to add to once again. Back in ’99, after sketching with a few ideas for the Tryptych’s infrastructure, I ended up composing the following poem – the first of about 1500 that would be created over the next 12 years as I composed A&A.
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 its like before,”
Then spurr’d his mount past Mont Saint-Jean
To pause upon the contour,
Thereby thro’ blue sky flew, serene,
A Dove from a lovely shore,
On which Wellington, warlord of dead men,
Says, “Swiftly, De Lancey, pass me my pen!”
Unto the Dove the Duke did call
While scribbling down one word…
White wings in fall, how soon the scroll
Tied gently to that bird,
Which flutter’d up to lofty heights where nothing mortal stirr’d.
The Ridge of Mont Saint Jean
From this innocuous peace-time ride across the fields to the south of Brussels, my Calliopian muse would whisk me through the entire history of warfare, focusing mostly on the Second World war & its aftermath, & ending with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, whose presence in the public eye coincided with my composition of A&A. A survey of my epic is not the theme of this lecture, however, but instead I am going to elucidate the mechanics behind my invention of the Tryptych, so future ‘form-designers’ can get a feel of the necessary thought-processes.
A Tryptych is a medieval three-part painting, which tells a story of sorts, usually related to Jesus. The three part nature of my Imeratrix stanzas reminded me of this, & also set the standard – I needed to create three ‘staves’ with which to construct my Tryptych.
To begin my Tryptych, I thought there was no better stanza than the heroic quatrian used by Dryden in his 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 which I completed the Stave with a device used by the odes, especially in Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality.‘
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
The last three-lines struck me as especially resonant – in particular the closing alexandrine – & after inverting them I found I had 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
In 1999 I was heavily into the Romantic poets, & 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.
My own version shortened the lengths of the first six lines – reducing them from iambic pentameter’s ten syllables to an 8/7/8/7/8/6 sequence. The sixth line originally had seven syllables, but I found by reducing it to six, its shortening closure set up the final couplet’s pentameter nicely, as in;
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 primal British ballad stanza would be perfect, followed by a thundering ‘fourteener’ which would both aesthetically support the whole Tryptych, & close off the scene with a fighting flourish. Of this metre 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.
“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.
Aesthetically, the Tryptych offers an overall effect as something like a candlestick. It is also reminiscent of an insect, which has a head, body (thorax) & 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, with its changes in tempo & mood allowing a complete exploration of each historical scene chosen for my materielle.