Week Nine: The Horatian Ode

Horace (65 – 8 BCE)

Quintus Horatius Flaccus–better known to the English-speaking world by the mononym Horace–was a Roman soldier, lyric poet and satirist during the time of Augustus. He was a leading Latin poet of his time and is still celebrated for his odes, satires, and epistles. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” (c. 19 BC), his most influential epistle, offers advice on the art of writing poetry and drama.

Horatian Odes

Horace studied Greek ode forms–works by celebrated Greek poets such as Alcaeus, Anacreon, and Pindar–and adapted them for his own purposes, making them suitable for Latin. He not only changed the formal conventions of the Greek odes (stanzaic patterns, meter, rhyme scheme), but also modified the tone and subject matter to best highlight his own unique artistic sensibilities. While Greek odes tended to be heroic–elaborately glorifying a person or event–Horace’s odes were more personal, contemplative, and philosophical. The odes of Horace are also known for their charm, sophistication, and occasional touches of light humor.

Reading Horace

Non-Latin readers are immediately confronted with the challenge of translation. It is widely considered a fool’s errand to attempt to preserve formal conventions such as meter and rhyme when translating poetry, so you’ll need to regard any English translations of Horace’s work as approximating the art and meaning of Horace’s original odes, rather than duplicating their formal conventions.

That being said, there is a great deal to be gained by reading Horace–keeping this limitations in mind–in English and many translations are available online. For the bookshelf, I recommend Oxford World’s Classic’s Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes featuring translations by David West.

A Horatian Ode in English

Although we can’t look directly to Horace to learn the conventions of his signature odes (without first learning Latin, that is), we can, however, look to Horatian odes written in English by English poets, and there are several good examples. Perhaps the most famous of these is Andrew Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”.

The forward youth that would appear 
Must now forsake his Muses dear, 
Nor in the shadows sing 
His numbers languishing. 
’Tis time to leave the books in dust, 
And oil th’ unused armour’s rust, 
Removing from the wall 
The corslet of the hall. 
So restless Cromwell could not cease 
In the inglorious arts of peace, 
But thorough advent’rous war 
Urged his active star. 

Scanning the first eight lines of Marvell’s Horatian ode reveals several key requirements of the form. Firstly, you’ll notice each two lines feature an end rhyme in an aabbccdd… pattern. Secondly, you’ll notice that while lines 1 and 2 are written in iambic tetrameter, lines 3 and 4 are written in iambic trimeter. Thirdly, you’ll notice that–and this is an important feature unique to the Horatian ode–the pattern set in the first four lines is repeated without variation in each subsequent quatrain.

Requirements of the Form

Structure

Any number of stanzas that unvaringly follow the pattern set by the first stanza. Stanzas can be of any length, but Horatian odes usually feature repeating stanzas of two to four lines. Enjambment is allowed.

Content

– Tone tends toward philosophical, contemplative, gently playful, tranquil
– Style is sophisticated and formal, but not restrictive

Meter

Meter is chosen at the discretion of the poet. Again, the important factor is consistency from stanza to stanza. Iambic meter is commonly used in English.

Rhyme

Rhyme schemes vary, but (again) subsequent stanzas must repeat the pattern set by the first stanza. Lines are always end-rhymed.

An Original Horatian Ode

A Horatian Ode to the World Goddess

The Goddess of the World, I sing–
Her many forms and faces bring
The light of fertile life,
The fear of judgement’s knife.

Like Draupadi of Indian fame,
Born of the sacrificial flame–
Where she perceives a wall,
Illusion’s palace falls.

Or Anath, golden Canaanite,
Her retribution fierce and right,
She’ll cut you with a word,
Then feed you to the birds.

Online Resources

Ode – Wikipedia
Odes: Praise Poetry! – Writer’s Digest
An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland – Poetry Foundation
Ode – Poetry Foundation
How to Write an Horatian Ode – Forward Poetry
The Horatian Ode – Poetry Magnum Opus

Week Five: The Miltonic Sonnet

John Milton (1608-1674)

The Miltonic Sonnet is named after the 17th century English poet, political writer, and civil servant, John Milton. With the publishing of his epic poem Paradise Lost, widely regarded as one of the greatest works written in the English language, Milton solidified his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time. Milton’s work would live on to influence Romantic poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth.

Photo caption: A wood engraving from the 19th century depicts a blind John Milton dictating his influential epic poem “Paradise Lost” (Fortuné Louis Méaulle / Wellcome Library) 

Milton’s Sonnet

Milton adapted the Petrachan sonnet (named for Italian poet-scholar Petrach) and made the popular form his own. He took the sonnet out of the category of “love poems” and brought it into the world of politics, religion, and social issues. He also introduced enjambments (the technical term used for when a poet carries a line through to the next line), while at the same time removing the space between what was before the first and second stanzas, thus tightening up the form. By removing the volta (also known as a pivot, or turn) after the octave (first eight lines), and varying the rhyme scheme of the sestet (proceeding six lines), he further opened up the form.

A reading of one of Milton’s most famous poems should help demonstrate these contributions to the evolution of the sonnet:

“When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”

When I consider how my light is spent,
    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
    And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
    My true account, lest He returning chide;
    “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
    Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
    Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
    And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Requirements of the Form

Form

– Fourteen lines
– No spaces between ‘stanzas’
– Lines contain enjambment (see above for brief definition)

Content

– Occasional, political, and religious subjects
– Unlike other sonnets, does not have a distinct volta (also known as a pivot) after the eighth line

Meter

– Iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line, unstressed-stressed pattern).

Rhyme

– First eight lines (octave): abbaabba
– Preceding six lines (sestet): often cdecde, but variable

An Original Miltonic Sonnet

The viral imagine haunted every screen–
A photograph too horrid to ignore:
A pair of bloated bodies on the shore.
In Congress followed yet another scene
Of bickering and washing white-hands clean.
No older than The Virgin when she bore
The Savior that they claim to so adore,
The budding mother wonders what they mean.
As children hungry, dirty, sick and scared
Are torn away and locked in concrete halls
Lay weak with worry, overwhelmed with fear,
The value of their lives is weighed and tared;
As Washington debates the costs of walls,
Who dares to speak of Christ’s compassion here?

Notes on My Original Sonnet

I challenged myself to write a sonnet that was true to the Miltonic themes of politics, religion, and current events, and found in the issue of immigration a combination of all three. The line “children hungry, dirty, sick and scared” was taken from this BBC News article and served as the fulcrum of this poem.

Online Resources


Sonnet Examples – Poetry Through the Ages
Miltonic Sonnet – Poet’s Collective
Miltonic Sonnet – Poetry Magnum Opus
John Milton – Wikipedia

Week Four: The Ovillejo

The Ingenious Gentleman Cervantes

The Ovillejo is the first form of this challenge with a lineage that can be traced back to a single well-known source: Miguel de Cervantes’ epic comedy (or is it a tragedy?) The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, better known today simply as Don Quixote (1605).

Untangling the Ovillejo

Ovillo in Spanish means “ball,” usually indicating a ball of yarn or wool. A Poet’s Glossary explains: “The word ovillego refers to a spool of thread or wool, and this complicated Spanish stanzaic form is ‘tied in a little knot’…[which] unravels in ten lines.”

Learning by Example

The Ovillejo is a complex form which can perhaps be best introduced through example. Below you’ll see an excerpt from Paul Archer’s English translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ poem, “Ovillejos” from Don Quixote, followed by the original Spanish version.

Ovillejos (Archer Translation)

What undermines all I attempt?
Contempt!
What heaps sorrow onto me?
Jealousy!
And what gnaws me through and through?
Missing you!

That’s why nothing will do
to make my distress less –
I’m killed by hopelessness,
contempt, jealousy and missing you!

Ovillejos (Original Spanish)

¿Quién menoscaba mis bienes?
¡Desdenes!
Y ¿quién aumenta mis duelos?
¡Los celos!
Y ¿quién prueba mi paciencia?
¡Ausencia!

De este modo en mi dolencia
ningún remedio se alcanza,
pues me matan la esperanza,
desdenes, celos y ausencia.

Translation vs Original

It’s an understatement to say that translating poetry in any language is a difficult task. In a form with as many requirements as this has, you’ll likely have to make some compromises. Even a non-Spanish speaker should be able to notice that Archer’s translation has preserved the original’s punctuation (excepting the exclamation in the last line) and rhyme scheme, but not the syllable count. The lesson here is you can’t rely solely on any translation to learn the requirements of a given form.

Form Requirements

Structure:
– The Ovillejo is a poem consisting of ten lines

– These ten lines are usually made up of a sestet (6 line stanza) and a quatrain (4 line stanza)

– Any number of Ovillejos can be connected to create a sequence (you’ll see here that Cervantes’ “Ovillejos” is a sequence of three Ovillejos)

Content:
– Lines 1, 3, and 5 of the first stanza must ask a question, which the preceding line (2, 4, 6) must answer

– The second stanza reflects and amplifies the first stanza

– The last line of the second stanza must be a culmination of lines 2, 4, and 6 of the previous stanza (this is known as a redondilla). The exclamation point on the final line appears to be optional

Rhyming:
– The first stanza can either be seen as three couplets, or a sestet with an aa bbcc rhyme scheme

– The second stanza is always a quatrain, with a cddc rhyme scheme

Syllable Count:
– In the first stanza, lines 1 ,3, and 5 consist of eight syllables. Lines 2, 4, and 6 consist of two to three syllables

– Lines 7, 8, and 9 consist of eight syllables in the second stanza

– The final line should consist of seven to ten syllables

If all of these rules are leaving your brain feeling like a ball of tangled yarn, here’s a breakdown:

Ovillejo Requirement Breakdown*

Line 1: a rhyme in 8 syllables (question)
Line 2: a rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation)
Line 3: b rhyme in 8 syllables (question)
Line 4: b rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation)
Line 5: c rhyme in 8 syllables (question)
Line 6: c rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation)

Line 7: c rhyme in 8 syllables
Line 8: d rhyme in 8 syllables
Line 9: d rhyme in 8 syllables
Line 10: (Line 2) (Line 4) (Line 6) (optional exclamation)

*line breakdown adapted from Writer’s Digest

An Original Ovillejo

What do we say when men oppress?
Confess!
To those who drink as others drown?
Step down!
And after we destroy the throne?
Atone!

To prove your soul’s not made of stone,
There’s nothing that you need to do
But lift your polished, deadly shoe,
Confess, step down, and atone.

Online Resources:

Top 10 Question Poems – Tweetspeak
Ovillejo – Writer’s Digest
Ovillejos – Paul Archer (Translator of Cervantes)
Ovillejo – Dark Side of the Moon
Ovillejo – Popular Poetry Forms
Unraveling the Ovillejo – dVerse Poets

Week Three: The Magic 9

Rumored Origins

The Magic 9 form is a newer form with uncertain origins (though one website states it was created by Divena Collins). The idea for the rhyme scheme is rumored to have sprung from the rushed misspelling of the famous incantatory exclamation: abacadabra!

Structure of the Magic 9 Poem

Requirements of the Magic 9 form:

– Comprised of a single nine-line stanza

– Must follow the rhyme scheme: abacadaba

– No restrictions on line length, meter or subject matter

Tips and Techniques

One way to get started is to make a list of end words.

To do this form correctly you’ll need:
– 5 a end rhymes
– 2 b end rhymes
– 1 c end word
– 1 d end word

Determine what kind of end rhymes you’d like to use. Click here for a handy guide on the different rhyme types used in poetry.

First try single-syllable end rhyme words, and then expand to two or even three-syllable words. Consider how these changes feel and how each possibility resonates within the structure of the form.

Now brainstorm around your favorite end rhyme clusters, looking for meaningful ways to bring them together.

Keep it loose at the beginning and let the creativity flow. Your internal editor is not allowed in this free-flowing creative space, so don’t stop to judge or think too critically–that’s what revision is for.

An Original Magic 9 Poem

The Stargazers

Away from the glare of the city’s light,
We follow the firefly’s flash.
Abandoning the screens that so narrow our sight,
We trace the heavens for our favorite constellations.
With galaxies and gods, all going ’round in our flight,
We lay down our blanket in a hidden patch of prairie.
In this brilliant darkness, our vision’s set right,
As the dazzling meteors slash
Across the impossible night.

Links to Online Resources:

Magic 9: Poetic Forms – Writer’s Digest
Poetry Forms: Magic 9 – Poet’s Collective

Week One: The Gwawdodyn

The Gwawdodyn

Welsh poetry — much like the language itself — often has a musical quality and emphasizes the sound of the words through the use of assonance and alliteration. The Gwawdodyn (gwow-DOD-in) is an old Welsh poetic form made up of a varying number of quatrains with strict syllabic restrictions and rhyme requirements.

Snowdon from Nantlle Valley 
Sir Kyffin Williams R.A. (1918-2006) 

Structure of the Gwawdodyn

Requirements of the Gwawdodyn form:

– Comprised of any number of quatrains (four-line stanzas)

– Usually features a 9/9/10/9 syllable pattern for each stanza

– Follows a unique rhyme scheme with matching end rhymes (a) on lines 1, 2, and 4, with a variable internal rhyme (b) on line 3:

1-xxxxxxxxa
2-xxxxxxxxa
3-xxxxbxxxxb
4-xxxxxxxxa

Variations on lines 3 and 4:

– The internal ‘b’ rhyme in the third line can be shifted to the left or right as needed, but is usually found towards the middle of the line

– One possible variation features a matching internal rhyme in lines 3 and 4, with no end rhyme in line 3:

1-xxxxxxxxa
2-xxxxxxxxa
3-xxxxbxxxxx
4-xxxbxxxxa

Other Variations

You may find other variations of this form featuring slightly different syllable counts and rhyming patterns, with the most variation found in lines 3 and 4.

Tips and Techniques

Syllable Count

The first major challenge of this form is the restricted number of syllables. If you’re aiming to stay true to the original form, count carefully and try to avoid compromises.

I usually begin by searching for a line I’ve previously recorded in one of my notebooks. As I flip through my notebooks, I search for a line that can be molded to fit the syllabic requirement and has an end word that isn’t too restricting.

Rhyming

As with any poem featuring end rhymes, you’ll want to choose these words most carefully. You’ll have some choices to make on the types of rhymes you’d like to use. A poem that uses only true, masculine rhymes (dire/fire) will have a different feel than one that uses only true, feminine rhymes (desire/retire) or one that uses only slant rhymes of either type (moon/doom) or any combination of these.

Once I have what I believe to be a workable first line, I list out my possible end rhyme words, using my first line’s end word as my guide. I almost always explore the possibilities within the true rhymes first. If these options are too limiting (and they often are) I’ll explore slant rhymes, staying as close to true as I can while aiming for maximum resonance. Once I believe I have a sufficient end rhyme word bank to select from, I’ll underline or highlight the words I feel are most resonant with the tone and theme of the first line.

An Original Gwawdodyn Poem

Sons of Abraham

Tell me all you Sons of Abraham
Spilling sacred blood for sacred land:
Do your daughters weep to see the slaughter
Of so many sacrificial lambs?

Commentary on my original poem

While there are no metrical specifications for this form, I often enjoy writing in meter, and you’ll find my poem is mostly written in iambic tetrameter.

Though this poem in its current form consists of a single quatrain, a traditional Gwawdodyn can be made up of as many quatrains as the poet pleases. I’ll no doubt explore options for expanding this work in the future.

I use a mixture of masculine and feminine rhymes. And although my rhymes are often slanted, I still match the sounds closely.

There is a great deal of assonance (long and short a sounds) and alliteration (s sounds) in this piece, which I believe is in keeping with the musicality often associated with traditional Welsh poetry.

Links to Online Resources:

Gwawdodyn: Poetic Forms – Writer’s Digest
Gwawdodyn: Poetry Forms – Poet’s Collective
Gwawdodyn – The Poet’s Garret