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By James Sale

Frederick Glaysher claims to be an epic poet, and furthermore to have written an epic poem, The Parliament of Poets. This is a huge claim and an astonishing ambition. Is he? Has he? Before responding to these two important questions by reviewing his book, let me outline why I think this is such a big deal. The word epic is used very loosely, but usefully, nowadays. We might say that the film, Ben Hur, was an epic, or that some highly dangerous expedition across Antartica was epic, and this is useful because the word conveys a sense of scale and importance; but that is not what we mean when we talk of an epic poem.

To put this in context, in my view the last complete and true epic poem in the English Language was Paradise Lost written by John Milton in the 17th century, and apart from that poem there are only two others: the anonymous Beowulf from old English, and the unfinished Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser from the 16th century. Don Juan, by Byron, is perhaps a true mock epic and apart from that the only poet since Milton who has come remotely close to writing in the epic style is Keats with his two sublime, but unfinished and maybe unfinishable (even had he lived), Hyperion fragments. Yeats was an epic poet by nature and impulse, but did not write an actual epic. This brings us to the 20th century and all the phoney poets (Brits and Americans alike) claiming to write epics, “modern epics,” but doing no such thing. The most egregious example of this would be Ezra Pound and his Cantos: unreadable and undecipherable rubbish masquerading as a work of genius in the manner we are nowadays too familiar with in conceptual art and music. Indeed, only two types of people ever read the Cantos: university professors who make a career out of untangling it; and wannabe poets who write just like that (except of course completely differently – solipsism smears the pane in its own way: there’s a brown smudge, but here’s a green stain) and naturally vote for models justifying their own inanities. (As for modern epics of the “human mind” – beginning Wordsworth, Whitman et al. – these, despite their odd purple patches, seem extended and tedious forms of narcissism).

It would take me too far from this review to define epic poetry, but if it means anything the clue to its essence is in the word “style”: there is an elevation of style, the sublime is never far away despite all of man’s inhumanity to man, some value system that is profoundly important to us as people informs the epic poem’s journey; epic poems never trash what it means to be human – they raise us up. That is why Pound’s Cantos are not epic (or even poetry): they are a form of Gnosticism, and they imply a higher learning that plebs cannot access, only those “in the know.” In short, the Cantos are anti-democratic, just as Pound was. The true epics delight all intelligent peoples throughout the ages because they speak to them in a language they can understand even when that language is “elevated.”

Glaysher has structured his epic in twelve books, like Milton, but the actual model for how the work progresses is the Divine Comedy of Dante. As Dante is guided through the three levels of existence of his Catholic model, so now Glaysher in a fine conceit imagines – or envisions – himself on the Moon and being led by an assortment of poets and writers (not just Virgil) from every continent, country and clime back to the Earth some four times in order to learn lessons that prepare him to become an epic poet and actually write the poem. Indeed the poem ends like Dante’s poem does; he leaves us with the “love that moves the sun and stars”; compare with Glaysher who ends his supernal vision with “dancing/across an endless field of space and stars.” The poem is at least 9,000 lines long, and in true epic simulation has a ‘prefatory ode’ and, imitating Milton, a note on the versification; there is a claim in this that the verse approximates to blank verse, but I cannot agree that it does, although that is not necessarily a criticism.

What is extraordinary, however, is the language, and so the style. There is a curious mixture of archaicisms, ordinary language, inversions, and modern colloquial slang. A surprising number of lines actually end with either the indefinite or definite article, which I find difficult to fathom why. But the opening address in Book 1, Homeric or Miltonic in scope, gives a flavour of the archaic:

“O Muse, O Maid of Heaven, O Circling Moon,
O lunar glory of the midnight sky,
I call on thee to bless thy servant’s tongue,
descend upon thy pillar of light,
moonbeam blessings, that from my mouth
may pour at least a fraction of the love
I hold for thee, sweet blessings, for service
to God’s creation, and His Creative Word,
the Bible’s thundering verses, Brahma
of the Upanishads, Allah, the Compassionate,
Buddha’s meditative mystery,
Confucius and the Dao. O Great Spirit”

But actually, this is really good writing, moving even, and the surprising thing is: Glaysher sustains the momentum of the poem for all Twelve Books! So although I do not think the versification is regular or recurrent even in any metrical sense, he has somehow shaped a line which successfully drives the narrative forward. Further, because his vocabulary is enormous, and because he does switch so frequently from one style to another, one is never bored – the poetry stimulates. In fact is almost whacky! For example in Book 3 we get a discourse on the Greek heroes from “Bob” (Robert Hayden, Glaysher’s mentor), which is pretty classical, but followed by Glaysher’s persona reflecting:

“I thought who needs warp drive when I’ve got Queen Mab.”

It’s a strange collocation (warp drive/Queen Mab), but it works; and there are literally hundreds of these intersections between then and now, and words that bring them into focus and juxtaposition.

Thus, although Glaysher seems archaic in places, because the poetry is about such current issues that concern us—namely, the fate of planet Earth and humanity more specifically—and because the linguistics are so varied and skilful, we realise that this is a poet working for deliberate effects, and not one who has only read poetry from 300 years ago. One fabulous quality of this poem is its clarity and luminous quality. I love the fact that despite the wide ranging topographical and lexical references this poem is easy to understand and follow: it is a poet writing for people, not one trying to be clever, and not one concealing their lack of poetry in obfuscation.

I take the view, therefore, and surprisingly to myself, that Glaysher is really an epic poet and this is an epic poem! One can hardly congratulate him enough, then, on this achievement, since it has been so long awaited. Of special interest to members of The Society of Classical Poets is Book 6. Keep in mind, the journey of the poet from Earth to Moon and back again involves visiting all the continents on Earth and engaging in dialogue with all the poets across all time. Book 6 covers China and much of its sentiments will ring a very pleasant note with supporters and followers of Falun Gong: there is a fabulous expose of political corruption in China, with lines like:

“The Marxists have proved the worst in all
of human history. Insatiable lust for blood.
Only university professors in my country
continue to worship at their sanguine shrines.
They always claim it’s ‘for the people.’
but never get around to asking them
what they want. Duty and heaven forgotten.”

Please note too the arch humour against the U.S. university professors who still argue for Marxism; there is actually a lot of humour in the poem. Thematically, too, it is epic: it is about the survival of the human race, despite—Dante-like—facing the full horrors of human history. It could be argued that in places the language is clichéd, but given the length of the poem the idea that every line and image could be “fresh” and concrete is as absurd as F.R. Leavis, the famous English critic, 70 years ago slating Milton because his language wasn’t “concrete” like John  Donne’s; in other words, Leavis completely missed the point of epic and how to write one: if every line had to be imaginatively engaged with, then we’d never get beyond Book 1. Homer knew the dawn was rosy, so no need for a fresh metaphor every time the dawn was introduced.

Finally, then, having accorded Glaysher what I conceive to be the highest honour in poetry (to be an epic poet), I ought to point out what I perceive to be two shortcomings in this amazing work. One is aesthetic and one is theological.

First, aesthetically, whilst the work kept my interest from beginning to end, and is full of curious and inventive situations, I think it does suffer from a lack of dramatic tension. Although the poet suffers (indeed is mutilated at least twice: losing his head at one point, and having his heart ripped out by Octavio Paz at another!), there is never a sense that he can actually die or lose everything, apart from the laurel of being a poet. It is one dialogue after another – interesting yes, but not really dramatic in the way that Homer, Virgil, and Milton are dramatic. Of course, as Dante is the model, then perhaps that is not surprising: even Dante can hardly keep up the tension in his endless dialogues as he ascends. I personally have yet to meet anyone who thinks the Purgatory and the Paradise superior to the Inferno; and of course Dante’s poem benefits from the tighter topography of three imaginary locations. There is a gain but also a dilution in having the Glaysher’s persona visit all the continents – a sort of dissipation of effect.

More seriously, perhaps, as a weakness of the poem is my theological objection to it. In Book 8 he says:

“Milton shall guide you from here on your
pilgrimage through ancient and modern times,
many peoples, revealing their creeds as One.”

Tennyson then challenges him with:

“What are you doing for the Federation
of the World?”

So what we have is the problem of the world’s sufferings to be solved via federation (great in the USA but try the European Union for starters!) and through what the persona clearly believes is the ‘oneness’ of all religious beliefs. There are of course no practical solutions as to how this might be achieved, but in this fervent hope there is a strange paradox: basically, Glaysher offers a sweeping critique of modernism and the modern world, which I largely agree with. Further, I love the fact that he invokes and even believes in the Muse—how antiquated can you get? But at the same time he seems to swallow one of their most pernicious falsehoods, one so dear to so many liberals and bleeding hearts: namely, that all religions are one and teach the same thing when you get down to it. Syncretism in other words. Yes, there is a sense in which one can track similar ethical and moral principles across some religions, but any deeper acquaintance really produces the opposite impression. And common sense tells us that one doesn’t become a Buddhist because one thinks it’s the same as being a Catholic; one becomes a Buddhist (or any religious type) because one believes it to be a superior path or way to the truth of reality, else why would one convert at all?

Given this superficial understanding of religion, I think there is a failure to address the deep philosophical issues that derive from them and drive human behaviour for good or ill. To mention two specific areas that are glossed over within the poem, but are core dramatic points, say, in Milton: can human beings save themselves (there seems to be an underlying assumption that they can in Glaysher’s poem) or is salvation (or to use another religion’s term for this: nirvana, for example) bestowed as an act of grace? Religions, indeed sects, really do differ on this question and it is fundamental to how we behave. Or take another one: predestination and free will. These questions are really superficially covered in Glaysher’s poem, but in Milton the whole power of the narrative comes from understanding the freedom of Adam’s (and Eve’s) will and exploring every avenue of what freedom of the will means; there is that wonderful prelude in hell where even the devils are debating the issue—fruitlessly!

Thus, Glaysher has written a masterpiece, but a flawed one. He should take heart, however, as most critics seem to think Paradise Lost is a flawed masterpiece. You just can’t please everyone. I strongly recommend Frederick Glaysher’s poem and hope he will find a larger readership for it. It is real poetry and we need to support real poets wherever we find them. I only wish he could be English—but there you go—he’s an American, and he’s written the new epic. Congratulations, Frederick Glaysher. I look forward to reading more of his work.

 

The Parliament of Poets: An Epic Poem. Hardcover ISBN: 9780982677889. Earthrise Press, November, 2012. 294 pages. There’s free shipping in the USA, UK, EU, and Australia, processed within 24 hours, from Earthrise Press, with printers also in Milton Keynes, UK, and Scoresby, Australia. It is also available on Barnes & NobleAmazonKobo, and their global affiliates, e.g., Amazon.caAmazon.ukAmazon.in, etc. 

 

James Sale, FRSA is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 40 years and has seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. He can be found at www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivational maps.com. He is the winner of Second Prize in the Society’s 2015 Competition

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7 Responses

  1. Profile photo of Reid McGrath
    Reid McGrath

    James:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I haven’t read this alleged “epic” yet — so I can’t say whether I agree with you or not — but you make some valid points and make some insightful observations on the style and form of Glaysher’s work. Your penultimate paragraph was my favorite; and I agree with your critique of the poet’s theological stance therein.

    Some of my favorite lines were:

    “The true epics delight all intelligent peoples throughout the ages because they speak to them in a language they can understand even when that language is ‘elevated.'”

    “Homer knew the dawn was rosy, so no need for a fresh metaphor every time the dawn was introduced.”

    “Given this superficial understanding of religion, I think there is a failure to address the deep philosophical issues that derive from them and drive human behaviour for good or ill.”

    Nice work.

    RM

    Reply
    • james sale

      Thanks Reid for your very thoughtful response to my essay on Frederick Glaysher’s epic. One day we’ll meet up and have a really good chat about Milton and beliefs and I am sure it will be mutually illuminating. Keep up your own excellent writings.

      Reply
  2. Damian Robin

    Hi James, a great appraisal and high honours given. I noticed the Parliament of Poets is from 2012 so I looked the author up and found on the web many who’ve given the book great praise like you.
    https://www.fglaysher.com

    You mention the 6th Chapter covers China. It will be interesting to find which poets he contacts or comments on.
    You talk of his critique of the CCP and the part you quote is very truthful and welcome.
    As you do not say more I would assume Mr Glaysher did not mention Li Hongzhi in the poem.
    Mr Li is alive today and writes poetry in classical Chinese language using many classical poetic forms from many dynasties. He uses many short forms.
    However, he’s mainly seen as the spiritual leader of Falun Gong which you mention in your review.

    His poetry is broad and deep with powerful images. There are images that click with many apocalyptic visions. And they have a coherent insight that can be seen at different levels (as you might say).

    Three books are published in Chinese and there are two standard translations of the first two books into English.
    There is one main translation of the third that is a collection of lyrics as well as poems. Many are addressed to people alive today in the cataclysmic events which have been unfolding for a long time.

    The translations are anonymous. There is no attempt to jazz the originals up. Nor to conform to Chinese forms. They are made to make the originals accessible to non-Chinese speakers.

    They are still powerful though some knowledge of where Falun Gong fits in the world is useful.

    They are available online. Let me know if you want any links.

    Thanks for your review of the epic poem and of Jose Garcia Villa’s book. I hope the (over-worked) President of the society of Classical Poets gets to make an Essay Section on the website.

    Reply
  3. james sale

    Thanks Damian for your informed comments and special interest in China. I will be quite honest here: I am pretty ignorant of Chinese poetry and find the idea of ‘translating’ poetry difficult to come to terms with. Indeed, I think one has to think of translation more as a re-casting into another medium in, say, the way that Peter Jackson re-cast Lord of the Rings when he made a film of the book. When film versions are ‘literal’ – as the Harry Potter sequence more or less is – the result is dire. To think in English, to be metrically sensitive in English, is clearly not to think in Chinese; that said, I’d welcome your links, because good translations can do something to convey the spirit of what is being said. Regarding Book 6 of the Epic, Glaysher mentions Sun Wukong, Du Fu, Bai Juyi and from thence to Korea and Japan. Here are some lines from it you may like: “The poor are so oppressed, I can find no words/to describe it. I clutch my head wondering/how to convey it. Lhasa and Tibet/have almost been wiped from the face of the Earth./The suffering of China knows no bounds.”

    Reply
    • Damian Robin

      Hi John, BIG apology – I thought I’d clicked the ‘Notify me of follow-up comments by email.” – Maybe I had but maybe that is only for comments directly on my comment so I should have ticked “Notify me of new posts by email.” Tho I thought that ‘new posts’ there referred to what the CP.org editor does.
      Let me know if you know.
      I only found out a few days ago that you had replied (and Lew had posted). So Big Appleologies.
      You’re right about needing more on the epic. There’s a BBC programme about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. It’s in blank verse and I think she called it a novel (but don’t quote me). http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0745d37
      The poem can be found at
      http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barrett/aurora/aurora.html

      There’s also a funny – Hudibras by Samual Butler. A quixotic tale from the 1600s.
      http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4937?msg=welcome_stranger
      Interesting that Butler may have had a direct contact with Cevantes’ (epic) novel so early. Apparently Shakespeare wrote a play (with another person who I can’t remember right now) about one of the sub-stories in Don Quixote. This has been lost. I s’pose these guys were in court and talked to Ambassadors and travelers, so heard of the stories if not having written translations.

      RE Translations, I agree whole-heartedly that a translation is another being than the original. It brings up for me the purist idea of people saying they have read Homer or other foreign writer when what they mean is they’ve read an assimilation by another person (usually unnamed).

      Thanks for saying who the Chinese poets in Glaysher’s work are. Actually, Sun Wukong is the Monkey King. The book he’s from is usually called Journey to the West. Arthur Waley did a popular (abridged) english translation called Monkey. It’s one of the four classic Chinese novels (tho the number four remains the same, I find which novels are in the box often change – on the web, anyway.)

      Re Li Hongzhi’s poems, the originals of Hong Yin 1 can be gleamed at:
      http://gb.falundafa.org/chigb/hongyin.htm
      they are short and have a drawing with each of podgy buddhas and bodisatvas (usually female) and flying maidens (and probobly other devine beings that I don’t know the names of).
      The text is simplified Chinese – the form of Mandarin bowdlerized by the CCP. They wanted to go further and change the written Chinese language to pinyin.
      Although a lot of traditionalists would want to use traditional characters as they do in Taiwan, the majority of literate mainland Chinese only know simplified so a lot of Falun Gong materials are in this form to be accessible.
      And the other … different things in English:
      Version A http://en.falundafa.org/eng/hongyin/v1/hy.htm
      Version B http://en.falundafa.org/eng/hongyin/v2/hy.htm
      A and B are not for ‘apogee’ or ‘best’, just different views. As stated, they’re anonymous.
      To get personal in public: my email is
      damianrobin@blueyonder.co.uk We’re meant to be connected on LinkedIn but I don’t use that often.
      And I’ve ticked both boxes this time.

      Reply
  4. Lew Icarus Bede

    James Sales has done a service to the Society of Classical Poets site with his brief analysis of of Frederick Glaysher’s epic The Parliament of Poets. He first discusses the epic in English literature, with the assertion that John Milton’s Paradise Lost was the “last complete and true epic in the English language.” It certainly was the most profound and influential; and I would argue with Mr. Sales that it is the best as well. Mr. Sales looks at earlier works as well, Beowulf in Old English alliterative verse and Edmund Spenser’s unfinished Faerie Queene in Spenserian stanzas. Though it is unfinished, in many ways it is more satisfying than the rugged anonymous epic and more colourful than Milton’s epic. Spenser’s work is more in tune with the romantic epics of Ariosto and Tasso. Glaysher, I would say attempts a diluted Miltonic line with some of Ariosto in tow, the mixing of realism and fantasy, as well as an imaginative trip to the moon.

    Mr. Sales also mentions Byron’s Don Juan, as a mock epic, akin to Alexander Pope’s mock heroic poem The Rape of the Lock. All three writers, Milton with blank verse, Pope with his heroic couplets, and Byron with ottava rima (in the manner of Ariosto and Tasso), strove to find the line best suited for their epical works. Keats in his abandoned epic Hyperion used blank verse, Barlow in his Columbiad used heroic couplets. With the rise of the novel in the 18th century, there came a flood of narrative poetry in the 19th century, positioning itself, almost in lieu of the epic in works, like Longfellow’s Evangeline, where he attempted unsuccessfully an unrhymed dactyllic hexameter. [By the way, as far as I know, all attempts in English unrhymed dactyllic hexameters in the manner of the ancients have been a failure, since Spenser’s time down to ours.] Southey in his Thalaba the Destroyer wrote in irregular stanzas of unrhymed lines. And failure to find a settled line has dogged epic writers ever since. I agree with Mr. Sales that Ezra Pound’s attempt The Cantos was a failure, I would say, in part just because of that, the inability to find the longed-for line. Like Walt Whitman in Song of Myself before him, or William Carlos Williams in Paterson, he tried free verse. Following the iambic pentameter tradition, both Browning’s 21,000 line poem The Ring and the Book, as well as Hart Crane’s The Bridge, also seem to have floundered short of “true epic.” The Postmodern epic I most admire is Michael Lind’s The Alamo, where he chose a rhyming stanza, the rhyme royal, introduced by Chaucer in his Parliament of Fowles, and in four of his Canterbury Tales, which is an epical work itself of sorts. What I like most about Lind’s work is its reliance on an historical point of view. Esiad L. Werecub was so impressed he wrote a rather sloppy 1200-line epyllion Theseus, using Plutarch and following Lind’s example. But Lind’s stanzas, like Werecub’s, and like Glaysher’s lines, are chockablock with metrical sloppiness. Not only does it take a great spirit to write an epic, like all of these writers have shown, but it also takes great artistry; and that is why John Milton’s Paradise Lost is such a treasure. But even his epic is a failure of sorts (as I insist that all poetry is), and I think the young Keats had a glimmer of that. By the way, the work of Keats I most admire is his 42-stanza The Eve of Saint Agnes.

    On a final note, we are lucky at the Society of Classical Poets, because even Mr. Mantyk himself has impressively floundered against Homer’s Iliadic shores.

    Reply
    • james sale

      Thanks Lew – I think we are in agreement about most things here, as I happen to think Paradise Lost the greatest epic ever written, for as Dr Johnson observed: ‘whoever flew so high for so long?’ Although he also went on to say that it couldn’t be accorded first status because it wasn’t the first, meaning thereby that the laurel went to Homer. Fair enough! I shall look out for Lind’s work, which I am not familiar with, but I am impressed by your leisurely dismissal of the pretenders who ‘flounder’ and are ‘sloppy’. I would not call Glaysher sloppy; I simply have given him the benefit of the doubt as I cannot fathom his metrics, and decided it was better not to make that the issue. For the issue is always – with epic – not form alone, although without form there can be no poem – but spirit: the spirit of elevation, of sublimity, of transport to that higher world which is not visible till the poet enables us to experience it. It is difficult to describe it, although not difficult to recognise when it appears. I think Glaysher has gone further than most, but he – and all the members of the Classical Poets Society – will have an enormous task getting the mainstream to accept this as poetry: hey, man, it’s about something, for one thing – they can’t have that. Nihilism, solipsism, subjectivity, chaos rule, OK? I love the Eve of St Agnes, a masterpiece, but prefer the two Hyperion fragments, which are both sublime. What is staggering is that somebody who was at most only 26 could write with such assurance; truly amazing. Again, thanks for your contribution. Perhaps we need more on the epic.

      Reply

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