Pierian Spring: 1: Ode to Erato: 9th Grade “My Culture” Poetry Main Lesson
By Alan Whitehead
Copyright Alan Whitehead & Earthschooling: No Part of this book, post, URL, or book excerpt may be shared with anyone who has not paid for these materials. Additional note by Kristie Burns of Earthschooling.
Alan speaks in a very symbolic manner in some parts of the book. Although they can be read anthroposophically, passages speaking of Atlantis, archangels, gods, etc. do not need to be taken literarily to be meaningful. I have kept the writing as close to one-hundred percent original so you will also find that he speaks of Australia often and some spelling or manners of speaking may be cultural. Any words I have changed are presented like this: <word>.
Also keep in mind that these books are written by a Waldorf teacher with decades of experience who also studied with the teacher-students of Steiner himself so he speaks to an audience that is dedicating their lives to the Waldorf method without exception. Not all of his views will be reflected in the Earthschooling curriculum and not all of them may be ones you want to embrace or are able to use. However, as I read through these passages, I am finding I can distill wisdom from even those paragraphs that do not apply to me.
We invite you to read with an open mind and heart and with eagerness to learn and discuss.
“The only poetry I remember as influencing my childhood was a few lines of doggerel about a breaking-wind competition,” said Language Teacher as she addressed the expectant audience in the small school hall. They had responded to an invitation to attend a Poetry Evening to mark the conclusion of the Class 9 Australian Poetry main lesson.
“In Steiner education we certainly hope to achieve more for the poetic education of our students than that – ha, ha!”
“Ha, ha, ha,” the audience responded. Language Teacher and her 15-year-old students had arranged a program of poems they had written during the unit. There would also be renditions of favorite Australian poems studied. One boy had even learned The Man from Snowy River right through – always a favorite. Of course all the verse would be spoken, not read. This is an artistic imperative to truly express this high art.
“After all,” Language Teacher had said earlier to her class, “if you can learn long parts for the various plays you’ve been in over the years, you can learn a relatively small bracket of poems.”
Then back to the hall she continued, “I’d like to describe the background of this 3-week lesson unit. I’ll be brief as I’m sure the young poets are all a-twitch backstage. By the way, they’ll serve you a lovely supper at the end of the show. So this was a Language main lesson, that which, of the four main lesson streams, calls on the forces of the Ego, awakens selfhood.”
“Main lessons are ‘head’ or academic expressions. In the head of the learners, that region activated super sensibly by Language is the fourth of Ego quarter, the temples, ears and upper mandible. Language consciousness occurs in these three areas according to the Body, Soul, or Spirit emphasis we employ. In our case, the region of jaw just below the ears is that of Divine Will. The highest aspiration of the poet is to express this sublime Word. Will and body are synonymous terms. Anyway, in high school, body language, so to speak.
“Ha, ha, ha,” the good-willed audience was supportive in laughing at Language Teacher’s little jokes. At least these were better than all this ‘spirity’ waffle she was going on with!
“Ha, ha – er, cough – thank you. Body language is that which is born from the soil of one’s own culture, the very land. Since we lived in Australia this means that Australian Poetry in Class 9 is the second main lesson in the Australian Literature stream from Class 8 to 12.”
“In a metaphysical sense, the land speaks through us, via our native tongue, in poetry more than any other art. As this body region of the Ego is that of the mandible, it is concerned with speech. Hence the students speak their poems rather then read them. Reading calls on the intellectual forces of the human being, this resides rather in the temples. So what really is poetry?”
“On no,” thought the parents, “now she’s going to give us a diatribe of definitions – bring on the kids!”
“From a spiritual viewpoint, poetry is the 5th Art, that which is the bridge to the experience of Spirit Self. This high faculty, still germinal in man, is the fully transformed Astral Body. Painting is the art of the astral body, so we might view poetry as a verbal expression of visual images. We had a few sessions during the 3-week unit on uniting these sibling arts. There are some of the students’ paintings on the wall. You’ll hear poems tonight on linking themes like that beautiful mauve Jacaranda over there. A student painted it, then wrote about it.”
“As the art of Spirit Self, poetry is one of the highest arts, poets are often groundbreakers in new ideas, exhibiting a level of prescience rare among the non-poetic. So in teaching poetry to these empty-vessel teenagers, we arm them with insight, expressive power and perhaps even the gift of prophesy! Ha, ha…er, any questions?”
The audience held its collective breath, then a small, bird-like woman leaned forward, “you speak of speech – hee, hee”
“There’s always one!” their cold stares seemed to say.
“What is the esoteric background to the verbal spirit of poetry?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Language Teacher’s tone went into a higher gear, “one can express the highest level of speech in this unit. There is a ‘Mars” factor in Spirit Self. In fact they are Roman/Christian equivalents in many ways. The Romans, Mars people pre-eminent and were always inspired by great oratory. Half their battles were won on the Senate steps!”
“Anyway, most of our adversarial institutions, especially politics and jurisprudence, still hearken back to this old Mars dispensation. So the students, as well as reading lots of poetry, got into the habit of learning, then speaking, special poems by heart. This braces them in their Mars soul as no other academic activity.”
In this context, they learned something of the two main declamation streams, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo, a sun god, requires language to be light-filled and beautiful. It’s concern is with style, with subtle turns-of-phrase, good grammar, and eloquent delivery. Dionysus, an earth god, has no such impediments; he instills passion in the poet/speaker, haranguing the reader/listener with surging emotions.
“Even though poetry is a ‘Mars’ art, 15-year-olds are evolving through their Jupiter year in the 7-year unfolding of the Astral Body. Jupiter is the heavenly mansion of wisdom. Poetry is surely placed among the arts to express this high human faculty. Henry (Ethel) Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom is a classic example of this. It is a story about a 15-year-old poetess. I’ve got a few of these in my class I can tell you – both Henrys and Ethels, ha, ha.”
“So poetry should elevate the human soul, not entangle it in life’s trivia – most of the time anyway. This is not to say that poetry doesn’t have its lighter side. You will hear humorous ditties tonight, the result of an exercise we did called ‘Writing for fun’. By the way, a couple of our poems are going to be published. Each student was asked to select two or three of their best, then they were shown how to prepare them for submission to publishers, both local and national, in newspapers and literary magazines. This could herald the genesis of a writing career for a couple of my super-talented students and at least provide an artistic outlet for many of the others.”
“I introduced the class to the Goddess of Poetry herself, the 7th Greek Muse, Erato (with the stress on the first syllable if you please). She is the representation of Spirit Self, her son Thamyris –a symbol of ourselves – was a distinguished bard, but like ourselves, fell for the seduction of the human Ego, egotism. He was overheard muttering that he was a better poet than the gods and even his divine mother!”
As punishment, Thamyris was struck blind and dumb and, the worst penalty for a poet, rendered talentless! Since then, we poets (yes, I write too. Specialist teachers in high school should be journeypersons in their subjects) have struggled to open our hearts to higher inspiration. It is a timeless quest to regain access to that God-given gift, poetic talent.”
Some of the audience began looking meaningfully at their watches.
“That’s tautology,” said a father “the original Greek word for poetry was poiein, meaning roughly ‘creativity’, or by extension, ‘talent’.”
“Really,” said Language Teacher “oh, of course. I knew that. Anyway, the Nine Muses are divided into three groups of three; body, soul, and spirit. Erato is the first of the three ‘spirit’ muses, those expressing higher love. She is represented with her hand on her heart to express this. This hand on heart has been a perennial symbol of the poet ever since. The heart is the organ of love of course.
“What about the other trinity said the father “that of astral body, sentient soul and spirit self? All are graduations of the same ‘soul’ principle. The muse of the astral body is Terpsichore, the goddess of dance. She of sentient soul (semi-transformed astral body) Clio, is Muse of storytelling or history. Dance, story, and poetry are sister arts.”
Language Teacher was momentarily lost for words at this scholarly intrusion “Really? Of course. These three are from the, um, same aesthetic realm. Poetry is a higher form of storytelling, which is a higher form of narrative dance. One day I invited a well-known poet in to speak to the class, and a great success it was too.”
“I had been taking a segment of each lesson to teach the technics of the art. I was teaching segments such as rhythms and rhyming, ithyphallic and idylls, hymnody and hymnology, stanzas and strophes, sonnets and sextains. Anyway, there was a certain disdain shown by some of the more Dionysian students.”
“Who could blame them,” muttered a voice from the rear.
The speaker shot a laser glare at the interjector and continued, “They thought the visiting poet would lift them to the heights with spirited renditions of his great works. But all he did was talk about technique. And how fascinating it was to learn how this knowledge builds the poetry house for the Spirit of Verse, Erato, to enter. That fixed them!
Using our new technique knowledge, we worked on a seasonal festival performance. This was based on the twelve classic Greek Rhythms, expressing (though I didn’t tell the students this) the twelve signs of the Zodiac. As well we included the Seven Planets Metrical forms.
The Twelve Rhythms were performed using a variety of drums only. I will demonstrate.”
Language teacher picked up a small bongo and began to slowly beat. As she did, she described the spiritual background to each of the cosmic twelve: boom-BOOM (short-long) iamb, Cancer the skipping rhythm; boom-boom pyrrhic, Leo running…(see list of 12 rhythms and 7 meters at end of articles).
“For the seven metrical forms (these are rather connected to inner processes, like breathing) we wrote small poems, and in some cases used examples from Australian Poetry to remind us of the mother lode of this lesson. There was movement at the station…this was a Trochaic Tetrameter, with its Sun meter – the tetrameter, and Capricorn trochee rhythm. While on Australian Poetry, I divided the subject into three sections. The first was on poems written from 1850 to 1900, with their bush ethos and swinging rhythms.”
“Then we studied poetry from 1900 to 1950. Here there was a new awareness of urban Australia with its social and political awakening. Finally we studied 1950 to the present, modern poetry, dealing with wider issues, like human rights and the environment. In short, a focus on, not stereotypes as in many earlier works, but the Individual. In the poets studied in each section, some would be looked at from a biographical aspect – the human beings who create, or embody, The Word. The poet can be a living, breathing bridge from student to poem.
An example of the poet behind the poetry would be Adam Lindsay Gordon; one of the Seven Spirits of the South as I called this group of 19th Century wordsmiths. It was they more than anyone else who cut the artistic umbilical with Mother England. It is they who first saw virtue in a ‘wide brown land’. Gordon, of Scottish origin, was rebellious by nature (a good start for a poet), and was dispatched to the Antipodes.
There his epiphany was the marvelous, light-filled bush itself and he wrote about it with passion and insight. Gordon was the first truly ‘Australian’ poet. How sad that the civilized world corralled this free spirit, driving him, at only 37, to shoot himself on a windy Victorian beach. These biographies add color and texture to the poems studied, and should be exploited by the…”
The scholarly father interjected, “let’s see if I can pick the other six of the Magnificent Seven: James Cuthbertson; Henry Kendall; Dame Mary Gilmore; Banjo Patterson; Henry Lawson; and Dorothea Mackellar.”
“Yes. That’s right. But how did you know?”
“I read accounts of all these in Alan Whitehead’s language manual The Australian Word – just like you did.”
He meant no malice by this. He just thought it might hurry things along a bit.
“I did indeed glance at it. I was interested in the Scottish dominance in early Australian (and to some degree later) poetry. This led in class to a debate on the arts inspiration for the English-speaking world, the Union Jack. This embodies the saintly trinity of George, Patrick, and Andrew, ministering respectively to painting, music and poetry. One had to steer the good ship Debate carefully through the shoals of narrow nationalism. Students called Smith, O’Reilly, and McDougal would staunchly defend their patron saints of England, Ireland, and Scotland.
However it was the last on whom we focused. St. Andrew is an inspirational source for the higher expression of The English Word which of course embraces the Australian. It’s not surprising then that so many fine English-language poets have a Scottish provenance.”
“What? The bog Irish inspire music?” called out the disembodied voice at the back, “what have they got to do with music?”
“What is the emblem of Ireland?” said the teacher sweetly.
“The harp of course…”
Language Teacher went on to describe the poets from the first half of the 20th Century. She talked about luminaries like John Shaw Neilson, C.J. Dennis (we wrote poetry for children when we were studying him), Hugh McCrae, Leonard Mann, and Kenneth Slessor. One of the student’s friends died during the unit so everyone penned a short, in many cases poignant, elegy for the grieving family. This was compiled into a beautiful book, which was received with tears of gratitude. Poetry is indeed a practical art.
We spoke of the work of the Aussie moderns, with special reference to Aboriginal and women poets. We explored names like Judith Wright, Noonoocal, James McAuley (we did a choral reading – you’ll hear it soon – on one of his poems). Douglas Steward, yet another canny Scot, is one of the great epicists. The students loved his Fire on the Snow.
Poetry, through its Seven Story Styles, expresses the 7-fold man perhaps better than any other art. First, we have the Physical Body living in the celebratory rural/nature images of the Pastoral. We often see use of the rustic or vernacular in the pastorals. They should be spoken in a warm, earthy tone because speech and content are of course brothers. Then there’s the Lyric with its Life Body connotations – right up to the Elegiacand Spirit Man. (see end of article for more details).
The class wrote a (mostly) short verse on each of the Seven Styles. The Epic was of course somewhat compacted, even though it was a collective effort, with every student penning a separate ‘scene’.
This was an interesting exercise. We heard the story of an ordinary Australian who had lived a remarkable life. Each student took an event in his biography, like childhood, first achievement, or a tragedy. We decided to use a single style, iambic pentameter, so that the whole epic would hang together. We’ll present it shortly.”
“I’ll believe it when I hear it,” said the Voice.
Language Teacher peered into the gloom of the hall, then looked at her watch, “good gracious, is that the time? We open our show with a poem, A Shower of Gold, written by one of the students. It is about the history of the glittering goldfields era. This will be performed with a Eurythmy accompaniment. Here the students, beautifully costumed in gold veils, are the massed spirits of this sublime sun substance.”
“If you don’t start,” interjected a highly agitated Voice, “I’ll get up and read my ditty on breaking wind!”
“Let the show begin.”
The Seven Story/Poetic Styles
PASTORAL (‘to feed’): Physical Body: descriptive, celebration of rural/nature ideals.
LYRIC: Life Body: ebullient, effusive, light-hearted, song-like (from ‘lyre’) – spoken in a musical tone.
ROMANTIC (‘story’): Sentient Body: personal, sentimental, visionary idealism, passionate, euphemistic, sublime, exotic, metaphysical – spoken in a heartfelt tone
EPIC: The Self: solemn, extended narrative, heroic, historic – spoken in an elevated tone
DRAMATIC (‘to do’): Spirit Self: the very essence of poetry, histrionic, triumphant, assertive – spoken in an impactual tone
COMEDIC (‘joyous dance’): Life Spirit: celebratory, humorous, overcoming of adversity – spoken in a festivetone
ELEGIAC: Spirit Man: lamenting, lacrimosal, mournful, plaintive, tragic – spoken in a sepulchral tone
The 12 COSMIC RHYTHMS
Lamb: short, long. Cancer; the skipping -rhythm – “He rose at dawn and fired with hope … “
Pyrrhic (‘person’): short, short. Leo; the fire rhythm – “Mullumbimby’s by Chincogan… “
Palimbacch (‘against the grape’): long, long, short. Virgo; the flying – rhythm – “Autumn comes with a song… “
Amphimacer (‘both ends long’): long, short, long. Libra; the thinking rhythm – “Hyperbor, land of light, long ago”
Molossos (‘dog’): long, long, long. Scorpio; the earth rhythm – “Out of dark, nameless time … “
Anapaest (‘upward strike’): short, short, long. Sagittarius; the lyric rhythm ~ “For the angel of Death spread his wings on the blast…”
Trochee (‘to run’): long, short. Capricorn; the perambulatory (perigrinatory?) rhythm – “Do not shoot us Hiawatha … ”
Spondee (‘water vessel’): long, long . Aquarius; the liquid rhythm – “West wind blows on cloud hung sky —–
Bacchius (‘grape’): short, long, long. Pisces; the dance rhythm – “Columbus set sail for the end of the planet
Amphibrach (‘arms around’): short, long, short. Aries; the speech rhythm – “There was an old man who supposed … ”
Tribacchus (‘three grapes’): short, short, short. Taurus; the air . rhythm – “Taurus; the air rhythm – “That she blows, whale at sea, northward bond…
Dactylus (‘finger’): long, short, short. Gemini; the epic rhythm – “Have you a thought for your actions now .. . ”
The 7 PLANETARY METERS
Manometer: Moon: synaptic meter; a single one of the above rhythms per line; eg. the following is a molassic manometer: For detailed exposition of Nameless time ”
Dimeter: Mercury: breathing meter; two rhythms per line. Palimbacchic Dimeter – “Stray leaves drift/ to the earth .”
Trimeter: Venus: peris taltic rhythm; three rhythms per line. Amphimacic trimeter – “Leaves of gold/ living air/ zephyrs blow.”
Tetrameter: Sun: heart meter; four rhythms per line . Trochaic tetrameter – “Leading/ downward/ to the/ river.”
Pentameter: Mars: poetic meter; five rhythms per line. Iambic pentameter – “There was/ a sound/ of rev/elry/ by night.”
Hexameter: Jupiter: kinetic meter; six rhythms per li ne. Mixed hexameter “The morning/ star paled/ slowly/ the cross/ hung low/ to the sea.”
Heptameter: Saturn: the fulfillment meter; seven rhythms per line. Mixed heptameter – “I must/ go down/ to the sea/ again/ to the lonely/ sea and/ the sky.”
*For detailed exposition of The 12 Greek Zodiacal Rhythms and 7 Planetary Meters and Poetic Styles, see the book A Children’s Anthologia