Review: The Parliament of Poets by Frederick Glaysher, Earthrise Press, 2012
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.
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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 C17th, 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 C16th. 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 C20th 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 tosh 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 in humanity 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’.
So 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 9000 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.