Category Archives: The Ode Less Travelled

Advent calendar: 18

This month saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. His music exists on the outskirts of the classical music mainstream, but his symphonies and symphonic poems are really wonderful. The opening of the 2nd symphony impacted me greatly when I first heard it as a teenager. It was part of ‘The Great Composers’ series that my dad collected. Finlandia, Sibelius’s best known work, contains this beautiful chorale melody that was used as a setting for the iambic pentameter of the hymn ‘Be still, my soul’. It occupies the rather risqué position of number 666 in the Church of Ireland hymnal, but it certainly contains some of the most poignant lyrics:

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
and all is darkened in the vale of tears,
then shall thou better know his love, his heart,
who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.

I played it on the organ at St Ann’s on Remembrance Sunday, 11 November, 2012. I took lessons that year from Charlie Marshall, the organist at St Ann’s. Finlandia is a good one for beginners, as it can be done effectively using just the manuals.

We also sang it at my dad’s funeral seventeen years ago this month. It was his favourite hymn.


Here’s another poem done as an exercise from Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’. It’s from the chapter on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and the apprentice poet is tasked with writing some lines on food using the alliterative principle. Each line of this type of poetry follows the pattern BANG BANG BANG — CRASH! Here’s my attempt (this should definitely be read aloud):

The serrated slicer spreads the butter.
Today it’s toast with trickly honey;
Golden and good and gloopy and sweet.
Nimbly I manipulate the knife to stop drips:
The quickness required! The requisite speed!
Twisting and turning this stainless steel cutter;
Move hastily—hesitation holds no reward.
The ground is the goal where gravity’s concerned—
It wants you to waver, it welcomes your wobbling—
But you must usurp it, exuberantly wielding
The slicing device in your vice-like grip.
This condiment, carefully curated by bees—
Those mini magicians transmuting the flowers,
Zipping and buzzing with zeal round the garden.
Alarmingly, of late they say that apiary is greatly threatened.
Bees are besieged and it’s we who are to blame;
They need a certain space, a certain freedom.
There’s a paucity of pollen in the places that we’ve built up;
Those vexing environments, their views distinctly gloomy.
“Think twice,” they’d say, “your tarmacadam tendencies are ruining
Our ability to ‘bee’ in this bud-forsaken world!”
But enough about that stuff, bees are tough and I am hungry
So it’s “Honey, you’re home!”, then it’s HHOM in my mouth.


I picked up Stephen Fry’s excellent book, ‘The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within’, after stalling with it a few years ago. All through he advocates reading poetry aloud and gives space for lots of practice.

This is one exercise—to write some lines of dactylic pentameter on the subject of cows—that I did today:

Cows are quite massive—it’s hard not to feel slightly freaked out
Crossing a field in your Wellington boots as the sun sets.
They stand around and they ruminate, watching you pass by;
You hold your head high, pretending you all know who’s boss here.