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On the Nature of Poetry
An Appraisal and Investigation of the Art which for 4,000 Years has Distilled the Spoken Thoughts of Mankind
By Kenneth Verity
Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) LtdCopyright © 2007 Kenneth Verity
All rights reserved.
The Ancient World
The so-called 'Ancient World' was the place where very early examples of poetry originated. Mesopotamia (with Assyria to the north and Babylonia to the south) was the geographical region where the square-tipped reed was busy and clay tablets were receiving the cuneiform impressions of poetry some 4,000 years ago.
Epic of Gilgamesh
The most famous of all Sumerian rulers was Gilgamesh, who ruled at Uruk around 2700 BC. A series of legends accrued to his name, one of which developed into a superb early work of poetic expression.
Originally composed in the Sumerian language (c2000 BC), the Epic of Gilgamesh was eventually inscribed on clay tablets (in their own tongue) by Babylonians, Hittites, and others. The hero of the epic, Gilgamesh, was purportedly a king of ancient Erech who sought to gain the secret of immortality. An account of his travels, which was widely known in its time, includes the story of a cataclysmic flood. In its details which are recorded on Tablet XI, it bears a striking resemblance to the biblical story in Genesis. There is however a major difference. In the epic the deities inflicting the flood are, somewhat improbably, impelled by annoyance at being disturbed in their sleep by noisy mortals – in contrast to the God of the Hebrews who acts from moral disapproval. The most complete version of the great myth is the Akkadian copy. Its tablets were found in the library of the Assyrian monarch Assurbanipal.
Here are some lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh taken from Tablet XI:
Utnapishtim said to him [Gilgamesh]:
I will reveal to you, Gilgamesh, a hidden matter –
It is a secret of the gods that I will tell you.
The secret to be imparted is, in fact, an instruction:
Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubar-Tutu,
Tear down your house, build a ship!
Give up your possessions and seek life.
Despise property – keep the soul alive!
Take aboard the ship the seed of all living things.
The epic goes on to describe a flood of cosmic proportions, a deluge that inundates the Earth:
The gods were frightened by the deluge;
They cowered like dogs crouched against the wall.
Ishtar cried out like a woman in travail –
The sweet-voiced mistress of the gods moaned aloud.
* * *
On Mount Nisir the ship came to a halt –
The mass of rock holding the ship fast.
For a fifth, and a sixth day – Mount Nisir held the ship fast
Allowing no motion.
When the seventh day arrived,
I set free and sent forth a dove which later returned.
* * *
Then I released and sent forth a raven.
The raven departed and seeing the waters reduced
Began to eat, circle, caw and did not return.
Then I released all creatures to the four winds
and offered a sacrifice –
I poured a libation on the mountain-top.
Based on a translation by E.A. Speiser
To the west of Sumer lay Ancient Egypt, where many poets were at work. Nothing now remains with which Egyptian religious poetry can be compared; Babylonian (the only contemporary poetry) is entirely different in concept and viewpoint. There seems no doubt that from the earliest times in man's history, poetry of many kinds existed – as an oral tradition. There is no known record of a true poem in Egypt until the Sixth Dynasty. Egyptian poetry uses four main poetic elements in common use at the time:
1. Parallelism of members, that is repetition of the same idea in different words, for example: 'Thy word is a lantern unto my feet and a light unto my path.' Its chief Egyptian use is in epithets applied to the Deity: 'King of kings', 'Lord of lords', 'Ruler of rulers'.
2. Rhythm was used, but because the Egyptians wrote without vowels or vowel-points, it is difficult to know where stress should fall.
3. Alternate solo and refrain. When used in religious poetry, it is often in the form of a litany with the priest chanting solo and the people answering with a refrain in chorus. Such litanies are found in the early Pyramid Texts. (Psalm 136 is a good example of a similar litany used later in the somewhat derivative Hebrew religious poetry.)
4. Paronomasia (play on words or punning) occasionally occurs in Egyptian poetry, but the absence of vowels makes it difficult to recognize.
Rhymed verse and alliteration are unknown in the poetry of Egypt.
The Pharaoh (Amenhotep IV) who ruled from 1379 to 1362 BC, single-handedly attempted a total reform of Egyptian religious and political life. He replaced the multitude of deities of traditional religion with just one – the Sun God Aton – and changed his own name to Akhenaton ('the servant of Aton'). The image worshipped is frequently described as being the 'sun disc', yet the inscriptions make it clear that the Aton was regarded by the king as being the creative force of the Universe that was manifested by the sun. The god itself had no image. To make his changes more effective, and to elude the influences of the priests at the royal court of Thebes, Akhenaton moved the capital to a new location – known today as Tell el-Amarna. His sweeping and revolutionary religious reforms gave rise to a new lightness, naturalism, grace, and elegance in art. But these reforms were not to last long. The belief in a single god, who ruled the Universe, threatened the priests who had a vested interest in preserving the old polytheistic traditions. As a result, after his death, Akhenaton's successors branded him a heretic and fanatic, excising his name from any monuments that had survived him. These upheavals prepared the ground for a new tranche of fine poetry. It was during this period of the New Kingdom (1570-1185 BC) that a remarkable work of poetry was composed. To give some flavour of the theology behind the change, here are some lines from the beautiful Hymn to Aton found on the walls of the tomb of Eye:
You appear full of beauty on the horizon of heaven –
You, the living Aton, origin of life!
When you are risen on the eastern horizon,
Every land is filled with your beauty
* * *
When you are set beyond the western horizon,
The land is in darkness – as though in death.
* * *
Darkness is a shroud; the earth is in stillness,
For he who made it rests in his horizon.
At daybreak, when you rise at the world's edge,
When you shine as the Aton by day,
Darkness is dispelled as you give your rays.
* * *
Creator of seed in women,
You who make fluid into man,
* * *
You are life-force, you your very self,
For we live only through you.
Based on a translation by J.A. Wilson
Egyptian religious poetry is almost entirely anonymous. An exception is the Hymn to Thoth by Haremheb, a professional writer in the Court of Akhenaton:
Hymn to Thoth
Praise to Thoth, child of the Sun, as Moon arising in beauty,
Lord of brightness, Light of the gods, all praise and worship are thine.
* * *
Judge of mankind to whom the laws of the gods are entrusted for enforcement.
* * *
Obtaining truth at the Weighing of Souls, you weigh every heart in the balance;
Just and exact are the scales of the Lord, facing the doer with the deed.
* * *
Time and Eternity wait upon your Word,
The Word which abides for ever.
Translation from the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology
Poetry and the Biblical Tradition
One of Egypt's geographical neighbours on the shores of the Red Sea was Israel. The earliest Hebrew poetry dates from the period 1350-1090 BC and is largely Egyptian both in outlook and form. From the year 1000 BC to 961 BC King David was on the throne and it was around this period that the formation of the Scriptures into written form occurred. It was the beginning of the Iron Age in the region; during the reign of Solomon the iron-tipped plough was developed and the armies used iron war chariots. This era was the height of ancient Israel's cultural power. After the death of Solomon a civil war resulted in the split of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) away from the Southern Kingdom (Judah). At this time a major body of poetry was about to be brought together – the Psalms of David.
The Psalms are believed to have been compiled around 950 BC. The 150 psalms in the Bible are Hebrew poems composed, for the most part, to be sung at religious ceremonies, or services, in Solomon's time. This ancient Hebrew poetry has a characteristic and distinctive style; its essence is parallelism. Parallelism means, very simply, that a thought expressed in a line (or a series of lines) is re-expressed in different words in successive lines. It is a common device in chants and other ritual pieces. Antithetical parallelism is where the idea expressed in one line is contrasted in its successor. The very first poem in the Psalms uses both types of parallelism:
Blessed is the man
that walks not in the counsel of the wicked;
nor stands in the way of sinners,
neither does he sit in the seat of scoffers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
That law on which he meditates day and night.
He is like unto a tree
planted by a river of water
yielding its fruit in due season.
Such a tree is of a leaf that does not wither;
In all he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so;
but rather, are like chaff driven away by wind.
The wicked shall not survive the judgement,
neither will sinners flourish in the congregation of righteous people.
The Lord knows the way of the righteous;
He will ensure that the way of the wicked shall perish.
Based on the translation in the Authorized Version
In the Old Testament, after the wisdom of the Proverbs and the strictures of Ecclesiastes, comes the majestic poetry of Solomon's song.
Song of Solomon
The Song of Solomon, one of the books of the Old Testament, is a love idyll, sometimes interpreted as an allegory of the union between the Deity and the body of His followers.
We will be glad and rejoice in thee,
We will remember thy love more than wine;
Those who are upright love thee. I (iv)
I have compared thee, O my love,
To a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariots. I (ix)
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples:
For I am sick with love. II (v)
The flowers appear on the earth;
That time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. II(xii)
I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
By the roes [bucks] and by the hinds of the fields,
That ye stir not up, nor awake my love,
Until he please. III (v)
Thy breasts are like two young roes that are twins,
Feeding among lilies. IV (v)
Awake, O north wind; and come thou, south;
Breathe through my garden that its spices may
emit their fragrance.
Let my beloved come into the garden,
To taste the pleasing fruits. IV
Make haste, my beloved, thou who are
Like unto a roe or to a young hart
Upon the mountains of spices. VII
Based on the translation in the Authorized Version
In whatever way the import of this poetry is interpreted, its beauty of imagery is superlative.
The theological culture of Israel would provide the ethical ideal of a tradition that was to persist for some 3,000 years. The development of poetry, however, was to continue elsewhere – beyond the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea – in Greece. The earliest great era of poetry in which we might expect to find master poets at work is the thousand or so years in which the Greeks and Romans evolved their civilizations. An approximate but convenient representation of this period (which was pervaded throughout by Greek influence) is set out below:
Development of Greek and Roman Culture
Prehistoric or Heroic Age c3000-700BC
The Greek Period c700-325 BC
The Hellenistic Period c325-90 BC
The Roman Period c90 BC-AD 50
The Roman Empire cAD 50-AD 450
Early Byzantine Period cAD 500-AD 600
An examination of the Graeco/Roman periods in greater detail is helpful since they formed the context within which some important poets were at work. The next figure expands the outline of events in the Prehistoric Period:
General Historical Events – Prehistoric Period
Bronze Age 3000 BC-
Fall of Troy.
Dark Age -1000 BC
Collapse of Mycenaean Empire.
Iron Age, also called Heroic Age 1000 BC-
Development of Iron Age
culture at Athens.
Greeks begin colonizing in East
First Olympic Games. 700 BC
1 Mycenae lies in the north-east corner of the Argive plain, nine miles from the sea; the name Mykene is not Greek but Carian. The city was first inhabited at the beginning of the Bronze Age (3000 to 2800 BC), but the culmination of its power and prominence occurred between 1400 and 1150 BC.
2 Between the years 900 and 700 BC the Homeric epics Iliad and Odyssey were being compiled.
3 During the 8th century BC Hesiod's Works and Days and the Theogony were composed.
Throughout the first era (Prehistoric or Heroic periods) the most outstanding literary achievements were the works of Homer and Hesiod.
Homer the man is an entirely unknown poet. The date by which his great poems received their final shape is conjecturally put somewhere between the 12th and the 9th century BC. The Iliad is an epic of warfare and debate full of energy, splendour, and tragic pathos. The charm of the Odyssey emanates from its narrative account of wondrous adventure, its descriptions of social life, and certain scenes of tender and delicate beauty. The two epics are different but akin in that their heroes and principals are presented as ideal men. Moreover, both stories combine divine and human action. Homer was essentially an oral poet whose writing is imbued with freshness and simplicity. His sureness of touch is maintained at a high level and his work has the dignity and finished eloquence necessary in the literary epic. Matthew Arnold (1822-88) summarized the Homeric style as, 'swiftness; plainness in thought, nobility of diction'.
Excerpted from On the Nature of Poetry by Kenneth Verity. Copyright © 2007 Kenneth Verity. Excerpted by permission of Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 THE ANCIENT WORLD,
2 THE GREEKS,
3 THE ROMANS,
4 POETRY IN THE SHADOWS,
5 HUMANISM AND SPIRITUALITY,
6 THE RENAISSANCE ENTERS ENGLAND,
7 METAPHYSICAL POETRY,
8 IDEALS AND DREAMS,
9 A FRESH LYRICISM,
10 NEW APPROACHES,
11 DIFFERENCES WITHIN UNIVERSALITY,
12 SUBSTANCE AND FORM,
13 POETRY'S FIGURATIVE ELEMENT,
14 THE POET AND HIS FACULTIES,
16 THE NATURE OF POETRY,
Index of Poets,