Poem

We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 2 (after the Roman Empire and into European Colonialism)

Read “Part 1 (beginning of recorded history through those dramatic Romans)” here.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, poetry didn’t die. In the almost-thousand years between when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus and the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta, poetry flourished all over the world. Much of the extant Latin-language work is ecclesiastical, with occasional references to “pagan” gods and goddesses. The 5th century poet Coluthus, who lived in Lycopolis/Asyut in the Egyptian Thebaid, left behind a Greek-language poem in 394 hexameters called The Rape of Helen, which tells the story of Helen and Paris prior to their arrival in Troy. It’s got nymphs and goddesses and spite, and because the author was a most likely a Christian and believed this story to be a “myth” his poem falls squarely into the realm of speculative fiction. Dracontius of Carthage, another Christian poet, also wrote poetry about “the rape of Helen” (a popular subject), Medea, Hylas, and other Greek mythic staples.

Around the same time we get the Silappatikaram, one of the Great Epics of Tamil literature. This poem begins with a precis telling the reader what is about to happen, and then unfolds the tale in three chapters. It introduces the intermingling of poetry with prose, a form not seen in previous Tamil works, and is also credited with introducing folk songs into literature. It’s the story of a wronged woman who’s husband – a guy with maybe not the best judgement or luck – gets beheaded when he’s accused of stealing the Queen’s bracelet (in order to restart his life in a new town after his “inappropriate relationship with a dancer”). The wife proves her husband’s innocence and then IGNITES THE CITY with, essentially, the glorious power of her rightness.

You can read it and more here.

In the 6th century, pre-Islamic poetry hits the big time, but was largely concerned with biographies, inter-tribal disputes, and the occasional zoological description.* In that sense, it is very similar to Greek and Roman classical poetry in subject, though with a dearth of “mythic” fiction which may be attributed to destruction by later religions or governments. Example: during this century, Musaeus Grammaticus wrote 340 hexameter line  on the story of Hero and Leander (the one where the boy from the wrong side of the straights convinces the girl to have sex with him because “the Goddess Venus would want it that way”), later considered “the most beautiful of the age”. He’s also said to have written a cute little version of “Alpheus and Arethusa”, a classic of the Greek “chase+rape=love poem” oeuvre, so there’s that. Oh, and Procopius of Caesarea, principal Western historian of the 6th century, wrote Secret History, which says – in part – that Emperor Justinian was actually a headless monster who phased in and out of reality late at night.

We also get the rise of the Welsh bardic tradition, collected in later centuries as the Book of Taliesin (named for the earliest identified Welsh poet, whose work is included). Mixed in with elegies and Christian hymns are prophecies about the future and several poems about magic. Battling trees, evil witches, princes under a curse, hounds of hell – all the good stuff. We even get the introduction of Cerridwen, the Middle Welsh aspect of Homer’s Circe. (more…)

We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 1 (beginning of recorded history through those dramatic Romans)

Last time, I talked about the earliest recorded speculative fiction poem. Before the end of the month, I want to talk about  where poetry has ended up, and where it’s going. To get there, we need to have at least a basic idea of what poetry has explored between 2000 BCE and the early 20th century. 4000 years of poetry in a singe blog post?

Actually, we need to start farther back. And, this is going to take more than one post.

Speculative fiction – the stories we tell which have not happened in our reality and contain some element of fantasy – has always been a part of our recorded literature. From the very beginning, we imagined, and then expressed those visions. But it is important to be aware that Western culture prejudices the reader to think of stories of certain gods and epic events as “myth”, while simultaneously promoting certain other gods and epic events as “gospel”. If we want to look at all of these stories as fiction, then it could be said the earliest fantasies in literature were created by Enheduanna, an Akkadian princess who served as High Priestess of moon god Nanna during the third millennium BCE. She lived in the Sumerian city-state of Ur, is one of the earliest women known from historical record, and is the earliest known author and poet.

Except – Enheduanna wrote hymns to her god. She exalted her worship in poetry and song. True, her work was revered. Copied and saved by kings, remembered, and revised 4500 years later*. It was beautiful, but to her and many of the people who came after, it wasn’t fiction. We cannot include it in this discussion without dismissing her beliefs, so we’ll mention her as a forerunner to SFF poetry in that she was an early creator of poetry, but we need to come forward in time a little to find what we’re looking for.

Around 2000 BCE, we find the oldest known love poem, a Sumerian tablet recording a “risque ballad” where a priestess asks her king to take her to bed, and then compliments him afterward. It’s possible that this was actually a performance piece instead of a personal note, and scholars have argued that the people represent gods, are taking part in seasonal fertility/agriculture rituals, and so on. Since it’s either romantic or religious (or both) it’s like the hymns of Ur: we can see the beauty in this work but can’t consider it fiction.

“Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is different because it is a narrator’s account of one person telling another person a story, and the storyteller recalls an event which could not have happened** in order to deliver a moral lesson.*** At most, it’s a parable or metaphor, but contemporary people seemed to have considered it entertainment (therefore, fiction) so it’s safe for us to do so as well. (more…)