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.

“The Story of Sinuhe” appears in Egypt around 1900 BCE, and was written in verse form and also performed. It’s a narrative, like “Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, and was so popular during this time that parts of this story were integrated into later texts, including the Bible. The stories – including many important details – of Joseph’s life in Egypt, Jonah’s flight from God, and David’s slaying of Goliath all appear first as part of Sinuhe’s life story (Sinuhe the Egyptian flees to Syro-Canaan and becomes a member of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Egyptian family, slays a larger opponent with a single blow, etc). The fantastical elements of this story are largely symbolic, so we could consider this an epic biography more than a work of speculative fiction, or categorize it as “magic realism” like many 20th century works.

Around 1000 BCE we get the first written texts of The Epic of Gilgamesh (known originally as Surpassing All Other Kings and later as The One Who Saw All) which was probably an oral story told as early as 1800 BCE. Gilgamesh, a king, has a chance to hook up with a goddess and decides that he’d rather seek immortality instead. He doesn’t get it, and rather regrets having turned down the goddess who loved him, but he did see the world and come home with a story to tell. Like the other works mentioned above, it’s written in verse. Same as Sinuhe’s story, it was so popular in its own time that pieces of it were retold, rewrote, and absorbed into other tales (it’s where the biblical authors lifted the story of Noah from, for example).

Between the Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC) and the Spring & Autumn Period (770-476 BC),  the Shi Jing (also known, in English, as the Classic of Poetry) was collected in China. This anthology contains 305 poems composed of four-character lines ( 四言), rather than the five and seven character lines typical of later Classical Chinese poetry. (Shi poetry would go out of style after Confucius – even though he recommended it and was said to have edited a version of the Shi Jing – not reappearing until the Han dynasty.) The collection includes folk songs and poetry written by ordinary people to courtly poetry and religious hymns. From an introductory note to the Virginia University edition by C. Ming Lung:

Some describe emotion, feelings and situations of people from different classes of society, some report events and matters of state, some depict the harmonious rule of nature. There is record of about one hundred kinds of plants and trees and ninety kinds of animals and insects in ShiJing. Different kinds of musical instruments, metals, arms and munitions of war, buildings, clothing, food, etc. are frequently mentioned.

You can read that translation online here. They are mainly historical and religious odes, though some lines are at least metaphorical if not entirely fictional. It’s also a hugely influential work in Chinese literature, and certainly affected later work which was more strictly speculative.

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey appear around the 8th century BCE, and like The Epic of Gilgamesh and the shorter “Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, are adventure stories which mix some real events with religious imagery and pure fantasy. Some much-loved and oft-stolen moments from these tales include Circe, the which who turned men into animals (a big favorite of medieval Welsh poets), Nausicaa, who represents possibly the earliest example of unrequited love in fiction and who intercedes with her father to get Odysseus what he needs, and Achilles.

The Roman period gave us a great many poets, and their work included satire, comedy, and fables. They also seem to have invented “the artiste”, and the practice of both holding poetry readings/wanting to kill the poet doing the reading.**** They used speculative fiction to invoke and mock “pagan” gods, describe every woman they ever wanted to fuck as if she were a goddess of unparalleled beauty*****, and impossible visions of people, places, and animals which could not exist. Ovid put the Latin language into Greek form, and used it to write Metamorphoses, a fantasy so popular that the knowledge of it was still being used to mark you as an educated person into the 17th century.

Oh, and he popularized the idea of romantic love, too.

Next time: world poetry before Britain and Spain tried to colonize it all.

(Read more in Part 2, here.)

* Betty De Shong Meador, Inanna: Lady of Largest Heart (2001) and Princess, priestess, poet: the Sumerian temple hymns of Enheduanna (2009).

** It’s possible that the sailor really did meet a giant talking snake who gave him gifts and courage. It’s more possible he saw a giant snake (given that large creatures did exist as occasional remnants from a time before humans killed them all off) and/or the dead bodies of a group of giant snakes, thought of his own family, and was inspired by the threat of death to invent a story which would appease his king, and that later put him in a position to retell those events to his new master. Most likely: the servant never was a sailor-shipwrecked sailor-lone survivor-met a giant talking snake-received gifts and wisdom-miraculously found at sea by another ship-brought back to his own kingdom to tell his story to his king-given gifts and servants of his own-somehow lost power and was demoted to personal servant to a sea captain-in a position to retell his life story to his new master after his master went through a similar but less miraculous situation. Instead, he was a servant, knew that he needed to give his master courage because if the boss was executed, maybe he would be too, so he told a good story, maybe borrowed from one he’d heard before, and everyone felt better.

*** Richard B. Parkinson (2002) and Ludwig D. Morenz (2005) argued that the Middle Kingdom texts which represented a move into literature of entertainment/intellectualism (instead of religious and educational) were largely transcriptions of earlier, Old Kingdom, oral stories. “Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” may be as old as or older than Enheduanna’s hymns, but we can’t know for certain.

**** Yes, really.

***** This is also true.


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