We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 3 (Colonialism, Romantics, and into the 20th century)

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Wrapping up our brief overview of the history of speculative poetry, this post will take us into the 20th century. Beginning in the mid 1400s, the Age of Colonialism (also called the Age of Discovery, generally by the people doing the discovering and not by the people who were perfectly happy not having been “discovered” yet) is an important moment in the history of poetry because it marks the collection of “native” works along with the creation of pro-European propaganda about those works. It also coincides with the development of the printing press, and the broader circulation of literature and literacy in general.

Portuguese, Spanish, and eventually British invaders, settlers, and missionaries* traveled the world, planting their flags. The idea of courtly love – where a virtuous, charming, and heroic man completes quests in order to win the heart of the beautiful but disdainful woman – spreads throughout Europe, screwing up relationships for centuries to come. Troubadours write and sometimes sing these poems for wealthy patrons, so popular that poets couldn’t keep up with demand, making poetry profitable for a large number of people for the first time in recorded history. The Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, invented in the 13th century, grows more popular and is brought over to England by the 16th, just in time for Sir Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare to fall in love with it and make it their own. In the midst of all this… the perfect example of colonialist speculative verse is collected and popularized: the Arthurian legends.

Sir Thomas Malory started Morte d’Arthur while in prison in 1450 and finished it somewhere around 1470. The book contains some 13th century French stories, at least one Middle English tale, plus original writing by Malory. William Caxton introduced printing to England in 1475, and in 1485 printed  Morte d’Arthur, which saw several reprintings – and changed every single time. The basics stayed the same: Arthur is the lost son of a great king, conceived and hidden through magic, rises up, unites and conquers, has mythic adventures, fucks his sister, tries to have his son killed but instead creates a nemesis, loses his wife to his best friend, and retires to Avalon when he’s near unto death. It’s recently become popular with American white supremacists**, who see a glorious, Jesus-like white man who ruled over all and brought prosperity to the land, but even in contemporary times it was used in Britain for the same purpose. The Welsh Annales Cambriae claims that in 516 Arthur was victorious in battle because he carried the True Cross for three days and three nights on his shoulders (though later works argue that it was a chip of the cross he wore in an amulet), making the British people the new Chosen of God. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 The History of the Kings of Britain paints Arthur as a man filled with so much goodness everyone just knew he was the right and true leader, but who also took over Ireland and Iceland so brutally*** that other kingdoms offered to surrender if he would only promise not to treat them the same way. This makes Arthur certain he should rule the world, so he conquers all of Europe and was about to conquer the Romans before Mordred tried to seize his throne.

The British spent several hundred years trying to get back this Arthurian empire, even though it never existed in the first place. 

Unfortunately, the colonial period is one of silencing and revision, and while it is known that colonized peoples had their own poetry (much of it purported to be speculative), we have very little extant work because it was either part of an “oral tradition” the invaders didn’t want to document, or it was destroyed in an effort to erase the culture. What was collected was often mocked, misrepresented, or used as a basis for cruel torment of the “godless savages”. In the 16th century, for example, collected Nahuatl poems were published as Romances de los señores de Nueva España (“Ballads of the Lords of New Spain”). It’s a mistake to think that English/European poetry is all that existed for these 500 years, but it’s most of what we have.

In 1566, Scottish poet George Buchanan wrote Offering of the Rustic Gods for the baptism of King James VI. Later, the Castalian Band of Scottish poets formed around the king to try to breathe new life into poetry squashed by the Reformation of the Scottish Protestant church, including “The Cherry and the Slae” which has obvious Greek myth influences. At the end of 16th century, Edmund Spenser writes in Arthur as the principle hero of The Faerie Queene, his epic poem. The poem connects the Tudors with a lineage tracing back to Arthur, giving the reigning family the “right” to claim not only England, but the whole world.

One bright note: in 1640, the epic Filipino poem Biag ni Lam-ang is first transcribed, though contemporary writers**** noted that Filipino poetry had a centuries-old tradition, beginning well before the Spanish invasion.

The medieval Irish bardic schools were extinct by the mid-17th century in Ireland and by the early 18th century in Scotland. However, the ballads themselves remained popular, with Walter Scott first printing “Thomas the Rhymer” in 1803, based on Anna Gordon writing down songs she’d heard as a child.

Orientalist poetry becomes popular in the 18th century as English authors collect and reinterpret work in Colonial India (read Mary Ellis Gibson’s anthology here). Robert Southey writes several poems about the Aztecs which invents fantastical superstitions in order to portray the difference between “good” and “bad” natives. Gothic horror appears around the same time, inspired in part by the English “Graveyard Poets”. This movement gives us Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” and  “Christabel”; Keat’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (another in the “fairy woman leaves a good man to die” oeuvre); Baudelaire’s “The Ghost”, and, well, pretty much everything else he wrote. This inspired the 19th century author and poet, Edgar Allen Poe, who left behind 71 poems, many of which are speculative.

The Romantic movement grew during this century, and with it, a return to mythic and fantastical imagery. Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market“, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and John Keat’s epic (and unpopular) Endymion are well-known examples.

At the end of the 19th century, Isabelo de los Reyes popularizes the movement of Filipino authors collecting and preserving folklore for his own people (rather than having it collected/rewritten/censored by Spanish and later American invaders). He won an award in 1887 for his book El folk-lore filipino, inspired Manila’s newspaper to solicit material from readers, and directed them on how to collect material, including the methods of documenting oral poetry. At last, the decline of the colonial period and the beginning of colonized people being “allowed” to gather up the written dreams of their own culture.

You can bookmark this link to keep up with all of my National Poetry Month posts. Next time: the 20th century.

* A word which means “I’m invading your country and taking over but my god told me to do it, so it’s okay.”

** who either ignore the inclusion of Sir Palamedes – a Saracen – and Sir Morien – a Moor – on the Round Table, or see it as proof the white man was meant to rule over the assembled “others”.

*** Arthur hated “savages” so much he wanted to destroy them utterly, and only agreed to take slaves instead of murdering everyone after “every bishop and clergyman of Scotland assembled before Arthur to give him tribute and begged”.

**** Lopez’s Arte de la Lengua Iloca, published in 1627 (probably written before 1606) discusses a study of Iloko poetry.

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