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A Brief But Enjoyable History Of Poetry Part 1.

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

the epic of gilgamesh

Now I can't take any great credit for knowing too much of this stuff before I set about writing this article. I did possess though great desire to gain a clear understanding of where and when poetry came into existence, and what it's journey has been from it's origins to the present day. So I'm going to attempt to concertina several thousands of years into several thousand words; forgive me if not everything is perfect (I would love to learn from your feedback).

The common understanding is that spoken poetry considerably predates written poetry. Humans have passed down the histories of their ancestors through the telling of stories since time began, most commonly through prose, but the rhythm and rhyme of song and verse was a more reliable way of helping people to remember those stories.

The first known written poem is thought to be 'The Epic Of Gilgamesh', which was written on clay tablets in the Sumerian language and dates back to around 2000 BC, although it was only discovered as recently as 1853. It is quite literally an epic tale, written across 12 separate tablets, it tells the story of the King of Gilgamesh and tackles a vast range of subjects such as friendship, immortality, death, male-female relationships, city versus rural life, and the relationships of humans and gods.

There are several other key epic poems that can be found in ancient African, Chinese and Asian history, such as the Mahabarata and the Ramayana, the latter of which has become a vital component in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Perhaps the Greeks are the most notorious for their ancient poetry, and indeed the poet Homer and his most infamous epics The Iliad and The Odyssey.

It's clear then that the poetic form was a valuable tool in the re-telling of stories that were intended to be preserved and remembered.

There is then a seemingly large gap between ancient epic poetry and what is thought to be the more modern history of poetry. This is most likely because the Holy Roman Empire clamped down on artistic and creative expression and so poetry went underground, and very little of what was created has survived.

Across the World though a poetic movement was taking shape that would influence and inspire a total poetry revival. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, born in 1207 in present-day Afghanistan, would go on to create a huge body of work that would influence creative expression, and life in general, in every way. His profoundly deep, spiritual poems would transcend cultural, political and religious boundaries, and Rumi is considered one of the most successful poets of all time. (His work is truly beautiful and powerfully transcendent, I truly recommend you spend some time with his work.) This excerpt below from the poem This We Have Now, dating back over 700 years, is prescient in dealing with themes that have only recently been re-considered within the spiritual/self-realisation world.

This we have now is not imagination.
This is not grief or joy.
Not a judging state, or an elation, or sadness.
Those come and go.
This is the presence that doesn't.

Rumi's work travelled far and wide and was then responsible for influencing groups of troubadours - men and women from France, Spain and Italy - who travelled around Europe re-telling their stories in the form of poems and songs. This became quite a large movement in the mid thirteenth to fourteenth century, although it's most respected masters were Bertrand de Born, Guillame de Machant, Christine di Pisan, and Marie de France.

The Italian Renaissance was beginning as a direct response to the creative repression of the Holy Roman Empire and the ensuing period of creative limbo known as 'The Dark Ages' . The Renaissance was a period of great creativity and spiritual expression. There was a great hunger to learn, to create and to better oneself, and this resonated well with the meaningful and uplifting poems and songs of the troubadours. A group of Sicilian poets began to create a style of writing, often centred around the theme of love. They worked initially in a popular verse style at the time known as the canzone, until a poet called Giacomo de Lentini developed the style further into what became known as the sonnet. The sonnets came to the attention of the now infamous Italian writer and poet Dante (his Divine Comedy is one of the most famous books of all time), and Dante used his influence to spread the word about this form of poetry. By the time the Renaissance was in full swing, almost 100 up and coming poets were out plying their trade throughout Europe.

In the next part of the series we will start to discover the likes of Thomas Wyatt, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.

If you haven't read the previous parts to my Understanding Poetry series you can check them out here.


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