Poetry and Civilisation

A guest post by Atreya @PVNARVASV

Poetry has long been appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. Its ability to capture the human experience is unparalleled and its many forms have been utilised since time immemorial to elevate the human condition. Much underappreciated, however, is the role poetry plays in shaping, and further directing, Civilisation itself. One casual glance tells us that the oldest surviving literature, be it from Mesopotamia, Egypt, India or China, is in verse.

The transformative effect of poetry is not limited to the mind. It mythologises history: It is through poetry that the King Unas became a devourer of the Gods [1] and Gilgamesh, a King of Uruk found in himself the ability to shun the advances of Inanna, the lady of Heaven herself [2]. In rendering this mythology as sacred too, poetry comes to our help: it perfectly separates the profane from the sacred. The Shruti and its treatment of the valorous Sudasa is an example. Even the floweriest prose fails at this task.

The spread of civilisation can accurately be linked to the spread of forms of poetry linked to said civilisation. The spread of Arya civilisation can be observed, for example, in the motifs and forms that have proliferated throughout. The last poetic work of the third Sangam talks of the Lotus eyed one [3]. The Thai sing the Ramakien while the Khmer have the Reamker. In cultural borrowing, there might be a limit to the material culture, but poetry is only limited by the poet’s inspired imagination. The inspirational power of poetry is not limited to the individual, however. When Confucius sought to improve the society he lived in, he turned to the poetry of the Shang and Zhou periods for inspiration, compiling the Classic of Poetry. Confucianism later held sway in east Asia for two millenia.

Power loves beauty. Beauty is sacred and the sacred rules Men. The poet depends on patronage from a centre of power and so, poetry acts as a perfect tool to bind a centre of power, the institutions holding power and those being governed by this power. Naturally then, it is used to exalt the virtues that those holding power seek to transmit on, through awe and reverence. Poets of the Korean Kingdom of Silla wrote in Chinese. A hundred Korean envoys kowtowing to the Son of Heaven would not have been a better sign of submission.

It is keeping this in mind that one must appreciate Sri Tulsidas. In times when patronage was extended only to those who sang paeans to some lowly Padeshah, he devoted his work to Sri Ramachandra. Today, when the Padeshahs have been long forgotten, it is not an exaggeration to say that every Hindu household in the Gangetic plains treasures a copy of the Sri Ramcharitmanas.

Following through this model of power, it is possible to link the “golden age” of poetry to the “golden age” of a civilisation, as the high culture flows from state patronage. The high tide of Chinese civilisation was during the Tang dynasty, and sure enough Tang poetry is widely considered to be the best of Chinese literature. The corollary then, is that it is possible to chart the rise and fall of civilisations through the quality of poetry they produce. The poetry generated by those who build and expand civilisation would be clearly of higher quality than those who are incapable of generating beauty, for they content themselves with inverting tropes and breaking norms as if that were some achievement. Let us, for a moment, grant that the foundation of Western civilisation lies in ancient Greece.

Compare

The Dardan hero shuns his foe no more.

Sternly they met. The silence Hector broke;

His dreadful plumage nodded as he spoke: ⁠

“Enough, O son of Peleus! Troy has viewed Her walls thrice circled, and her chief pursued.

But now some god within me bids me try

Thine, or my fate: I kill thee, or I die.

Yet on the verge of battle let us stay,

And for a moment’s space suspend the day:

Let heaven’s high powers be called to arbitrate

The just conditions of this stern debate:

Eternal witnesses of all below,

And faithful guardians of the treasured vow!

To them I swear: if, victor in the strife,

Jove by these hands shall shed thy noble life,

No vile dishonour shall thy corse pursue;

Stripped of its arms alone, the conqueror’s due,

The rest to Greece uninjured I’ll restore:

Now plight thy mutual oath, I ask no more.”

[The Iliad of Homer, 22.396, Transl. By A. Pope]

and

how is it so easy for you

to be kind to people he asked

milk and honey dripped

from my lips as i answered

cause people have not been kind to me (sic)

[Milk and Honey, Rupi Kaur: The New York Times bestseller and The New Republic “Writer of the Decade”]

I rest my case.

Footnotes

[1] King Unas: Utterances 273 and 274 from the pyramid texts of Pharaoh Unas

[2] Gilgamesh: The epic of Gilgamesh, tablet VI

[3] The last poetic work of the third Sangam talks of the Lotus eyed one: Thirukkural, couplet 1103

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