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The Critical Corner - 01/26/2009

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A TASTE OF MEDIEVAL ARMENIAN POETRY - PART ONE

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

January 26, 2009


I. FRIK (C 1230-1310) AN EARLY SINGER OF SOCIAL PROTEST

One is not geared to expect much from Armenian medieval poetry. The
Mongol crushing of the Armenian Bagratouni royal court in the 11th
century and the predominance in Armenian life of a declining Church
that had made its accommodation with conquering invaders left little
room for the flourish of art and culture. Art however, as an effort of
the imagination and as a concentration of energy and intellect, has a
way of overcoming, at least sometimes, objective limitations and of
flourishing outside the sphere of securely privileged elites.  The
Armenian poet Frik was among those who overcame and produced poetry
that not only surprises pleasantly, but takes one aback by its
vivacity, its charm, its force and its critical challenge.

There can be freshness to poetic verse whose language and idiom are
now remote from our own.  Word and phrase can ring unusually clean and
significant when the language used is a touch unfamiliar and compels
the reader to register their meaning afresh.  This is additionally so
when such verse is combined with acute sensibility and ambitious
vision. So it is with Frik who uses a delightful, musical medieval
vernacular as he ponders his personal misfortunes and hopes and the
troubles of his time. Critics and commentators are right in
appreciating that with Frik we have a spectacularly free critical
spirit in an age generally overwhelmed and subdued by the authority of
religious dogmatism and obscurantism. An important element of Frik's
critical challenge is the denunciation of the social inequalities and
injustices of his age that gave `to one a thousand horses and mules'
while `to the other not a single lamb or a kid'. Frik's poetry is also
a protest against foreign conquest and subjugation of the Armenian
nation at a time when `the Tatar became King, seized everything,
honoured the thieves' and so reduced the `peoples lives to misery and
slavery.'

But singular focus on the social and national aspect of Frik's work
risks repetitiveness.  This red carpet in his honour has been rolled
out in full by the better Soviet era Armenian commentators. There is
however value in reiteration, but to escape tedium it must root itself
in our own contemporary preoccupations and so seek also for as yet
undisclosed dimensions. Here the best of Frik's poetry, and even that
of his more orthodox religious preoccupation, can readily be rooted in
our own times burdened with injustice, poverty, oppression and
immorality. But Frik offers more besides. His poetry reveals a daring,
a readiness to challenge authority and expose the oppositions between
the word and the deed of the powerful who appear beyond answerability.
As the poet puzzles over the often arbitrary destiny that `one day
puts us on a golden chair' and `the next reduces us to ashes on the
ground' his verse becomes also an existential philosophical
preoccupation that contemplates those misfortunes and inequalities
that are a result not of social arrangement but of nature and birth.

Frik was singular in another respect - he was a layman poet in an age
when men of letters and of the arts were overwhelmingly men of the
Church. He was of course a devoted Christian. Yet in his verse even of
religious counsel one detects a certain radical dimension. Frik saw in
all human misfortune the ineluctable hand of an omnipotent and
omniscient God and so urged reconciliation with divinely ordained fate
even though this was not generous. But he simultaneously questioned
Divine intention and protested against the ill fates prescribed for
human beings.  `Listen to your servant' he asks of God for `I have an
issue to debate with you'. After listing much human suffering he asks
- and was all this with your permission? To the Divine's apparent
indifference to human suffering Frik pleads `You know, we are not
statues made of steel, our bodies are of flesh...'  Acutely aware of
social and national oppression in Frik's religious devotions one also
notes that as resolutions to human misfortunes he demands not charity
and compassion but equality and freedom. That this insistence is
professed in name of God and to need to escape eternal damnation does
not matter at all.



II. GOSTANTIN YERZNGATZI (1250-1310) - POET OF LOVE, MERRIMENT AND SONG


Gostantin Yerzngatzi's poems of nature and its seasons, with its
springtime birds and flowers, its budding trees and its greening
fields are celebrations of the return to life of love and laughter. It
is poetry of song, dance and merriment and is particularly refreshing
in its recall of what is now another world for us urbanites today, a
world in which the seasons mattered so much more to how we experienced
life, a world in which the stamp of winter was often harsh and cruel
whilst spring a liberation and a pleasure as `the birds ascend the
skies in flight to bless the God of all.'

Gostantin is regarded as a major poet and rightly so. He is one of the
earliest truly moderns with images and metaphors that have a magic and
a depth more significant than the literal meaning of the words and
phrases that construct them. In much medieval poetry words well used,
alone or in combination with rhythm, sound and context, appear as
effective representation of external life and nature. With Gostantin
they in addition summon our relation to nature and our emotional and
psychological experience of love that `is like the breeze of spring to
my parched flower'. For Gostantin, his lover possesses overwhelming
force and is a veritable `sultan of the flowery garden'. The lover
becomes `the temple of my soul and heart.' Gostantin's poetry reflects
in addition on the significant role of inner, spiritual inspiration in
artistic creativity and on the relation between education and
inspiration in this process.

Only 27 of Yerzngatzi's poems survive, but the best stir our emotion
and sensibility with their depictions of love between men and women
that is told in metaphorical dialogues between birds and roses. In a
poem that describes the nightingale perched upon the rose there is
even a hint of sensuality as it also captures something of the sense
of the infinite that love momentarily gifts its hosts. Conscious of
mortality and its finiteness, the rose declares however that `if even
they press the waters from my heart and enclose me in a bottle to sell
me as rosewater I still will have the aroma of immortality.'

Soviet era critics, who did so much to recover and publish Gostantin's
works and those of others, continuing a pre-Soviet tradition that
contributed to the Armenian national revival, rightly note the central
role of light and love in this verse. Noting that light and love
animate life and are symbols of vitality and energy, Avtalpekian adds
that in Gostantin they are focused with a force that verge almost on
pagan worship.  Interestingly Hovanness Toumanian also judged that the
recurring themes of light, of brightness and sun in medieval Armenian
poetry and religious hymns indicate the enduring legacy of Armenian
pagan culture.

There is a social dimension to Gostantin's poetry. Some of it displays
discontent with the moral uncertainties, the confusions and the lapse
of principles that sees us `buffeted about in the sea with neither
captain nor ship.'

In accord with the spirit of the time these are expressed in Christian
terms, but in their relation to and in the context of his poems that
celebrate the pleasure of life his moral poetry appears as deeply
humanist condemnations of the lying, arrogance, cheating, duplicity,
hypocrisy that Gostantin witnessed. His was a world in which `the
ignorant is proclaimed wise and just, while the wise denounced as
weak', where the `soulless and the spiritually ill' disguise
themselves `with dress that is beautiful and bright'. How apt for our
own day!  Where Frik denounces social exploitation and national
oppression, Gostantin takes issue with the unacceptable morality that
governed the social relations of his time. As a corrective he urges
the deployment of independent judgement and thought rather than blind
submission to ignorant authority.

In the passion of Gostantin's moral preoccupation one notes a
significant affinity with 20th century Barouyr Sevak, an affinity that
is worthy of further consideration. Though one must refrain from any
final judgement one can certainly risk adding that this 13th century
devoutly Christian Armenian man and poet also has universal affinities
and in particular with the 17th century English metaphysical poets. Of
course they are different and in qualitative ways to boot. But
together these Christians in tandem with poetry of moral counselling
also wrote beautiful hymns to life's loves and the passions between
men and women.

Read Part Two:

--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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