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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.