Armenian poetry in the 16th and 17th centuries Armenian News Network / Groong April 17, 2017 By Eddie Arnavoudian Besides being a fine literary study Hasmik Sahakyan's `Armenian Poetry in the Late Middle Ages: 16th and 17th Centuries' (336pp, 1975, Yerevan) is an important contribution to the intellectual and social history of modern Armenian national development. Sahakyan opens by quoting Manoug Abeghian, doyen of Armenian literary historians. `The 16th century and the first quarter of the 17th were' Abeghian writes `the darkest periods in Armenian life and letters.' However he adds that `a new period of revival begins' (p6) as the hundred-year Ottoman-Iranian war, fought mainly on Armenian soil, comes to an end in 1639. In literary life this revival was a veritable cultural revolution. In an age of relative peace, economic development generated new social forces, new merchant, trading and artisan groupings as well as a new social and cultural life in their wake, headed by an emergent secular intelligentsia. In art and literature, a secular sensibility, a celebration of everyday life with folk wisdom and style singularly prominent, emerge to contest a hidebound and ascetic Church-stifled culture. In the best critical tradition poets denounce the greed and avarice of the wealthy elites that also bent the knee to imperial conquerors. As they strain against foreign occupying powers and their Armenian Church agents, these poets herald the emergence of a modern Armenian national sensibility. Significantly, a great deal of the poetry of this period was written in an evolving modern literary language understood by the common people. Albeit inchoate, a renaissance spirit and a democratization of life was abroad. Alas most of this yield was to fall foul of a Church led counter-revolution. Desperate not to be displaced by a progressive secular intelligentsia that heralded its demise, the Church jointly with Armenian elites and its imperial protectors reformed and re-imposed on cultural life its ossified ideology and dogma, as well as its socially redundant classical language. In significant respects we live with the consequences today, in the 21st century! I. The 16th and 17th century literary yield These two centuries witness a progressive emancipation of literature from exclusive servitude to the Church hierarchy. A class of writers, poets and artists, some of the Church, now create closer to the throb of the everyday life of the common people. For the first time since the 5th century formation of the Armenian alphabet, secular literature was with telling effect invading the terrain of the written and printed word hitherto reserved for Church affairs. Poets contest not just the Church's monopoly of the written word but its disdain for the lives of ordinary people and popular culture (p183, 187,188, 323). At first however, seeking a footing in the ruined post-war literary landscape, poets leant on the old, imitating past tradition with religious poetry of penance and repentance, Biblical narratives, dedications to Church rituals, funerals, marriages and births (p22-24). With religious fervour in retreat this devotional verse lacked the passion, the soul and the exaltation of earlier days. Yet among better poets - Khasbek, Tavit Saltoretzi, Galoust Gayzag - new styles, forms and images and a new language surface. Religious narratives are infused with a worldly sensibility, with images of contemporary life, with folk styles and wisdom. (p40). Christ for example is humanised, shown to be vulnerable and crying out for `his mum' (p28-30, 32). Sin is often depicted as greed for money (p40). Hymns on death, rather than celebrating the transition to paradise, regret the passing of the good life on earth. Moreover this written, still classical, Armenian is now often coloured by vernacular as it transforms into a language comprehensible to all. Whatever its aesthetic durability, a great deal of this verse that celebrated the Church, its leaders, monasteries or martyrs are also rich stores of data on 16th and 17th century social life not otherwise available. But it was the flourish of poetry of love and life that was the clearest expression of the new. Earlier abstract love poetry, brilliantly powerful in its own way, now cedes positions to earthly love between concrete, living, individual men and women possessed of carnal and erotic desire (p175, 180, 181). Women here often feature as subjects (p175). Recalling the youthful love of his wife who has died a poet writes: It was dark when she appeared with joyous smile to say: Your love has borne fruit, your plea is answered. I come as your guest to pass the night with laughter Let us eat and drink wine and feed our burning love. Songs in praise of revelry, of wine, of food and the good life abound. And in these even priests partake (p240, 248-25)! More and more Church and prayer are limited, consigned to set periods leaving time that remains for fun and celebration (p238). In a slowly burgeoning secular poetry, frequently laced with satire and comedy, the experience of the common folk and of the lower orders of the clergy comes to the fore. The most ordinary detail is deemed worthy of poetic remark - a toothache or the death of a beloved horse for example. Nature too is appropriated for men and women (p233, 237, 239). For many poets: `Nature is not just a manifestation of Divine greatness and generosity. It is not just evidence of God's creative powers that we must glorify. First and foremost it is the environment in which man/woman lives and labours (p220-226). Saltzoretsi's `In Praise of Flowers' is a wonderful example, a verse encyclopedia of one hundred flowers, a botanical delight detailing colours, aromas, the regions they flourish in and the uses to which they can be put. The secular sensibility reaches an artistic peak with Nakhash Hovnatan who urges: `We know not what the morrow brings Life is like a wild flower It blooms today and gone tomorrow So let us drink brothers'. II. The critical spirit and... The new intelligentsia was not only interested in the good life. It startles with fierce criticism of the Church clergy that controlled Armenian communities, with criticism of the abuse of wealth, of the hardships of migrant life and of forced assimilation, in the homeland and the Diaspora! In poetry that incorporates opposition to foreign oppression a new affirmation of national identity is also evident. Simon of Poland, Hagop Seretzi, Martiros of Crimea, Kossa Yeretzi, Stepannos Tashdetzi and Nakhash Hovnatan all took to task the venal, ignorant and discredited clergy. Sahakyan cites poets who `lash the senior clergy' for its `material greed, its money grubbing, its two-faced hypocrisy, its ignorance and immorality' (p75). She quotes them denouncing priests for `seeking bribes from the people' and when denied `persecuting them'. One poet writes that priests often `had no regard for the law' and `would twist it just for a bribe' (p77). The lower echelons of the clergy are not spared: 'They wear a white silk shirt And own sheep and cattle aplenty ...they Love their wine and hate wise counsel In love with silver they are miserly And always turn away from the poor.' (p76) Neither does the merchant class escape the poet's lance. Tashdetzi and the most remarkable Yeremiah Kyumurjian are outraged by the excess and decadence of the old Khoja merchant class (See Note 1) and its collaboration with Iranian tyranny. `With harsh words and angry epithets Kyumurjian `exposes their profiteering, deviousness, selfishness and materialism (p137-138)'. Tashdetzi also `lays bare their degenerate morals and individual decadence (p138)'. Ashot Hovanissian, social historian and famed biographer of Mikael Nalpantian claims in fact that Tashdetzi expressed the outlook of a modern Europe orientated merchant class at odds with the old Armenian commercial order integrated into and subservient to Ottoman and Iranian empires. Vrtanness Serengetzi and Tashdetzi mobilised reason, science and education in the service of cultural and social advance battling to vanquish ignorance, obscurantism and prejudice. Serengetzi has contempt for those `who though possessing beautiful gold leafed books could not read and moreover deny others the right to read (p90).' The book was a treasure chest of knowledge he adds, a lantern. But alas: `As one lights the lantern and raises it high Another, foolish fellow, takes it down and locks it in a chest (p90).' On a more practical level Steppanos Tashdetzi produced riddles in the form of quartets to enlighten on the instruments, tools, wares and weapons of the day also featuring the latest technology entering the country - watches, mirrors, compasses, rifles (p93). III. The revival of the nation Features of political and national renaissance accompanied the literary and cultural with poetic reflection on the plight and the possible future of Armenian communities whether in the homeland or in a growing, prospering and highly organised Diaspora. As narrative verse describes the wars, the strife, the uprooting and the destruction that had befallen Armenians, at its centre appears a consciousness of the damaging fact of Armenian statelessness. What is remarkable is the force with which poets proclaim loss of statehood as the cause of the calamities of foreign oppression, by Christian states too! Simeon the Pole perhaps protesting against the Polish Catholic Church's forced assimilation of the huge Armenian community in Poland writes: `We have no anointed Kings We have no state And so are oppressed by every nation By Christians and others' Hovanness of Mush reiterates: `Our kings died and so did our princes across the land Thus we are left leaderless with wolf and beast controlling the land (p158)' More exciting still is the critique of imperial domination that appears in two of Kyumurjians historical epics - `A Brief History of Ottoman Kings (p115) and `History of Istanbul (120). Written in common language in an almost folk tradition (p140) they reveal a hatred for the barbarisms of the Ottoman state and a consciousness of its oppression of all nationalities within the empire. Sahakyan writes that: `Kyumurjian's anti-state dispositions are clear in the facts he supplies on the oppression and persecution of non-Turkish peoples in the Ottoman Empire. He details their suffering, records the huge burden of taxes and fines that rested on their shoulders. He records religious persecution and the destruction of monasteries, churches and towns (p116-7). Kyumurjian depicts the awful polarisation of wealth and poverty with the latter sustaining the former. An extensive segment describing a royal hunt highlights the privilege and luxury of the hunters on the one hand and the wretched, freezing conditions of their servants on the other. `In the same vein' Sahakyan writes `Kyumurjian also describes the state of slaves at the slave market (p121) Whilst consciousness of Armenian social and national oppression was acute, unfortunately its visons of liberation had been deformed by centuries of stateless political impotence. The rot of dependency politics, a reliance on foreign powers for national development, had rooted itself in Armenian life and was present in this era too. It is expressed at its clearest by Steppanos Tashdetzi. An ardent Roman Catholic he urged Armenian unity with Rome as a step in securing European allies in the battle to free Armenia from Ottoman and Iranian rule. Ashot Hovanissian whom Sahakyan quotes writes that: `Tashdetzi dreamed if not of independent statehood, at least of an Armenia within the realm of a western European Catholic dynasty (p95)' As they mark out elements of a modern Armenian national sensibility these poets simultaneously register a defining historical moment in Armenian nation formation - the growing status, wealth and influence of the Diaspora as centres for the emergence of Armenian nationality. Poems speak of a class of powerful and wealthy merchants in the Diaspora (p69, 70), of trade practiced by priests (p68), as well as of virtuous priests battling against corruption, greed and usury in their midst (p62-63). Well into the future the Armenian Diaspora that they depict coming into its own will have a decisive but also a deforming effect on national development (See Note 2). As the 17th century closes the Armenian Church was in retreat on the cultural front. The modern age was beckoning. But the old order was not about to cede its post peacefully. Among the Church's dominant conservative elites this entire movement - written vernacular, the stamp of folk imagery and wisdom in poetry, the evocation of the everyday life primarily of the common people, even in religious poetry and an modern national consciousness - all this was regarded as satanic degeneration. So a reaction, a veritable cultural counter-revolution was to take place. IV. The destruction Hasmik Sahakyan does not consider the religious reaction in any detail only hinting at it with reference to poet Galouste Amassiatzi. He `comes onto the stage in the 18th century as a representative of an influential wing of `narrow-minded religious poetry (p261)'. Amassiatzi `not only retreated only from (the late 17th century) Hovanness Nakhash but from (the earlier) Mardiros of Crimea and his predecessors'. Sahakyan depicts him `distressed' because `wine was causing people to be forgetful of God' (!) and that those still attending Church did so only `to pray that God granted them wine' (p261)! A broad formulation of the cultural counter-revolution is offered by Manoug Abeghian in his `Critical Overview of Ancient Armenian Poetry (Note 3). He argues that in the 16th and 17th centuries for the first time since the pagan era there was the prospect of a dominant secular poetry. But this promising development was once again undermined by the Armenian Church determined to preserve its feudal privilege by obstructing all advance in Armenian life. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries undergoing a revival of its own the Church consolidated its religious traditions and entrenched classical Armenian against the burgeoning secular poetry that had the spoken language as its medium. With significant and worthy exceptions, it went on to dominate Armenian cultural life into the mid-19th century. For its reactionary business the Church had huge material and financial resources - monastic wealth, Church taxation of the common people, gifts from the secular merchant class. Furthermore the Church had the support of Ottoman and Iranian state power equally hostile to the emergence of new national and possibly secessionist forces. But perhaps the heaviest blow to the new forces came from Armenian trading wealth that was bonded with both the Ottoman and Iranian states and an expanding European imperialism. With a reforming Church producing a conservative, traditional but educated stratum to act as organisers of Armenian communities, the new merchant class for the moment abandoned the secular intelligentsia. It judged the historically entrenched and now reforming Church with its extensive organisational and economic network crossing Diaspora and homeland as a more reliable ally (See Note 4). Moreover, the new intelligentsia's challenge, however misty, of renewed statehood, did not chime well with wealth - old or new -integrated into Diaspora, Ottoman and Iranian imperial states. In conditions of Armenian life the Church counter-revolution was almost inevitable. Against the bulwark of reactionary Church power modern national development weak - fragmented across an occupied and oppressed homeland and a more prosperous but unstable Diaspora. In historic Armenian homelands Ottoman and Iranian oppression continued to grind down the very foundation Armenian life. Simultaneously the Diaspora, despite greater security and wealth, underwent steady integration and assimilation into host societies, voluntarily in some cases but frequently forcibly. The battle between the old and the new was unequal and was to prove costly. It is easily arguable that the renewed mid-19th century challenge led by those such as Odian, Sevajian and Nalpantian and others was too late. NOTES NOTE 1: See Leo's hard to come by `Khoja Capital: the social & political role of merchant capital among Armenians' (373pp, 1934, Yerevan, Armenia). You can read a comment on this volume at: http://www.groong.org/tcc/tcc-20070604.html and http://www.groong.org/tcc/tcc-20070709.html NOTE 2: Many of the themes and preoccupations of the poets of this period appear in Arakel Tavrizhetzi's (c1590-1670) `History'. The last in the cycle of the great classical Armenian historians Tavrizhetzi was also our first modern historian. For a discussion of the historian you can go to - http://www.groong.org/tcc/tcc-20160229.html NOTE 3: Abeghian's 1917 essay is a noteworthy attempt to explain the continuities and discontinuities in Armenian poetry over some two thousand years. It is an excellent taster to his immense and immensely valuable and sometimes hugely controversial oeuvre collected in 10 large volumes. This essay is from Volume 7, published in Yerevan, Armenia, 1966). NOTE 4: On the relationship between Church, religion and national development Within hostile occupying Ottoman and Iranian imperial states, for centuries Armenian communities survived as discrete and, to a degree, internally self-organised Christian-Armenian entities. Survival was a function of the services Armenian communities provided the imperial economy - the supply of a vitally necessary trading and artisan class. Within the Armenian community a partly autonomous Church was permitted, acting as it did as an internal domestic authority and administration. As quid pro quo the Church was also allowed to retain a significant portion of its wealth and its command of rural tax paying parishes. The religious demarcations and organisation of Armenian communities was to shape the first forms and structures of Armenian national development. New social and economic forces emerge and exist in the first instance within the bounds of a discrete Christian Armenian community. In the first instance their striving for greater social, economic and cultural autonomy takes the form of demands for greater independence for their particular Christian community, now defined increasingly as a national community. This it is that leads into `nation-building', in the first instance based within religiously defined Armenian communities. There was in addition a certain theological logic to this process! The Armenian experience of the relation between religion and national development is historically specific. Unlike Europe, the Armenian Church in its ideology, literature and history contains memory and reference primarily to a single cultural-linguistic group - that of the Armenian community. In Europe, the Roman Catholic Church crossed many linguistic-cultural-economic entities - Spain, Britain, Italy, Germany, France, as did the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thus in Europe national development required a more decisive secular break from the old Church, a process of nationalising its apparatus and canon to serve the emerging nation. But in the Armenian case, in the early period national development, religion and nationality appear more closely and organically connected, something many believe had nothing positive about it! -- 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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