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Classic epic poetry in many languages

October 19, 2014

N.B.: In some ways, this post is a follow up to this previous post which lamented the loss of musicality in most modern languages.

Like many people educated in the United States, I have felt at times that my education in poetry was sadly lacking. Identifying the cadence of a work from only seeing the words in print is not a skill I was taught and hence it does not come easily to me if at all. Yet like my wife recently pointed out to me in a conversation about poetry, it is as much about the sound of the words as about what they mean. Without the rhythm and inflection meant to be conveyed, the richness of the language is often lost and in some cases even the meaning of the poetry changes. While I admit that my appreciation of poetry is not exactly robust, I started at some level to get the idea of it in of all things a lecture on Roman history and culture.

In both Classical Greek and Roman cultures, indeed throughout the ancient world and well into the modern era, poetry was by far the most popular form of literature. The bias in literary output and popularity is simply unmistakable.  That makes modern cultures like those of the English speaking world the outliers. Thus, why was poetry so wildly popular and why isn’t it so popular now? In many ways, the assumptions of the question are dimply misleading. For a few reasons, historical, cultural and philological, English and many other modern languages are unusual in making a distinction between poetry and song lyrics. That distinction has allowed for a number of remarkable innovations within music but downplays or even loses altogether the musical qualities of language.

While that may suffice to deal with shorter poetry, it potentially ignores the role of longer especially epic poetry. These works were typically recited by bards, minstrels, troubadours or other traveling performers whose recitations of poetry were viewed as today one might view a popular musician‘s concert given on a tour. Similarly, the works of Shakespeare are written in verse; these plays would have been to an extent sung, much like more modern opera if not necessarily in that style.

A good number of these classic epic poems can be found in the original online. Sadly the people qualified to properly perform them are long dead. While I hope to create a more extensive page for this blog listing far more, here are a few:

The themes of the stories are varied.

From → Reading Matter

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