New Light On The Ancient Origins Of Poetry And Song

A Cambridge researcher has rewritten the history of the origins of song. A singular text has revealed modern poetry began hundreds of years earlier than was previously believed.

A 2nd to 3rd century poem has come under the spotlight. A Cambridge academic had discovered that the set lines were widely reproduced in the eastern Roman empire. And because lines are “stressed,” it suggests they may have laid the phonetic foundations for what we enjoy today as poetry.

Casting New Light On Origins of Poetry And Song

The lines of ancient Greek text begin with “They say / What they like / Let them say it / I don’t care.” The anonymously written text then concludes with the line “Go on, love me / It does you good.” According to an article on the Cambridge University website, the new research into this text is set “to cast a new light on the history of poetry and song.”

The Cambridge article says the lines “were popular across the eastern Roman empire in the second century.” So much so was this the case that the lines of text have been found inscribed on 20 gemstones, and as a graffito in Cartagena, Spain. For the first time, Classics professor, Tim Whitmarsh, compared all known versions of the text to reveal the new findings.

The ancient Greek 'stressed' poem inscribed on a cameo on a medallion of glass paste (2nd to 3rd century AD). (BHM Aquincum Museum and Archaeological Park / Péter Komjáthy /Cambridge Classical Journal)

The ancient Greek ‘stressed’ poem inscribed on a cameo on a medallion of glass paste (2nd to 3rd century AD). (BHM Aquincum Museum and Archaeological Park / Péter Komjáthy / Cambridge Classical Journal )

The Origins Of The Stressed Syllables

Professor Whitmarsh, whose paper on the text has been published in the Cambridge Classical Journal , noted that it uses a different “form of meter” than is usually found on ancient Greek poetry.

“Meter” is the basic rhythmic structure of a line within a work of poetry comprising the number of syllables and the pattern of emphasis on them. Unlike all texts before it, “They say / What they like / Let them say it / I don’t care,” employs both stressed and unstressed syllables.

An article in The Guardian quotes Whitmarsh saying ancient “stressed” poetry is the ancestor of all modern poetry and song. He also said that until now it was thought that stressing was unknown before the fifth century. It was generally agreed among historians that until the adoption of stressing, poetry in the ancient world was “quantitative” (based on syllable length) an that the technique was developed and used in Byzantine Christian hymns.

Professor Tim Whitmarsh at the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, Greece. (University of Cambridge)

Professor Tim Whitmarsh at the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, Greece. ( University of Cambridge )

Manifesting Popular Words On Gemstones

The researcher says it has been known for a long time that there was “popular poetry” written in Ancient Greek. However, most the poetry that survives are the works of traditional high poetics. Differently, this short poem is representative of “a distinct and thriving culture.” The professor explains that ancient Greek culture was primarily oral, but that the most popular sayings made their way to artisans workshops where they were carved onto a number of gemstones.

Whitmarsh said the text demonstrated that Greeks didn’t need specialist poets to create “musicalized language.” While the lines of diction are very simple, the researcher says this was clearly “a democratizing form of literature” offering what he says is an exciting glimpse of a form of oral pop culture that lay under the surface of classical culture. In conclusion, with its lines of four syllables, with a strong accent on the first and a weaker on the third, Whitmarsh believes the verse could represent a “missing link in ancient Mediterranean oral poetry and song, thus, the text is, so far unparalleled in the classical world.”

Origins of Poetry, Song….and Rock ‘n’ Roll!

The best-preserved gemstones upon which the ancient poem was inscribed was worn on a necklace by a young lady in what is today Hungary, but they have been found as far afield as Spain and Mesopotamia. Whitmash  wrote in his paper that he believes these gemstones were mostly bought by people from the middle ranks of Roman society , and that they functioned similarly to a modern “quote T-shirt,” or bumper sticker.

Not only does this new finding push back the earliest appearance of stressed poetry by some 300 years, but it may have associations with modern music and song. The scientist says the lines have “a sort of magnetic rhythm to it, four beats to the bar, a stress on the first beat, and weaker stress on the third beat.” The professor says these same patterns can also be identified in “rock’n’roll and pop music as well.”

Top image: The poem preserved in a graffito from an upper-storey room in Cartagena Spain (2nd to 3rd century AD) is throwing light on the origins of poetry.            Source: Image courtesy of José Miguel Noguera Celdrán / Cambridge Classical Journal

By Ashley Cowie


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