History of poetry

Poetry is the oldest, ancient and the most popular art form much older than the written form. In ancient time the earliest poetry has been recited or sung, employed as a way of remembering religion, traditions, oral history, wars, martyrdom, sociology, love, genealogy, and law. In one form or another, poetry has been around for centuries. However, the epic poem seems to be the oldest example of poetry, appearing as early as the 20th century B.C.  Centuries later other forms like the sonnet, lyric etc. appeared in the 13th century.

Poetry is generally related to musical traditions and dance. The earliest poetry exists in the form of hymns, such as the work of Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, and other types of song and hymns such as Hindu hymns and chants. So, poetry is a verbal creative art. Many of the poems surviving from the ancient world are recorded prayers, or stories about the religious subject matter, but they also include historical accounts, instructions for everyday activities, love songs, and fiction. The Mahabharata contains all types of poetry and is the best example.

The author of the first poem is unknown. However, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ who was a king of Uruk and contains about the stories of quests and adventures, is considered to be the first poem. Besides this epic, the ‘Rig Vedas of Hinduism’ and the ‘Song of the Weaver’ from Egypt are among the first poems.  The Rig Veda, Sanskrit verse composed in the ‘2nd millennium BC.’

Sanskrit literature refers to texts composed in Sanskrit language since the 2nd-millennium BCE. Many of the prominent texts are associated with the Hindu religion and its branches. i.e., Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and were composed in ancient India. In ancient period, India covered central, east and Southeast Asia. Early works of Sanskrit literature were transmitted through an oral tradition for centuries before they were written down in the manuscript form.

Many scholars, mostly those researching the Homeric tradition and the oral epics of the Balkans, suggest that early writing shows clear traces of older oral traditions, together with the use of repetitive phrases as larger poetic units. A rhythmic and repetitive form would make a long story easier to remember and narrate before writing was started. Thus many ancient works, from the ‘Vedas’ (1500 – 1000 BC) to the ‘Odyssey’ (800 – 675 BC), and the  ‘Puranas’, ‘Bhagawads’, the  ‘Ramayana’, the ‘ Mahabharata’, the  ‘ Gita’, etc  to have been composed in poetic form to aid memorization and oral transmission, in primitive and ancient societies.  Poetry appears among the earliest records of most literate cultures, with poetic fragments found on early monoliths, runestones and stelae. These were the methods to write on big stones or stone slabs.

Poetry in Africa

In Africa, poetry has a history dating back to pre-historical times. They have hunting poetry, and panegyric means, a way of praising in poetic form and elegiac court poetry those were developed extensively throughout the history of the empires of the Nile, Niger and Volta river valleys. Some of the earliest written poetry in Africa can be found among the ‘Pyramid Texts’ written on the walls of pyramids and written during the 25th century BC. The ‘Epic of Sundiata’ is one of the most well-known examples of ‘griot’ court poetry. In African cultures, performance poetry was very popular which was traditionally a part of theatrics, that was present in all aspects of pre-colonial African life and whose theatrical ceremonies had many different functions, including political, educative, spiritual and entertainment. Africans have very old traditions of poetry with dance and music.

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Poetry was a part of theatrical presentations of local oral artists, linguists and historians, accompanied by local African musical instruments such as the ‘kora’, the ‘xalam’, the ‘mbira’ and the ‘djembe’ drum. Drumming for support should not be confused with performances of the ‘talking drum’, which is a literature of its own, since it is a diverse method of communication that depends on conveying meaning through non-musical grammatical, tonal and rhythmic ways imitating speech. These performances could be included in those of ‘griots’. Unfortunately, with the arrival of Church and missionaries, local African literary traditions were either destroyed or banished.

Ancient Epic Poems

‘Speculative Fiction’ contains supernatural and unread poems. An Egyptian epic, the ‘Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor’,  is the oldest surviving ‘speculative fiction’ where a man is lost in strange-supernatural land, written in ‘Hieratic’ or priestly sermons and ascribed a date around 2500 B.C.E. Other sources mention the earliest written poetry to the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ written in ‘cuneiform’; used during Mesopotamian age, however, it is most likely that ‘The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor’ predates ‘Gilgamesh’ by half a millennium. The oldest epic poetry besides the Epic of ‘Gilgamesh’ is the Greek epics ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ describing Trojan War, and the ‘Indian Sanskrit’ epics the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’. Some scholars believe that either the Mahabharata or the ‘Tibetan Epic of King Gesar’ describing ancient legends and myths is the longest example of epic poetry in history.

Thinkers believe that the idea which makes poetry unique as a form and what distinguishes good poetry from bad resulted in the development of “poetics” “, or the study of the aesthetics of poetry. Some ancient societies, such as the Chinese through the ‘Classic of History’, developed principles of poetic works that had a system as well as aesthetic importance.

Context is important to poetics and to the development of poetic genres and forms. For example, poetry employed to record historical events in ‘epics’, such as ‘Gilgamesh’ or Ferdowsi’s  ‘Shahnameh’  a Persian epic depicting mythical and historical events of Persia, will necessarily be lengthy and narrative. Poetry used for ‘liturgical’ or public purposes in hymns, psalms, suras, and hadiths and is likely to have an inspirational tone. Elegies and tragedies are intended to invoke deep internal emotional responses. Other contexts include music such as ‘Gregorian chants’, related with Pope Gregory, formal or diplomatic speech, political rhetoric and invective,  light-hearted nursery and nonsense rhymes, threnodies to the deceased and even medical and scientific texts.

Calliope, is from Greek mythology, which is a goddess of Muse presiding over epic poetry and literal meaning beautiful voice, is the muse of heroic poetry

Aristotle’s Poetics describes ‘the three genres of poetry’, epic, comic, and tragic. He develops rules to distinguish the highest-quality poetry of each genre, based on the underlying purposes of that genre. Later three major genres were identified: epic poetry, lyric poetry and dramatic poetry. Comedy and tragedy were treated as subgenres of dramatic poetry. Aristotle’s work was influential throughout the Middle East during the so-called ‘Islamic Golden Age’, as well as in Europe during the Renaissance. But with the advent of Islam, this creative art was not allowed to bloom. Later poets and aestheticians often distinguished poetry from and defined it in opposition to, prose, which was generally understood as writing with a liking to logical illumination and global trade. In addition to a boom in translation, during the Romantic period, numerous ancient works were rediscovered. Now there are more than two hundred poetic forms.

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History and development of Chinese poetry

Poetry could not flourish much due to the perpetual violence in that area but they also contributed a bit. The character which means “poetry”, in the ancient Chinese ‘Great Seal script’ style the ‘Classic of Poetry’, which is Chinese writing before Qin dynasty,  often known by its original name of the Odes or Poetry is the earliest existing collection of ‘Chinese poems’ and songs. This poetry collection comprises 305 poems and songs dating from the 10th to the 7th century BC.

The stylistic development of ‘Classical Chinese poetry’ consists of both literary and oral cultural processes, which are usually assigned to certain periods or eras, corresponding with Chinese Dynastic Eras, the traditional chronological process for Chinese historical events. The poems preserved in written form constitute the poetic literature. Furthermore, there is or were parallel traditions of oral and traditional poetry also known as popular or folk poems or ballads. Some of these poems seem to have been preserved in written form. Generally, folk types of poems are anonymous. They have been edited or improved in the process of fixing them in written characters. Besides the Classic of Poetry, or ‘Shinjing’, (related with Buddha) another early text is the Songs of the South (or, Chuci), (an anthology of Chinese poetry) although some individual pieces or fragments survive in other forms, embedded in classical histories or other literature.

Modern developments

The development of modern poetry is generally seen as having started at the beginning of the 20th century and extends into the 21st century. Among its major practitioners are Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, (American poet) and Anne Carson, a Canadian port famous for the ‘Autobiography of Red’ in verse form.

The use of verse to transmit cultural information continues today. Many Americans know that “in 1492, ‘Columbus’ sailed the ocean blue”. An ‘alphabet song’ teaches the names and order of the letters of the alphabet; another jingle states the lengths and names of the months in the ‘Gregorian calendar’.

Some writers believe poetry has its origins in song. Most of the characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of utterance—rhythm, rhyme, compression, the intensity of feeling, the use of ‘refrains’—appear to have come about from efforts to fit words to musical forms. In the European tradition the earliest surviving poems, the ‘Homeric’ and ‘Hesiodic’ (Greek poet) epics identify themselves as poems to be recited or chanted to a musical accompaniment rather than as pure song. Another interpretation is that rhythm, refrains, and ‘kennings’ (a way of expression in old English) are essentially ‘paratactic’ (literary technique of short and simple sentences) devices that enable to recite and to reconstruct the poem from memory.

In pre-literate societies, these forms of poetry were composed for, and sometimes during, performance. There was a certain degree of fluidity to the exact wording of poems. Written composition meant poets began to compose for an absent reader. The invention of printing accelerated these trends. Poets were now writing more for the eye than for the ear.

Lyric poetry

The development of literacy gave rise to more personal, shorter poems intended to be sung. These are called lyrics, which derives from the Greek lura or lyre, the instrument that was used to accompany the performance of Greek lyrics from about the seventh century BC onward. The Greek’s practise of singing hymns in large choruses gave rise in the sixth century BC to dramatic verse, and to the practice of writing poetic plays for performance in their theatres. In more recent times, the introduction of electronic media and the rise of the poetry reading have led to a resurgence of performance poetry in the lyric genre.

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Sanskrit Literature

The Sanskrit language contributed the greatest poetry. Dramas, poems and stories were written in the Sanskrit language in ancient India. Some of the popular ones are Panchatantra, Hitopadesha, Rajatarangini, Dashakumaracharita, Mrichakatika, Mudrarakshasa, Ratnavali, Nagananda, Priyadarshika, Mattavilasa, Baital Pachisi, Singhasan Battisi (Si?h?sana Dv?tri??ik?).

Bhasa’s Svapna Vasavadattam (Swapnav?sadatta) (“Vasavadatta’s dream”), Panchar?tra, and Pratijna Yaugandharayaanam (“The vows of Yaugandharayana”), Pratiman?taka, Abhishekan?taka, B?lacharita, D?tav?kya, Karnabhara,  D?taghatotkacha, Ch?rudatta, Madhyamavyayoga and Urubhanga.

Kalidasa’s Vikramorvasiyam (“Vikrama and Urvashi”), Malavikagnimitram (“Malavika and Agnimitra”), Abhijnanasakuntalam (“The Recognition of Shakuntala”), Raghuvamsa (“The Genealogy of Raghu”) and Kumarasambhava (“Birth of Kumara”), Rtusamhara (“Medley of Seasons”) and Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger).

Kadambari is a romantic novel in Sanskrit. It was substantially composed by Banabhatta in the first half of the 7th century CE. Vedas and their Shakha, Rigveda, Samaveda, Krishna Yajurveda, Shukla Yajurveda, Atharvaveda,

Hindu Sanskrit texts are manuscripts and historical literature related to any of the diverse traditions of Shruti, namely the Vedas and the early Upanishads. Many scholars include the Bhagavad Gita and Agamas as Hindu scriptures, while Dominic Goodall includes Bhagavata Purana and Yajnavlkya Smriti.

The Smriti Sanskrit texts are a specific body of Hindu texts attributed to an author, as a derivative work they are considered less authoritative than Sruti in Hinduism. The Smrti literature is a vast corpus of diverse texts, not limited to Vedangas, , the Hindu epics, the Sutras and Shastras, the texts of Hindu philosophies, the Puranas, the K?vya or poetical literature, the Bhasyas, and numerous Nibandhas (digests) covering politics, ethics, culture, arts and society.

The Hindu texts were composed orally, then memorized and transmitted orally, from one generation to next, for more than a millennium before they were written down into manuscripts. This verbal tradition of preserving and transmitting Hindu texts, from one generation to next, continued into the modern era.

Mattavilasa Prahasana (Devanagari:???????????????), (English: A Farce of Drunken Sport) is a short one-act Sanskrit play. It is one of the two great one-act plays written by Pallava King Mahendravarman (571– 630CE) in the beginning of the seventh century in Tamil Nadu.

Madura Vijayam  (Sanskrit: ????? ?????), (English: The Conquest of Madurai), is a 14th-century Sanskrit poem written by the poet Gangadevi. It is also named Vira Kamparaya Charitham by the poet. It chronicles the life of Kumara Kampanna Udayar or Kumara Kampanna II, a prince of the Vijayanagara Empire and the second son of Bukka Raya. The poem describes in detail, the invasion and conquest of the Madurai Sultanate by the Vijayanagara Empire.

Tattvartha Sutra is a Jain text written in the Sanskrit language. It is regarded as one of the earliest, most authoritative books on Jainism, and the only text authoritative in both the Digambara and ?v?t?mbara sects. Shant Sudharas Bhavana is a famous book in Jainism written by Jain monk Vinay Vijay also called as Yashovijaya.


N.B. In this article, information has been gathered from different sources. Sources have not been given as it was a lecture.

Kindly bear this omission.

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