Poetry

The basic organizing principle of Syriac poetry is syllable (hegyānā) count. Although it has sometimes been claimed that stress patterns also played a role, this has never been satisfactorily substantiated. Rhyme is occasionally found in early poetry, but it is only used for special effect. The regular use of rhyme becomes a common feature from about the 9th cent. onwards, due to the influence of Arabic poetry. Acrostics, both alphabetic and spelling out the author’s name, are already found in Ephrem’s poetry.

There are two main forms of poetry: 1. The memrā, or narrative poem, employing couplets all in the same syllabic meter; the most common meters are those associated with Balai (5 syllable couplets), Ephrem (7 syllable couplets) and Yaʿqub of Serugh (12 syllable couplets, with each line consisting of 4+4+4 syllables). Other meters, such as 6+6 and 8+8 are less frequently found. Although the term memrā has been conventionally translated by Latin carmen ‘song’, memre were probably recited rather than sung; 2. The stanzaic poem, or madrāšā (often translated ‘hymn’); here each stanza (baytā) follows the same syllabic pattern (mšuḥtā). These patterns may either be simple, built up of units of the same number of syllables (e.g., stanzas of 5+5+5+5+5 syllables), or complex (e.g., 5+6 7+4 4+4 4+5). Ephrem already employs some 50 syllabic patterns, or qāle, and many more subsequently came into use; in this context the term qālā properly denotes the melody to which the madrāšā was to be sung, but the qālā title also serves as an indicator of the meter and would usually be taken from the opening words of a particular madrāšā; thus, for example, the qālā title for Ephrem’s Nisibene madrāšā no. 50 is given as a(n)t mār(y) aktebtāh, which are the opening words of no. 10 of his madrāše on Faith. According to some scholars the madrāšā was not originally sung, and it was Bardaiṣan who introduced that aspect (see McVey 1999).

Later on, terms for certain sub-categories of the madrāšā were introduced, notably qālā and soghithā. In the liturgical books qālā became a generic term for stanzaic verse. The Chronicle of Yeshuʿ the Stylite (chap. 54), composed in Yaʿqub of Serugh’s own lifetime, speaks of Yaʿqub as having composed soghyāthā (and zmirāthā) as well as memre, and indeed a few of these survive, alongside his much more familiar memre. In due course the term soghithā came to designate four-line poems with a simple meter, usually 7+7 7+7 (or, in Maron. tradition, 8+8), with or without an alphabetic acrostic. A sub-category of the soghithā was the dialogue, or dispute, poem (normally with an alphabetic acrostic), where two protagonists speak in alternating verses. This particular literary genre, taken up in many different languages of the Middle East, can be traced back to the precedence disputes of Ancient Mesopotamia, and it has remained popular right up to the present day (some examples in Neo-Aramaic dialects are known).

Two Greek poetic repertoires were taken over (as prose translations) into the Syr. Orth. tradition, the maʿnyotho of Severus and others (often misleadingly entitled the Octoechos), and the qonune, or ‘canons’. It was under the influence of Melkite translations of Greek ‘canons’ by John of Damascus, Cosmas of Jerusalem, and others, that this particular new genre was adopted in the more westerly dioceses of the Syr. Orth. tradition: qonune yawnoye ‘Greek canons’, largely translated from Greek, took as their starting point the Canticles (or Odes), while the qonune suryoye, ‘Syriac canons’, were Syriac compositions, based on Ps. 51 (and other psalms).

From about the 9th cent. Syriac began to adopt various features characteristic of Arabic poetry; most notable among these were various forms of rhyme (initial and internal, as well as end rhyme). The influence of Arabic can also be seen in many of the poems that make up ʿAbdishoʿ bar Brikha’s ‘Paradise of Eden’, where all sorts of artifices, such as lipograms, can be found; that these have continued to be appreciated is indicated by the considerable number of mss. (and several printed editions) of this work. At least one later writer composed picture poems: thus in 1616 Gabriel, metropolitan of Ḥesno d-Kifo, provided such a poem in honour of Pope Paul V (illustrated in S. Giamil, Genuinae relationes inter sedem apostolicam et Assyriorum orientalium seu Chaldaeorum ecclesiam [1902], 159).

An early classification of the qāle used by Ephrem is found in a 7th-cent. ms. on Sinai (ed. A. de Halleux, in LM 85 [1972], 171–99). The first Syriac writer, however, to write a treatise on poetry was Anṭun of Tagrit (9th cent.); this forms Book 5 (ed. J. W. Watt) of his larger work on ‘Rhetoric’. Yaʿqub bar Shakko also devotes a section to the subject in his ‘Book of Dialogues’ (ed. J. P. P. Martin, with FT). In about the 12th/13th cent. the liturgical book known as the Beth Gazo emerged, classifying the melodies used and arranging them according to the eight tones (a system that enters the Syr. Orth. liturgical tradition from about the 9th century, according to Cody); somewhat analogous to the Greek Heirmologion, the Beth Gazo provides the model stanzas that accompanied each qālā. A number of printed editions of these have been published, both in India (Pampakuda, undated, 1986, 1997) and in Europe, going back to an edition (1913) by Dolabani (Glane/Losser, 1981, 1985); and in a much fuller form, 1992, based primarily on a ms. of 1554; editions provided with western musical notation have been prepared by Nuri Iskander (Aleppo, 1996 and 2003); the former of these two volumes represents the Mardin tradition (and includes an Introduction on Syriac music by Mor Grigorios Yūḥannā Ibrāhīm), while the latter represents that of Edessa. (The musical aspects of the Beth Gazo were the subject of a number of studies by J. Jeannin, H. Hussmann, and others). Many of the texts in an early Maronite Beth Gazo (ms. Brit. Libr. Add. 14,703, of the 12th/13th cent.) have been edited by J. Tabet (Kaslik, 2001–4). (The E.-Syr. liturgical volume entitled Gazza is a hymnary of a different character).

In the 17th cent. the great Maron. Patr. and scholar, Isṭifān al-Duwayhī, set out to classify the model strophes according to their syllabic meters; this has now been edited and translated by L.  Hage (1987). In recent times the learned metropolitan of Mardin, Mar Philoxenos Yuḥanon Dolabani (d. 1969) wrote a short handbook on Syriac poetic form, published the year after his death (Aleppo, 1970); as he indicates in his preface, this is based on Anṭun and G. Cardahi’s Liber thesauri de arte poetica syrorum (1875; an anthology of late poets, with Arabic introduction).

Since verse has always frequently been a medium of instruction, it can be found used also for subjects that might surprise Western readers, such as exegesis, astronomy, chronology, and grammar.

A list of the main Syriac poets in the Syr. Orth. tradition is given by Barsoum, Scattered pearls, 35–8, where he provides four separate categories, according to their quality. His first category includes Ephrem, Qurillona, the various persons named Isḥaq, Shemʿun Quqoyo, Yaʿqub of Serugh, Yaʿqub of Edessa, Giwargi bp. of the Arab tribes, Bar Sobto, Bar Qiqi, Bar Sabouni, Timotheos of Gargar, Bar Andrawos, Yuḥanon bar Maʿdani, and Bar ʿEbroyo. To these one might add, from the E.-Syr. tradition, Narsai, Eliya of al-Anbār, Emmanuel bar Shahhare, ʿAbdishoʿ of Soba, Gewargis Warda, and Khamis bar Qardaḥe. A large amount of poetry continues to be produced in Classical Syriac right up to the present day. Finally, it should not be forgotten that a great deal of anonymous poetry, for the most part transmitted in liturgical mss., is of very high quality.

See also ʿOnitha .

    Primary Sources

    • Mar Philoxenos Yuḥanon Dawlabani, Puʾiṭuto (Aleppo, 1970). (in Syriac and Arabic)
    • L.  Hage, The Syriac model strophes and their poetic meters by the Maronite Patriarch Stephen Douayhi (BUSEK 14; 1987).
    • J. P. P. Martin, De la métrique chez les Syriens (Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, 7:2; 1879). (for Yaʿqub bar Shakko)
    • J. W.  Watt, The fifth book of the Rhetoric of Antony of Tagrit (CSCO 480–1; 1986).

    Secondary Sources

    • S. P.  Brock, ‘The dispute poem: from Sumer to Syriac’, JCSSS 1 (2001), 3–10. (with further references)
    • S. P.  Brock, ‘Poetry and hymnography (3): Syriac’, in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, ed. S. A. Harvey and D. Hunter (2008), 657–71. (with further references)
    • S. P.  Brock, ‘Dialogue and other sughyotho’, in Mélanges offerts au Prof. P. Louis Hage, ed. A. Chahwan (2008), 363–84.
    • A.  Cody, ‘The early history of the Octoechos in Syria’, in East of Byzantium, ed. Garsoian et al., 89–114.
    • L.  Hage, Musique maronite, vol. 5–7. Les strophes-types syriaques (BUSEK 42–44; 2001).
    • G. Hölscher, Syrische Verskunst (Leipziger semitistische Studien, NS 5; 1932). (reviewed by G. Bergsträsser, in Orientalische Literaturzeitung 36 [1933], 748–54)
    • H. Husmann, ‘Die melkitische Liturgie als Quelle der syrischen Qanune iaonaie: Melitene und Edessa’, OCP 41 (1975), 5–56.
    • H. Husmann, ‘Zur Geschichte des Qala’, OCP 45 (1979), 99–113.
    • K.  McVey, ‘Were the earliest madrashe songs or recitations?’, in After Bardaisan, ed. Reinink and Klugkist (OLA 89), 185–99.
    • A. N.  Palmer, ‘Akrostich poems: restoring Ephrem’s madrashe’, Harp 15 (2002), 275–87.
    • M.  Sprengling, ‘Antonius Rhetor on versification’, AJSLL 32 (1915–16), 145–216.


How to Cite This Entry

Sebastian P. Brock, “Poetry,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Poetry.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Sebastian P. Brock, “Poetry,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Poetry.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Brock, Sebastian P. “Poetry.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Poetry.

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