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Armenian Legends and Poems [1916] at

From this time, migrations of Armenians out of their own country into different parts of the world became more frequent.

Twenty years after the invention of printing (1476) a grammar in many tongues was published in France, which contains several pages in Armenian.

In 1512 the first Armenian printed book was issued in Venice. After that Armenians set up presses in various countries.

Notwithstanding the political position of the country, its poetry continued to flourish and assumed a definite character; and the voices of the poets rose continually louder and louder. This century, together with the two preceding and the two following ones, forms a flourishing age for poetry.

The chief poets of this century are:--Hovhannes Tulkourantzi, Mkrtich Naghash, Grigoris of Aghtamar, Nahapet Kouchak, Arakel Sunetzi.

HOVHANNES TULKOURANTZI (1450-1525) was Catholicos of Sis. He is a poet of the days of spring, flowers, beauty, love. He wrote also moral and religious poems, besides other things. He cannot understand how it is possible for one who loves a beautiful woman to grow old and die.

"Whosoever loves you, how can he die? How can his face grow pale in death?"

He sings of the sanctity of family life, warning his readers against the strange woman "who brings torment and grief. Even his lawful wife brought trouble to Adam; what then is to be expected of the stranger?"

He has a striking poem on Death, which he addresses thus:--

"There is nothing so bitter as thou, no venom is more bitter; only Hell surpasseth thee, and it is thou who bringest Hell in thy train. Solomon remembered thee, saying, 'Of what profit is my wisdom? Say not I am a King possessing gold and treasures.'

"Alas, O death! thou hast a grudge against the sons of Adam and thou avengest thyself on them.

"Thou didst not consider that Moses was a prophet, nor art thou ashamed of assaulting David; thou takest even Father Abraham; thou draggest King Tiridates from his throne; and thou respectest not the Emperor Constantine. 1

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"If a hero is attended by 1000 horsemen and arrayed in six coats of armour, thou shootest thine arrows at him and bringest him down, then thou castest him into prison and before the entrance thou placest a great stone."

The poem continues:--

     "Like an eagle flying far,
Forth on wide-spread wings thou farest;
     All the strong ones of the earth
In thy wing-tips rolled thou bearest."

In other poems we see his susceptibility to passion and his sense of love's power. In one of these poems he depicts 1 a bishop of 100 years old whose beard had turned from white to yellow and who, when officiating at the altar, suddenly uttered the name of a lady in his invocation before the cross.

MKRTICH NAGHASH was Archbishop of Diarbekr. He lived when the country was in difficult political circumstances. His talents were appreciated not only by Armenians, but also by the Mohammedan rulers with whom, thanks to his tact, he established friendly relations, whereby he was able to protect his compatriots from many oppressions. He built a church, which he adorned with beautiful pictures of his own painting. But, after the death of the Mohammedan princes who were his patrons, tyranny and oppression began again under their successors. He went to Byzantium to solicit aid for his suffering countrymen, but returned disappointed.

Besides his artistic skill, he was a poet of considerable merit. His poems are generally on moral and religious themes--the vanity of the world, avarice, and so forth; he also wrote songs of exile, and love songs.

In his poem on avarice he says that that vice is the root of all evil: "Kings and princes are continually fighting against one another, watering the country with blood. They destroy flourishing towns; they drive the inhabitants into exile; and spread desolation wherever they go; and all this is through avarice."

He goes on to specify other evils springing from this sin.

In the love songs of Mkrtich Naghash, the Rose and the Nightingale whisper to each other fiery love speeches complaining of each other's cruelty. Then they admonish each other not to let their passion consume them, and sing each other's praises.

This is an extract from one of his songs of exile: "The thoughts of an exile from his

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country are wanderers like himself. If his mind is wiser than Solomon's, if his words are precious pearls, in a foreign land they bid him be silent and call him an ignorant fool. His death is as bitter as his life; there is no one to cross his hands over his heart; they laugh as they cover him with earth; no mourner follows him to the grave. But I, Naghash, say that an exile's heart is tender. In a foreign land, what is sweet seems gall; the rose becomes a thorn. Speak gently to an exile; give him a helping hand, and you will expiate your sins which rankle like thorns."

These songs of exile (or pilgrim songs) are a special feature of Armenian poetry and for ages have been written by various poets. They are original and often quaint and express the feelings of Armenians who live far from their native mountains and fields, showing how they pine for the land of their birth, reflecting the natural beauties of their fatherland, and their yearning for their hearth and the dear faces of home.

In 1469 in the town of Mardin there was an epidemic of smallpox, which caused many deaths. He thus describes one of the victims: "A youth beautiful to see, the image of the sun; his brows were arches; his eyes like lamps guiding him by their light. This lovely child lay on the ground, writhing piteously, looking to right and left, while the terrible Angel of Death was busily engaged in loosing the cords of his soul. Then the boy cried, saying: 'Pity me and save me from the hands of this holy angel, for I am young.' Then he turned to his father, and asking help from him, said: 'There are a thousand desires in my heart and not one of them fulfilled.'

"The father answered: 'I would not begrudge gold and silver for thy redemption; but these are of no avail. I would willingly give my life for thine.' In the end the light of the child's life was extinguished; the lovely hue of his face faded; his sea-like eyes lost their lustre; the power of his graceful arm was cut off."

Here is a translation in verse of a poem on a mysterious Flower:--

"All the lovely flowers that were
One by one have left and gone,
One Flower too there was that went
Mourned and wept by every one.
     Sweetest fragrance had that Flower,
     Scent that filled the earth and air,
     So that all the flowers of earth
     Sought in love this Blossom fair.
Some for this sweet Flow’ret's sake
Paled and withered languidly;

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Many for this Flow'ret's sake
Blossomed like the almond tree.
     God Himself had sent that Flower,
     But all did not know its worth.
     He that gave took back His own,
     Many wept upon the earth.
And the Flower went to a place
Where all flowers rejoiced and smiled;
Flowers of many a brilliant hue
With its sweetness it beguiled.
     From its beauty other flowers
     Borrowed lustre, and they glowed;
     Every blossom in its kind
     To that Flower knelt and bowed."

GRIGORIS OF AGHTAMAR was born about 1418 and was Catholicos of Aghtamar, an island in the Lake of Van, which has picturesque surroundings fit to inspire a poet; so that it is not surprising that our Catholicos became a singer animated by poetic fire, the exponent of love and beauty--of the Nightingale and the Rose.

It is evident, from his works, that Grigoris had a great love of life. We see this especially in a poem entitled The Gardener and his Garden. The Gardener, says the poet, enters his garden every morning and hears the sweet voice of the nightingale as he examines the newly planted flowers of various colours. This beautiful spot he surrounds with a hedge, bringing stones from the river, thorns from the mountain. He has just built arbours, made a fountain, introduced little running brooks, and planted vines, when, all of a sudden, a voice utters the command: "Come out of thy garden." It is Death who beckons him out. He expostulates: "I have not yet seen life and light; I have not yet seen the fruit of the garden; I have not yet smelt the rose; I have not yet drunk my wine or filled my casks; I have not plucked flowers for a nosegay. I have not yet rejoiced over my garden."

But his prayers are not heeded; obedient to the unchangeable law of the universe, he at last capitulates to the Angel of Death.

After describing the Gardener's death and burial, the poet goes on to tell what happens to the garden after its owner has left it; the rose fades; the other flowers disappear; the hedge is broken down, and what was once a lovely garden becomes a scene of desolation.

This is his description of the face of his lady-love. He likens her eyebrows to a sword; the sparkle of her eyes to a sharp lance; her eyes to the sunlit sea. She is, he says, as straight

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as a willow; her lips are like harp strings; her teeth, a row of pearls; her tongue is sugar; and, wherever she rests, the place becomes a garden. She has fragrance sweeter than the violet of the spring; she is like a white rose, pure and sweet, like a newly opened flower; a young almond plant. Her face is red and white, like an apple of the forest. She soars high, like a daring eagle. She is brilliant as a peacock with golden feathers.

We have in this volume (page 52) a translation of one of Grigoris’ longer poems, entitled "Concerning the Rose and the Nightingale," in which it is interesting to note that--quaintly enough--the poet gives the text of a letter sent with great pomp, by special messengers, to the Rose; adding the consequence which followed, and the verbal answer returned.

The subject of the Rose and the Nightingale is a Persian one originally, but the outstanding characteristics of the Armenian versions consist in the refinements and subtleties of the feelings described, the deference paid to the Rose, and the idea of continuity and faithfulness in love. These feelings are minutely described in this beautiful poem, and summed up in the Rose's message to the Nightingale on p. 56:--

"I cannot there return immediately;
A little he must wait, in patient wise:
But if his love is perfectly with me,
Tell him to look for it in Paradise."

[paragraph continues] These ideals constitute the difference between the mentality of Mohammedanism and Christianity.

NAHAPET KOUCHAK was a fine poet of the seventeenth century. He is called the Psalmist of Love. Although there is a slight resemblance in style between his writings and those of the Persian poets, his poetry is original. The works attributed to him have only recently been published as a whole; they have been translated into French and other languages, and greatly admired. Some critics have placed him higher than Sadi and other Persian poets. (Examples of his work are given on pages 4, 5, and 31.)

ARAKEL SUNETZI was the Metropolitan of the province of Suni. He appears to have possessed a thorough acquaintance with the writings of his time. His chief work is the Book of Adam, a long narrative poem, telling the story of the Fall in the style of a romance in which theology, lyrics, heroic lays, and folklore are all fused together.

Adam, though because of his great love for his wife he was inclined to yield to her petition, yet wavered, not knowing whether to hearken to his spouse or to his Creator. "But his mind

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went with his eyes; he deserted God, but not the woman; for, without Eve, half of his body was dead, and with the other half it was impossible to live."

Among the lyrics in this book is one entitled The Rib, of which we subjoin two stanzas:--

"The rib is bow-shaped, so her face,
Sped by her looks, is like a dart;
Who gazeth on a woman's grace,
No salve or drug can cure his smart.

"And for the rib is high and low--
One side is vaulted, one is round,
Her face doth love and sweetness show
Whilst in her heart fierce hate is found."

Here is a passage from another poem of Sunetzi's entitled The Glory of the Saints, describing the Resurrection:--

     "Opened are the tombs;
Now rise the dead that long in dust have lain.
     Decked with brilliant hues,
Bright as the sun, they cannot fade again.
     While the earth, renewed,
Doth greet the Lord, all fresh and dazzling white;
     And the heavens are decked
More richly than before, sevenfold more bright.
     Then in heaven shines forth
With arms stretched out like rays, the Holy Rood.
     With the Cross appear
The hosts of fire--a countless multitude.
     Butterflies dance forth
Amongst the angels--none may mark them out."

In the sixteenth century, Turkish and Persian wars became fiercer and the Armenian history of this century becomes the record of the sufferings of the country during these wars. Poets of this period were Nerses Mokatzi, Minas Tokhatzi, Ghazar of Sebastia, Sarkavak Bertaktzi.

NERSES MOKATZI was an ecclesiastic and poet. Very few of his works have come down to us. One of the poems we have--entitled The Dispute between Heaven and Earth--is interesting. The poet begins by saying that Heaven and Earth are brothers. One day these

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brothers disputed as to which of them was the greater. "Of course," says the poet, "the Heaven is high, but the Earth is more fruitful."

He then goes on to report a dialogue between the brothers in which each enumerates his own possessions, declaring them superior to those of the other. The following is a short prose summary of this dialogue:--

Heaven. Surely I possess more than you. The stars, with their radiance, are all in my domain.
Earth. The flowers, with their six thousand colours, are in mine.
Heaven. If I withhold my dew, how will your flowers array themselves?
Earth. You derive your dew from the sea, which originates in me. If I cut off the source of the sea, how would you get your dew?
Heaven. I have something else that you have not: should I veil my sun your flowers would fade.
Earth. Oh, I will bring forth waters from my abyss to keep my flowers alive.
Heaven. The lightning and the hail could destroy your flowers if I willed it so.
Earth. I have mountains and valleys that would intercept them and shield the flowers.
Heaven. All brave and wise men are buried in your depths.
Earth. When God recalls the souls that are His, what is to be done? If I did not receive and conceal their bodies, the angels would flee from the deathly odour, and Heaven and Earth would be shaken.
Heaven. The Nine Orders of Angels are all here with me.
Earth. In my realm are the Apostles and Prophets.
Heaven. I am the Heaven of Seven Regions; the Sun, the Moon, and the Creator-God sitting on His throne all have their abode in me.
Earth. Your Seven Regions will be shaken from their foundation. The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars will be cast into the darkness and your Creator-God, with His throne, will descend to me. The Judgment will be held in my domain.

     "Heaven then bent down its head
To the Earth in adoration,
     You too, children of the Earth,
Bow to her in adoration.
     What is higher than the Earth
Praise and love bring to enwreathe her.
     For to-day we walk on her
And to-morrow sleep beneath her." 1

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This poem is interesting, as it breathes the spirit of the revival of popular poetry, with its worship of nature, beauty, and love, of which things the Earth is the personification. Hence the poet exalts Earth above Heaven. Here we see also a change of ideas. The older Christian poets were churchmen and sang contempt of the present world and concentration on the joys of heaven. This new note, struck from the beginning of the fifteenth century, gradually grows bolder, and sounds forth daringly, as we hear it in this poem, which seems all the more remarkable when we remember that its author was a priest. This is the song, not of a lover of vanities, but, rather, of an enthusiast, who loves beauty and has learnt that it is good to live on the earth, because it also contains beautiful things that are worth living for. This poem also shows the conquest of learning and science which, at the time it was written, had found their way into Armenia as well as elsewhere, perhaps through the new Armenian colonies formed in Europe and other parts of the world.

MINAS TOKHATZI, a humorous poet, lived in Poland. He wrote verses on Toothache and on Tobacco (descanting on its objectionable odour and showing how the smoker becomes its slave); also on Flies.

To convey an idea of his art, we give the substance of the last-named work:--

"The flies," says the poet, "for some reason or other, went forth to combat against me. They also entered into a conspiracy with my penknife. Knowing of this, I implored the knife not to listen to the accursed insects, who had already caused me enough pain. The attack was begun in a novel fashion; the flies came, buzzing, in gay and merry mood, and settled on my hands and arms in a friendly manner, asking me to write them something in red ink. At the same time, the penknife, playing me a perfidious trick, cut my hand. I

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protested against this treatment. The penknife justified itself by saying it had acted thus because I had told a lie. I got a few moments' rest, after this, from the flies, till, at dinnertime, I met with three of them, who announced that more were coming. The combat was renewed. During the night, the flies were relieved by their allies, the fleas."

GHAZAR OF SEBASTIA, an ecclesiastic, has fallen under the spell of some eyes " as deep as the sea." He describes the torment under which he is pining away and his longing for his mistress's arrival, like the longing of a patient for his physician. The face of his love (he says) is like glistening amber; her eyes are so bewitching, that

"The sun and moon have unto thee come down,
Lovingly on thy locks they hang, and gleam;
And clustering stars thy beauteous forehead crown,
Aflame and drunken with thy love they seem."

There is nothing known of SARKAVAK BERTAKTZI, but this poem from his pen is interesting

"O vine, you should commended be
For you are beautiful to see;
Your fruit is of all fruits most fair:--
The crown and diadem they wear.
Like strands of gold your branches spread,
Like ropes of pearl the grapes they thread.
For some are dark and some are white,
And some are red, transmitting light.
Some glow like amber in the dusk,
Perfumed with frankincense and musk.
Left us by the Creator's care,--
From Eden's fields a keepsake rare.
To us on earth you seem to be
The fruit of immortality.
To Noah you were by angels borne
His heart to gladden and adorn.
Your fruit when gathered from the vine
Unto the wine-press we assign;
Your juice like crimson roses glows
And through the press in torrents flows.
Then into jars we pour the meath,
There without fire to boil and seethe.
How many kings around you press,
Your name how many princes bless!

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The Sovereign's heart you fill with joy,
With power to conquer and destroy;
If he is wroth with any man,
And places him beneath his ban,
One drop of you immediately
Would move his heart to set him free.
The man that from his birth was blind,
Drinking of you, his sight doth find;
Of glorious cities he can tell,
Wherein his footsteps never fell.
The dumb, that halted in his speech,
To prate with fluency you teach.
More glibly than a parrot, he
Will jest and wanton dotingly.
At mass, within the sacred cup,
The holy priest doth raise you up.
Disease and pain through you will cease,
By you all sinners find release.
To town and village you are borne,
To convent, wilderness forlorn;
Where men do not your sparkle see,
No mass nor service can there be."

The seventeenth century resembles its predecessor as regards the political position of Armenia, except that the misery is even greater.


175:1 These monarchs are mentioned because they were the first Christian sovereigns.

176:1 In the Armenian Church there are two classes of clergy--the higher order to which bishops belong and who do not marry, and the lower order of parish priests who do marry.

181:1 It is interesting to compare this with a Persian poem by Essedi of Tus called a dispute between Day and Night. In the former the Earth is victorious, in the latter the Day. The Persian is essentially Mohammedan in spirit and conventional, whereas the Armenian is almost modern.

Day. By day the pious fast and pray;
       And solemn feasts are held by day.

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Night. Day can but paint the skies with blue,
         Night's starry hosts amaze the view.

Day.   . . . I am a Moslem--white my vest,
        Thou a vile thief, in sable drest.
        Out, negro-face!--dar’st thou compare
        Thy cheeks with mine, so purely fair?

        . . . The Sun is ruddy, strong, and hale:
        The moon is sickly, wan, and pale.
        Methinks ’twas ne’er in story told
        That silver had the worth of gold!
        The moon, a slave, is bowed and bent,
        She knows her light is only lent,
        She hurries on, the way to clear,
        Till the Great Shah himself appear.
                                         From "The Rose Garden of Persia."

Next: Eighteenth Century and onward