(CE:1985a-1986b) POETRY. Coptic poetry is essentially religious poetry. Its setting is the life of the Coptic church. Poetry enriches Coptic liturgy and plays a part at religious festivals, edifying, teaching, and exhorting the people. The poetry preserved for us in the manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries has been studied with great thoroughness. Its form has been analyzed and its content examined. The results are summarized in this article.
Coptic poetry knows no rhyme; the only exception to this rule will be discussed below. Its arrangement is strictly speaking not metrical but rhythmical. Each line of poetry has a certain number of accented syllables. Only the number of accented syllables is fixed, while the number of unaccented syllables varies. There are generally four lines to a strophe, but there are also strophes of three and five lines. A strophe is often followed by an antistrophe that balances form and content, thus completing a stanza. For instance, a symbol may be expressed in the strophe, while the antistrophe provides the interpretation. Similarly, a general proposition may be followed by a specific reference. Comparisons, contrasts, and questions and answers may be set out in this way.
Coptic poetry was not spoken but sung or chanted. Thus any unevenness of rhythm due to the varying number of unaccented syllables within the lines of a strophe could readily be accommodated. No actual tunes have come down to us, but in a number of cases the melody to which a poem was to be sung is indicated by the initial words of the tune quoted at the beginning of the poem. About fifty such tunes are quoted in the surviving corpus of Coptic poetry, and in a few cases the model that gave the tune its name has also been preserved. Some of the poems composed in the tenth century are semidramatic compositions, not unlike oratorios in character. The narrative part of the story may have been taken as recitative, direct speech by soloists, and a refrain by the people.Sometimes such a composition was preceded by an introduction. But the parts were not always allotted in the same way, and, as far as can be seen from the surviving examples, there was much freedom in the general arrangement of such works.
Although the content of the material surveyed here is uniformly religious, there is much variety. Biblical themes, both from the Old and the New Testament, abound. Often a biblical story is paraphrased in poetic form; sometimes it is elaborated and glossed.
But it is not only the stories about famous biblical characters that attracted the poets' attention; they also paraphrased sayings from the Psalter and particularly from the Wisdom Literature, a literary genre that had already attained popularity in ancient Egypt. There is also a poem that has for its subject matter verses from the Song of Songs with a Christian interpretation. Similarly, many themes are taken from the New Testament, for instance, John the Baptist, the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, and the archangel Gabriel's message to the Virgin Mary. There are poems on the passion of Jesus Christ and Easter hymns. In addition to poems on biblical characters, there are also poems on the saints and martyrs of the early church, including ATHANASIUS and SHENUTE. The semidramatic compositions have for their subjects King Solomon, the two workmen Theodosius and DIONYSIUS, who end up in the positions of emperor and archbishop, respectively, and ARCHELLIDES and his mother. This last piece is perhaps particularly impressive and dramatically effective. Archellides was sent by his mother to study abroad, but instead he entered the monastery of Apa Romanos without telling his mother. She heard of his whereabouts and went to visit him. He
refused to see her in spite of all her entreaties, for he had vowed never again to look at a woman's face. In the end, he died rather than see his grief-stricken mother, who then mourned his death. The way in which the drama unfolds raises the question whether it was accompanied by some mimic action, for it contains only the speeches of the main characters. Alternatively, it must be assumed that the plot of the drama was so well known that the listeners were able to fill in the gaps. A Coptic prose version of the story of Archellides is also preserved.
All the material discussed so far is written in the Sahidic dialect, but with many grammatical irregularities, similar to those found in nonliterary texts. It is, of course, impossible to say whether these irregularities were present in the original poetic works, or whether they were introduced by later generations of scribes.
There is no doubt that Byzantine hymnography had some influence on Coptic poetry. This is shown by the references in some headings to the modes of the Oktoechos of Saint John of Damascus, an eight-week cycle of hymns performed in eight different modes. But although Greek models were, no doubt, studied, Byzantine hymnography was only the foundation on which the Coptic poets built; they created their own poetry, which differed substantially in form and treatment of content from Byzantine hymnody.
Some hitherto unpublished material of considerable importance for the subject of Coptic poetry is contained in two manuscripts from the end of the ninth century belonging to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (M 574, published in part, and M575, unpublished). M574 contains thirteen hymns on Christ, the Virgin Mary, and a number of saints (pp. 150-76). They were probably intended to be sung on the appropriate days of the ecclesiastical year. Each of these hymns consists of twenty-four strophes; they are acrostics, each strophe beginning with the successive twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. In one case the letters are arranged in reverse order. The language of these hymns is Sahidic with some Fayyumic admixture. It should be noted that the later Bohairic Psali, or hymns, were composed in the same way. They, too, are alphabetic acrostics. The majority are based on the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet, the minority on the thirty-one (or in the case when the symbol for the numeral six is included, on the thirty-two) letters of the Coptic alphabet. It has been conjectured with some cogency that the earlier Sahidic hymns have preserved the original form on which the Bohairic Psali are modeled. M 575 contains the earliest Sahidic antiphonary. It includes hymns on Christ, the Virgin Mary, martyrs, saints, and famous monks. Some of the material has parallels in the later Bohairic Difnar (antiphonarium) and in the Bohairic Theotokia.
The later Bohairic collections of hymns, already mentioned incidentally, may be briefly enumerated. The Difnar contains hymns on the saints and is designed for liturgical use. There are two hymns for each day of the ecclesiastical year, sometimes in honor of one and the same saint, sometimes in honor of two different saints commemorated on the same day. Only two melody types, known as Adam and Batos, are used, for which the model is the text of the Theotokia for the second and the fifth days, respectively. The Theotokia contains hymns and paraphrases in honor of the Virgin Mary. They are arranged for the seven days of the week and were mostly used in the month Kiyahk, that is, in the season of Advent and Christmas. Again the two tunes mentioned above were used.There is also a collection of daily hymns in Bohairic, the so-called Psali, and there are other liturgical books containing poetic material.
Finally, mention must be made of a poem written in Sahidic in 1322, the so-called Triadon. It is a highly artificial product and was composed at a time when Arabic had become the language of the people and Coptic had fallen into disuse. There were originally 732 numbered strophes, each of four lines, of which 428 have survived. The poem's name is descriptive of its structure. Here, almost certainly under Arabic influence, we encounter for the first time the consistent use of rhyme. The first three lines end in the same rhyme, while the final line ends invariably in -on, -on, or -an. In order to achieve this unnatural uniformity, the poet did not shrink from distorting the endings of words. The lines have sometimes three, four, or five accented syllables. The Coptic text is accompanied by an Arabic translation. It is clearly the poet's intention to exalt the Coptic language and the Coptic heritage. Biblical characters, saints, martyrs, and ascetics are lauded, orthodoxy is recommended, and moral exhortations are offered. The Triadon is often considered to be the swansong of Coptic poetry.
[See also: Music, Coptic.]
K. H. KUHN
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