Concluding Remarks — The Position at the Close of the First Period. Eastern and Western Culture in the Middle Ages

By the close of the First Period it was definitively determined which of the West-Turkish dialects was to be the literary idiom of the future, and what was to be the nature of the poetry that should be composed therein.

We have many times observed that the poets, whatever the style in which they wrote, have up till now made use of the dialectic forms peculiar to the province to which they happened to belong. There has been no common centre for the West-Turkish world; on the contrary, the capital of each little state has been a separate and independent centre of culture as well as of government. So long as such conditions lasted there was no reason why a poet should cultivate any other dialect than that of his own province. And hence has come that provincialism, that heterogeneity of dialect, which has led us to describe the poetry of this Period as West-Turkish rather than as Ottoman. While the Ottoman was but one out of several Turkish states there had been no reason why a non-Ottoman poet should make use of the Ottoman dialect rather than of his own. But now, when the political predominance of the Ottoman State has been established, and all the others either have been or are about to be merged in it, the dialect of the Ottoman naturally becomes the official language of the West-Turkish Empire, and is therefore accepted as the standard form by the entire community. It consequently results that poets who, had they lived somewhat earlier, would have written in the Turkish of Germiyan or Qastamuni, now discard whatever is local in such dialects, and assimilate their idiom to that of the Ottoman capital, henceforward the common metropolis. And so for the first time there comes to be a uniformity in the language of this literature, and West-Turkish passes into Ottoman poetry.

The nature of the Ottoman poetry into which the West-Turkish thus now develops has likewise been determined. This, it has been settled, is to be Persian; it is also to be artificial, exclusive, unpopular.

From the very beginning West-Turkish poetry had shaped its course by that of Persia, which had stood to it as foster-mother; but it had not always been artificial, exclusive, unpopular. The first intention of this poetry was purely didactic; the aim of the earliest poets was to teach spiritual truth to their fellow-countrymen. They naturally chose the easiest and most direct way to accomplish this; and so they wrote in the vernacular, the common speech of daily life, which everyone could understand, throwing their words into simple rhyming lines that could easily be retained in the memory.

For over a century this continued to be the rule; practically all serious literary poetry was composed in the mesneví form, and written in plain, straightforward Turkish, not very far removed from the spoken idiom, and perfectly intelligible even to the unlearned. During the fourteenth century and the opening years of the fifteenth, when a man wanted to play with poetry, or to treat poetry primarily as an art, looking more to the style than to the matter, to the manner of expression than to the thing expressed, he avoided mesneví, and confined himself to the lyric forms. As the models of such writers were necessarily the artificial lyrics of Persia, there speedily developed among the West-Turkish lyric poets an artificial and unnatural idiom, at least three-fourths Persian, and therefore incomprehensible to those unacquainted with that tongue, and in marked contrast to the language of the contemporary mesneví.

But this artificial idiom bears what the blunt Turkish of the mesneví-writers does not, the stamp of culture. Through its inherent beauty and the deftness of craftsmanship for which it gives opportunity, it has always exercised a peculiar charm over artistic and sympathetic minds brought within its influence; and so when Sheykhí, writing under the immediate inspiration of Nizámí, introduced it into mesneví likewise, the fate of the old homely Turkish was sealed. Till this poet wrote his Khusrev and Shírín the distinction of style between mesneví and lyric poetry had been strictly maintained; we have only to recollect how Ahmedí, Sheykhí’s immediate predecessor, employs in his mesneví, the Iskender-Náme, a style so simple that it often degenerates into baldness, while in his lyrics his language is to the full as artificial as that of any poet of the First Period. But after Sheykhí wrote, the distinction disappears; subsequent poets, writers of mesneví as much as writers of lyrics, fascinated by the brilliance of the artificial idiom, seek to try their strength therein, disdaining the common speech as beneath the dignity of art; and so in the Ottoman poetry into which the West-Turkish now passes, we find that the divorce is everywhere complete between the idiom in which it finds expression and the language as spoken among the people.

Sheykhí and the lyric writers have not only determined what is to be the form and fashion of Ottoman poetry; they have struck what is to be the key-note of its strain. The first poets were frankly teachers; they delivered their message in such a way that no one could doubt their meaning; their words present no tangle of Divine and human love. But Sheykhí and the lyric writers speak in metaphors; they are always hovering on the border-line between the sensual and the spiritual; their ostensible subject is human love, but through and beyond this, giving to it what it has of life and beauty, is ever felt to be the Celestial Glory, the Ecstasy of the Divine. And so in the Ottoman poetry now about to be, while we shall find that the artlessness and candour of the early poets has passed away with their simple homely speech, we shall recognise a Sheykhí in every romancist, an Ahmedí in every lyric.

In concluding our review of the First Period of West-Turkish poetry, I would very briefly draw the reader’s attention to an aspect of the subject which he has most probably himself more than once observed, but concerning which I have so far said nothing, namely, the close similarity that exists between the intellectual and moral culture which I have endeavoured to describe and that which prevailed during the same centuries in Western Europe.

In the fields of philosophy and science there is not merely similarity, there is identity. And in those directions where there is not identity, there is a very remarkable analogy. The civilisation of the Muhammedan East is based upon the Arabic Koran, that of medieval Europe upon the Latin Bible. The Eastern poets had the monopoly in the histories and legends they inherited from the ancient Persians, the Western in those they learned from the Roman classics. These are the two chief sources of such difference as exists, and the analogy in both cases is complete.

The first is the more important of the two; but even here, as the points of agreement between Bible and Koran are greater and more numerous than the points of variance, the divergence in culture that hence resulted was superficial rather than essential.1 For the rest, the religion of ‘the men of heart’ was the same in East and West. Change a few names and phrases borrowed directly from the prevailing positive religion, and it would be hard to distinguish between the effusions of the dervish mystic and those of the ecstatic monk or nun.

The identity in philosophy and science (which latter was but a branch of philosophy) results from the fact that not only were the original sources the same for both East and West, but that a great number of the European treatises on these subjects were translated from or inspired by the works of Muhammedans or of Jews who wrote for the most part in the Arabic language. For Arabic was to the world of Islam what Latin was to Western Christendom. The language of Holy Writ, a knowledge of it was the first necessity for the Muslim, whatever might be his nationality, who aspired to become a man of learning. Arabic thus became the common language of all the learned throughout the Muhammedan world, and so it came to be the language of learning, and in it were composed all works dealing with any serious subject, whether religious, philosophic or scientifıc. In all this it is paralleled by the course of the Latin language in the West. And as in the West the French tongue gradually asserted itself and became a medium of literature, so in the East did the Persian after a time assert itself and develop into a literary speech; and as the rise of French literature was in due course followed by that of English, so was the development of Persian literature by the appearance of Turkish.

In conditions so similar, culture and civilisation naturally developed along parallel lines. And so we fınd the poetry of the medieval West to be inspired by the same ideals as that of the medieval East. Notably is this the case with the poetry of Provence; instant in the quest of subtleties of fancy and curiosities of language, ever flitting between the earthly and the Heavenly love, the Troubadours and those who learned from them in Italy and France were moved by a spirit in no wise different from that which spoke through the Persian and Turkish lyric poets. Likewise, the romancists of the West, allegorising-through thousands of rhyming couplets, are the faithful representatives of those Eastern writers of whom Nizámí and Sheykhí may stand as types.

Were it not beside our purpose, it would be easy to trace this similarity in detail, and interesting to inquire how far the West is here the debtor of the East. However the question just suggested might be answered, one point is certain, namely, that from whatever source medieval Europe received these matters she held in common with the East, she did not learn them from her Roman teachers.

All that concerns us in our present studies is that this parallelism in culture between East and West continued all through the fourteenth and through the greater part of the fifteenth century. It was not interrupted till the Renaissance diverted the whole current of intellectual and moral life in Europe. But the separation which then ensued was complete as it was sudden. Under the guidance of the new-found Hellenism, the West turned aside from the old road, and pursued a way which led in a new and very different direction. The East continued to follow the old path; and so by the sixteenth century, they who had for long been fellow-travellers along the same road, were to one another as aliens and barbarians. Up till then, though they had met most often as foemen, they had understood one another; but when Europe broke away, the mutual understanding ceased. The genius of the Middle Age and the genius of the Renaissance are so opposite that mutual comprehension seems impossible. In the West the latter killed the former; but into the East it could not pass. And so to this day the typical European and the typical Oriental never truly understand one another; for in the East, at least in the unsophisticated East, it is still the Middle Age.


1 What most sharply distinguished the West from the East was not the difference between Bible and Koran, but the elaborate ritual which the Papal church superimposed upon a simple Eastern religion, and the extravagant pretensions advanced by the Romish priesthood, from any analogy to which Islam has happily been ever free. These matters, however, affected social life rather than intellectual culture.

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