Armenian Legends and Poems  at sacred-texts.com
We have given specimens of mediaeval Armenian poetry; we now proceed to indicate in outline its most striking characteristics.
The theme of the Armenian pagan minstrels was the heroic deeds of their country's history. The adoption of Christianity imparted to Armenian poetry a specific form and tone. At the same time it was the revival of the old Armenian valour, which, strengthened by the circumstances in which the Armenians lived, produced a religious poetry of great purity of feeling, and of a depth and solemnity unequalled by any other poetry of this class.
In the Middle Ages, the poetry gave expression to the love and other emotions of the Armenian poets.
A new poetry of the now Mohammedan Persia written in modern Persian came into being almost simultaneously with the Armenian poetry of the Middle Ages.
Firdusi, Omar Khayyam, Sadi, Hafiz, with a splendid retinue of less famed singers, made Persian the language of verse which, together with Arabic poetry in its earlier stages, no doubt had some influence on the Armenian poets of the Middle Ages; but this influence affected form rather than spirit or character.
Armenian mediaeval poetry does not possess the burning hues of oriental verse, and is
perhaps less luxurious, but the grace, charm, ease, and fancy of the Armenian lays are inimitable, and their originality and occasional quaintness are so marked that one feels there is a magic in them. These characteristics are the outcome of the mutual assimilation of eastern and western art, so that the poetry of Armenia, like its language, its art, its Church, stands by itself.
In comparing Armenian with Persian and Arabic poetry, one must remember that the Armenians, as Christians, were not polygamists; and that, to them, marriage was sanctified by the law of God and man. This is what the great Persian poet Sadi says of women: "Choose a fresh wife every spring, or every New Year's day, for the almanac of last year is good for nothing." It would have been impossible for any Armenian poet to entertain such an idea as that.
Whereas women are so cheap in the eyes of the Persian poet, Armenian girls endowed with beauty were considered by their parents and the community very precious possessions, to be zealously guarded, as they were in constant danger of attracting the attention of their Mohammedan lords and being forcibly carried off into harems. This fact had the effect of mingling compassion with the Armenian poets' admiration of a girl's beauty and made them write more feelingly of women.
It must also be remembered that, whereas Mohammedanism looks upon woman as a soulless being, in the eyes of a Christian she possesses a soul as precious as that of a man.
It is an interesting fact that love poems were written by the clergy, often by ecclesiastics of high position, who, by the law of the Armenian Church, are vowed to celibacy. One explanation of this is that they were born poets, and only regarded love as one among many feelings fitted to be the subject of verse. Their use of the first person is only dramatic.
There are also many folksongs which differ, in style and character, from the love-songs of poets. The spirit of these songs is that of Armenian pagan poems. The following is an example of songs of this class. It describes the adventure of a girl.
Armenian religious and devotional poetry has characteristics of its own. This class of literature falls into two divisions. In the first division are works of a purely literary character written in old Armenian; in the second, works meant for popular use, written in the language of the people. These latter are written in a more familiar style, proverbs and paraphrases being often introduced, in a picturesque fashion, which appeals to the unlearned.
As an example of the popular class of literature we give an extract from a poem about Gregory the Illuminator, who was cast by King Tiridates into a well infested with serpents and other loathsome creatures:--
The poet goes on to tell how St. Gregory when he came out of the well set free the dragon-serpents in answer to their prayer.
This poem is very old, being written in the fifth or sixth century at the latest. The metre is that of the pagan poets.
We cite here another poem of this class--an allegorical description of Christ on the Cross
"Its silvery wings were of a matchless white
More brilliant than the sun's clear, matchless light.
O Matchless One, who is like Thee, Thou Matchless One?
"Within Its eyes, gem-like, unrivalled tears;
Surpassing those the morn unrivalled wears;
Unrivalled One, who is like Thee, Unrivalled One?
A characteristic species of Armenian poetry is the lullaby. There are hundreds of old Armenian cradle-songs which are still sung by mothers to their infants, and they are exquisitely dainty and sweet.
Here are some stanzas from one of these songs:--
"Crimson rose and petals wide,
Thou hast bloomed, our garden's pride.
As many suns shine on thy years
As the leaves our garden bears.
"Oror, hush, the deer are here,
The deer have come from the hills so high,
Have brought sweet sleep to my baby dear,
And filled it in his deep, deep eye."
There are series of Armenian folksongs for every event in life--birth, marriage, death, and so on.
The following is a folksong of death, being the lament of a mother over her dead son:--
Yet another feature of the literature of this period is the contemporary history in verse. We come across metrical narratives of great events written by those who experienced them. There is a long and vivid description in verse, by an eye-witness, of the siege of Constantinople. The poet is Abraham Vardapet.
There are also agricultural and craft songs, which are sung by workmen over their labour.
These songs are adapted to the movements necessitated by each occupation.
Another marked difference between Armenian and Mohammedan literature is that Armenians are entirely free from the fatalism which is a distinctive feature of the Mohammedan view of life.
Sadi relates, in his Gulistan, the story of a fisherman that gives the Mohammedan conception of Fate. This fisherman had caught a fish which his strength did not allow him to drag to shore. Fearing to be drawn into the river himself, he abandoned his line, and the fish swam away with the bait in his mouth. His companions mocked him, and he replied: "What could I do? This animal escaped because his last hour, fixed by fate, was not yet come. Fate governs all, and the fisherman cannot overcome it more than another, nor can he catch fish, if fate is against him, even in the Tigris. The fish itself, even though dry, would not die, if it were the will of fate to preserve its life." The poet adds: "O man! why shouldst thou fear? If thy hour is not come, in vain would thy enemy rush against thee with his lance in rest: his arms and his feet would be tied by fate, and the arrow would be turned away, though in the hands of the most expert archer."
The spirit of Armenian poetry is neither despondent nor fatalistic. Its songs are of dawn, of spring, of sunrise, of struggle; not of sunset. And perhaps this clinging to hope and this desire to live is the only secret of the survival of the Armenian nation. Armenian poetry is the product of dwellers in a hill country. To them mountains, deep valleys, clear skies, running brooks are familiar every-day companions.
This brings us down to the Renaissance of Armenian literature which took place almost simultaneously in Russia and Turkey, but the field of modern Armenian literature is such a
wide one that we cannot attempt an analysis of it here. There are, however, some examples of modern Armenian poetry in this volume.