Poet and Poesy

Axiom: all peoples at all times have had poetry and song. It follows that the Indo-Europeans must have had them, and that a continuous tradition linked their poetry and song with those of the historical successor peoples.

This a priori conclusion is in itself empty. We shall endeavour to give it substance by comparison of the documented poetic traditions. We are interested, not just in establishing that the Indo-Europeans had poetry, but in finding out, so far as may be possible, what kinds of poetry they had, what were its characteristics, and how they conceptualized it.

What do we mean by poetry? The term will cover all verse, that is, all composition constrained within some kind of metrical form. But for the present purpose a wider definition is called for. Much of the evidence for Indo-European poetry comes from the identification of what appears to be 'poetic' diction. When we characterize it as poetic, the implied antithesis is not with prose but with 'normal' or everyday speech. Prose (prosa oratio) is not a meaningful category where there is no written literature. The opposition is between 'unmarked' and 'marked' language: on the one hand, ordinary, idiomatic speech; on the other, a style which diverges from the ordinary by using elevated or archaic vocabulary, ornamental epithets, figures of speech, a contrived word order, or other artificial features. It is this 'marked' language that it will be convenient to call poetic. But its use may not have been confined to compositions in verse. There is some likelihood that it was also deployed for high-flown narrative or rhetorical utterances that lacked metrical form.1

1 Cf. Meid (1978), 11: '"Dichtung" ist im Grunde genommen jede über das bloß Umgangssprachliche hinausgehende stilisierte Rede, jeder in irgendeiner Absicht sprachkünstlerisch gestaltete Stoff; die Formung mußte nicht unbedingt eine metrische sein.'

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