On epic literature and the emotions

A battle scene from a manuscript of the Ramayana – Wikimedia Commons

Great literature can express emotions in ways that are powerful yet also subtle.  This is clear in epic literature, such as in the Iliad, which announces itself straight off the bat as a poem rooted in a specific emotion, viz. rage.

“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles”

[The Iliad, trans. Prof. Robert Fagles, Book 1 Line 1]

The poem is about the rage of Achilles, but also seems to be a transmutation of that very emotion into poetic form.  Homer calls on the muse of poetry to inspire the poetic narration within him.  It seems as though that feeling of rage is itself being channelled through the words of the Iliad, transmuted from raw emotion into something profound and beautiful, taking inspiration from a goddess or muse to effect this wondrous transmutation.

In the Indian epic Rāmāyaṇa, Vālmīki is similarly inspired by an emotion, that emotion being the extreme sorrow that he feels when he witnesses a crane being shot down by a hunter while flying with its mate.  This is likely a Demoiselle crane, a type of crane known for its beautiful voice, its elegant motion as it glides across the Himalayas on its journey from Mongolia to India, and a bird which stays with its single mate for life.  As the text describes –

“That immense sorrow [‘śoka’], when sung out by the great sage, became ‘śloka’ [verse] because he kept crying it out, [expressed] in four metrical feet of equal syllables.”

[Rāmāyaṇa Bālakāṇḍa Canto 2 Verse 40; my own translation]

As with the Iliad, there seems to be some kind of transmutation of the raw cry of upset at what Vālmīki sees into something that has the elegant and sonorous tones of poetry.  The spontaneity of feeling seems to refashion itself into a poetic form, which is according to the Indian tradition the first true poetry. 

Vālmīki then uses this verse format in which to render the story of Rāma, perhaps because that was also in large part a tale of grief and sorrow, as I have briefly talked about here.  The process outlined here also seems to illustrate how William Wordsworth describes the composition of poetry.

“I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”

[from Preface to Lyrical Ballads]

Both the Iliad and the Rāmāyaṇa take their origin in such powerful feelings, rage and grief respectively, and we see in the latter a determinate process of contemplation where Vālmīki spends a period of time in concentration and contemplation as he processes what he has just witnessed –

“Then, when he had sat down, with the grandfather of worlds [Brahmā] directly before him, still Vālmīki remained in deep meditation, with his mind focused on the earlier incident … Lamenting in this way, he sang the verse about the crane again, and again became filled with grief, with his mind turned inwards.

[Rāmāyaṇa Bālakāṇḍa Canto 2 Verses 27cd-28ab, 29cd-30ab; my own translation]

Indeed, we also see here another act of divine intervention, by Brahma, along the way.  Indeed, we may reflect on how many aspects of our behaviour cannot be traced back to acts of conscious reasoning, but rather seem to emerge from a deeper and wholly inexpressible level of instinct, emotions and drives.  Ancient poets may have been more aware of the ineffable source of our ideas and inspirations, and meaningfully ascribed these to the divine.  As Dr. Julian Jaynes explains in regard to the Iliad –

“The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do … The beginnings of action are not in conscious plans, reasons and motives; they are in the actions and speeches of gods … Even the poem itself is not wrought by men in our sense … the entire epic which follows is the song of the goddess which the entranced bard ‘heard’ and chanted to his iron-age listeners.”

[The Origins of Consciousness … p.72]

Indeed, Dr. Jaynes links this deeper level of consciousness with the metrical structure of verse itself –

“But what a different thing, these steady hexameters of pitch stresses, from the looser jumble of accents in ordinary dialogue!  The function of meter in poetry is to drive the electrical activity of the brain, and most certainly to relax the normal emotional inhibitions of both chanter and listener.”

[The Origins of Consciousness … p.73]

These comments bring us back to the importance of the metrical structure, which is something that Vālmīki himself finds particularly noteworthy about the new form of composition that he has just discovered –

“Bound in metres of equal syllables, with a musical tempo, let what I said in grief [śoka] be called śloka [verse].”

[Rāmāyaṇa Bālakāṇḍa Canto 2 Verse 18; my own translation]

We find a similar understanding in the Rig Veda, which was not composed in the modern sense, but was rather grasped spontaneously and intuitively through acts of inspiration directed from specific divinities through specific seers (ṛṣis), and again rigorously expressed in metrical verse format.  These speculations hark back to the very invention of verse format, which is seemingly linked with divine inspiration, with a very different mental state to normal speech, and with powerful yet subtle emotion.  Indeed, we should be mindful that to ‘chant’ is also to ‘enchant’.

Such considerations highlight the importance of the formal qualities of epic poetry, and most particularly when it is chanted, and encourage us to continue with our traditions of chanting and listening from across the world in the present day.  We may end with a few lines in praise of the earth from the Rig Veda –

It is true, Earth, you carry the weight of mountains!
You hilly one, who invigorate the ground with power, powerful one!
You of broad paths, the chants sing out in praise for you at night.

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 5 Sūkta 84 verses 1-2ab by Ṛṣi Atri Bhauma; my own translation]

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