Armenian Literature II: St. Mesrob and A.Y. Siamanto
Abstract: This paper will deal with, and compare, two famed Armenian writers far separated in time and mentality: St. Mesrob and A.Y. Siamanto. These writers, however, are joined by a single thread: the experience of pain and the reality of a fallen and hateful world. This is the central area of analysis.
This paper will be a comparative analysis of two Armenian poets, St. Mesrob (Mashtots, d. 440) and A.Y. Siamanto (nee. Atom Yarjanian, d. 1915). The former, the famed codifier of the Armenian (and Georgian) alphabet and grammar, will be dealt with using five poems on the theme of sin and its relation to chaos. Siamanto will be treated with two major poems on the theme of genocide and nationalism written in the heat of the Turkish genocide of the Armenian people, a genocide the poet himself succumbed to in 1915. Lastly, this paper will seek to compare the two poets under the theme of struggle/pain and the reaction to it. So while the two poets are far from one another in time and mentality, they are related both by ethnicity, but more importantly, in their poetic muse: pain, sin and struggle.
I. St. Mesrob
St. Mesrob is likely the most famous ancient Armenian after St. Gregory the Illuminator. He codified the Armenian alphabet and its first grammar after his Hellenic education in Asia Minor. Most importantly, however, St. Mesrob is a true apostle of ancient Orthodox Christianity and its concepts of sin. The five poems that will be dealt with in this section are all on this theme: sin, struggle and its resultant pain of heart and soul. What strikes the reader is that the saint here is a famous literary figure and the founder of a specifically Armenian culture and literature, but he does not celebrate himself, his accomplishments, his command of Armenia, Greek, Persian and Georgian, or his elite Greek education, but rather, sees only his own sins and mediocrity. The poems analyzed below have not been dated for certain.
In the “Seas of My Behavior” the sea, the ocean, is the symbol for chaos, for the slow, gradual elimination of the free will in the face of the passions, lust, anger, greed, etc. This is a constant symbol in the short poetry of St. Mesrob. It is also clear that the creator of chaos is Satan himself, as “I am tossed by the enemy that creates storms. . . “ (Mesrob, in Hackyian, 2002, 113). Yet, there is good news, “Good Captain, be my shelter,” that is, a port, a safe port of harbor for the storm tossed sea. It might be noted that this is an interesting metaphor for St. Mesrob to use, since Armenia is a landlocked country. Though it is clear that he was well traveled, and hence, may have been overwhelmed by the vastness of the sea, and hence, began using it as a symbol fo the passions and sin. The final line in this short poem is addressed to God: “Help us to persevere.” Note that he does not ask God to eliminate the chaos, to destroy his passions and restore his freedom. He simply asks for the ability to overcome, to persevere and last in the struggle until his death. This is the big difference between magic and Christianity: the former seeks to manipulate a given nature for their own purposes, the latter simply asks for mercy and patience.
The second poem, “I Flounder,” develops a similar theme. “Like a ship I flounder, endangered on the vastness of sins. . . “ Again the sea is the symbol for the passions, always undulating, impossible to control, the cause of pain. The life of order–where everything has a place and function–is the godly life, but the life of chaos, where nothing has its place and fear is the only result, this is sin and evil. The sea, as a symbol for that which always changes, is also a symbol for the material world, always changing, enticing with its illusory benefits. Order is only found in the spiritual life, like Plato, where the world of forms is never changing, always the same, since it does not partake of the world of matter. For St. Mesrob, the world of matter is like the sea, always changing, beautiful and mighty, but ultimately frightening. Hence, it is God alone that can provide protection and a safe harbor. Hence, God is called the “God of Peace.” Hence, peace is the release from such chaos. Peace is the spiritual world, the world of the forms, where the main sense is the intellect (and hence, does not work on the passions) and the contours of reality never change. This is peace, and the realm of God. St. Mesrob writes: “I am tossed by the rough seas of unrighteousness, King of Peace, be my help (Mesrob, 113). The metaphor of being thrown by the sea of chaos suggests a gradual destruction of free will: while the world of the intellect preserves freedom since it is far from matter, the sea is the very essence of matter: always in flux. Hence, peace is a release from this flux, or at least, a resignation that life on this earth is enmeshed in this flux. Furthermore, he writes: “Over the depths of the sea of sin/I float blindly/Good Captain, preserve me. Again, God is the captain, he will not eliminate the chaos (at least while the world exists) but will guarantee a method by which one can survive it and persevere. The ship is an old metaphor for the Orthodox church, but it is also a metaphor used by Plato to speak of the state and its righteous ruler. Since st. Mesrob had a Greek education, it is not surprising that the metaphor of the ship would become important: the ship is both the church and philosophy, the Captain is the leaders of the guardian class, which can easily be transposed to God and Christ, the Man God. So freedom is not sought so he could do as he wills, but freedom means the ability to freely choose the Godly path, to eliminate or control the passions such that the intellect can see God, the creator not only of earth and its changes, but also of heaven, the world of forms, the universe that does not change.
“My Sins are Multitudinous” is another lament poem. The saint is mulling over his many sins, too much for him to bear. He compares his sins to being something that are heavier than “the sea-sands.” What the saint asks for is forgiveness. Note again that the world of sin is not cursed or eliminated, but the effects of such a world are what weighs down the conscience of the saint here. He asks for forgiveness only (Mesrob, 114). He writes: “Open the gates of charity, my God/the gates whose inscriptions I read/by deploring, denying my past/by imploring, your pardon and help” (114). There is much of value here. Gates makes reference to the ancient city, the realm of law and order, of prosperity and danger, as opposed to the outside world, the world outside the city walls, where animals and robbers abound, and hunter’s snares are everywhere. It is outside the walls of the city where one is vulnerable to attack. The city is seen as a metaphor for the ream of heaven, for order and a lack of change. One is safe there from the dangers of the woods.
But at the same time, entry into this city is occasioned by the deploring of one’s past, another phrase for repentance. To hate sin, to hate what one has done, is the nature of these gates: to read the inscription and hence open the gate is a metaphor for repentance. Repentance calls down the mercy of God and hence, safety in the chaos of the world. Hence there is a two part formula: first, deploring–repentance; imploring–mercy. In so doing, Christ will “pour forth compassion,” a revelation both of baptism and the water of cleansing. While water and the sea have been treated as the realm of Satan, Christ, the author of water and matter in general, can use it as He pleases, and here, it is symbolic of regenerating.
Nautical metaphors again appear in “Help us in Need,” where the life of Jonah is compared to the saints, laden with sin and hence, punished with the prison of passion. But as Jonah was helped, so is the saint here. St. Mesrob seems to suggest that his sins are of the mouth, for he states, “Preserve us from Treacherous lips,” which could refer to things like being opinionated, argumentative, and even, to some extent temptations from worldly women. He asks Christ to “cleanse us of sin Oh Lord/as you cleansed the Publican” a reference to the repentance of the publican in the Bible. The last poem, “Lord of Peace,” is the final revelation in poetic form: the realization of the kingdom of God as the ream of peace, which has been established as the world that does not change. His final lines: “O Good Helmsman, save me from the depths of the sea-deep sin/On which I float like an abandoned raft.” (Mesrob, 114-115).
Here, the old themes are revisited: the soul is seen as a raft (the ship metaphor is not used, since it refers to the church, not so much the soul), but it is an abandoned raft, which means that it is not a part of the church (sin removes one from the church), as well as, seemingly, abandoned by God himself. As one has no chance of survival on a raft in the ocean, so the soul cannot hope to survive and persevere in this world of chaos without the church, the manifestation of God’s law on earth. “Lawlessness,” or the world in a constant state of flux, “buffets me as the waves” suggesting an attack, an attack on virtue and freedom. The waves of chaos will eventually destroy me and the church unless the raft is rescued, brought back onto the ship of the church and the well ordered state.
II. A.Y. Siamanto
This late 19th early 20th century author is also dealing with pain and sin, but from a very different point of view. This writer, in the selections read for this piece, is in the midst of the Turkish genocide of the Armenian people before, during and right after World War I. Two poems will be considered, first, “A and B: The Revenge of Centuries,” and “A Handful of Ash, Home of My Fatherland.” both of these were written during the genocide, and both are angry, lament-ful poems about the destruction of the highly literate, religious and basically defenseless population of Armenia both at home and the substantial diaspora in Turkey and Greece. He was murdered by the Turks in 1915.
“A and B: The Revenge of Centuries” is the most angry poem in existence. It curses the Turks for their cleansing of their empire of Armenian elements. He writes:
And, alas, the blood of my magnificent race still drips from the sleeves of my chlamys…
But my steps are tireless and my will is mighty and my voice severely fierce…
Although my head is gray from mournings and from revenge and from my fate,
But look, my eyes are as red as a hero’s eyes and my appearance is terrifying.
This is not merely an attack from the individual, but also a prediction of the revivification of the Armenian people and the revenge they will take on their Turkish murderers. But his anger is not only directed at the Turks, but at the Christianity that (allegedly) preaches the doctrine of non-resistance to evil and forgiveness of all sins. While it is questionable that Christianity will ask the Armenians to bear their genocide patiently, this poet seems to think it does, and he rejects such a creed.
And with my thought and with my rage I measured the deepest roots of my pains;
I saw that your bare feet of salvation beggars burned from the ashes of ruins…
I saw that you were blissful in tears and horrified from the life-giving battle…
I saw that justice had to be created and freedom had to be fiercely snatched…
Revenge is a good thing, a sweet theing, but God will not help. Salvation, like justice, is something to be stolen, taken by brute force with the engine of rage and revenge. The “sons of faith” will be remade, remodeled into the “savage horses of a hurricane” in their taking revenge on the Islamic Turks. This revengeful army is a throwback to the ancient takes of pagan Armenia, as he writes:
Tell me, so that I may have my trumpets blown with the glottis of ancient heroes,
Tell me, so that I may harden my irons and shine my steels,
Tell me, so that I may also gloriously saddle my blood-drinking horse,
Tell me, so that its hoofs may spark above the valleys, only from mountain to mountain…
The citations here are necessary in that the anger of the poet must be read to be absorbed. The old heroes of Armenia still live, ready for the call to take up their weapons against the Turk and the cowardly Christian. Life as an Armenian is one of pain and struggle, but its ultimate result is victory.
“A Handful of Ash; the Home of My Fatherland” is also an angry poem, but one that indulges in lamenting for the destruction of the “palace” that was Armenia. It is divided up into four line stanzas divided into the letters of the alphabet, A to I. This, again uses the alphabet, as the title of the previous poem uses, seemingly both to make reference to the creator of that alphabet, St Mesrob (in fact, this poet mentions the saint regularly), but, in so doing, to say that his job is similar to the saint’s, to re-create Armenia, to place it upon a new footing. But this new footing is a nationalist army bent on revenge, not the Christian scribe or monastic.
In this poem, the poet is describing the home and memories of his youth, knowing now (in exile) that it is destroyed, and all who remain are either dead or soon to be so. The assault of the Turk even destroys nature, as he writes:
And did the fountain which sang in the yard die?
And did my garden’s willow and berry trees break?
And that stream which flowed among the trees,
Is it dry, tell me, where is it, is it dry, is it dry…? (section E)
The assaults of the Turkish forces destroy Armenia as a whole: its people, its memories, its economy, and even its water and fauna. But what remains is the poet and all those like him: what remains is the anger, rage and the ability of this much persecuted people to rise again.
III. Conclusion: St. Mesrob and Siamanto Compared
St. Mesrob was the creator of Armenian literature. Siamanto seeks to be the creator of a new nation: one motivated by the Nietzschian will to power, in this case, the will to revenge. While sin, symbolized by the sea, is the terror to the saint, the Turks, the savage horde, is the external threat. In both cases, it is chaos, the destruction that the passions/Turks create. In both cases, the poetry derives from the fear that “smallness” creates. In the case of St. Mesrob, it is the abandoned raft on the huge ocean, the vulnerable individual outside the city walls. For Siamanto, it is the tiny nation of Armenia, hidden within the mountains, long a plaything of more powerful neighbors: Rome, Parthia, Persia, Russia, Turkey, etc. Lastly, it should be noted that both writers see this chaos, whether sin or the Turk, as a part of life. Both seek ways to work within that world: the love and mercy of God for St. Mesrob, the hateful, vengeful, but just, anger of the reborn Armenian state for Siamanto. Both writers realize that this is the way of the world, and it cannot be changed at its fundamentals, the world is inherently sinful for both writers. However, both do not seek a cancelling of this world, bit only a way of dealing with it. Both seek power: one from God, the other from the nation without God. Both see pain as not entirely evil, but as a prod that leads people to repentance/revenge. The new birth of Armenia will be more unified, more powerful than before, because of the pain of genocide. For St. Mesrob, the person will be renewed by the waters of baptism and cleansing, it is the reality of sin that leads to soul to contemplate God and pray to him, to be constantly mindful of Him because of the need for mercy that is ever present. Both writers believe in renewal, but on very different terms.
The translations above taken solely from these two sources:
For St. Mesrob:
Hackiyan, Agop “Jack” (trans and ed), et al. The History of Armenian Literature, Volume II. Wayne State University Press, 2002. pps 111-115
For A.Y. Siamanto
Norashkharian, Shant (trans and ed). Armenian Literature. Published by the Armenian Research Center, University of Michigan at Dearborn.