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The Style and Range of Literature

Although the narratives are now the most familiar-seeming type of literature, even they reveal very alien conventions of style. They are direct and uncluttered by any description of superfluous detail. They are objectively narrated, even when related in the first person, and, while extreme changes in emotion are noted, the shifting moods of a conversation are left to speak for themselves. The audience's response is guided by literary form rather than by explicit authorial comment. The discursive wisdom poetry in particular moves by syntax rather than by metaphor, despite elaborate sequences of occasionally extreme images and the presence of continuous strands of imagery. There is a tendency towards simile rather than metaphor. The style is repetitive and formulaic, and calls to mind biblical rather than classical parallels. The use of formulae may look dull on the page, but is very helpful and stimulating when a work is performed.

The language of literature was archaic, and fairly remote from everyday speech, with a very formal diction and grammar which only occasionally displays colloquial features. This does not mean that poetry was necessarily inaccessible to common people, only that it was distinct from normal speech. The diction is recherché, sometimes convoluted, but it is not sensuous, exotic, or ‘purple’. It has a spare elegance, with an occasional density of wordplay that recalls the Shakespearian. Wordplay is often with different forms of the same word, but allusions to homonymous and homophonous words can add another layer of meaning. Although pronunciation cannot be reconstructed with any assurance, it is clear that assonance will have given the poems an incantatory quality, as a verse from The Teaching of King Amenemhat shows:

jw-ms-msyt-͑šƷwt m-mrrwt (i.e. iu-mes-mesyt-ashaut em-mererut) Yet now the children of the masses are in the street.

A tendency towards epigrammatic or proverbial utterance is particularly strong in the didactic and reflective poems, which present generalizing formulations of wisdom that are sparing and witty. These wisdom texts are prescriptive, explicitly moralistic, and rhetorical. Ambiguity and amphiboly also produce resonance within individual verses and in the structure of works as a whole: stanzas draw compressed parallels and contrasts, but differing attitudes are balanced, sometimes ironically, throughout whole compositions, producing a sense of semantic multifariousness.

Many aspects of the works’ original appeal, including rhetorical virtuosity, metrical skill, and the sheer cantabile quality of their music, can no longer be appreciated by a modern audience. The nature of Egyptian verse in particular has been much debated; the prevalent analysis of Gerhard Fecht proposes that it was based on the counting of stress units, rather than on the alternation of long and short syllables; the difference between it and ‘prose’ is one of degree rather than of kind. The principles of scansion have been reconstructed by him,9 See Select Bibliography. but the parallel of Coptic (the descendant of Egyptian) suggests that there were many exceptions to these grammatically derived prosodic rules, due to the influence of the spoken language. This may explain the occasional divergence between the verses of poetry as reconstructed and the red dots (‘verse-points’) that mark off short sections of text in many New Kingdom copies. These points occur first in the late Twelfth Dynasty, in ritual texts whose recitation had to be exact,10 An unpublished papyrus from el-Lahun in University College London (to be published by M. Collier and S. Quirke). and were introduced into copies of literary texts in the early New Kingdom when stress counting in recitation had probably become an acquired rather than an instinctive skill, as the spoken form of words became progressively reduced. As they mark pauses, they may sometimes indicate a sort of caesura rather than the end of a verse.

One important stylistic feature of metrical form is the use of balanced phrases—the ‘parallelism of members’ familiar from biblical verse. This seems to be a stylistic feature which heightens the poetry, and it does not occur consistently throughout a composition. Verse often favours strongly antithetical statements, rising to paradoxes. Such statements are characteristic of a form of pessimistic wisdom poetry known as laments, which was derived from descriptions of reversal, as in death or in changes of season; their role is analogous to the elegy of Western literature.

The poems’ complexity involves a display, a variety, and a hierarchy of style, ranging from simple narratives to complex lyrical passages. Refrains, which were characteristic of ritual lyrics, probably indicate a formal and elevated tone. Many poems are supremely unified compositions, although their unity is different from what a modern reader might expect; the more diffuse examples of high style, such as the lengthy laments of The Dialogue of Ipuur and the Lord of All, have consequently proved less accessible to modern audiences. Verbal profusion, to an extent that we would consider superfluous, was a virtue in Egypt, as in many other semioral societies. Nevertheless, a mastery of form can still be appreciated in the internal symmetry of tightly structured poems such as The Tale of Sinuhe. That structure and (on a more minor scale) the use of repetition give the work a great resonance and profundity; passages and incidents echo one another, illuminating the narrative and its significance. The repetition of phrases can give an effect of integrity and authority, presenting the same subject in a variety of complementary ways, but it can also produce a polyphonic interweaving of imagery and motifs that embody the richness and complexity of the poem's subject matter. In wisdom Discourses, this interweaving creates the impression of a rapid train of thought, exploring and developing understanding with proliferating images and formulations.

The poems often present themselves as monologues, and many compositions would have gained tension from being recited in performance. They show elements of ‘dramatic’ presentation and characterization,11 For example, the end of The Teaching of Amenemhat, or The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. The performative potential of the latter is effectively realized in Der redekundige Bauer, a melodrama for speaker and small orchestra by H.-P. MüllerKieling (first performed 2 Sept. 1993, Freiburg im Breisgau). although this is on a different level from modern expectations: characterization is more concerned with public personae than with shifting individual emotions. The Tale of Sinuhe, for example, is unusually detailed in its descriptions of emotions, but these are presented in moral rather then purely personal terms. The poems are, nevertheless, more concerned with individuality and subjectivity than other types of Egyptian writing.

The form, the moral tone, and the classical language of most of the surviving examples of Middle Kingdom literature suggest that they embody a culturally central, or high, tradition. As the process of preservation was restricted by the élite's dominance over literacy, this is not surprising. Despite the unity of the whole literary corpus, a few fragmentary texts, such as a collection of maxims,12 See p. 293. show that literature was not rigidly restricted to these courtly genres. Some works, particulary tales, reveal looser structures, more colloquial language, and are less serious; these suggest the existence of more culturally peripheral or low traditions, where decorum was looser. The Tale of King Cheops’ Court is the best evidence for this. It is a typical member of the genre, but is more diffuse and picaresque, less rigid and concentrically structured, and in a much less formal language; its themes are similarly less elevated, although often a parody of more serious treatments. Its anecdotes of wonders are more frivolous and ‘sexy’ than anything from the high tradition; merry King Sneferu, for example, is presented in them in a less admirable light (in terms of serious cultural values) than he is in The Words of Neferti. Neferti is a much earlier work, but it seems likely that these differences are not just a matter of date and that this variety was always part of literature. This less elevated tradition may have been a little closer to oral poetry, but it seems likely that the written and oral forms were remote and separate from each other: the ‘little’ tradition of the peasants, as opposed to the ‘great’ tradition of the literate élite, is completely lost.

Less elevated features were more widely adopted in the written compositions of the late New Kingdom, when the more colloquial Late Egyptian was used as a written language for documents. The characteristic composition of that period was no longer the wisdom text, but the more episodic narrative, as well as the Miscellany—a collection of varied types of composition forming a didactic anthology. Literature's boundaries seem to have moved to embrace a wider decorum, and the Middle Kingdom texts were hallowed, by their age and their language, into classics that formed a canon for apprentice scribes and continued to be transmitted alongside the new and more varied genres.

Notes:

9 See Select Bibliography.

10 An unpublished papyrus from el-Lahun in University College London (to be published by M. Collier and S. Quirke).

11 For example, the end of The Teaching of Amenemhat, or The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. The performative potential of the latter is effectively realized in Der redekundige Bauer, a melodrama for speaker and small orchestra by H.-P. MüllerKieling (first performed 2 Sept. 1993, Freiburg im Breisgau).

12 See p. 293.

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