The first musical poem in history

Those pop poets who write on their walls… No, it’s nothing modern. The Greeks used to do it. In particular, a certain text stands out for its syllabic musicality. It happens to fit perfectly with modern and classical rhythms. It’s the first musical poem in history.

History's first musical poem on a piece of Greek flooring.
The first musical poem in history on a piece of Greek flooring.
Pop poetry

This is a little-known text written in ancient Greek. It dates from the second century A.D., 300 years earlier than thought. What does the anonymous four-line poem say in its shorter version? It says “They say what they like; let them say it; I don’t care.” Other versions expand with “Go ahead, love me, it does you good.”

Experimental poetry became popular throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. It has been found inscribed on twenty precious stones and as graphite on classical ruins excavated at Cartagena.

Someone compared all the known examples for the first time. He is Cambridge professor Tim Whitmarsh (Faculty of Classics). He noticed that the poem used a different form of meter from that used in ancient Greek poetry. It has signs of the long and short syllables characteristic of traditional “quantitative” verse. But, in addition, this text employed stressed and unstressed syllables.

Hitherto, “accented poetry” of this type was unknown before the fifth century. There it began to be used in Byzantine Christian hymns.

This is another ancient poem written in Greek, on a medallion.
This is another ancient poem written in Greek, on a medallion.
Greeks and moderns

Professor Whitmarsh says in a statement, “No specialized poets were needed to create this kind of musicalized language. The diction is very simple. So it was a clearly democratising form of literature. It’s an exciting example of pop culture beneath the surface of classical culture”.

The study was published in The Cambridge Classical Journal. It suggests that this poem might represent a “missing link”. It would link the lost world of ancient oral poetry and Mediterranean chant with the modern forms of today.

The poem is unequalled so far in the classical world. It consists of lines of 4 syllables, with a strong accent on the first and weaker on the third. This allows it to fit the rhythms of numerous pop and rock songs. For example, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.

Much of what survives takes a form similar to traditional high poetry. This poem, on the other hand, points to a different, thriving, primarily oral culture. The first musical poem in history is a magical discovery.

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