The Georgian Shakespeare

The greatest work in the Georgian language is the poem The Knight in the Panther Skin written by Shota Rustaveli, dated around 1189-1207, during the golden age of reign of Queen Tamar. The poem is a rescue-the-captured-maiden story that combines  an unusual meter with a collection of philosophical nuggets from various traditions.

An excerpt:


Entreat God for me; it may be He will deliver me from the travail of the world and from union with fire, water, earth and air. Let Him give me wings and I shall fly up, I shall attain my desire—day and night I shall gaze on the sun’s rays flashing in splendor.

The sun cannot be without thee, for thou art an atom of it; of a surety thou shalt adhere to it as its zodiac, and not as one rejected. There shall I seek thee; I shall liken thee to it, thou shalt enlighten my darkened heart. If my life was bitter, let my death be sweet!

I’m not too crazy about all the thee‘s and thou‘s  and shalt‘s and liken‘s, but that seems to be the preferred translation.  The complete text of the poem is here.

In the absence of a text or audio in the original Georgian, here is a description of the unique shairi meter:

Taking the shairi, the long sixteen-syllable line that the obscure hynmographer Pilipe Betlemeli had used for his invocation of the virgin, Rustaveli found the ideal vehicle for a heavily inflected polysyllabic language. He dispenses with cerebral elements such as acrostics.  Rhyme, which was more casual and incidental to the lyrics of the classical period, is now elevated into a display of virtuosity, sometimes achieving four five-syllable rhymes in a stanza.  The shairi alternates in two types, ‘high’ and ‘low’: the low has a trisyllabic rhyme and combines four dactyls and two trochees, to give six feet, evenly divided by a caesura, with a rhythm of 3/2/3//2/3/3; the high has a bisyllabic rhyme and consists of four feet of four syllables, each being double trochees, creating rhythmic variety and fitting the subtle accentuation of Georgian as the Alexandrine was to fit the natural rhythm of French.  But Rustaveli also uses alliteration and a complex web of sonorities in his poetics: they act as much as a mnemonic system as an orchestration.

(from Donald Rayfield’s The literature of Georgia: a history, p. 82

More about the shairi: wiki describes it as a monorhymed quatrain and says there are two types,  Dabili (low) and Magali (high).  Dabali is four segments of five and three syllables (xxxxx xxx//xxxxx xxx); “Magali” lines are broken into four sections of four syllables, with a caesura after the second section (xxxx xxxx//xxxx xxxx.)  This is similar to the Welsh Tawddgyrch Cadwynog form, except for the pattern of end rhymes.

Here is a way-too-short excerpt of The Knight in the Panther Skin, but there is a little Georgian at the beginning, the first time I hae heard this language spoken. She reads very fast, so it’s hard to count the syllables and figure out where all the rhymes and alliterations are, but it sounds like each stanza has an end rhyme that ends with -a:

Not sure what language this is, or even what poem, but the meter is long enough to fit the description.

And here are 17th century miniatures illustrating the text:

I love they way they illustrate perspective in two dimensions in the manner of early Islamic art.


Some more resources for Georgian:

Georgian Dictionary in German

Georgian language grammatical summary

Facebook group for Georgian literature translated into English: Shota Rustaveli, Ilia Chavchavadze, Mikheil Javakhishvili, Nikoloz Baratashvili, Galaktion Tabidze …view authors

Google Books:

Sayat-Nova: an 18th-century troubadour : a biographical and literary study By Charles Dowsett

Mémoires inédits, relatifs l’histoire et à la langue géorgiennes By Brosset (Marie-Félicité, M.) (handwritten in French and Georgian)

The literature of Georgia: a history By Donald Rayfield

Anthology of Georgian Poetry By M. Kveselava

Selected Georgian poems translated by Kevin Tuite

Sufic Traces in Georgian Literature, monograph by Katharine Vivian

It looks like you can buy the text and the audio of The Knight in the Panther Skin in Georgian (and Russian).

The below image is from the googlebooks overview page of Brosset’s Mémoires inédits, relatifs l’histoire et à la langue géorgiennes

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