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Literaturwissenschaft : Have a nice trip!

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Die Reiseversicherungspolice und nicht das Abschiedsgedicht ist der schriftliche Gruß an jene, die heutzutage verreisen. Flughafenbesucher - hier in München - verabschieden sich nur mit Blicken Bild: dpa

Frühneuzeitliche Abschiedsgedichte sind ein eigenständiges poetisches Genre, das nun auch die Wissenschaft beschäftigt. Nicht jeder der Texte wünscht dem Reisenden Glück.

          3 Min.

          In July 2006, after a successful conference about humanist culture, literature and art, I returned from Italy via Vienna and Helsinki to my home country, Estonia. In Italy I had read a paper about my research topic, a specific literary genre of occasional poetry in Early Modern times called farewell or valedictory poems.

          The paper focused on the good - and bad - farewell poems of Italian humanists. Unfortunately, the plane from Rome to Vienna was delayed so much that the flight from Vienna to Helsinki had already landed as we arrived in Vienna. I had to stay in Vienna airport and wait for the next flight to Helsinki the next morning. After the first emotions of frustration I sat down and began to read my travel insurance policy. During this reading I suddenly discovered that farewell poems exist today in a modified non-poetical form of the travel insurance policy.

          The Power Of Good Thoughts

          Since antiquity farewell poems have been written to encourage the departing traveller with good wishes, praises, a description of the potential troubles during the travel, pleas to stay, etc. Farewell poems are usually considered an extinct poetical genre since the18th century. It was therefore an unexpected finding to understand how the evolution of the farewell poem reflects the differences between the people from the Early Modern times and us.

          We believe that a written impersonal policy, bought from a big institution, helps us through our troubles during the trip; the travellers in the Early Modern period believed in the protective power of the good thoughts expressed in the poems by their friends, colleagues and members of their own families.

          Sketching Their Social Dimension

          Yet, since all of occasional poetry had a bad reputation from the beginning of the 18th century to the 1970s, and as most of it is in Latin and ancient Greek, today we know almost nothing about farewell poems. In scientific terminology it means that there are no bibliographies, no representative editions and no monographs about the history of this genre, only some articles about a single collection of valedictory poems from a few eminent poets.

          As the farewell poems belonged to the occasional poetry genre, the social dimension was very important to them. For that reason I decided, in my doctoral thesis (Tartu 2002), to assess the actual proportion of farewell poems to the whole preserved poetry of a limited region and time. I chose for this region my university town, Tartu (known in the Early Modern times as Dorpat).

          They Got To Be Short

          This initiated the methodical and careful collecting of all poems printed in this place during 1632–1656 (the first period of Tartu University’s existence) and representing it as a by-product in the online textual corpus (in all about 2000 poems and 22 000 verses).

          The results of my research showed that Early Modern farewell poems were a marginal poetical genre for the academic elite (about 4% of the whole poetry) and seldom appeared in the courtly and public context. Broadly, the results of this assessment can be used for a guiding average, which can (with some exception, of course) be generalized for other areas of European humanist culture as well.

          A second important question for the history of this genre is how the farewell poems were composed. The contemporary poetical and rhetorical demands for writing farewell poems are short, unsystematic and spread unchangeably from one manual to other. The traditional method of comparing the theoretical treatises and poetical practice of occasional poetry does not help us very much. I concluded that the poets had to learn to compose valedictory poems mostly from the earlier samples of farewell poetry (e.g., which literary form to use in a farewell poem).

          Thus to analyse a valedictory poem we have to be acquainted with the classical farewell poems of Horace, Propertius, Statius, Sidonius etc., as well as the most famous Neo-Latin valedictory poems and farewell poems from the nearest surroundings of the poet. This kind of approach is already accepted in the research of this genre, as a recent analysis by L. Mundt (Tübingen 2008) of the occasional Neo-Latin poetry of the German poet Simon Dach demonstrates.

          Bad-Wishing Valedictory Poems

          Due to the quite petrified rules in the theoretical treatises and the frequent ignoring of them in the actual poetical practice, the valedictory poems may be much more open for innovative motifs, literary forms, etc. than the other kinds of occasional poetry. That is my task in future research endeavors. At one point, one theoretical treatise was, however, very influential. In classical literature, besides the good-wishing farewell poems there exists the opposite style of wishing a departing person in a poem a terrible trip with several troubles and no return (e.g., the Episode 10 of Horace, Carmen 3 of Catullus).

          Even the Italian humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries wrote such bad-wishing valedictory poems. However, these opposite valedictory poems disappeared from poetic practice after the 1561 publication of the Seven Books about Poetry by J. C. Scaliger, in which the reverse valedictory poems are not mentioned. As Scaliger’s authority grew rapidly in the northern parts of Europe, the poetic tradition continued on without this poetic form.

          To sum up, I would like to emphasize that alongside the scrupulous study of extinct species of flora, fauna and ancient material culture, a historical overview of forgotten literary genres may show us essential changes in the development of human existence, from valedictory poems to insurance forms.

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