Ottoman History, in Rhyme

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

The first full-scale depiction of Ottoman history in English was Richard Knolles’ The Generall Historie of the Turkes, which he published in 1603. Because this book proved very popular, it was reprinted numerous times in the seventeenth century, usually with updates to keep the text current. The 1687 edition at Dumbarton Oaks names Sir Paul Rycaut as the author of the new material.

Before I picked up the Generall Historie last week, I had done some background research. I was informed that this history was told through the lives of each Ottoman sultan, so that the history becomes a series of biographies, from Osman I in the early fourteenth century to Mehmed IV in the late seventeenth. When I started looking at the text, I thought I knew what I would find. One facet surprised me, however: the poetry.

At the beginning of each new chapter of the Generall Historie, on the page where the next sultan ascends the throne, the reader encounters both a portrait of the sultan and two poems about him. In volume 1, which Knolles wrote, the author composed a poem in Latin and a poem in English summarizing the life of each sultan he described. (Volume 2, which covers the additional period between 1603 and 1687, also has English poems, but they are mostly not so inspired as Knolles’.)

Here are my favorite five of the English poems from Knolles’ original work, in chronological order. One theme I enjoyed throughout is Knolles’ existential moralizing on how fast, even for famous sultans and kings, human greatness and other “sublunary gloryes” fade away. Because the text is small, I include my transcriptions of the English poems after the images.

Osman I, p. 91

Whilest weltring in it’s gore proud Asia lay,
To Saracens, and Tartars made a Prey,
While Christian Swords wounded each others breast,
And Greece with mad Sedition was distrest,
Bold Ottoman the dire Advantage takes,
And a new road for Desolation makes.
A barbarous Empire his Ambition founds,
His cruel scepter staind with bloud, and wounds.

Murad I, p. 131

Sterne Amurath new thoughts resolves upon,
With armes divided Greece to overrun;
And wholly bent to’enlarge his narrow bounds,
Europe invades, and all he meets confounds:
The too too timorous Thracians stand amaz’d,
To find his Scepter in their bowells plac’d,
The fierce Bulgarians, did his fury quell,
And at his feet their noble Despot fell:
At last the ponyard [knife] of a little Slave
Taught him, what Short liv’d pleasures Tyrants have.

Mehmed II, or Mehmed the Conqueror, p. 229

I who to kingdomes, Cities, brought their fate,
The terrour of the trembling world, of late,
Yield to the greater Monarch Death, but am
Yet proud to think of my immortal fame.
Greater than Alexander, once was I,
Or him that Camps of Romans did destroy:
I vanquist the victorious Greeks, and I
Destroyd Epyrus, and fierce Tartary,
From mighty Me th’Hungarians had their doome,
And the report reacht ye proud walls of Rome.
The Assyrian, and Arabian felt my hand,
Nor could the Persian my dread power withstand.
Ore Rhodes, and Italy I designed to ride,
But fate the progress of my aimes denyd,
Ai me,’ grim Death, and one unlucky houre,
Has baffled all my thoughts, and boundless power.
So haughty man, and all his hopes decay,
And so all sublunary gloryes pass away.

Selim I, p. 339

Lo Selymus, the vilest of the Othoman brood,
Embru’d his hands in Father’s, Brothers bloud.
Persian, Egyptian, Syrian, and Moore
Submit their Scepters to his insolent pow’r;
But when the Christians Realms he vainly thought
To speedy desolation to have brought,
A mortall ulcer seized him, to make knowne
The great Messiah can protect his owne.

Murad III, p. 651

Valiant I was not, none deserve that name
But those, whose generous minds bespeake their fame.
Fortune advanc’d me high, and fickle Shee
Still found a Soule, bravely prepard in me,
Soft in my tender years tho’ I became,
Yet still I priz’d the glory of my name:
I sent abroad my Ministers of State,
To doe the Slavish drugery of my fate.

Osman, Ferhates, Sinan, Mustapha
The terrors of the World, did me obey.
I broke the Medes, and the Armenian Powers,
And batterd downe the proud Taurisian Towers.
Yet what’s all this to my ill gott renowne,
Since greatest things are soonest tumbled down,
We’re robb’d of all we have, in one short houre,
And quickly we, and ours shall be no more.