What exactly is a warrior poet? Most people probably point to the Knights Templar or Japanese samurai as examples of this virute. I suppose the exact meaning of such a concept may be individually determined by each who identifies as such. Nevertheless, there should be some commonalities between the definitions offered by all those who claim such a title as dictated by the meanings behind the two root words: “warrior” and “poet.” To put it simply, a warrior is one who fights; a poet is one who writes; and a warrior poet would be one who does both. Yet, that is certainly too simple an explanation to be satisfactory for most, myself included.
To be more precise, a warrior is an individual who is engaged in or has experience in battle. That begs the question of how to define battle, and battle may be defined as an encounter between opposing forces. So, a warrior is someone who has experience encountering opposition of some kind and engaging with it in a confrontation.
What then is a poet? Well, a poet is one who writes poems. What then are poems? Well, that can be defined many ways. One such would be to say that a poem is a composition of words to convey experiences, ideas, or emotions in a lyrical, suggestive, imaginative, or interpretive way. A poet may also be defined as a “maker of verse” in more historical terms.
So then, a “warrior poet” would be one who is experienced with encountering opposing forces; engaging them in battle or confrontation; and conveying their experiences, ideas, and/or emotions in such a way that may be described as poetry. That is quite a long definition which leaves itself open to critique and revision. In truth, that may be unavoidable. Many describe the ideal of the warrior poet with comparisons to historical and existing groups which embodied the ideal in their view, indicative that exactly what constitutes a “warrior poet” is indeed dependent on how the concept is defined by each individual who identifies as such.
Therefore, it would be informative to look at historical groups which have been described as upholding or inspiring the virtue of the warrior poet. No doubt, chief among these are the Knights Templar and the Japanese Samurai. There are many others though. The Spartans and Athenians of Ancient Greece are also noted to have upheld the virtue of the warrior poet, among numerous other groups across human history.
The Knights Templar
The Knights Templar were an elite fighting force of Christians during the Middle Ages who rose up during the First Crusade to liberate areas which had been conquered by Islamic forces during the Muslim Conquests. The Knights Templar protected unarmed pilgrims traveling the Holy Land who a group known as the Seljuk Turks targeted with violence in a campaign of religious persecution. They were raised from a young age as a page before becoming a squire to a knight. They learned about literature, poetry, and virtue, and chivalry before learning how to fight. They were raised to uphold the Knights Templar Code which taught them to be virtuous and fight to defend those who could not defend themselves. While not required, it was expected that knights would be able to produce and recite poetry, and it was certainly required of those who wanted to rise to great prominence and prestige.
The Japanese Samurai were a class of warrior poets in Japan centuries ago which we have discussed on this blog before and will explore further in the future. They were highly skilled in the use of swords and bows, practicing mounted archery and possessing armor designed to mitigate the need for a shield since both of their hands would be occupied with a weapon or the reigns of their horse. They were also raised from a young age to uphold a code of conduct known as the Bushido Code. This code taught them to live with honor; respect and protect others; seek justice; and remain loyal. They also practiced Zen Buddhism and were immersed in art, music, and poetry. The Japanese people have long been a very literate society dating back to the time of the samurai, and these famous warriors were seen as elites not just in the ways of war; but also in their way with words.
Sparta and Athens
The ancient Greek city-states of Sparta and Athens and great leaders of their time are also often extolled as even earlier examples of the virtue of the warrior poet. General Thucydides of Athens once stated: “The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.” While Sparta is often remembered nowadays for the prowess of its warriors, the Spartans were also renowned and widely-respected across ancient Greece. Great leaders from Sparta like the notorious King Leonidas were said to uphold the warrior poet virtue. In fact, Sparta produced more poetry that was preserved into the modern era than Athens, despite Athens having more of a reputation for literature and poetry in the minds of many average citizens.
The virtue of the warrior poet has taken many forms throughout history and will no doubt continue to do so into the future. For me, as a martial artist and a writer, I strive to uphold this virtue myself. I strive to be competent and capable of defending myself in verbal, written, and physical confrontations. I practice almost every day by reading, writing, exercising, and practicing ways to defend myself. I seek out training from professionals to enhance my skills and ensure I am always thinking ahead about how best to overcome any challenge that life may throw my way. I also strive to pass these virtues onto others as well, as I understand the quote from Thucydides and do not wish for such a society to come to fruition. Should it, I would then do what is possible within my lifetime to reverse the societal decay which fomented such a society.
What about you? What does the virtue of the warrior poet mean to you? Are you someone who loves to write but has never tried any kind of combat art, or have you been practicing to fight all your life but never gave much thought to literature? I would encourage everyone to look into the history of the concept of the warrior poet and begin thinking about what you can do today to start upholding this virtue. If you already do, feel free to share what you like to do as part of your daily routine to keep your skills sharp and your pencil even sharper!
We will definitely be touching upon this topic and the groups mentioned in greater detail in the future, so stay tuned for more updates!
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