Many of the literary motifs will seem familiar to the modern reader, but the significance of these motifs is very different from what modern expectations would suggest. The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is, for example, remarkably similar in many ways to Coleridge's The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner; in both a sailor tells of strange adventures in which he met representatives of another world, but their aesthetic and intellectual concerns are different, as are the genres.
The literary canon comprises a group of fictional texts, belonging to three main genres: the narrative, which shows great formal variety, and two types of wisdom text. The Tales are the easiest to appreciate, and display a taste for narrative skill and fantastic events that is relatively timeless. Wisdom texts are, however, an unfamiliar form to the modern reader. Of the two types of wisdom literature, the Teaching (sebayet) is the most formally unified; in it a wise father speaks to his son, presenting the fruits of his experience in didactic and reflective utterances. There are two subgenres: the private teaching, where the teacher is a high official, and the royal teaching, where the teacher is a king at the end of his reign, so that the teaching becomes a speculum regnis in which the king's experience embraces a universal range. The other type of wisdom text is more reflective and takes various forms, including the Discourse (medet) and the Dialogue; they are all, however, to some extent pessimistic and form ‘complaints’ or ‘elegies’ lamenting the vicissitudes of life.
The canon displays great interweaving and combination of different genres drawn from the whole of Egyptian writing, and a flexibility which allows the creation of hybrid genres. The titles used to refer to many poems are modern inventions. Only the Teachings were invariably given titles, starting ‘Beginning of the Teaching …’; some Discourses have titles, but they often open with narrative prologues. Tales characteristically start without a title.
Egyptian literature lacks dramatic and epic genres, although performative ritual texts and commemorative texts occupy these roles to some extent outside the narrowly literary corpus. Comedy is muted, although satire runs rather fitfully throughout the poetry. In the Middle Kingdom, lyric songs seem not to have been part of the written canon in their own right, but they could be included in other written poems; they were performative oral poetry, and bound to particular contexts. They are preserved only as captions on tomb walls, or, if sacred, in copies derived from temple libraries, such as a papyrus from the settlement of el-Lahun, which contains ritual hymns to King Senwosret III:
How your [descendants] rejoice! You have fixed their borders. How your ancestors of old rejoice! You have made great their portion. How the Egyptians rejoice at your strength! You have protected the ancient heritage.7 Text: K. Sethe, Ägyptische Lesestücke2 (Leipzig, 1928), 66, ll. 14–17.
Texts that match many modern readers’ expectations of lyric poetry entered the written literary canon only in the New Kingdom. Their immediate charm, can be exemplified in a snatch of a love-song that was scribbled on the back of an apprentice's papyrus (c.1220 BC):
If the wind comes, he's for the sycomore; if you come 〈you're for me〉.8 P. Anastasi II, verso 5; the second verse is only half-written, as if the apprentice were distracted or interrupted. Text: M. V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison, Wis., 1985), 404.
The prominence given here to landscape and to the description of emotions, especially love, is lacking in the Middle Kingdom; its literature is, in modern terms, not pastoral or lyrical, but rather didactic. The poems are generally unromantic in all senses of the word, but they are not impersonal or abstract; they have an intimate mode of address and deal with personal themes, being concerned with the human heart. Man's ethical life is their central concern, and not the cultivation of subjectivity, or personal emotions such as romantic love.
7 Text: K. Sethe, Ägyptische Lesestücke2 (Leipzig, 1928), 66, ll. 14–17.
8 P. Anastasi II, verso 5; the second verse is only half-written, as if the apprentice were distracted or interrupted. Text: M. V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison, Wis., 1985), 404.