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I recently discovered an interesting type of poetry. When read one way, it says one thing and when read a different way, the opposite, all with the same words.

A sub-type of these is known as the punctuation poem. Apparently "reverse poem" is the term used for another sub-type (read top line to bottom and then bottom to top), though I think it's fitting as an umbrella term.

(I know of carmen cancellatum, another interesting type of poetry, but it's not what I'm looking for here because it doesn't use the same words in both messages, nor are the messages opposite each other.)

What is the earliest example of a "reverse" poem? (The date to beat is somewhere in the 1400s and I would appreciate if you can include the original text and a Modern English translation of your suggestions.)


Examples:

In the following (circa 15th century) Middle English poem ("Punctuation Poem"), there are two sets of punctuation, one in the middle of the lines, one at the end. If the middle set are ignored and the end set are periods, the poem takes on one meaning (people do what's right). If you do the reverse, then it says the opposite, that people are horrible.

Nowe the lawe is ledde by clere conscience .
ffull seld . Couetise hath dominacioun .
In Every place . Right hath residence .
Neyther in towne ne feld . Similacion .
Ther is truly in euery cas . Consolacioun .
The pore peple no tyme hase . but right .
Men may fynd day ne nyght . Adulacioun .
Nowe reigneth treuth in euery mannys sight .

This poem from 1655 ("The Jesuit's Creed") follows a similar premise. Read across the rows, it's pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic. Read down the columns, it's the opposite.

I HOLD as faith What England’s church alows
What Rome’s church saith My conscience disavows
Where the King’s head That church can have no shame
The flocks misled That holds the Pope supreame.
Where the altars drest There’s service scarce divine
The peoples blest With table, bread, and wine.
He’s but an asse Who the communion flies
Who shuns the masse Is catholick and wise.

Nether of these poems has an "official" title, and the wording used here for the Jesuit's Creed is quoted from the book Ancient Poems. Both these poems are translated into Modern English and explained in more detail on the blog Purple Motes, with some other examples.

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  • "He's but an asse / Who shuns the masse" - 17th-century religious creed or 21st-century doggerel? :-D – Rand al'Thor Feb 9 at 7:07
  • Here's another example which goes back at least to the mid-17th century. – Rand al'Thor Feb 9 at 7:08
  • Oracles might be a good direction to look in, since they're written and meter and famously ambiguous. Usually, though, the ambiguity is semantic, not by punctuation as you wanted. I do know a (purported) oracle with syntactic ambiguity, but it's given in prose, so it's not really a "poem" (see here at footnote 9) – b a Feb 9 at 16:19

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