Even before Islam, poetry was at the heart of Arabic culture.  It spread and developed wherever  the Arabic language came to be spoken, from Damascus to Fez, Baghdad to Cairo as  well as the Arabian heartland.  This book takes us on a poetic journey through the Classical age of Arabic poetry, from about the year 600 AD to about 1000 AD.

The poignant images of solitude, impossible love, and the austere beauty of the desert pervade Arabic poetry from its beginnings, even when the poet lived in an urban courtly milieu.  There are mystical poems, and blasphemous ones; war poems, political ones, satires, joke-poems and over-wrought if ingenious nature poems.  The range of subject, register and tone is surprising for a time when individualism was supposedly discouraged in favour of conformity to a canon.  Some of these poets were free-thinkers whose lyrics led them to prison or worse.

This collection is newly selected and translated.  It attempts to convey the spirit and, when possible, something of the rhythms of this highly musical verse.

Eland Books, London 2009 (Buy Now from the Publisher)

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From the Introduction:

The Origins of Arabic Poetry

As with many interesting subjects about which very little is known for sure, the origin of Arabic poetry has given rise to a lot of speculation.  I am afraid that what we actually know is limited to this: beginning in about the eighth century AD, Muslims began to compile and comment in writing on the text of the Holy Quran, and this process favoured the written compilation of what were then considered to be the monuments of Arabic poetry from the Time of Ignorance (possibly better translated “Wildness”), that is, before the revelation of the Holy Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.  From the complex metres and forms of these earliest recorded poems, it is clear that there was a flourishing poetic art among the tribes living in and near the Arabian Peninsula and who spoke the Semitic language we call Arabic, in all likelihood by the early sixth century AD.   This poetry must have been passed on by memory from one generation to another until it was preserved in writing much later; some of it could have been composed through oral improvisation—indeed, metrically interchangeable formulaic phrases have been identified in pre-Islamic poetry, just as in Homer. But here we stray into speculation.

These pre-Islamic poems, whatever their origin, were so revered by the Arabs that seven of them were—as the story goes—chosen to be suspended (“mu‘allaqat”) in the Holy of Holies, the Ka‘ba at Mecca.  There is actually no evidence they were suspended anywhere or written down at all before the Hegira, nor even that they were selected as a discrete group of seven before the late ninth century AD; but they did come over time to be revered as the seminal masterpieces of the language despite their pagan origin.
Many of the thematic and metrical conventions observed in those qasidas or “odes” continued to provide the canon for Arabic poetry until modern times, an astounding example of formal continuity even if the inspiration of the later practitioners was not comparable to that of their desert-dwelling models.

One thing that is not open to argument is the importance, perhaps the unique importance, of poetry in Arabian life around the time of the first extant poems in the language; in the much-quoted words of an eleventh-century Arab, Ibn Rashiq:

When there appeared a poet in a family of the Arabs, the other tribes round about would gather together to that family and wish them joy of their good luck.  Feasts would be got ready, the women of the tribe would join together in bands, playing upon lutes, as they were wont to do at bridals, and the men and boys would congratulate one another; for a poet was a defence to the honour of them all, a weapon to ward off insult from their good name, and a means of perpetuating their glorious deeds and of establishing their fame for ever.  And they used not to wish one another joy but for three things—the birth of a boy, the coming to light of a poet, and the foaling of a noble mare[i].

The Qasida

The poetic tradition that appears so suddenly is an astonishingly mature one: serious poetry consisting of long (often over 100 lines) monorhyme pieces with a set thematic progression:  the poet weeps over an abandoned campsite in the desert, addressing his companions (usually in the number of two) with his “ubi sunt”, then progressing to an amorous poem (also elegiac), the nasib; then describing his own prowess in warfare (fakhr or hamasa), and finally the point (gharad) of it all, usually the madih or praise of the person to whom the poem is addressed.  Anything shorter or lacking any of the set components is a qit‘a or “fragment”.  This might sound like a prescription for boring sameness: but good poets have always used tight formal constraints to shine through nuance.  One of them said so (literal translation):

My fellow tribesmen saw how I aspired to do great
things, and tried to imitate me,

But their efforts were laboured, their souls
constrained as poetry is by metre[ii]

The problem, of course, is that the canon outlived itself, and there are certainly tiresome poems where an urban poet who has obviously never seen the desert or a camel weeps over the campsite and goes through the whole routine in a panegyric to another city-dweller who never left Cairo or Seville or Baghdad in his life.  But, especially prior to about 1000 AD, the exceptions to the rule were many and the best poets wrote intensely personal, highly irreverent and often licentious verse that would have got a contemporary Western European burned at the stake.

Stock Imagery and Rhetoric in Arabic Verse

The story goes that a student in a French language class, on hearing “Pierre qui roule n’amasse pas mousse”, exclaimed, “How beautiful!”  There is even more danger of this in a language which is more exotic for the Western reader than French; the following are a few of the stock images which the poets embroider on, the embroidery being the point, not the cloth itself (a distinction already pithily made by a pre-Islamic poet:

Have the poets left a single
spot where a patch can still be sewed?)

Take “heat and water/passion and tears”.  This image is taken as a given and endlessly reworked:

Coursing tears and burning breast

Water and fire

Only joined by momentous events

Others include the lightning smile of the beloved, the lover who wastes away through yearning until the wind blows him away, the eyes like bows shooting glances like  arrows, the river’s surface rippling like chain-mail, and so on.  Sometimes the reader’s knowledge and expectation of a stock image is taken for granted, and the reference is often oblique, playful or ironic.

The rhetorical devices used by poets were exhaustively described by the Arab critics from an early time; some are common to most poetics (tibaq, antithesis or mentioning two words of opposite meaning in the same line), or mubalagha (hyperbole), some are peculiar to Arabic (jinas, the juxtapositioning of two words having the same trilateral root consonants, but different meanings, especially the variant jinas musahhaf, where the words differ in their diacritical markings, i.e. the shape of the letters without the single dot that distinguishes “ra’” from “za’”, for instance).  This gets very recondite for the non-Arabist, and as a result some poems are praised which seem to an outsider to be merely sterile exercises in accumulating rhetorical figures.

Arabic Metre

Arabic metrics are quantitative, based on the patterns of long and short vowels, and could be illustrated by musical notation as easily as any other.  That may explain why so much of Arabic poetry was intended to be sung, or was later set to music; but the fact is that it is remarkably musical in itself.  There are theories that the system used to classify the numerous and varied metres was derived from the beating of copper in the bazaar, or the different gaits of the camel; but what is certain is that Arabic poetry is built on a rhythmic basis of great variety and subtlety.  There is a metre for high-falutin’ encomia (tawil), one (rajaz, the oldest) for narrative verse and doggerel, and many others for lyrical or elegiac verse. Their metres are defined by the juxtaposition of short and long syllables, rather than with stress in the spoken language (though a long and normally stressed syllable may, and often do, coincide).  I will try to illustrate.

Tawil  (“long”) is the solemn  grand chant metre of the Arabs.  If you tried to duplicate
its powerful, swelling, hypnotic rhythm in English you might get something like

Aríse now, take úp your swórd and
gírd ón your báttle-géar

Contrast this with the tripping rhythm of  kamil (“complete”), the metre of
‘Antara’s mu‘allaqa:

Little bóys and bíg ónes pláy at
wár in the súmmertíme

There are just enough permitted variations in the metres that, once a given form is chosen, it governs every line in a long poem without monotony; in Arabic, metre and language are tightly woven and the result, in the best poems, is astoundingly effective at conveying a mood, a vivid image whether sadly lyrical, boisterously celebratory, or ominously warlike.

The Selection

This anthology does not pretend to be a truly representative selection of Arabic verse from its origins to its decadence.  I have chosen poems that I thought would be likely to interest a Western reader by virtue of their content, since that is about all one can realistically hope will survive the distortion of translation.  This criterion unfortunately leaves out some important poems that one would have doubtless included in an anthology intended for an Arabic-reading public, on the basis of linguistic or prosodic virtuosity.

In selecting poets for inclusion, I have gone a bit heavier on those who seem, at least, to be sharing personal emotions or experiences with us, than those whose art is more lapidary; that is a matter of personal preference and one of the prerogatives of the anthologist.  There are no poems from Muslim Spain as they have been the subject of a separate anthology in this series[iii].

A Note on the Translation

What does it mean to “translate poetry”?  I am still not sure; all too aware that what
I have produced is not poetry, I think I can defend the fact that it conveys in English most of the main literal meaning of the original.  I have wanted to convey also some feeling for the spirit, the mood, the tone or whatever one might call it; and wherever I could, some distant approximation of the rhythm of this most musical of poetic languages.

[i] Sir
Charles Lyall, Ancient Arabian Poetry (London, 1930), p. 17.

[ii] Abu Firas, Diwan Abi Firas, ed. Al-Husain bin Khalawaih (Beirut, 1966), p.178.

[iii] ANDALUS:
Moorish Songs of Love and Wine
(London: Eland, 2007).


2 thoughts on “Arabia”

  1. Dear Dr Gorton

    I cannot recall having been as electrified (and moved) by poetry in translation as when reading your felicitous rendering into English of the qasidahs. This is to ask if you might perhaps be able and willing to furnish particulars of the originals.

    The oeuvre of Jarir especially and that of Qays ibn al-Mulawwa and Bashshar ibn Burd: is this material readily available in print? If so, in what edition and where published?

    I ask because I have, I believe, just enough Arabic to make it possible to read it in the original: having read through your collection with delight and interest, I’m certainly tempted to do so!

    I hope to be in Beirut in the coming weeks; can you recommend a bookshop/bookseller there?

    With kind wishes (and hopes for your continuing good health)

    D M Ross (Montreal)

    • Dear Mr Ross,
      Thank you for your kind comments on my translations. It is very gratifying to know someone appreciates them.

      I am currently travelling in Greece and cannot look up the details of the various editions of the poets you mention. However in Beirut you should go to one of the big bookshops, like Librairie Antoine at the ABC Center in Ashrafiye and on Hamra Street in West Beirut. Also Sin el Fil. They have all the editions and I am sure will be very helpful when they hear of your interest. Antoine online is a good shopping site, you might find an anthology that would save you having to buy so many books. Alternatively the AUB Bokshop on campus is excellent.

      I will be interested to hear how you get on. Good luck to you!

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