A 16th/17th-century Arabic manuscript belonging to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut (on which see pp. 5-6 of Illuminations, Spring 2011) contains the old Arabic poems known as Al-Muʿallaqāt along with some brief commentary on individual words. The Muʿallaqāt, usually deemed to be seven in number but sometimes more, are the most famous collection of classical Arabic poems. They have, of course, long excited interest and enjoyment in arabophone and arabophile places, and 19th- and 20th-century European orientalists toiled over these long and often difficult poetic works with manuscript-hunting, editions, commentaries, and translations. An edition with Arabic commentary appeared in Leipzig in 1850 by F.A. Arnold (see the poem of Labīd, with commentary, beginning here).
The image below shows the end of the poem of Imruʾ al-Qays and the beginning of Labīd’s; the latter poem is actually the second poem in this copy, but it is often the fourth poem in others. A prose translation into English of Labīd’s poem survives from the hand of William Wright and it was published in 1961 (see reference below).
These opening lines of the poem in Wright’s translation are:
1. Effaced are the dwelling-places at Minā, whether temporary or permanent; desolate are their Ghaul and their Rijām,
2. and the slopes of ar-Raiyān; their traces are laid bare, but old and worn, just as the rocks retain the letters graven on them.
3. Sites of dwellings are these, over which, since they were last inhabited, many a long year has passed with its full tale of sacred and profane months.
4. They have been gifted with the showers of the constellations of spring, and the rains of the thunderclouds have fallen on them in torrents and in drizzle;
5. rains from every cloud of the night, and morning cloud that covers the sky, and evening cloud whose thunderpeals answer one another.
6. And so the shoots of the wild rocket have sprung up over them, and the gazelle and the ostrich have their young on the two sides of the valley;
7. and the antelopes lie quietly by their young, to which they have newly given birth, while their fawns roam in flocks over the plain.
8. And the torrents have newly laid bare the marks of the tents, as if they were lines of writing whose text the pens retrace;
9. or the lines which a woman tattooing traces afresh, rubbing in her lampblack in circles, on which her pattern reappears.
A more thorough comparison would clarify the relationship, but it is notable that several of the explanatory words in the NEST manuscript agree exactly with the commentary published by Arnold, reflecting a tradition of comment on the poem(s).
Lamentation for the lost past, in particular as tied to a specific place, is a hallmark of old Arabic poetry, and these nine lines illustrate the theme well. This kind of writing can, to be sure, on occasion lean toward tedium, but the variety of similes, not to mention the language itself, can also to one in the right mood for it offer worthwhile evocative amusement. When reading these lines I thought of Aragorn’s mournful recitation of the lament for the old days of Rohan in chapter six of Book III of The Lord of the Rings (see The Two Towers [i.e. part two of the whole work], pp. 496-497) and beginning “in the Common Speech” — Legolas does not understand the language but knows that it is that of the Rohirrim and that the song “is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men” — with the words “Where now the horse and the rider? Where now the horn that was blowing?” It is widely known that Tolkien took as models for many aspects of The Lord of the Rings things literary, linguistic, and historical from Anglo-Saxon and other adjacent cultures, and this is the case with this piece of poetry, too. The source is the well-known Old English poem The Wanderer, beginning at line 92 (full text, with translation, available here, along with a note linking this part to Tolkien’s poem):
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune!
Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære.
The “where? …where? …where?” (hwær) is in both the Old English poem and in Tolkien’s, with characteristic sound repetition, and in The Wanderer there is yet more repetition with eala (“alas”). There is sound repetition, too, in Labīd’s poem, but of a different kind: each line (bayt) ends in -hā (usually -āmuhā), and in some cases not only the second hemistich (called ʿaǧuz al-bayt, the back-end of the line), but also the first hemistich (ṣadr al-bayt, the front of the line). In all of these poems, whatever the language and whatever the sound repetition, the sadness they’re laden with is palpable, and when you’re in a melancholic mood, or some worse kind of temperament, it makes for something of a balm to hear and read yourself of the melancholic remembrances of others.
F.A. Arnold, Septem Mo‘allaḳât Carmina Antiquissima Arabum (Leipzig, 1850).
Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literatur I (Weimar, 1898), 17-19, with Supplementband I (Leiden, 1937), 34-36.
Ursula Schedler, “A Prose Translation of the Mo‘allaqah of Labid by William Wright,” Journal of Semitic Studies 6 (1961): 97-104.