Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Constrained writing in Syriac poetry   1 comment

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/28/Gadsby.jpgA conversation at the breakfast table this morning led to mention of E.V. Wright’s Gadsby (1939), a novel of no insignificant length that gets by without the letter E throughout its 50,000+ words. (I’ve not read it, but it’s apparently in print and buyable. Note also Georges Perec’s 1969 French novel, La Disparition, with several translations.) Avoiding this or that letter is a kind of constrained writing called a lipogram, but other kinds of constraint include palindromes, alliteratives, univocalism, attention to etymological source (e.g. avoiding latinate words in English), and acrostics. Meter and rhyme are the most typical constraints in much poetry.

These and other constraints, of course, are generally not limited to one particular language, although their application might be more difficult in some languages than others. Other than the meter (5-syllable, 7-syllable, and 12-syllable) and, more occasionally, rhyme, Syriac poetry offers (at least) two kinds of constrained writing, one common and the other rare: 1. the acrostic and 2. having lines or line-pairs that begin and end with the same letter. (I have tried but failed to come up with a concise name for № 2.)

Acrostic poems are well known in various languages, including English, but here we are mainly concerned with alphabetic acrostics. (For Hebrew, see the discussion, with several examples, of W.G.E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, 190-200, with bibliography, and for later examples see T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, e.g. 206-207, 221-223, 223-224, 233-234, 235-238.) In Syriac, alphabetic acrostic poems, both mēmrē and madrāšē, are plentiful. Ephrem provides many early examples of strophic (as opposed to stichic) acrostics, and Andrew Palmer has studied them (see bibliography below). The hymn Res. 1 is not an alphabetic acrostic, but actually spells out Ephrem’s own name in the beginning strophes and then follows with strophes that all begin with M (vocalized text and ET in Brock and Kiraz, 80-95). The hymn Nis. 1 is an alphabetic acrostic, but it generally skips every other letter, the exception being the sequence P-Q (ʾ g h z ṭ k m s p q š; text and ET in Brock and Kiraz, 224-245). There are also other patterns, even reaching across several poems: № 7-15 of the hymns on Abraham of Qidun (ed. Beck, CSCO 322) follow the alphabet from start to finish with varying numbers of stanzas given to each letter.

We also find acrostics in dialogue poems, e.g. in text 3 of the collection published by Brock (pp. 13-14) we have, after a proem, each speaker beginning a line following the order of the alphabet up to ḥ, at which point the rest of the poem is lost. Several other texts in the collection (e.g. texts 8, 9) follow the same pattern and are complete. There are countless other acrostic poems in later Syriac literature, many still unpublished.

The other kind of constrained writing in Syriac poetry I would like to point out has two examples from the hand of Yaʿqub (Severos) bar Šakko (d. 1241) of Barṭelle. (See Martin and Sprengling in the bibliography for his discussions of poetry.) These verse letters have been known about, but they have not been published or translated, as far as I know. There are two copies of them both at HMML in almost identical manuscripts, even down to the pagination, copied by Dolabani (ZFRN 40 and CFMM 144). The first (pp. 261-263 in the mss) is “A Letter to Rabban Mar Faḫr al-Dawla bar Tomā” and the second (pp. 264-268) is “A Letter to Rabban Abū Ṭāhir Ṣāʿid, known as Tāǧ Al-Dawla bar Tomā of Baghdad”. The constraint in both texts, aside from the 7-syllable meter, is that each poem has each of its couplets beginning with the same letter, P in the first case, T in the second. Here is the beginning of the P-poem:

CFMM 144, p. 261

CFMM 144, p. 261

Here are the first four 7-syllable lines (copied two to a line in the manuscript) in English:

I have stretched out my neck in righteousness,

That I might bow before [his] feet.

I have opened my mouth that I might greet

Him who chases away every bad thing.

And now an example from the T-poem:

tāgāra (h)w da-myattrātā

d-šuprēh nābaʿ galyāʾit

tēʾaṭron (h)u d-ḥasyutā

wa-gmir b-kol-znā mpattkāʾit

He is a merchant of excellent goods,

Whose virtue springs up openly.

He is a theater of holiness,

And perfect in every way with variety.

The T-poem has its lines ending in adverbs in -āʾit, and similarly pp. 205-208 of these same two manuscripts have a mēmrā on fasting by John Ismaʿil (d. 1365 according to the manuscript), Patriarch of Antioch and nephew of Ignatius b. Wahīb (on whom see Graf, GCAL II: 271), in which every line of the poem ends with an adverb in -āʾit.

These Syriac authors show the depth of their knowledge of the language in being able to construct poems in these forms, and students may find their practice sharpened by studying these texts more closely. It may be easy to get caught up in the formalism of poetry with acrostic or other letter-focused features, but as a reading of the examples singled out here will show, this is not mere form — not that that’s always a bad thing. Plenty is still said here, and said well.

Bibliography (incl. basics for Syriac poetry)

Bickell, G. “Noch ein Wort über alphabetische und akrostichische Lieder Ephräms.” ZDMG 26 (1872): 809-811.

Brock, S.P. “The Dispute Poem: From Sumer to Syriac.” Bayn al-Nahrayn 7 [28] (1979): 417-426.

________. Sogyātā mgabbyātā. Holland, 1982.

________. “Syriac Dialogue Poems: Marginalia to a Recent Edition.” Le Muséon 97:1-2 (1984): 28-58.

________. “An Acrostic Poem on the Soul by Jacob of Serugh.” Sobornost 23:1 (2001): 40-44.

________. “Poetry and Hymnography (3): Syriac.” Pages 657-671 in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Edited by S.A. Harvey and D.G. Hunter. Oxford, 2008.

Brock, S.P. and G.A. Kiraz. Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems. Eastern Christian Texts 2. Provo, 2006.

Cardahi, G. Liber thesauri de arte poëtica Syrorum nec non de eorum poetarum vitis et carminibus. Rome, 1875.

Geiger, Abraham, “Alphabetische und akrostichontische Lieder bei Ephräm.” ZDMG (1867): 469-476.

Hölscher, G. Syrische Verskunst. Leipzig, 1932. Rev. by G. Bergsträsser in Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 36 (1933): 748-754.

Kirschner, B. “Alfabetische Akrosticha in der syrischen Kirchenpoesie.” OC I, 6 (1906): 1-69; 7 (1907), 254-291. (As a monograph: Alfabetische Akrosticha in der syrischen Kirchenpoesie. [Rome, 1907].)

Martin, J.-P.P. De la métrique chez les Syriens. Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 7.2. Leipzig, 1879.

Palmer, A. “St Ephrem of Syria’s Hymn on Faith 7: An Ode on His Own Name.” Sobornost / Eastern Churches Review 17:1 (1995): 28-40.

________. “Words, Silences, and the Silent Word: Acrostics and Empty Columns in Saint Ephraem’s Hymns on Faith.” PdO 20 (1995): 129-200.

________. “Akrostich Poems: Restoring Ephraim’s Madroshe.” The Harp 15 (2002): 275-287.

________. “Restoring the ABC in Ephraim’s Cycles on Faith and Paradise.” JECS 55:3-4 (2003): 147-194.

Schlögl, N. “Das Alphabet des Siraciden (Eccl. 51, 13-29). Eine textkritische Studie.” ZDMG 53 (1899): 669-682.

Sprengling, M. “Antonius Rhetor on Versification, with an Introduction and Two Appendices.” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 32:3 (1916): 145-216.

________. “Severus bar Shakko’s Poetics, Part II.” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 32:4 (1916): 293-308.

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A Syriac fragment on Job and his wife: Text and translation   1 comment

The manuscript CFMM 144, from the early twentieth century, is almost identical to ZFRN 40, a collection of Syriac mēmrē, especially by later authors, most of whom are not very well known and have been little studied. The CFMM manuscript is distinct, however, in having at the end a mēmrā by Isaiah of Bēt Sbirinā (d. 1425) on Job and his wife. (For a lighthearted review of the biblical tale, see here.) I do not yet know of any other copies of this text. Unfortunately the copy in CFMM 144 is incomplete, but nevertheless I would to share it along with a preliminary English translation. See the document here: isaiah_bet_sbirina_memra_job.

Vullers’ Persian chrestomathy   3 comments

Ferdowsi Square in Tehran (from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5f/Ferdowsi_Square_%28Tehran%29.jpg)

Ferdowsi Square in Tehran (from here)

Lest, dear reader, you grow over-full of Georgian, the subject of the last three (mini-)posts, here’s something on Persian.

Some days ago while studying one of the Muʿallaqāt, I came across some works of Johann August Vullers, who was a student of Antoine Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), but about whom I can find little other information. Vullers did work on Arabic poetry, but it was especially Persian literature that seems to have interested him. Of the works by Vullers that I found, including a grammar and lexicon, his Chrestomathia Schahnamiana in usum scholarum (Bonn, 1833) most caught my eye. I have a soft spot for chrestomathies — reading-books for foreign languages that are usually made up of shorter or longer excerpts, often together with glossaries and annotations — and the nineteenth century was a great age of chrestomathies. They may not be so commonly published now as they once were, but there is value in them for both students in courses and for autodidacts. This volume is a Persian reader (dedicated to August Wilhelm von Schlegel, 1767-1845), mostly from the Šāh-nāma, with Persian-Latin lexicon and a few notes. The purpose he gives as follows: “ut iuvenes ad legendum praeclarum istud Persicarum litterarum monumentum, Schahname dico, impellerem…” (“that I might urge the young to read that famous monument of Persian literature, the Šāh-nāma“). The contents are as follows:

  • pp. 1-25, from the part on Alexander the Great
  • pp. 26-70, on Sām’s son
  • pp. 71-86, “de libro fabularum, Calila et Dimna inscripto”
  • pp. 87-108, a selection from the Borzū-nāmā (it had been previously published by Kosegarten)
  • pp. 109-261, Persian-Latin glossary
  • 262-267 annotations

Part of Iranian epic tradition, the Šāh-nāma was put into its most well-known form by Ferdowsi, and there are translations into Turkish, Georgian, and many other languages, including European languages. Nöldeke (see bibliography below) was an avid reader of it, as evidenced not only in some of his books and articles but also in his letters, in a recent edition (Bernhard Maier, ed., Gründerzeit der Orientalistik: Theodor Nöldekes Leben und Werk im Spiegel seiner Briefe, 2013) of which one will find the work mentioned several times. (Georgian literary contacts with Persia are well known, and Rustaveli referred to his Knight in the Panther’s Skin, the Georgian national epic, as “This Persian tale, translated into Georgian,” ესე ამბავი სპარსული, ქართულად ნათარგმანები [st. 9].) In the preface, Vullers refers to De Sacy as “praeceptor meus dilectissimus” (p. vii, cf. p. xiii). There is a two-part review of the book, not favorable, by De Sacy in Journal des Savants, 1833, pp. 719-728, and 1834, pp. 207-18. (Thanks to Richard Budelberger for pointing out the first part, and for the links.)

vullers_chrest_schahnamiana

These old chrestomathies still have something to offer, even though their pedagogical method may not necessarily now be in vogue, even though the evident approach to text-editing may differ from ours, etc. For one thing, many of these books are easily available online. They provide thousands and thousands of lines of grist for the reading-mill. That in itself is a welcome boon for lesser-known languages that might not otherwise be an object of study for no other reason than a dearth of texts. In the best of cases, the texts were chosen both because they are interesting and because they are linguistically accessible, at the same time providing exposure to regular forms, constructions, and vocabulary. Many chresthomathies also offer annotations, sometimes meager, sometimes abundant, and a glossary. These helps will be found to be more or less useful depending as much on their quality and quantity as on the individual reader using the book. For what it’s worth, E.G. Browne recommends the Gulistan as the best Persian reading-texts for learners: “As a reading-book nothing on the whole excels the Gulistán of Saʿdí, of which there are good editions (furnished with full vocabularies) and translations by Eastwick and Platts” (A Literary History of Persia, vol. 1, [London and Leipzig, 1909],  p. 496).

Finally, for more Persian poetry reading, we can look forward to the (apparently forthcoming) Classics of Persian Poetry: A Primer for Students by Michael Craig Hillmann.

Bibliography (items linked to above not repeated here)

Texts and translations

A. E. Bertels (editor), Shax-nāme: Kriticheskij Tekst, nine volumes (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Nauka, 1960–71)

Clinton, Jerome W. The Tragedy of Sohráb and Rostám. Rev. ed. Seattle and London, 1996. [Persian text and ET.]

Mohl, Julius. Abu’l-Qāsem Ferdowsi, Le livre des rois. 7 vols. Paris, 1838-78. (At Internet Archive all but vol. 2 here.)

Warner, Arthur George and Edmond Warner. The Sháhnáma of Firdausí. 9 vols. London, 1905–1925. (At Internet Archive: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.)

Studies (and vocabulary)

Banani, Amin. “Reflections on Re-reading the Iliad and the Shahnameh.” Available here and here.

Moïnfar, Mohammad Djafar. Le vocabulaire arabe dans le Livre des rois de Firdausī: Étude philologique et de statistique linguistique. Wiesbaden, 1970.

Nöldeke, Th. Das iranische Nationalepos. 2nd ed. Berlin and Leipzig, 1920. (Available here and at Internet Archive here.)

The Shahnama Project. At Cambridge.

Wolff, Fritz. Glossar zu Firdosis Schahname, Berlin, 1935; reprint, Hildesheim, 1965.

Yarshater, E. “Iranian National History.” In Cambridge History of Iran III/1, pp. 359-477.

The Mardin (CFMM) manuscripts of Jacob of Sarug   Leave a comment

photoAmong the very many contributions of Arthur Vööbus (born in 1909 in Estonia, died 1988), to Syriac studies, most of which touch manuscripts in some way or other, one of his most thorough and still most valuable is the four-volume Handschriftliche Überlieferung der Mēmrē-Dichtung des Jaʿqōb von Serūg (CSCO 344-345, 421-422/Subs. 39-40, 60-61; Louvain, 1973-1980). Jacob of Sarug (or Serugh; ca. 451-521), a prolific luminary of Syriac literature, is especially known for his numerous metrical homilies (mēmrē), the main published collection of which is that edited by the great Paul Bedjan and exquisitely published by Harrassowitz in a fully vocalized East Syriac font (as in Bedjan’s other editions). Still not all of Jacob’s surviving work has been edited, much less translated, but a translation project into English, the results published by Gorgias Press, is underway and hopefully also readers who do not read Syriac will begin to appreciate this author more (subseries Metrical Homilies of Mar Jacob of Sarug, series Texts from Christian Late Antiquity). There are now 304 records on Jacob in the Syriac bibliography of the Hebrew University; on Jacob generally see Brock in GEDSH, 433-435. The aforementioned  books by Vööbus, indispensable for any close study of Jacob, present most of what is known concerning the manuscripts — those found in the well-known European collections and those in less accessible places in the Middle East — that have copies of Jacob’s works. Here, as in his other articles and books, we are impressed with the breadth of Vööbus’ manuscript experience and his record-keeping that is in such clear evidence. A perusal of the footnotes in almost any of his contributions reveals a mountain of work never published — how often does he refer to this or that piece “sous presse”, “im Druck”, or “in press” that never appeared? — but into these four volumes he poured years of close attention and study, and every student of Syriac literature is thus in his debt.

The work is a whole, but there are clear divisions in it, and not all of the volumes work the same way. There is, naturally, coverage of preliminary considerations at the beginning of vol. 1, and then he turns in that and the next volume to investigate manuscripts more or less particularly dedicated to preserving Jacob’s works (“Sammlungen”), and some of these are indeed hefty with line after line of that poetic bulk. Vols. 3 and 4 focus more on scattered witnesses to Jacob’s work (“Die zerstreuten Mēmrē”), that is, on manuscripts that are not really collections especially of Jacob, but that have one, two, or a few more mēmrē, amid works by other authors. Vols. 1 and 3 provide brief descriptions of the mss, while vols. 2 and 4 list the contents of the mss, with Syriac titles on the left pages, and the title in German translation on the right pages, but unfortunately he gives no incipits, for which, however, we now have Sebastian Brock’s list in vol. 6 of the augmented Gorgias Press reprint of Bedjan’s edition of Jacob’s mēmrē.

Vööbus’ Handschriftliche Überlieferung (HU), then, is obviously a great store of data for Jacob’s poetic œuvre, but it is not always easy to find the information you’re looking for, something I have discovered both while searching for details on a particular mēmrā and while hunting down the mss of particular collections. Something that can be done for each collection is to make a spreadsheet with the appropriate references in it. In its barest form, with shelfmarks and references to vol. and p. of HU, it would thus be useful for anyone with access to a particular collection, but of course the spreadsheet might be expanded to include date, codicological details, contents, bibliography, etc. A significant number of manuscripts for Jacob are present in Mardin in the collection of the Church of the Forty Martyrs (called CFMM at HMML), a massive collection, parts of which were earlier at nearby Dayr al-Zaʿfarān, and here I have made a simple spreadsheet for CFMM mss that Vööbus refers to. (Not all of CFMM has been cataloged at HMML, but much of it has; all of these Jacob mss are available for study at HMML, and copies may be ordered.) Collections of data like this for mss of Jacob’s works might eventually be brought into an open-access online database searchable by contents, date, collection, etc., but for now we must continue to have recourse to these four volumes of Vööbus’ helpful contribution.

Notwithstanding the attention hitherto given to Jacob’s homilies, there remains much work do be done: as mentioned above, not all of the mēmrē have been published, whether by Bedjan or someone else, and really only Vööbus has looked closely at the surviving mss, so that there is not yet a comprehensive picture of how the mss are related. I can say from my work cataloging and from my work in Bedjan’s edition that a new edition is needed, and the more accessible and clear manuscript data is for Jacob’s works, the better prepared the ground will be for that work.

CFMM 132, f. 16r (modern foliation): the beginning of the mēmrā "On the Beheading of John the Baptist" (cf. Bedjan, III 664-687).

CFMM 132, f. 16r (modern foliation): the beginning of the mēmrā “On the Beheading of John the Baptist” (cf. Bedjan, III 664-687).

Continuing manuscript culture   2 comments

Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 2.14.46 PMThe word “manuscript” conjures images of monks, quills, parchment, candles, and the like, that is, a mostly pre-modern setting and seemingly antiquated accoutrements, but the advent and proliferation of the printing press was hardly a death knell to writing by hand, neither in the fifteenth century, nor in those following (keyboards, physical or on-screen, notwithstanding). We don’t have to go back as far as some pre-modern period in Europe or elsewhere to find manuscripts (which, remember, simply means anything written by hand) as a notable witness to scholarly, creative, or memorial activity, and we are not talking here only of texts in old (Greek, Sanskrit, etc.) or semi-old (e.g. Middle English, Ottoman Turkish) varieties of language. Consider the “papers” (in French, English, and other contemporary languages) of relatively recent authors, such as James Joyce and others, which are very often handwritten. (Following widespread use of the typewriter, typewritten pages and sometimes even electronically produced documents are sometimes misleadingly referred to as “manuscripts”!) True, these documents are typically not copied and recopied: for that, printing was employed, and sometimes — if the assumed circulation was (or, prior to efforts by publishers such as Barney Rosset of Grove Press, had to be) small — private printing, one catalog of which is here, and which on the first page has the titles Double Acrostic Enigmas, with Poetical Descriptions selected principally from British Poets and Feigned Insanity, how most usually simulated, and how best detected! From Syriac studies we may point to Gottheil’s (age 23 at the time) little book to the right. (Thankfully, many of these privately printed books are now easily available online for a wide audience.)

“Manuscript culture” in the fullest sense refers not to a specific time, place, or language, but to the production and re-production (i.e. copying) of manuscripts. Taken thus, it is certainly most predominant in pre-modern periods, at least in Europe, but in the Middle East and parts of Africa (Ethiopia) — what about China, India, elsewhere? — copying texts has remained, at least in some small circles, a real practice. HMML has copies of very many Gǝʿǝz manuscripts from the 20th century, and likewise for manuscripts in Syriac, Arabic, and Garšūnī. Just from Mardin, and just in Syriac, HMML has copies of more than 80 manuscripts from the 20th century. The 1960s, it seems, were a relatively active period, with some large manuscripts copied then. As my colleague Wayne Torborg pointed out, someone may have been copying the words of Genesis in Syriac while, perhaps unbeknownst to them, those words in English were being recited from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968! While these late manuscripts may often — but hardly always! — be of limited value as textual witnesses, in terms of the manuscript as a physical product and in terms of examples of scribal activity, their worth is not at all negligible, not even to mention their colophons and readers’ notes, which are eminently unique. Also, I have talked before about the probable importance of reading handwriting (i.e. manuscripts) and practicing handwriting (copying manuscripts) in language learning (see here and here), and in the second place I pointed to certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century orientalists who seemingly used manuscript copying to good effect. So at least some manuscript copying was going on also among European scholars.

CFMM 550, dated 1945: Ibn Sīnā's Al-Išārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt in Garšūnī with Bar ʿEbrāyā's Syriac tr.

CFMM 550, dated 1945: Ibn Sīnā’s Al-Išārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt in Garšūnī with Bar ʿEbrāyā’s Syriac tr.

MGMT 81, dated 1968: Dionysios bar Ṣalibi's Commentaries on the Old Testament

MGMT 81, dated 1968: Dionysios bar Ṣalibi’s Commentaries on the Old Testament

Within this context and this definition of “manuscript culture”, I would like to highlight a very recently copied manuscript from the latest batch of files from Saint Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem. I had seen manuscripts with notes written in Syriac dated as late as 2008, and a very interesting manuscript that I doubt I shall ever forget is a collection of three saints’ lives copied into a 1993 calendar book (ZFRN 385), but based on a manuscript on parchment from 1496 AG (= 1184/5 CE)!

ZFRN 385, here the end of the Story of Mar Awgen.

ZFRN 385, here the end of the Story of Mar Awgen.

As unique as that manuscript is, the great lateness of the Jerusalem manuscript (SMMJ 475) is also startlingly memorable. It has the date in three places, all from the present year, the last one being July 26, 2012! Copied by the monk, Shemun Can, at Saint Mark’s, it is a collection of Syriac poetry, mostly by later authors (but one by Jacob of Serugh and one by Ephrem), along with a few hymns in Garšūnī and the Lawij (in Kurdish with Syriac letters) of Basilios Šemʿon al-Ṭūrānī. The manuscript’s colophons are all in a style not unlike those written centuries before, and they, together with the manuscript as a whole, a physical, textual object, remind us well that manuscript culture, at least in some quarters, is alive and well.

SMMJ 475, p. 34, the beginning of Yaʿqob ʿUrdnsāyā, "On Himself".

SMMJ 475, p. 34, the beginning of Yaʿqob ʿUrdnsāyā, “On Himself”.

A start at Syriacking “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”   Leave a comment

Some time ago I wrote a post on the fun and value of translating (and composing) into foreign languages, and I also offered as an example my Syriac translation of a famous paragraph from Darwin. I decided recently that something from Bob Dylan’s huge catalog of lyrics would be worth a try, and so here is a start — and only that! — of the first verse of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” along with the chorus; the varied imagery of the song makes it a good choice for practice at the lexical selection of phrases and individual words. This attempt is really just the basic structure and vocabulary. I’d like, of course, if for no other than technical practice, to arrange it in a proper Syriac meter, which would naturally entail re-ordering the words and selecting certain synonyms for the words now chosen, but I’ve not yet decided which meter would best fit the song, nor even whether it should be a mēmrā or a madrāšā, though my leaning is toward the latter. I will gladly be corrected, but I have no illusions for now that the song would find any near counterparts in originally composed Syriac verse! Incidentally, on Syriac meter the following resources may be mentioned:

  • G. Cardahi (Al-Qardāḥī), Kitāb al-kanz al-ṯamīn fī ṣināʿat šiʿr al-suryān (Liber thesauri de arte poetica Syrorum; Rome, 1875) pp. 2-6
  • S.P. Brock and G.A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems (Provo, 2006), pp. xiii-xvi
  • S.P. Brock’s article on Syriac poetry in the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, pp. 661-662, and his entry “Poetry” in the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of Syriac Heritage (GEDSH), which has further sources indicated

So then, without further ado, here’s my thus far unmetrical foray into Syriacking some Dylan: hard_rain_syriac. As always, comments are welcome.

Labīd’s poem from the Muʿallaqāt   1 comment

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).

NEST AP 6, ff. 62v-63r

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 byrnwiga!

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.

Bibliography

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.

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