Archive for the ‘poetry’ Tag

Two cleverly written Syriac poems   1 comment

At the beginning of CCM (Chaldean Cathedral, Mardin) 13, from the 18th century, are two Syriac poems, in the twelve-syllable meter with six lines each of six words each, and as it says in Syriac at the top of the page, they may be read in the conventional way from right to left, top to bottom, or from top to bottom, right to left. That is, if we assign a number to each identical word, the pattern is as follows:


6 5 4 3 2 1 ⇓

11 10 9 8 7 2 ⇓

15 14 13 12 8 3 ⇓

18 17 16 13 9 4 ⇓

20 19 17 14 10 5 ⇓

21 20 18 15 11 6

In addition, the six lines of each poem rhyme. Here’s an image:

CCM 13, f. 1r

CCM 13, f. 1r

Posted December 2, 2013 by adamcmccollum in Poetry, Syriac

Tagged with , , , , ,

Constrained writing in Syriac poetry   1 comment 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.

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

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.)


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.

On the nature of the seven planets (Syriac)   Leave a comment

The recent transit of Venus has been in the news for the past few days, so it’s a fine time to have another look at something astronomical-astrological (see here for a previous post on the theme). Below is an image from Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo (SOAA) ms 148, a manuscript from, at the earliest, the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, this terminus from the fact that, in addition to some of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s poems (mušḥātā, see Takahashi 2005: 313-346), it also contains texts from David Puniqāyā (d. ca. 1500) and Sergius of Ḥāḥ (d. 1508). The selection below is the beginning of a poem, Bar ʿEbrāyā’s “On the nature of the seven planets” in the heptasyllabic meter with rhyming lines, the seven planets being the “wandering — as opposed to fixed — stars” known in antiquity: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the moon.

SOAA 148, f. 58v

As you can see, someone has penciled the planet names in Arabic (Garšūnī) in the margins. The poem was published, without the use of this manuscript, in Dolabani’s edition of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s poetry (1929: 77-78, no. 6.3), but it’s not in Scebabi’s edition (Rome, 1877). Bar ʿEbrāyā lists those things or people associated with each planet in the order given above. A comparison between the printed edition, based on manuscripts in Jerusalem and Mosul, and the Aleppo manuscript yields a notable difference: Dolabani has only given the domiciles (baytā here in Syriac, as also οἶκος in Greek with this meaning) for Mercury and the moon, the last two planets, but the Aleppo manuscript gives domiciles for all seven of the planets, which means that the manuscript has ten more heptasyllabic lines than the printed text. In addition, the two-part little poem printed in Dolabani separately as 6.4 is clearly taken by the scribe of this manuscript as part of the poem on the planets, and the subject matter and phraseology indeed fits.

A review of Takahashi’s bibliography for the poems will show that much work remains to be done on them, including not least a proper edition, which would be no small task given the plethora of known manuscripts. Till then, let this little notice stand as a harbinger of what else might be discovered.


Dolabani, Y., ed. 1929. Mušḥātā d-Mār Grigorios Yoḥannān Bar ʿEbrāyā mapryānā qaddišā d-madnḥā. Jerusalem. Reprint, Glane, 1983.

Takahashi, H. 2005. Barhebraeus: A Bio-Bibliography. Piscataway.

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.


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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