Charles James Lyall and Pre-Islamic Arabian Poetry

Any man who has read what is at all worth while in Arabic poetry, in the original or in English translation, knows and loves Sir Charles James Lyall.[1]

Charles James Lyall was born in 1845 and entered the Bengal Civil Service at the age of 22. He served in key positions in the Indian Government and was eventually appointed Chief Commissioner of the Central Provinces in 1895. After his service in India he was appointed secretary of the Judicial and Public Department of the India Office, a position he held until his retirement in 1910. He was closely involved with the Royal Asiatic Society and took a keen interest in Oriental studies at the University of London, serving as chairman of the Board of Studies in Oriental Languages and Literatures. Throughout his career, when time permitted, he had studied Arabic under Professor Theodor Noldeke at the University of Strasburg. There was a strong and affectionate bond between Noldeke and Lyall, Noldeke being quick to recognise Lyall’s tremendous potential as an Arabic scholar and translator. When time permitted, Lyall immersed himself in Arabic texts, concentrating mainly on the pre-Islamic works. His translations of these appeared first in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1877, 1878, and 1881 and were subsequently published in London in 1885 as Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry, chiefly pre-Islamic. A further work, Lyall’s edition of Tibrizi’s Commentary on Ten Ancient Arabic Poems, was undertaken at the suggestion of Dr. William Wright, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge. It was to be the first significant work of scholarship by a British Arabist on pre-Islamic poetry since Sir William Jones’s 1781 translation of the Mu’allaqat. While Jones’s prose translation had popularised the Mu’allaqat and made English-speaking readers aware of early Arabic literature, comparatively little had been done to investigate the immense body of Arabic commentaries on the odes. Of these, Tibrizi’s were the most ambitious and comprehensive. Lyall collected and compared the extant versions in London, Leiden and Cambridge, uniting them in what remains an important and useful text for scholars of the pre-Islamic period.

Lyall, despite an outward mandarin frostiness at first meeting, was clearly an engaging character, passionately dedicated to his subject.

‘He was a delightful visitor to have in the house, as he always gave his host or hostess the idea that he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He needed no “entertaining”. He used to like to sit quietly in the garden, smoking or talking, and seemed to drink in sunshine and contentment. And at times his usually grave and rather “official” manner used to give way to real enthusiasm. It might be over plants and flowers while walking with a friend in great Botanical Gardens, such as those of Algiers or Cambridge – for his knowledge of botany was really extensive – or it might be about India or Arabic poetry. I remember when out for a walk with him one day he quoted some Arabic, not just a few expressions but almost complete poems. My knowledge of the language consisting of a very little colloquial Arabic, I felt constrained to interrupt him with the lament that I could not understand a single word. But he would not stop! I was assured I should enjoy the marvellous beauty of the rhythm, and though I could not do so very much it was impressive to see and feel the genuine pleasure that the music of the cadences gave to him as he recited the long rolling lines.

‘Sir Charles used greatly to enjoy a Sunday evening at Trinity College, where he used to meet others interested in the studies which meant so much to him. But equally characteristic was the almost boyish pleasure with which he used to say that he was the only visitor allowed to smoke a cigar in the drawing-room! It was his quiet, kind, happy nature that made him such a welcome visitor, as well as his learning.’[2]

Though Orientalism led him to the Cambridge of R. A. Nicholson and A. A. Bevan, Lyall started his intellectual life in Oxford as one of Jowett’s ‘children’ at Balliol. He is in a select group of some 250 men who, in late nineteenth century England, distinguished themselves in public and academic life as a direct result of Jowett’s influence, from his days as a junior tutor to his celebrated reign as Master of Balliol. Since the 1850s, Jowett had been an enthusiastic supporter of the rigorously competitive entrance examinations for the home and colonial civil service. He saw to it that Balliol men were subjected to a ‘vigorous course of prodding and rousing… You might be propelled in any direction, but at least you would not stand still.’[3] Under this stimulating regime Lyall and his contemporaries gained the confidence to take on, plan and complete enormous amounts of difficult and exacting work. Richard Alleyne Nicholson’s tribute to Lyall gives a clear picture of the success with which, largely thanks to his early training at Oxford, Lyall balanced his career in public service with a parallel career as a scholar and translator:

His interest in Oriental philology began early. As an undergraduate at Oxford he distinguished himself in the study of Hebrew, and this soon led him to Arabic: the versions from the Hamasah which appeared over his name in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal between 1877 and 1881, and were republished in his Ancient Arabian Poetry (1885), show that during his first ten years in India he was able to devote much time to his favourite language. Persian, though he spoke of it as his first love, did not permanently attract him, but he possessed a considerable knowledge of Hindustani and the modern Indian vernaculars. In A Sketch of the Hindustani Language (1880), written for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he examined the linguistic relations between Hindustani and Hindi on the one hand and Sanskrit and Prakrit on the other so fully that the article ‘was deemed by the editor too detailed and minute in its treatment for insertion’. The Mikirs (1908) was based on materials gathered by his friend Edward Stack, and gives an account of the language, religion, customs, and folk-lore of one of the hill-tribes of Assam, in which province Lyall for a time held the post of Commissioner. It is, however, as an Arabic scholar that he will always be remembered, and especially in connexion with the poetry composed before and shortly after the promulgation of Islam. In 1894 he published at Calcutta at-Tibrizi’s Commentary on Ten Ancient Arabic Poems, i. e. the seven Mu’allaqat together with three odes by al-A’sha, an-Nabighah, and ‘Abid ibn al-Abras. This was followed by the Diwans of ‘Abid and ‘Amir ibn at-Tufail (1913) and the poems of ‘Amr, son of Qami’ah (1919); and, towards the end of 1921, after many interruptions owing to the European War, the Clarendon Press gave to the world his chief work, an edition of the Mufaddaliyat – the celebrated anthology compiled in the second century of the Hijrah by al-Mufaddal ad-Dabbi – with the commentary of al-Anbari. His labours in this field placed him amongst the foremost Orientalists of the day. He was elected an honorary member of the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft, became a member of the British Academy, and received honorary degrees from the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, and Strasburg.[4]

Early in his career, Lyall had expressed an interest in the seven great pre-Islamic odes, the Mu’allaqat. Writing in 1877 in The Journal of the Asiatic Society of West Bengal, he expressed a hope ‘that an accurate translation of the most ancient and authentic poems of the Arab race – poems which have for ages been regarded with the highest admiration as models of style and composition, and which undoubtedly present a fresh and faithful portraiture of the people among whom they appeared – illustrated by the oldest and most trustworthy traditions regarding the circumstances under which they were composed and the valiant stock to which their authors belonged, will not be found unacceptable.’ In Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry, Lyall gives his explanation of how the seven odes came to be called the Mu’allaqat, or ‘hanging ones’:

This name [Mu’allaqat] was probably given to them by the person who brought them together, as the best odes of the ancient poetry, and this is generally admitted to have been Hammad al-Rawiyyah; the name is most likely derived from the word ‘ilk, meaning a ‘precious thing, or a thing held in high estimation,’ either because one ‘hangs on’ tenaciously to it, or because it is ‘hung up’ in a place of honour., or in a conspicuous place, in a treasury or storehouse. There is no ancient authority for the legend which has been frequently repeated, that these seven poems were determined by the judges at ‘Ukadh in the pagan days to be the most excellent compositions of the Arabs, and that they were written in letters of gold upon pieces of fine Egyptian linen and hung up in the court of the Ka’bah. On the contrary, there is no reason to believe that they, any more than the rest of the ancient poetry, were ever reduced to writing at all until the time of Hammad, whose judgement in including some of the seven in his collection has not passed unchallenged. They are also known by the names of the ‘Seven Long Poems,’ the ‘Seven Strings of Pearls,’ and (in reference to the legend above mentioned) ‘the Golden Odes’[5].

 The odes are impossible to date with any precision, but originated some five hundred years after the Flight into Egypt. They belong to what is known in Islam as the Jahiliyya, or period of ‘Ignorance’ (the word contains an element of ‘barbarism’ too) prior to the preaching of the Prophet. Their status has therefore, understandably, been somewhat equivocal over the centuries. On the one hand, the Jahili poets celebrate pursuits that are subject to rigorous regulation or proscription in Islam, for example drinking, sex, singing and gambling. On the other, poets have always been and still are highly revered in the Arab world. Arabs love poetry, and it is as potent a force in the Arab world today as it was in the days of the Jahiliyya. As Philip K. Hitti has written, ‘No people in the world manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs. Modern audiences in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo can be stirred to the highest degree by the recital of poems, only vaguely comprehended, and by the delivery of orations in the classical tongue, though it be only partially understood. The rhythm, the rhyme, the music, produce on them the effect of what they call “lawful magic”” (sihr halal).’ It is this phenomenon that has kept the reputation of Jahili poets going strong, despite the proscriptions of Islam. As to their appeal to a certain kind of Englishman, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt sums it up very well:

In their own land the Poets of the Ignorance, for such is the name given them by Islamic writers, were sometimes themselves princes or of princely family. They were at least free gentlemen of blood and lineage, undebased by toil and ignoring the “dignity of labour.” They were warriors and knights errant, the heroes of their own romances, prompt with sword and spear, horsemen and camel-riders, tent-dwellers from their childhood and inured to physical hardships of all kinds. Outdoor doers of wild deeds, these valiant desert song-masters were no mere decadents, the “idle singers of an empty day,” but men determined to live every hour of their gay lives, to enjoy every joy within their reach to their pleasure’s utmost. Here we find nothing of the Ossianic gloom of our own archaic bards, nothing of the superstitious doubts and conscience-stricken terrors of mediaeval Europe in fear of things beyond the grave, nothing of the theological limitations of the later Moslem verse. All with them is frankly, inspiritingly, stupendously hedonistic.[6]

Lyall originally intended to publish his own translations of the odes together with an introduction and notes. He never completed the project, though he did publish excerpts from three of his translations in Ancient Arabian Poetry (1885). One of the most quoted passages is his rendering of the closing storm in the ode of Imru al Qais. This is a striking example of how the ‘grave and “official” manner’ referred to by the Cambridge friend – ‘an accurate translation…’ hoped the mandarin – ‘will not be found unacceptable’) gave way to Lyall’s alter ego, that of the passionate and persuasive translator:

O friend, see the lightning there! it flickered and now is gone,
     as though flashed a pair of hands in the pillar of crowned cloud.
Now, was it its blaze, or the lamps of a hermit that dwells alone,
     and pours o’er the twisted wicks the oil from his slender cruse?
We sat there, my fellows and I, ‘twixt Dárij and al-Udhaib,
     and gazed as the distance gloomed, and waited its oncoming.
The right of its mighty rain advanced over Katan’s ridge;
     the left of its trailing skirt swept Yadhbul and as-Sitar:
Then over Kutaifah’s steep the flood of its onset drave,
     and headlong before its storm the tall trees were borne to ground;
And the drift of its waters passed o’er the crags of al-Kanân,
     and drave forth the white-legged deer from the refuge they
          sought therein.
And Taimá–it left not there the stem of a palm aloft,
     nor ever a tower, save ours, firm built on the living rock.
And when first its misty shroud bore down upon Mount Thabîr,
     he stood like an ancient man in a gray-streaked mantle wrapt.
The clouds cast their burdens down on the broad plain of al-Ghabit,
     as a trader from al-Yaman unfolds from the bales his store;
And the topmost crest, on the morrow, of al-Mujaimir’s cairn,
     was heaped with the flood-borne wrack, like wool on a distaff wound.        
At earliest dawn the birds were chirping blithe,
     as though they had drunken draughts of riot in fiery wine;
And at even the drowned beast lay where the torrent had borne them, dead,      

high up on the valley sides, like earth-stained roots of squills.

Lyall’s approach to Arabic poetry was in many ways similar to that of another great Arabist, the 18th century scholar Sir William Jones. Lyall shared Jones’s view that Western literature could only benefit from exposure to the unfamiliar and striking way of looking at the world that early Arabic poetry offered, with its fresh stock of images, its vigorous poetic sensibility[7]. Though Lyall readily acknowledged the challenges that all translators inevitably face, he firmly believed that there was a great deal in Arab poetry that would readily appeal to European sensibilities. An occasional obscurity in an ode, and the undeniably alien conditions of the nomadic desert lifestyle against which the poems were written, should be treated as negligible obstacles in view of the supervening power and passion of the text. This was a view echoed many years later in the 1950s by another great translator, Arthur J. Arberry. ‘Let the authors of the Seven Odes’ wrote Arberry, ‘speak unassumingly but boldly by the mouths of their dragomans, who shall be men honest in scholarship, no pedants but with no extravagant literary pretensions, and they cannot fail to delight and even move to wonder even fifteen hundred years after they first gave utterance, even in a language so very remote from that which they were fortunate enough to have as their own.’[8] There were detractors, however. R. A. Nicholson, in his 1907 book A Literary History of the Arabs, proposed that to ‘reproduce a typical Arab ode, in a shape at once intelligible and attractive to English readers, is probably beyond the power of any translator’, the imagery and allusions being for the most part either too obscure or unfamiliar for western tastes. Lyall disagreed, and published a paper for the British Academy, citing the Bible and Tennyson in support of his own views.  

In the lament of David over Saul and Jonathan we have a poem, word for word and thought for thought, corresponding to a typical Arabian elegy on a dead warrior. In the triumph-song of Deborah we have a no less typical piece of exultation over a fallen foe. In the Book of Job, with its Arabs for speakers in the drama and the Syrian wilderness for its locality, there are numerous descriptive passages which instantly recall that pictorial treatment of the Desert fauna which is one of the most beautiful and striking features of the Arabian Odes. And in the ‘Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s,’ there are many touches which have only to be put side by side with that part of the Arabian compositions called the nasib, dealing with the charms and the love of women, the pains of parting, and the melancholy stirred by memory on visiting the sites of deserted dwelling-places, for the likeness to be at once perceived.

Then there are, in the poetry of the last century, even in its most popular poetry, English poems which have caught something of their inspiration from Arabian sources. In my youth there was scarcely a better-known piece than Tennyson’s Locksley Hall (1842). We have the poet’s own word for it that the form and subject of that poem were suggested to him by reading Sir William Jones’s translation of the Mu’allaqat.[9]  It is staged just like an Arabian ode: the poet is about to make a journey to a distant country, and before starting visits again with his companions the scene of his association with his Beloved, who has been severed from him, and wedded to another, by the too worldly counsels of her mother. He goes over the details of their meetings, many touches of which are borrowed from the Arab poet. For instance:-

Many a time I saw the Pleiads, rising through the mellow shade,

     glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.

In the Arabic of Imra’ al-Qais – 

What time in the Eastern Heaven the Pleiades clomb the sky,

     like clasps of a jewelled girdle aslant on a woman’s waist.

Finally, he heartens himself to face the world without her, and the poem closes, as does that of the Arabian, with a vivid picture of an oncoming storm.[10]

In an age when there was no written communication, the Arab poet acted as the spokesman of his family, his tribe. His words carried weight and he was highly respected. In his Introduction to Ancient Arabian Poetry Lyall quoted the following words of Ibn Rashik which give some idea of the high esteem in which poets were held.[11] “When there appeared a poet in a family of the Arabs, the other tribes around 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 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 name 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.” The preoccupations of the pagan Arab were summed up very succinctly in the words of Sulmi ibn Ramiah al-Dabbah, translated here by Lyall:[12]

Roast flesh, the glow of fiery wine,

     to speed on camel fleet and sure

As thy soul lists to urge her on

     through all the hollow’s length and breadth;

White women statue-like that trail

     rich robes of price with golden hem,

Wealth, easy lot, no dread of ill,

     to hear the lute’s complaining string–

These are life’s joys. For man is set

     the prey of Time, and Time is change.

Life straight or large, great store or nought,

     all’s one to Time, all men to Death.

As to their ‘dread of ill’, the tribes of the Arabian peninsula led a tough life. They fought for most of the year, though significantly they formed inter-tribal alliances of an uneasy and transient nature during the sacred months of peace. When they were not preoccupied with issues of blood revenge or parlay, they tended their animals – camels, goats and horses. They amused themselves by storytelling, making love, horseracing, drinking wine or gambling. They held beliefs in the afterlife that were no more or less bizarre than those held in other cultures at that time. They believed that the souls of wronged but unavenged men returned as owls – and that a camel should be tethered and left to die at the graveside of a warrior, to speed him on his journey. They worshipped a pantheon of idols, elemental figures connected to the sun, moon and stars. They believed in divination, and looked for omens and auguries in the flight and cries of birds. We sometimes – not often – hear of human sacrifice. Their poets sang (as Lyall pointed out, this was an oral, not a written, tradition) about women, love, beauty, their animals, themselves and their bravery, battle, revelry and rivalry.

In general early Arabian poetry takes one of two forms: the long ode, called a qasidah and the short poem, a kit’ah, a work that often, but not always, has been detached from a qasidah. The ‘fiery wine’ poem quoted here, by Sulmi ibn Ramiah al-Dabbah, is a good example of a self-contained kit’ah. One sees many examples among the 884 short poems of the Hamasah, which are listed under ten revealing chapter headings: Hardihood, Dirges, Manners, Love, Satires, Hospitality and Panegyric, Descriptions, Journeying and Drowsiness, Pleasantries, Blame of Women. The qasidah – each of the Mu’allaqat is a qasidah – follows a set structure, and in the seven Mu’allaqat each poet departs from or modifies what is a formula, described here by Sir William Jones:

It sometimes happens, that the young men of one tribe are in love with the damsels of another; and, as the tents are frequently removed on a sudden, the lovers are often separated in the progress of a courtship: hence almost all the Arabick poems open in this manner; the author bewails the sudden departure of his mistress, Hinda, Maia, Zeineb, or Azza, and describes her beauty, comparing her to a wanton fawn, that plays among the aromatick shrubs; his friends endeavour to comfort him, but he refuses consolation; he declares his resolution of visiting his beloved, though the way to her tribe lie through a dreadful wilderness, or even through a den of lions; here he commonly gives a description of a horse or camel, upon which he designs to go, and thence passes, by an easy transition, to the principal subject of his poem, whether it be praise of his own tribe, or a satire on the timidity of his friends, who refuse to attend him in his expedition; though very frequently the piece turns wholly upon love. [13]

There are four distinct and identifiable sections of a qasidah. First there is a description of a deserted campsite, atlal. Secondly there is an amatory digression, the nasib. Thirdly comes the rihla, the description of the journey which the poet will often use as a means of showing off his own hardiness and, more important even than that, the excellence and good breeding of his camel or horse. Fourthly the poet comes addresses the main theme in the madih, or panegyric. Depending on the circumstances, this might be an account of his tribe, as Jones says; but it might equally be a battle narrative, a plea, an apology, or an extravagant and vaunting hymn to the poet’s own qualities (the term for such boasting is fakhr) as seen in the Mu’allaqa of Amr, the high point of which consists, as Jones puts it ‘of menaces, vaunts, and exaggerated applause of his own tribe for their generosity and prowess, the goodness of their horses, the beauty of their women, the extent of their possessions, and even the number of their ships;—which boasts were so well founded that, according to some authors, if Mohammed had not been born, the Taglebites would have appropriated the dominion of all Arabia, and possibly would have erected a mighty state, both civil and maritime.’[14]  The madih usually gives way to a spirited finale, often in the form of a description of a storm, as in the Mu’allaqa of Imru al Qais, or a more measured coda consisting of a series of proverbial utterances of the kind found at the end of the Mu’allaqa of Zuhair.  The descriptions the poets give of their camels are, perhaps, hard for the western reader to appreciate until he pauses to consider how important these animals were to the pagan Arabs. It is certainly worth knowing – and it is knowledge that might impress anyone, Arab or European, to whom one might impart it in the course of general conversation – that the Mu’allaqa of Tarafa contains one of the earliest suggestions that the camel is the ‘ship of the desert’. In F. E. Johnson’s translation, it is ‘as if the Malikian camels, with the howdahs, on the morning of her departure in the water-tracts of the village of Dad, were the big ships of ’Adoal, or the vessels of Ibni Yamin, which the sailors at times steer out of the straight course, and at times guide straight. Their bows cleave the ripples of the sea, as the divider of the sand-heaps[15] separates the dust with his hand.’   

Though much of the content of the odes is – if one gives it a fair chance – readily accessible to the modern reader, there are areas in which Arberry’s ‘pedants’ with ‘extravagant literary pretensions’ can, if they will, have a field day. Sometimes a simile is so far removed from anything familiar to us that it really is impossible to give an entirely satisfactory translation. One of the more amusing examples of this occurs in the nasib of Imru al Qays’s mu’allaqa, where he paints a picture of his mistress Fatima. Her hair falls in thick black tresses, she has a slender waist, a shapely and taut belly, a soft cheek and a sidelong glance like that of the wild deer of Wajra. None of these attributes is particularly outlandish and all are perfectly palatable to us, thanks to our familiarity with the Song of Songs. But in addition to these qualities Fatima also has very nimble fingers and clearly knows how to use them to best advantage, a ‘hands-on’ amatory accomplishment that the poet describes thus (transl. F. E. Johnson), ‘She gives with thin fingers, which are not thick, as if they were the worms of the desert of Zabi, and soft as the tooth-brushes of the Ishil tree.’ In addition to Johnson’s earnest and useful schoolboy ‘crib’ there have been other attempts to render this in more poetic English:

She dispenses gifts with small, delicate fingers, sweetly glowing at their tips, like the white and crimson worm of Dabia, or dentrifices made of esel-wood. (Sir William Jones, 1782)

Soft her touch, – her fingers fluted as water-worms, sleek as the snakes of Thobya, tooth-sticks of Ishali. (Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, 1903)

She gives with fingers delicate, not coarse; you might say they are sand worms of Zaby, or tooth-sticks of Ishil wood. (A. J Arberry, 1957)

Blunt has the most successful stab at translation, but even he cannot get round the difficulties that inevitably arise when a beautiful woman’s hands are likened to sand-worms and tooth-picks. As T. E. Lawrence said of Johnson’s interlinear translation, ‘the English was rather halting, so you had to peer and guess at the beauty of the Arabic lines.’[16] Only the sound of the original Arabic can convey how apt the similes really are.

Despite such difficulties and diversions, the essence of the best pre-Islamic poetry is that it is a true reflection of how the Arabs really lived in the desert – a mirror of peril and pleasure, not a mere ornamental fabrication. There is a sense of urgency, of living for the moment – as Al-Burj of Tayyi put it, ‘How wonderful were life, would it but last!’ – and above all a sense of conviction and integrity. A favourite couplet of Lyall’s – he chose it as the opening epigraph for Ancient Arabian Poetry – was from Zuhair:

Wa’inna ‘ash’ara baitin ‘anta ka’iluhu

     Baitin yukalu, ‘idha ‘anshadtahu – Sadaka!

Of all the verses which thou hast made, the fairest in praise

     is that whereof, when they hear, men say – ‘Yea, that is the Truth!’

As time passed, with the advent of Islam and with inevitable outward expansion and periodic invasion, the old ways of the desert grew further and further distant. Poets turned their skills to what Lyall called the “servile and venal adulation of the courts of Damascus and Baghdad’. All that remained of the spirit of the old Arabian odes was embodied in a cluster of later and for the most part insipid imitations, the equivalent in some ways of the milkier pastorals of the English eighteenth century. As Robert Irwin put it, for ‘centuries to come, Arabs who had never spent time in the desert or ridden a camel would compose poems on the deserted campsite theme and on the hardships of a journey through the wilderness’.[17] Such warlike, panegyric, sentimental or amatory poems that sought to imitate the pagan odes could never catch the urgency of the real thing.  Arabic literature flowered in different colours as the centuries passed – in the urbane bragaddocio of Walid ibn Yazid, for example, or the subtleties of Sharaf al-Din Umar ibn Ali ibn Al-Farid, the ‘Sultan of the Lovers’, whose work was described by al-Dhahabi as ‘like pastries laced with venom’ – all of this a far cry from the desert wilderness of al-Antara and Imru al Qais.

Finally, not a great deal is known about the life of Abu Zakariya Yahya al-Tibrizi, but what little we can extract from ‘the tangled romance of high scholarship’[18] is intriguing enough. He was born in 1030 AD and first studied under Abu ‘l-a’Ala al Ma’arri. For most of his life, money seems to have been a serious problem. We hear that he walked all the way from Tabriz to al Ma’arri to see his new teacher. He was travelling light, and had therefore put the text he wished to study – the Kitab al-Tadhib fi ‘l-Lugha of Abu Mansur al-Azhari – in a fodder sack, a kind of makeshift back-pack. It seems that by the end of the journey the book was soaked with sweat 0- and Ibn Khallikan, in Wafayat al-A’yan, claims to have seen the damaged book in the library at Baghdad. Later we find Tibrizi studious but impoverished, living ‘grace-and-favour’ in the minaret of a mosque in Damascus. There he was taught (it is thought) by al-Khatib al-Baghdadi and there is a story that the teacher gave him money to buy paper and pens. Eventually, after a spell in Tyre and Cairo, he was appointed professor of adab – an approximate translation being belles letters – in Baghdad and librarian at the Nizamiya[19]. We learn that his financial problems eventually came to an end and that he drank wine, wore silk garments and sported a turban trimmed with gold – for all we know bought with the wages of ‘servile and venal adulation’ but, one would like to think, roundly deserved after a long, difficult and dedicated life.


[1] In Memoriam: Sir Charles James Lyall, M. Sprengling, The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Apr., 1923), pp. 207-217

[2] Sir C. J. Lyall 1845-1920, obituary by R. A. Nicholson in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol IX.

[3] L. Stephen (n. 9), 157-8, quoted in The History of the University of Oxford: Nineteenth Century.

[4] Sir C. J. Lyall 1845-1920, obituary by R. A. Nicholson in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol IX.

[5] Lyall 1885:lxiv

[6] Introduction to The Seven Golden Odes of Pagan Arabia, Chiswick Press, 1903.

[7] See ‘An Essay on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations’ in The Works of Sir William Jones, London 1807, Vol X, p. 329-360.

[8] Arberry 1957:254R.

[9] Tennyson was introduced to Persian and Arabic poetry, in very civilized circumstances, by Edward Fitzgerald. ‘In the evenings’ wrote Hallam Tennyson in his Memoir, ‘he [Fitzgerald] played Mozart, or translated Persian Odes for my father, who, as had been said in the letter to Forster, had hurt his eyes by poring over a small-printed Persian Grammar: until this with Hafiz and other books had to be hidden away, for he had seen “the Persian letters stalking like giants round the walls of his room.’ In general Tennyson was capable of utterances that would have had ready appeal in pre-Islamic Arabia. For example, he memorably described his friend Charles Hay Cameron as a ‘philosopher with his beard dipped in moonlight’.

[10] ‘Some Aspects of Ancient Arabic Poetry, as illustrated by a little-known anthology’, Sir Charles J. Lyall K.C.S.I., D.Litt. Proceedings of the british Academy, Vol VIII, read on May 22 1918.

[11] Lyall 1885:xvii (‘Ibn Rashik, quoted in Muzhir, ii 236’)

[12] Lyall 1885:64, Sulmi ibn Ramiah al-Dabbah, transl. C. J. Lyall. 

[13] ‘An Essay on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations’ in The Works of Sir William Jones, London 1807, Vol X, p. 339.

[14] From ‘The Argument’ to ‘The Poem of Amru’ in The Works of Sir William Jones, London 1807, Vol X.

[15] see Johnson 1893:33. It is also worth knowing that the division of the ‘sand-heaps’ refers (according to Johnson) to the game faeel, in which ‘some small article, such as a coin or ring, is buried in a heap of sand, the players all staking similar amounts. The heap of sand is then divided by one of the players, called the mufaeel, into a number of smaller heaps – one for each player – the player in whose heap the article is found wins the stakes.’ Blunt prefers the no less legitimate interpretation of mufaeel as ‘sand-diviner’ – the diviner would see omens for good or ill according to the number of pebbles found in a heap or heaps of sand.   

[16] T. E. Lawrence to H. H. Banbury, 14 April, 1928: “I haven’t an Arabia Deserta: but The Seven Golden Poems are very famous. We call them The Moallakat – the things that were hung up – presumably at Mekka in the great temple before Mohammed came. They are seven in number, and quite peculiar in form. Imr el Kais wrote the jolliest of the seven: but Lebid is good, and Antar, and parts of Tarafa. It was Tarafa who likened Death to a blind camel lounging about in the dark.

There is a Lahore edition, in Arabic, interlined with an English translation by a Colonel Johnson, I think it was (twenty years since I saw the book). The English was rather halting, so you had to peer and guess at the beauty of the Arabic lines.

There is a good translation, into English poetry, by Wilfrid Blunt, a great old man who died lately. His wife, Lady Anne, was an Arabic scholar. She made a prose translation: and Wilfrid, who could speak some Arabic, and liked Arabs, put them into very fine verse. I do not know how far it is at present obtainable in England. The Chiswick Press published them then, as a separate book, and later of course they were included in the two-volume collected edition of Blunt’s poetry. But neither can be said to be an easy book to find.

The Moallakat are pagan: pre-Moslem desert verse; sometimes warlike, sometimes sententious, sometimes prosy, sometimes humourous. There is a queer vividness and sense of life about them e.g. Amr el Kais’ one. Whether the seven poems were really written by seven poets or not, Heaven alone knows. They are on one model; and feel much the same to me: but are vastly different in spirit. 

There is much early Arabic poetry. You get snatches of it, (very brief and occasional) in Gertrude Bell’s Desert and the Sown, a vivid, appealing book: and Nicholson’s big work has a lot more: and Lyall has translated some: but you know how difficult it is to translate mannered foreign verse into English easy-go-here and there. Only a Fitzgerald once greatly succeeded. Though Blunt has done well. The shorter poems sing, with an intensity which is almost a wail and a sob, at their climaxes. Not The Moallakat. They are formal performances. Imr and his girl ate a camel by the pools of Jelajil and pelted each other with strips of its fat! As formal a story as the deed was informal.

The seven poems put together wouldn’t make fifty pages of medium print. Quite short. If I have a chance I’ll get some private press to reprint them. Sometimes they ask me for poems (of my own!) and I reply with good advice if I feel kindly. T. E. S.

[17] The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, ed. Robert Irwin, London 2006, p. 29.

[18] Arberry 1957:103. Arberry gives an account of Tibrizi’s place amongst the principal commentators on the Mu’allaqat: ‘The earliest extant commentary is that written by Ibn al-Anbari, a prominent Kufan philologist who died in 939; his order of the poems is Imr-al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair, ‘Antara, ‘Amr, al-Harith, Labid. Close in time to him Ibn Kaisan (d. 932) arranged them: Imr-al-Qais, Tarafa, Labid, al-Harith, ‘Amr, ‘Antara, Zuhair. A little later Ibn al-Nahhas (d.950) added two more to the seven and gave the order: Imr-al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair, Labid, ‘Antara, al-Harith, ‘Amr, al-A’sha, al-Nabigha. The Persian al-Zauzani (d. 1093), considerably junior to the first three but much appreciated in the Middle Ages and ever since, established the sequence: Imr-al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair, Labid, ‘Amr, ‘Antara, al-Harith. His compatriot al-Tibrizi (d. 1109), perhaps the greatest of the commentators on old Arabic poetry, supplemented the canon with three more: Imr-al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhair, Labid, ‘Antara, ‘Amr, al-Harith, al-Asha,, al-Nabigha, ‘Abid ibn al-Abras. Succeeding centuries produced still more commentaries, but these five are regarded as the most authoritative; the passing of time would hardly produce any reliable new evidence.’

[19] Encyclopedia of Islam, Leyden and London 1934, Vol. 4 p.743-5

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