Arabian Poetry, by W. A. Clouston, , at sacred-texts.com
Antar is no imaginary person: he is well known as a celebrated warrior, and as the author of one of the Seven Poems suspended on the Kaaba at Mecca. His intrepidity is often mentioned by Abulfeda, as being the subject of poetry; though it does not appear that any precise composition relating to his feats in arms is extant, some detached pieces may have survived; still it must be supposed that oral tradition alone has commemorated in verse, current among succeeding generations, those various proofs of heroism which Asma’ee afterwards embodied in his work. That he was the son of Shedad, an Absian chief, is also well attested; though it does not so clearly appear that he was born of a slave-woman.
It is not to be understood that Asma’ee merely intended to compose a faithful history of those times: his view seems rather to comprise in a pleasing tale numerous isolated facts, and the most striking traits of the manners and usages prevalent at that period; and therefore we may presume that he has embellished his narrative with every additional circumstance that could possibly throw an interest over his hero, or attract the attention of his readers.
And that he has succeeded among those for whom the work was composed, there cannot be the smallest doubt. It is also true that many who at this day have read it in the original have expressed the delight and unwearied admiration they have felt in the perusal of its endless volumes.
It may be assumed that it is one of the most ancient books of Arabian literature; composed during the second century of the
[paragraph continues] Hijrah, at a time when the arts were most successfully cultivated amongst the Asiatic conquerors, and encouraged more particularly under the influence of the Arab princes of Bagdad. Its language is therefore uncommonly pure, equally remote from the harshness of the earlier, or the conceits of the later, authors; and when we consider that it was originally written in the Cufic character, and has for a thousand years been transcribed chiefly for the use of the Bedouins, and often by persons who probably did not comprehend one word they were writing, it is a matter of surprise how it has retained so much purity and correctness. Some few Persian and Turkish words, subject to Arabic inflexions, are now and then to be observed; some other modern terms may also have been inserted. These are corruptions; and M. Hammer thinks that many interpolations have been made by the copyist. Words often occur which are not to be found in any dictionary; and some expressions there are, which, though current to this day among the Arabs of the Desert, are not susceptible of the same acceptation in any lexicon.
The style of the work as a composition is very plain and easy in construction; but abounding in an endless variety of diction, couched in the most choice and appropriate terms. The sentences are short, much in the style of the Bible; the prose is even in rhythm throughout, continuing uninterrupted but by a change of termination, according to the powers of the author, or the redundancy of expressions with the same sound;—this is reckoned the greatest beauty in Oriental compositions. Thus, with short rhythmical periods of various lengths, the author proceeds, for five or six lines, to the end of his subject, and then recommences other matter with a different rhyme. This is particularly striking in all his descriptions of battles, where the pauses are very frequent, all with the same terminations; the periods being often formed of only two words, sometimes of three, and thus hurrying on, with apparent rapidity and great variety and spirit, throughout a whole page.
This species of composition produces the necessity of continued repetitions; and though Asma’ee has proved that his memory was
supplied with an infinity of expression, unrivalled by any Oriental author, yet the frequent recurrence of similar scenes and thoughts must of course occasion such repetitions as almost to weary his warmest admirers; but when translated into another tongue that admits of, comparatively speaking, no diversity of terms to express the same meaning, they become most tedious and disgusting.
The poetry has the charm of a more elevated style; and a wider range for the imagination has been eagerly seized by the poet. Infinitely more difficult in its construction, it is still natural, and devoid of those conceits and absurdities that abound in almost all Asiatic compositions. It comprises every variety to which poetry is applied. The heroic, the complimentary, the laudatory, the amatory, the ludicrous, the merry, the elegiac, are all combined in the utmost profusion; even the pastoral is not omitted. . . .
The heroic is, of course, a mixture of all that is bold in imagery and inflated in expression; exaggeration and personal vanity run throughout the whole: perhaps these are the legitimate characteristics of such poetry; certainly we have the highest authority for its currency in a poet whose writings are considered as the standard for whatever is grand and majestical in that species of poetical composition.
The elegiac has drawn tears from persons whose sympathies and tenderness were fashioned to be roused by such scenes as are described in this work, and are therefore as true to nature as those feelings which are recognised in a more refined state of society.
The ludicrous and satirical are in some instances too gross, often indelicate, but not obscene. There is something pretty and original in the amatory style; and the merry can move to mirth in its innocence and playfulness. As to the complimentary, it is, as is the case in all languages, the least entitled to commendation, abounding in ridiculous conceits and unintelligible panegyric.
With respect to the magic and enchantments that occur in the work, it may be proper to add, for the benefit of those who indulge in the still controverted point of the birth-place of sorcery, that instances are to be found of supernatural agency;
though in the portion now published no mention is made of any such influence over the minds and actions of the heroes who figure in the story. The belief that ghosts, or hobgoblins, or genii, inhabited some peculiar spot generally prevailed; and we perceive that Shiboob, Antar's brother, is often taken for one of those august personages, owing to the rapidity with which he transfers himself from place to place.
The effects of an amulet ring (first worn by a Christian warrior, who at his death bequeaths it to Antar), in relieving a person from fits, are noticed more than once. Sorceresses were also sufficiently celebrated, even at that distant period, to be here recorded: more for the iniquities than for the good they were called upon to perform. One endeavours to inveigle Abla to her destruction, by means of two dæmon emissaries she employs, and a magic fire she kindles. Another fortifies her castle with the illusion of supernatural flames and smoke; whilst the sister of this wicked enchantress dispels these seeming horrors by her more potent spells. . . .
Allusions to genii frequently occur: one of Antar's sons is slain by them. They are described as most hideous monsters, having their eyes slit upwards, and uttering most terrific sounds. Antar restores to the human form one of the genii who had been metamorphosed into a horse; and, in return, he aids his deliverer in avenging his son's murder. . . . Antar's sword is certainly of original manufacture; and, though not enchanted, may be cited by the side of Durindana. Indian blades, Davidean armour, and Aadite casques are invested with all the properties of magic weapons, whether of offence or defence. . . . The frequent allusion to dragons and sea monsters in the poetry, and in the description of assailing heroes, proves that in those days the introduction of fabulous animals, distinct from those mentioned in Persian books, was considered a legitimate embellishment in romantic fiction. . . .
And thus, with all the paraphernalia of chivalrous equipment, heroes come forth, not only in fields of battle, or in single combat, but also at marriages and entertainments, merely for trials of
skill in arms in the midst of a course, to tilt and joust with barbless spears in the presence of kings and chiefs, who proclaim the merits of the victor and the vanquished; sometimes distributing prizes, or awarding a contested point, or even deciding the fate of some damsel, the object of amorous contention between two devoted champions; and not unfrequently do these combats, which commence innocently, end in bloodshed.
It is also worthy of remark, that these chiefs, when bound on a marauding enterprise, often meet with extraordinary adventures: sometimes forlorn maidens, whose distresses they relieve; or matrons, whose husbands and sons have been slain; and even heroes of inferior stamp, whose cause they will adopt, and thus either soften his sorrows or die in his defence. It must be acknowledged that they sometimes take advantage of the unprotected state to which females are reduced, when their attendants have resisted the assaults of a stranger; but instances of the purest generosity, and the most chivalrous sentiments of honour and decency, will often mark their acts, and induce us to marvel how nations so barbarous in blood could ever be melted into pity and tenderness.
. . . A nation of shepherds, dwelling in tents, surrounded by deserts, appears, at first sight, as the very antipodes of those nations whose usages and habits have supplied matter for romance and historic fiction. In minds thus savagely constituted, where could love dwell? Where could courtesy, discretion, and those nameless decencies and distinctions, persons of cultivated manners can only feel and express, find a place? And without minds thus happily organised, and without sensibilities as easily roused as lasting, pliant or obdurate, according to the object that excites them into action, or bidding defiance to repulse, inconstancy, and danger—how could chivalry feed its enthusiasm, or imagination awaken into life?
But in this work we find all these anomalies reconciled. We see heroes capable of the wildest enterprises, and subject to the most vehement emotions, to secure the approbation of their mistresses. We see damsels braving every peril, smiling in
captivity, to meet the objects of their love. We moreover meet with heroines cased in armour covering hearts at once steeled against the lance's point or falchion's edge, and a prey to the utmost ecstasies of enthusiastic fondness and refined irritability.
Such are the personages who are found to have inhabited the wilderness of sands, under no cultivation of mind, and bound by no moral restraints, but what love and friendship excited and established. Few could read or write. None were philosophers—wisdom had its only support in the influence attached to advanced years. Their sages were superior in age, and enjoyed a confidence among the tribes that no one could uproot, and which Antar only, by his martial prowess and universally admitted superiority, could thwart.