Sacred Texts  Islam  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Arabian Poetry, by W. A. Clouston, [1881], at

p. 170

I have only seen the fourteenth volume of this work, which comprises all that is elegant and noble in composition. So lofty, so various, and so bold is its style, that I do not hesitate to rank it amongst the most finished poems.—Sir W. Jones.

This is the work, and not, as is generally supposed, the "Thousand and One Nights," which is the source of the stories that fill the tents and cottages of Arabia and Egypt.—Von Hammer.

p. 171

Decorative Page Header




IT is generally believed that this celebrated Arabian Romance was composed, in the eighth century, from traditionary tales which had been long current in the East, by El-Asma’ee, a famous philologist and poet at the court of Hároon Er-Rasheed. Other authors and sources (for instance, Johainah and Abu Obeidah) are mentioned in the work, but these, according to Von Hammer, have been inserted by story-tellers in the coffeehouses. Lane, in his admirable work on the Modern Egyptians, remarks that the ’Ulamà (learned men) "in general despise the romance, and ridicule the assertion that El-Asma’ee was its author": their opinion, however, on a question of this kind, is of little value.

The complete work is usually bound up in forty-five volumes of various sizes—presenting a mass sufficient to appal the most indefatigable of translators; not to speak of the impossibility of finding European readers who would wade through the translation, if published. An abridged copy of this voluminous work,

p. 172

done by some learned Syrians (and hence called the Shamiyeh, or Syrian Antar, to distinguish it from the original, which was known as the Hijaziyeh, or Arabian Antar), having been obtained by Mr Terrick Hamilton, during his residence at Constantinople, in his capacity of Oriental Secretary to the British Embassy there, he was induced by its comparative brevity to undertake the task of translating it into English.

In the year 1819 the first fruits of his labours in this direction appeared at London in the form of a small octavo volume of about 300 pages, entitled, "Antar, a Bedoueen Romance, translated from the Arabic," &c., with a short introduction by a friend who had seen the volume through the press. Next year (1820) three more volumes were issued, completing the first of the three parts into which Mr Hamilton intended dividing his translation, and bringing down Antar's adventures to his marriage with Abla.

The work was very favourably noticed by the leading reviewers of the day, some of whom ventured to predict for it a popularity in this country as great as that accorded to the fascinating "Thousand and One Nights." The anticipations of the translator, and of his friendly critics, were, however, not realised: the marvellous exploits of the Absian hero, and the wild and fiery, the tender and beautiful, effusions of natural poetry with which the narrative is interspersed, had little interest or charm for the bulk of English readers,—familiar only with absurd imitations of Eastern fiction, adapted from the French, and bearing as little resemblance to Oriental story as the stage sailor of transpontine melodrama bears to the seaman of real life,—and, as a consequence, the translation of Antar was not completed; but Mr Hamilton gives an outline of the contents of the remainder, as follows:—

"The Second Part includes the period when the hero suspends his Poem at Mecca. This grand point he at length attains, not only by the friendly dispositions of his former associates, and the continuance of his own heroic deeds, but also by the means of his

p. 173

two sons and a brother, whom he discovers amongst the heroes of the desert. Encouraged by their counsels, and urged by his own ambition, after various conflicts and conquests, he resolves to crush the envious malice of his domestic foes, and in despite of all the machinations contrived against him, and the hostilities of all the most potent kings of Arabia, he succeeds in accomplishing this second object of his ambition.

"The Third Part comprises the death of Antar, and most of his comrades and relations; in the course of which he wages endless wars against the more distant tribes,—visits Constantinople and Europe, and invades that part of Arabia inhabited by the Ethiopians, amongst whom he discovers his mother's relations, and finds out that she was the daughter of a mighty monarch, and himself thus descended in both lines from a majestic race. His last conquest is over his domestic enemies. His death is consonant with the rules of poetical justice. He falls under the hand of one whom he might have justly punished with death, but who was the object of cruelty he had never practised on any one before, not even his most inveterate foes."

This singular work is the only record of the every-day life of the Arabs ere yet they had come under the influence of El-Islám. "Even in a translation," says a judicious critic, "Antar must be perused with pleasure by those to whom the simple modes of life afford matter of interesting speculation, and by those who are gratified with flowing and luxuriant descriptions, united to lively and picturesque sketches of events and characters." Here the virtues and the vices of these Children of the Desert are faithfully portrayed: hospitable, brave, vindictive; at once liberal and avaricious; withal possessing a punctilious sense of honour: such were the pre-Islamite Arabs, whom the pen of El-Asma’ee has so vividly delineated. The Poetry with which the work is richly jewelled is the poetry of nature, abounding in touches of pathos, far beyond the reach of art.

I regret that I have been unable to obtain any German or French translation of the account of Antar's suspending his Kasidah on the Kaaba; but my friend Mr. E. J. W. Gibb, of

p. 174

[paragraph continues] Lochwood, Lanarkshire, a young Orientalist of much promise, has favoured me with a translation of the Death of Antar—one of the noblest of heroic poems—from the French version of M. Caussin de Perceval, which is appended to the following rough sketch of the leading incidents in the First Part, according to Mr Hamilton's translation.


The adventures of Antar naturally suggest the question of the origin of romantic fiction, or chivalric romance, in Europe, which has long been, and perhaps is still, the subject of dispute among men of learning. By some, romantic fiction is held to be of purely Gothic origin, brought from the North by the Scalds who accompanied the army of Rollo into France; others, again, allege that its introduction into Europe is traceable to the Saracens who settled in Spain early in the 8th century. The truth seems to be that European mediæval romances were composed, in unequal parts, of classical tales of antiquity, Northern legends, and Oriental fictions.

It is far from improbable that the famous Arabian Romance of Antar furnished the model for the earliest of the regular romances of chivalry which were current in Europe during the middle ages; indeed a comparison of incidents in the work of El-Asma’ee with others found in the so-called Gothic romances will show some very striking parallels, sufficient of themselves to lead to this conclusion.

Many of the tales and fictions which were popular in Europe in mediæval times, and which, collected from oral tradition, have been preserved in such works as the "Clericali Disciplina" of Petrus Alphonsus, and the "Gesta Romanorum," have been traced to Eastern sources—to Arabia and Syria, and thence to India, through Persia. These fictions probably came into Europe, partly through the Saracens of Spain, partly through intercourse with the East during the Crusades.

p. 175

But in the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries there was free intercourse between the Eastern and Western countries of the Roman world. Hároon Er-Rasheed and Charlemagne interchanged presents and messages of good-will; and the wondrous adventures of Antar may well have become known to early European writers of Chivalric Romance, when communication was thus open between Asia and Europe.

If, however, we must seek in the Far East for the cradle of popular European tales and fictions, the task of tracing back even Eastern stories to their originals (for regarding popular fictions especially does Solomon's sweeping assertion hold good—"there is nothing new under the sun") becomes more complicated as we pursue our researches into remote antiquity.

We have it on the high authority of Lane that the "Thousand and One Nights" furnish exact pictures of Arabian manners and customs at the period when they were composed; but the groundwork of many of these charming tales is unquestionably of Persian or Indian origin. For example: the story, familiar to every schoolboy, of El-’Ashshár (the "Alnaschar" of our common English translation of Galland's garbled French version) and his basket of glass-ware finds a parallel in the "Pankatantra," a collection of Sanskrit Fables, where the same story is told of a Brâhman and his pot of rice. But even in this ancient work we do not find the true original of the Arabian Tale. Professor Benfey has proved these Fables to have been borrowed from Buddhistic sources; and Professor Max Müller thinks "we may go a step farther, and maintain that not only the general outline of these Fables, but in some cases the very words, were taken over from Pali into Sanskrit."—The general plan of the "Thousand and One Nights" is said to have been borrowed from that of a similar Pehlevi collection of Tales. It is moreover identical in plan with that of the Parables of Sendabad, of Hindu origin, and known in various old English versions under the title of the "Seven Wise Masters."

But it is thought that the Romance of Antar must be essentially original, since there existed no work of the same kind to serve

p. 176

for a model. This may be true; and yet it appears to me not impossible that some of the heroic adventures ascribed to Antar in this work may have been derived indirectly from the old Pehlevi Romances so bitterly denounced by the Kur’ân. One of these was brought into Arabia by a merchant on his return from Persia, at the time when the Prophet was promulgating his new religion. The Arabs, it is said, were charmed with the stories of giants and dragons, and preferred them to the moral instructions of Muhammad: hence the passage in the Kur’ân (chapter xxxi.) against romances and idle tales. The Muslim conquerors of Persia, it is well known, ruthlessly destroyed nearly all the literary treasures of that ancient kingdom, and we may be sure that works of fiction were the objects of their special abhorrence. But oral tradition may have preserved scenes and incidents from the old Persian Romances; and since it is said that to the obscurity of time do the ancients owe their reputation for originality, so to sources, which are now for ever lost, may El-Asma’ee, whose memory was richly stored with traditionary as well as with written lore, have been indebted for some of the adventures described in the Romance of Antar.

Decorative Page Footer

Next: From the Translator's Preface