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


[THE Editor is indebted to the courtesy of Messrs. Macmillan and Company, publishers, of London and Cambridge, for liberty to make the following extracts from the interesting account of the life and poetry of ’Omar the Mogheeree, by Mr. William Gifford Palgrave (author of "Central and Eastern Arabia"), in his "Essays on Eastern Questions"—a volume at once highly instructive and entertaining. Mr. Palgrave's graceful renderings of ’Omar's verse must induce the wish on the part of every reader that he would give us more Arabic poetry in the same pleasing English dress.]


"POVERTY of means," says Mr. Palgrave, "isolation of circumstance, and insecurity of life had, during the long ante-Islamitic period, cramped the energy, narrowed the ideas, and marred the taste of almost all, indeed in some degree of all, Arab poets. The circle they moved in was rough, barren, and contracted: their genius dwarfed itself into proportion with the limits which it could not overpass. The high rank and noble birth of the pre-Islamitic ’Amroo-ben-Kelthoom and ’Amroo-l-Keys had not exempted them from ever-recurring personal dangers and privations on the road and in the field; while the vigorous spirit of Shanfara’, Ta’abbet Shurran, and their like, was distorted by the physical misery and the savage loneliness to which their writings bear such frequent witness. All this had now passed away. Union had given security, conquest riches; while intercourse and Islam had developed the intellect of the nation. Two entirely new classes of society henceforth came into existence—the men of

p. 357

pleasure and the men of literature: the former heirs of a wealth they cared rather to enjoy than to increase; the latter seekers after wealth, fame, and name, but by intellectual, not by physical distinction. Love and song tissued the career of the former; poetry and eloquence, but chiefly poetry, were the business of the latter. Meanwhile a select few, the spoilt children of destiny—the Mirandolas or Byrons of their land and day—combined the advantages of birth and fortune with those of genius. Foremost among these stands the nobleman, the warrior, the libertine, but above all, the poet—the Don Juan of Mecca, the Ovid of Arabia and the East—’Omar the Mogheeree, the grandson of Aboo-Rabee’ah."

Mogheerah, the great-grandfather of the poet ’Omar, had, by a wealthy marriage, re-united two important divisions of Koreysh, and thus founded a powerful clan, known as the Children of Mogheerah. His son, Hodeykah Aboo-Rabee’ah, the grandfather of ’Omar—called, from his gigantic stature, "Two Spears," or Longshanks, as we should phrase it—distinguished himself at the battle of Okatz, shortly before the birth of the Prophet. Aboo-Rabee’ah's son, Bojeyr, the father of the poet, was converted to Islam by Mohammed himself, who on the occasion bestowed on him the honourable appellation of ’Abd-Allah, "Servant of God." He was enormously wealthy, having almost the monopoly of the trade in metals, cloth, and spices with Abyssinia and Yemen.

’Omar's mother was an Arab woman of Hadramaut, a province ever famed for its female beauty; and it happened that he was born on the same day that his renowned namesake the Caliph ’Omar was murdered by the fanatic Persian slave Firooz (a.h. 23, a.d. 643). ’Abd-Allah had a second son, called Hirth, by his other wife, an Abyssinian woman. The half-blood Hirth, an austere Muslim, passed his life in government employment; while ’Omar idled and made love-songs, and got himself into trouble through his amours, from which it was often his brother's painful task to extricate him.

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"One year," says Mr. Palgrave, on the authority of the poet's best biographer Aboo-l-Faraj, "on the very high day of the great annual festival, when the pilgrims, assembled from all quarters of the Mohammedan world at Mecca, were engaged in the evening performance of their solemn traditionary rite, pacing seven times in prayer round the sacred Ka’abeh, Zeynab, a young girl of noble birth, happened to be present among the crowd of worshippers, from whom, however, she was easily to be distinguished by her surpassing beauty and the gay dresses of her numerous attendants. What next followed ’Omar may best recite after his own fashion, and in his own metre, which we have as far as possible preserved in the translation; though the rhyme, which if rendered would have necessitated too frequent divergence from the original style and imagery, has been omitted:

Ah for the throes of a heart sorely wounded!
Ah for the throes of a heart sorely wounded!
Ah for the eyes that have smit me with madness!
Gently she moved in the calmness of beauty,
Moved as the bough to the light breeze of morning.
Dazzled my eyes as they gazed, till before me
All was a mist and confusion of figures.
Ne’er had I sought her, and ne’er had she sought me;
Fated the love, and the hour, and the meeting!
There I beheld her, as she and her damsels
Paced ’twixt the temple and outer enclosure:
Damsels the fairest, the loveliest, the gentlest,
Passing like slow-wending heifers at evening,
Ever surrounding with courtly observance
Her whom they honour, the peerless of women.
Then to a handmaid, the youngest, she whispered:
"’Omar is near; let us mar his devotions.
Cross on his path that he needs may observe us;
Give him a signal, my sister, demurely."
"Signals I gave, but he marked not or heeded,"
Answered the damsel, and hasted to meet me. p. 359
Ah for that night by the vale of the sand-hills!
Ah for the dawn when in silence we parted!
He who the morn may awake to her kisses
Drinks from the cup of the blessed in heaven!

"The last four lines of this lyric seem, however, to have been written under the influence of poetical anticipation; for many weeks and even months passed without any closer intercourse than that of love-messages and glances at a distance. Zeynab, with her father Moosa, and her two elder sisters, prolonged their visit at Mecca. ’Omar was now in the prime of youth and personal beauty, advantageously set off by rank, wealth, and idleness. No wonder that his reputation as a lady-killer was already pretty well established; and that Zeynab, young herself, and only too susceptible of attentions like ’Omar's, should have received from her alarmed relatives much prudent cautioning Spring and summer passed thus, but ’Omar's suit advanced little; thanks to the coyness of the lady, and still more, it may be well believed, to the vigilance of her guardians. . . .

"Love, however, at last prevailed; and a rendezvous was given at some distance from the town, in one of the valleys that lie south-east of Mecca, bordered by high abrupt rocks, and green in its winding course below with thick gardens and palm-groves: the very place for a stolen interview. Thither Zeynab was to betake herself for an afternoon stroll with a few chosen attendants; while ’Omar was to meet her 'quite promiscuous,' as if returning from a journey. The plan succeeded; its opening scene is thus described by ’Omar in verses which long remained the envy and despair of rival poets:

Late and early, Love between us idle messenger had gone,
Till his fatal ambush in the valley of Khedab was laid:
There we met; nor, sign, nor token, needed but a glance—no more; p. 360
All my heart and all its passion mirrored in her heart I saw;
And I said: "’Tis evening cool; the gardened houses are not far;
Why unsocial bide we seated weary on the weary beasts?"
Turned she to her damsels with "What say ye?" They replied, "Alight;
Better far the cool earth's footing than the uneasy saddle perch."
Down they glided, clustering starlike round the perfect queen of night,
Calmly wending in her beauty, as to music's measured beat.
Shyly drew I near and greeted, fearful lest some jealous eye
Should behold us, or the palm-trees tell the story of our loves.
Half-withdrawn her veil, she whispered: "Fear not, freely speak your mind.
Kinsmen none are here to watch us; thou and I may claim our own."
Bold I answered: "Were there thousands, fearless would I bide their worst:
But the secret of my bosom brooks no ear, no eye but thine."
Then the maidens—ah, the maidens!—noted how apart we drew;
Well they guessed unspoken wishes, and the inmost thoughts of love.
Said they: "Give us leave to wander; bide thou here alone awhile;
We will stroll a little onwards, ’neath the pleasant evening star."
"Be not long, she answered; said they: "Fear not, we will straight return—
Straight be with thee; "and at once like trooping fawns they slipped away.
Little need to ask their meaning; if they came or if they went—
Known to her, to me, the purpose: yet we had not said a word.

"It may be easily imagined that Zeynab's attendants were too discreet to return in a hurry; and the lovers, regardless of time, prolonged their meeting till evening had passed into night, when there came on a sudden storm of rain, such as is not uncommon

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among the hills of the Hejaz coast. ’Omar, gallantly fearful lest the light dress of his fair companion should suffer, took off his cloak, one of red embroidered silk and wool, such as still may be often seen worn by the upper classes in the peninsula, and cast it over her shoulders; while she playfully refused to accept the shelter unless on condition that he should keep a part of it over himself; and in this amiable proximity they remained awhile till the shower had blown over, and the approach of dawn warned them to separate.

"Thus far all was well, and might perhaps have continued so but for the vanity of ’Omar himself, who a few days afterwards published the whole adventure, not forgetting the circumstance of the shower and the cloak, in verses that expressed much and suggested more. In spite of the thin disguise of fictitious personages, Zeynab's name, joined with that of ’Omar, was soon in every mouth; and Moosa, the father of the young lady, began to have serious fears as to the consequences of so compromising a courtship. Young ’Omar, wealthy and powerful, not only in the popularity of rising genius, but in the near relationship of princes and caliphs, was beyond the reach of his anger; and Moosa determined accordingly to seek for his daughter in flight the security which he could not hope from open contest. Silently and secretly he prepared his departure from the Hejaz; but ’Omar had notice of it in time to obtain yet one more interview with the young lady. Zeynab, however, took her precautions, and brought with her this time, not her own attendants only, but several others of her Meccan female friends, easily induced to accompany her by their curiosity to make a nearer acquaintance with the first poet of the day. The rendezvous was in a valley at some distance out of town; and there the whole party remained from evening to sunrise: the result was a serious proposal of marriage on ’Omar's part, accepted by Zeynab; but on condition that, after her own and her father's removal to their projected establishment in the neighbourhood of the Persian Gulf, ’Omar should follow them thither, and there make his offer in due

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form. In the meantime he was neither to see her nor speak with her, either in public or in private."

’Omar, however, soon broke his promise, and attempted, but without success, to obtain another interview with Zeynab before her departure. His half-brother Hirth, alarmed at the possible consequences of his levity, "giving him a large supply of money for the road, sent him off to look after some family estates in the extreme south of Yemen, after a serious warning and a solemn promise exacted that he would amend his doings in future. ’Omar obeyed; but once alone, a male Mariana in the south, separation and solitude proved too much for him; and before many weeks of his banishment were over, he had begun to solace his loneliness with several pathetic effusions, to all of which Zeynab was the keynote. The following may serve as a specimen:

Ah! where have they made my dwelling? Far, how far, from her, the loved one,
Since they drove me lone and parted to the sad sea-shore of ’Aden!
Thou art mid the distant mountains; and to each, the loved and lover,
Nought is left but sad remembrance, and a share of aching sorrow.
Hadst thou seen thy lover weeping by the sand-hills of the ocean,
Thou hadst deemed him struck by madness: was it madness? was it love?
I may forget all else, but never shall forget her as she stood,
As I stood, that hour of parting: heart to heart in speechless anguish;
Then she turned her to Thoreyya, to her sister, sadly weeping;
Coursed the tears down cheek and bosom, till her passion found an utterance:
"Tell him, sister, tell him; yet be not as one that chides or murmurs—
'Why so long thy distant tarrying on the unlovely shores of Yemen? p. 363
Is it sated ease detains thee, or the quest of wealth that lures thee?
Tell me what the price they paid thee, that from Mecca bought thy absence?'"

At length ’Omar returns to Mecca; and for the next six years he continued, in exquisite poetry, to lament the absent Zeynab—and to make love to other girls. In the meantime Zeynab's two elder sisters had married, but she remained single; and on the death of her father Moosa she returned to Mecca, accompanied by an old negress who had formerly been her nurse. It happened that ’Omar, splendidly dressed, mounted on his best horse, and with numerous attendants, was riding about the neighbourhood of the city when Zeynab's litter approached. Questioning the old negress, he soon elicited the news of Zeynab's return. The courtship was renewed, and this time in earnest; for ’Omar married Zeynab, who bore him a son and a daughter.

"’Omar is twice mentioned as taking part in the numerous military expeditions of the time; one, against the restless inhabitants of Hasa, then fermenting into the rebellion which ultimately separated them from the body of the empire; the other, when he was already over seventy, if dates be exact, against the Byzantine capital itself during the reign of Suleyman, the seventh Caliph of the Omeyyah family. In this latter expedition the Poet, according to Ebn-Khallikan, found a soldier's, and, in Mohammedan estimation, a martyr's death; perishing with countless others by the Greek fire that consumed the beleaguering Arab fleet. On the other hand, the Isphahanee chronicler Aboo-l-Faraj brings him back to die some years later in his bed, at the advanced age of eighty. The former account is probably the more correct one; but in no case has the charge of military incapacity been laid against ’Omar; and personal cowardice, a fault rare among Arabs, whatever their tribe or clan, would have been indeed a prodigy in one descended from Koreysh."

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