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

p. 364



[In the New Quarterly Magazine, for January and April, 1879, there appeared two excellent papers on "The Thousand and One Nights," from the pen of Mr. John Payne—author of "The Masque of Shadows," "The Poems of Francis Villon," and other well-known poetical works—who has been for some time engaged on a new translation (the first complete one) of the fascinating romances and tales comprised in that work. The following outline of the general principles of Arabian Prosody—including specimens of the charming poetry of "The Thousand and One Nights," in which the various forms of metre and rhyme are admirably preserved in English verse—taken from the second of these articles by permission of the author, will doubtless prove very acceptable to the class of readers for whom the present volume is mainly designed; while to scholars Mr. Payne's versified translations must be peculiarly interesting, as showing the adaptability of our language, in some degree, to the peculiarities of Oriental prosody. Mr. Payne's translation of Elf Leyleh wa Leyleh, or "The Thousand and One Nights," is looked for, both by Arabists and men of general literary culture, with considerable interest; and judging by the specimens of the tales which are given in the articles above mentioned, his work, when published, is likely to attain an immediate and a lasting popularity.—Ed.]

Before proceeding to cite specimens of the verse of "The Thousand and One Nights," it is perhaps well to give a rough outline of the principles upon which the prosody of the Arabs is founded. The invariable unit, upon which Arabic (and Persian) verse is built, is the beit or line, usually but improperly translated

p. 365

[paragraph continues] "couplet." The word beit signifies literally "a house," but by analogy "a tent" (and from this we may fairly conclude at least this fundamental part of Arabic prosody to have originated with the Bedouins or Arabs of the desert, as it is only they who would be likely to call a tent a house), the verse being whimsically regarded by the Arabs as an edifice; and this simile is carried out in the nomenclature of the different parts of the line, one foot being called "a tent-pole," another "a tent-peg," and the two hemistichs of the verse being known as the folds or leaves of the double-door of the tent. Each beit is divided into two hemistichs of equal length, each containing two, three, or four feet, of two, three, or four syllables, and the whole verse is known as a tetrameter, hexameter, or octameter, according as it contains four, six, or eight feet, or from sixteen to thirty-two syllables.

A peculiarity of Arabic verse is the excess of long syllables over short and the absence of the dactyl and other swift feet in use among Europeans: a characteristic which produces a graver and more stately movement of the rhythm than is common in European poetry. I should perhaps, however, observe that the qualifications "long" and "short" are somewhat empirically applied to the syllables of Arabic feet, as their quantities appear to be hardly appreciable to a European ear—the "long," in particular, being of a shifting character, so much so indeed that certain readers of the Koran are said to have been known to make use of no less than seven varieties of this quantity. This being the case, it has been suggested by the eminent French orientalist, M. Stanislas Guiraud, that musical notation should be applied to the determining of the Arabic rhythms; but notwithstanding the ingenuity and ability of his treatise on the subject, his tentatives do not as yet appear to have brought about any very definite result. The distinguished scholar Professor E. H. Palmer (who adds to his high scholastic attainments a literary faculty and a gift of graceful and polished versification rare among scholars) has indeed endeavoured to reproduce in English the precise rhythm and accent of Arabic verse; but he himself acknowledges the experiment to be

p. 366

an unsuccessful one, and pronounces against the feasibility of representing Oriental metres by a similar arrangement of feet and accents in English verse. The genius of the two languages, belonging as they do to opposite groups of speech-forms, presents no point of union; and it seems to me therefore that the only satisfactory way of rendering Arabic poetry into English verse is to content oneself generally with observing the exterior form of the stanza, the movement of the rhyme and (as far as possible) the identity in number of the syllables composing the beits.

The principal Arabic metres are sixteen in number, each subdivided by numerous variations; and it may, perhaps, be interesting to note here the somewhat whimsical names given to them in the East. The generic name given to them is Behr, literally "sea," but by analogy the space comprised within the walls of a tent—thus continuing the metaphor before mentioned; and they are distinguished individually as the long, the extended, the open, the copious, the perfect, the trilling, the tremulous, the running, the swift, the flowing, the light, the analogous, the improvised, the curtailed, the approximative, and the consecutive. I should perhaps mention here that the system of Arabic prosody is said to have been invented by one Khalil, a grammarian, and to have been suggested to him by the strokes of a blacksmith's hammer upon an anvil: not the most promising combination of circumstance for the birth of so important a branch of art.

The principal form used in Arabic Poetry is the Kesideh, practically identical with the better-known form of the Ghazel or love-song par excellence, with the exception that the latter is limited to eighteen beits or verses, and must contain the name of the poet in the last beit. The Kesideh may be either tetrametric, hexametric, or octametric, and is built upon a single rhyme, the two hemistichs of the first beit rhyming with each other and with the second hemistich of each succeeding beit to the end of the poem, however long it may be. It is a curious fact, that the same prohibition of enjambement or the carrying on of the sense from one verse (or pair of hemistichs) to another obtains in Arabic as in French classic verse, it being considered

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a fault not to complete the sense in the one verse. It is allowable to repeat the same rhyming word, but (according to the strict laws of prosody) not unless seven verses intervene between the repetitions. However, this and the preceding rule are constantly violated by Arabic poets, who appear to have little scruple in repeating the rhyming word whenever it suits them, and in Persian verse (whose laws are essentially the same as those of Arabic prosody) the license is still greater, the same word in the same sense being allowed to form the rhyme throughout a whole Ghazel. The Kesideh is the form which most frequently occurs in "The Thousand and One Nights." The following is a specimen:

Lady of beauty, that dost take all hearts with thy disdain,
And slay’st with stress of love the souls that sigh for thee in vain,
If thou recall me not to mind beyond our parting day,
God knows the thought of thee with me for ever shall remain.
Thou smitest me with cruel words, that yet are dear to me;
Wilt thou one day vouchsafe to me thy sweetest sight again?
I had not thought the ways of Love were languishment and woe
And stress of soul, before, alas! to love thee I was fain.
Even my foes have ruth on me and pity my distress;
But thou, O heart of steel, wilt ne’er have mercy on my pain!
By God, although I die, I'll ne’er be comforted for thee!
Though Love itself should fail, my love shall never pass or wane!

Another form which is of frequent occurrence in the collection is the Kitat or Fragment. It is formed in precisely the same manner as the Kesideh, with the exception that the two hemistichs of the first beit do not rhyme with each other. Here is a specimen of this form:

Thou madest fair thy thought of fate, when that the days were fair,
  And fearedst not the coming ills that they to thee should bring;
The nights were calm and safe to thee; thou wast deceived by them,
  For in the peace of night is born full many a troublous thing. p. 368
Lo! in the skies are many stars, no one can tell their tale;
  But to the sun and moon alone eclipse brings darkening.
The earth bears many a pleasant herb, and many a plant and tree;
  But none are stoned save only those to which the fair fruits cling.
Look on the sea, and how the waifs float high upon the foam;
  But in its deepest depths of blue the pearls have sojourning.

The only other verse-form that occurs with any frequency is the Mukhemmes or Cinquain, a succession of stanzas, each formed of two beits and a hemistich, the five hemistichs of the first strophe having the same rhyme, the first four hemistichs of the succeeding stanzas taking a new rhyme independently of the first, and the fifth hemistich rhyming with the first strophe to the end of the poem. Another form of the Mukhemmes also occurs, which differs only from the first in that the last hemistichs of the stanzas rhyme with each other only, independently of the first stanza. Here is a specimen of the first form:

I strove to hide the load that Love on me did lay:
In vain; and sleep from me for aye is fled away.
Since that wanhope doth press my heart both night and day,
I cry aloud: "O Fate, hold back thy hand, I pray!
For all my soul is sick for anguish and dismay."

If that the Lord of Love were just indeed to me,
Sleep had not fled my eyes by his unkind decree.
Have pity, sweet, on one that is for love of thee
Worn out and wasted sore, that once was rich and free,
Now humbled and cast down by Love from his array.

Thy foes cease not to speak thee ill; I heed not, I;
But stop my ear to them and give them back the lie:
I'll keep my troth with her I love, until I die.
"Thou lovest one estranged," they say; and I reply:
Enough. Fate blinds the eyes of those that are its prey.

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The following is a specimen of the second form of the Mukhemmes:

Who says to thee, "The first of love is free,"
Tell him, "Not so;" but on the contrary:
’Tis all constraint, wherein no blame can be.
History indeed attests this verity;
It does not style the good coin falsified.

Say, if thou wilt, "The taste of pain is sweet,
Or to be spurned by Fortune's flying feet;"
Talk of whatever makes the heart to beat
For grief or gladness, fortune or defeat;
’Twixt hope and fear I tarry stupefied.

But as for him whose happy days are light,
Fair maids whose lips with smiles are ever bright,
Sweet with the fragrant breath of their delight,
Who has his will, unhindered of despite,
’Tis not with him that craven fear should bide.

The Muweshih or Ballad is another form which occurs in the "Thousand and One Nights." It is, perhaps, the most complicated verse-form in the language, and is said to have been invented by the Muslim poets of Spain, shortly after the conquest, and to have been adopted from them by their brethren of Egypt and Syria. It consists of a succession of three-line stanzas, in the first of which all six hemistichs end with the same rhyme. In the second and succeeding stanzas, the first line and the first hemistich of the second line take a new rhyme; but the second hemistich of the second line resumes the rhyme of the first stanza, and is followed by the third line of the latter, which serves as a refrain to each stanza of the poem, which is often of considerable length. Here is a specimen of this elegant form:

O Censor of Love! thou that art bright as the day,
Fortunate, clad with delight as the trees in May! p. 370
If Fate with its cruel hand should thee assay,
    Then wilt thou taste of its bitter cup and say,
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!

My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.
But to-day thou art safe as yet from his fell commands,
And his perfidy holds thee not in its iron bands;
So scoff not at those that languish beneath his hands
And cry, for excess of passion that doth them slay,
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

Be not of those that look on Love with disdain,
But rather excuse and pity the lovers’ pain,
Lest thou be bound one day in the self-same chain,
And drink of the self-same bitter draught as they.
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

There is none that can tell of Love and its bitterness
But he that is sick and weak for its long excess,
He who has lost his reason for love-distress,
Whose drink is the bitter dregs of his own dismay.
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

How many a lover watches the darksome night,
His eyes forbidden the taste of sleep's delight!
How many whose tears, like rivers adown a height,
Course down their cheeks! How many are they that say,
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

How many a lover wasteth for sheer despair,
Wakeful, for void of sleep is the dusky air!
Languor and pain are the clothes that he doth wear,
And even his pleasant dreams have gone astray.
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

p. 371

I, too, of old was empty of heart and free,
And lay down to rest in peace till I met with thee:
The taste of the sleepless nights was strange to me,
Till Love did beckon, and I must needs obey.
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

How often my patience fails and my bones do waste,
And my tears, like a fount of blood, stream down in haste!
For my life, that of old was pleasant and sweet of taste,
A slender maiden hath bittered this many a day.
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

Alack for the man among men that loves like me,
And watches the wings of night through the shadows flee!
Who drowns in his own despair as it were a sea,
Who cries, in the stress of an anguish without allay,
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

Whom hath not Love stricken and wounded indeed?
Who has been aye from his easy fetters freed?
Whose life is empty of Love, and who succeed
In winning their hearts’ delight without affray?
    Alas for Love, and out on his whole array!
    My heart with his flaming fires is burnt away.

Other forms of the Muweshih exist, but the above is the only one to be found in "The Thousand and One Nights." Single lines are of frequent occurrence, which are apparently "blank" (that is to say, the two hemistichs of which do not rhyme with each other), but this is only apparent, as the verses in question are nothing more than the commencing lines of a Kitat or an extract from that form of poem or from a Kesideh, blank verse having no existence in Arabic poetry.

Next: Notes on the Moallakát