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Oscar Wilde


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Arabian poetry for English readers

by William Alexander Clouston

Excerpt:

The authors of the Mu'allaqat were all men of high poetical genius, although they were in no sense possessed of literary culture—indeed, it is almost certain that scarcely one of them could read and write. They were tiatural poets, whose ignorance of letters was fully compensated by a nice sense of rhythm and the faculty of clearly and vigorously expressing in their rich and copious language what they thought and felt;—impulsive children of the desert, whose passions had free scope for good and evil; who were capable of the most intense affection, and of the most bitter hatred: whose strong feelings found vent in flowing verse.

A century had elapsed after the rise of Islam when the fragments of the early poetry, and anecdotes of the most famous bards of the Arabian peninsula —especially the poets of Yaman—which had been handed down orally from generation to generation, were finally reduced to writing. How much of the traditions regarding the pagan Arab poets is fabulous cannot now be ascertained; but to the task of investigating the authenticity of the so-called reliques of ancient Arabic poetry the most learned scholars of Germany have for some time been devoted, with results which are more or less conclusive, and which will be touched upon in the next section of this Introduction. The following particulars regarding the several authoTs of the Mu'allaqat are gleaned from the best Oriental writers.

IMRA'U-'L-QAYS

the son of Hujr, the son of Hanth, was a prince of the tribe of Kinda. His real name was Hunduj, and he acquired the epithet of Imra'u-'l-Qays (" the man of adversity") from his misfortunes.* Muhammad called him d-Malihu 'dz-Dziltll, " the most erring prince," as being the best of the pagan Arab poets, whom, he also said, Imr' would head on their way to the place of woe. His love adventure with a damsel of another tribe, alluded to in vv. 8-13 of his Mu'allaqa, and detailed in the translator's Argument, so exasperated his father that he expelled him from the tribe; and for many years the poet led a wandering, reckless life among the Arabs of the desert, a life of peril and often of privation; occasionally varied by a halt at some well-watered spot, where he and his comrades feasted

* In Sir W. Jones' " Genealogy of the Seven Poets," prefixed to his translation of the Mu'allaqat, the father of Imra'u-'l-Qays ('Amriol-Kais) is called Maiah ; his grandfather, Rabeiah (who was the father of Kulayb, the proud chief, whose murder caused a long and bloody war between the tribes of Taglib and Bakr); and his great grandfather, Ilareth. Possibly "Maiah" was another name of Hujr, the father of Imra'u-'l-Qays; however, the asterisk after the name in Sir W. Jones' list evidently indicates that it was doubtful.—According to Professor Ahlwardt, the poet was also styled Abu Zayd (father of a son called Zayd), son of Hujr, son of Harith.

on camel's flesh and caroused, while singing-girls amused them with their lively songs. The poet was thus engaged, drinking and gaming, when a messenger from his tribe arrived, and announced that his father had been slain by his rebellious subjects. Imra'u-'lQays made no answer; and on his companion stopping his game, he simply said: "Play on." But when the game was finished, he remarked to his comrade: "I would not have thy game interrupted;" and then, turning to the messenger, he inquired minutely into all the circumstances of his father's assassination. Having learned the particulars, he said: "Asa youth, my father banished me from his house; as a man, it is my duty to avenge his death. But to-day we shall drink; to-morrow, sobriety: wine, to-day; business, to-morrow."

With an army of the tribes of Taglib and Bakr (who were not then at variance), Imra'u-'l-Qays marched against his rebellious people, who, however, escaped his vengeance, by placing themselves under the protection of the King of Hira. Upon this his followers forsook him, and he then sought help of the Himyarite prince Marthad el-Khayr, who promised him 500 men, but died soon afterwards; and his successor showed little disposition to assist the unfortunate prince.


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