MR. LYALL'S ANCIENT ARABIAN POETRY.*
As Mr. Lyall tells us that his book is not intended for specialists, we shall not hesitate to consider it from the point of view of an outsider, who has no means of judging of its linguistic merits, but simply regards its literary and historical value ; and we shall take for granted what has, we believe, been generally con- ceded by experts, that it adequately represents its original. We have here, then, fifty poems, the work of nearly as many authors, reaching over a period which may be roughly described as including the seventy years that preceded, and the hundred- and-seventy that followed, the birth of Mahommed. Most of the poems, however, belong to the earlier period, and their special interest lies in the picture that they give us of Arab life and thought as it was in the days before Islam. Whatever that faith may have done for the races of the East, it certainly has not developed literature. All of the ;literary spirit that has survived under its dominion may be described as having been in unveiled, or but half-veiled, rebellion to it. These poems Mr. Lyall presents to us in versions which, whatever their other qualities, are distinguished by a remarkable force of expression, and by an absolute freedom from the clumsiness and stiffness which are the common faults of translation.
The great characteristic that strikes us in this verse is what we may call its Homeric character,—its absolute simplicity and directness. It is like going into another world to turn from the introspective poetry of our own day, with its endless question- ings and problems, to these broad, strongly drawn pictures of action and emotion,—pictures of but a few strokes each, but singularly effective. The Arab poet sings his love, his revenge, the joys of battle and of the feast, and the sadness of the " terminator of delights and separator of companions," and his mind is hampered with no doubts and perplexities. Here is a piece which sets forth with admirable directness his philosophy of life :—
• 7'ronslatione of Ancient Arabian Poetry, chiefly Pnr.Ielamic. With an Intro- duction and Notes. By Charles James Lyall, MA. London: Williams and Norgate. 1885.
" Roast flesb, the glow of fiery wine, to speed on camel fleet and sure As thy soul lists to urge her on through all the hollow's breadth and length ; White women statue-like that trail rich robes of price with golden hem, Wealth, easy lot, no dread of ill,
to hear the lute's complaining string—
These are Life's joys. For man is set the prey of Time, and Time is change. Life strait or large, great store or nought, all's one to Time, all men to death."
Particular Homeric resemblances are not wanting. Here is a
passage that recalls more than one passage of the Iliad, the exhortation of Sarpedon to Glances, for instance, and the grim
solace which Achilles administers to the doomed Lycaon
:- "Be still then, and face the onset of Death, high-hearted,
for none upon Earth shall win to abide for ever.
No raiment of praise the cloak of old age and weakness : none such for the coward who bows like a reed in tempest.
The pathway of Death is set for all men to travel :
the Crier of Death proclaims through the Earth his empire."
Another, the purely objective aspect of the poetry, presents itself in such a poem as that in which Ta'abbata Sharran (which is, being interpreted, " he carried a mischief under his arm "), tells how he escaped from the foes with whom he had an old-standing blood-fend. It must be premised that the warrior had climbed over the edge of a precipice to gather some wild-honey, that his enemies surprised him when thus employed, and that he poured the honey upon the rock, and fastening the skin of the bag on his body, slid down the cliff (which, presum- ably, was not too steep), unharmed :—
" A man must be crafty and wise when peril is round his road, or else is his labour vain, he follows a luck that flees,
Yea, his is the wary soul, on whom lights a thing to do and finds him alert, intent, his end straight before his eyes ;
Against him the wild Days dash—he meets them with cunning mind : is one of his nostrils stopped ? he breathes through the other free!
To LibyAn I said—(they deemed they had me beyond escape, my day trapped in narrow room, no issue but through their throng)
'Ye give me my choice of two—to yield me and beg for life, or die : and a free man's choice of these twain were surely death.
But yet is a third way left : I ponder it deep within ; and there lies a road, methinks, where craft may befriend, and skill.'
I spread forth my breast thereto : there slid down the rock-face smooth a man stout and square of chest, and slender of flank and lean; And safe did he reach the ground below down the dizzy cliff with never a scratch, while Death looked on at his deed ashamed.
So gained I again my tribe—and well-nigh returned no more : yea, many the like case lies behind me, and here am I."
We might think that we were listening to the tale of the " many-connselled " Ulysses when he tells the wondering people of Alcinous how he escaped from the Cyclops or the Laestrygon.
But the pictures are not all pictures of war. One of the customs of Arab life was to drive their herds during the spring months of the year (" spring" including winter as well) to the high country of the interior, to take advantage of the pasture with which it is then, and then only, clothed. These months were months of peace. Something like the medimval "Truce of God " was established by an unwritten law, and gave oppor- tunities for friendships and loves the growth and interruption of which the Arab poet often pathetically celebrates. How curiously like and yet unlike is all this to what still remains in our modern life, the summer migration to the Highland " shieling," to the mountain pastures of Scandinavia and Switzerland. Here is a scene drawn from this side of Arab life, but gaining a still higher interest because it portrays woman as she was before Islam had brought upon her the degradation of servitude and seclusion. The Umaimah of the poem is one of a colony which has come to the hill pastures, and now she has gone back to her own place " Her purpose was quickly shaped—no warning she gave her friends,
though there she had dwelt hard by, her camels all day with ours,
Yea, thus in our eyes she dwelt, from morning to noon and eve—
she brought to an end her tale, and fleeted, and left us lone, So gone is Umaimah, gone, and leaves here a heart in pain : my life was to yearn for her, and now its delight is fled.
She won me whenas, shamefaced—no maid to let fall her veil, no wanton to glance behind—she walked forth with steady tread ; Her eyes seek the ground, as though they looked for a thing lost there : she turns not to left or right—her answer is brief and low.
She rises before day dawns to carry her supper forth to wives who have need—dear alms, when such gifs are few enow !
Afar from the voice of blame her tent stands for all to see, when many a woman's tent is pitched in the place of scorn.
No gossip to bring him shame from her does her husband dread—
when mention is made of women, pure and unstained is she. The day done, at eve glad comes he home to his eyes' delight : he needs not to ask of her—' Say, where didst thou pass the day.?' And slender is she where meet, and full where it so beseems, and tall, straight, a fairy shape, if such upon earth there be."
What purity and dignity is here !
What, again, could be more pathetic than these utterances of another poet about another Umaimah, the adopted child, whom he could not bear to think of leaving to the cruel mercies of the world. While she lives he says :—
"My life she prays for, and I from mere love pray for her death— yea, death, the gentlest and kindest guest to visit a maid."
But when she is dead his heart is in a certain dismal fashion at rest :—
" Gone is Umaimah to dwell where tall stones tell of the dead—
poor waif at rest in the grave, laid safe at last in the dust.
0 thou—one half of my soul ! how mourns the half that is left, athirst for thee, though the tears stream fast and full from mine eyes!
Ah me! for her did I fear, lest I should go to my grave the first, and leave her nlone, unveiled, to battle with Want : But now I sleep, and no Care comes nigh to trouble my rest : at last finds Jealousy peace, when all it guarded are dead !
This is the kindness of death– shall I deny him his due ?
Peace has he brought me, if Pain be still the chief of his gifts."
It is difficult to say too much of the beauty of the last four lines.
We must not forget to quote part of a noble description of a storm :—
" The right of its mighty rain advanced over Katan's ridge :
the left of its trailing skirt swept Yadhbal and as-Sitir ; Then over Kntaifah's steep the flood of its onset drave, and headlong before its storm the tall trees were borne to the ground ; And the drift of its waters passed o'er the crags of al-Kanan, and drave forth the white-legged deer from the refuge they sought therein.
And Taimh—it left not there the stem of a palm aloft, nor ever a tower, save one firm built on the living rook. And when first its misty shroud bore down upon Mount Thabir, he stood like an ancient man in a gray-streaked mantle wept.
The clouds cast their burden down on the broad plain of al-Ghablt, as a trader from al-Yaman unfolds from the bales his store ; And the topmost crest on the morrow of al-lifujaimir's cairn was heaped with the flood-borne wrack like wool on a distaff wound.
At earliest dawn on the morrow the birds were chirping blithe, as though they had drunken draughts of riot in fiery wine ' • And at even the drowned beasts lay where the torrent had borne them, dead, high up on the valley sides, like earth-stained roots of squills?'
One remarkable feature of these poems is their curious evenness of merit and similarity of character. Of coarse, a skilful trans- lator may give them a certain unity of style which in the original might be wanting. But this does not account for all the resemblance. We do not cease to believe in Homer's "indivisible supremacy," but we feel that more may be said for the " ballad" theory than we had thought.