Hope as thou wilt in heat or cold,
It matters not amidst the surge
Of woes that whelmed thee from of old
And whence thou never canst emerge.

The name of Abu ’l-‘Alá al-Ma‘arrí* is not one of those which any body of educated Moslems would be likely to receive with placid approbation or polite indifference; and readers of this essay will feel, though less acutely, that the words of the old blind poet, who died in Syria eight hundred and sixty years ago, ring out to-day as a challenge to deep and irreconcilable antagonisms in the nature of mankind. Is life to be desired or death? Is the world good or evil? Shall we enjoy it if we can or spurn it utterly? What is the truth about religion? Does it come to us from God, as the orthodox pre­tend? Are we to follow authority and tradition or reason and conscience? Such are some of the questions with which Ma‘arrí concerns himself. While his reflections— not pursued methodically, but set down piecemeal and at intervals— might be described as extensive and peculiar, we must not exaggerate their intrinsic value. Von Kremer’s essay, for which in general I have nothing but praise, seems to me to suffer from want of proportion. It hails Ma‘arrí as an original thinker, centuries in advance of his age, and discusses his theory and practice as though he were a philosopher writing in verse. Without denying that Ma‘arrí was a pioneer of Aufklärung, or that his open-minded and independent way of looking at things led him to conclusions which often agree with those of modern thought, I submit that Von Kremer has put the cart before the horse. Ma‘arrí is, first of all and essentially, a poet. His philosophy and ethics are only a background for his poetry. His work is artistic in treatment and execution and should be weighed by the standard which we apply to the Divina Commedia or the Paradise Lost. He sits below Dante and Milton, but he belongs to their school; and if he contemplates life with the profound feeling of Lucretius, he handles his subject with a literary skill as fine as that of Horace. Probably very few Europeans have read these poems, the Luzúmiyyát, from beginning to end. I am sure that any one who has accomplished the feat, or may do so in the future, will acknowledge the author’s mastery of the Arabic language— a mastery which too frequently displays itself in juggling with words— the aptness of his diction, the force and opulence of his imagery, the surprising turns of his fancy, and the charm of a style unmistakably his own, whose melancholy dirge-like cadences blend with sharper notes of wit, satire, and epigram. The matter is almost as remarkable as the style. Ma‘arrí aims at telling the truth, although according to Moslem theory poets not only are but ought to be liars. Taking Reason for his guide, he judges men and things with a freedom which must have seemed scandalous to the rulers and privileged classes of the day. Amidst his meditations on the human tragedy a fierce hatred of injustice, hypocrisy, and superstition blazes out. Vice and folly are laid bare in order that virtue and wisdom may be sought. In his poetry we see the age depicted without fear or favour, and— what is more appealing— the artist himself, struggling with doubts, yet confident in the power of mind to solve difficulties and give light, if any can be looked for. But (lest I slip after Von Kremer) much of the Luzúm is monotonous; a great deal is trivial and pedantic and to our taste intolerably clever: it moves us to admiration and contempt, it thrills, fatigues, fascinates, and repels; and when all has been said, it remains unique and immortal because it expresses the personality of an extraordinary man.

Abu ’l-‘Alá Aḥmad ibn ‘Abdallah al-Ma‘arrí* was born in A.D. 973 at Ma‘arra (Ma‘arratu ’l-Nu‘mán), a country-town in the district south of Aleppo*. His family might boast of its cadis and poets, but its talents appear to have been more respectable than brilliant. The fact that neither his father nor his cousin nor his maternal uncle ever made the pil­grimage to Mecca is worth recording in view of the importance which he ascribes to example and custom in the formation of religious belief. Ere he was four years old, he suffered the first calamity of his life: an attack of small-pox left him partially, and soon completely, blind. After his father’s death— he was then about fourteen— he devoted himself to study, visiting Aleppo, Antioch, and other Syrian towns, learning by heart the manuscripts preserved in their libraries, and attending the lectures of many celebrated scholars. As Professor Margoliouth remarks, his memory was prodigious. We can hardly conceive how one who so early lost his sight should have been able to compose letters and treatises thickly sown with quotations which, although they are some­times inaccurate, show a knowledge of Arabic poetry and philology such as the most industrious grammarians seldom possessed. Having finished his studies, he returned in A.D. 993 to Ma‘arra, perhaps with the intention of becoming a professional poet, that is to say, a writer of panegyrics for which he might reckon upon being paid handsomely. This was no career for a man of spirit and honour to embark on. If it tempted him, he soon put it aside: in the preface to his first collection of poems he says that he never wrote encomia for money, but only because he wished to gain practice in the art. During the next fifteen years (A.D. 993-1008) his whole income was a pension of about 30 dínárs which his blindness compelled him to share with a servant; possibly he may have earned a little more by teaching. Meanwhile he was making a reputation beyond the borders of his native town, and his thoughts turned to Baghdád, “the great field of genius and exertion, where talents of every kind had the fullest scope and the highest encouragement*.” In 1008 he set out from Aleppo, travelling down the Euphrates in a boat provided by his uncle. It seems clear that he hoped to establish himself permanently in the capital; and he ought to have counted the cost of his refusal to live by belauding the great. “I found Baghdád,” he says, “like a pie’s wing— fair, but carrying nothing*.” While his reception by the savants and acade­micians whom he met there was flattering enough to console him for occasional slights, and perhaps friendly enough to procure him the means of livelihood, he felt that his prospects were uncertain. According to Professor Margoliouth, an indignity put upon him by the brother of the Sharíf al-Raḍí was the last straw. Anyhow, eighteen months after entering Baghdád he started on his way home*. He took this step reluctantly and always writes of it with unfeigned regret, as in the following lines:

<Arabic> * <Arabic>
<Arabic> * <Arabic>
How sad that I returned, how sad,
Instead of dying at Bagdad!
I say, whene’er things fall amiss,
“My coming home hath brought me this.”*

The sense of disillusion and failure with which he quitted Baghdád appears in a letter addressed to the people of Ma‘arra shortly before his arrival amongst them. He declares that he has now ended his youth and bidden farewell to his spring-time, and that he finds the best course for him to pursue is to go into retreat.

“My soul did not consent to my returning till I had promised it three things— seclusion as complete as that of (the star) al-Faníq in the constellation of the Bull; separation from the world like that of the egg-shell from the chick; and to remain in the city even though the inhabitants fled through fear of the Greeks.... What I wanted was to stay in a place of learning: and I found out the most precious of spots, but fate did not allow me to stay there, and only a fool will quarrel with destiny*.”

Here is pessimism, asceticism, fatalism— the stuff of which his later poems are made. It would be curious if their rationalism, another prime ingredient, owed nothing to the “intellectuals” of Baghdád. Considered broadly in relation to the poet’s development, these two years (1008-9) were decisive. The change of scene, the sudden plunge into metro­politan society, the literary discussions, the conversations with men of all races and creeds, the conflict of old dogmas and new ideas, then the wreck of his hopes and the burial of his ambitions in silence and solitude— need we ask whether such an experience did not stimulate his genius and alter the bent of his mind? From this standpoint the episode was entirely fortunate. Had he not gone to Baghdád, probably the Luzúmiyyát would never have been written, and (in Europe at any rate) his fame as a poet would be very different from what it is.

Ma‘arrí lived in retirement until his death in A.D. 1058, fifty years later. Proud, sensitive, and suspicious, doubly imprisoned by blindness and seclusion*, a misanthropic and world-weary old man— that is the character which his poems give of him; but a true portrait shows light as well as shade. To quote Professor Margoliouth,

the result of his visit to Baghdád, where the leading writers of the time had treated him as one of themselves, became apparent as soon as he came back. Disciples began to flock to Ma‘arra from all quarters to hear his lectures on the grammar, poetry, and antiquities of the Arabs. The house or cave which he inhabited became the chief sight in Ma‘arra, and he himself the most important inhabitant....The letters, most of which were written after the return from Baghdád, exhibit the author as anything but a hermit; he appears rather as a man of many friends, who takes a kindly interest both in men and things.

Besides teaching, he occupied his mind with com­posing the Luzúmiyyát and dictating to his amanuenses a large number of philological and other works of which, for the most part, the titles alone have been preserved.

The poetry of Ma‘arrí recalls a long-drawn controversy, which has never wholly died out, between two schools of Islamic criticism. One party maintained that with the coming of Islam the golden age of Arabic poetry had gone for ever. A poet’s rank was decided by his date. To have lived in that age, to have spoken the pure Bedouin idiom uncontaminated by foreign conquests, to have practised the traditional virtues and to have been inspired by the chival­rous ideals of heathendom conferred a superiority out­weighing every other consideration. In the eyes of early Mohammedan philologists and antiquarians— whose authority rested securely on the universal respect for learning and was but little diminished by their incompetence in matters of taste— the pagan odes fixed an unapproachable standard by which all Moslem poets should be judged; so that an imitation of them, good or bad, was more highly esteemed than any original work of genius. Pedantry, no doubt; but in justice to those old scholars we ought to reflect that they were concerned with one particular type of poetry, the Ode (qaṣída), which was the product of Arabian antiquity and corresponded in its characteristic features to conditions of life that actually existed in the pre-Islamic period*. When these conditions vanished, the qaṣída became an anachronism but continued to be the chief medium of poetical expression, since none of the minor types was capable of filling its place. Failing the invention of a new form of equal dignity, the qaṣída held the field. What was a modern poet to do? Was he to assume the consecrated pose of bidding his two comrades halt awhile and weep with him over a certain camping-ground, desolate now, but still haunted by dear and regretful memo­ries? And was he to describe the hardships, which he had never known, of a journey across the desert, and pretend to be as intimately acquainted with camels, horses, wild asses, antelopes, and lizards as he truly was with the rhymed loci classici in which the habits of these animals are so well delineated? If, on the other hand, like Mutanabbí and Ma‘arrí, he made fun of the obsolete fashions and re-shaped them to suit the facts of his time, academic persons might (and did) protest that his more or less novel adaptation was not poetry at all. It appears to me that those who championed the ancients were both right and wrong. They were right in preferring the model to the copy. They were wrong when they set it up as a test of all poetic values and declared it to be so perfect that nothing of a different kind could bear comparison with it. To assert that since A.D. 622 there has been no Arabic poet of the first class is ridiculous; and though more great poets lived in the century before Islam than in aný subse­quent period of the same duration, I think it may reasonably be questioned whether Imra’u ’l-Qays and his fellows are superior in genius to Abú Nuwás, Mutanabbí, and others who flourished under the ‘Abbásid Caliphate*. If some can­not admire the ancients without depreciating the moderns, not a few will justify the proud boast of Ma‘arrí—

<Arabic> * <Arabic>
And I, albeit I come in Time’s late hour,
Achieve what lay not in the ancients’ power*.

For my part, when I turn from the authors of the Mu‘allaqát to the great Islamic poets, I do not miss what I do not expect to find; and I find beauties enough in both to compensate me for the deficiencies of either. Thanks mainly to Rückert and Sir Charles Lyall, the worth of old Arabian poetry is now understood everywhere. Let us hope the day is coming when it will be possible to make that statement as regards Arabic poetry in general.

What has been said of Coleridge, that “his poems lie as it were in two strata,” is also true of Ma‘arrí. Those of his first manner, the odes comprised in the Saqṭu ’l-Zand and mostly written before the age of thirty-five, show the influence of his admiration for Mutanabbí and in comparison with the Luzúmiyyát are nearly as conventional as the poems written by Coleridge before 1797. They include some fine panegyrics and elegies but have small interest for us. In the East, how­ever, the Saqṭu ’l-Zand has always been more popular than the Luzúm, which Mohammedans usually dislike on account of the opinions put forth in it, while neither its form nor its character accords with their notion of what poetry ought to be. As we have seen, the regular type of Arabic poetry is the ode; but in the Luzúm Ma‘arrí discards this time-honoured model, substituting for it an informal composition which may contain any number of verses from two or three to eighty or ninety. How these poems strike the average Moslem we can learn from the apology which Ma‘arrí thinks it necessary to make for them. He says in effect*:

“I have not sought to embellish my verse by means of fiction or fill my pages with love idylls, battle-scenes, descriptions of wine-parties and the like. My aim is to speak the truth. Now, the proper end of poetry is not truth, but falsehood*, and in pro­portion as it is diverted from its proper end its perfection is impaired. Therefore I must crave the indulgence of my readers for this book of moral poetry.”

In other words, Ma‘arrí holds that truth— he means moral and philosophical truth— so far from being the standard of poetical merit, is positively injurious to it. He does not imply that the best poetry is untrue to life, but rather that it is false because it follows human life and nature, which belong to the vanities of this world and are themselves radically false. He knows that he cannot compete with his “profane” brethren who are free to employ all the resources of invention and imagination; and foreseeing that his readers will be dis­appointed, he hastens to assure them that the fault lies in the subject, not in the poet. A Mohammedan scholar, who in his recently published memoir of Ma‘arrí has made a valuable contribution to learning, cites this passage as evidence that the Luzúm is really “a volume of philosophy*.” If that were so, we might ask why the author not only composed it in verse but adopted an almost incredibly difficult form of rhyme, the explanation of which gives his preface the appearance of a treatise on prosody. But I need not argue the point further. Ma‘arrí says that the Luzúm is “diction devoid of falsehood” (<Arabic>), i.e., poetry of an inferior kind.

We who dissent from his theory judge otherwise of his work. Although moral, religious, and philosophical ideas are not the essence of poetry, they have inspired the greatest poets, and where genius is equal they will turn the scale. Whether and to what extent they enhance the merit of a poem depends on the author’s power to give them artistic and original expression: the most striking doctrines and speculations may have less value for this purpose than thoughts and feelings with which everyone is familiar. Von Kremer’s view of Ma‘arrí led him to ignore the latter element; hence the passages which he translated stand somewhat apart, so to speak, from the main themes. These are simple and even commonplace: the pain of life, the peace of death, the wickedness and folly of mankind, the might of Fate and the march of Time, the emptiness of ambition, the duty of renunciation, the longing for solitude and then— to rest in the grave. The pessimism of the Luzúm wears the form of an intense pervading darkness, stamping itself on the mind and deeply affecting the imagination*. It is an old philosophy and its poets have been many, but I can think of none who in sincerity, individuality, and eloquence has surpassed Abu ’l-‘Alá al-Ma‘arrí*.

The book derives its title from a “troublesome bondage” (to borrow Milton’s phrase) voluntarily imposed on himself by the author in regard to the rhyme*. Although the nature of this cannot be explained properly without using technical terms which I wish to avoid, the so-called “rich rhymes” of French versification are a close parallel and will serve to illustrate what is meant. Conceive a French poem of ten, fifteen, or twenty verses, every verse having not only the same rhyme but the same consonant preceding the rhyme-vowel, e.g., plume, allume, enclume; mirage, enrage, ouvrage, parage; further, conceive hundreds of poems rhymed through­out in this manner and arranged according to the alphabetical sequence of the final consonant, so that those with the rhyme lume are placed under m, those with the rhyme rage under g, and so on— the analogy, such as it is, may help readers ignorant of Arabic to measure the enormous labour which the composition of the Luzúmiyyát must have entailed. There is nothing like it, of course, in any European language; even in Arabic, a language that seems to have been made for virtuosity, we find only a few brief and isolated specimens to set beside it*. Were Ma‘arrí a minor poet, the Luzúm would be a senseless tour de force. Some of it is not very remote from that description, and the tyranny of the rhyme exacts a crushing toll of repetition, monotony, banality, obscurity, and affectation. Still, take it all in all, the work is shaped by the artist, not by the mould which it fills slowly and reluctantly. I do not think so poorly of his powers as to believe, with some Mohammedan and European critics, that the difficulty of the form compelled him to say what he never would have said if he had been his own master. No doubt, he is apt to be dragged down by his chains, but often he can move in them with such dexterity and ease that they appear rather an ornament than a hindrance.

The Luzúm contains 1592 poems amounting, I suppose, to between twelve and thirteen thousand verses altogether. When the author declares that they glorify God, exhort the heedless, and warn against the vanity and wickedness of the world*, he does not indicate either the range of their topics or the variety of their style. He was interested in many things besides asceticism: he was a keen student of passing events, he professed to know his contemporaries by heart*, and we shall see how political and social phenomena reflect themselves in his meditations. Recalling his avowed intention to tell the truth, one may find there the best com­mentary on his way of telling it. For him Truth was a mystery—

And Falsehood like a star all naked stands,
Truth still hides her face ’neath hood and veil*.

By hard living and thinking he strove to lift that veil, and the laboured utterance, the dark hints and metaphors— in short, the oracular quality of his verse— are only in keeping with the physical and mental strain which he had undergone. Closer acquaintance with the Luzúm has persuaded me that its obscurity is more natural and less deliberate than I once imagined. Ma‘arrí had good reason to cloak some of his opinions, and being a sensible as well as a cautious man, he did not court persecution, though in fact the most heretical passages of his work are by no means the most obscure. Apart from special causes his style, as I said before, is the expression of a strange untempered personality*, while in the second place it is the product of a poet who seldom allows us to forget that he was also a very learned scholar. His love of grammar, prosody, rhetoric, and belles-lettres asserts itself extravagantly; some poems are mere strings of word-plays. This feature spoils many pages for us, but it is not invariable, as will be acknowledged by those who read the Arabic text of the poems translated below. These, though representative as regards the author’s ideas, are comparatively plain in style and include no example of what he could do when he ran to the opposite extreme.

Following Sir Charles Lyall, a master in the art, I have sometimes tried to imitate the original metres without the monorhyme, which in a language like ours lays too heavy a burden upon the translator. Arabic metres being quantita­tive, their equivalents in a modern European tongue are necessarily imperfect. It is not possible to reproduce the movement and cadence of the Luzúmiyyát except in the same way as the movement and cadence of the Iliad are repro­duced, or rather suggested, by a version in English hexameters; yet, shadowy as the resemblance is, it conveys some­thing of real value, which is more easily felt than described. Like the broken vase in Moore’s song, these Oriental rhythms have a perfume that “clings to them still.” More than that we dare not hope for: even when transplanted by skilful hands they lose the best of their beauty and never become quite acclimatised.

I have thought it well to give the names and schemes of the four principal metres for the sake of those who do not know them already, together with specimens in Arabic, Latin, and English. It will be observed that the Latin render­ings are weightier than the English, because (coinciding in this respect with the originals) they are based on quantity instead of accent. Besides weight, however, Arabic has a peculiar sonority which Latin does not possess in the same degree and which is greatly increased by the recurring mono­rhyme.

1. Ṭawíl (the Long Metre).
yadullu ‘alá faḍli ’l-mamáti wa-kawnihí
iráḥata jismin ’anna maslakahú ṣa‘bu.
’alam tara ’anna ’l-majda talqáka dúnahú
shadá’idu min ’amthálihá wajaba ’l-ru‘bu*.
bono qui negat summo frui nisi mortuos
habet testimonium hoc: iter mortis arduum est.
uides ut priusquam uir sibi uindicauerit
honorem, pati casus timendos oporteat.
That Death is a good supreme and gives to the body peace
From all sorrow— prove it thus: the way thereunto is hard.
For seest thou not, before success in a high emprise,
What sore straits encounter thee, what perils thou needs must fear?

Here the Latin and English versions exhibit the usual form of the Ṭawíl metre, while the Arabic lines are a less common variation, in which is substituted for in the last foot of the verse, i.e., the foot containing the rhyme*. Another variety shortens the same foot by omitting the final syllable, thus:

bono qui negat summo frui nisi mortuos
habet testimonium hoc: iter mortis atrox.
uides ut pati casus timendos oporteat,
honorem priusquam uir sibi uindicârit.
That Death is a good supreme and gives to the body peace
From all sorrow— here is proof: the hardness of dying.
For seest thou not, before success in a high emprise,
What perils thou needs must fear, what sore straits encounter?
2. Basíṭ (the Wide Metre).
’ammá ’idhá má da‘a ’l-dá‘í li-makrumatin
fa-hum qalílun wa-lákin fi ’l-’adhá ḥushudu*.
quos si uocaueris ad praeclara, conueniunt
rari, sed iniuriae ergo tota gens properat.
As often as they are called to do a kindness, they come
By twos and threes; but to work despite they muster in crowds.
ṭúbá li-maw’údatin fí ḥáli mawlidihá
ẓulman fa-layta ’abáha ’l-faẓẓa maw’údu*.
beata quam sepeliuit filiam genitor
uiuam; atque sic utinam sepultus ipse foret!
Oh, happy she that was tombed alive the hour she was born,
And would that he had been tombed, her ruthless sire, at his birth!
3. Wáfir (the Ample Metre).
wa-lam ’aridi ’l-maniyyata bi-’khtiỳárí
wa-lákin ’awshaka ’l-fatayáni saḥbí*.
et haud equidem uolens Acheronta adiui:
ephebi me truces duo ui trahebant.
Not willingly went I down to the fated waters:
The two strong youths* by force haled me between them.
4. Kámil (the Perfect Metre).
dunyáka dárun ’in yakun shuhháduhá
‘uqalá’a lá yabkú ‘alá ghuyyábihá*.
hic mundus est tibi tale deuersorium
malesanus ut sit qui profectos lugeat.
This world is such an abode that if those present here
Have their wits entire, they will never weep for the absent ones.

Notwithstanding that a single poem may touch upon many topics, it seemed convenient to group the translations as far as possible under the following general heads:

I.Life and Death.
II.Human Society.
IV.Philosophy and Religion.

This arrangement has the advantage of distributing the contents of the work in something like their due order and proportion, and of helping the reader to judge it as a whole more fairly than from the extracts published by Von Kremer, which are not so numerous or representative as mine; but I confess that I have with difficulty resisted the temptation to show how fine and original a poet Ma‘arrí is by gathering his best pieces into one garland. The poems in the first three sections offer a wide survey of his theory, practice, and experience of life. While their figurative language may some­times require explanation, I do not think they call for a pre­liminary statement of the philosophical ideas which lie beneath. We can understand and enjoy them without knowing how Ma‘arrí conceived of God, fate, time, space, spirit, and matter. What he has to say about these and other subjects— the influence of the stars, the immortality of the soul, the doctrine of transmigration, the nature of religion, etc.— par­ticularly excites our curiosity, and many will consider that it is the quintessence of his poetry; as a rule, however, it occurs only in brief passages which must be taken out of their context and examined side by side before we can draw any sure evidence from them. That is the task I have attempted in the fourth section, where the author’s philosophy and his attitude towards positive religion will be dis­cussed.