(47) Arabic Literature. Pre-Islamic Poetry. Public Recitations.
Arabic Literature. Pre-Islamitic Poetry
But if poor in architectural, Arabia is superabundantly rich in literary monuments. Passing over as of more than doubtful authenticity the verses ascribed to kings and heroes of Yemen, especially at dates of a thousand years or more before the Christian, era we find undeniable specimens, at least two full centuries before Mahomet, of poems which in vigour and polish yield to few ever composed in the Arab or in any other language. To give at length the names and stories of the authors, many of them men, and even women, no less distinguished in their day by the sword than by the pen, would be, in a brief review like this, merely to note a dry and unmeaning catalogue. Suffice it that, even at this early date, we find the metrical and rhythmical laws, simple yet susceptible of the highest art, which have ever since regulated Arab poetry, already laid down in their competeness, and exemplified, the former by a scansion of almost Horatian elegance and variety, the latter by a severe nicety that Pope himself might have admired, but could hardly have imitated. Divided into sixteen classes, each class including several variations, the metres are based, like the Greek and Roman, on long and short, vowels, irrespective of accent, but admitting caesura, elision, and every prosodiacal delicacy. Some are adapted to gay, some to serious topics: love, war, description, moral precepts, philosophical speculation, elegy, satire-all find here their appropriate expression. The rhyme, which often involves not one but two syllables, is in every piece determined by that of the opening line. Alternate rhymes, choruses, and accentuated instead of quantitative metre, did not appear till later, and were imitated from extra-Arab models.
Yearly, at the festival of Okad, the best masters of the art used to meet for the purpose of reciting their compositions, and receiving the reward, not of applause only, but also of more tangible advantages. Eulogies of chiefs, rulers, and distinguished men, formed a considerable portion of the poetry of those days; and a single ode or "kaseedah," as it was called, has been known to be rewarded, according to the means or liberality of the person eulogized, with a hundred valuable camels, or several thousand gold pieces. Love and war had also their inevitable share in the domain of verse, and descriptions of manner and scenery occur, though rarely in comparison. Lastly, elegies-some of them very touching in their deep and tender melancholy-and didactic pieces, chiefly ethical, take rank among the most carefully finished productions of the early Arab muse. Meanwhile, the greater number of poets had each his special patron, whose generosity took charge of the remuneration that in our days is looked for from the press; while a greater degree of publicity was given to a few chosen works of genius by the custom of suspending in some place of common resort (the Kaabeh, it is asserted) such pieces as in the yearly gatherings of Okad had obtained the highest palm of acknowledged excellence. Seven of these, known in Arab literature by the title of the Muallakat or "Suspended," as being emphatically the best of their kind, and all of them belonging to the 6th century, have become for succeeding ages the accepted and classical standards of Arab poetical composition.
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