The L-poem of the Arabs

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(Arabic characters)


(Arabic characters)













Hajjī Khalīfa gives the pedigree of Shanfarà in the following manner: Shanfarà (Arabic characters) , son of Aws (Arabic characters) , son of Hujru-'l-Hinwu (Arabic characters) , son of Aẓd (Arabic characters) , son of Gawth (Arabic characters) , son of Zayd (Arabic characters) , son of Kahlān (Arabic characters) , son of Saba' (Arabic characters) .

De Sacy (Chrestoraathie Arabe, vol. ii. p. 345, 2nd edition, 1826) says of Shanfarà, that he was a contemporary of Ta'abbata-Sharran; and that they lived a short time before the days of Muhammad.

The Arabic preface to the edition of Shanfarà's poem given by De Sacy is to the following effect;—very interesting, if not thoroughly critical:

"Shanfarà is one who has large lips.

"He was a poet of the tribe of Azd, and was one of the Runners.

"There were among the Arabs certain runners, whom horsemen could not overtake. Of them were this (Shanfara), Sulayk son of Sulaka, 'Umar son of Barraq, Usayr (or Aslr) son of Jabir, and Ta'abbata-Sharran.

"Now Shanfarà had vowed that surely he would slay of the tribe of the Banii Salaman a hundred men; and he had (already) killed ninety-nine of them (towards the accomplishment of his vow). For, whenever he met a man of that tribe, Shanfarà would call out to him: 'This for thy eye!' Then he would shoot at him (with an arrow), and would strike out both his eyes.

"After this, they devised a stratagem against him and seized his person. The man who captured him was Usayr son of Jābir, one of the runners, who watched for Shanfarà until the latter alighted in a confined spot to drink water one night; he then stood up before Shanfarà and seized him.

"The tribe put Shanfarà to death.

"Long afterwards, one of their number, passing that way, saw the skull of Shanfarà, and kicked it. A splinter of the skull entered his foot; and of the wound he died; so making up the full tale of one hundred killed by Shanfarà. But God knows best as to this matter."

This story, like all the others collected, two or three hundred years after the promulgation of Islām, by the traditionists and folkloremongers of Bagdād, is a mere adaptation, a patchwork of various tales preserved or invented in the desert to account for ancient songs or proverbs current among its inhabitants.

Our poem itself mentions the name of Shanfarà as that of a dire slaughterer of his enemies.

A number of proverbs were picked up, which speak of a Shanfarà and a Sulayk, as also of a male ostrich, a snake, a wolf, a scorpion, the mange, and gaping, as things to surpass which was difficult, in running or in attacking,—(Arabic characters) . In the first-named three proverbs, the commentators preferred to understand speed in running; in the five last, aggressiveness. They are probably correct; but their conclusions are mere inferences; even if we admit the proverbs to be genuine and ancient.

Shanfarà's poem lends itself to the supposition that he really was swift of foot, by asserting that, when striving to reach some scanty pool of water, he could easily outstrip the sandgrouse birds, though these are said to fly a distance of ten and even twenty days' journey (for an Arab on foot),— say, from one to two hundred miles,—between the earliest day-dawn and the sun's attaining an altitude of a few degrees.

Of course, such speed in Shanfarà is merely poetical exaggeration. But, that a trained man can outrun a horse is a fact well proved in our own times.

The Shanfarà of the poem, and the Shanfarà of the proverb, may therefore be reasonably supposed to refer to the same individual.

But De Sacy, in his notes to the poem, carries this probability much further. He there cites an anecdote, which, if not a mere invention ad hoc, as appears very likely indeed, proves that Shanfarà was a contemporary and a confederate of the poet Ta'abbata-Sharran, who is known, on other grounds, to have lived, as mentioned above, but a short time before Muhammad.

What this last expression may have been intended to mean, is not well defined by De Sacy; and I have not sifted the question myself. "To have lived a short time before Muhammad" may mean, in one sense, to have died not very long before the year A.D. 569, in which Muhammad was born;— the Year of the Elephant, the year of Abraha's expedition from Yaman, to destroy the Cubical House of Makka. While, in another sense, it may signify to have died some time during the latter part of the forty years that elapsed between Muhammad's birth and his announcement of himself as charged with a heavenly mission to his countrymen in A.D. 609; that is, to have died about the year A.D. 600 ;—several years before Ethelbert, the Saxon king of Kent, was converted to Christianity by the monk Augustine. At any rate, it is universally admitted that Shanfara and his poem were things of a period anterior to the promulgation of Islam among the tribes of Arabia.

The anecdote given by De Sacy commences thus:

"Ta'abbata-Sharran, Shanfara, and 'Umar son of Barrāq, were in league together against the tribe of Bajīla (Arabic characters) . The tribe placed a party of their men in ambush near a tank to which the three confederates were to come by night, to drink."

Now, as it is not likely the tribe could have had any certain knowledge of this fact, the probability is that the tank was a convenient station between the camping-grounds of the tribe and those of the confederates. The tribe may have been informed that these latter were about to carry out an attack against them in the usual Arab fashion, by surprise, and by night. The tribe could calculate that the raiders would be in the lightest marching order, unarmed; also, that they would naturally visit the tank, hoth to refresh themselves on their journey, and to ascertain whether the coast were clear of the tribe, ere they ventured further.

On the other hand, the tribe may have been out themselves on a similar marauding expedition, bound to surprise the confederates, if possible. They, too, were unarmed; but they were provided with ropes to bind any prisoners they might chance to take.

The anecdote then proceeds:

"When the three confederates reached the neighbourhood of the tank, Ta'abbat declared to his companions that it was beset by the foe in ambuscade, as he could hear the palpitations of their hearts."

The natural explanation of this passage is, that the confederates were proceeding with due circumspection. Ta'abbata Sharran, either in his turn, or as the most experienced local guide, or as the acknowledged captain of the triumvirate, was leading the van, acting as scout in advance. His acute ear informed him at some distance that the neighbourhood of the tank was not untenanted. He had, in consequence, fallen back on his friends, or had waited for them to join him. Then he communicated his discovery. But, meanwhile, the Bajlla party had also become aware of the approach of the trio, or of some one unknown. The word had been passed round among them, and all was now as still as death.

The anecdote runs on:

"The two friends assured Ta'abbat that (as they could detect no sound) he must have been deceived by the beating of his own heart. He took their hands, placed them on his bosom to convince them how tranquil all was there, and remarked: 'My heart never palpitates audibly from fear.'"

The two friends were satisfied on that score. Still, all was silent. After a while, spent in listening, as woodsmen and Arabs can listen, Shanfarà, perhaps pressed by thirst and urged by chivalrous devotion, determined to run the risk of being seized, but felt persuaded there was no real danger. Most likely there was no other water available within attainable distance. He went, drank, and returned in safety; assuring Ta'abbat that the water was not beset. He had seen and heard nothing. And yet, this was the Shanfarà of the Laraivya poem, who could glide in and out among the watchdogs of his foes, without arousing them. Still, Ta'abbat was sure he had not been mistaken. His answer to his friend was, simply: "It is not you they want."

The other confederate of the three, 'Umar son of Barrāq, now went to the tank, drank his fill, saw and heard nothing, and returned also without molestation.

Ta'abbat was not to be deceived. He knew what he had heard, but he knew also that he must drink or perish. He therefore addressed his companions: "As soon as I stoop down to drink, they will set upon me and seize me. When you witness that, do you, Shanfarà, betake yourself quickly to the foot of yon hillock, and hide yourself there for a short time. You will hear me shout: 'Seize! Seize!' Then do you at once make for me, and release me from bonds."

Shanfarà went off towards the hillock swiftly and stealthily. The foe remained in ignorance of his action.

Ta'abbat then turned to 'Umar, and said: "I shall propose you as my hostage to these men. Go not far away; but suffer them not to touch you."

That, like most or all of similar historical details, the whole of this scene is drawn from the imagination of the narrator, is evident from the childish inconsistency of its elements. "With the darkest of dark nights, always selected for such expeditions, shortly after a new moon, the hidden foe, so securely ensconced away as to be utterly inscrutable to two such men as Shanfarà and 'Umar,—that foe is still able to distinguish unerringly their forms, or the fall of their footsteps, from that of Ta'abbat, their own arch-foe. Ta'abbat can hear their hearts beat; but he can instruct his friends in a suddenly conceived plot, which they carry out forthwith in every detail; and yet those hidden foes gain no inkling of the plan, as we shall presently see.

"Having thus taken his measures, Ta'abbat now advances to the tank, stoops, drinks, and, as he had anticipated, is pounced upon, and instantly secured with a stout rope, or a thong of raw hide."

Shanfarà, notwithstanding the darkness, witnesses the proceeding, unseen, from the foot of the hillock where he has taken up his post.

"Ta'abbat then addresses his captors aloud: 'Men of Bajlla, I offer you to ransom myself on equitable terms; and 'Umar son of Barrāq shall be your hostage for me.' They accept his proposal. Ta'abbat now calls out: 'Come forward, 'Umar. As for that fellow Shanfarà, he is already off to some friendly tribe, near at hand. You, 'Umar, must be hostage for me.'

"'Umar stood forward in full view,"—in spite of darkness and distance,—" and said: 'Not until I have shown them how to run.' So saying, he ran swiftly towards the hillock, and then back again towards the Bajila party," all of whom had now shown themselves, and were looking on to watch and admire 'Umar's deftness of foot.

"When he had repeated this course, to and fro, several times, the Bajlla men imagined that he would be sufficiently out of breath to be easily made prisoner," without becoming hostage for his friend.

According to Arab laws of private warfare, there would be no treachery or dishonesty in this. He had not yet chosen to constitute himself their hostage and guest. He was still their foe at large and had foolishly tired himself, out of bravado. He could be, therefore, honourably seized.

"The Bajīla men," all of them in a body, the simpletons, "set out, therefore, in pursuit of 'Umar," leaving Ta'abbat unguarded, even by a single sentry. He was so securely bound, he could not possibly escape.

Seeing the opportunity he had so adroitly planned, and the perfect manner in which his bait had been taken, Ta'abbat, when his captors were sufficiently distant at the heels of 'Umar, who kept just clear of them, without making clean off,—dangling, as it were in their grasp, and so enticing them to continue the pursuit,—"Ta'abbat shouted aloud," as though to cheer them on: '"Seize! Seize!' At this signal, Shanfarà came forth from his hiding-place, swiftly ran to Ta'abbat, cut loose his bonds, and set him free. The two now made for their companion 'Umar," still in spite of the pitchy darkness.

"Having joined him, Ta'abbat, in a vein of irony, addressed his late captors: 'Men of Bajīla! you have seen how 'Umar can run; look now, and admire the speed of Ta'abbata Sharran!' With this, the three friends put on speed, and were soon out of reach of their foes."

Such is the tale on which is said to have been based a proverb, not founded on the fleetness of foot of 'Umar, or of Ta'abbat, but on that of our bard, Shanfarà, respecting whose celerity not a word is explicitly stated in the whole course of the anecdote.

As a further proof that the Shanfarà proverb was founded on the nimbleness displayed by his double, Ta'abbat, on that memorable night of accommodating darkness, when all distant objects were so conveniently visible, De Sacy gravely continues to quote his Arabian guide, and gives the following three distichs, said to have been composed by Ta'abbat in commemoration of that night's adventure, but which might have been indited by any bard on almost any occasion of a nocturnal chase.

In these verses, it is not Ta'abbat who calls out; it is the men of Bujīla. Again, it is not the whole of them who run after 'Umar, but only their swiftest men who pursue Ta'abbat, while the rest urge them on with their voices. The verses do not fit the anecdote; the anecdote does not tally with the proverb; and the verses of Shanfarà himself, fully bearing out the sense of the latter, are not quoted in support of it, as though they were unknown to the commentator. These are the verses:

(Arabic characters)

"On a night when they shouted, and excited against me their swiftest ones, at the two thickets near (the campingground of) Ma'di son of Barraq, it was as though they were scaring (a bird) whose primaries had fallen out (in moulting), or a doe gazelle with her fawn, at Dhū-Shathth and at Dhū-Tabbiāq; there being nothing more fleet than a young bustard[1] with an infirmity, or with one sole wing (uninjured), that flutters convulsively along, on the brink of a mountain ledge."

Accepting, then, the supposition that Shanfarà the poet, the exterminator of his foes, the rapid runner, and Shanfarà the confederate of Ta'abbata-Sharran, were one and the same individual, having died ere Muhammad appeared on the scene, we have to inquire why his poem has been entitled the L-Poem of the Arabs.

I do not know by whom this splendid piece of verse was rescued from obscurity, perhaps from impending oblivion; nor where, nor at what date, it was dug out from its native desert home. Neither can I say from whom or why it has received its special designation; who was the first known to have written a commentary on it, at what date, where, and by what title it was first mentioned? Was that title from the first the now well-known "L-Poem of the Arabs"; or was it originally distinguished, as is so usual, by its opening words?

If these questions cannot be answered (though I merely avow my own ignorance on the points), the circumstance may be taken as a glaring instance of the imperfect methods of the native commentators. They write page after page of mere verbal exegesis, or of prosodial technicalities, but they seldom afford the student a guide by which to understand the allusions of their author. Here and there, at rare intervals, such a light is vouchsafed; but generally it may be said of the Arabian scholiasts, as of the old astrologer: "They can scan the distant orbs of heaven; they cannot perceive what lies at their feet."

The name of L-Poem is given to any piece of verse the rhyme of which is based on the letter L. There are numerous such poems preserved to us of the ante-Muhammadan period. In the "Six Diwāns," edited by Ahlwardt, I find that Nābiga has left four L-poems; 'Antara, two; Tarafa, three; Zuhayr, five; 'Alqama, only one fragment; but Irara'u-'lQays has fifteen, among which is his Mu'allaqa, with seventy-six distichs. Other "L-poems" and fragments are doubtfully attributed to each of these great songsters of the desert.

But all those ancient "L-poems," with the exception of the masterpiece of Imra'u-'l-Qays, are of less magnitude than the poem of Shanfarà. The second longest, by Imra'u'l-Qays, has but fifty-nine distichs to weigh against the sixty-eight in that of Shanfarà. 'Antara's longest has but thirty-one, and Nābiga's two longest, thirty distichs each; all the rest being shorter. The masterpiece of Imra'u-'lQays, with its seventy-six distichs, being distinguished as his Mu'allaqa, it would appear that the commentators have perceived in this circumstance a plausible reason to glorify Shanfara's poem by the proud title of "The L-Poem of the Arabs."

D'Herbelot (Bibliothèque Orientale), under the sadlydegraded word "Lamiat" (by which the Arabic Lamāya (Arabic characters) , is rather hinted at than indicated), explains that "there are three such poems, rhyming in ' L, much esteemed in the East. The first bears the name of Lamiat al Arab, and was composed by Schafari. The second, entitled Lamiat al Agem, . . . had for author . . . al Thograi ... Of all these four poems (he has discovered a fourth since he first wrote three), that of Thograi is the most famous, and the most elegant. . . Pococke has translated this poem into Latin, and has illustrated it with learned notes."

Whatever may have been, or is, in the east, or in the west, the relative degree of celebrity of the two "L-poems," by Shanfarà and Tugrā'l, the date of the latter being about A.D. 1120—five hundred years posterior to the former— I may venture, having recently made a new English prose translation of Tugrā'i's poem also,[2] to assert that Shanfara's verses, as they read in my rearrangement of the text, are as superior to those of Tugrā'I as it is well possible to conceive. The former are original, natural, rich, and soulfelt; the latter are imitative, bald, stilted, bombastic, and inconsequent.

The Argument of Shanfarà's poem, still according to my rearrangement of some of its distichs and sections, is the following:

Section 1, verses 1-3. The poet calls on his fellows or followers, "Sons of my Mother," to come with their readyprepared beasts for a new expedition, as he wishes to visit other familiars of his,—"a wolf, a leopard, and a hyaena,"— which represent, perhaps, the nicknames, or similes, by which he would allude to such confederates as Ta'abbata-Sharran, 'Umar son of Barrāq, and the like, as becomes more apparent a little further on, by a well-known rule of the Arabian rhetoric.

Section 2, verses 4-7, first praises the rare fidelity and courage of those familiars, but then asserts that, in the hour of danger, Shanfarà is even more brave than they. It then vaunts the generous self-denial with which he yields precedence to them at meals, " when hands are stretched forth towards the provisions"; to them, really his inferiors, "for the most excellent is he who confers favours." Shanfarà's venturing first to the tank beset by the "men of Bajīla," in his expedition with Ta'abbata-Sharran, is a very apposite instance of his superior readiness to encounter an apprehended peril.

Section 3, verses 8-13, recounts what, in the poet's estimation, compensates him for the absence of those who rightly value not his favours, or even remain unconscious of them; namely, his heart, his bared blade, and his twanging bow, "that moans like a bereaved mother whenever it parts with a sped arrow." It proceeds to assert that there is room in the land, or a refuge, for a brave and wise man, be he on an aggressive expedition or seeking his own safety in flight.

Section 4, in the next six verses, 14-19, describes more than as many different kinds of moral defects, from which the poet declares himself free—thirstiness in a camel-herdsman, uxoriousness in a young husband, timorousness, slothful foppishness, ungenerous spitefulness, sleepiness, effeminacy, bewilderment in the dark in strange places.

Section 5, verses 20-28, describes first the toughness of his bare "hoof-like toes," that crush the flints and elicit fire from them; next, his endurance of hunger, and his avoidance of all that might savour of laying himself under an obligation to a pretentious benefactor; asserts that should he choose to exert his power, all the necessaries that men require would be possessed by him alone; mentions his invincible impatience of wrong, his moderation in weal and in woe.

Section 6, verses 28-38, contains a vivid description of the sufferings from inanition of the "lean-haunched wolf," to which the poet compares himself.

Section 7, verses 39-44, sets forth the poet's boasted fleetness of foot, his outstripping the sandgrouse in its most anxious exertion to attain a scanty pool of water, and the tumult the birds raise when they reach it, as he turns away satiated.

Section 8, verses 45-50, describes the burning heat of noontide in the dog days—" when the gossamer floats about, and the vipers among the over-heated rocks writhe in agony" —which the poet faces with no other protection than a tattered rag, and a long-unkempt, shaggy head of hair. Like the antelope of the sands, he braves the sun on scanty fare and barefoot; for "he wears the armour of patience over the like of the heart of the wolf-hyaena, and he practises discretion."

Section 9, verses 51-55, recounts the cares to which the poet is exposed, from the assaults of his enemies, and describes his long pedestrian journeys through wastes " as bare as the back of his shield," and usually untrod by man; such journeys being occasionally diversified by the ascent of a hill on which to sit down for a little rest, or to stand erect and scan all around, in anticipation of danger.

Section 10, verses 56-59, describes his mode of reposing by night during such journeys, on the bare earth, where a level spot can be found; his spine-like vertebral processes forming his only couch, and his scraggy arm, "with prominent joints like gamblers' dice," his hard pillow; the female chamois flocking round him, under the mistake that he is their buck.

With Section 11, verses 60-62, the scene changes to a cold dark night, " when the archer is fain to burn his very bow and arrows" to keep life in him. The poet then tramps forth in the pitchy darkness and drizzle, "with naught but hate and misery for his companions." Suiting his actions to such concomitants, "he makes widows and orphans" (in one tent), and "repeats this again and again while the night is at its very darkest."

Section 12, verses 63-66, gives, chorus fashion, an imaginary conversation between two parties of the survivors, which artistically brings into relief the details of the preceding summary of the slaughter. They bad heard their watchdogs slightly growl, but those sentinels had again composed themselves to sleep. The men had therefore imagined that some beast or bird had been scared to an untimely movement, and had themselves gone to sleep again. Dawn having shown them the reality of the havoc, they are most graphically pictured as musing: "Verily, if a demon has done it, his work is horrible, even for one of them; and, if a human being was the butcher . . . ; but no! what man could do it?"

The drama is thus concluded in twelve sections; and, in an epilogue of two verses, 67-68, the poet discloses his name, with the sombre reflection: "If the Mother of Qastel be now in despair through my act, she has for much longer time enjoyed an advantage over me. She sleeps only when I sleep; and even then her eyes (spies) are open, spying for an occasion to wreak mischief on me."

No poem could be more in accordance with the unities than this defiant, though foreboding, effusion of the ante-Muhammadan Arabian warrior, whose direst vengeance assailed not directly the women or the children. It is the most perfect drama I can call to mind, now that its distichs and sections are duly co-ordinated. What sacrilegious mutilation has been wrought upon it during a thousand years by, I believe, the blunderings of successive generations of commentators and translators, blindly following in each other's footsteps! May I not dare humbly to hope that my venturesome attempt at a tardy rectification will be pronounced unanimously, by competent critics, to be correct in its main features, even though a detail here and there may still admit of further amelioration?

The exact meaning of the poet's expression: "the mother of Qastel," is not known. One commentator has guessed— it is nothing more—that the term means "a calamity," (Arabic characters) ; another opines that it may signify "war" or "a battle," (Arabic characters) ; a third, again, truly states, in my opinion, that it is (the designation of) "a woman."

With the two concluding distichs of my rearrangement separated from each other by six intervening verses, according to the manuscript of the India Office Library, or by one verse, as in the order adopted by De Sacy, their close connexion is entirely masked. Again, by being forced back to the place of the forty-fourth, and forty-sixth or fiftieth verses respectively, their true significance is effaced, their office is ignored, and the whole poem is shattered into dislocated fragments, entirely void of interdependence. But, coming together at the end of the poem, as I have placed them, it seems to me that their true meaning is as clear as the day; viz. "Qastel," which is a name for "the dust," was the youthful chief of the tribe assailed by Shanfarà, and was most likely one of those done to death by his hand in that night of horrors. His father may have been Shanfara's foe in bygone days, and have died by some other hand, Shanfarà being suspected and persecuted by the widow and son in consequence. They had inflicted for a long time grievous wrongs on the unyielding man; but in that night he, in his turn, had struck a heavy blow at the vindictive widow's heart, through the slaughter of her son Qastel. As a woman, she was herself sacred, having no violence to fear at his hand personally; but he openly declares his conviction that she was ever hatching plots against his safety, sleeping, when she could sleep, with all the eyes (of her spies)[3] wide open, seeking how best to pour down calamity on his devoted head.

Such is the sense in which I have come to understand the expression and the paragraph. As such I submit it, with all due reserve, to be weighed by the learned.

  1. De Sacy has (Arabic characters) , where I have conjecturally used (Arabic characters) He found (Arabic characters), without rowels, and translates quite differently; but avows himself dissatisfied.
  2. Published in Mr. W. A. Clouston's recently issued "Arabian Poetry for English Readers," Triibner and Co., London, 1881, p. 468.
  3. The word for "eyes," here, being in the plural, not the dual, cannot mean "her tuo natural eyes."


(Arabic characters)
The L-Poem of The Arabs, by Shanfarà.

1 (1–1).

(Arabic characters)

Get ye up, O sons of my mother, the return of your beasts from their watering; for verily I am eagerly inclined (to be off) to a set, other than you.

2 (2–2).

(Arabic characters)

For matters (to look after) have sprung up; and the night is bright with the moon. The beasts, too, and the saddles, are ready girded for expeditions.

3 (5–5).

(Arabic characters)

And I have (other) familiars besides you;—a fierce wolf. and a sleek spotted (leopard), and a long-maned hyaena.

4 (6–6).

(Arabic characters)

They are a family with whom the confided secret is not betrayed; neither is the offender thrust out for that which has happened.

5 (7–7).

(Arabic characters)

And each one (of them) is vehement in resistance, and brave; only, that I, when the first of the chased beasts present themselves, am (still) braver.

6 (8–8).

(Arabic characters)

And if hands are stretched forth towards the provisions, I am not the most hasty of them. For the greediest of a party is the most hasty.

7 (9–9).

(Arabic characters)

And that is naught but a stretch of (my) generosity, out of a kindness towards them. And the more excellent is he who confers a favour.

8 (10–10).

(Arabic characters)

And verily, there will compensate to me the loss of whom soever requites not a benefit, or is unmindful of its proximity.

9 (11–11).

(Arabic characters)

Three companions;—a dauntless heart, and a trenchant drawn sword, and a slimly-long yellow (bow)

10 (12–12).

(Arabic characters)

That twangs loudly; of those with smooth flat surfaces, - . Nor a terrified scare-crow, whose heart is, as it were, as ornamented with clasps passed on to it, and a suspensory,

11 (13–13).

(Arabic characters)

Which, when the arrow glides forth from it, moans, as #. Nor a stay-at-home, who never quits the tent; but flirts though it were a bereaved (mother) robbed of her child, who lifts up her voice and weeps aloud.

12 (4–4).

(Arabic characters)

By thy life! There is no straitness in the land for a man who journeys by night, seeking or shunning, he being wise;

13 (3–3).

(Arabic characters)

And in the land (there is) a refuge from molestation for . the noble-minded. And therein, for him who fears enmity, (there is) a place towards which to turn.

14 (14–14).

(Arabic characters)

And I am not one impatient of thirst, who pastures his free-grazing she-camels by night, their young male colts being driven away, while they themselves are left with their dugs free;

15 (15–15).

(Arabic characters)

Nor a faint-hearted poltroon who cleaves to his bride, and consults her in his matter in hand, as to how he shall manage;

16 (16–16).

(Arabic characters)

Nor a terrified scare-crow, whose heart is, as it were, as though a mock-bird were therein, mounting and descending;

17 (17–17).

(Arabic characters)

Nor a stay-at-home, who never quits the tent; but flirts with the women; who is occupied, evening and morning, with anointing himself and tingeing his eyes with stibium;

18 (18–18).

(Arabic characters)

And I am not a good-for-nothing, whose ill precedes his good deed;—a drowsy-head, who starts when thou scarest him; who wears no weapon;

19 (19–19).

(Arabic characters)

And I am not one bewildored by the darkness when my huge she-camel takes the direction of the trackless waste.

20 (20–20).

(Arabic characters)

When the hard flint meets my hoof-like digits, there fly from it the fire-striking and the shivered fragments.

21 (21–21).

(Arabic characters)

I make perpetual the term of delay for the satisfaction of the calls of hunger, until I kill it. I then turn away from noticing it, and I forget it.

22 (25–25).

(Arabic characters)

And I twist my intestines about my inanition, as the yarns of a spinner are twisted when spun and laid.

23 (22–22).

(Arabic characters)

And I lick up the dry dust of the earth, lest some pre tender to generosity should imagine in himself a superiority over me (by offering food).

24 (23–23).

(Arabic characters)

And were it not for (my) shunning what might be blamed, there would not be found, to subsist on, a potable or edible thing, excepting with me.

25 (24–24).

(Arabic characters)

But (I possess) an unyielding spirit, that will not be quiet with me under a wrong, save while I turn over (in my mind what to do).

26 (48–53).

(Arabic characters)

And covetings turn not to giddiness my sobriety; nor am I seen inquisitively prying at the heels of occurrences (or, news).

27 (46–51).

(Arabic characters)

And I become poor at times, and (then) rich. For verily, the entertainer of desire, who does not spare himself, obtains opulence.

28 (47–52).

(Arabic characters)

And I am not a repiner in poverty, habitually parading (my need); nor an exulter, proudly assuming, under wealth.

29 (26–26).

(Arabic characters)

And I go forth early, upon the most frugal fare; as the dun-coloured, lean-haunched (wolf) goes forth, which deserts direct, the one to the other.

30 (27–27).

(Arabic characters)

He goes forth betimes, fasting; he questions the wind, hungrily; he traverses the outlets of the passes; and skulks along with hanging head and straddling steps.

31 (28–28).

(Arabic characters)

Thon, when sustenance fails him, where he had sought to obtain it, he cries aloud ; and his fellows, lean also, respond;

32 (29–29).

(Arabic characters)

Thin as laths, hoary-faced ones, who are, as it were, (from attenuation), so many gaming arrows shuffling about in the two hands of a distributer by lot of the joints of a slaughtered camel;

33 (30–30).

(Arabic characters)

Or, (as though he were) an excited queen-bee, whose swarm the spatulae have roused up, thrust in (to their hive) by a honey-seeking hunter;

34 (31–31).

(Arabic characters)

Open-jawed, wide-mouthed, as though their cheeks were splinters of staves; morose-looking, and determined.

35 (32–32).

(Arabic characters)

Then he howls, and they howl, in the wide waste; as though they and he were bereaved ones, lamenting upon some high place.

36 (33–33).

(Arabic characters)

And he becomes quiet, and they become quiet; and, he imitates, and they imitate him; provisionless wanderers, whom he consoles, and who console him, he wandering pro visionless.

37 (34–34).

(Arabic characters)

He complains, and they complain; then, he refrains at last, and they refrain. And verily, patience, if complaint avail not, is more seemly!

38 (35–35).

(Arabic characters)

And he goes back; and they go back in all haste; and all of them are busily intent on what the decent one keeps secret.

39 (36–36).

(Arabic characters)

And the cinereous sandgrouse birds drink my leavings, after they have travelled a whole night, their sides audibly panting (with thirst and fatigue);

40 (37–37).

(Arabic characters)

I strive, and they strive; and I quicken my pace, and they lag behind; and a leisurely harbinger, in me, has thus been allowed to tuck up his skirts;

41 (38–38).

(Arabic characters)

Then I turn back from them; and they tumble over at its margin, which their chins and breasts embrace;

42 (40–39).

(Arabic characters)

As though their tumult, on each side of, and round about . it, (were that of) congregations settling down from migrating tribes

43 (39–40).

(Arabic characters)

Coming to it from divers quarters; so that it collects them, as one watering-place collects the camel-troops of various tent-groups.

44 (41–41).

(Arabic characters)

So they sip a scanty turbid puddle. Then they pass on, as though they were a caravan hasting away from Uhätza with the dawn.

45 (61–61).

(Arabic characters)

And on a day of (the canicular period of) Sirius, when his gossamer floats melting about, and his vipers, among his: over-heated rocks, writhe in agony,

46 (62–62).

(Arabic characters)

I set up my face right against it, with no screen in front thereof, and no covert, save a tattered At-hami rag,

47 (63–63).

(Arabic characters)

And a shaggy head of hair, on which when the wind blows, there fly out, as fluffs from its tufts, what might be combed away;

48 (64–64).

(Arabic characters)

Far, in time, from the touch of oil, and from a riddance of vermin; soiled with filth; dishevelled.

49 (53–49).

(Arabic characters)

And if thou see me, like an antelope of the sands, exposed to the sun on scanty fare, I go barefoot, and I wear no sandals.

59 (54–50).

(Arabic characters)

For verily, I am a slave to patience. I wear its armour over the like of the heart of the wolf-hyana; and discretion I practise.

51 (45–45).

(Arabic characters)

(I am a man) persecuted by assaults that imperil life and limb, and that gamble on his flesh as against his death shriek,-which of them is destined to be first had;

52 (51–47).

(Arabic characters)

And a familiar of cares, which cease not to revisit him, returning like the quartan ague; nay, which are yet heavier to bear.

53 (52–48).

(Arabic characters)

When they beset me, I drive them away. Then, verily, they spring round, and come upon me from a little below, and from just above.

54 (65–65).

(Arabic characters)

And in a wilderness, (bare) as the back of a shield, which I have traversed, the hither and thither portions of the interior of which are not usually travelled through,

55 (66–66).

(Arabic characters)

The beginnings of which I have brought together with its endings (by journeying); mounting on a hill-top, to sit down at times; and (again) standing up erect (on the out look for foes).

56 (42–42).

(Arabic characters)

And I snuggle to the face of the earth, where it spreads out level, on a crooked back, built up by fleshless vertebral processes;

57 (43–43).

(Arabic characters)

And on a scraggy arm, the articulations of which are, as it were, dice thrown by a player, they thus standing out erect.

58 (67–67).

(Arabic characters)

The dusky chamois does wandering around me, as though they were maidens on whom are train-trailing mufflers;

59 (68–68).

(Arabic characters)

And of evenings resting around me, as though I were, of the white fore-shanked ones, a long-horned chamois buck, with crooked hind legs, bound for the mountain slopes.

69 (49–54).

(Arabic characters)

And in a night of wretchedness, when the owner burns his (very) bow, and his fragments (thereof), from which he could make arrows,

61 (55–55).

(Arabic characters)

I tramp forth in the dark and the drizzle; my companions being heart-burning, and sleet, and rancour, and shivering.

62 (56–56).

(Arabic characters)

Then I make widows of women, and I make orphans of children (in one tent); and I repeat (in other tents) as I began; the night being (still) most obscure.

63 (57–57).

(Arabic characters)

And on the morrow, at Gumaysa, two parties of men arose to a sitting posture (conversing together) about me (in reality),—the one being questioned and the other inquiring.

64 (58–58).

(Arabic characters)

And they said (to one another): “In the night our dogs growled; so we said: ‘Is a wolf prowling, or is it a hyaena cub skulking about?’

65 (59–59).

(Arabic characters)

But it was nothing, only a slight sound; then they dozed off again; so we said: 'Was it a sandgrouse got scared, or did some hawk take fright?'

66 (60–60).

(Arabic characters)

“Now, if it was one of the genii, verily, he has wrought a dreadful deed! And if it was a human being, . . . ?–But what human being could do it?”

67 (44–44).

(Arabic characters)

Well! If the mother of Qastel is (now) in despair through Shanfarà, verily, the advantage over Shanfarà for which she was envied, was of longer duration!

68 (56–46).

(Arabic characters)

She sleeps whenever he sleeps; but her eyes (her spies are) awake as she dozes, exercising her utmost (thoughts) in what may wreak misery on him.



Perhaps a few notes may be not quite without use as to some of the idiomatic or poetical expressions that occur in the poem.

V. 1. (Arabic characters)is the reverse of (Arabic characters) in the matter of the watering of camels. The latter word denotes their arriving at a watering-place; the former, their leaving it after drinking.

In natural water-courses, cattle always enter the water to drink, and come out again when they have drunk. Our word (Arabic characters) really means a coming or going out, an issuing; and is strictly appropriate to a case where the cattle enter the water to drink. It is used, however, to signify their leaving a watering-place, whether they enter the water or not.

It is peculiar that the word (Arabic characters), which is the lexical converse of (Arabic characters), is not used in the sense of coming to, or arriving at a watering-place, though it may be used to say, explicitly, that the cattle entered the water, to drink, to swim, ford, or what not.

The verb (Arabic characters), they came to a watering-place to drink, has for its idiomatic converse (Arabic characters), they left their watering-place after drinking, whether the water be entered by them or not. In v. 53, the poet uses the verb (Arabic characters) to speak of cares coming and besetting him, as camels come to a wateringplace. He uses the fourth form verb, (Arabic characters), to express the idea that he drives them away; literally, I make them quit their watering-place; just as though they were camels.

V. 3. Literally, three wild beasts are named. It might be imagined that Shanfara, from disgust with man, had made those beasts his familiars—poetically, if not actually. But the two following distichs, 4 and 5, somewhat lift the veil from the tropical expression, while verses 6 and 7 complete the elucidation.

Beasts do not "stretch forth hands towards provisions," neither do they provide and carry food for their journeys.

The three beasts are, then, evidently, three confederates of the poet, of whom he considers himself the moral superior. Just such friends and confederates as Ta'abbata-Sharran and 'Umar son of Barraq may be supposed to have been.

The "chased beasts" of v. 5 probably alludes to herds of camels which the confederates are to "lift," and which are guarded by their owners, or by the camel-herds.

V. 14 perhaps hints at a failing known to exist frequently among camel-herds, often mere slaves, of driving away the colts, and of themselves milking the mothers for their own use and delectation, when their dugs are left free, (Arabic characters), for their colts to suck.

At times, all four dugs of a she-camel are covered over, by the owner, with a kind of apron of leather or hide, to prevent the colts from sucking at all. At other times, one, two, three, or all four dugs are left free for the colts to suck; and each of these arrangements has its special name, its special verb.

The "mock-bird," (Arabic characters), mentioned in v. 16, is said to take a mischievous delight in deceiving shepherds and the like, by imitating human cries. I am sorry that I cannot state the technical name of this naughty bird.

The effeminate fellow of v. 18, "who carries no weapon" is of rare occurrence in a land where, as a rule, every man's hand is against his neighbour.

The sense of (Arabic characters), in T. 19, is doubtful.

The expression (Arabic characters), my hoofs, of v. 20, is a poetical licence, perhaps for the sake of the metre; but it is also intensely expressive. The singular, (Arabic characters), designates the peculiar cushion of the sole of a camel's foot, or, of each one of his toes. Thus, each foot has one, (Arabic characters), or it has several, (Arabic characters), according to those two divergent views. The poet likens his own bare toes to the (Arabic characters) of a camel's foot.

In v. 21, the expression (Arabic characters) signifies what I have not been able to find a term for. It denotes the period of time elapsing between a creditor's asking for payment of the debt owing to him, and the term at which the debtor tells him to apply again.

The poet makes "hunger" his creditor, who presses for payment by the ingestion of food. The poet then puts off his hunger, saying: "Apply again in two or three hours' time," etc.; and he repeats this "putting off" until he "kills his hunger." Then he turns his thoughts to other matters, and forgets his dead creditor.

How many would be glad thus to kill hunger and forget it, instead of their hunger's killing them!

In v. 22, however, the poet admits that, to do this, he has to "twist his intestines upon inanition, as a spinner lays his yarns." Large stones are often tightly bound over the pit of the stomach by starving or fasting men, to quiet their pangs.

In v. 23, he licks up the dust like a medical powder, to appease the gnawings of his empty stomach; so as to be able to put on a good face, while declining assistance from some would-be succourer, to whom he has an aversion from laying himself under an obligation.

His becoming alternately poor and rich, in v. 27, must be understood, it would appear, as the effects of reciprocal robbery, or private warfare. When the poet is "raided" by his foes, he is left to starve; when he succeeds in "lifting" their cattle, he is a man of wealth. He has a wish, and he does not spare himself. Just like our own commercial and financial sharks, "biting" others one day, "bitten" in turn the next.

V. 32 mentions the "distributer by lot of the joints of a slaughtered camel." Even this description of the little word (Arabic characters) is inadequate. The camel must have been purchased for the purpose by a joint venture. Let us suppose ten men joining together in equal shares to buy a camel for slaughter. As they cannot all have the best joints, they draw lots. The camel is slaughtered and cut up into ten portions as fairly as the butcher's eye can judge, with no scales to assist him in the wild country. Those portions or joints are placed in a row or circle, as we should say, No. 1, No. 2, etc., to ten, with one extra share for the butcher's fee. He, or one of the party who knows the rules of the game, now produces the gaming arrows—headless, featherless shafts, distinguished in some special way from one another. The (Arabic characters) —the distributer by lot—shuffles the arrows in his two hands, as the jaws of the hungry wolves chatter with torment. The sharers draw an arrow each, and so determine which portion each shall have, the butcher taking that which their lots leave to him.

V. 33 is differently explained in the Chrestomathie Arabe. Instead of spatulæ thrust into a hive to extract its honey, as is the usual course, De Sacy has imagined a young brood of bees swarming and migrating, the honey-hunter going to the futile trouble of setting up wands here and there, about the rocks, for the queen-bee to alight on; an utterly baseless supposition.

In v. 38, the expression "all of them are busily intent on what the decent one keeps secret," is very recondite. The "decent one" is, most probably, the poet himself. What he keeps secret is his gnawing hunger. The poor wolves, going home breakfastless and famished, may well be all busily intent on the pangs they endure, though they remain quiet at last.

V. 40. The expression (Arabic characters) is one the signification of which has to be guessed, the commentators, as usual in difficult passages, being quite useless. The harbinger, (Arabic characters), is well known; as is also the custom of tucking up one's sleeves, legs, or skirts, preparatorily to a brush of hard work or exertion.

V. 41. The idea of the "chins and breasts" of the sandgrouse "embracing the margin of the tank" as they alight, is very graphic and poetical. They run with rapidity; and, as their legs are short, their bodies are carried very close to the ground, the steps short and tripping. So say our modern ornithologists, unconsciously confirming what Shanfara sang of the birds thirteen centuries ago.

The "Uhūtza" of v. 41, and the "Et-hami rag" of v. 46, are not especially known or described.

V. 50. The "wolf-hyæna," a peculiarly bold creature, which I cannot attempt to identify, is supposed to be a cross between a he-wolf and a she-hyæna. The idea of wearing the armour (or the garment) of patience over something that may be like the heart of that beast, is an extremely artistic turn of thought. Perhaps, it is the poet's determination, his unflinching pertinacity, that is hinted at.

V. 51. That "assaults" should gamble (the same root with the designation of the "distributer by lot of the joints of the slaughtered camel" of v. 32) on the poet's flesh and death-shriek is also an artistic expression. But the true meaning of the word rendered "death-shriek," (Arabic characters), is very doubtful. The commentators have coined an anecdote to explain it; which, as usual, fails.

V. 53. The (Arabic characters) has been noticed in the explanation of the (Arabic characters) of v. 1.

V. 55. The "bringing together the two ends" of a space journeyed over is a usual expression.

V. 63. Gumaysa (Arabic characters), as the name of a place, is not particularly specified. I can imagine the word's meaning, in the distich, the faint light of the dawn; but this sense is in none of the authorities.

V. 66. That the genii can sometimes be very cruel is well known to every reader of the Thousand and One Nights.

We here bring our short notes to a close, in order to avoid prolixity. Almost every word and expression in the poem would bear a gloss or a comment.

The distichs of the poem are numbered for the sake of easy reference; and, to facilitate a comparison of the order now adopted, with those given by the India Office manuscript and by De Sacy, we have shown, in parentheses, the number of each distich as placed in their respective texts. The first of those numerals marks the place of the distich in the manuscript; the second, its position in De Sacy's version.

Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.