Reynold A. Nicholson (essay date 1907)
SOURCE: Nicholson, Reynold A. “Poetry, Literature, and Science in the ‘Abbásid Period.” In A Literary History of the Arabs, pp. 285-364. London: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1907, Nicholson examines al-Mutanabbi's critical reputation, particularly objections made to his work by his near-contemporary, Tha'álibí.]
Sayfu 'l-Dawla's cousin, Abú Firás al-Hamdání, was a gallant soldier and a poet of some mark, who if space permitted would receive fuller notice here.1 He, however, though superior to the common herd of court poets, is overshadowed by one who with all his faults—and they are not inconsiderable—made an extraordinary impression upon his contemporaries, and by the commanding influence of his reputation decided what should henceforth be the standard of poetical taste in the Muḥammadan world.
Abu 'l-Tayyib Aḥmad b. Husayn, known to fame as al-Mutanabbí, was born and bred at Kúfa, where his father is said to have been a water-carrier. Following the admirable custom by which young men of promise were sent abroad to complete their education, he studied at Damascus and visited other towns in Syria, but also passed much of his time among the Bedouins, to whom he owed the singular knowledge and mastery of Arabic displayed in his poems. Here he came forward as a prophet (from which circumstance he was afterwards entitled al-Mutanabbí, i.e., ‘the pretender to prophecy’), and induced a great multitude to believe in him; but ere long he was captured by Lu'lu', the governor of Himṣ (Emessa), and thrown into prison. After his release he wandered to and fro chanting the praises of all and sundry, until fortune guided him to the court of Sayfu 'l-Dawla at Aleppo. For nine years (948-957 a.d.) he stood high in the favour of that cultured prince, whose virtues he celebrated in a series of splendid eulogies, and with whom he lived as an intimate friend and comrade in arms. The liberality of Sayfu 'l-Dawla and the ingenious impudence of the poet are well brought out by the following anecdote:—
Mutanabbí on one occasion handed to his patron the copy of an ode which he had recently composed in his honour, and retired, leaving Sayfu 'l-Dawla to peruse it at leisure. The prince began to read, and came to these lines—
Aqil anil aqṭi‘iḥmil ‘alli salli a‘id zid hashshi bashshi tafaḍḍal adni surra ṣili.(2)
Pardon, bestow, endow, mount, raise, console, restore Add, laugh, rejoice, bring nigh, show favour, gladden, give!
Far from being displeased by the poet's arrogance, Sayfu 'l-Dawla was so charmed with his artful collocation of fourteen imperatives in a single verse that he granted every request. Under pardon he wrote ‘we pardon thee’; under bestow, ‘let him receive such and such a sum of money’; under endow, ‘we endow thee with an estate,’ which he named (it was beside the gate of Aleppo); under mount, ‘let such and such a horse be led to him’; under raise, ‘we do so’; under console, ‘we do so, be at ease’; under restore, ‘we restore thee to thy former place in our esteem’; under add, ‘let him have such and such in addition’; under bring nigh, ‘we admit thee to our intimacy ’; under show favour, ‘we have done so’; under gladden, ‘we have made thee glad’3; under give, ‘this we have already done.’ Mutanabbí's rivals envied his good fortune, and one of them said to Sayfu 'l-Dawla—“Sire, you have done all that he asked, but when he uttered the words laugh, rejoice, why did not you answer, ‘Ha, ha, ha’?” Sayfu 'l-Dawla laughed, and said, “You too, shall have your wish,” and ordered him a donation.
Mutanabbí was sincerely attached to his generous master, and this feeling inspired a purer and loftier strain than we find in the fulsome panegyrics which he afterwards addressed to the negro Káfúr. He seems to have been occasionally in disgrace, but Sayfu 'l-Dawla could deny nothing to a poet who paid him such magnificent compliments. Nor was he deterred by any false modesty from praising himself: he was fully conscious of his power and, like Arabian bards in general, he bragged about it. Although the verbal legerdemain which is so conspicuous in his poetry cannot be reproduced in another language, the lines translated below may be taken as a favourable and sufficiently characteristic specimen of his style.
How glows mine heart for him whose heart to me is cold, Who liketh ill my case and me in fault doth hold! Why should I hide a love that hath worn thin my frame? To Sayfu 'l-Dawla all the world avows the same. Tho' love of his high star unites us, would that we According to our love might so divide the fee! Him have I visited when sword in sheath was laid, And I have seen him when in blood swam every blade: Him, both in peace and war the best of all mankind, Whose crown of excellence was still his noble mind.
Do foes by flight escape thine onset, thou dost gain A chequered victory, half of pleasure, half of pain. So puissant is the fear thou strik'st them with, it stands Instead of thee, and works more than thy warriors' hands. Unfought the field is thine: thou need'st not further strain To chase them from their holes in mountain or in plain. What! 'fore thy fierce attack whene'er an army reels, Must thy ambitious soul press hot upon their heels? Thy task it is to rout them on the battle-ground: No shame to thee if they in flight have safety found. Or thinkest thou perchance that victory is sweet Only when scimitars and necks each other greet?
O justest of the just save in thy deeds to me! Thou art accused and thou, O Sire, must judge the plea. Look, I implore thee, well! Let not thine eye cajoled See fat in empty froth, in all that glisters gold!(4) What use and profit reaps a mortal of his sight, If darkness unto him be indistinct from light?
My deep poetic art the blind have eyes to see, My verses ring in ears as deaf as deaf can be. They wander far abroad while I am unaware, But men collect them watchfully with toil and care. Oft hath my laughing mien prolonged the insulter's sport, Until with claw and mouth I cut his rudeness short. Ah, when the lion bares his teeth, suspect his guile, Nor fancy that the lion shows to you a smile. I have slain the man that sought my heart's blood many a time, Riding a noble mare whose back none else may climb, Whose hind and fore-legs seem in galloping as one; Nor hand nor foot requireth she to urge her on. And O the days when I have swung my fine-edged glaive Amidst a sea of death where wave was dashed on wave! The desert knows me well, the night, the mounted men, The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen!(5)
Finally an estrangement arose between Mutanabbí and Sayfu 'l-Dawla, in consequence of which he fled to Egypt and attached himself to the Ikhshídite Káfúr. Disappointed in his new patron, a negro who had formerly been a slave, the poet set off for Baghdád, and afterwards visited the...
(The entire section is 2995 words.)