Language and Literature: The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abu Nuwas and the Literary Tradition

By Allen, Roger | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Language and Literature: The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abu Nuwas and the Literary Tradition


Allen, Roger, The Middle East Journal


The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abu Nuwas and the Literary Tradition, by Philip F. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, and Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. xii + 244 pages. Appends. to p. 279. Gloss. to p. 285. Bibl. to p. 294. Indices to p. 304. $90.

Reviewed by Roger Allen

The title of this volume is more general than the subtitle and is an accurate reflection of the book's contents and methodology. For, while the name of Abu Nuwas (c. 757-815 AD) is certainly one to draw the attention, indeed often to tweak the fancy, of a broad spectrum of scholars working in the field of "classical" Arabic cultural production, the focus of this volume is on poetry per se and, more specifically, on the genre of the wine poem, khamriyya, from its earliest manifestations in the pre-Islamic poetic corpus to its finest elaboration in the works (and personae) of Abu Nuwas.

After an introductory section, Philip F. Kennedy subdivides his analysis into four chapters, in each of which a principal theme is investigated. The first chapter examines the institution of wine itself, the development of the love poem (ghazal) in its different guises, and the various ways in which the traditional exordium to the qasidah (nasib) served as a precedent for the newly emerging genres of the Islamic period. The other three chapters examine the development of the khamriyya in the context of a set of themes whose origins are to be found in much earlier times: the way in which hikma (knowledge of man's ephemerality) is to be applied in the context of dahr (fate, also death); the use of the wine theme in the lampoon (hija') genre and particularly its application in the content of naqa'id ("flytings"); and, finally, the theme of repentance (tawba). In each of these chapters, Abu Nuwas and his poetic genius emerge from a discussion of the development of the various thematic combinations (and oppositions) within a context that is focused rigorously on the poems themselves and not on their societal framework.

In this connection, two points need to be noted regarding this publication. First, the Arabic texts of the examples are printed in full text with vocalization, and they are accompanied by translations that combine a closeness to the original with a pleasing readability in English. Second, this approach allows Kennedy to show his enviable knowledge of the Arabic poetic tradition, invoking examples from the pre-Islamic period (most notably, al-A'sha) through the Umawi period, up to and including Abu Nuwas's contemporaries, especially Abu al-Atahiya. …

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