The Literature of the Spanish People: From Roman Times to the Present Day

By Gerald Brenan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE ARAB PERIOD

ARABIC poetry is the poetry of the Bedouin of the Arabian desert, which was carried by them into the various countries that they conquered. The earliest poems we have go back about a century before the Hegira. It is a quantitative poetry composed in many different metres and always rhymed, but not divided into stanzas. Ballads, satires and epigrams were all made, but the principal form was the qasida, a kind of elegy whose peculiarity was that, though its metre could vary, it had to follow a fixed order of subjects. Starting off with an account of the poet's discovery of an old camping ground recently occupied by his lady-love and of the various recollections which this called up, it went on to tell of his great love for her and of all the sufferings it had brought him. After that it described his travels through the desert, which gave opportunities for brilliant descriptions of animals and scenery as well as of his own horse or camel, and ended up abruptly with a panegyric to some distinguished person whom the poet hoped would reward him.

In reading these poems in translation we are struck by their freshness and originality. Most classical poetry comes out of other poetry and its descriptions are at second hand. A great Latin poet such as Vergil prefers to get his impressions through books rather than by looking at things for himself. But these Bedouin had eyes and, whilst their verses follow traditional forms, they make us see the desert and its various kinds of life as they saw it themselves. Some of them were also men of powerful imaginatiorn. Their metaphors are bold and striking and often so far-fetched as to suggest modern poetry. But they had no alphabet and so could not write: their verses were carried in the memories of professional reciters and committed to paper a century or more after the death of Mohammed.

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