Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Influence of Islamic Poetry on Western Poetry

It is so common these days in the West to stigmatize and stereotype the culture of Islam that we don’t often think about the fact that much of what we identify as Western culture was actually borrowed from Muslim peoples. Poetry provides several good examples of this.

We often think of rhymed verse as being characteristic of Western classic poetry. Actually, the opposite is true. Neither ancient Greek nor Roman poetry rhymed. Homer’s Odyssey was chanted to a strummed lyre, but the lines did not end in rhyme. Catullus, Virgil, Horace—none of the classic Roman poets wrote in rhyme.

Rhyme actually came into European verse through the influence of Arabic literature and the Qur’an on medieval Provençal poetry. Almost all of the Qur’an is written in rhymed verse. The oldest Arabic poetic forms, such as the qasiyah and the ghazal, dating from the 7th century C.E., use rhyme in their structure.

Rhymed Arabic poetic forms were sung and flourished in Spain during the Moorish period that began in the early 700s C.E. These forms influenced poetry in neighboring Provence, where the troubadours created and sang the first lively vernacular literature in Europe. There is more than one scholarly work that documents this legacy, including “The Impact of muwshah and zajal on troubadours poetry” by Ziad Ali Alharthi and Abdulhafeth Ali Khrisat, which claims that even the word “troubadour” derives from Arabic. These authors also maintain that the tradition of courtly love, so central to Provençal and modern Western poetry, came from previous traditions in Hispano-Arabic verse. They show that courtly love was originally a Sufi trope, equating the beloved with the divine. What could be more central to European literature than Dante’s love of Beatrice? And yet that too can be traced back to a Muslim tradition.

The influence of the rhyme schemes of Islamic poetry appears in some of the most unexpected places. What poem is more quintessentially American than Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

My little horse must think it queer  
To stop without a farmhouse near  
Between the woods and frozen lake  
The darkest evening of the year.

Do you recognize the AABA BBCB rhyme scheme? It’s not at all a typical pattern for English-language verse. 

Omar Khayyam (1048–1131 C.E.)
This is the rhyming pattern that Omar Khayyam used for his famed Rubaiyat in twelfth-century Persia:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

This rhyme scheme is actually called the “Rubaiyat stanza” because it was most famously used in Khayyam’s poem. So, even in one of our most American poems, you can find the influence of Islamic poetry.

The fact is that all of global culture is as intricately interwoven as Omar Khayyam’s rhyme scheme. Every culture has evolved in dialogue with the others it has known. The world is as interconnected culturally as it is ecologically. To pretend otherwise is to miss the one of the most important points about the arts.  

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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