Arabic Poetry: What is this Tutorial About?
This tutorial is for both someone who has had no previous exposure to Arabic poetry, as well as those who have. By the end of this tutorial, you will have all the tools you need to construct Arabic poetry. Once you have a message to convey, your inspiration, and you know how to use literary techniques, you will be able to use these tools to write Arabic verse.
An Introduction to Classical English Poetry
We assume that the reader knows what syllables are.
Syllables come together to form the building block of poetry, something called a foot. So feet are one, two, three, or more syllables put together. These syllables can be in the same word, be across different words, or even start in the middle of one word and end in the middle of another; whatever the case may be. These are the basic units of poetry and when a poet writes, he doesn’t focus on words, but these feet. It’s also important to consider whether the syllables are short or long. So short-long, for example, is a different foot than long-long, even though they’re both disyllabic (have 2 syllables).
For example, In English, the most common foot, by far, is the iamb. An iamb is a foot made up of 2 syllables; a short followed by a long. E.g. “Shall-I com-pare thee-to a-sum mer’s-day?” is an iambic line of poetry.
Foot – the smallest unit of poetry made up of at least two syllables (either long ones or short ones)
iamb: a foot with 2 syllables; the first one
short, the second one long (short-long)
Now, feet come together to form what’s called a metre (a line of poetry is said to follow a certain metre). But it’s significant how many feet we use in order to generate the metre. Do we use just one foot, two feet, three, etc? One of the most common numbers to use in English is the pentameter which uses 5 feet.
For example, the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is made of 5 iambs, so it’s a pentameter (total 10 syllables). Hence the metre is iambic pentameter.
metre – an established pattern for a verse; a collection of poetic feet to form a line of rhythmic poetry
pentameter: a meter made
up of 5 iambs (10 syllables in total)
Now, lines of poetry are put together to form stanzas. And stanzas are arranged according to rhyming schemes. For example, one scheme is ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG (each letter represents a line of poetry and each section separated by a hyphen represents a stanza). This means there are 4 stanzas where the first three are made up of 4 lines and the final one is made up of two lines. In all the lines that are represented by the same letter, the final words rhyme and the same metre is used. Lines represented by different letters don’t have to rhyme (and typically don’t) and they don’t have to have the same metre as other letters (but sometimes they do).
For example, consider a poem that uses the ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyming scheme. Let’s say ABCDEFG all use iambic pentameter. Then there you have a fully-fledged poem.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
A: iambic pentameter
B: iambic pentameter
C: iambic pentameter
D: iambic pentameter
E: iambic pentameter
F: iambic pentameter
G: iambic pentameter
Note that ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG where ABCDEFG use iambic pentameter is just one of many methods, and poets often make up their own. Moreover, poets often break these “rules” and use a different metre for the same letter, etc.
And finally, poetry uses techniques to make it sound beautiful like alliteration, assonance, consonance, and most importantly, rhythm. And literary techniques like metaphor, irony, and simile are used to deliver the message.
Extension to Classical Arabic Poetry
Arabic has 8 feet (called جزء pl. أجزاء). Below is a table that explains them all.
The first column shows how the syllables in each foot come together. These feet have English names, but they are too complex and irrelevant to mention here.
The second column gives the actual foot. In this column, the thing we want to watch for is the pattern of vowelled and non-vowelled letters. Whether there is a long vowel, which letters we use, or which vowel we use are of no significance.
For this reason, the third column summarizes the feet by giving them a code. The “0” in the code means the consonant is not vowelled (ساكنة) and a “1” means it is (متحركة). And this is what we’re interested in. Remember, the long vowels الف, واو, and ياء are considered non-vowelled (ساكنة).
Exercise: write the code of the following lines of poetry below them and see if you can identify the feet above. (this example is from the معلقة of امر القيس)
بِسِقْـطِ اللِّـوى بَيْـنَ الدَّخـولِ فَحَـوْمَـلِ
قِـفا نَـبْكِ مِنْ ذِكْرى حَـبيبٍ وَمَـنْـزِلِ
لِـما نَسَـجَتْـها مِـنْ جَنـوبٍ وَشَـمْـأَلِ
فَتـوضِحَ فَالْـمِقْـراةِ لَمْ يَعْـفُ رَسْـمُها
Now, as we know, feet come together to form poetic metre. So how do Arabic feet combine to form metres? The table below gives all the major metres in classical Arabic poetry. As you will see, they utilize the feet we have learned above.
The metres have been divided into groups; we will learn why that is shortly.
فَعُولُنْ فَعُولُنْ فَعُولُنْ فَعُولُنْ
عِلُنْ فَاعِلُنْ فَاعِلُنْ فَاعِلُنْ فَا
مُفَاعَلَتُنْ مُفَاعَلَتُنْ مُفَاعَلَتُنْ
عِلُنْ مُتَفَاعِلُنْ مُتَفَاعِلُنْ مُتَفَا
مَفاعِيلُنْ مَفاعِيلُنْ مَفاعِيلُنْ
عِلُنْ مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ مُسْتَفْ
عِلاَتُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ فَا
مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ مَفْعُولاَتُ
مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ مَفْعُولاَتُ مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ
فَاعِلاَتُنْ مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ
مَفاعِيلُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ
مَفْعُولاَتُ مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ
مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ
فَعُولُنْ مَفَاعِيلُنْ فَعُولُنْ مَفَاعِيلُنْ
عِلُنْ فَاعِلُنْ مُسْتَفْعِلُنْ فَاعِلُنْ مُسْتَفْ
عِلُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ فَاعِلُنْ فَاعِلاَتُنْ فَا
In order to construct a line of poetry in Arabic, what we need to do is choose a metre from the above list and make sure that, wherever the ساكن and متحرك letters land in the metre, that that is where they land in our poem. In other words, if we were to write out the code for the metre, it should match the code of our line of poetry. Beyond that – the rhythm, etc – everything is up to us.
A final point to note before we move on is that these are the ideal metres in classical Arabic poetry. Many poems deviate from these and these deviations have been recorded in poetry books. There are a limited number of deviations, but they are still many and we will not cover them here.
Exercise: see if you can recognize the poetic metre in the following lines of poetry. In doing this, it is useful to 1) calculate the code for each metre in the table above, and 2) calculate the code for the lines of poetry below. Compare these two and see if you can find similarities. (the example if from مجنون ليلى by قيس بن ملوّح)
فَـيا لَيْـتَـني كُنْـتُ الطَّـبيبَ الْمُـداوِيا
يَقـولـونَ لَيْـلى بِالْـعِـراقِ مَريـضَـةٌ
وَحُـرْقَـةُ لَيْـلى في الْـفُـؤادِ كَـما هِيا
فَشـابَ بَنـو لَيْلى وَشـابَ ابْنُ بِـنْتِـها
زِيـارَةُ بَـيْـتِ اللهِ رِجْـلايَ حـافِـيا
عَلَـيَّ لَـئِـنْ لاقـيتُ لَيْـلى بِخَـلْـوَةٍ
فَـزِنّـي بِعَيْـنَيْـها كَما زَيَّـنْـتَـها لِيا
فَيـا رَبِّ إذْ صَـيَّـرْتَ لَيْـلى هِيَ الْـمُنى
Now our final task is to learn how we form stanzas and complete poems. Remember that, in English, we picked a certain rhyming scheme such as ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and that we assigned a metre to each of the unique letters. In Arabic, things are much more stringent.
What a classical poet will do is choose one of those metric groups from the table above. His first line will follow the first metre in the group, his second will follow the second, and so on. When the metres in the group have been exhausted, he will start over again in the same group. This is why we divided the metres into groups in the table.
Moreover, the vast majority of Arabic poems use a couplet rhyming scheme. That is to say, every second line of poetry will rhyme. In other words, such poems use a AB CB DB EB FB… scheme. Another popular scheme is for every two couplets to rhyme. In other words, AA BB CC DD….
In short, when it comes to metre, poets are often restricted to the above groups of metres. And when it comes to rhyming, they are often restricted to a few rhyming schemes like the two just mentioned.
Below is the poem of قيس بن ملوح laid out in a more familiar manner.
يَقولونَ لَيْلى بِالْعِراقِ مَريضَةٌ
فَيا لَيْتَني كُنْتُ الطَّبيبَ الْمُداوِيا
فَشابَ بَنو لَيْلى وَشابَ ابْنُ بِنْتِها
وَحُرْقَةُ لَيْلى في الْفُؤادِ كَما هِيا
عَلَيَّ لَئِنْ لاقيتُ لَيْلى بِخَلْوَةٍ
زِيارَةُ بَيْتِ اللهِ رِجْلايَ حافِيا
فَيا رَبِّ إذْ صَيَّرْتَ لَيْلى هِيَ الْمُنى
فَزِنّي بِعَيْنَيْها كَما زَيَّنْتَها لِيا
Notice that every other line rhymes.
Now take a stab at your own poetry.