By name, the qaṣīda is scarcely known to Anglo-American readers. It therefore bears mentioning that the qaṣīda is an Arabic poetic form, in fact the highest classical form, and that it was taken up throughout the African, Indian, Turkic, and Persianate languages of the Islamic world. Into the poetic traditions of Europe and the Americas, the qaṣīda has not made much of a crossing, with the exception of the Spanish-language casida (which borrows the name more than it does the poetic form). Its lack of presence in the West contrasts with the seeming naturalization of the ghazal, an Arabic-native mode that (after Persian poets gave new formal features to it) has been adopted by Western poets since Goethe. The fact that the Arabic ghazal derives from the qaṣīda has done nothing to raise the ancestral form’s profile in Western poetics.
Some obscurity in the matter is only natural. In modern Arabic, the word qaṣīda refers to a poem of almost any kind. Classically, however, it is a monorhymed suite of three or more thematic movements of no fixed length. The requirement that a qaṣīda be polythematic holds for the earliest sixth-century (CE) examples as it does for Arabic qaṣīdas of a thousand years later. The present qaṣīda is in four sections:
1. Amatory prelude (called in Arabic nasīb): verses 1-6
2. Wine song (khamriyya): verses 7-25
3. Travel exploits (raḥīl): verses 26-40
4. Praise of the patron (madīḥ): verses 41-58
There is a lot to say about all these sections, as well as their composer. Al-A‘shā (who died around 629 CE) was a pioneer of Arabic wine song, a mode already well developed in this poem. For their description of the blue-eyed tavern keeper and his milieu, the wine verses are of high literary as well as sociological interest. The ethnic alterity of the wine-seller remained a topos of Arabic bacchic verse (as in the poems of Abū Nuwās), and of historical drinking practice too.
One element of the travel section calls for comment because it is so typical. This is the description of the she-camel on whose back the poet’s heroic journey is made. For the raḥīl to be devoted to camel-description is common, and so is the likening of the camel to one of Arabia’s ungulates–whether a gazelle, an onager, or some other antlered beast of the wild. These subsidiary descriptions can run so long and deliver so much pathos that the camel is forgotten entirely. Once you become familiar with the trope of cross-species simile, it is an unbewildering source of charm. But no degree of familiarity voids the question: what motivates the persistent comparison of the domesticated camel to a hunted beast of the wild?
I leave the question open to workers in the growing field of Animal Studies. I also leave aside the political circumstances of the poem, beyond noting that it finds its dedicatee (a prince of pre-Islamic Yemen) at some odds with other members of the Ḥimyarite ruling class. (Line 44’s mention of Ḥimyar’s failure to guarantee a water supply may reference the early-seventh-century collapse of the dam of Ma’rib, which is mentioned in other poems by al-A‘shā, and in the Qur’ān at Sūrat Sabā 34:16). Al-A‘shā’s relationship to Salāma Dhū Fā’ish was one of propagandist to patron, and far from exclusive. In fact al-A‘shā is reckoned as the first Arabic language artist to turn praise-poetry into a professional career.
All but a very few of the editorial and interpretive decisions made in this translation are based in the commentary of Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā, the late-ninth-century grammarian of Kufa better known as Tha‘lab (“The Fox”). Tha‘lab presents variant readings for about half the poem’s verses, whose number and sequence vary from manuscript to manuscript; over these and other textual issues my translation passes in silence. In Tha‘lab’s collection of al-A‘shā’s verse, this poem is number eight.
– David Larsen
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