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on all alike, whether old or young, man or woman, rich or poor, high or low, noble or mean, townsman or peasant, who used it as a tangible expression of their emotions, a ready vehicle of what they thought and felt and a lasting record of their views, made more impressive and more perspicuous by illustrative similes, apt images, and suitable metaphors, such as were readily supplied by natural objects and scenes of daily observance.
Thus we see the common topics of their poetry to be domestic life, wars, heroic deeds, martial triumphs, travels, camels, horses, weapons, chase, love, reminiscences of old associations, hospitality, glory and genealogy of the tribe, panegyrics of noble personages and chiefs, records of their patriotic and virtuous deeds done for the good of their tribes, acknowledgment of their obligations, elegies, embodying posthumous recollections and commemorations of the virtues of deserving merits in proportion to their deserts. Precepts of sociology, political views, philosophical doctrines, maxims and proverbs were not lacking; but they were mere results of a direct observation of the objects of nature and of a deep contemplation of humanity in its simplest aspect.
Nor were the Arabs unconscious of the high poetical genius wherewith they were endowed by nature, of the great success of their literature, and of the rising fame and triumph of their literary talents. Poetry soon came to be recognized as a noble mental production, to be appreciated as a high accomplishment, and to be regarded as a qualification for exaltation of rank and esteem in society. Poets came forward to emulate and vie with one another to carry off the palm. This led to the establishment of a department of literary exhibition in the national fair of 'Okaz, which was held annually in Zu-lQa'dah, one of the four sacred months, in which war was forbidden to be waged. To it flocked merchants from Hejaz, Nejd, and other parts of Arabia. 'Okaz was the "Olympia of Arabia," where poets resorted and placed their poetic talents before the public for their judgment and award, which were always regarded as decisive and final.
The Arabic literature attained the zenith just at the time
when the faith of Islam made its appearance in Arabia, and the Koran marked the highest point to which the Arabic language and literature were destined to rise, after which, as the Arabs by the spread and the conquest of Islam came in contact with foreigners, they had reason to grow jealous of their noble language; and being afraid lest its purity might suffer from its contact with other languages, they were obliged to state the principles of grammar, to explain the laws of syntax, to discover the measures of prosody, to formulate the figures of rhetoric and composition, to define the criteria of lexicography, to determine the standards of phraseology, and to fix the canons of criticism, all founded on the basis of the universal principles that underlie the pure language of the pre-Islamic time. The simplicity of nature, however, was rapidly waning and giving place to artificial ornamentation, unnatural embellishment, and scholastic mannerism. Poets, orators, and writers then vied in indulging in poetic reveries, in giving full play to their imagination, in forming new sentiments, in inventing new metaphors and rare similes, in discovering the beauties of the pre-Islamic poetry, and in imitating by every artificial means in their power the flowing diction of that natural poetry the pathos and the effect of which, however, they strove to grasp with various but dubious success. They lay claim to no little credit, indeed, for the many improvements they made on the ancient style, diction, ideas and expressions, for the standard they fixed to regulate the imaginative work of poetry, for the canons of criticism they laid down, for the laws of language they enunciated, and for the many beautiful figures they invented. It was, however, mannerism, all in all, a noble imitation, but without the true spirit of real nature.
The progress of the Arabic literature may best be illustrated by comparing it to a gradual and grand ascent up a lofty mountain, richly clad in every variety of beautiful verdure, pleasant vegetation, particolored and fragrant flowers, verdant meadows, varied trees—all of wild growth; and rife with cooling avenues, refreshing arbors and stately alcoves, resounding with diverse songs of wild birds, whose
varieties of notes, colors, and hues are objects of deep admiration and devotion to the votaries of nature. The summit was gained only at the appearance of the Koran, which occupied the proud position of a solitary eminence, beyond the reach of all aspirers, who fell short of it. A step further, and the declivity gradually led to a spacious plateau, abounding in fine valleys, laid out with beautiful gardens, charming flowerbeds, gliding rills, well trimmed alleys, leveled turfs, and picturesque parks, all combined in beautiful harmony and resounding with the harmonious melodies of trained birds, while art spared nothing to make all as perfect as lay in her power.
It was thus at the time when Arabic literature stood at its highest position, that the celebrated Seven Poems, well known at the "Seven Hanged Poems," made their appearance. They stood at the summit of the eminence of Arabic literature, exulting with deserving pride at that enviable position and triumphing over the evergreen laurels, so nobly won by the superior elegance, eloquence, and purity of their language, their admirable images, and their vivid descriptions. They were universally admired by the public, who in order to testify their appreciation of their real beauties and the recognition of the obligation, which the Arabic language in no little measure owed to them, unanimously agreed to immortalize their fame by conferring on them the highest honor they could bestow that of hanging them inside the Kaaba, the most sacred shrine of their worship, as a memorial to posterity, after they were inscribed in letters of gold on pieces of a fine white cloth of Egypt, whence they are also called “the Golden."
THE HANGED POEMS
"They stand at the summit of the eminence of old Arabic. literature."