Monday, November 28, 2005

Desert in bloom

Thomas Gray wrote in his ‘Elegy’
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Gray never saw desert flowers, but others poets have…

Abu Tammam (c805-45) wrote a qasida (ode) on Spring, quoted in Robert Irwin’s anthology ‘Night and Horses and the Desert’, from a translation by Julia Ashtiany. Abu Tammam was an inventive exponent of metaphor which gives his landscape a striking visual quality. He describes the spring flowers, yellow and red, clashing like the partisans of the hostile Mudar and Yemen clans, who carried coloured banners (reminding me of those battle scenes in Kurosawa’s Ran). The yellow flowers are likened to pearls dipped in saffron, the red to a sunrise where the breezes are tinted with safflower. What exactly these clashing armies might be I am not able to say, although on the evidence of this site the yellow might be broomrape, the red, bladder dock.

According to Irwin, Arabic landscape poetry only really began a century after Abu Tamman, with writers like Sanawbari (d. 945) and Kushajim (d. 970-71). These poets aimed to describe the beauty of gardens and nature, whilst earlier poets had tended to write about landscape only in relation to emotions of nostalgia or loss.

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