Sunday, September 18, 2016

Chimed Poetry

The Koran was born as an oral document, in a largely preliterate society -- many Muslims maintained that the Prophet himself was without letters.   This “scripture” (as we call it, with print-culture bias) is in its natural element when recited aloud in public, by an expert in cantillation (tajwîd).  

The language of the text itself  lends itself naturally to such vocal performance, since, although it is not poetry (the verses are of greatly disparate length, and there is no meter), and though the verses to not exactly rhyme in a way characteristic of English or German,  they do (one might say) chime, showing assonance and consonance.
Readers of translations (or, strictly, “versions” or “interpretations”, as Muslim scholars insist) of the Koran, get no sense of this.    Nor should such a “chiming” version be undertaken in any rhyme-rich language, for the work as a whole.  Still, to give a flavor of it, here is an imitation or rhyming impression of the opening prayer of the Koran, the fâtiha:

To thee -- to thee -- our voice we raise --
Lord of the Worlds -- in hymns of praise.
Fount of all mercy  till End of Days,
Thee we entreat, our staff and stays.
Show us the straight path, midst welter of ways:
not that of the curse’d, nor of him who strays.


The canonical Latin prayers of the Historical Church  do not rhyme, nor show meter.   From the Creed:

Credo in unum Deum,
Patrem omnipotentem,
factorem cæli et terræ,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.

But the later, popular prayers of the Middle Ages  often do.   Here is the Stabat mater, which is trochaic tetramater  and in strophic form:

Stabat Mater dolorosa
Iuxta crucem lacrimosa,
Dum pendebat filius.
Cuius animam gementem
Contristatam et dolentem
Pertransivit gladius.

O quam tristis et afflicta
Fuit illa benedicta
Mater unigeniti
Quae maerebat et dolebat.
Et tremebat, cum videbat
Nati poenas incliti.


For verse translations (in English, French, and German) of St. Francis’ hymn to Brother Sun, try this:

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