Part 52

The division of speech into poetry and prose

December 27, 2021

The Arabic language and Arab speech are divided into two branches. (One of them) is rhymed poetry. It is speech with meter and rhyme, which means that every line of it ends upon a definite letter, which is called the “rhyme.” The other branch is prose, that is, non-metrical speech.

Each of the two branches comprises various sub-branches and ways of speech. Poetry comprises laudatory and heroic 1417 poems and elegies (upon the dead). Prose may be rhymed prose. Rhymed prose consists of cola ending on the same rhyme throughout, 1418 or of sentences rhymed in pairs. This is called “rhymed prose” (saj’).

Prose may also be “straight prose” (murassal). In (straight prose), the speech goes on and is not divided into cola, but is continued straight through without any divisions, either of rhyme or of anything else. (Prose) is employed in sermons and prayers and in speeches intended to encourage or frighten the masses. 1419

The Qur’an is in prose. However, it does not belong in either of the two categories. It can neither be called straight prose nor rhymed prose. It is divided into verses. One reaches breaks where taste tells one that the speech stops. It is then resumed and “repeated” in the next verse. (Rhyme) letters which would make that (type of speech) rhymed prose are not obligatory, nor do rhymes (as used in poetry) occur. This (situation) is what is meant by the verse of the Qur’an= “God revealed the best story, a book harmoniously arranged with repeated verses (mathaniya).

It raises goose pimples on the skin of those who fear their Lord.” 1420 God also said= “We have divided the verses.” 1421 That is why the ends of the individual verses are called “dividers” (fawasil). They are not really rhymed prose, since the (rhyme) which is obligatory in rhymed prose is not obligatory in them, nor are there rhymes as in poetry.

The name “repeated verses” (mathani) is generally used for all the verses of the Qur’an, for the reasons mentioned. It is used in particular for the first surah, because of the prominence (of repeated verses) in it, just as the (general) word “star” is used for the Pleiades.

Therefore, the (first surah) was called “the seven repeated (verses).” 1422 One may compare what the Qur’an commentators have said in explanation of the fact that the first surah is called “the repeated (verses).” One will find that our explanation deserves the preference. It should be known that each of these branches of poetry 1423 has its own particular methods, which are considered peculiar to it by the people who cultivate that branch and which do not apply to any other (branch) and cannot be employed for it. For instance, there is the nasib,1424 which is restricted to poetry. There are the praise of God and prayer (du’a’), which are restricted to sermons, and there are the formulas of blessing (du’a’), which are restricted to addresses, and so on. Recent authors employ the methods and ways 1425 of poetry in writing prose. (Their writing) contains a great deal of rhymed prose and obligatory rhymes as well as the use of the nasib before the authors say what they want to say. When one examines such prose, (one gets the impression that) it has actually become a kind of poetry. It differs from poetry only through the absence of meter. In recenttimes, secretaries took this up and employed it in government correspondence. They restricted all prose writing to this type, which they liked. They mixed up (all the different) methods in it. They avoided straight prose and affected to forget it, especially the people of the East. At the hand of stupid secretaries, present-day government correspondence is handled in the way described.

From the point of view of good style (balaghah), it is not correct, since (in good style) one looks for conformity between what is said and the requirements of the given situations in which the speaker and the person addressed find themselves. 1426 In recent times, secretaries introduced the methods of poetry into this type of prose-with-rhyme. However, it is necessary that government correspondence be kept free from it.

The methods of poetry admit wittiness, the mixture of humor with seriousness, long descriptions, and the free use of proverbs, as well as frequent similes and metaphoric expressions, (even) where none of these are required in (ordinary) address. The (constant) obligatory use of rhyme is also something witty and ornamental. All of this is quite incompatible with the dignity of royal and governmental authority and with the task of encouraging or frightening the masses 1427 in the name of the ruler. In government correspondence, what deserves praise is the use of straight prose - that is, straightforward speech with only a very occasional use of rhymed prose in places where (sound linguistic) habit can use rhymed prose in an unforced manner - and (forms of) speech that conform properly to the requirements of a given situation. 1428 The (existing) situations are always different.

Each situation has its peculiar method (of expression. A situation may require) lengthiness or brevity, ellipsis or assertion, directness or allusion, the use of metonymy or metaphors. Government correspondence done in the (afore-mentioned) way, that is, in a method proper to poetry, deserves censure. The only reason why (our) contemporaries do it is the fact that non-Arab (speech habits) exercise a firm hold over their tongues, and, as a result, they are unable to give their speech its proper measure of conformity with the requirements of a given situation. Thus, they are unable to use straight speech. It is a difficult task and (takes) long effort to achieve eloquence in it. They eagerly use the type of rhymed prose (mentioned), in this way covering up their inability to make their speech conform to the things they want to say and to the requirements of the particular situation (with which they deal).

They make up for their (inability in this respect) by greatly embellishing (their speech) with rhymed prose and rhetorical figures (alqab), 1429 They neglect everything else. Present-day secretaries and poets in the East use this method most and apply it in an exaggerated manner to all kinds of speech. They go so far as to tamper with the vowel endings and inflections of words when it happens to them that these conflict 1430 with some paronomasia or antithesis (that they want to use). In such a case, they give preference to the paronomasia and pay no attention to the (correct) vowel ending, (preferring to) corrupt the form of the word so that it might fit the paronomasia.

When this matter is studied critically from the point of view of our preceding remarks, it will be seen that our remarks are correct. God gives success.


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