The earth has donned a green cloak
and dew spreads pearls across the hills,
the flowers awake, seeming like camphor,
and penetrating musk the dust;
the lilies salute the roses,
a pearly mouth that kisses a red cheek.
The river between its banks seems
a sword hanging from a green sword-belt,
and the zephyr that runs across its surface,
a hand that writes on this page;
you might say, if it shines like silver,
that the sun’s hand converts it into yellow gold,
or even that a cheek, that was white,
goes blushing for shame.
The birds rise up, giving prayer
having the whole wood as their stage.
Ibn Sahl of Seville from Locus Amoenus (Barcelona, 2009)
Ibn Sahl (d.1251) “his love poems as well as his melancholic descriptions of evenings, have captivated his listeners, and his moaxajas are still present in the musical repertory of the North of Africa.”
Locus Amoenus is an attempt to gather together in one volume the lyric poetry of seven centuries of what we might call medieval verse. We have already seen some of the Goliard poetry of the Cancionero de Ripoll. Now I have turned my attention to the south, to Sevilla. There are personal reasons for this: I am not an academic writer; the poetry follows the patterns of my life.
Last week I went to Sevilla with my daughter who is a keen student of archaeology. We went to Mérida first and then on to Itálica and Sevilla. As you might have guessed, her interest is Roman culture and she is currently on a dig in Valladolid which will hopefully find evidence of the immediately pre-Roman civilization in the area.
I was struck by the continuities. Imagining myself into a Roman villa, with its pools surrounded by arcades and it gardens set into patios, then going to the Alcázar in Sevilla and walking around the Jewish quarter afterwards, I started to think that the invention of the patio was necessary to the place; that it was not really important who invented it, whether it was Roman or Arab or Jewish. The fact that there were Muslim craftsmen working on Christian Pedro the Cruel’s palace speaks to me profoundly about these continuities. States, religions and rulers go to war. People get on with living, borrow good ideas, steal designs and thoughts and talk across cultures unless they are coached in fanatacism by their leaders. This would mean that Arab poetry should be intelligible to us.
It is, isn’t it? I love that metaphor of the wind on the river surface like the hand that writes on the page. It is something that makes the world of sense when I look at the page of Arabic in the dual language edition.
Here I am going to translate from the introduction, by Carlos Alvar and Jenaro Talens, to help you understand what a moaxaja is.
The earliest testimony of lyric poetry in romance language comes from the jarchas, short compositions that are found at the end of some poems in Arab or Hebrew (called moaxajas), the authors of which are, except in a very few instances, from between the mid eleventh-century andthe end of the twelfth-century, contemporary with the goliards and a half century before the first Provençal troubadors.
The jarcha is the base from which the moaxaja is built and in many cases it exists apart from it, so that one jarcha may be used by various different authors of moaxajas. It is not surprising then that modern critics should have suggested the chronological precedence of the jarcha and, just as much, its character as testimony to traditional lyric poetry pre-dating the troubadors.
The jarchas make up the end of the last strophe of the moaxajas, compositions written in classic Arab or in Hebrew, although the jarcha can appear in any of these two languages, in its vulgar form (the most common cases) and, partially or completely, in Romance language (Mozárabe). However, the Arab or Hebrew alphabet is always used, even in jarchas in Romance language, so that the written form is Semitic, whilst the morphosyntaxis comes from Latin. This mix (aljamía) poses considerable problems in the interpretation of the texts, which are made worse by the fact that Semitic languages only rarely have vowels in the texts.
Jarchas are usually formed by just one strophe (verse) of four lines, with rhyming on the even lines and not on the uneven lines; the lines are of six or eight syllables. This is the most common metric scheme but it is not the only one.
As for the content, they are, fundamentally, love songs put into the mouth of a disconsolate woman, who complains to her mother about the absence of her lover and about the suffering she goes through because of her love. In spite of all this, the girl expresses a joyful and passionate love, which might be related to other compositions of a similar type in the European west: villancicos or carols, Frauenlieder, chansons de toile, etc.
[Note in Spanish a strophe is what we typically call a verse in English and a verse is what we typically call a line.]
Locus Amoenus, Carlos Alvar, Jenaro Talens, Jarcha, Moaxaja, Ibn Sahl, Sevilla, Lyric poetry