Remaining Like a Sword, Alone : Prolegomena

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: According to common scholarly opinion, early Arabic poetry encompasses a distinct genre which laments the dead, and which is the specific Arabic realisation of a universal, cross-culturally widespread genre of lamentation. Moreover, this genre — which commonly is referred to as ‘elegy’, but in the thesis, as ‘threnody’ — is identified with the type of poetry that in Arabic poetics is called riṯāʼ or marṯiya. The received opinion is that its history stretches back into the pre literary roots of Arabic poetry, into a sub-literary, rhymed and rhythmic form of lament (the saj-wail) performed in the death rituals by the deceased’s female kin. The early threnody is hence believed to have been a stereotypical poem predominantly cultivated by women and to have had strong connections to the call for blood-vengeance. With time, however, as male poets started to cultivate the genre, it entered into the realm of literature. The thesis examines the intellectual underpinnings of this perspective, concluding that it is fallacious in all fundamental respects. The received perspective on the early Arabic threnody has no foundation in painstaking research, but is the combined result of the assumptions that have coloured the Western encounter with early Arabic poetry. Without these assumptions, there is little evidence to support any of the ideas that the early threnody existed as a unified genre and developed as one, distinct entity; that it originated in ritual; that it was a ritual poem in documentable periods; that women’s threnody predates men’s; or that it was strongly associated with the theme of blood-vengeance.The thesis, furthermore, presents an annotated corpus catalogue which documents the hitherto largely overlooked volume of early threnody classical sources attribute to male poets.

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