From my diary

I’ve been looking some more at Byzantine science.  My original intention was to write a series of posts on each area of science.  But I’m finding that in fact I don’t know enough about the subjects to do so.  In particular knowledge of Byzantine mathematics and astronomy seems to require more knowledge of the works of Aristotle than I possess.  So I will probably do no more on this.

Yesterday I was looking at an English translation of a poem by al-Akhtal, the court poet of the early Ummayads, whom I wrote about here.  This led me to wonder how to post a poem on WordPress, which is what this blog runs on.  There is no feature in the blogging platform to support the sort of alternately indented lines that a regular poem has.  I found quite a number of posts asking why there is not a plugin to make this possible.

A bit of experimentation, and I developed a basic wordpress plugin with very little difficulty, that added a drop-down to the editor with a set of new and custom styles to apply to the text.  I set up Xampp locally on Windows 10 and installed WordPress inside it.  A short article told me what a simple plugin looked like. Another told me how to use a generator to create one, which I did, although I had to create a GitHub account to use it.  Finally another article advised me on how to do the changes manually; which I did instead inside my plugin, adding the PHP code to the main generated plugin .php file, and sticking a css file in the root.  It all sort of worked, and I pushed it to GitHub.

But … it just did not work to format poetry.  The problem is not the plugin.  The problem is that WordPress strips whitespace in a manner impossible to control.  You can insert stuff in a poetic format.  But the moment you open the post in the visual editor, that format is destroyed.

This is a fundamental problem with poetry in WordPress.  It can’t be fixed, unless or until the main developers address the whitespace handling issue.

The only possible approach is to format it all as <PRE>, which is not much of an answer and looks terrible.

Perhaps it says something about the importance of poetry in our society, that the main blogging platform for writing online makes it impossible to post verse?

I need to return to translating Eutychius of Alexandria.  I have a couple of books to review.

My trip to Rome later this month will not now happen, after my travelling companion became ill.

I read this morning that the publishing industry continues its campaign against the SciHub pirate website, through which alone normal people can access most journal articles.  Apparently a US judge wants to prevent Americans from accessing it.  That should certainly give China an advantage!  The site itself is apparently hosted in Russia, fortunately.

To finish, let me attempt to post the poem by al-Akhtal, in preformatted format, as translated by Suzanne Stetkevych.[1]  I laid it out in Notepad; but my attempt to create a preformatted block and paste it in was a complete failure.  Even preformatted text is not handled well by the visual editor, it seems.  In the end I switched to text view and pasted it in there, with <pre></pre> tags around it.  This gives the following appearance:

How long will it remain formatted, I wonder?  Well, let’s see!

Here is the complete poem, that al-Akhtal delivered before the caliph, while drunk.

Al-Akhtal's Khaffa al-Qatinu: The Nasib

1. Those that dwelt with you have left in haste,
       departing at evening or at dawn,
   Alarmed and driven out by fate's caprice,
       they head for distant lands.
2. And I, on the day fate took them off,
       was like one drunk
   On wine from Hims or Jadar
       that sends shivers down the spine,
3. Poured generously from a brimming wine-jar,
       lined with pitch and dark with age,
   Its clay seal broken
       off its mouth,
4. A wine so strong it strikes
       the vital organs of the reveller,
   His heart, hungover, can barely
       sober up.
5. I was like that, or like a man
       whose joints are racked with pain,
   Or like a man whose heart is struck
       by charms and amulets,
   Out of longing for them and yearning
       on the day I sent my glance after them
   As they journeyed in small bands
       on Kawkab Hill's two slopes.
7. They urged on their mounts,
       turning their backs on us,
   while in veiled howdahs, if you spoke softly to them,
       were maidens lovely as statues.
8. They entice the tribesmen
       until they ensnare them,
   Yet they seem feeble-minded
       when questioned.
9. Forget about union with beautiful women
       when they are sure
   That you are a man whom
       old age's blossom has demeaned!
10. They turned away from me
       when my bow's stringer bent it
   And when my once jet-black locks
       turned white.
11. They do not heed the man who calls them
       to fulfill his need,
   Nor do they set their sights upon
       a white-haired man.
12. They headed east when summer's blast
       had wrung the branches dry,
   And, except where ploughshares run,
       all green had withered.
13. So the eye is troubled by tears
       shed for a now-distant campsite
   Whose folk will find it hard to ever
       meet again.
14. They are cut off, like a rope,
       and the eye follows after them,
   Between al-Shaqiq
       and al-Maqsim Spring,
15. Until they descended to a land
       on the side of a river bed
   Where the tribes of Shayban and Ghubar
       alight,
16. Until when they left behind
       the sandy tamarisk ground
   And had reached high ground, or said,
       "This is the trench [that Khosroes] dug."
17. They alighted in the evening,
       and we turned aside our noble-bred camels:
   For the man in need, the time had come
       to journey.
18. To a man whose gifts do not elude us,
       whom God has made victorious,
   So let him in his victory
       long delight!
19. He who wades into the deep of battle,
       auspicious his augury,
   The Caliph of God
       through whom men pray for rain.
20. When his soul whispers its intention to him
       it sends him resolutely forth,
   His courage and his caution
       like two keen blades.
21. In him the common weal resides,
       and after his assurance
   No peril can seduce him
       from his pledge.
22. Not even the Euphrates when its tributaries
       pour seething into it
   And sweep the giant swallow-wort from its two banks
       into the middle of its rushing stream,
23. And the summer winds churn it
       until its waves
   Form agitated puddles
       on the prows of ships,
24. Racing in a vast and mighty torrent
       from the mountains of Byzance
   Whose foothills shield them from it
       and divert its course,
25. Is ever more generous than he is
       to the supplicant
   Or more dazzling
       to the beholder's eye.
26. They did not desist from their treachery and cunning
       against you
   Until, unknowingly, they portioned out
       the maysir-players' flesh.	 
27. Then whoever witholds his counsel
       from us
   And whose hand is niggardly to those
       beneath us
28. Will be the ransom
       of the Commander of the Faithful,
   When a fierce and glowering battle-day
       bares its teeth.
29. Like a crouching lion, poised to pounce,
       his chest low to the ground,
   For a battle in which there is
       prey for him,
30. [The Caliph] advances with an army
       two-hundred thousand strong,
   The likes of which no man or jinn
       has ever seen.
31. He comes to bridges which he builds
       and then destroys,
   He brands his steeds with battle-scars,
       above him fly banners and battle-dust,
32. Until at al-Taff
       they wreaked carnage,
   And at al-Thawiyyah
       where no bowstring twanged.
33. The tribesmen saw clearly
       the error of their ways,
   And he straightened out the smirk
       upon their faces.
34. Single-handed, he assumed the burdens
       of the people of Iraq,
   Among whom he once had bestowed
       a store of grace and favor.
35. In the mighty nab'-tree of Quraysh
       round which they gather,
   No other tree can top
       its lofty crown.
36. It overtops the high hills,
       and they dwell in its roots and stem;
   They are the people of bounty,
       and, when they boast, of glory,
37. Rallying behind the truth, recoiling from foul speech,
       disdainful,
   In the face of war's calamities
       they stand steadfast.
38. If a darkening cloud casts its pall
       over the horizons,
   They have a refuge from it
       and a haven.
39. God allotted to them the good fortune
       that made them victorious,  
   And after theirs all other lots
       are small, contemptible.
40. They do not exult in it
       since they are its masters;
   Any other tribe, were this their lot,
       would be exultant, vain.
41. Ruthless toward their foe,
       till they submit;
   In victory,
       the most clement of men.
42. Those that harbor rancor toward them
       cannot endure their battle-wrath;
   When their rods are tested
       no flaw is found.
43. It is they who vie with the rain-bearing wind
       to bring sustenance
   When impoverished supplicants
       find scant food.
44. O Banu Umayyah, your munificence
       is like a widespread rain;
   It is perfect,
       unsullied by reproach.
45. O Banu Umayyah, it was I
       who defended you
   From the men of a tribe
       that sheltered and aided [the Prophet].
46. I silenced the Banu Najjir's endless braying
       against you
   With poems that reached the ears
       of every chieftain of Ma'add,
47. Until they submitted,
       smarting from my words-
   For words can often pierce
       where sword-points fail.
48. O Banu Umayyah, I offer you
       sound counsel:
   Don't let Zufar dwell secure
       among you,
49. But take him as an enemy,
       for what you see of him
   And what lies hid within
       is all corruption.
50. For in the end you'll meet
       with ancient rancor:
   Like mange, it lies latent for awhile
       only to break out once more.

The poem grows on you, as you read it.  The caliph was well pleased, as we learned last time.

  1. [1]Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, “Umayyad Panegyric and the Poetics of Islamic Hegemony: al-Akhṭal’s “Khaffa al-Qaṭīnu” (“Those That Dwelt with You Have Left in Haste”)“, Journal of Arabic Literature 28 (1997), pp. 89-122.  JSTOR.

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