Labid: Lament for Arbad (From Arabic)

This poem is an elegiac lament for Arbad, the deceased adoptive brother of the poet to whom this text is attributed. It is also one of my favorite texts in all Arabic literature. It may have come into existence at some point in the middle of the 7th century. The legends of Labid, the (supposed) author, are many. 
To my knowledge, line-terminal assonance as a true formal device (as opposed to a mere stylistic option) in Western European verse traditions is found chiefly in medieval French, medieval Irish, and modern Dutch, as well as Iberian Romance of all periods from the earliest recorded Mozarabic ballad-fragments right through Neruda and Lorca. Yet it has not much been used as a formal feature in literary English verse (though translators of assonant verse from Romance languages have reproduced it occasionally, as Dorothy L. Sayers did in her translation of the Chanson de Roland, and J.F. Nims in one of his translations from Lorca.)  English poets, when they make use of end-line sound correspondences that fall short of full rhyme, seem to prefer consonance instead of assonance, repeating syllables with the same consonant in the coda (as in spooked/licked) rather than the same vowel in the  nucleus (as in sex/best). Which is odd in a way, since vowels are higher on the sonorance hierarchy and are acoustically more discernible than consonants. Perhaps a motivating factor was that, in English, consonant correspondences are usually fairly consistent across dialects, whereas vowel correspondences are very often not. Regardless, I suspect that poets like Heaney or Pinsky, in preferring consonance as a formal feature, are composing less for the ear than for the eye. For assonance is indeed a common fixture of English lyric forms that, unlike the sonnet, still depend primarily on oral performance and aural consumption. Any English-speaker who has, by virtue of not living under an Everest-sized rock, been exposed to contemporary popular music has heard it. And if English assonance is good enough for Eminem or the Beatles, then it's good enough for ancient bedouins. 
My quatraining of the distichs was inspired by the translation practice of my former teacher, Michael Sells, who is in my unapologetically biased view the only decent literary translator into English that pre-Islamic poetry has had in perhaps half a century. Needless to say, while I respect Sells immensely, I cannot agree with his contention that rhyme and meter in English necessarily entail an "artificiality which has been the largest impediment to making the Arabic ode accessible to non-Arabic speaking audiences." There is no intrinsic reason why a "a natural flow of language and diction" cannot coexist with a formalized prosody. If "a natural English diction no longer allows the kind of rhyme and meter necessary" to make that work, my response is that it's time to find a different kind of natural English. English, like any other language, is in fact capable of more than its speakers typically imagine, and if the translation is giving English-speakers something they're not quite used to, that is not necessarily a bad thing.      

Lament for Arbad
Attributed to Labīd bin Rabīˁa (c. 560)

We perish and rot  
  but the rising stars do not.
 When we are gone, 
   tower and mountain stay. 

Once I was under 
  a coveted neighbor's wing.
 And with Arbad, that protector 
   has passed away.

I'll stand ungrieved,  
  though Fortune force us asunder
 For every man 
   is felled by Fortune one day.

I am no more enthralled 
  by newfound riches
 than grieved by aught 
   that Fortune wreaks or takes.

For men are like desert camps:  
  one day, full of folk
 but, come the morrow, 
   an unpeopled waste.

They pass away in flocks,  
  and the land stays on:
 a trailing herdsman 
   rounding up the strays.

Yes, men are like shooting stars:  
  a trailing light 
 collapsed to ashes 
   after the briefest blaze.

Men's wealth and kinfolk  
  are but a loan of Fortune.
 All that is loaned
   must be at last repaid. 

Men are at work.  
  One worker razes his building
 to the ground, and another 
   raises something great.

Among them are the happy 
  who seize their lot,
 and unlucky others: 
   beggars till the grave. 

If my Doom be slow in coming, 
  I can look forward
 to ailing fingers 
   clenched about a cane,

While telling tales  
  of youth and yesteryear,
 on slow legs, trying to stand 
   yet bent with pain.

I am become a sword  
  whose sheath is worn
 apart by the years since smithing, 
   though sharp the blade. 

Do not be gone!1 
  A due date for death is meted
 to all. It is yet to come...
   then comes today!

Reproachful woman!2  
  When fine lads trek forth,
 can you say who of them 
   shall return from the fray?

Will you grieve  
  what fell Fortune wreaks on men?
 What noble man 
   will disaster not waylay?

No, by your lifeblood:  
  neither the pebble-reader
 nor auguress3 knows 
   what fey things God ordains.

If any of you would doubt me,  
  simply ask them
 when a lad shall taste of Doom, 
   or the land taste rains.


1- "Do not be gone" lā tabˁadan is a formulaic phrase (westerners would call it a "cliché" I guess) used to refer to the recently dead (likewise lā yabˁadan "let him not be gone.") Its ritual function may have been to express psychological shock (i.e. "how can he have left us?") as well as the belief that the person so commanded will survive as long as their memory and, by definition, the verse-lament in their name. The verb is baˁida/yabˁadu meaning "to perish, to depart." This verb and the related, more common baˁuda/yabˁudu  "to be distant, far" seem to have semantically bled into one another in Early Arabic. E.g. Qur'an 11:95 a-lā buˁdan (=baˁuda) li-Madyana ka-mā baˁidat (=baˁida) Thāmūdu "Yea let Midian perish even as Thamud perished."

2- The ˁāðil or "reproacher/rebuker" is a stock figure from early poetry, -usually a woman but sometimes a man- a paragonal "straw (wo)man" to whom the speaker can impute attitudes which he would like to argue against. Like many other stock addressees of early poetry (such as Yā ṣāḥi "O Companion" or Yā rākibu "O Rider/Messenger"), this persona may have developed from some sort of ritual or practical function now lost to us. 

3-The ḍawāribu bi-l-ḥaṣā (literally "pebble-casters", here rendered as "pebble-readers") were —according to tradition —  women who tried to divine the future by casting pebbles on the ground in some fashion. The zājirātu ṭ-ṭayri "women who chase birds away" (here rendered as "auguresses") were presumably women who tried to divine the future in some manner that involved scaring birds. 

The Original:

قالَ لَبيد بنُ الربيعة العامِريُّ

بلينا وما تبلى النجومُ الطَّوالِعُ وتَبْقَى الجِبالُ بَعْدَنَا والمَصانِعُ
وقد كنتُ في أكنافِ جارِ مَضَنَّةٍ  ففارقَني جارٌ بأرْبَدَ نافِعُ
فَلا جَزِعٌ إنْ فَرَّقَ الدَّهْرُ بَيْنَنا وكُلُّ فَتى ً يَوْمَاً بهِ الدَّهْرُ فاجِعُ
فَلا أنَا يأتيني طَريفٌ بِفَرْحَةٍ وَلا أنا مِمّا أحدَثَ الدَّهرُ جازِعُ
ومَا النّاسُ إلاّ كالدِّيارِ وأهْلها بِها يَوْمَ حَلُّوها وغَدْواً بَلاقِعُ
وَيَمْضُون أرْسَالاً ونَخْلُفُ بَعدهم كما ضَمَّ أُخرَى التّالياتِ المُشايِعُ
ومَا المَرْءُ إلاَّ كالشِّهابِ وضَوْئِهِ يحورُ رَماداً بَعْدَ إذْ هُوَ ساطِعُ
ومَا المالُ والأهْلُونَ إلاَّ وَديعَة ٌ وَلابُدَّ يَوْماً أنْ تُرَدَّ الوَدائِعُ
ومَا الناسُ إلاَّ عاملانِ: فَعامِلٌ يتبِّرُ ما يبني، وآخرُ رافِعُ
فَمِنْهُمْ سَعيدٌ آخِذٌ لنَصِيبِهِ وَمِنْهُمْ شَقيٌّ بالمَعيشَة ِ قانِعُ
أَليْسَ ورائي، إنْ تراخَتْ مَنيّتي، لُزُومُ العَصَا تُحْنَى علَيها الأصابعُ
أخبّرُ أخبارَ القرونِ التي مضتْ أدبٌ كأنّي كُلّما قمتُ راكعُ
فأصبحتُ مثلَ السيفِ غَيَّرَ جفنهُ تَقَادُمُ عَهْدِ القَينِ والنَّصْلُ قاطعُ
فَلا تَبْعَدَنْ إنَّ المَنيِّة َ مَوعِدٌ عَلَيْنا فَدَانٍ للطُّلُوعِ وطالِعُ
أعاذلُ ما يُدريكَ، إلاَّ تظنيّاً، إذا ارتحَلَ الفِتيانُ منْ هوَ راجعُ
تُبَكِّي على إثرِ الشّبابِ الذي مَضَى ألا إنَّ أخدانَ الشّبابِ الرّعارِعُ
أتجزَعُ مِمّا أحدَثَ الدّهرُ بالفَتى وأيُّ كَريمٍ لمْ تُصِبْهُ القَوَارِعُ
لَعَمْرُكَ ما تَدري الضَّوَارِبُ بالحصَى وَلا زاجِراتُ الطّيرِ ما اللّهُ صانِعُ
سَلُوهُنَّ إنْ كَذَّبتموني متى الفتى يذوقُ المنايا أوْ متى الغيثُ واقِعُ


  1. awesome. i wish i could read labid in arabic. one day i'll hopefully be able to read not only Labid but mutanabbi also. INshallah.

  2. ICanReadRomanArabicJuly 27, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    Interesting..but it would be better if you could write in romanised least us can read it in "arabic".