Eyes of Narcissi: al-Sanawbari

Okay, so I admit it. It seems like poetry about flowers would be really boring and confusing (in a foreign language at that), but actually I found this poem to be fascinating. It’s a short 12-line poem by the 10th century Arab poet al-Sanawbari (d. 945), who was known for his utter mastery of the descriptive genre, especially in plants and flowers. Also, his name means ‘pine nut salesman,’ so how can you not love that? Often the key to understanding the whole conceit of the poem relies on knowing exactly (and I mean EXACTLY) what the plant he’s describing looked like. That’s why I’ve included a picture of the narcissus here. Apparently the daffodil is just one variety of narcissus. For those who find poetry analysis boring and just want to head straight for the stuff itself, I suggest skipping the next couple of paragraphs.

In case you want some background on what al-Sanawbari was actually getting at here, you’ll need to know what a majlis is. It is very difficult to translate because it basically means any circle people sit in to do anything: talk, recite poetry, drink, transmit religious knowledge, what have you. The concept is simple enough but we don’t have one nice word that encapsulates it. I’ve translated it as “assembly.” In other places you might see “gathering,” “circle,” “court,” etc. However, a majlis is not limited to courtly life, and it’s not just a random circle of people hanging out, because there is some element of what you say there as being “public.”

So, at the risk of over-explaining the metaphors and not letting the poem speak for itself, suffice it to say that the poet is comparing the narcissus center to the eyes of the attractive cup-bearer who brings the guests their wine. He then expands the image from just one flower, to multiple groups of flowers staring across at each other, i.e the observer viewing the cup-bearer. The daisy and chamomile come in near the end because they are both similar in appearance to the narcissus, but the poet wants to argue that two narcissi facing each other is more beautiful than a daisy facing a chamomile, because one is open in the day time while the other is open at night, so they are not a perfect pair like the narcissi. Ok, that was far too much explanation. I’m still working on this piece, particularly on the meter (I was trying for trochaic but in some places there are faults). Also, this is my first post on Persian is Sugar from Arabic! Seems contradictory, but what can you do.

al-Sanawbari – Qasida 180

Is nothing lovelier than narcissus eyes sharing gazes at the assembly?

Pearls have split above a silk brocade revealing rubies on emerald stems,

Camphor eyelids adorned with saffron eyes, soft to the touch,

Like moons of night corralling black-bound suns atop a supple branch.

In gleaming shadows tear-filled eyes stare like the beholder, intent.

As wind engulfs them, they exude a musky fragrance. O what a scent!

Swaying towards each other, they mimicked two companions drawing near.

The friends fondly embraced at assembly just as narcissi entwined in the meadow.

As you drowse with wine, the narcissus regards you with unsleeping eyes.

Are not narcissi more charming in moonlight than daisy and chamomile at sunrise?

O Cup-bearer, your glances tasked with ensnaring souls,

You’ve fixed my heart twixt love-kindling looks and scornful words.


النص الأصلي

١ أرأيتَ أحسنَ من عيونِ النرجسِ    أم من تلاحُظِهنَّ وُسط المجلس
٢ درُّ تشقَّقَ عن يواقيتٍ على قُضُبِ الزمرُّدِ فوقَ بُسط السُندس
٣ أجفانُ كافورٍ حُبِينَ بأعينٍ من زعفرانٍ ناعماتِ الملمس
٤ وكأنها أقمارُ ليلٍ أحدَقَتْ بشموسِ دجنٍ فوق غُصنِ أملس
٥ مغرورقاتٌ في ترقرُّقِ ظلِّها ترنو رُنوَّ الناظرِ المتفرِّس
٦ فإذا تَغَشَّتها الرياحُ تَنَفَّسَتْ عن مثلِ ريح المسك أيَّ تنفُّس
٧ وحكى تداني بعضِها من بعضِها يوماً تداني مؤنسٍ من مؤنس
٨ هذا وذاك تعانقا في مجلسٍ عِشقاً وتلك تعانقَتْ في مَغرس
٩ وإذا نعستَ من المُدامِ رأيتَها ترنو إليك بأعينٍ لم تَنْعَس
١٠ أفتلك أحسنُ أم أقاحٍ مُقمرٌ بإزاءِ هذاك البهار المشمس
١١ يا أيها الساقي الذي لحظاتُهُ أضحت موكَّلة بقبضِ الأنفس
١٢ أوقعتَ قلبي بين لحطٍ مُطمعٍ في الودِّ منك وبين لفظٍ مؤيس


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