«Introduction ÞAbû Nuwâs (d. ~199/814) is widely regarded as the best poet of the ÝAbbâsid period. Whether this is true or not, it’s an ...»
Baykal Erol, A Short Essay on ÞAbû Nuwâs: his life, works and some themes in his wine poetry
ÞAbû Nuwâs (d. ~199/814) is widely regarded as the best poet of the ÝAbbâsid period. Whether this
is true or not, it’s an undeniable fact that his poetry, his wine poetry in particular, has left ineradicable
traces in Arabic literary history.
In this brief essay I will (i) sketch the life and the world of ÞAbû Nuwâs and (ii) give a summarized
description of his poetry, with (iii) special emphasis on his Ìamriyya (wine poetry). Finally I will (iv) point out his importance for his contemporaries and for modern times.
I did not intend to present new information about ÞAbû Nuwâs, nor about his poetry. I have therefore limited myself to translated (secondary) sources, mostly in English. The translated verses are directly taken from Colville’s Poems of Wine and Revelry. Colville’s translations are perhaps less accurate than the critical translations in journal articles but he renders a very artistic reflection of the poetry that is actually enjoyable to read.
The life and world of ÞAbû Nuwâs Getting acquainted with ÞAbû Nuwâs ÞAbû Nûwas’ full name was al-Íasan b. HâniÞ al-Íakâmî. His cognomen (ÞAbû Nûwas) means “the one with the dangling [hair locks]”, a nickname endowed upon him because of a characteristic trait of his appearance. He was born in al-ÞAhwâz (in the current Iran) somewhere in the middle of the 2nd/8th century.1 Not much is known about his father HâniÞ b. ÝAbd al-ÞAwwal: he was a soldier in the army of the last ÞUmayyad caliph, Marwan II, and he died when ÞAbû Nuwâs was still very young. His mother Gulbân was of Persian descent.
ÞAbû Nuwâs moved with his mother to BaÒra where he attended Koran school and became a ÎâfiÛ.
This means he knew the Koran by heart, something that would become useful later on as he alluded often to koranic themes in his poetry.2 His first literature teacher was the poet Wâliba b. al-Íubâb. Wâliba had Ingrams, H. Abu Nuwas in Life and Legend (Port Louis: M. Gaud & Cie, 1933) p. 1: “about the year 756”.
Wagner E. “AbÙ NuwÁs” in EI2: “between 130/747 and 145/762”.
Montgomery J. “Revelry and Remorse: A poem of AbÙ NuwÁs”. In JAL, 25.1 (1994) p. 132 Baykal Erol, A Short Essay on ÞAbû Nuwâs: his life, works and some themes in his wine poetry noticed the young boy’s talent and took him to Kûfa. ÞAbû Nuwâs allegedly had his first homosexual experience with him; in any case Wâliba had an important influence on the boy. After Wâliba’s death he continued his studies in BaÒra, under Ëalaf al-AÎmar who was a great in philology and brought him in contact with pre-Islamic poetry. Later on ÞAbû ÝUbayda MuÝammar b. al-Mu×anna taught him about theÞAyyâm al-ÝArab, literature that relates the great battles of the Arabic tribes in pre-Islamic times. It would not be improper to say that ÞAbû Nuwâs enjoyed a decent education.
Baghdâd & the ÝAbbâsid Court In the 2nd/8th century Baghdâd, as the newly founded capital3 of the ÝAbbâsid caliphate, was for its time a huge, cosmopolitan city and a centre of cultural activity with over 1 million inhabitants4. Like many poets of his time ÞAbû Nuwâs, when he was about 30 years of age,5 was drawn to this flourishing metropolis and there, in Baghdâd, he would carry his wine poetry to the summit. He wanted to find a patron, preferably at the court, for whom he could write panegyric poetry to in return receive a sum of money. He was eventually favoured by the renowned Barmakî6 family but according to Kennedy his staunchest maecenas proved to be the NawbaÌt family.7 Although he sometimes got into trouble8 or was prohibited from drinking9, he remained a beloved figure of al-ÞAmîn and of the caliph al-Rašîd himself.
Inauspiciously the Barmakî family fell in disgrace with caliph Hârûn al- Rašîd and their downfall in the year 187/803 was a violent one.10 ÞAbû Nuwâs had to flee Baghdâd because he had brought upon Muir, W; ed. Weir; The Caliphate, its Rise, Decline, and Fall (Edinburg: John Grant, 1924) p. 456: “Bagdad founded, 145 A.H. 762 A.D.” Monteil, V. Abû-Nuwâs : le vin, le vent, la vie (France : IFC, 1999) p. 15: Monteil compares the citizen count of Baghdâd to other cities in the world during the same period and concludes that Baghdâd was by far larger than most other cities in the Middle-East and Europe.
Monteil p. 15 Wagner. “ABØ NUWÀS” in EI2 Kennedy, P. Abu Nuwas A Genius of Poetry (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005) p. 12 Ingrams p. 10 Wagner E. AbÙ NuwÁs: Eine Studie zur Arabischen Literatur der Frühen ÝAbbasÐdenzeit (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1965) p. 80-1: Wagner says that a great deal of his poetry was written while imprisoned.
Kennedy P. The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry, AbÙ NuwÁs and the Literary Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) p. 214 Omar F. “HÀRØN AL-RASHÏD” in EI2
himself the anger of the caliph by writing poetry lamenting the demise of the Barmakids.11 He went to Egypt and stayed there for a while under the patronage of the head of Dîwân al-Ëarâº, al-Ëâtib b. ÝAbd alÍamîd.12 He only dared return to Baghdâd after the death of Hârûn al- Rašîd in 193/809. 13 He became close friends with caliph al-ÞAmîn, the son of al- Rašîd. Under his patronage he is said to have written his best works and to have lived his most splendid years, but this carefree period was to last very short. The death of al- Rašîd had brought upheaval in the empire: al-ÞAmîn was favoured as throne heir over his older halfbrother al-MaÞmûn. A power struggle between the brethren ended with the death of al-ÞAmîn. ÞAbû Nuwâs, who had remained loyally by the side of al- ÞAmîn, was very much upset by this event.14 Shortly after the passing of al-ÞAmîn ÞAbû Nuwâs too died in 199/814. Sources are divergent in relating the account of his death: poisoned, beaten to death, drank himself to death …15 The poetry of ÞAbû Nuwâs General We should keep in mind that ÞAbû Nuwâs lived in an intellectually dynamic world. He and other contemporaries were influenced by the then still reigning rational MuÝtazilite School. 16 Furthermore the foundation of the ÝAbbâsid dynasty had brought fundamental changes to society: Persian elements previously suppressed by the ÞUmayyads, were finally acknowledged and they had great influence on the daily life and the overall characteristics of the dynasty.17 This resulted in ethnic and linguistic diversity and innovation in poetry, which gave birth to the school of modern poets (muÎda×ûn) to which ÞAbû Nuwâs belonged.18 Monteil p. 17 Wagner. “ABØ NUWÀS” in EI2 Wagner (AbÙ NuwÁs: Eine Studie) p. 70 Gabrieli F. “AL-AMÏN” in EI2 For a list of all the different versions go to Kennedy (A Genius of Poetry) p. 26 Badawi M. “ÝAbbasid Poetry and its Antecedents” in Ashtiany, Julia et al. (eds.). ÝAbbasid Belles-Lettres (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) p. 154 Muir p. 434 Badawi p. 154
ÞAbû Nuwâs wrote different types of poetry. Medieval and modern scholars who have composed his poetry into dîwân compositions made an effort to classify his work under several genres. Al-Ñûlî for example distinguished wine poems, hunting poems, eulogies, lampoons, homoerotic love poetry, love poetry, licentious poetry, poems of reproach, elegies and homiletic poetry.19 However, like Van Gelder points out,20 it is not easy to classify ÞAbû Nuwâs’ poetry in a thematic way because of its polythematic nature.
His dîwân includes a number of full-length qaÒîda’s21 (formal odes with a rigorous structure) but more of the shorter qitÝa’s (less formal and less rigorous) who were written most likely to be sung.22 Among the metres most used by ÞAbû Nuwâs are raºaz, muºta××, sarîÝ, Ôawîl, kâmil, wâfir and basîÔ, which he especially favoured for his wine poetry.23 Wine Poetry A special, genre in Arabic poetry is the Ìamriyya.24 This is a genre of bacchic or wine poetry. It is for certain that ÞAbû Nuwâs did not invent the Ìamriyya, the origin of which seems to be rooted in preIslamic times. Also in Islamic times and still prior to ÞAbû Nuwâs there were famous wine poets. For example Al-AÌÔal, mentioned in the book of songs as the court poet of the ÞUmayyads, is well known for his wine poetry.25 This means that ÞAbû Nuwâs had an entire repository of this type of poetry to draw from and he certainly had his influences regarding bacchic poetry.26 The difference between ÞAbû Nuwâs and his predecessors is that they seem to have included bacchic elements in their longer polythematic poetry Kennedy (The Wine Song) p. 5 Gelder, Geert Jan van. “Dubious Genres: On Some Poems by AbÙ NuwÁs”. In Arabica 44 (1997) p. 271 Badawi p. 151: The Secondary QaÒîda in Abbasid times was fundamentally different from the pre-Islamic (primary) QaÒîda.
Badawi p. 152 Wagner (AbÙ NuwÁs: Eine Studie) p. 215-18 The term is derived from Ìamr (Arabic for wine) and was not used in mediaeval times as a designation for a poetic genre. It would only be introduced in that function by Óaha Íusayn in 1923. In mediaeval texts this kind of poems would be described (thematically) as al-qawl fî al-Ìamr, lahu maÝânî fî al-Ìamr, waÒÒâf li al-Ìamr. (Bencheikh J.E.
“KHAMRIYYA” in EI2) Bencheikh J.E. “KHAMRIYYA” in EI2 (ii. The first century, (b) ÝIrÁkÐ Bacchism) Al-Walîd b. Yazîd (ABBASID BELLES LETTRES p. 154)
whereas in the bacchic poetry of ÞAbû Nuwâs the wine gets a central role: the poem is written for the wine.
ÞAbû Nuwâs’ was good in wine poetry; it was what made him famous. 27 He was recognized for being so by his contemporaries. He wrote extensively about drinking in taverns and Christian monasteries in a very descriptive manner. The question that is raised by most scholars is whether his poetry depicts his own adventures or whether they are made up and a description of mere fantasies.28 Most scholars do conclude that even if not all of the perceivable stories in his poems are true, there has to be a kernel of truth in it. Although some of his works may have been true ascetic pieces 29 the idea of ascribing all his poetry to Sufism seems unjust. Most scholars accept that ÞAbû Nuwâs loved to drink and that he did drink copious amounts. Eventually it is not that important: the aesthetic value remains and he social historical data that can be extracted from the poetry is almost non-extant (and beyond the scope of this essay).
Themes There are themes that are recurring frequently in the wine poetry of ÞAbû Nuwâs. I will try to illustrate these patterns with examples from his poetry.
Description of Wine Many times we’ll find a poem containing an impressionistic or realistic description of wine. ÞAbû Nuwâs depicts in colourful detail what he sees in a cup of wine. He describes aural lights emanating from his cup, pearly bubbles, fiery colours, musky fragrances, etc.
Wagner (AbÙ NuwÁs: Eine Studie) p. 289 Mattock J. “Description and Genre in AbÙ NuwÁs” in QSA 5-6 p. 538: Mattock claims for example that ÞAbû Nuwâs’ drinking and sexual poetry is nothing but a projection of the poets or his audience’s fantasy. Or as he would put it: “Sex is like money; those who have it do not talk about it.” Kennedy (A Genius of Poetry) p. 73-4
Wines as Women and Virgin brides Strongly recurring is the anthropomorphising of wine: describing wines as if they were women, or virgin brides. This is something that many Ìamriyya poets did and the fact that the Arabic word for wine (Ìamr) is feminine in gender helps to portray it as a woman. Description of the opening of the wine vials is almost erotic in some cases, almost like the deflowering of a virgin bride.
Description of boys and women ÞAbû Nuwâs also described in metaphors the human objects of his carnal desire, be it male or female. The males he speaks about are young. Although no age can be clearly perceived from the descriptions, he does speak out for his preference of beardless youth.30
Kennedy (A Genius of Poetry) p. 16-7 Medieval scholars like al-Isfahânî mention a specific woman, Éannân. She was supposedly his only true female love, but hey never got married because ÞAbû Nuwâs didn’t comply with her wish of him giving up sodomy.
Sex with boys The poet does not only prefer boys over women for description, but also for sex. He was not shy of describing his achievements in this area. His depictions range from implicit…
Drinking companions ÞAbû Nuwâs does not mention many names in his wine poetry. When he does talk about his companions he describes them not by their appearance but buy their manners. He is very fond of the people whom he drinks with.
Replies to his critics ÞAbû Nuwâs apparently had a lot of critics that tell him to straighten out his life. His answer to them is that the more they reproach him, the more he will drink. They will get the opposite of what they try to achieve.
ImruÞu al-Qays The ImruÞu al-Qays style qasîda was still very popular in the times of ÞAbû Nuwâs. The common structure of such a qasîda starts off with a lamentation over the loss of a beloved one: his or her tribe has left the campsite and the wind is sweeping away the traces of their past presence. ÞAbû Nuwâs alludes many times to Imr’u al-Qays in different, but ever mocking ways.
And more… Of course there are more themes and patterns to be found throughout the poetry of ÞAbû Nuwâs: he likes to point out what the true pleasures in life are, he often describes seeing nights passing into days and vice versa during his carousal sessions, in many poems he wakes up an innkeeper in the middle of the night to drink wine… However for the purpose of this essay these general outlines should suffice to give a glimpse of what one can expect to find when reading Nuwâsian poetry.