Posted by on Jul 22, 2016 in Library | Comments Off on THEMES OF SYRIAC POETRY

Patriarch of Antioch and All the East

Translated : By Dr. Matti Moosa


The themes and purposes of Syriac poetry are:
1. The renunciation of worldly things and the call for repentance and the way of salvation. To these principles the greatest part of poetry, especially that of the immortal St. Ephraim, and later that of Isaac and Jacob of Saruj, was devoted. Each one of them had his own masterpieces and gems of poetry. Likewise Bar Qiqi, in his very moving poem based on the Sarujite meter, lamented himself and portrayed his penitence.
2. Description. Theological themes and commentaries on the Bible, as well as the versification of most of its subjects, prevail in this kind of poetry. The eminent poet Jacob of Saruj was most important in this field. To David bar Paul belongs a beautiful poem on the description of trees, their kinds and fruits. George, bishop of the Arabs, and Lazarus bar Subto wrote two distinguished poems describing the sacrament of the holy Chrism. In one of his poems, Anton of Takrit described the charm of the city of Ras al-Ayn. Moreover, Bar Hebraeus composed magnificent poetry in which he described springs and flowers. Another poet, David of Hims, wrote a splendid poem on nostalgia.
3. Praise, used by our poets to exalt our Lord Christ, the Holy Church, its Sacraments and mysteries, the virtues of the Virgin Mary, and the categories of saints and martyrs. The poems of St. Ephraim, describing the Sacraments of the Church and the virtue of celibacy, combined subtlety of impression, descriptive charm, artistic splendor and beauty of theme. In this regard his poem on the bishops of Nisibin is unique. Also unique are the poems of St. Jacob of Saruj praising the two prophets Moses and Elijah, St. Ephraim, John the Baptist, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and the martyrs of Edessa. Beside their beauty and charm, these poems reveal the artistic proficiency and rhetorical mastery of their composers. Of the same category are the two poems of George, bishop of the Arabs, praising the martyrs of Sebaste and St. Severus, the poem of Bar Paul in praise of Bishop John, highly artistic in its use of rhetoric, and the two poems of Anton Rhetor praising Sergius and Joseph of Ras al-Ayn.
One of the finest poems is by Bar Sabuni in praise of Jacob of Saruj. But the most immortal one is the poem of Timothy of Karkar (composed in the Ephraimite or heptasyllablic meter) praising the Virgin Mary, distinguished for its lucid style, eloquence and fine composition. Further, Bar Hebraeus praised some of the church fathers of his time with poems of lasting charm and fluency. The poem of Abu Nasr of Bartulli, praising Mar Matta (Matthew) the ascetic, was a great work of rhetoric indicating the ability of its composer to utilize all the various techniques of the art of poetry. To Behnam of Hidl belong three excellent poems in praise of the martyrs Behnam and Basus and their companions.

Of a mediocre quality are the two poems by Bar Wahbun in praise of Michael the Great and his nephew Yeshu of Melitene, the poem of Michael the Great himself, praising John, metropolitan of Mardin, and the two poems of Gabriel of Bartulli on the lives of Bar Hebraeus and his brother al-Safi. Much inferior, however, are the two poems of Jacob of Bartulli in praise of the noble physicians Fakhr al-Dawla and Taj al-Dawla of the Tuma family; their colorless and unnatural style is obvious. You find the good mingled with the bad in the poetry of Zaytun of Inhil in praise of St. Gabriel of Qartamin, and a good introductory verse with well-formulated lines by Jacob Saka, praising the dignitaries of his time.
4. Elegy. In one area of our Syriac poetry we find a touch of lamentation for the sinning soul and grief for the calamities which afflicted our country because of invasions or wars. Some of these elegies expressed lamentation over a sequence of events, such as the poems of Bar Madani, describing the catastrophe of Edessa; Yeshu bar Khayrun, on the ordeal of the church of the Forty Martyrs in Mardin and the eastern countries; Isaiah of Basibrina, on the calamities of Tur Abdin in the time of Tamerlane; the priest of Habsnas and John of Basibrina, on the Kurdish invasion of their country, Dawud (David) of Hims in lamenting the loss of Syriac books; and the poems of Nimat Allah of Mardin lamenting his ordeal. The panegyrics of Joseph of Melitene and those of bar Shushan lamenting the city of Melitene are lost to us.
In eulogizing men, none other than the masterful poet Bar Hebraeus has attained the high point of this genre of poetry, by the thoroughly moving sentiments of sorrow which he expressed in mourning his brothers Muwaffaq and Michael. In these eulogies he poured forth his soul and uttered his verse with an unpretentious sincerity which rendered his efforts in this genre first-class, highly artistic poetry. His two panegyrics eulogizing the maphrian Saliba and the patriarch John bar Madani are exemplary. Other poets also wrote eulogies, like the patriarch Nuh, who composed a good poem eulogizing his master the ascetic priest Tuma (Thomas) of Hims, and the priest Jacob Saka, eulogizing Behnam, the metropolitan of Mosul and Joseph, the Metropolitan of Malabar in two poems of good style.
5. Satire. The Syrians did not write satirical poetry; thus their poetry was free from obscene and worthless language. However, one finds only a few poems censuring the heretics in support of religion and adherence to the Orthodox faith. Of this type are the songs in which St. Ephraim rebuked Bar Daysan and Jacob of Saruj censured Nestorius. Connected with satire is censure and expostulation, represented by the poems of Anton of Takrit dispraising calumny and ingratitude. Moreover, the poem of bar Andrew may be considered a sharp criticism of some clergymen in his days, similar to what Isaiah of Basibrina and Simon of Manimim did in their two lengthy poems. Bar Hebraeus has few lines dispraising some of his contemporary leaders, but they are of a remonstrative, rather than a derogatory nature.
6. Aphorism and philosophy. A great deal of Syriac poetry contains aphorisms and enduring moral sentiments. Philosophical odes are to be found in the anthologies of Bar Madani and Bar Hebraeus, such as those on the soul, perfection and the ways of the perfect. The poetry of Bar Hebraeus contains an exposition of the principles of Socrates. A twentieth-century Syrian, Naum Faiq, translated into Syriac, in metrical form, portions of the Rubaiyyat (Quatrains) of Umar al-Khayyam.
7. Friendly ties and longing. A selection of poems of this sort is to be found in the poetry of Bar Hebraeus, which is full of tenderness and sweetness. They deal masterfully with the description of true friendship, communication with friends and enjoyment of their company. These poems are vivacious and colorful pictures, adorned with exquisite introductory verses and lucid style, especially the poems in which he remonstrated with his schoolmate Maphrian Saliba of Edessa. Patriarch Nuh also has written a few eloquent lines of this nature.

8. Poetry of self-praise, heroism (hamasa),1 and erotic love (nasib),2 had no place among the Syrians. However, Bar Hebraeus excelled in spiritual love, and his ode on divine wisdom which he adorned with splendid metaphors and charming similitude, is considered his most superb masterpiece. It is a choice ode, unequalled for its rich and profound meaning. Part of it was translated in a metrical form into Arabic by Master Butrus al-Bustani. It begins thus:
So brightly wisdom shone in our world
That even the sun was eclipsed by her light;
Comely maiden, full-blown matron, rather, an old woman,
She combined attributes no mortal might.
Many poets of a later period, like Jacob of Qutrubul, Yuhanna (John) al-Bustani of Manimim, and Jacob Saka, tried to imitate Bar Hebraeus but failed to match his talents.