Al-Andalus. Nature in Andalusi Poetry.
We humans are scarcely indifferent to the world that surrounds us, and our view of life is greatly conditioned by our geographical circumstances. Popular and oral tradition suggests that the natural world is a universal constant accompanying universal themes, e. g. separation, longing, nostalgia, and above all love. Within this context, nature is not an end in itself but accompanies as background (or in metaphorically codified symbols) topics such as seasonal changes (spring and harvest rituals of rebirth and plenitude), or the absence and/or separation of lovers etc.
In the Arabic tradition, the rigours of the desert and nomadic form of existence undoubtedly weighed heavily on the perspective adopted by their poets. The opening of the most widely practiced type of Arabic poem, the monorhymed ode or qasida, for example, often evokes the remains of a desert campsite following the beloved’s departure. This, in turn, leads to the reflective vision of a lush scene –often a garden, so favoured in Arabic poetry– enjoyed by both poet and beloved before their separation. The tradition of evoking past happiness in a garden scene passed to al-Andalus, one of the best-known examples being the lament of Ibn Zaydun (1003-71) when separated from Princess Wallada. An excerpt reads:
I distract myself with flowers
that attract my eyes like magnets.
The wind roughhouses with them
bending them over.
The blossoms are eyes.
They see my sleeplessnes
and weep for me;
their iridescent tears overflow
staining the calyx.
Fragrant breaths come from the pome (a fleshy fruit)
of the waterlilies,
sleepyheads with eyes half-opened by dawn.
Everything stirs up the memory
of my passion for you
still intact in my chest… (Devin Stewart in Literature of al-Andalus, 313)
Although Ibn Zaydun feels his absence from his beloved, his eye is drawn at the same time to the flowers in such a way that the verses dedicated to them confirm the distraction that they exercised upon him. But the magnetic attraction Ibn Zaydun alludes to also points to another facet of Arabic, and especially Andalusi, poetry that is both striking and surprisingly modern: a view of the natural world as a source of wonder and surprise in and of itself. That is, Andalusi poets saw in nature a direct source of inspiration, a treasury of hidden delights that bewitched the senses with its beauty. This was often conveyed in one of the favourite topics of Andalusi poets: the garden.
Abd Alla’h ibn al Salmik (d. 1145) from Granada describes a garden as follows:
The garden of green hillocks,
dresses up for visitors
in the most beautiful colours
as if a young woman’s dowry
were spread out
glittering with gold necklaces
or as if someone had poured out
censors of mush powder
mixed with the purest aromatic oils.
Birds trill on the branches
like singing girls
bending over their lutes
and water falls continuously
like neck chains
of silver and pearls.
These are splendours of such perfection
they call to mind
the beauty of absolute certainty
the radiance of faith. (Poems from al-Andalus)
The garden has a regular presence in Andalusi influenced by its popularity in traditional Middle Eastern Arabic poetry where the cultivated locus amoenus was a counterpoint to the desert conditions people habitually met in their daily lives. Gardens, thanks to their beauty were seen as feminine and comparisons with young women were commonplace and often interchangeable.
Here, the garden is personified (“dresses up”) and the reader’s sense of sight, smell and sound quickly engaged (colours, aromatic oils, lutes and water falling). A series of similes add precious metals (gold and silver) and pearls to create a rich environment in which birds sing. The result is an image of harmony and plenitude given even further depth by the allusion to paradise, which in the Qu’ran is a garden. The garden’s perfection here is such that it transcends the physical and leads to “absolute certainty/ the radiance of faith.” The garden, then, is a reflection on an earthly level of the Qu’ranic paradise promised to the faithful. The physical offers a glimpse of the spiritual, the eternal.
Ibrahim Ibn Khafaja(h).
A near contemporary of Ibn Zaydun, Ibrahim Ibn Khafaja(h) (1058-1130) took the theme of nature in a new and original direction. Born in Alzira (south of Valencia), Ibn Khafaja(h) reversed the usual application of human sentiments to the landscape by endowing nature with human qualities. Considered “the foremost poet of nature in Andalus (Al-Nowaihi 6),” he is said to have “humanized” nature by projecting “human traits, human emotions and reactions” (Al-Nowaihi15) onto nature. By this simple expedient/ reversal, he allows humans to be absorbed into nature and nature to be human. A description of a garden with its tree and stream gives a good idea:
The blossoms are a necklace, and the branches are a neck,
the winding of the valley a forearm, and the stream a bracelet.
In the garden whose shade resembled a darkness of lips,
and blossoms appeared as fine white teeth.
The branch danced in it, having drunk the moist earth,
and the doves sang, and the torrent clapped its hands.
Verdant, the moist leaves having put a robe on its body
and blossoms having assembled at its sides,
so that wherever one glanced,
a face and a downy beard appeared on every branch. (In Al-Nowaihi, 16)
Here, human traits applied to objects of nature (e. g. branches have a “neck,” blossoms are “white teeth,” the torrent has “hands” and the valley a “forearm”) catch our attention. So too, the human activities: the branch “danced” and drank, the torrent “clapped,” the leaves “put a robe,” the blossoms “assembled.”
The wealth of metaphors converts the picture into a dazzling tableau in which there are no humans, but human presence is pervasive through the absorption of parts of the human body or of objects worn by humans (“necklace,” “bracelet,” “robe”) into nature. Nature is no longer the object of human sentiment, but is itself a sentient being capable of emotion, in this case of joy: the branch “danced” etc.
This idea of a sentient nature is most profoundly expressed in Ibn Khafaja(h)’s most famous poem, “The Mountain.” The poem opens with a solitary, friendless traveller metaphorically journeying east to west through life. It is a dangerous path with blustery winds, false dawns, threatening black nights (symbolised by the wolf with gaping fangs). “Then,” says the traveller, “I came to a mountain” whose impressive height makes it appear that it has “shoulders” holding aloft the stars while dark clouds like turbans “wrap” around “him.” It stands over the desert “like some thinker/ weighing all the consequences.”
At this point, the mountain speaks to the traveller. It is a discourse imbued with sadness and a feeling of loneliness. The mountain “weeps” having witnessed travellers and caravans pass by to be swallowed up by death:
“Yet did death’s hand take all, folded
Every one away in a wink…”
“How long will I be in this place
While friends move on, how often
See the backs of such as never return?
Till what time must I contemplate
Stars that rise and set
Forever and ever and on?”
The mountain is not merely a mountain but a feeling entity whose tears are consolation for the vulnerable traveller as he continues his journey. As he departs, the traveller addresses the mountain. with the moving words:
“I answered him: Peace,
one of us has to stay and one move on.”
They are each in his own way participants in the tragic sense of life, whose brief meeting reveals a commonality, the universality of a similar destiny whether nature or human. They are in the final analysis one of a kind.
There is nothing in “The Mountain” that suggests an Andalusian flavour in its references to nature. Indeed a “camel” on which the traveller rides and the “desert” through which he passes point to an eastern inspiration. Still, the first example above by Ibn Khafaja(h) evokes a picture well in keeping with what was common in Andalusi poetry, and many are the poems on love, drinking and festivities setting rich with “plenty of flowing water, singing birds, wide valleys, and fruitful land” (quoted by Al-Nowaihi 14).
Nature as Source of Wonder.
However, there is too, another side to the ways in which Andalusi poets used the landscape. The landscape of al-Andalus is dramatic and frequently awesome, but the Andalusis in general were miniaturists, and it is not immensity that draws the poet but rather the intimate pleasure of individual objects. Gardens, trees, flowers we know about, and we have seen how they can be integrated into the poet’s emotional world to convey joy, hope, sorrow, or by simile or metaphor to describe the beloved. Sometimes, however, a scene is enough to awaken in the poet unexpected associations the aim of which must surely have been to surprise. Some roses scattered on water remind Ibn al-Zaqqaq (Valencia, d. 1134) of blood in a graphic way:
Roses have been scattered on the pool as the passing winds blow them all around.
As if the river were some warrior’s chain-mail, torn open by a lance and flowing with the blood of his wounds. (Banners #30)
For the anthologist of the Banners, Ibn Said (Alcalá la Real 1213-1286), the ripples on a river transform magically into the lines of a parchment which the trees, moving in the breeze, lean over to read:
The river is like a parchment on which the breeze is tracing its lines.
And when they see how beautiful the writing is, the branches bend down to read it. (Banners #33)
These pithy descriptions have an encapsulating quality about them, almost as if they were a quick response to a challenge, something that was in fact a feature of the taifa courts where competitions and poetic riddles were regular forms of entertainment.
But a real surprise for many modern readers is the way in which the poets of Islamic Spain expanded the field of reference for poetry to include objects that do not normally have poetic resonance: the humble eggplant, a rooster, a stork, an artichoke, a waterwheel (Banner 108-110. Fletcher Quest for El Cid, 18), an inkwell, a walnut, a thimble, a radish, an ant, even mosquitos and fleas.
The eggplant: Rounded, savoured at meals, it is nurtured by pure water in gardens everywhere.
And, surrounded by its sepals, it is like a lamb’s heart, caught in the claws of the eagle. Ibn Sarah, d 1123, Santaren (Banners #22)
The Cornfield: Look at the sown field, where the ripe corn seems, when it bends before the wind, to be infantry squadrons which are fleeing, bleeding from the wounds of the poppies. Ibn Iyad (1083-1149) Málaga (Banners #21)
The Artichoke: Daughter of water and earth enclosed in a castle of avarice, she offers her abundance to him who awaits her. She seems, by her whiteness and by her inaccessible refuge, to be a Greek virgin hidden in a veil of lances. Ibn al-Talla 11thC. (Banners #25)
The Walnut: The walnut is a container formed by two pieces so united that it is beautiful to see: they seem like eyelids when closed in sleep.
If a knife cuts the container, you would say that it is the pupil made convex by the effort of looking.
And its interior you could compare to that of a ear, on account of its folds and hiding places. Abu Bakr ibn al-Qutiyya. Seville 11thC (Poemas arabigoandaluces 4)
This is an extraordinary world of miniaturisation, an ornamental, decorative world that leads, via the surprising associations of metaphor, to a sense of discovery and revelation, e.g. the artichoke that takes us to the world of castles, warfare and Greek virgins.
It confirms the role of poets as seers, those gifted jewellers of words conjuring the unexpected, and when successful –for they were not always so– enriching listeners with their magic. But there is also a modern and universal touch in these poems, as the late Spanish poet, Rafael Alberti (1902-99), recognises in the impact that a translation by the Arabist Emilio García Gómez had on him and his contemporaries, especially Federico García Lorca. That book opened our eyes to all that Andalusian past, and brought it so close to us that it left me with a great preoccupation with those writers, those Andalusian writers … born in Spain…. Those superb writers link up perfectly with our poets of the Golden Age. If one studies Arab-Andalusian poetry carefully, so full of metaphors and miniaturism, we will see that there is a continuity with later poetry, of Góngora,… and, centuries later, with our own. (Quoted by Jayyusi, Legacy 378)
What is interesting in this poetry, too, is that –in a way strikingly similar to the dematerialisation of nature in al-Andalusi architecture— the object described loses its individuality in the images that accompany it. The description of a fountain, for example, by Ibn al-Raiah from Seville (13th C), is a good example:
The fountain: How beautiful is the fountain which pelts the sky with fleeting stars which jump like agile acrobats!
Bubbly snakes of water slide down and run into the basin like frightened vipers.
And the water, accustomed to run furtively under the earth, on seeing an open space hurries to flee to it.
But then, resting awhile and satisfied with its new home, its smiles proudly, showing it bubbly teeth.
And then, when its smile has shown off its beautiful teeth, the branches –in love with it– lean over to kiss it. Ibn al-Raiah, Seville, 13th C (Poemas arabigoandaluces 31).
The water, as is gushes out, is seen as stoning the sky with fleeting stars which jump like agile acrobats. The water runs furtively like a snake. When it rests, the water smiles and shows its bubbly teeth and the branches lean over to kiss it having fallen in love with its smile. By the time we get to the end of the poem, the fountain has been so transformed by metaphors and comparisons that it is no longer a fountain but part of a larger verbal arabesque, and like the decoration adorning the walls of the Alhambra, is limited by neither time nor place. It is this limitlessness that gives the poem its universal flavour and allows us to perceive an underlying unity in nature through metaphors that both surprise and delight.
These poems were written in Arabic by poets in al-Andalus in close contact with the courts of the time. They are “educated” poems, products of a sophisticated and refined cultural environment with an undeniable debt to Arabic tradition. And this love of nature, not as an end in itself but as a source of inspiration leading –through metaphor– to a world of unexpected discoveries, is one that has marked Andalusian poets across the centuries: in Spain’s Golden Age for example, Góngora, and in the twentieth century, García Lorca, Rafael Alberti.
Al-Nowaihi, Magda The Poetry of Ibn Khafajah: A Literary Analysis Leiden 1993.
Bellamy, James & Patricia Owen Steiner Banners of the Champions. An Anthology of Medieval Arabic Poetry from Andalusia and Beyond Selected and transl. from the original Arabic of Ibn Said’s anthology. Madison 1989.
García Gómez, Emilio Poemas arabigoandaluces Mexico 1946. 3rd ed. (based on Ibn Said’s collection, The Banners of the Champions).
Jayyusi, Salma Khadra “Nature Poetry in al-Andalus and the Rise of Ibn Khafaja,” in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, ed by Jayyusi, Leiden1994, pp. 367-97.
Menocal, Rosa, Scheindlin, Raymond and Sells, Michael The Literature of Al-Andalus Cambridge 2000.