The Elegy as Double-Edged Sword: Jarīr’s Rithā' to his Wife

By Cynthia Brandenburg
Submitted to Session P4379 (Purpose, Cross-Purpose, Re-Purpose: Performance and Politics in the Classical Arabic Qasida, 2016 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
When critics of Arabic literature consider Arabic invective, the Umayyad poet, Jarīr, springs to mind along with his two contemporary rivals, al-Farazdaq and al-Akhṭal. However, when elegy is the subject matter, despite the importance of this particular genre and the classical claim that its composition is one of the markings of a true poet, few scholars would propose the name of Jarīr as a major contributor to this genre. If one were to persist in seeking this aim of praising the dead in the poetry of Jarīr, one poem would be on everyone’s lips, Jarīr’s elegy to his first wife, Khālidah, a rā‛iyyah commencing with the words, “law lā al-hayā’ ” or “But for the ignominy [the deluge of tears would return]”.

The poem’s opening and the gharaḍ seem clear: lament of the beloved and a literal weeping over the ruins, the new abode of the beloved: Khālidah’s gravesite. The lyrical nature of the opening has the power to bring the listener to tears as well as the tragic figure of the poet. But this 115-line poem has another seemingly antithetical aim: cutting invective of rivals al-Ba‛īth and his most-favored target, al-Farazdaq, leaving the listener pondering over the nature of the poet’s true intent. Is the gharaḍ elegy or invective? This appropriation of the tender, elegiac gharaḍ to serve as a 'lyrical sword' to strike a fatal blow to the opponent for the ultimate gharaḍ of invective has not been adequately treated by scholars of Jarīr or those researching the emergence of Umayyad invective forms.

Current scholarship on invective is in danger of becoming too distracted by the scatological humor that serves as the seemingly playful barbs of invective and, by so doing, risks missing an invective poem’s true lyrical power. In this paper, drawing on contemporary theories in linguistics and other disciplines, I will seek to show how the most eternal invective and immortal fame of the poet depends not on the invective alone, not on the scatological theatre of the obscene, but rather on the aesthetic pairing of lyric elegy and cutting invective.