The Akond of Swat and the Ghazal

A.E. Stalling has a very interesting post on Edward Lear on her blog at Poetry Foundation. After a short general introduction, she states that

The Akond of Swat, […] with its strict adherence to the form and “exotic” eastern locale, [… is] a ghazal, and consciously so.

The idea, as far as I know, was first advanced by Julie Rybicki in an e-mail to the Edward Lear mailing list on 23 June 2002:

Post the formalism conference I attended, I was/am reading a book called “An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art” (Edited by Annie Finch & Kathrine Varnes. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2002, (USA). I was reading the chapter called “Ghazal: To Be Teased into DisUnity” by Agha Shahid Ali and the form sounded very familiar–and I realized that Lear’s “TheAkond of Swat” fit the form almost perfectly. (Though Lear used twiceas many rhymes than the form requires.)

Put simply, the ghazal is a Middle Eastern poetry form where there are two line stanzas, interchangeable in order, that all end with the same word or phrase. (“The Akond of Swat”). Right before this 2nd line “chorus” is a monorhyme (In Lear, “squat, hot, trot, cot, dot, blot, plot,” etc.)

Even Lear’s suggestions for how the poem should be read/performed(having the chorus shouted out, p. 526 of Noakes’ notes in “TheComplete Verse and Other Nonsense”) sound like the traditional way Ghazals were performed with a poet and an audience. Since Lear composed the poem in India, one of the countries where Ghazals have been traditionally written, it is possible he ran into some ghazals in his travels and borrowed the form.

Or not, who knows. But I always thought that poem had a very unusual form and it’s interesting that the form pre-existed Lear’s poem. (The form is medieval.)

Julie’s opinion that the Akond of Swat fits “almost perfectly” a ghazal is, in my opinion, to be preferred to Stalling’s firm statement, following which she even identifies a particular form of Ghazal as the source:

Actually, when I approached Dick Davis, the poet and Persian scholar, about the ghazal-ness of the “Akond of Swat,” he agreed with me, but pointed out that “To be really picky Lear probably meant the poem as a qasideh, not a ghazal. The qasideh and ghazal are formally identical (except the qasideh is usually much longer than the ghazal) and are distinguished by subject matter – the ghazal being erotic/lyrical, the qasideh being a praise poem. The A of S is clearly a mock praise poem.”

Lear’s poem certainly sounds like a ghazal, but if we consider its lineation several differences crop up. The ghazal is a “short poem in lyric form” and consists of a limited number of couplets (bayt, pl. abayat), usually between 5 and 17, each of which ends with the same words (radif) preceded by the rhyme proper (qafiya); the first couplet (matla) respects these restrictions in both lines, the last (maqta) very often contains a reference to the poet’s name: a sort of signature (L.P. Elwell-Sutton, The Persian Metres. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976, p. 245). Here is a modern example by Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), Ghazal (for Daniel Hall), it first appeared in the Boston Review (24.2, April-May 1999):

I’ll do what I must if I’m bold in real time.
A refugee, I’ll be parolled in real time.

Cool evidence clawed off like shirts of hell-fire?
A former existence untold in real time . . .

The one you would choose: were you led then by him?
What longing, O Yaar, is controlled in real time?

Each syllable sucked under waves of our earth–
The funeral love comes to hold in real time!

They left him alive so that he could be lonely–
The god of small things is not consoled in real time.

Please afterwards empty my pockets of keys–
It’s hell in the city of gold in real time.

God’s angels again are-for Satan-forlorn.
Salvation was bought but sin sold in real time.

The throat of the rearview and sliding down it
the Street of Farewell’s now unrolled in real time.

I heard the incessant dissolving of silk-
I felt my heart growing so old in real time.

Her heart must be ash where her body lies burned.
What hope lets your hands rake the cold in real time?

Dear Friend, the Belovèd has stolen your words–
Read slowly: the plot will unfold in real time.

This ghazal consists of eleven abayat, the qafiya (|-old|) and radif (“in real time”) recur in lines 1-2 (the matla), 4, 6 and so on.

In order to read The Akond of Swat as a ghazal we must take the refrain “the Akond of Swat” as the radif; Lear however has increased the complexity, and the comic effect, of the metre by choosing a qafiya (“squat,” “hot,” “trot,” and so on) which rhymes with the radif and having them preceded by a separately rhyming couplet. The main difference from the strict ghazal is the fact that the qafiya and radif are added to the couplet structure rather than “forming an integral part” of the second line (Elwell-Sutton, The Persian Metres, p. 225).

Lear had probably seen a number of ghazals in Englsh as there had been a fad for Persian poetry at the turn of the century; however there was no consensus on the form such translations should take and most had used widely differing metres.

After discussing the idea with Julie, and planning an article on the subject which was never completed, we came to the conclusion that the metre of the Akond had a much more complex origin than the simple imitation of an eastern verse form, but of this more in a future post.

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1 Response to The Akond of Swat and the Ghazal

  1. Pingback: The Akhond Illustrated | A Blog of Bosh

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