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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

War Songs

ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād

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To purchase War Songs

Title: War Songs
Author: ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād
Genre: Poems
Written: ca. 6th cent. (Eng. 2018)
Length: 237 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: War Songs - US
War Songs - US (bilingual ed.)
War Songs - UK
War Songs - Canada
  • Translated by James E. Montgomery with Richard Sieburth
  • With a Foreword by Peter Cole
  • Also available in a dual-language edition

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Our Assessment:

B : well-presented collection of fascinating but alien poetry

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 12/4/2019 Amir-Hussein Radjy

  From the Reviews:
  • "In James E. Montgomery’s new translation of War Songs, ʿAntarah is less the besotted knight of Arab legend, and far more like an angry, preening Greek hurling spears at Hector. (...) Ferocity Montgomery’s ʿAntarah does well, but the romanticism of Jones isn’t wrong either." - Amir-Hussein Radjy, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       War Songs collects forty-three poems (mostly) attributed to ʿAntarah from three redactions/anthologies/recensions, as well as eight poems from the lengthy The Epic of ʿAntar -- a massive later epic featuring ʿAntar and his exploits (i.e. about, rather than by him). ʿAntarah's poetry is pre-Islamic, from the earliest flourishing of Arabic poetry, and ʿAntarah himself among the most prominent of the 'warrior-poets' of those times.
       As James E. Montgomery explains in his Introduction:

     The elite warriors of sixth-century Maʿadd chose to express their views of the world, their war culture, and their ethos in qasida poetry, which is poetry composed in a prestige language (classical Arabic) in works of varying length and complexity, from simple poems to complex odes.
       Each poem is preceded by a brief paragraph, generally just a line or two, situating and summarizing it, a generally helpful entry, often also pointing out specific significant aspects of the poem -- though there's a tendency to get overly adulatory in them as well, as poems are introduced as: "A brilliant and vividly concise victory ode" or: "a narrative that showcases several dazzlingly executed conceits". Occasionally, there's refreshing honesty: 'Death and Revenge' is: "a short poem that is obscure and difficult to understand in the absence of further information and context".
       An interesting complement to these is the prefaces collected in one of the volumes three appendices -- "translations of the narratives and comments that the commentators provide as prefaces to the poems they cite", many of which offer some additional information and context about the poems.
       Occasionally, these introductory notes also point to difficulties of translation: 'The Half-Blood' is presented as an: "obscure and coarse piece, the translation of which is conjectural", for example, while translator Montgomery also elucidates some of the translation choices in his endnotes -- in the case of this particular poems explaining there:
I construe these obscure phrases, which are lexically unusual, as oaths referring to the female genitalia, in the style of the utterances of the pre-Islamic seers (kuhhān).
       He discusses the translation of this volume as a whole at greater length in the introductory 'A Note on the Text', a fascinating account of process and how this collection came to be, and the collective effort behind it. In summary: several workshops were held, resulting in many variations on the poems; Peter Cole noted of the then final version Montgomery came up with that it was missing: "a consistent voice", which resulted in an extensive reworking of the texts with the input of Richard Sieburth and, finally, this collection.
       Translating this classical Arabic poetry is, no doubt, an incredible challenge; short literal translations of particular phrases and verses Montgomery presents in his endnotes suggest some of the enormous leaps and choices that were made here. Several times the introductory notes to the poems note they are "pithy", and indeed much of the language here feels pared down: there is little elaborate ornateness here; instead, these poems get to the quick -- and quickly. This presumably reflects the originals, but is more difficult in contemporary English, where much of the context of the day is unfamiliar, indeed unrecognizable. The introductory notes and endnotes do provide some useful context -- and Montgomery's Introduction to ʿAntarah and his times and work is also very helpful --, but obviously there is a great deal that remains beyond the ken of the reader; while the poems, as presented, are, on one level accessible, it's clear that a lot to them isn't.
       Dominated by war- and battle-focused verse, these 'War Songs' do often resonate on that very fundamental level. The collection certainly starts off well, the first line of the first poems wondering:
Did poetry die in its war with the poets ?
       Primarily a warrior, ʿAntarah also identifies as a poet -- indeed, often combines the two, rubbing it in to his foes, as in the boast:
Like a volcano, I'll spew
     poems that long
after my death
     will find and hold you
up to shame.
       He certainly pounds home his ethos, too:
Our souls take their course.
     The Fates claim their due.
The best way to die ?
     In battle.
       Unsurprisingly, there's a great deal of vanquishing in these poems:
Covered in glory, I returned
     with the head of their mighty chief
all defiance strewn behind me,
     hacked to pieces.
       There's a dash of romance in the collection too, as many of the poems address or refer to ʿAblah, ʿAntarah's unreachable ideal, a poetic device ʿAntarah uses well.
       Occasionally, the translators hit on particularly nice expression: "My soul has been mired / in battlemurk", for example. Elsewhere, there are also some modern phrasings that seem simply jarring, such as: "Has your sorry ass come to kill me ?"
       At its best, the verses transcend place and time, such as in the poem Montgomery describes as; "A pithy summation of ʿAntarah's war ethic", reading in its entirety:
Wishes rarely
     come true.
Everything takes
     its course.
Death always
     finds a way.
       Montgomery and Sieburth have achieved a welcome consistency to the poems, helping give the collection a unified feel. Short, often dense, many of the poems still can feel somewhat elusive; still, much here -- and especially this idea of warrior-poets, focused on battle but also reflective -- comes across well.
       War Songs is a well-presented collection, with useful supplementary material, from the introductory matter to the appendices. It does feel like an appropriate presentation of ʿAntarah, a larger than life figure about whom little is actually known: he lives on more as myth than man, and these poems -- forceful but also elusive -- very much reïnforce that sense.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 March 2019

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War Songs: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād (عنترة بن شداد) lived in the sixth century.

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