The Anthologist's Art: Abu Mansur al-Tha'alibi and His Yatimat al-dahr.

AuthorTalib, Adam
PositionBook review

The Anthologist's Art: Abu Mansur al-Tha'alibi and His Yatimat al-dahr. By BILAL ORFALI. Brill Studies in Middle Eastern Literatures, vol. 37. Leiden: BRILL, 2016. Pp. xx + 271. $135, [euro]104.

Bilal Orfali's study is an important work of literary scholarship. It is important both for its detailed account of al-Tha'alibi's career (his works, his methods, and his legacy) as well as for the attention it pays to an exemplar of a genre that has played a critical role in the development and preservation of classical Arabic poetic and literary traditions. It is no exaggeration to say that without premodern anthologies, historians of Arabic poetry and literature would be lost or--worse than lost--untethered. In addition to their paramount service as repositories of the better part of what we now call the classical Arabic poetic tradition, these anthologies have also served to ground our field in a native, premodern sensibility. This grounding has often led to scholarship that is at best derivative and at worst slavish, but it has also given modern scholars an unparalleled perspective into what the Arabic literary canon was and how it was formed.

Few world literary traditions enjoy as much contemporary evidence for literary taste, poetic biography, and textual preservation as can be found in classical Arabic poetry anthologies, and al-Tha'alibi's Yatimat al-dahr is an exceptional work within that corpus. It is exceptional for its scope, bringing together information about poets from the eastern portion of the Arabophone world in the eleventh century, as well as for its influence: the pattern of biographical anthologies that it inaugurated would be productively adopted by anthologists in subsequent centuries. Despite its importance in literary historical terms, al-Tha'alibi's anthology (and its companion, the Tatimma) has received relatively little attention, notwithstanding the work of Everett Rowson and S. A. Bonebakker in the 1980s. The same is true of most premodern Arabic anthologies, including the best-known works in the tradition, such as the Mufaddediyyat, Asma'iyyat, Diwan al-Hamasa, and Kitdb al-Aghani. Abu Tammam's Hamasa is special in that it is a great anthology by a great poet and there is no doubt that it is partly for that reason that it has received the most sophisticated analytical attention in modern scholarship (see, for instance, Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, Abu Tammam and the Poetics of the 'Abbasid Age [Leiden: E. J. Brill...

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