More on Lehi's desert poetry

More on Lehi's desert poetry

Lehi's qaṣidah

If the earliest desert poems were songs inspired by the fair sight of running water, no one today knows the form they took. But it can be conjectured from the earliest known form of Semitic verse that that form was the sajʿ, a short exhortation or injunction spoken with such solemnity and fervor as to fall into a sort of chant. Examples of this would be magical incantations, curses, and the formal pronouncements of teachers, priests, and judges. From the earliest times the sajʿ was the form in which inspiration and revelation announced themselves. 24 Though the speaker of the sajʿ did not aim consciously at metrical form, his words were necessarily more than mere prose, and were received by their hearers as poetry. The sajʿ had the effect, we are told, of overawing the hearer completely, and was considered absolutely binding on the person to whom it was addressed, its aim being to compel action.25

Lehi's words to his sons take just this form of short, solemn, rhythmical appeal. The fact that the speech to Laman exactly matches that to his brother shows that we have here such a formal utterance as the sajʿ. The proudest boast of the desert poet is, "I utter a verse and after it its brother," for the consummation of the poetic art was to have two verses perfectly parallel in form and content. Few ever achieved this, and Ibn Qutaiba observes that the usual verse is followed not by a "brother" but at best by a "cousin."26 Yet Lehi seems to have carried it off. Of the moral fervor and didactic intent of his recitation there can be no doubt; the fact that Nephi recounts the episode in a record in which there is, as he says, only room for great essentials, shows what a deep impression it made upon him.

In addressing his sons in what looks like a little song, Lehi is doing just what Isaiah does (Isaiah 5:1-7) when he speaks to Israel in a shirat dodi, "a friendly chant," a popular song about a vine which, once the hearer's attention has been won, turns into a very serious moral tirade. 27 On another occasion, as we have noted, he employs the popular figure of the olive tree. The stock opening line of the old desert poems is, "O my two beloved ones! (or friends)," an introduction which, says Ibn Qutaiba, should be avoided, "since only the ancients knew how to use it properly, uniting a gentle and natural manner with the grandiose and magnificent." 28 Lehi's poem is an example of what is meant: he addresses his two sons separately but each with the peculiar and typical Arabic vocative "O that thou . . . !" (Ya laitaka), and describes the river and valley in terms of unsurpassed brevity and simplicity and in the vague and sweeping manner of the real desert poets, of whom Burton says, "There is a dreaminess of idea and a haze thrown over the object, infinitely attractive, but indescribable."29 Lehi's language is of this simple, noble, but hazy kind.

According to Richter, the best possible example of the primitive Arabic qaṣid (the name given to the oldest actual poetry of the desert) is furnished by those old poems in which one's beloved is compared to a land "in which abundant streams flow down . . . with rushing and swirling, so that the water overflows every evening and continually."30 Here the "continually flowing" water is compared to the person addressed, as in Lehi's "song" to Laman. The original qaṣid, the same authority avers, was built around the beseeching (werbenden, hence the name qaṣid) motif, not necessarily erotic in origin, as was once thought, but dealing rather with praise of virtue in general (Tugendlob).31 Ibn Qutaiba even claims that the introductory love theme was merely a device to gain attention of male listeners and was not at all the real stuff of the poem. The standard pattern is a simple one: (a) the poet's attention is arrested by some impressive natural phenomenon, usually running water; (b) this leads him to recite a few words in its praise, drawing it to the attention of a beloved companion of the way; and (c) making it an object lesson for the latter, who is urged to be like it. Burton gives a good example: at the sight of the Wady al-Akik the nomad poet is moved to exclaim,

O my friend, this is Akik, then stand by it,
Endeavoring to be distracted by love, if not really a lover.

This seems to be some sort of love song, albeit a peculiar one, and some have claimed that all the old qaṣidas were such.32 But Burton and his Arabs know the real meaning, "the esoteric meaning of this couplet," as he calls it, which quite escapes the western reader and is to be interpreted:

Man! This is a lovely portion of God's creation:
Then stand by it, and here learn to love the perfections of thy Supreme Friend.33

Compare this with Lehi's appeal to Lemuel:

O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast,
and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!

Note the parallel. In each case the poet, wandering in the desert with his friends, is moved by the sight of a pleasant valley, a large wady with water in it; he calls the attention of his beloved companion to the view, and appeals to him to learn a lesson from the valley and "stand by it," firm and unshakable in the love of the ways of the Lord. Let us briefly list the exacting conditions fulfilled by Nephi's account of his father's qaṣidas and demanded of the true and authentic desert poet of the earliest period:

  1. They are Brunnenlieder or Quellenlieder, as the Germans call them, that is, songs inspired by the sight of water gushing from a spring or running down a valley.
  2. They are addressed to one or (usually) two traveling companions.
  3. They praise the beauty and the excellence of the scene, calling it to the attention of the hearer as an object lesson.
  4. The hearer is urged to be like the thing he beholds.34
  5. The poems are recited extempore on the spot and with great feeling.
  6. They are very short, each couplet being a complete poem in itself. 35
  7. One verse must be followed by its "brother," making a perfectly matched pair.

Here we have beyond any doubt all the elements of a situation of which no westerner in 1830 had the remotest conception. Lehi stands before us as something of a poet, as well as a great prophet and leader, and that is as it should be. The "poetic art of David," says Professor Montgomery, "has its complement in the early Arabic poets, . . . some of whom themselves were kings."36


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 21, references silently removed—consult original for citations.