Salah Abdel-Sabour, left; T. S. Eliot, right

T. S. Eliot’s Influence Upon Salah Abdel-Sabour

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

The degree of influence of the Anglo-American poet, T.S. Eliot, on the Egypto-Arabic poet and dramatist, Salah Abdel-Sabour, has not yet been vastly explored. In this article, I shall not only attempt to compare the two poets in a more enlightened perspective, but I shall also probe the fundamental methodology governing a general comparative study. My approach includes the following:

1. A Valid Comparative Study and the Importance of Comparative Literature
2. Traditional Arabic Poetry
3. Why T.S. Eliot?
4. A Brief Summary of Eliot’s Background
5. A Brief Summary of Abdel Sabour’s Background
6. A Practical and Comparative Analysis of One of Sabour’s Poems
7. Abdel Sabour’s Departure from Traditional Arabic Poetry
8. A Brief Comparison between Two Plays
9. Conclusion

1. A Valid Comparative Study and the Importance of Comparative Literature

A fruitful and acceptable treatment of a subject which discusses the influence of one poet upon another must not stop at the limits of a shallow consideration of the most obvious similarities of forms, meanings, and techniques. It must go to the depths to consider the various elements that concern the sources of similarities, as well as the differences, in the light of the cultural backgrounds of the two poets. For example, a comparative study between Corneille and Racine, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Sabour and Mahmoud Darwish would not be valid for each pair of these poets or writers belongs to the same culture and submits to the same political and social atmospheres.

Comparative Literature is neither a literary comparison nor a mere translation of a foreign literature. It is, as Jean-Marie Carre says, a study of the international and spiritual relations between men and cultures. A meaningful comparative study requires two artists belonging to remote cultures, yet dealing with the same literary genre. The comparativist, thereby, investigates the major differences existing between the environments which produced habits, customs, and verbalization of thought. Again, it appears necessary to investigate the spiritual and material factors which establish the concepts of every culture. It is also necessary to determine the degree of understanding each poet has of his own literary tradition and to ascertain the extent to which his cultural heritage pervades his poetry. The political, religious, economical, and linguistic elements are important factors to be considered.

A microscopic study would be most needed here for the comparison of the poets themselves, their childhoods, schooling, and exposure to different streams of culture if any. Since the education of the modern poet should be a world horizon, the exploration of a foreign literature is a necessity now.

Finally, the study of each tradition alone is important to the understanding of each literature. It is impossible to conceive of a poet standing beyond the shadows of his culture. The native tongue of each poet is of such importance, for it grants him his poetic existence and it enriches the quality of his thoughts and feelings. In his own language, the poet must benefit from the memory that exists in words. His duty is to create the pulse in the heart of his language, to inspire the language and be inspired by it. Language also uses the poet; it takes over its continuity from him.

Comparativists perceive the literature of the world as one and indivisible. Art knows no boundaries, and feelings and thoughts immigrate without linguistic hindrances or socio-political limits. Literature as a whole is limited to the problems of man himself: his emotions, imagination, hopes, and sufferings.

As the politicians of the world run to the U.N. out of their fear of new wars, “so literary history and criticism have turned to Comparative Literature to absorb the shock of intellectual internationalism which the twentieth century technology, communication, political events have thrust as much on literature and literary study as on the circumstances from which they derive.”(1)

The winds of change are blowing everywhere, and men are calling each other through the deserts of separation. National boundaries are no longer acceptable. It is the duty of Comparative Literature to lessen these distances because as we learn more about man, we learn more about his universe . We must journey with Odysseus, cry out with Oedipus, rage with King Lear, laugh with Don Quixote, and love with Don Juan.(2) We must embrace humanity and celebrate the universality of man, his joys and his anguish.

Although there is much controversy concerning the definition of Comparative Literature, nevertheless, all critics agree that it is of vital importance. For whatever it is or ought to be, Comparative Literature continues to be studied and taught in increasing volumes.

One of the most demanding needs of our time is the quest for more imagination and more emotion so that we can appreciate others and sympathize with ways of life different from our own. There are hungry people in Latin America, serious wars and uprisings in the Middle East, over-population in India and natural disasters in many places in the world. How can we not feel with our fellow men? Only Comparative Literature will sharpen our ears to the loud cries to our brothers in humanity and will produce a universal man. Only a man with world literature in his bones can transcend his national vanity and pride and is capable of winning the battle between the human spirit and modern technological society.

In our time, people are very closely linked. It is a crime against ourselves and against humanity to neglect any part of the world, if only for the selfish reasons of our survival. After all, we live in a global world today. We should always recall Montesquieu’s words, for as he proclaimed, if one knows something useful to oneself, to one’s family, and to one’s country, but not to mankind as a whole, it must be rejected and viewed as a crime.

2. Traditional Arabic Poetry

The Arabic language is Semitic. As every other language in the world, it has its own peculiarities and characteristics. What is special about the Arabic language is that the Arabs, especially the Moslems, consider their language as God’s tongue. Moreover, the language consists of an extremely rich vocabulary, yet etymologically, many of its words are derived from a single stem, a fact which contributed a significant and lasting effect on the structure of Arabic poetry.

Arabic poetry emerged to the light of literary history around the sixth century A.D. in a metrical form which is still considered perfect. This is known as the classical or traditional poetry which was, and still continues to be, ruled by rigid laws concerning its prosody.(3)

Arabic prosody consists of sixteen different meters. The classical poem is composed of verses, each containing two hemistiches. The two hemistiches do not usually rhyme with each other, but all the verses in the poem follow the same rhyme. Moreover, each line has to convey a complete idea by itself. This allowed the critics, especially the Orientalists, to say that any arbitrary arrangement of the verses would not corrupt the whole meaning of the poem. The unity of the poem cannot be noticed in its structure but actually in the psychological and spiritual atmosphere which covers all the verses. The number of lines is not limited, it is left to the poet’s own choice. A classical poem cannot contain less than seven verses, which means a minimum of fourteen hemistiches. The maximum could be a sum of a hundred and ten verses or so. (4)

A traditional poem starts with an invocation in which the poet is usually accompanied by two of his friends who share his suffering due to a lost love. After this beginning which constitutes up to eight lines, the poet describes his journey in the desert alone and everything that he encounters: camels, horses, sand, night, the rain storm, etc. Finally he reveals his main theme and reaches the end of his poem. The subject matter is centered around the traditional subjects of every day events concerning personal or tribal life: wars, adventures, death, hospitality, generosity, and bravery.(5) The traditional poem, for the most part, dominated the literary scene until the 1940s. The continuity of the tradition is best exemplified by the Iraqi poet, Ma’ruf al-Rasafi, who died in 1945.(6)

3. Why T.S. Eliot?

Today, the Arab scholar, who since 1943 has been increasingly influenced by Western culture, believes that to master only his literature is not enough. He has to know Western culture, accept it, and familiarize himself with its concepts and theories. Although it is true that this step was completely refused by his ancestors who had never been exposed to Western influence, it is also true that the new Arab generation is anxious to fill its mind with these Western sources of knowledge.

Having studied modern Arabic literature and having read Eliot’s works and criticism, one will find an unmistakable influence of the latter on contemporary Arabic poetry and criticism. The careful reader will find that other Western (American and European) poets and critics have left their great impact on Arabic poetry. However, no one will fail to see Eliot’s greatest influence.(7)

It is the cry of despair and the color of pessimism in Eliot which spreads to the heart of modern Arabic poetry. The Arab poets accepted it; they sympathized with this mood. Eliot spoke for them. In him, they found their voice. He mirrored their hopes and agony.

The educated Arabs today feel a wide and deep distance between their shining past and their dark present. From the ninth to the thirteenth centuries they were the authors of civilization. The enlightenment of the West was based on the achievement of the Arab world. The seeds of learning (medicine, art, philosophy, algebra) were planted and grown by the Arabs and reaped by Europe in the fifteenth century. Consequently, the Western Renaissance started in Spain and Italy. All of the modern Arab poets, especially Abdel Sabour, are aware of this frustrating reality. Sabour constantly lived with this disappointment since the beginning of his career.

The dismay of the modern Arab generation goes back to 1258 A.D. when Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, was sacked by the Mongols. Holaco burned its great library and scattered the inhabitants of Baghdad. In 1492 the Arabs in Andalusia surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1517, when the Turks defeated Egypt, the Arab civilization was lost. Then came the tragedy of 1948.

Among these continuous disasters, the Arab poet lost faith in his politicians and in his values. His outlook toward his civilization became spiritually, culturally, and morally grim. His modern life turned into a hell of horrible consciousness. With the pessimism that prevailed, the moment became propitious for the Arab poet to adopt Eliot’s sorrowful vision, for Eliot, more than any other poet, depicted his wasteland. As A.G. George poignantly notes, Eliot, not only reflects the disillusionment of his own generation, but that of all human beings. (8)


1 Rene Etiemble, The Crisis In Comparative Literature, trans. Herbert Weisinger and George Joyaux, East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 1966. p.i.
2 Etiemble, p. xvi.
3 M. M. Badawi, A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1975, pp. 2-6.
أنظر مثلا كتاب الدكتور شوقي ضيف: “العصر الجاهلي: تاريخ الأدب العربي” الطبعة الخامسة. دار المعارف بمصر1971, ص 189 226.
5 Mounah A. Khouri and Hamid Algar (trans., ed.) An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1974, pp. 3-5.
6 Khalil I.H. Semaan. “T.S. Eliot’s Influence on Arabic Poetry and Theater.” In Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. VI, No. 4, Urbana. The University of Illinois Press. 1969, p. 476.
7 It was Luwis Awad who introduced Eliot to the Arab reader in 1946 in a long article published in al-Katib al-Misri. Badawi, pp. 224-25.
8 A. G. George, T.S. Eliot: His Mind and Art, Bombay, np, 1962, p. 15.

to be continued