An Arabic Poem for an English King: Edward Pococke’s Verses to Charles II
The year 1660 saw the publication of Britannia Rediviva, a collection of poems written by fellows of the University of Oxford to commemorate the return of the exiled Charles II (r. 1660-1685) to England. 11 years earlier his father, Charles I (r.1625-1649) was convicted of treason and executed by the English parliament in the culmination of a nearly a decade of civil war in the country, thus abolishing the monarchy. However, the subsequent Republican project failed and Charles II was invited to ascend the throne, re-establishing the rule of the crown. The contributors to Britannia Rediviva included John Locke, and a 12-year-old John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who apologises to the monarch for his ‘distant homage’ on the grounds that ‘my youth… denies me to appear/ In Steel before You’. The poems cover a range of topics, including reflections on different modes of governance and lamentations over the previous decades of war and factionalism. All are united in their celebration of the return of Charles II and an end to rule by parliament. One aim of the collection was to show that the erudition and the learning of the Oxford colleges had been preserved, despite the sieges and purges suffered by the defiantly Royalist university during the civil war and period of parliamentary rule. This was displayed through the array of languages in which the poems were penned- in addition to English poems there are also Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic verses.
The sole Arabic poem of the collection was written by Edward Pococke (1604-1691), England’s eminent Arabic scholar of the seventeenth century and holder of the first Chair of Arabic at the university. Pococke’s years abroad as chaplain for the Levant Company in Aleppo, and later as the personal chaplain of the English ambassador at Constantinople, had furnished him with an expert grasp of the Arabic language. He returned to England in 1641 as the most accomplished arabist in the land, enabled by the instruction and friendship of tutors and book dealers of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths. The ensuing civil war and Interregnum was a particularly tumultuous time for him. Unashamedly Royalist, he was suffered to endure attempts from his enemies to deprive him of his living, and was only saved by the fact that he had allies and admirers of his scholastic ability among the Parliamentarians to petition on his behalf. The restoration of the monarchy, therefore, was a moment of profound joy and relief to Pococke, and he chose to commemorate it in the most impressive way he could- in a way that of all the king’s subjects, he alone was capable.
The poem itself is composed of seven rhyming verses in Arabic. Accompanying it is a Latin translation, also penned by Pococke. The Latin translation declares itself as ‘fere ad verbum [almost word for word]’ and there are differences, including the fact that Charles is named in the Latin version but not in the Arabic. The Latin translation also differs in that it does not rhyme. The poem features an extended metaphor of Charles II as the sun of England, and the people of England as having ‘tarried in darkness’ until his ‘rising sun has begun to shine’. Pococke addresses the monarch, describing the actual astronomical sun as merely ‘a model of you, O our sun!’. The glory of Charles II’s sunlight affects not only England but reaches ‘the whole Earth’. He ends the poem by expressing the wish that Charles reign will ‘continue to sire/ So long as there is on the horizon a fire’, thereby ensuring the preservation of the Restoration monarchy.
This poem represents a digression from the ordinary translation activities of arabists in Europe in this period. Aside from the composition of this poem, the primary activity of arabists was to translate Arabic texts into Latin or English, or to translate texts such as Biblical books, into Arabic. This poem, however, was not an academic exercise. It was an act of artistic creation. It was a creative feat that would have drawn on Pococke’s knowledge of the rich traditions of Arabic and English poetry, fusing the two together into something new that was both culturally English and Arabic. Pococke, in presenting this poem to his long hoped-for monarch, was also emphasising Arabic as important and beautiful in its own right, as opposed to its usual status among arabists as an ancilliary tool for the mastery of Hebrew. Pococke was giving Charles II his most precious and unique gift, in a language with the suitable loftiness and nobility to be presented to a king.
Long has tarried darkness and have eyes been blind
But with the rising sun light does shine
The Sun is a model of you O our sun!
With the eclipse your glory has won
Our eyes are struck by fountains of glow
You have met from us to you nothing low
Your glory is a constant breeze
Touching the land from West to East
One who has this state while concealed
How will he be when he is revealed?
Thus is the matter at the beginning when
There was darkness but comes day then
May your exalted glory continue to sire
So long as there is on the horizon a fire
With great thanks to Salman Hasan of Arabica Institute for his translation of the poem.
 Britannia Rediviva [Poems in Latin, Greek, English, Hebrew and Arabic, on the Restoration of King Charles II.] Oxoniae, 1660.