syair

The syair is a form of traditional poetry from the Malay-speaking world. The earliest examples come from the 1600s, authored by the Sumatran Sufi poet Hamzah Fansuri; he may well have been the inventor of the form.

Most syair are narrative poems, describing events, fictional, historical or anecdotal. They may also be didactic, conveying ideas of religion or philosophy.

Often, they are not read silently; instead, performers sit before the audience with an open book and sing the verses aloud. The form may thus be said to straddle both oral and written literature.

Contents

  • 1Structure
  • 2Conventions
  • 3Examples

Structure[edit]

Syair are made up of stanzas of four lines of the same length, usually four or five beats. The rhyme scheme is AAAA. 

Syair lines often begin with stressed syllables and end with unstressed rhyming syllables, e.g. “orang” is an acceptable rhyme for “wayang”; “button” is an acceptable rhyme for “melon”. This is by no means a rule; stress does not play a major role in the Malay language

English adaptations and translations often use an alternative rhyme scheme, e.g. AABB or ABAB, or even blank verse. 

Conventions[edit]

Syair usually begin and end with a supplication to God.

In terms of contents, they often tell fantastical tales of beautiful princesses and heroic warriors. (Often, the two are one and the same.) As they were invented in maritime trading centres, they often boast a cosmopolitan cast of characters. Others are more factual, giving historical reports of recent and historical events.

Consider the following examples of major syair.


  • Syair Bidasari / The Epic of Bidasari (anonymous, c. 1750), about a beautiful princess, abandoned by her mother whose life is attached to a golden fish. An evil queen kills her by turning the fish into a necklace, but the fish breaks out when the queen takes a bath. The princess returns to life.
  • Syair Sinyor Kosta (Sultan Mahmud Baharuddin, before 1821), about a Portuguese clerk who seduces the Burmese wife of a Chinese merchant with the help of her Balinese handmaiden.
  • Syair Siti Zubaidah Perang Cina / The Syair of Siti Zubaidah’s War on China (anonymous c. 1840), about a Malay princess who disguises herself as a man and wages a war on China to rescue her husband.
  • Syair Singapura Terbakar / The Syair of Burnt Singapore (Munsyi Abdullah, 1843), about a great fire in 1830.
  • Syair Abdul Muluk / The Syair of Abdul Muluk (Raja Ali Haji or Salehah Ali Haji, 1847), about a princess who disguises herself as a man and wages war on India to rescue her husband.
  • Syair Lampung Karam / The Tale of Lampung Submerged (Muhammad Saleh, 1883), the only surviving firsthand account of the eruption of Krakatoa.

Examples[edit]



From Syair Siti Zubaidah Perang Cina / The Syair of Siti Zubaidah’s War on China, trans. Lalita Sinha:


Adapun raja Cina yang bahari, 

puteranya tujuh orang puteri, 

semuanya perempuan muda bestari, 

baik parasnya sedang ugahari. 

The Chinese king, exceedingly handsome, 
and all his daughters, royal princesses seven, 
each one of them a well-bred young maiden, 
faces delightful, yet tempered by moderation.

From Syair Sinyor Kosta, by Sultan Muhammad Baharuddin, trans. Muhammad Haji Salleh

She is the mountain of his life
The pulse that beats in his very strife
Sinyor Kosta desires her for himself
For without her he may not survive.

From Syair Lampung Karam / Krakatau: The Tale of Lampung Submerged, Muhammad Saleh, trans. John H McGlynn

Bismillah itu merulaan kata,
Alhamdulillah puji yang nyata,
Berkat Muhammad penghulu kita,
Fakir mengarang suatu cerita.

Fakir yang daif dagang yang hina,
Mengarang syair sebarang guna,
Sajaknya janggal banyak tal kena,
Daripada akal tida sempurna.

Jikalau ada khilaf dan sesat,
Janganlah, Tuan, sahaya diumpat,
Diambil kalam dicecah da’wat,
Hati meningkatkan tangan menyurat.

“In the name of God” is our opening phrase;
To show our devotion, to Allah give praise.
By the light of Mohammad, our spiritual guide,
This humble servant may his tale transcribe.

Though I’m only a tradesman of humble birth,
I’ve composed a poem, for what it’s worth,
A clumsy effort, of uncertain rhyme,
The modest product of an imperfect mind.

If I get things wrong or from the tale veer,
I pray you’ll be kind and will not jeer.
With pen in hand, I dip the nip in ink,
Moving my fingers in order to think.

From Sya’ir to Singapore, by Gene Sha Rudyn

With new land in sight, they sailed out to sea,
Leaving history, home and family.
The sea, then disturbed, fought to remedy;
Replied with anger, blood-starved fury.

The storm rose with might; a grandiose show.
It seemed for certain, to sink, they were doomed.
Nakhoda ordered, “Bail hard! Grab and throw
All things overboard!” as their drowning loomed.

Utama decrowned, “My rights sacrificed.”
Nakhoda said, “My loyalty’s assured.”
Peaceful Tumasik, which had, them, enticed,
Calmed down the spirits the storm had astirred.


References:



Gene Sha Rudyn. Sya’ir to Singapore. Singapore: self-published, 2017.


Muhammad Saleh, Krakatau : the tale of Lampung submerged. Singapore: NUS Press; Jakarta: Lontar, 2014.

Sinha, Lalita. “Lessons in Engagement from a Malay Classic: the Translation of Syair Siti Zubaidah Perang China”. Kajian Malaysia, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2010. Accessed from http://web.usm.my/km/28(1)2010/km%20art%201(1-19).pdf


Starkweather, CC, M. Devic and Aristide Marre. The Epic of Bidasari. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books, 2012.


Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. The Origin of the Malay Sha'ir. Kuala Lumpur: Tadib International, 2018.


Teeuw, A. A Merry Senhor in the Malay World : Four Texts of the Syair Sinyor Kosta. Leiden: KITLV, 2004.


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