« PreviousContinue »
have continued, we know, from the time of SoLOMON to the prefent age, were by no means favourable to the cultivation of arts; and, as to fciences, we have no reason to believe, that they were acquainted with any; for the mere amusement of giving names to ftars, which were useful to them in their paftoral or predatory rambles through the deserts, and in their observations on the weather, can hardly be confidered as a material part of aftronomy. The only arts, in which they pretended to excellence (I except horfemanship and military accomplishments) were poetry and rhetorick: that we have none of their compofitions in profe before the Koran, may be ascribed, perhaps, to the little skill, which they seem to have had, in writing; to their predilection in favour of poetical measure, and to the facility, with which verses are committed to memory; but all their ftories prove, that they were eloquent in a high degree, and poffeffed wonderful powers of fpeaking without preparation in flowing and forcible periods. I have never been able to discover, what was meaned by their books, called Rawásim, but suppose, that they were collections of their common, or customary, law. Writing was fo little practised among them, that their old poems, which are now acceffible to us, may almost be confidered
as originally unwritten; and I am inclined to think, that SAMUEL JOHNSON's reasoning, on the extreme imperfection of unwritten languages, was too general; fince a language, that is only spoken, may nevertheless be highly polished by a people, who, like the ancient Arabs, make the improvement of their idiom a national concern, appoint folemn affemblies for the purpose of displaying their poetical talents, and hold it a duty to exercise their children in getting by heart their most approved compofitions.
The people of Yemen had poffibly more mechanical arts, and, perhaps, more fcience; but, although their ports must have been the emporia of confiderable commerce between Egypt and India or part of Perfia, yet we have no certain proofs of their proficiency in navigation or even in manufactures. That the Arabs of the defert had musical instruments, and names for the different notes, and that they were greatly delighted with melody, we know from themselves; but their lutes and pipes were probably very fimple, and their mufick, I fufpect, was little more than a natural and tuneful recitation of their elegiack verfes and love-fongs. The fingular property of their language, in fhunning compound words, may be urged, according to BACON's idea, as a proof, that they had made
no progress in arts, which require, fays he, a ⚫ variety of combinations to exprefs the complex notions arising from them;' but the fingularity may perhaps be imputed wholly to the genius of the language, and the taste of those, who spoke it; since the old Germans, who knew no art, appear to have delighted in compound words, which poetry and oratory, one would conceive, might require as much as any meaner art whatsoever.
So great, on the whole, was the strength of parts or capacity, either natural or acquired from habit, for which the Arabs were ever diftinguished, that we cannot be furprized, when we see that blaze of genius, which they displayed, as far as their arms extended, when they burst, like their own dyke of Arim, through their ancient limits, and spread, like an inundation, over the great empire of Iràn. That a race of Tázis, or Courfers as the Perfians call them, who drank
the milk of camels and fed on lizards, fhould • entertain a thought of fubduing the kingdom of FERIDUN' was confidered by the General of YEZDEGIRD's army as the strongest instance of fortune's levity and mutability; but FIRDAUSI, a complete master of Afiatick manners, and fingularly impartial, reprefents the Arabs, even in the age of FERIDUN, as disclaiming
kind of dependence on that monarch, exulting in their liberty, delighting in eloquence, acts of liberality, and martial achievements, * and thus making the whole earth, fays the poet, 'red as wine with the blood of their foes, and the air like a foreft of canes with their tall
fpears.' With fuch a character they were likely to conquer any country, that they could invade; and, if ALEXANDER had invaded their dominions, they would unquestionably have made an obftinate, and probably a fuccessful, resistance.
But I have detained you too long, gentlemen, with a nation, who have ever been my favourites, and hope at our next anniversary meeting to travel with you over a part of Asia, which exhibits a race of men diftinct both from the Hindus and from the Arabs. In the mean time it shall be my care to fuperintend the publication of your transactions, in which, if the learned in Europe have not raised their expectations too high, they will not, I believe, be disappointed: my own imperfect effays I always except; but, though my other engagements have prevented my attendance on your fociety for the greatest part of last year, and I have set an example of that freedom from reftraint, without which no fociety can flourish, yet, as my few hours of leisure