{1,3} Commentary page


Everybody agrees that the meanings of dam as 'breath, life' and 'edge (of a sword)' are relevant to this verse. For after all, they're both explicitly invoked in it: the 'breath' meaning by the reference to the sword's 'breast, chest', and the 'edge' meaning because it's right there, by definition, in the basic physical structure of the sword.

But as Owen Cornwall has kept pointing out to me, dam also means, in Arabic, 'blood'. Platts also gives this sense as an Urdu word, though it's certainly not one in common use. Should this sense too enter into our understanding of the verse? In its favor, it's certainly relevant, in some general wordplay sense. On the other hand, a sword always by definition has an edge; and this particular sword has a 'breast' (since the verse gives it one) and thus can readily have a 'breath' of life. But does a sword, or this sword in particular, have 'blood'? We get no 'warrant' from the verse for saying so; this sense isn't activated, or invoked, or potentiated, like the others. (Here's a verse that could well be said to have such a warrant: {219,2}.)

Does it matter whether Ghalib and his original audience knew that dam means 'blood' in Arabic (and, at least technically, in Urdu, according to Platts)? In the case of Ghalib, I know of no evidence as to whether he did or not. It's conceivable that some kind of affirmative evidence might turn up (for example, some kind of poetic discussion in a letter in which he would cite this meaning specifically, thus showing that he knew it); but failing that, there's no way of telling. Did his original audience know it? The task of trying to figure out how to suitably define this 'audience', and how to make any kind of generalization about their average or collective knowledge of this point of Arabic-side vocabulary, seems all but impossible. And is this really a relevant way to approach the question in the first place?

Platts also gives a 'Persian and Hindi' sense of dam as 'Deceit, fraud, trickery, trick, coaxing, wheedling; —arrogance, pride, haughtiness; boasting' (p.525). That sense too could be invoked, surely at least as readily as the 'blood' sense. But it's subject to the same questions. Should it be so invoked? Philologically speaking, the case for both these senses is irreproachable. But does that suffice to make them truly relevant to the verse?

This question points up the very large problem of 'poetic tact', or of knowing when to stop, in the process of digging out more wordplay for ghazal verses. For after all, if every verse that used some common 'pre-poeticized' word could be considered to be using that word in every possible sense (old or new, from one language or another, specifically relevant or not), then every verse would be seen to sprout out a kind of thicket of haphazard, dubiously relevant 'wordplay' that would surround it on all sides. This approach would have two unfortunate results. First, it would tend to obscure the genuine wordplay that was actually invoked or activated from within the verse itself. And second, it would be equally applicable to every verse, of whatever quality, so that it could never help us answer what to me is the most compelling question of all: what makes great poetry great?

Instead of a thicket, what we want-- or at least, what I want-- is a kind of interpretive bonsai shape: the extravagant tendrils of over-stimulated bushy growth should be pruned away, to reveal the strong lines of an organic shape generated from within the verse itself. This isn't a solution to the problem, however, but is just a description of a desired goal. For the ability to describe such a goal doesn't make the task much easier. It is still arguable in many cases how and where the lines should be drawn, and in poetry like Ghalib's the evidence is often uncertain or lacking. Thus 'poetic tact' remains ultimately intuitive, personal, and ungeneralizable. This is why it's good to be able to triangulate among a number of commentators.

Here's a discussion of the same issue, in the context of Mir: M{1507,1}.