Shairi, or Rustavelian Quatrain

Shota Rustaveli wroteThe Knight in the Panther's Skin, Georgia's national epic, towards the end of the twelfth century. It tells of a young prince helping to find a friend's beloved, who has been captured by devils. Rustaveli used a particularly difficult form for it, known by the Georgian word shairi

The recommended rules for English-language shairi are: 4-line stanzas, with all four lines rhyming with one another. The lines are unusually long, having 15 or 16 syllables, and all the rhymes are of either two or three syllables.  

Here's an extract from my attempt at this form, a rant about the trivialisation of news by the mass media:

from A Mission to Complain
The thoughts of politicians, whether Lib or Lab or Tory,
Are not of interest at all; donít constitute a story.
Itís photo opportunities and soundbites that bring glory
To well-PRíd MPs who heed the pollsí memento MORI.

For each of them was first to pass the post at the beginning
Of their career in Parliament, and wants another inning.
The main consideration their behaviour underpinning
Is how the papers bid us vote, and who they say is winning.

MPís live in a kind of Hell Ė a circle missed by Dante.
On private health, or Ireland, or the Euro - pro or anti Ė
The relevance of speeches by our members may be scanty
Compared with whether journalists can snap them in flagrante.

Such incidents can ruin Ė or enhance! Ė a reputation.
But which? The media enforce an X-certification
That brings uncensored details to a titillated nation.
The victims will survive as long as they boost circulation.

Note for purists

In Georgia, each line of a shairi has exactly 16 syllables, and they recognise two varieties of the form. In a magali (high) shairi stanza the syllables divide 4/4//4/4 (in each of the four lines), whereas in a dabali (low) shairi they divide 5/3//5/3. InThe Knight in the Panther's Skin (or Vepkhis Tqaosani, if you prefer), Rustaveli alternated magali and dabali stanzas for the entire length of the poem - no fewer than 1576 stanzas. 

Other forms with similar names

There's also a verse form called the shairi in Swahili poetry, but it's a bit different. It originated on the island of Lamu, where the chanting of shairi verses was associated with gungu dances. The form reached its apogee with the poet Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy (1776-1840) of Mombasa.

That's all the reference books would tell me about the Swahili version, but thanks to an e-mail kindly sent by Tiel Jackson, who used to live in Tanzania, I can reveal that the shairi is "alive and well" there, in the following form:

Then there's a Malay form called the shair, which, like the Georgian and Swahili shairis, consists of monorhymed quatrains. As yet I have been unable to discover anything more about it. I believe there's also a shi'r in Arabic, and other forms with similar names in other cultures. More details as soon as I have them...

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 21/09/2005