The Epigraph to Poe's “Berenice” by Michael Beard addresses an issue of a Latin epigraph “Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas,” originally written by an Arab. Alterton and Craig have best translated the following quotation as: “My companion said to me, if I would visit the grave of my friend, I might somewhat alleviate my worries” (Beard 611). Michael Beard assumes that this Latin phrase is not rooted in Arabic literature, however, such a trope is frequently seen in Arabic poetry as an evocative opening line, or a preface.
If we look at an Arab ode, for example, as the classical masterpiece, it starts with a passage that links the author to a definite place, always associated with a tragic love and vivid memories of it, but, at the same time, the poet is not alone in the world since he receives an encouragement to carry on from his good friends. The particular place, or the elegiac site, where the poet returns for mourning, with a supportive guidance from his friends, has a strong a conventional context.
When the Poe’s Latin epigraph comes in the biographical observe of Ibn al-Zaiyāt, it has a new heading “Zaiat”. The Arab biographer, Zaiyāt (d. 847 A.D), who was a controversial figure and lived in Baghdad, was both a politician and a poet. Beard points out that, according to historical sources, Zaiyāt expanded this single line in Latin, into a couplet in French, and he also believes that both versions of Latin and French could come from the same source. Another Arab biographer, however, has identified Ibn al-Zaiyāt as a simple clerk, who gained his popularity and wealth due to his ability to express himself attractively in writing. It is highly possible that Poe would have been interested in Zaiyāt, according to Obituaries of Eminent Men. Other sources, such as Edgar Allan Poe: Representative Selections (1962) fail to identify the famous Arab poet and man, but Dictionary of Names and Titles in Poe’s Collected Works (1968) already gives an entry of Zaiyāt as an Arab biographer. Zaiyāt’s discourse on dried grass made an unforgettable impression on khalīf, and soon he became wazīr. Unfortunatly, Zaiyāt was brutally tortured and killed as a political enemy. His death was slow and painful, during which he was continuously writing poems, shut up in a lantern that was his last prison cell. Moreover, it is highly probable that Poe knew all the intricate details of the story because he himself could have written it.
Michael Beard has no evidence yet, where Poe might have taken the Ibn al-Zaiyāt quotation from. Also, it could be true that Poe translated the text from French to Latin all by himself, only making a slight alteration to the second line, but at the same time retaining the emphasis on the physical body of the perished beloved.
The Epigraph to Poe's “Berenice” by Michael Beard is a fascinating article that seeks to find answers to a Latin epigraph and its origins. Translated smoothly into English and French, the Latin phrase is believed to have roots other than Arabic literature. Michael Beard agrees that this trope is frequent in Arabic poetry as an opening line with a conventional context. The Arab biographer, Ibn al-Zaiyāt, has incorporated the Latin epigraph in his biographical observe under the heading “Zaiat”.
Beard, Michael. "The Epigraph to Poe's "Berenice"." 49.4 (1978): 611-613. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2924779>.