In this two part article, ninotaziz attempts to explain the fascination the francophone world had with the Malay pantun and its bid to popularize it. Despite approval from the most renowned and respected poets in the literary world, the form sadly failed to take the world by storm. Yet in its beauty, nuggets of the Malay thought and culture survived 500 years of subtle resilience and quiet grace. (If you missed the first part, it is here.) 

Part II

Kupu-kupu terbang melayang

Terbang di lautan di hujung karang

Hati di dalam menaruh bimbang

Dari dahulu sehingga sekarang

Moths fly here and there without rest

They fly out to the open sea, to the reefs

There is deep uneasiness within my breast,

From time long past until today without relief

(translation by ninotaziz)

From 15th century pantun to 18th century pantoum

The pantun berkait was introduced to French poets and novelists of the 19th century. And the very man credited with popularizing the Malay pantum by storm was largely Victor Hugo himself. In 1829, Hugo published the highly acclaimed collection of poems, les Orientales.   In it he included extensive notes, including a special mention of a French translation of a Malay pantun from his correspondence with Ernest Fouinet titled simply Pantoum Malai. Victor Hugo was clearly very taken up by the pantun, describing it as “d’une délicieuse origanlité.”

kupu kupu terbang melayang JPEG copy

The Malay pantun in Jawi script was translated into English by William Marsden in his book A Grammar of the Malayan Language (published in 1812) and later by Ernest Fouinet into French.

Butterflies sport on the wing around,

They fly to the sea by the reef of rocks.

My heart has felt uneasy in my breast,

From former days to the present hour.


They fly to the sea by the reef of rocks.

The vulture wings its flight to Bandan.

From former days to the present hour,

Many youths have I admired.


The vulture wings its flight to Bandan,

Dropping its feathers at Patani.

Many youths have I admired,

But none to compare with my present choice.


His feathers he let fall at Patani.

A score of young pigeons.

No youth can compare with my present choice,

Skilled as he is to touch the heart.

Incidentally, this poem in Jawi script was featured on the cover of Francois Rene Daillie’s Alam Pantun Melayu. (Note: I am glad to say that thanks to my late grandfather, I can read the Jawi Script but it is a dying art in Malaysia). The “Pantoum Malai” in question is actually a pantun berkait, a longer pantun set of interlocking quatrains.

The period pantoum gained prominence in France very closely corresponded to a time one of the Malay Sultans was exiled to Seychelles, Sultan Abdullah of Perak. Incidentally, the Sultan spoke flawless French and his children played his favourite tune Les Rosalie on the violin and piano so well, which actually made way its way here and there (that’s another story) to end up being the basis of our national anthem. One can only imagine the French connection there.

The real beauty of the pantun is its ability to slowly reveal layers of deep meaning. It creates a longing and profound set of emotions that is left unspoken, long after the pantun is uttered. It plays with many senses, the heart-strings most of all.

I am sure many would think that the Academy Award winner Oscar Hammerstein II seems as far away from the pantun as can be. The musical theatre genius from a bygone era co-wrote 850 songs, and Hammerstein was the lyricist and playwright in his partnerships; his collaborators wrote the music. There is a very enduring song Hammerstein wrote called I am Going To Like It Here. Oscar Hammerstein’s song is an example of the pantoum, which is always inspired by the pantun berkait.

The revival of the pantun

I am hoping to see the art of pantun see a strong revival, at least in appreciation. I would hate to think my children would only get to listen to pantun at Malay Weddings. Or my unborn grandchildren, none at all.

Perhaps you would like to share a form of writing or song unique to your culture, or one that you feel passionately about? Do you feel it is vital that they are continued to be shared with the younger generation? Why? And how do we do this?

About our contributor, ninotazziz:

Ninot_visage[1]She is a PR consultant and a multiple award winning author and storyteller of many generations from Malaysia. Born in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, ninotaziz grew up in the idyllic village of Chenor, Malaysia and furthered her education in Canada. She specializes in Malaysian legends, or Hikayat, and wrote three anthologies of Malaysian legends and four YA novels – NAGA, ONANGKIU, SITI and NIK. ninotaziz firmly believes that the Malay classic pantun, literature and Hikayat are a rich world heritage that deserve an international audience.

An active member of the international poetry blogosphere in particular The Magpie Tales, Poets United and the dVerse, ninotaziz embraces the online media as a platform for engaging poets worldwide towards peaceful and enriching cultural exchange. For poetry she blogs at http://www.poemsbyninotaziz.blogspot.com

Married to Rudy Daud, the family is blessed with five daughters and enjoy picnics in the garden, late night movies, ice skating and gamelan.

Suggested reading for this article:

Alam Pantun Melayu by Francois Rene Daillie, DBP, 1988

Pantun Melayu: Bingkisan Permata edited by Harun Mat Piah, Yayasan Karyawan Kuala Lumpur, 2001

The Soul of Malaya by Henri Fauconnier, Archipelago Press, 2003

Tunjuk Ajar Melayu by Tenas Effendy, Balai Melayu Jogjakarta, 2004

Pantun Peranakan Baba by Ding Choo Ming, UKM, 2008

Les Orientales, Victor Hugo, 1829