The pantun is a Malay poetic form. The pantun originated as a traditional oral form of expression. The first examples to be recorded appear in the 15th century in the Malay Annals and the Hikayat Hang Tuah. The most common theme is love.
In its most basic form the pantun consists of a quatrain which employs an abab rhyme scheme. A pantun is traditionally recited according to a fixed rhythm and as a rule of thumb, in order not to deviate from the rhythm, every line should contain between eight and 12 syllables. “The pantun is a four-lined verse consisting of alternating, roughly rhyming lines. The first and second lines sometimes appear completely disconnected in meaning from the third and fourth, but there is almost invariably a link of some sort. Whether it be a mere association of ideas, or of feeling, expressed through assonance or through the faintest nuance of a thought, it is nearly always traceable” (Sim, page 12). The pantun is highly allusive and in order to understand it readers generally need to know the traditional meaning of the symbols the poem employs. An example (followed by a translation by Katharine Sim):
- Tanam selasih di tengah padang,
- Sudah bertangkai diurung semut,
- Kita kasih orang tak sayang,
- Halai-balai tempurung hanyut.
- I planted sweet-basil in mid-field
- Grown, it swarmed with ants,
- I loved but am not loved,
- I am all confused and helpless.
According to Sim, halai-balai tempurung hanyut literally means “a floating coconut shell at sixes and sevens”. Selasih (sweet basil) means “lover”, because it rhymes with kekasih. Other frequently recurring symbols are the flower and the bee meaning the girl and her lover, the squirrel (tupai) meaning a seducer, and the water hyacinth (bunga kiambang) meaning love that will not take root. Pantuns often make use of proverbs as well as geographical and historical allusions, for example the following poem by Munshi Abdullah:
- Singapura negeri baharu,
- Tuan Raffles menjadi raja,
- Bunga melur, cempaka biru,
- Kembang sekuntum di mulut naga.
- Singapore is a new country,
- Tuan Raffles has become its lord,
- Indian jasmine, frangipanni,
- Blossoms one flower in the dragon’s mouth. (Translated by Sim, p.40)
This alludes to the foundation of Singapore in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles. The last line means a girl who is protected by a powerful man and Sim suggests this may refer to Raffles’ wife Olivia.
Sometimes a pantun may consist of a series of interwoven quatrains, in which case it is known as a pantun berkait. This follows the abab rhyme scheme with the second and fourth lines of each stanza becoming the first and third lines of the following stanza. Finally, the first and third lines of the first stanza become the second and fourth lines of the last stanza, usually in reverse order so that the first and last lines of the poem are identical. This form of pantun has exercised the most influence on Western literature where it is known as the pantoum.