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NA215612 - Collection: Poems of the Orient

Poems of the Orient

Poems of the Orient


A gleam of all Bokhara’s vaunted gold, of all the gems of Samarkand, this selection offers a taster of the poetry, vast in extent, inspired by, or from the Orient. But where is the Orient? Where does it begin and end? Hunt in vain for a map; at one moment it might be mysterious Cathay, at another enchanted Persia, or a Persia which extends beyond Araby, beyond Abyssinia, even to India.


Its frontiers are the veil of the hareem, the walls of sunlit and jasmine-scented gardens where the nightingale eternally warbles to the rose. The Beloved guards its boundaries, she of ruby lips, of teeth like pearls, and ringlets like hyacinths. Her brows are an archer’s bow, her arrows the glances that speed from it. She watches over hooris, who weave their dancing way through innumerable courtyards, adorned with diamonds, nourished by the dew of heaven. And always the pomegranates are melting with sweetness.

This empire of the imagination is the Orient inhabited by Lalla Rookh. In her world, imposter prophets hide their dazzling countenance or disfigured hideousness behind veils of silver tissue, and ravish grieving hearts with false oaths and falser doctrine. It is a world where true love and salvation return with warriors long thought dead, doom and tragedy ever at their heels.


But it is the fate of all empires to become decadent and fall, even imaginary ones. From its origins in travelers’ tales of the 13th century, to its apogee in the early years of the 19th, when Lalla Rookh was published, conceptions of the Orient remained essentially unchanged. From its first publication in 1817, Lalla Rookh sold in immense numbers, and popularized oriental romanticism. Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, also all draw on the same charming, exotic, escapist myth. After them greater contact with the East reduced the marvels and legends to explicable social customs. Fable became fact.

The quatrains of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), translated by Edward FitzGerald, stand on the edge of this change. They look to both a future of genuine interest in the poetry of Persia and the East, and to its bogus sweetmeat past. FitzGerald’s imitation recommended the original; with time, cultivation of the original produced better imitations and greater interest.

Probably the best-known Persian poet in the West, Omar Khayyam is not considered the best poet among the Persians. Despite the apparently hedonistic attitude to life expressed in his Rubá’iyát, he was one of the most learned mathematicians of his day; certainly the most celebrated astrologer. The Astronomical Tables he compiled enabled a new calendar to be introduced in AD 1079, the most accurate yet devised.


Ferdowsi (935-1026) is more often regarded as the greatest of the Persian poets. His masterwork Shah-namah, the Song of Kings, in which the Persian national epic found its final and enduring form, is still read and listened to. Though written about 1,000 years ago, the language of the 60,000 couplets is as intelligible to the average modern Iranian as the King James Bible to a modern English speaker.


Of the Sufi mystics, Rumi (1207-1273) is the foremost poet, famous for his lyrics and for his didactic epic Masnavi, a collection of mystical tales and discourse considered second only to Shah-namah. Rumi lived in the Seldjuk capital Konya, and his influence on literature, carried by his Sufism, spread with the expansion of the Ottman Empire and lasted centuries.


Sufism’s central idea is of the soul’s exile from its Maker and its longing to return. This is the cause of love. To the Sufi, God is the Beloved, the Friend. He is also the Lover and we the Beloved; a not dissimilar idea is expressed in the biblical Song of Songs.


In Sufi poetry, the nightingale singing to the rose goes beyond being a poem about nature; God is the Silent Rose, and the singing Nightingale, the longing Soul. When the poet exclaims he would ‘Sell this world and the next for a cup of pure wine’ the pure wine is faith, rather than a good red. On the other hand, it might just be real wine: it is this ambiguity, which makes classical Islamic poetry what it is.


The decisive moment in Rumi’s life occurred when a wandering holy man, Shams-ad-Din, revealed the divine mysteries to him. Most of his lyrical poems, in Diwan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz, have Shams name inserted instead of Rumi’s own pen name, in an expression of his complete identification with his beloved. After his death Rumi’s disciples were organized into the sect known by the West as Whirling Dervishes.


Bustan (the Orchard) and Gulistan (the Rose Garden) by Sa’di (1213-1291) have always been popular in the West. Bustan consists of stories, entirely in verse illustrating the Muslim virtues of justice, liberality, modesty and contentment. Gulistan is a register of aphorisms, advice and anecdotes in a mixture of prose and poems for every taste. The easy acceptability of his moralizing, and the elegance of Sa’di’s style, though he learnt Persian at the age of forty after a life of wandering, has made it the most famous book in the language.


Sa’di is buried close by one of the finest lyric poets in Persian, Hafiz (1325-1389), in a town called Shiraz. Hafiz’s poetry is most often the ghazal, a verse form traditionally dealing with love and wine, motifs of ecstasy and freedom from restraint natural to expressing Sufi mysticism. Hafiz’s capacity for linking the simple or everyday image with the Sufi search for God in an unaffected musical style, guaranteed his appeal wherever the influence of Persian extended.


Jami (1414-1492), who spent most of his life in the fabled Samarkand, is considered the last great classical Persian writer in the tradition that links all these poets. His most famous collection of poetry is a seven-part compendium Haft Awrang modeled on the work of a 13th century poet Nezami. The famous poem Yusuf and Zuleika, Potiphar’s wife, from which the women of Memphis is an extract, forms part of the collection. His prose and verse work Baharistan is based on Sa’di’s Rose Garden. Nevertheless his work is very much his own especially his exposition of Sufi doctrine, for which he was renowned from the Bosporus to East Bengal.


Jami’s death marks the conclusion of a golden age, although Persian poetry enjoyed an Indian summer in the Moghul dominions, a silver age in the second home of the Persian language. Yet the tradition is not yet exhausted. Even in our own century, the school of Persian poetry in northern India has been active enough to produce a poet of the stature of Sir Muhammed Iqbal (1873-1938). In his Asrar-i-Khudi (Secrets of the Self) an ethical and moralizing poem descended from Sa’di’s Bustan, the great inheritance of Persian imagery and form can be clearly heard. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the foremost Urdu poets, takes, like Iqbal, the heritage of old motifs and gives them a new dimension. This was always the task of the true poet, to fill the patterns and forms of traditional images and symbols, and to make them a part of his own life.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is known primarily in the West for

his Nobel Prize-winning translations and versions of mystical verse such as Geetanjali, brought to European attention by W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. In India, especially Bengal, he is also noted for his vast output of plays, novels, and volumes of short stories, not to mention painting and music. Tagore drew on both classical Persian poetry, as well as the Sanskrit influenced literature of Bengal which tends to avoid words of Persian or Arabic origin. In the 1930’s he was reborn as a modern poet, freeing himself from the lyrical and the romantic and independently bringing similar qualities to Bengali as T. S. Eliot brought to English poetry.


Notes by Benedict Flynn



Lalla Rookh - Thomas Moore


Born in Dublin, the son of a grocer, Thomas Moore is infamous today for being responsible for the destruction of the memoirs of his friend, Byron, entrusted to him after the poet’s death.


But his greatest literary and musical contribution was his colossal 10-volume edition of Irish Melodies produced between 1807 and 1835—A mixture of nationalist and sentimental songs, so familiar even today, that they are often considered folksongs. ‘The Minstrel Boy’, ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’, ‘Believe Me if all those Endearing Young Charms’ and The Last Rose of Summer’ are just some of the irresistible titles that have endured. Despite its popular success, there were critics, however. William Hazlitt wrote ‘Mr. Moore converts the wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff-box.’


Less well-known now, but an international success at the time of its publication in 1817, was Lalla Rookh—a series of Oriental tales in verse (which owed its style to Byron) connected by a story in prose. Having no personal experience of the East, Moore immersed himself in libraries to research an authentic background for his tale—an intensive and detailed study, which lasted 6 years!

It paid off with a welcome and much needed fee of £3,000 from the publisher. Furthermore, the work proved a runaway success. It was published all over the world. There were stage adaptations and even an East India Company ship was named after the Princess Lalla Rookh. The exotic and erotic tone just hit the taste of the day, and within a year of its publication it was into its seventh edition. There were unfounded rumors that it had been translated into Persian. Reviews were almost universally rapturous though Byron had his criticisms.

But Moore’s East is a mystical, fanciful creation of the early 19th century imagination. It was culled from travel-guides and Oriental histories to feed the passing fad and fashion for narrative verse with a romantic setting begun by Byron but soon to be the prerogative of the novelist. As the 19th century progressed, and England’s expanding empire began to reveal true life in the East, Lalla Rookh’s popularity declined and was overshadowed by the continuing success of Moore’s Irish Melodies, that staple diet of many a Victorian and Musical at-home. Indeed, Moore himself had prophesied: ‘I am strongly inclined to think that in a race into future times these little ponies, the Melodies, will beat the mare, Lalla Rookh hollow.


However, in the late 20th century, Moore’s fresh and energetic narrative drive in The Veiled Prophet, with its sensual and erotic glimpses of the world of the harem, can still give much enjoyment.


Notes by David Timson



About the Readers


DAVID TIMSON has performed in modern and classic plays across Great Britain and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. He has made over 1000 broadcasts for the BBC and World Service ranging from the classics to the Woman’s Hour serial. He has been seen on television in Nelson’s Column, Swallows and Amazons, The Bill, and Eastenders, and in the film The Russia House. Timson is also the author of Naxos AudioBooks’ The History of Theatre.


MADHAV SHARMA, who made his professional acting debut with the Shakespearean International Company touring such places as India, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, works extensively on stage (including the world première of Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink in the West End), on screen and in radio in the UK, where he now resides.


PHILIP MADOC was born in Wales and, after studying languages at university, and a period as an interpreter, turned to drama. His extensive theater work has encompassed many principal Shakespearean roles, including Iago and Antony as well as 19th and 20th century drama. His film and television work is equally varied, including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the BBC TV’s Fortunes of War and, most recently, his own detective series, A Mind To Kill.


POLLY HAYES trained at LAMDA. Since then she has been active in theater across Britain, and her parts have included Marianne in The Dramatist, Rosalind in As You Like It, Nina in The Seagull and Marianne in Tartuffe. She has worked extensively on both radio and television in the UK.


DANIEL PHILPOTT trained at LAMDA and, after success in the prestigious Carleton Hobbs Award for Radio Drama, has been prolific in BBC Radio and the Spoken Word industry. His theater work includes numerous productions on the London fringe.

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