A MESSAGE FROM THE EAST
Translated by M. Hadi Husain
The impulse that brought forth A Message from the East was provided by the West Oestlicher Divan of the German “Philosopher of Life,” Goethe, about which Germany’s Jewish poet, Heine, writes:
This is a bouquet of acknowledgment by the West to the East… The Divan bears witness to the fact that the West, disgusted with its weak and cold spirituality, seeks warmth from the East’s breast.
What influences and circumstances led to the writing of the poems comprising the Divan—a title chosen by Goethe himself—which are among his best works, is a question for answering which it is necessary to give a brief account of the movement known in the history of German literature as the Oriental movement. It was originally my intention to discuss the said movement in some detail in this Preface, but, unfortunately, much of the material necessary for that purpose was unavailable in India. Paul Horn, the author of A History of Persian Literature, has in an article discussed the question of the extent to which Goethe was indebted to Persian poets, but I was unable to obtain, whether from any library in India or from Germany, the issue of the Nord und Sud in which the article was published. Consequently, I have been compelled to rely in writing this Preface partly on what I retain in my memory from my personal study in the past and partly on Mr. Charles Remy’s brief, but very useful, monograph on the subject.
From early youth Goethe’s versatile mind was attracted to Oriental ideas. While studying law at Strasbourg, he met that famous and venerable figure of German literature, Herder, the influence of whose companionship he acknowledges in his autobiography. Herder did not know Persian. Nevertheless, because of his preoccupation with morals, he was profoundly interested in Sa‘di’s writings, so much so that he translated parts of the Gulistan into German. The poetry of Khwajah Hafiz did not appeal to him very much. Drawing the attention of his contemporaries to Sa‘di, he writes: “We have written a lot of poetry in the style of Hafiz. What we now need to do is to follow Sa‘di.” However, despite his interest in Persian literature, there is little trace of the influence of that literature either in his verse or in his prose writings. Similarly, Goethe’s other contemporary, Schiller, who died before the advent of the Oriental movement, is free from Oriental influences, although it should not be overlooked that he borrowed the plot of his drama Turandukht [Turandot in German] from Maulana Nizami’s story about the daughter of the King of the Fourth Realm (Haft Paikar), beginning with a verse which [translated into English] runs thus:
“He said that among Russian lands
There was a city as fair as a bride.”
In 1812, Von Hammer published a complete translation of the Divan of Hafiz, and it was this event that set on foot the Oriental movement in German literature. Goethe was sixty five years old at that time—a time when the decline of the German nation had reached its nadir in every respect. Goethe was not temperamentally attuned to an active part in his country’s political movements. His restless and high soaring spirit, tired of the conflicts then endemic in Europe, sought and found a haven for itself in the peace and tranquillity of the Oriental milieu. The music of Hafiz aroused in Goethe’s imagination a mighty storm, which took a permanent shape in the West Oestlicher Divan. Von Hammer’s translation, however, was not merely a stimulus for Goethe; it was also the source of his extraordinary ideas. There are passages in the Divan which read like liberal translations of Hafiz’s verses. There are also passages in which his imagination, led on to some new path by a line of Hafiz, throws light on complex and profound problems of life. Goethe’s well-known biographer, Bielschowsky, writes as follows:
In the songs of the nightingale of Shiraz Goethe perceived his own image. There were times when he experienced the hallucinatory feeling that his spirit had, in an earlier existence, perhaps inhabited the East in the body of Hafiz. There is in him the same earthly joy, the same heavenly love, the same simplicity, the same depth, the same warmth and fervour, the same catholicity, the same open-heartedness, the same freedom from restrictions and conventions; in short, in everything we find him a second Hafiz. Hafiz was a mouthpiece of the hidden and an interpreter of mysteries, and so is Goethe. Just as there is a world of meaning in the apparently simple words of Hafiz, hidden truths manifest themselves in Goethe’s unstrained utterances. Both elicited admiration from rich and poor alike. Both influenced with their personalities great conquerors of their times (viz. Timur in the case of Hafiz, and Napoleon in that of Goethe,) and preserving their internal peace and composure, in times of general destruction and ravage, succeeded in going on with their singing.
Apart from Hafiz, Goethe is indebted for his ideas to Shaikh ‘Attar, Sa‘di, Firdausi, and Islamic literature in general. He has even written a few ghazals with rhymes and rhymeadjuncts. He freely uses Persian metaphors and images in his verses (e.g. “gems of verse,” “darts of eyelashes,” “curled ringlets”). Indeed, in the ardour of his Persianism he does not refrain even from hinting at pederasty. The names of the different parts of the Divan are Persian, such as ‘Mughanni namah,’ ‘Sakinama,’ ‘Ishq namah,’ ‘Timur namah,’ ‘Hikmat namah’. Notwithstanding all this, Goethe is not an imitator of any Persian poet; his poetic genius is completely independent. His singing in the tulip fields of the East is purely a temporary phase. He never lets go of his Westernism, and his glance rests only on those Oriental truths which his Western temperament can assimilate. He took no interest whatsoever in Persian mysticism. Although he knew that in the East the verses of Hafiz were interpreted in mystical terms, he himself was dedicated only to the ghazal pure and simple and had no sympathy with the mystical interpretation of Hafiz. Rumi’s philosophical verities and sapiential utterances appeared to him to be merely vague. It, however, seems that he did not study Rumi carefully; for it is impossible that a man who was an admirer of Spinoza (the Dutch philosopher who believed in the unity of being) and who wrote in support of Bruno (Italy’s existential philosopher) should not have acknowledged Rumi, if he had known him well enough.
To sum up, Goethe tried through the West Oestlicher Divan to instill the Persian spirit into German literature. Later poets, such as Platen, Rueckert and Bodenstedt, completed the Oriental movement initiated by the Divan. Platen learned Persian for his literary purposes. He composed ghazals and ruba’iyat in which he observed rhymes and rhymeadjuncts and even the rules of Persian prosody. He even wrote a qasidah on Napoleon. Like Goethe, he freely uses Persian metaphors, such as “the rose-bride,” “the musky ringlet” and A Message from the East 65 “tulip-faced,” and he is devoted to the ghazal pure and simple. Rueckert was well versed in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. He thought highly of Rumi’s philosophy and wrote most of his ghazals in imitation of Rumi. Since he was a scholar of Oriental languages, the sources of his Oriental poems were also more diversified. He gathered gems of wisdom from wherever he could lay hands on them, as, for example, from Nizami’s Makhzan alAsrar, Jami’s Baharistan, Amir Khusrau’s Kulliyat, Sa‘di’s Gulistan, and from Manaqib al ‘Arifin, ‘Ayar Danish, Mantiq al Tair and Haft Qulzum. In fact, he embellishes his writings even with pre-Islamic traditions and stories of Persia. He has also beautifully narrated some events of Islamic history, such as the death of Mahmüd Ghaznavi, Mahmüd’s assault on Somnat, the deeds of Sultanah Radiyah. The most popular poet of the Oriental movement after Goethe is Bodenstedt, who published his poems under the pseudonym of Mirza Shafi‘. It was a small collection which became so popular that it went through 140 editions within a short period. So perfectly did Bodenstedt assimilate the Persian spirit that for long people in Germany took his poems to be translations of Persian poems. He profited from Amir Mu‘izzi and Anvari as well.
I have deliberately refrained from mentioning Goethe’s famous contemporary, Heine, in this connection. Although his collection of poems entitled New Poems bears marked traces of Persian influence and he has very skillfully narrated the story of Mahmud and Firdausi, yet, on the whole, he has no connection with the Oriental movement. In fact, he did not accord much value to German poetry of the Oriental movement outside Goethe’s Divan. However, even the heart of this independent minded German poet could not escape the magic charm of Persia. Imagining himself to be a Persian poet exiled to Germany, he writes: “O Firdausi, O Jami, O Sa’di, your brother, confined in a dismal prison, pines for the roses of Shiraz.” Also deserving mention among minor poets of the Oriental movement are Daumer, the imitator of Hafiz, Hermann Stahl, Loeschke, Stieglitz, Lenthold and Von Shack. The last mentioned enjoyed a high position in the world of learning. Two of his poems, ‘The Justice of Mahmüd Ghaznavi’ and ‘The Story of Harut and Marut,’ are well known and his poetry, on the whole, bears the impress of ‘Umar Khayyam’s influence. However, a complete history of the Oriental movement and a detailed comparison of German and Persian poets designed to assess the exact extent of Persian influence call for an extensive study, for which I have at my disposal neither the time nor the means. It may be that the brief sketch given here will enthuse someone younger than I am to undertake the necessary research.
I need not say much about A Message from the East, which has been written a hundred odd years after the West Oestlicher Divan. My readers will by themselves appreciate that the main purpose underlying it is to bring out moral, religious and social truths bearing on the inner development of individuals and nations. There is undoubtedly some resemblance between Germany as it was a hundred years ago and today’s East. The truth, however, is that the internal unrest of the world’s nations, which we cannot assess properly because of being ourselves affected by it, is the fore-runner of a great spiritual and cultural revolution. Europe’s Great War was a catastrophe which destroyed the old world order in almost every respect, and now out of the ashes of civilization and culture Nature is building up in the depths of life a new Adam and a new world for him to live in, of which we get a faint sketch in the writings of Einstein and Bergson. Europe has seen with its own eyes the horrible consequences of its intellectual, moral and economic objectives and has also heard from Signor Nitti (a former prime minister of Italy) the heart-rending story of the West’s decline. It is, however, a pity that Europe’s perspicacious, but conservative, statesmen have failed to make a proper assessment of that wonderful revolution which is now taking place in the human mind.
Regarded from a purely literary standpoint, the debilitation of the forces of life in Europe after the ordeal of the war is unfavorable to the development of a correct and mature literary ideal. Indeed, the fear is that the minds of the nations may be gripped by that slow pulsed ‘Ajamiyat which runs away from life’s difficulties and which fails to distinguish between the emotions of the heart and the thoughts of the brain. However, America seems to be a healthy element in Western civilization, the reason for which perhaps is that it is free from the trammels of old traditions and that its collective intuition is receptive to new ideas and influences. The East, and especially the Muslim East, has opened its eyes after a centuries-long slumber. But the nations of the East should realize that life can bring about no revolution in its surroundings until a revolution takes place in its inner depths and that no new world can take shape externally until it is formed in the minds of men. This ineluctable law, which has been stated by the Quran in the simple but eloquent words, “Verily, God does not change a nation until it changes itself” [xiii. 11] governs both the individual and the collective spheres of life; and it is the truth of this law that I have tried to keep in view in my Persian works.
In the present day world, and especially in Eastern countries, every effort which aims at extending the outlook of individuals and nations beyond geographical boundaries and at reviving or generating in them a healthy and strong human character is worthy of respect. It is for this reason that I have dedicated these few pages to His Majesty the King of Afghanistan, who appears to be well aware of this fact, thanks to his natural intelligence and keen intellect, and who is specially keeping in view the education and training of the Afghans. May God help him in the fulfillment of this grand mission.
In the end, I must thank my friend, Chaudhry Muhammad Hussain, M. A., who arranged for publication the manuscripts of the poems presented here. Had he not taken the trouble of doing this, the publication of this collection would have been delayed very much.
[Translated by M. Hadi Husain]