Persian Literature, Comprising The Shah Nameh, The Rubaiyat, The Divan, and The Gulistan/Introduction to the Shah Nameh
When Sir John Lubbock, in the list of a hundred books which he published, in the year 1886, as containing the best hundred worth reading, mentioned the "Sháh Námeh" or "Book of Kings," written by the Persian poet Firdusi, it is doubtful whether many of his readers had even heard of such a poem or of its author. Yet Firdusi, "The Poet of Paradise" (for such is the meaning of this pen-name), is as much the national poet of Persia as Dante is of Italy or Shakespeare of England. Abul Kasim Mansur is indeed a genuine epic poet, and for this reason his work is of genuine interest to the lovers of Homer, Vergil, and Dante. The qualities that go to make up an epic poem are all to be found in this work of the Persian bard. In the first place, the "Sháh Námeh" is written by an enthusiastic patriot, who glorifies his country, and by that means has become recognized as the national poet of Persia. In the second place, the poem presents us with a complete view of a certain definite phase, and complete era of civilization; in other words, it is a transcript from the life; a portrait-gallery of distinct and unique individuals; a description of what was once an actual society. We find in it delineated the Persia of the heroic age, an age of chivalry, eclipsing, in romantic emotion, deeds of daring, scenes of love and violence, even the mediaeval chivalry of France and Spain. Again, this poem deals principally with the adventures of one man. For all other parts of the work are but accessories to the single figure of Rustem, the heroic personage whose superhuman strength, dignity, and beauty make him to be a veritable Persian Achilles. But when we regard the details of this work we see how deeply the literary posterity of Homer are indebted to the Father of European Poetry. The fantastic crowd of demons, peris, and necromancers that appear as the supernatural machinery of the Sháh Námeh, such grotesque fancies as the serpents that grew from the shoulders of King Zohák, or the ladder of Zerdusht, on which he mounted from earth to heaven—all these and a hundred other fancies compare unfavorably with the reserve of Homer, in his use of such a personage as Circe, and the human grace and dignity which he lends to that genial circle on Olympus, whose inextinguishable laughter is called forth by the halting wine-bearer a god like themselves. While we read the "Sháh Námeh" with keen interest, because from its study the mind is enlarged and stimulated by new scenes, new ideas and unprecedented situations, we feel grateful that the battle of Salamis stopped the Persian invasion of Europe, which would doubtless have resulted in changing the current of literature from that orderly and stately course which it had taken from its fountain in a Greek Parnassus, and diverted it into the thousand brawling rills of Persian fancy and exaggeration.
It is a hundred years ago that a certain physician in the employment of the East India Company, who then represented British supremacy in Bengal and Calcutta, published the "Story of Sohrab," a poem in heroic couplets, being a translation of the most pathetic episode in the "Sháh Námeh." If we compare this English poem with Jules Mohl's literal translation of the Persian epic into French, we find that James Atkinson stands very much in the same relation to Firdusi as Pope does to Homer. It would be indeed absurd for an English writer to attempt to conform, in an English version, to the vagaries of Persian idiom, or even to attempt a literal rendering of the Persian trope. The manner of a poet can never be faithfully reproduced in a translation, but all that is really valuable, really affecting, in an epic poem will survive transfusion into the frank and natural idiom of another tongue. We say epic poem, because one of the distinguishing features in this form of literary expression is that its action hinges on those fundamental passions of humanity, that "touch which makes the whole world kin," whose alphabet is the same in every latitude. The publication of "Sohrab" was nevertheless the revelation of a new world to London coteries, and the influence of Mr. Atkinson's work can be traced as well in the Persian pastorals of Collins as in the oriental poems of Southey and Moore. This metrical version of "Sohrab" is the only complete episode of the Sháh Námeh contained in the present collection. When we consider that the Persian original consists of some one hundred and twenty thousand lines, it will easily be understood that a literal rendering of the whole would make a volume whose bulk would put it far out of reach to the general reader. Atkinson has very wisely furnished us with a masterly résumé of the chief episodes, each of which he outlines in prose, occasionally flashing out into passages of sparkling verse, which run through the narrative like golden threads woven into the tissue of some storied tapestry. The literary style of the translator is admirable. Sometimes, as when he describes the tent of Maníjeh, he becomes as simple and direct as Homer in depicting the palace of Alcinous. The language of his Sohrab recalls the pathos of Vergil's Nisus and Euryalus, and the paternal love and despair of Dante's Ugolino. But in Rustem the tears of anguish and sorrow seem to vanish like morning dew, in the excitement of fresh adventure, and human feeling, as depicted by Firdusi, lacks not only the refined gradations, but also the intensity, which we see in the Florentine poet. Atkinson's versification is rather that of Queen Anne's time than what we of the Victorian age profess to admire in Browning and Tennyson. But it is one of the chief praises of Tennyson that he has treated Sir Thomas Malory very much in the same way as Mr. Atkinson has treated Abul Kasim Mansur, by bringing the essential features of an extinct society within the range of modern vision, and into touch with modern sympathies. All that is of value in Firdusi, to the reader of to-day, will be found in this version of Atkinson, while the philologist or the antiquarian can satisfy their curiosity either in the original, or in the French versions whose fidelity is above suspicion. For it is bare justice to say that James Atkinson's Firdusi is one of those translations, even though it be at the same time an abridgment, which have taken their place in the rank of British classics. It is the highest praise that can be given to a work of this character to say that it may be placed on the bookshelf side by side with Jeremy Collier's "Marcus Aurelius," Leland's "Demosthenes," and the "Montaigne" of Charles Cotton. It embalms the genuine spirit and life of an Oriental poem in the simple yet tasteful form of English narrative. The blending of verse and prose is a happy expedient. If we may use the metaphor of Horace, we should say, that Mr. Atkinson alternately trudges along on foot, and rises on the wings of verse into the upper air. The reader follows with pleasure both his march and his flight, and reaches the end of the volume with the distinct impression that he has been reading a Persian poem, and all the while forgotten that it was written in the English language.