Arberry’s Persian Experiment

In 1911, Edwin Arberry published several imitations of Persian poetry. Through a Latin translation, he had come to appreciate the works of Rumi and Hafiz, and seems to have also read some of Attar’s The Parliament of the Birds. Yet, living still in that Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite haze, it seems that Arberry was most influenced by the still extraordinarily famous and popular “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” loosely translated by Edward Fitzgerald (Arberry’s poems in this style are written in rubaiyat — four line verses rhyming aaba). Yet, interestingly, Arberry departs from the nihilism and the Epicurean exhortations of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece – he seems to have learned something of Sufism, which has evidently influenced the imagery/philosophy of this poem. This is much in keeping with the spiritual explorations of Arberry, who seems to have dabbled in everything – from Hinduism and Theosophy to table-tapping and tarot cards. Also, his notebooks indicate his love of Blake and Coleridge, which may explain this poem’s exaltation of the imagination as a reflection of the Supreme Power: “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation” (as Coleridge put it.)

“The Hermit”

The hermit sits in the woodland clear
Where no human footstep wanders near,
And tunes his strings, and clears his throat,
And sings songs that only God might hear.

Yet God speaks but in Nature’s laws,
Offering Silence as his sole applause,
Since effects are all that trail again
From the wake of the causeless cause.

Yet these arguments the hermit spurns—
A finer ecstasy within him burns,
As he in himself awakes the chords
That govern how the planet turns.

Time’s agile fingers play with grace
Upon the high-strung strings of Space
And improvise a solemn music
Which we call “The Human Race”…

But better worlds are in the tones
Struck in the dark where the hermit groans
And racks from the lute those sacred notes
Which sap the marrow from his bones.

Better beings, stranger gods
Stretch upwards from these earthly clods
And animate their works and days
Until the drowsy hermit nods.

The voice that’s trapped within the reed!
The breath on which the marshes feed!
All that desire, and that burning will
Subjected to a natural need—

A soul hid in a shell (like a pearl),
Which snaps shut as the bright flags furl,
Against a wind that comes from everywhere
And makes the hair stand up, the toes curl…


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