The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 14/Number 81/Saadi
Whilst the Journal of the Oriental Society attests the presence of good Semitic and Sanskrit scholars in our colleges, no translation of an Eastern poet has yet appeared in America. Of the two hundred Persian bards of whose genius Von Hammer Purgstall has given specimens to Germany, we have had only some fragments collected in journals and anthologies. There are signs that this neglect is about to be retrieved. In the interval, while we wait for translations of our own, we welcome the announcement of an American edition, if it be only a careful reprint, of the "Gulistan" of Saadi,—a book which has been current in Asia and Europe now for six hundred years. Of the "Gulistan or Rose-Garden" there exist three respectable English translations. That of Gladwin is to be preferred for its more simple and forcible style. Mr. Gladwin has not thought fit to turn into rhyme the passages of verse with which the "Gulistan" is interspersed. It is the less important, that these verses are seldom more than a metrical repetition of the sentiment of the preceding paragraph. Mr. Eastwick's metrical renderings do not make us regret their omission. Mr. James Ross, in an "Essay on the Life and Genius of Saadi," has searched the works of his author, as well as outside history, for biographical facts or personal allusions.
The slowness to import these books into our libraries—mainly owing, no doubt, to the forbidding difficulty of the original languages—is due also in part to some repulsion in the genius of races. At first sight, the Oriental rhetoric does not please our Western taste. Life in the East wants the complexity of European and American existence; and in the writing of the primitive nations a certain monotony betrays the poverty of the landscape, and of social conditions. Every word in Arabic is said to be derived from the camel, the horse, or the sheep. We fancy we are soon familiar with all their images. Medschun and Leila, rose and nightingale, parrots and tulips; mosques and dervishes; desert, caravan, and robbers; peeps at the harem; bags of gold dinars; slaves, horses, camels, sabres, shawls, pearls, amber, cohol, and henna; insane compliments to the Sultan, borrowed from the language of prayer; Hebrew and Gueber legends molten into Arabesque;—'tis a short inventory of topics and tropes, which incessantly return in Persian poetry. I do not know but at the first encounter many readers take also an impression of tawdry rhetoric, an exaggeration, and a taste for scarlet, running to the borders of the negro-fine,—or if not, yet a pushing of the luxury of ear and eye where it does not belong, as the Chinese in their mathematics employ the colors blue and red for algebraic signs, instead of our pitiless x and y. These blemishes disappear, or diminish, on better acquaintance. Where there is real merit, we are soon reconciled to differences of taste. The charge of monotony lies more against the numerous Western imitations than against the Persians themselves, and though the torrid, like the arctic zone, puts some limit to variety, it is least felt in the masters. It is the privilege of genius to play its game indifferently with few or with many pieces, as Nature draws all her opulence out of a few elements. Saadi exhibits perpetual variety of situation and incident, and an equal depth of experience with Cardinal de Retz in Paris or Doctor Johnson in London. He finds room on his narrow canvas for the extremes of lot, the play of motives, the rule of destiny, the lessons of morals, and the portraits of great men. He has furnished the originals of a multitude of tales and proverbs which are current in our mouths, and attributed by us to recent writers; as, for example, the story of "Abraham and the Fire-Worshipper," once claimed for Doctor Franklin, and afterwards traced to Jeremy Taylor, who probably found it in Gentius.
The superlative, so distasteful in the temperate region, has vivacity in the Eastern speech. In his compliments to the Shah, Saadi says,—"The incurvated back of the sky became straight with joy at thy birth." "A tax-gatherer," he says, "fell into a place so dangerous, that, from fear, a male lion would become a female." Of dunces he says, with a double superlative,—"If the ass of Christ should go to Mecca, it would come back an ass still." It is a saying from I know not what poet,—"If the elegant verses of Dhoair Fariabi fall into thy hands, steal them, though it were in the sacred temple of Mecca itself." But the wildness of license appears in poetical praises of the Sultan:—"When his bow moves, it is already the last day [for his enemies]; whom his onset singles out, to him is life not appointed; and the ghost of the Holy Ghost were not sure of its time."
But when once the works of these poets are made accessible, they must draw the curiosity of good readers. It is provincial to ignore them. If, as Mackintosh said, "whatever is popular deserves attention," much more does that which has fame. The poet stands in strict relation to his people: he has the over-dose of their nationality. We did not know them, until they declared their taste by their enthusiastic welcome of his genius. Foreign criticism might easily neglect him, unless their applauses showed the high historic importance of his powers. In these songs and elegies breaks into light the national mind of the Persians and Arabians. The monotonies which we accuse, accuse our own. We pass into a new landscape, new costume, new religion, new manners and customs, under which humanity nestles very comfortably at Shiraz and Mecca, with good appetite, and with moral and intellectual results that correspond, point for point, with ours at New York and London. It needs in every sense a free translation, just as, from geographical position, the Persians attribute to the east wind what we say of the west.
Saadi, though he has not the lyric flights of Hafiz, has wit, practical sense, and just moral sentiments. He has the instinct to teach, and from every occurrence must draw the moral, like Franklin. He is the poet of friendship, love, self-devotion, and serenity. There is a uniform force in his page, and, conspicuously, a tone of cheerfulness, which has almost made his name a synonyme for this grace. The word Saadi means Fortunate. In him the trait is no result of levity, much less of convivial habit, but first of a happy nature, to which victory is habitual, easily shedding mishaps, with sensibility to pleasure, and with resources against pain. But it also results from the habitual perception of the beneficent laws that control the world. He inspires in the reader a good hope. What a contrast between the cynical tone of Byron and the benevolent wisdom of Saadi!
Saadi has been longer and better known in the Western nations than any of his countrymen. By turns, a student, a water-carrier, a traveller, a soldier fighting against the Christians in the Crusades, a prisoner employed to dig trenches before Tripoli, and an honored poet in his protracted old age at home,—his varied and severe experience took away all provincial tone, and gave him a facility of speaking to all conditions. But the commanding reason of his wider popularity is his deeper sense, which, in his treatment, expands the local forms and tints to a cosmopolitan breadth. Through his Persian dialect he speaks to all nations, and, like Homer, Shakspeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne, is perpetually modern.
To the sprightly, but indolent Persians, conversation is a game of skill. They wish to measure wit with you, and expect an adroit, a brilliant, or a profound answer. Many narratives, doubtless, have suffered in the translation, since a promising anecdote sometimes heralds a flat speech. But Saadi's replies are seldom vulgar. His wit answers to the heart of the question, often quite over the scope of the inquirer. He has also that splendor of expression which alone, without wealth of thought, sometimes constitutes a poet, and forces us to ponder the problem of style. In his poem on his old age, he says,—"Saadi's whole power lies in his sweet words: let this gift remain to me, I care not what is taken."
The poet or thinker must always, in a rude nation, be the chief authority on religion. All questions touching its truth and obligation will come home to him, at last, for their answer. As he thinks and speaks will intelligent men believe. Therefore a certain deference must be shown him by the priests,—a result which conspicuously appears in the history of Hafiz and Saadi. In common with his countrymen, Saadi gives prominence to fatalism,—a doctrine which, in Persia, in Arabia, and in India, has had, in all ages, a dreadful charm. "To all men," says the Koran, "is their day of death appointed, and they cannot postpone or advance it one hour. Wilt thou govern the world which God governs? Thy lot is cast beforehand, and whithersoever it leads, thou must follow." "Not one is among you," said Mahomet, "to whom is not already appointed his seat in fire or his seat in bliss."
But the Sheik's mantle sits loosely on Saadi's shoulders, and I find in him a pure theism. He asserts the universality of moral laws, and the perpetual retributions. He celebrates the omnipotence of a virtuous soul. A certain intimate and avowed piety, obviously in sympathy with the feeling of his nation, is habitual to him. All the forms of courtesy and of business in daily life take a religious tinge, as did those of Europe in the Middle Age.
With the exception of a few passages, of which we need not stop to give account, the morality of the "Gulistan" and the "Bostan" is pure, and so little clogged with the superstition of the country that this does not interfere with the pleasure of the modern reader: he can easily translate their ethics into his own. Saadi praises alms, hospitality, justice, courage, bounty, and humility; he respects the poor, and the kings who befriend the poor. He admires the royal eminence of the dervish or religious ascetic. "Hunger is a cloud out of which falls a rain of eloquence and knowledge: when the belly is empty, the body becomes spirit; when it is full, the spirit becomes body." He praises humility. "Make thyself dust, to do anything well." "Near Casbin," he tells us, "a man of the country of Parthia came forth to accost me, mounted on a tiger. At this sight, such fear seized me that I could not flee nor move. But he said,—'O Saadi, be not surprised at what thou seest. Do thou only not withdraw thy neck from the yoke of God, and nothing shall be able to withdraw its neck from thy yoke.'"
In a country where there are no libraries and no printing, people must carry wisdom in sentences. Wonderful is the inconsecutiveness of the Persian poets. European criticism finds that the unity of a beautiful whole is everywhere wanting. Not only the story is short, but no two sentences are joined. In looking through Von Hammer's anthology, culled from a paradise of poets, the reader feels this painful discontinuity. 'Tis sand without lime,—as if the neighboring desert had saharized the mind. It was said of Thomson's "Seasons," that the page would read as well by omitting every alternate line. But the style of Thomson is glue and bitumen to the loose and irrecoverable ramble of the Oriental bards. No topic is too remote for their rapid suggestion. The Ghaselle or Kassida is a chapter of proverbs, or proverbs unchaptered, unthreaded beads of all colors, sizes, and values. Yet two topics are sure to return in any and every proximity,—the mistress and the name of the poet. Out of every ambush these leap on the unwary reader. Saadi, in the "Gulistan," by the necessity of the narrative, corrects this arid looseness, which appears, however, in his odes and elegies, as in Hafiz and Dschami. As for the incessant return of the poet's name,—which appears to be a sort of registry of copyrights,—the Persians often relieve this heavy custom by wit and audacious sallies.
The Persians construct with great intrepidity their mythology and legends of typical men. Jamschid, who reigned seven hundred years, and was then driven from his throne, is their favorite example of the turns of fortune. Karun or Corah, the alchemist, who converted all things to gold, but perished with his treasures at the word of Moses, is their Crœsus. Lokman, the Æsop of the East, lived to an enormous age, was the great-grandson of Noah, etc. Saadi relates, that Lokman, in his last years, dwelt on the border of a reedy marsh, where he constructed a cabin, and busied himself with making osier baskets. The Angel of Death appeared to him, and said,—"Lokman, how is it, that, in three thousand years that you have lived in the world, you have never known how to build a house?" Lokman replied,—"O Azrael! one would be a fool, knowing that you were always at his heels, to set himself at building a house." Hatem Tai is their type of hospitality, who, when the Greek emperor sent to pray him to bestow on him his incomparable horse, received the messenger with honor, and, having no meat in his tent, killed the horse for his banquet, before he yet knew the object of the visit. Nushirvan the Just is their Marcus Antoninus, or Washington, to whom every wise counsel in government is attributed. And the good behavior of rulers is a point to which Saadi constantly returns. It is one of his maxims, that the "bons mots of kings are the kings of bons mots." One of these is,—"At night thou must go in prayer a beggar, if by day thou wilt carry thyself as a king." Again,—"A king is like a great and massive wall: as soon as he leans from the perpendicular [of equity], he is near his ruin." Again,—"You, O king, sit in the place of those who are gone, and of those who are to come: how can you establish a firm abode between two non-existences?" Dzoul Noun, of Grand Cairo, said to the Caliph,—"I have learned that one to whom you have given power in the country treats the subjects with severity, and permits daily wrongs and violences there." The Caliph replied,—"There will come a day when I will severely punish him." "Yes," returned the other, "you will wait until he has taken all the goods of the subjects; then you will bestir yourself, and snatch them from him, and will fill your treasury. But what good will that do to your poor and miserable people?" The Caliph was ashamed, and ordered the instant punishment of the offender.
It appears, from the anecdotes which Professor Graf has rendered from the Calcutta manuscripts, that Saadi enjoyed very high respect from the great in his own time, and from the Sultan of the Mongolian court,—and that he used very plain dealing with this last, for the redress of grievances which fell under his notice. These, with other passages, mark the state of society wherein a shepherd becomes a robber, then a conqueror, and then sultan. In a rude and religious society, a poet and traveller is thereby a noble and the associate of princes, a teacher of religion, a mediator between the people and the prince, and, by his exceptional position, uses great freedom with the rulers. The growth of cities and increase of trade rapidly block up this bold access of truth to the courts, as the narrator of these events in Saadi's life plainly intimates. "The Sultan, Abake Khan, found great pleasure in the verses. Truly, at the present time, no learned men or Sheiks would dare to utter such advice, even to a grocer or a butcher; and hence, also, is the world in such bad plight as we see."
The Persians have been called "the French of Asia"; and their superior intelligence, their esteem for men of learning, their welcome to Western travellers, and their tolerance of Christian sects in their territory, as contrasted with Turkish fanaticism, would seem to derive from the rich culture of this great choir of poets, perpetually reinforced through five hundred years, which again and again has enabled the Persians to refine and civilize their conquerors, and to preserve a national identity. To the expansion of this influence there is no limit; and we wish that the promised republication may add to the genius of Saadi a new audience in America.