From the Bunting Tapes

By Simms, Colin | Chicago Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

From the Bunting Tapes


Simms, Colin, Chicago Review


This excerpt is from a book-length compilation of transcripts from tapes of conversations with Basil Bunting between 1970 and 1985. Part "table talk," part otherwise, it was approved by him for edited publication "eventually." This conversation took place on May 5, 1983, and begins with a discussion of Hakim Abol Ghasem Firdowsi Toosi (or Firdosi), the tenth-century Persian author of Shahname or The Epic of Kings.

Basil Bunting: You are misled in reading Fitzgerald, but not tragically. Saw the original!

Colin Simms: The Rubaiyat a poem.

BB: That's right: even, good long-poem.

CS: Did Pound read Persian?

BB: No, no, the limit was Fitzgerald's portion of it; he was fascinated, as was Dorothy, with stories from Shahname.

That's why I got my Firdosi... I told you one day I went down to the quays at Genoa: I'd got the book from which I derived Chomei at Toyama from there, and I went to look and I found a volume, bound in newspaper and falling to pieces, labelled Oriental Tales...and it turned out, after much trouble and investigation, to be the French translation of the first book or so of the Shahname, dating from about 1830; and, er, it so astonished me that I went and took down and read some of the stories to Ezra and Dorothy, and they were so interested we couldn't stop. And then we came to a point, the thing was really in a terrible state...there was the hero, had married in a most picturesque fashion and now there was a baby to be born who couldn't be born and the bird arrived, the tail feathers and the burden bound up, and the bird arrived in the corner of the room, and started to dictate what needed to be done in order to have a Caesarian operation! Oh! Oh! We couldn't leave the story there. And at that point the book gave up, you see. That was the end of what I'd got!

CS: You obviously had to go out and find the rest!

BB: We had to know the rest of that story, and the only way was to get the whole Shahname in Persian and learn to read it. So it was got, plus a Persian grammar, and soon I could eventually read the whole thing.

CS: How long did that take?

BB: Oh, it didn't take very long. Very little time it takes to read classical Persian! Very little time. I was able to go on with the story to Dorothy and Ezra. The story just couldn't be left at a point where the bird had just arrived in the room where a lady was just about to give birth!

CS: Hmm... Have you still got the French translation?

BB: No.

CS: That was one of the casualties of moves!

BB: I don't know where; but it was very ragged to begin with... I've even forgotten the name of the man, the scholar who made the translation.

CS: So that was the start of Firdosi for you?

BB: That was where I first got to know of him. There was a poet called Manuchehri, of the latter end of the same century or thereabouts, who did some quite good bits out of Firdosi - just about the only good translations I know, that sort of thing. I had for a while some by Burton; what became of that I don't know. I should think probably one of the German friends... I lost a lot of stuff in Tehran... Quite different from Matthew Arnold for example. Matthew Arnold didn't know any Persian. He got his Sohrab and Rustum story, the synopsis of the Shahname, out of General Malcolm. His version is misleading. Arnold took it from Malcolm's very inaccurate translation and embroidered on that. He made a very good thing out of it, though if I could manage to translate the Firdosi story of Sohrab...

CS: That might be better?

BB: I might embarrass them. Although the Firdosi story is not so much of Sohrab. The end of Arnold's Sohrab is very tricky and surprising but the end of Firdosi's is such that it brings tears to your eyes... A really terrific thing! And you get no idea, in Arnold, that Sohrab is anything but a character from an epic. …

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