Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Gul and Bulbul: Persian Love in Byron

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Gul and Bulbul: Persian Love in Byron

Article excerpt


This essay examines the influence of Persian classical poetry on Byron's understanding of melancholy in his Eastern tales. The article examines the idea that the melancholic heroines of the Eastern tales are inspired by the Persian motifs of the love of the rose and the nightingale along with the legendary Leili and Majnoun. The article goes on to propose that the melancholy characterising Byron's Eastern tales may be understood in terms of a transition between Weltschmerz and amor hereos or love sickness. It suggests two primary sources for Byron's information on Persian love-melancholy: Isaac D'Israeli's translations of Mejnoun and Leila and Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

In February 1812, in a letter to Francis Hodgson, Byron declares that '[i]n the spring of 1813 I shall leave England for ever [...] Neither my habits nor constitution are improved by your customs or your climate. I shall find employment in making myself a good Oriental scholar'.1 In his journey to become a 'good Oriental scholar', Byron visited such countries as Turkey, Albania, and Greece. Yet, his dreams of going to one country never came true. He announced in a letter to his mother in October 1808 plans for his departure to Persia, and in another letter expressed his hope to proceed into Persia when he arrived at Constantinople.2 Byron never managed to visit Persia, but he remained fascinated with Persian literature throughout his life.

Byron's journals and annotations provide ample evidence of his reading of the works of Persian poets such as Ferdausi, Sa'di, Hafez, Jami, and Nezami. In particular, he seems to have developed a keen interest in writings by Persian Sufipoets.3 Persian Sufipoetry was readily available in England by 1813, mostly via several translations by the leading Orientalists of the time. Byron is said, for example, to have read 'on his arrival at Trinity, perhaps on the advice of E. D. Clarke', Stephen Weston's Moral Aphorisms in Arabic, and a Persian Commentary in Verse, translated from the Originals, with Specimens of Persian Poetry (1805), an anthology which contained generous selections from Persian Sufiworks.4 While at Trinity, Byron would also have had access to Asiatic Researches and the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, both of which offered a wealth of information on Sufiliterature and philosophy.5 Byron would, moreover, have been familiar with the works of William Jones (1746-94), another famous Orientalist, who translated numerous poems as well as a number of adaptations from and articles on Persian Sufiliterature.

The traces of Persian literature in Byron's work can be analysed in the light of a number of famous Persian motifs. In The Bride of Abydos (1813), for instance, Byron draws on popular Persian legends such as Yusef and Zuleikha, Leili and Majnoun, and the Persian concept of the rose (gul) and the nightingale (bulbul). In this article, I will argue that both the fable of the gul and bulbul, which is a well-known Persian motif of the excessive and exclusive love of the nightingale for the rose, and the legend of Leili and Majnoun, where the lover dies in grief of the loss of the beloved, inform the treatment of melancholic love in Byron's Oriental Tales with particular focus on The Bride of Abydos (hereafter The Bride). More particularly I want to suggest ways in which these Persian motifs might allow us to read more clearly the melancholy of Byron's female characters.

In the third chapter of Byron: The Erotic Liberal, Jonathan Gross provides a thematic comparison between Jami's Yusef and Zuleika and The Bride, emphasising that 'too much in Byron's "The Bride of Abydos" resembles incidents in "Yusef and Zuleika" and the Koran to ignore the obvious similarities'.6 Gross draws particularly on aspects of Jami's Yusef and Zuleika in Byron's poem that are not found in Genesis. Byron indicates his acquaintance with the Persian version of this Egyptian legend when, in a letter of 13 November 1813, he informs John Murray that 'Zuleika is the Persian poetical name for Potiphar's wife on whom & Joseph there is a long poem-in the Persian'. …

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