SOAS University of London

Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS)

The West-Eastern Lyric Modernist Poetry between Asia and Europe

eastern love engraving - CCLPS IMG 485 186 56

Date: 17 November 2017Time: 9:30 AM

Finishes: 17 November 2017Time: 6:30 PM

Venue: 21/22 Russell Square Room: T101

Type of Event: Workshop

Organized by:

  • MULOSIGE ERC project (CCLPS, SOAS, London)
  • Centre for Modern European Literature, University of Kent

All Welcome! Please Register via Eventbrite.

In Enlightenment Orientalism (2012), the late S. Aravamudan argued that the popularity in 18th-century Europe of the “Oriental tale”, a genre practiced by several celebrated early English and French novelists, calls for a revision of the standard view of the novel as an originally European product that was then disseminated throughout the world. In another essay (2014), Aravamudan noted that ‘narratives of influence from “East” to “West” are often subject to special pleading, contingency, and “accidental sagacity,” whereas influences from the “West” to the “East” involve formulations deriving from scientific necessity, historical causality, and colonial power’. Categories of genre, in other words, seem to have been conflated with categories of power.

This workshop will consider the implications of this insight for lyric poetry. Exploring the many lives of “Eastern Poetry” and the ways in which its circulation across several languages challenges any understanding of modernism along a “single Greenwich meridian of world literature” (Casanova), it will examine the way that poetic styles, themes, and strategies developed in a multi-way process of cultural transfer between Asia and Europe, across Europe and across Asia. Translations, pseudo-translations, re-translations and free versions of “Oriental” poems, often under the umbrella term of “Eastern poetry”, proved enduringly popular among a whole range of European readers and poets from the late-19th century to the early 20th century, from Pound to Rilke to Michaux. Translations by the likes of Edward Fitzgerald, Edwin Arnold, and E. Powys Mathers circulated and were re-translated by “Eastern” poets, who in turn gave these poems new lives. Lyric poetry, in short, became an intercontinental genre.

Papers will explore the following themes:

  • The conceptualisations and uses of “Oriental” or “Eastern” poetry
  • “Eastern/Oriental” poetry and European modernism
  • The book history of famous and lesser known translations
  • Circulation and re-translation across European languages
  • Scholarly vs popular translations
  • Pseudo-translations
  • The circulation and re-translation of “Eastern poetry” beyond Europe, particularly in Asia and the Middle East
  • Studies of reading and response
  • Formal, stylistic, and generic exchange (e.g. sonnets, ghazals, pastoral etc.)


Alexander Bubb (Dublin), Fatima Burney (MULOSIGE, SOAS), John Gilmore (Warwick), Rebecca Gould (Birmingham), Ben Hutchinson (Kent), Maddalena Italia (SOAS), Sara Landa (Kent), Xiaofan Amy Li (Kent), Francesca Orsini (SOAS), Iman Sheeha (Leverhulme, Warwick),


Welcome  9.30
Panel 1 9.45 – 10.45
  • John Gilmore (Warwick), Eighteenth-century Orientalism in the Western Hemisphere:
  • John Wolcot’s Persian Love Elegies
  • Iman Sheeha (Leverhulme, Warwick), Translating Arabic Poetry: The Case of Sir William Jones
Panel 2 10.45-11.45 pm
  • Fatima Burney (MULOSIGE, SOAS), Before the Mute Lyric: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Prosody and Verse Musicality
  • Alexander Bubb (Dublin), The Race for Hafiz: Scholarly and Popular Translations at the Fin de Siècle
coffee 11.45 – 12.15
Panel 3 12.15 – 1.15
  • Ben Hutchinson (Kent), 'After-Poetry': Hans Bethge and Chinese Lieder
  • Xiaofan Amy Li (Kent), The Nature of the Lyric? Henri Michaux and Chinese Poetics
Lunch 1.15-2.15
Panel 4 2.15-3.15
  • Sara Landa (Freiburg), ‘Poetical’ vs. ‘Scholarly’ Translations? On the Interaction between Poets’ and Philologists’ Translations of Chinese Poetry into German
  • Maddalena Italia (SOAS), Oriental poetry by Western poets: ‘translations’ from the Sanskrit in Mark Van Doren’s An Anthology of World Poetry (1928)
Panel 5: 3.15-4.15
  • Rebecca Gould (Birmingham), Russifying the Radif: The Persian Ghazal in the Soviet Caucasus
  • Francesca Orsini (SOAS), Eastern in the East: Miraji’s translations of “Eastern poets”
4.15 tea
4.30-5.30 Final roundtable discussion followed by drink reception


John Gilmore (Warwick): Eighteenth-century Orientalism in the Western Hemisphere: John Wolcot’s Persian Love Elegies

In 1773 the firm of Joseph Thompson and Co. in Kingston, Jamaica, printed a slim volume of verse with the title Persian Love Elegies.   Although the author’s name did not appear on the title-page, the dedication revealed it to be the work of John Wolcot (c. 1738-1819).   The author was an Englishman who had spent a few years in Jamaica.   After his return to England he was to become famous as a prolific writer of verse satires under the pseudonym of Peter Pindar, but the Persian Love Elegies were forgotten and do not appear in collected editions of his works. 

The Elegies are unquestionably derivative, and show the influence of the Persian Eclogues of William Collins (first published 1742) and other pseudo-oriental works which enjoyed popularity among Anglophone readers in the period.   A modern critic (Robert L. Vales) has gone so far as to dismiss Wolcot’s Elegies as “so similar to other eighteenth-century verse in style and sentiment that they do not merit serious consideration.”   Nevertheless, as this paper endeavours to show, an examination of why such an Orientalist collection might have been published in a British Caribbean colony, half a world away from the Persia of its ostensible setting, is worth undertaking.   Comparison with some other poems written in the Caribbean in the period, and consideration of what Wolcot leaves out of his Elegies as well as what he includes, is extremely revealing about colonial attitudes to race, gender, and the appeal of different sorts of the “exotic”.

Iman Sheeha (Leverhulme, Warwick): Translating Arabic Poetry: The Case of Sir William Jones

In this paper, I examine selected translations offered by Sir William Jones (1746-1794) from Arabic to Latin and/or English in the late 18th century.  In his translation practice, I argue, Sir William appears to have been acutely aware of the process of cultural transfer involved in the act of translation, as manifested in the extra information he inserts among the (literal) translations he offers of Arabic poetry, usually in Italics, as well as in the vocabulary and images in which he chooses to render certain culturally loaded words and indigenous images when translating from Arabic to Latin and/or English.  The overall effect, I argue, is that of a tendency to domesticate the exotic and make familiar the culturally different and ‘other’.  To illustrate how this tendency seems to pervade his translations, I draw on a selected number of translations found in his Poeseos Asiaticae Commentariorum Libri Sex (1774) as well as on a few examples drawn from his translation of the seven celebrated pre-Islamic Arabic poems, the Moallakat, that came out as Moallakát: or seven Arabian poems, which were suspended on the temple at Mecca; with a translation, and arguments in (1783).  While I offer a close reading of the translated versions Sir William produces, examining his techniques and tools and comparing the original texts with end results (both the literal and poetic translations, where relevant), I also study those in light of his own ‘theory’ of translation and what he saw himself to be doing and where he placed his translations vis-à-vis cultural exchange and transfer.  For this purpose, I look at his important essay, ‘On the Poetry of the Eastern Nations’ (1772), as well as exploring a few of the addresses he gave at the annual meetings of The Asiatic Society of Bengal, of which he was president from 1784 till his untimely death.

Fatima Burney (MULOSIGE, SOAS): Before the Mute Lyric: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Prosody and Verse Musicality

In its popular imaginary of as an ancient genre, ‘lyric’ poetry is remembered as having a definitively aural capacity as the term ‘lyric’ itself derives from the musical instrument (lyre) that historically provided accompaniment to the recitation of poetic verses. Yet, increasingly through the late twentieth century, musicality became less of a defining aspect of the genre while the association of lyric with private and introspective utterance became primary. The culmination of such a process is perhaps best encapsulated by the contemporary state of Anglophone poetic practice where the idealized site of lyric reception is the ‘inward eye’ of a solitary reader. We can trace the critical progression by which Western, particularly Anglophone, lyric poetry becomes ‘muted’ in early modern and modernist writings on prosody and verse musicality. This paper examines the position of oriental poetry and songs within such a body of scholarship. While the deemphasization/reconceptualization of musicality in lyric criticism takes place particularly in late twentieth century European and American contexts, modern Urdu poets and poetry critics also reflected and participated in the wider climate of metrical renegotiation.


Alexander Bubb (Dublin): The Race for Hafiz: Scholarly and Popular Translations at the Fin de Siècle

My current research project investigates accessible translations of Asian texts produced for the English-speaking general reader between 1845 and 1915, and the competition between paraphrasers or ‘popularizers’ and professional scholars to shape the dissemination and popular perception of certain texts and authors. Hafez occupies an interesting place in this dynamic. Identified as the great ‘lyricist’ of Persian literature by Sir William Jones, excerpted translations from him appear constantly in the British and American periodical press throughout the nineteenth century. But while his perceived lyrical qualities enable interpreters to more readily adapt and assimilate him to English poetic tradition, in terms of authoritative translations he is long overlooked in favour of the ‘narrative/epic’ Firdausi and ‘didactic/moral’ Sa’di—both of whom are considered more useful for administration and linguistic training in colonial India, and more culturally and historically informative about Persia and its people. As such, up to the last decade of the nineteenth-century there is no complete edition of Hafiz’s diwan in English, and this creates a vacuum which scholars (Edward H. Palmer, Henry Wilberforce-Clarke, Gertrude Bell), and popularizers (Richard Burton, Herman Bicknell, Justin McCarthy, Richard Le Gallienne, John Payne) all aspire to fill. Their competition creates, in short order, a diversity of versions presented to consumers, which allows Hafiz’s influence to be felt in twentieth-century poetry untrammeled by the impress (as became the case with Omar Khayyam) of one dominant translator.


Ben Hutchinson (Kent): 'After-Poetry': Hans Bethge and Chinese Lieder

The publication, in 1908, of Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte marked a highpoint in the reception of Chinese poetry in modern Europe. Bethge’s ‘Nachdichtungen’ of poems from the Tang dynasty through to the late 1800s were extraordinarily popular, and indeed were almost immediately immortalized by Gustav Mahler’s decision to use (a selection from) them as the text for Das Lied von der Erde (1909). Yet Bethge could not read Chinese, and so based his poems on existing translations by figures including Judith Gautier (the daughter of Théophile), whose Livre de Jade had appeared in 1867. This paper proposes to situate Bethge’s reception of Chinese poetry – and in particular, that of Li-Tai-Po – within this context of European chinoiserie, notably by concentrating on his engagement with a recurring imagery of lyrics and Lieder. Although he was deaf to the music of Chinese, Bethge was extremely sensitive to the ways in which Li-Tai-Po’s self-conscious reflections on poetic creation underlay his ‘after-creations’ or Nachdichtungen: in the manner of contemporary poets like Stefan George or Rainer Maria Rilke, Bethge’s nightingales, flutes, and flower blossoms can also be read as images of the creative process. That this was also necessarily a comparative process – between Asia and Europe, between China, France, and Germany – suggests its resonance as an example of intercontinental ‘conversation’.


Xiaofan Amy Li (Kent): The Nature of the Lyric? Henri Michaux and Chinese Poetics

This paper explores the nature of the lyric by considering the connections between Michaux's poetry (commonly seen as 'Chinese-inspired' or 'Oriental') and Chinese poetics. My specific questions are, firstly, what difficulties are there in conceptualising the lyric if we take Michaux's poems as a case-study, especially in terms of the lyric 'I' and the relevance of music and song to the lyric? Secondly, given the theory of Chinese poetics as expounded by the early medieval Chinese scholar Liu Xie (5th-6thC) in his Wenxin diaolong, which became the foundational text of Chinese literary criticism and aesthetics, does Michaux's poetry relate to these Chinese notions of literary and poetic writing? Finally, could Chinese poetics – despite its very different conceptual framework – shed light on the idea of 'lyric poetry'? Through this comparative examination, I argue that although Michaux's poetry can relate to Chinese poetic theory, it neither exploits stereotypically Orientalist tropes nor imitates certain 'ideographic' traits of the Chinese language to achieve a 'concrete' poetic imagery. If 'Eastern' poetry such as Michaux's can be considered an 'intercontinental genre', it reveals itself as a mode of cross-cultural reading that takes into account different conceptualisations of poetics rather than a body of texts with identifiable 'Oriental' traits.


Sara Landa (Freiburg): ‘Poetical’ vs. ‘Scholarly’ Translations? On the Interaction between Poets’ and Philologists’ Translations of Chinese Poetry into German

“[I]t has unfortunately become a fashion that people who obviously cannot claim to have any legitimation or any understanding in the field of sinology […], take hold of the sinological works of others and exploit them merely for business reasons”, complains the sinologist L. Woitsch in 1924, referring to Albert Ehrenstein’s newest translations of Chinese poetry. Ehrenstein himself, on the other hand, is even less polite, calling the work of all but few sinologists simply “attempts of rape”.  The debate on who can translate Chinese poetry rages until this day: Most scholars still contrast ‘poetical’ and ‘scholarly’ translations of Chinese poetry, either claiming that the former in an intuitive way come closer to the original, or criticizing the work of the poets who did not possess the linguistic and cultural background knowledge to dare approach Chinese poetry. However, it is exactly the interaction between the two that shaped the specific reception processes in the 20th century. Certain shifts in the German reception of Chinese poetry, both thematical and aesthetic, are unthinkable without the works of Western sinologists like Arthur Waley who himself was influenced by modernist poetry. Moreover, many writers actually stood in direct contact with sinologists, later generations also experimented with direct forms of cooperation.

Referring to a number of examples from the early expressionists’ adaptations of Tang poetry to Brecht’s “Chinese Poems” and German post-war translations of the poetry of Lu Xun (the ‘father of modern Chinese literature’), the paper would thus like to suggest a more differentiated perspective on the cooperative and competitive relations between poets’ and scholars’ translations of Chinese poetry. Against the background of the controversies on legitimate translations which already shape the early 20th century I would thus like to show how the two are closely interconnected, which strategies of cooperation and indirect translation were used and discuss the thematical and aesthetic implications of this interrelationship.


Maddalena Italia (SOAS): Oriental poetry by Western poets: ‘translations’ from the Sanskrit in Mark Van Doren’s An Anthology of World Poetry (1928)

Mark Van Doren’s An Anthology of World Poetry (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1928) is grandly – if somewhat vaguely – described by the Encyclopædia Britannica as being “among the first works of its kind”. For the contemporary scholar, the challenge is that of determining, in fact, what kind of work this anthology is, and what kind of model it set for later anthologies of world poetry in English. On the one hand, the book aims at providing the Anglophone reader with a compendium of “lyrics” that – having been originally composed in eighteen different languages, Eastern and Western, modern as well as ancient – are both outstanding and “stand alone” texts (p. viii); on the other hand, Van Doren tends to be an anthologist of English translators rather than of World Poets, for his selection is informed by a predilection for lyrically accomplished translations in his own language. As Van Doren proudly states in the prefatory remarks, “[t]his is an anthology of the world’s best poetry in the best English I could unearth”; consistent with this claim, the focus of the whole preface is decidedly shifted from the “poetry of the world” to the “race of [English] translators which runs back at least as far as Chaucer” (p. viii).

In my paper, I focus on the Sanskrit section of the anthology (pp. 52-79 of 1274), which includes second- and third-hand translations, as well as remarkably unfaithful trans-creations, of Sanskrit ‘lyrics’ (mainly, but not exclusively, courtly poetry on erotic themes). The first question that I address is: What do the English versions of Sanskrit poetry selected by Van Doren tell us about the ‘long distance relationship’ that Western literati had, or desired to have, with World Poetry (and specifically with Sanskrit poetry)?

The trans-creations that I examine more in detail are those composed by Edward Powys Mathers (1892–1939), the elusive author of several collections of ‘Eastern’ (especially erotic) poetry in translation. His poem Black Marigolds, which is presented as a version of Bilhaṇa’s Caurapañcāśikā (“Fifty stanzas of the thief”, later 11th cent.), occupies almost half of the entire Sanskrit section of the anthology (pp. 66-77): a rather thought-provoking paradox, if we consider that the poem is, in fact, almost entirely an original creation by Powys Mathers, with only a few stanzas loosely based on a nineteenth-century French translation. Similarly, the stanza of the Amaruśataka (“Century of Amaru”, 7th cent.?) chosen by Van Doren is three times removed from the original, being an adaptation – again, by Powys Mathers – of a (remarkably free) twentieth-century French version of an early nineteenth-century French translation.

Powys Mathers’ lyrical versions – not only from the Sanskrit, but also from the Chinese and Arabic – abound in Van Doren’s anthology. The pervasiveness of these ‘translations’ (none of which is literal, or even first hand) attests to the canonisation of a hybrid genre of Oriental-Western poetry – which, although being the product of contamination between different sources and languages, was always presented to the Western public as an authentic, immediately enjoyable fragment of the ‘best’ poetry of the world.

Rebecca Gould (Bristol): Russifying the Radif: The Persian Ghazal in the Soviet Caucasus

Shortly before his death, the Russian poet Sergei Esenin (1895-1925) moved to Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, from where he initiated a poem cycle that he published under the title Persian Motives (Persidskie Motivy, 1924). Persian Motives recreates an imaginary Persia within a Russian literary landscape, while incorporating the major Persian poets (Ferdowsi, Sa’di, Hafez) into his personal literary genealogy. This paper situates these poems within the long history of Persianate culture in the Caucasus, with specific attention to the issue of the translatability of the Persian lyric (ghazal) in a Russo-Soviet context.


Francesca Orsini (SOAS): Eastern in the East: Miraji’s translations of “Eastern poets”

This paper uses translations of “Eastern poetry” (mashreq kī nazmen) into an “Eastern” language like Urdu by the poet, translator and critic Miraji to explore three points. First, the broader discourse about “Eastern” poetry/literature in general, and Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc. poetry in India at the time (in English, Hindi, and Urdu)—how was it talked about, under what rubric and with which agenda(s)? Second, though Miraji did not quote his sources, it is clear from his selections and the texts that transpire from his Urdu translations that he often used the English “translations” of E. Powys Mathers (1892 – 1939). What does this circular loop – from East to West to East – tell us about dynamics of circulation within world literature? Third, what were Miraji’s translations like – what registers did he employ, how did he preface and frame them, what kind of body of work do they create, and how does he use them, among other translations, to broaden and renew Urdu poetic idioms?