February 2013

Greer Mansfield


"Frenzy a Man's Bewildered, Drunken Heart": Basil Bunting Translates Persia

Europe, 1814-19: a decade-old, continent-wide war reaches its bloody and farcical end. Napoleon falls, returns, and falls again; at Vienna, ambassadors re-draw maps and monarchs shore up their nervous alliances. In Weimar, Goethe reads Hafiz and dreams of Persia:

North and West and South are breaking,
Thrones are bursting, kingdoms shaking:
Flee, then, to the essential East…

Mix with goatherds in dry places,
Seek refreshment in oases
When with caravans I fare,
Coffee, shawls, and musk my ware;
Every road and path explore,
Desert, cities, and seashore…
(translated by Michael Hamburger)

Goethe never did flee to the East, but his West-Eastern Divan -- a cycle of poems inspired by his reading of Hafiz -- takes place in a Persia of his imagination: baths, gardens, mule rides through the desert at night, lovelorn tavern-dwellers pining after curly-haired women, and even some Sufi mysticism. A mythic Persia, but hardly an “Orientalist” one: these images and atmospheres come directly out of Hafiz and other classical Persian poets, and Goethe in his Divan persona is far more the wonderstruck wanderer than the plunderer of artifacts.

Goethe addresses “Holy Hafiz” directly several times throughout the Divan, but he never tried to translate his ghazals into German. The Persian poets would find their Western translators as the 19th century wore on, though. The most famous “translation,” of course, was Edward FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the stars to flight:
And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
‘Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
‘Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.’

FitzGerald never made it to Persia either. It wasn’t until the 20th century that an important Western poet actually lived there for a significant period: Basil Bunting.

Flood Editions has recently published Bunting’s Persia, a collection of Bunting’s translations of his beloved golden age (golden ages is probably more historically sound) Persians. Both the publishing house and the book’s editor Don Share have done an excellent job: a slim and attractive book, a chronological poet-by-poet running order, and a fine introduction by Share, full of details about Bunting’s curious life.

Brought up as a Quaker in Northumberland, imprisoned for over a year for refusing to fight in the First World War, and a London School of Economics dropout, Bunting first arrived in Iran as a military interpreter during the Second World War. He had been a serious reader of Persian poetry since the early 1930s, when he discovered a French translation of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh at a bookstall on the Genoa harbor quays.

He spent the 1940s in Iran, working for British Military Intelligence (i.e. MI6) and as Vice Consul of the British Embassy. In 1948, he left his embassy job to work as a Tehran correspondent for the London Times. It is unclear whether or not he kept up his spy work after that; as Share writes, “we won’t know for sure until the details are unclassified someday.” Spying is hardly an unusual profession for a poet; one thinks of Chaucer and Marlowe (whose night-job is very probably what got him killed), among others. Eliot Weinberger: “There is a book to be written on poetry and espionage.”

Bunting loved Iran -- its landscapes and people as well as its literature. He managed to get along with both the Tehran jet set and ibex-hunting mountain nomads, and he eventually married an Iranian woman. He called Iran “one of the most civilized countries in the world” and “one of the pleasantest to be in.” His Persian idyll would come to an end in 1951, when Mohammad Mosaddeq expelled all foreign journalists from the country. He never returned.

Bunting liked to call his translations “overdrafts,” a way of acknowledging the debt he owed to his masters. It seems his favorites were the earlier poets: Rudaki, Ferdowsi, and Manuchehri. They came from different parts of the Persian Empire, which in those days stretched from eastern Anatolia across central Asia into what is now Pakistan. They relied on royal patronage and court performances to support themselves. Dynasties could fall quickly, so they moved from Samanid to Ziyarid to Ghaznavid as circumstances dictated.

What kind of place is Bunting’s Persia?

It is not quite the Persia of FitzGerald, nor is it the Sufi wonderland of recent Rumi translations, though it does bear a resemblance to both. There is plenty of wine, as well as meadows, nightingales, lovesickness, and desert caravans under the stars. Manuchehri:

Before morning night was blacker
for the white snow wasting away
and out of the hard ground rose a mud like fishglue. 
One long watch of the night
was done when the Dogstar rose
bright over Mosul's mound,
then the Great Bear, and I came close
behind the caravan like a boat nearing the beach. 
The sound of their anklets reached me
with chatter and clatter of bells
and I saw the peacock litters
stilted on herony legs;
bells within bells, gilded,
hanging to the camels' knees,
and lances, making the valley a cornfield. 

There is subtle eroticism. Manuchehri again:

Wail of the morning nightingale, scent of the breeze,
frenzy a man’s bewildered, drunken heart.
Now is the season lovers shall pant awhile,
now is the day sets hermits athirst for wine.

And Rudaki:

Came to me---
In the dawn, afraid.

          What of?
Her father’s.

Also included are Bunting’s versions of some scenes from the Shahnameh. Even these short glimpses give a sense of a hard, cold grandeur not unlike (as Bunting was always insisting) Homer’s. Witness this moment of keening for a slain warrior-king:

He looked at the gorgeous throne--
tawdry without the king,
and the pool, the cypresses,
rosetrees, willows, quinces.
When they strewed dust on the throne
a wail from the army, groaning, tearing their hair, shedding tears,
clawing their own cheeks.
Faridun put on the ritual crimson sash,
Set the pleasure house alight,
dug up the flowerbeds, burned the cypresses…

There is also bitter wisdom, self-castigation, faithlessness, and pondering over aging and death. Bunting gives us a subtle new West-Eastern symmetry when he links Hafiz to Catullus by using “desinas ineptire” (from the famous “Catullus 8”) as an epigraph to this moment of anguished/comic self-recognition:

O everlastingly self-deluded!
     if there’s no love for you there’s nothing for it
but to go crazy. Anyway, dont set up for
     a paragon of self-restraint.
Love’s dizziness cant invade a head
     dizzy with alcohol?
You’re jaundiced, misery-hideous!
     Anybody can read your symptoms.
Give respectability and pride the go-by, Hafiz,
cadge yourself a drop of booze and get
                    crapulously drunk.

Bunting and his Persian masters, speaking to each other and to us across the divide of centuries and decades, speaking clearly through the idiot haze of media-industrial banalities about Iran. The audience of a poet like Manuchehri -- whether at court or at the tavern -- is the same as the one Bunting said he wrote for: “unabashed boys and girls.”

Much do I wonder at him whom sleep bears away
where there is yet a bottle of wine in the house,
and yet more wonder at him who drinks without music,
without an air on the harp, drinks his wine.
No horse will drink without you whistle at him:
is a man less than a horse, water more than wine?