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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2017



A Tale of Three Journeys: Orientalist Poetics/Politics of Landor’s Gebir

Dr. Md Monirul Islam, Assistant Professor in the Department English, Asannagar Madan Mohan Tarkalankar College, Nadia (WB)

In a letter to Thomas Moore (1779 –1852), on August 28, 1813, Lord Byron (1788 – 1824), who popularised the genre of Oriental tales in verse with his Turkish Tales, wrote: "Stick to the East;—the oracle, Stael, told me it was the only poetical policy. The North, South, and West, have all been exhausted…" The result was one of the famous specimens of Romantic Orientalism, Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817). But even before Byron and Moore were born, William Jones (1746 –1794) in his “An Essay on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations” (1772) pointed out the lack of inspiration for European poetry and spoke on the necessity to tap in the new sources of inspiration from the poetry of the Asiatic nations: “I cannot but think that our European poetry has subsisted too long on the perpetual repetition of the same images, and incessant allusions to the same fables.” He went on to suggest that if the poetry of the Asiatic nations is translated and disseminated in Europe “we should be furnished with a new set of images and similitudes; and a number of excellent compositions would be brought to light, which future scholars might explain, and future poets might imitate”( Pachori 144). W. S. Landor was one of the first Romantic poets to have followed Jones’s suggestion and turned to the East to find new inspiration for European poetry. He discovered a new Eastern tale not much known to the common European readers in Gebir and used a set of novel images as suggested and foreseen by Jones. Gebir, however, was not his only poem with an Eastern theme. He produced a hoax pamphlet of nine short poems, entitled Poems from the Arabic and Persian (1800), purporting to be based on French translation of an Arabic manuscript but actually originals by Landor himself and a few years later he wrote Count Julian: A Tragedy (1812) on theme of Christian-Muslim conflict. Gebir was the earliest work by Landor to focus on the Orient.  It was first published in 1798, the year of the Lyrical Ballads.1 If Lyrical Ballads marked a new direction for English poetry so did Gebir.2  The poem tells us the story of the Spanish King Gebir’s invasion of Egypt and his destruction in the hands of Dalica, the nurse of the Egyptian queen Charoba.

The influence of Oriental thought and the presence of Eastern elements in European literary and philosophical writings have been traced back to the time of Plato and the Neo-Platonists, and even before. Raymond Schwab in his pioneering study The Oriental Renaissance quotes from Sylvain Levi to make this point: “Plotinus, Porphyry and the entire school of Neoplatonists reflect the metaphysics of Kapila and Patanjali. Mani and the Gnostics introduced the Brahman and the Buddhist spirit into Christianity, while a colony of Nestorians brought the gospels to India” (qtd. in Schwab 3). Schwab, however, locates the beginning of an Oriental renaissance in Europe in the late eighteenth century and considers the translation of the Zend Avesta in 1771 by Anquetil Duperron as the first major breakthrough (7). The eighteenth century saw an increasing traffic between the East and the West. Translations of Eastern poetic and philosophical texts, histories of the Eastern people, and numerous travel narratives on the East filled the print market and they went on to influence the European literature. W. C. Brown in his article, “The Popularity of English Travel Books about the Near East, 1775-1825” notes that there had been at least seventy travel books on the Near East during the years 1775-1825.3 Numerous scholarly translations were made and William Jones took a leading role in translating a number of Oriental manuscripts. Jones’s interest in the East was first manifested in the publication of the Grammar of Persian Language(1771), which contained the often reprinted translation of “A Persian Song by Hafiz,” and Poems; Consisting Chiefly of Translations from Asiatick Languages. To which are added Two Essays (1772). “A Persian Song by Hafiz” was reprinted in this volume. The poem is considered the third most important English translation from the Persian, surpassed only by the Rubaiyat and Sohrab and Rustm (Pachori 13). The year 1774 marked the appearance of Commentaries on Asiatic Poetry ( in Latin Poeseos Asiaticae Commentariorum in six volumes), which provides Jones’s critical views on Middle Eastern metrics , imagery, subject matter, diction and views on a few individual poets (Pachori 4). In 1783 he produced “a dissertation On the Manners of the Arabians before the time of Mahomet, illustrated by seven poems, which were written in letters of gold, suspended in the temple of Mecca, about the beginning of the sixth century” (Pachori 5), and introduced Arabic Poetry to Europe with the publication of The Mollakat, a translation of the Arabic poet Imr-al-Qais. While in Calcutta he translated Indian classics like the Hitopodesa, Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda (1789) and Kalidasa’s Shakuntala (1790) have remained most influential. Along with Sakuntala Jones published nine hymns addressed to the nine deities of Hindu mythology. Another group of important translations were the Oriental tales. A major event in the history of the Oriental tales was the translation of The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland. The first part of his twelve-volume Les mille et une nuits (The Thousand and One Nights) appeared in 1704. Its English version appeared between 1704 and 1717, and with its appearance the eighteenth century saw an explosion of Oriental tales in England. The translations were followed by numerous pseudo-translations and imitation both in prose and verse. This large oeuvre of the Oriental tales has been analysed by Martha Conant Pike by sub-dividing them into four different groups based on their subject matter and mode of discourse: the imaginative group, the moralistic group, the philosophic group, and the satiric group (xxvi). The imaginative group includes The Arabian Nights, The Persian Tales, The Turkish Tales, New Arabian Nights, Collins’s Persian Eclogues, African Eclogues by Chatterton, Oriental Eclogues of James Scott, Vathek by Beckford, and Charoba by Clara Reeve, to mention some of them. Some of the tales in the moralistic group are The Hermit by Thomas Pernell, Murad the Unlucky by Maria Edgeworth. Works like Vision of Mirza by Addison, and Rasselas (1759) by Dr. Johnson form part of the philosophic group. In the satiric group there are tales like The Persian Letters of Montesquieu, The Citizen of the World by Goldsmith, Defoe’s System of Magic, and Horace Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tale. One of the manuscripts that came to be translated into French by M. Pierre Vattier in the seventeenth century was “The History of Ancient Egypt, according to the Traditions of the Arabians. Written in Arabic, by the Reverend Doctor Miurtadi, the Son of Gapiphus, the Son of Chatemn, the Son of Molseim the Macdesian.” It contains the history of a King called Gebir. An English translation of it was done by John Davies in 1672.  Clara Reeve wrote a prose tale based on this history, titled Gebirus and appended it at the end her Progress of Romance (1785).  Landor’s immediate source of Gebir was Miss Reeve’s tale.  It was Landor’s beloved Rose Aylmer who lent him Reeves’s book(Colvin 24)4 Miss Reeve states in her preface to this work that her story came from an Arabian manuscript by Murtada ibn al Khafif found in the Mazarin Library translated into French by M. Pierre Vattier (Williams).

Though Landor was indebted to Reeve, he boasted in the Monthly Review that the poem is “nothing more than the version of an Arabic tale” and “every line of appropriate description, and every shade of peculiar manners, were originally and entirely his own” (qtd. in Forster 78).Whatever Landor’s claim might have been, reading the two stories make it apparent that the tales have much similarity in spite of some differences. Reeve used the French version freely to create a feminist narrative making Charoba a patriot queen trying to save her country from the invader Gebir. Landor creates a tale where the invader as well as the invaded queen becomes victim of magic and witchery of Dalica. Moreover, there is no denying the fact that though Landor’s immediate source was Reeve’s tale, he drank deep into the tradition of the romances, pastorals, epics, Oriental tales, travelogues, the Gothic novels and many other forms of writings. Gebir appears to be a kind of pastiche combining formal elements from diverse literary genres. Mohammad Sharafuddin, commenting on the genre of the poem, refers to a note that Landor attached to the Latin version of the poem. Landor wrote: “Our first book is almost wholly in the pastoral genre: nor could it be at all otherwise, having regard for propriety and the manner of the times in which it describes the events taking place; but from that step by step rise greater things up to the end of the poem”(qtd. in Sharafuddin 5). Following this note Sharafuddin discovers the impact of various genres in each of the book: Book I is pastoral in nature; Book II is romance; Book III is epic romance; Book IV has the excitement of epic narrative; Book V emphasizes the demonic aspect of epic narrative; Book VI contains epic prophecy; and Book VII relates Gebir’s tragic destruction. He concludes that the poem shows a movement “irregular in detail but plain in its general curb: develops from pastoral to romance, from romance to epic, from epic to tragedy” (Sharafuddin 5). The problem with Sharafuddin’s interpretation of the genre of the poem lies in his ignoring the Gothic and the Oriental tale. Influence of the Gothic finds no mention in Sharafuddin and his analysis of the impact of the Oriental tales is not adequate. In Gebir Landor combines elements from the Oriental tales and the Gothic novels. The impact of Beckford’s Vathek (1786) is apparent in many places but nowhere is it more evident than in Book III where Gebir descends into the underworld and meets his ancestors suffering the torments of hell. The spectacle of suffering of the race of Sidad resembles the description of suffering souls provided by Beckford at the end of his novel. The cause of suffering in hell in both the tales is the earthly ambitions of the sufferers and both the tales seem to echo the Koran. In chapter 89 of George Sale’s translation of Al Koran (The Koran, 1734) there is a reference to a group of people called the Ad, the people of Irem who suffers in the hand of God due to their insolence on earth. The tale is used in The Koran to illustrate the idea that earthly insolence and material desire result in suffering in hell. While in the Koran the people of Ad are called Adites, in Landor’s tale Gebir and his people are referred to as Gadites. Humberto Garcia in his reading of the poem, however, claims that the Gadites (from Gad) and the Adites (from Ad) are the same people (451-52).

The story of the Iberian king Gebir’s invasion of Egypt and his subsequent amorous desire for Charoba (which becomes mutual in Landor’s version of the tale) and his failure to get united in love unifying Iberia and Egypt, because of Dalica’s intervention, has been often upheld as an anti-imperial epic. This line of interpretation is fuelled by a remark, the author made in the preface to 1803 edition: “In the moral are exhibited the folly, the injustice and the punishment of Invasion, with the calamities which must ever attend the superfluous colonization of a peopled country” (qtd. in Sharafuddin15). Marilyn Butler, for example, calls it “an anti-colonialist fable’ where the would-be colonialist Gebir is killed on his wedding day. Butler reads Iberia as allegorical representation of England (411-12). Mohammad Sharafuddin regards the tale as an example of direct Orientalism, having many conventional Eastern themes and motifs like necromancy, ruins, exotic eroticism, Oriental luxury etc. However, he concludes that it is an anti-imperial tale, an expression of Landor’s early “republican internationalism” (38-39). However, the tale cannot be simply dismissed as an ‘anti-colonialist fable.’ The question is: if Iberia is England then the Egypt of the tale may be any of the British colonies. Butler herself concedes: “Landor’s Egypt populated by shadowy cultists and murderous women provides a model for Eastern court cultures in romances to follow” (412-13). If it is so, then Landor’s ‘would be-colony’ is not only a Volneyean ruin but it is also what the pro-missionary lobby, led by men like Charles Grant, would make of the native religions and society, “priest-ridden, cruel and despotic, and thus asking for Western conquest” (411). This representation of the native religion and society needless to say had colonial implications. Charles Grant and his associates used the primitivism and degeneration of Hinduism as means to prepare the grounds for infiltration of Christianity and open up ways to convert the natives into their ‘enlightened’ faith. Accordingly, Alan Richardson’s postcolonial reading of the tale seems more appropriate in the context. Richardson reads the poem as a celebration of Western (Christian) Europe at the expense of the East. Richardson argues that Landor “short-circuits" his own anti-colonial rhetoric "through continuing to rely . . . on colonialist figures of savagery, primitivism and the primacy of the West” (279). In fact Landor’s supposedly anti-colonial statement in the preface is very ambiguous. He condemns the folly of colonising a ‘peopled’ country. The question that automatically comes to the mind following this statement is whether he would support colonization of a country which is uninhabited. It is a very problematic idea since imagining a wild virginal space awaiting domestication was part of the discourse of colonial imaginary5 (31).Moreover, there had been occasions in the history of colonization when certain people had not been considered as people/human at all. Therefore, Landor’s statement is not as innocent as it apparently looks.

The interpretation that the poem embodies an anti-colonial message has been due to the selective emphasis on certain sections of the poem, especially on the description of the journeys in Book III and Book VI. The element of wandering or journey is recurring element in Romantic verse narratives.  In Southey’s Oriental epic Thalaba, the Destroyer, Shelley’s Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, Alastor, Queene Mab, The Witch  of Atlas, Moore’s Lalla Rookh, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the Eastern Tales, Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Christabel wandering/journey is an important element. The trope of wandering transmigrated into Romantic poetry from the Oriental tales and Gothic novels, apart from the epic and romance traditions. In Gebir three journeys are undertaken: firstly, the subterranean journey made by the eponymous hero in Book III; secondly, the aerial journey made by the hero’s pastoral brother and his nymph wife in Book VI; and the third journey in the poem undertaken by Dalica in Book V. The interpreters of the poem have dominantly concentrated on the first two journeys and Dalica’s journey has received little critical attention. However, to understand the colonial politics of the poem it is necessary to deeply analyse the third journey.

Gebir’s descent into the abyss is a reflection of the past and Tamar’s aerial survey is a vision of the future, but Dalica’s journey on the surface of the earth is concerned with the present, her immediate concern for the sovereignty of her native land. Book III begins with the description of Gebir’s descent into the underworld. He meets Aaron who tells him the story of Sedad’s race, to which Gebir belongs. The race of Sedad was once powerful on earth, but now in the abysmal hell they regret their earthly exploits: “How gladly would they poverty embrace/ How labour even for their deadliest foe!”(Book III, 43-44). The suffering of the conquerors depicted in this book sends out an anti-imperial message. The meeting of Gebir with the ‘Tom-Painish’ Aroar in the underworld has a number of references to European monarchs like George III, Louis XVI, William III and Charles II and this makes the anti-imperial anti-colonial argument stronger. In Book VI Tamar’s nymph-beloved takes him on an aerial journey. It covers much of the world in its survey and a prophecy is made that all the proud tyrants, including Gebir will be destroyed. There are moralizing lines commenting on the vain glories of the world:

With horrid chorus, Pain, Diseases, Death, Stamp on the slippery pavement of the proud,
And ring their sounding emptiness through earth. (Book VI, 113)

In the third book of the poem the suffering of Gebir’s ancestors and their regret that they ran after the glories of war and victory on earth drives home the moral lesson that earthly pomp and glory is the cause of suffering in hell. Similarly, in the sixth book there is a kind of direct preaching against the earthly conquerors of the world, and the nymph also makes a prophecy for coming of a “mortal man above all mortal praise” (Book VIII, 111) who is projected as the harbinger of a golden age. Napoleon is seen as redeemer of mankind. According Garcia, the sixth book is the most subversive because of its “provocative vision about the coming of an egalitarian social Utopia” (433). Garcia points to the fact that the prophecy is placed in the mouth of an Egyptian nymph, who in this poem (and in the mind of late eighteenth-century readers) is a symbolic figure of hermetic magic and enthusiastic prophecy. Garcia argues that in the reference to Napoleon and the French Republic, “Napoleon acquires a messianic status as the redeemer of world history” (434). Garcia explores the possibility of reading the poem as belonging to the subversive tradition of anticlerical historiographies written by radical Protestants and hermetic philosophers in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. He argues that “because Gebir is based on a thirteenth-century Arabian romance that celebrates a hermetic-Islamic account of Mosaic history; Landor's oriental tale embodies a radical hermetic critique of Anglican-British imperialism” (436).

The third journey of the poem is made by Dalica to the ancient city of Masar. Description of the city contains every stereotype of the Orient. The city is characterised by its ancient exotic charm, but it is in utter ruin now; magic and witchery, and dangerous animals threatening life is a part and parcel of this city; it is represented as a place of darkness and evil. The book begins with description of the ancient charm of the city: it was once a glorious place— “a fair city, courted then by king, /Mistress of nations, thronged by palaces,”—but now is in utter ruin: “Bereft of beauty, bare of ornaments, /Stood in the wilderness of woe, Masar” (82). The place is characterised as "Treacherous and fearful" (82.) populated by fierce animals like hyena. “Masarian Dalica”(82) dares to visit this dangerous place and she meets her sister Myrthyr addresses Delicca as “Woman of outer darkness, fiend of death,” and accuses her of overhearing the secret words of magic: “From what inhuman cave, what dire abyss, /Hast thou invisible that spell o'erheard?” Myrthyr does not mean to address her sister like this but she fails to recognise her and mistakes Dalica for a common Egyptian woman. She accuses Dalica of profanity. Dalica's in her reply reveals her patriotic feelings: “Dalica cried, To heaven, not earth, addressed, / Prayers for protection cannot be profane’” (84). The sisters recognise each other and from the conversation that follows, we get to know that they belong to a race of magicians preserving their tradition for generations. Dalica in a long speech explains to Myrthyr the cause of her visit. Referring to Gebir’s invasion in her speech she defines Charoba as an infant like queen who does not know the value of the crown (“She thought the crown a plaything to amuse”) nor can she protect the country: “Herself, and not the people, for she thought/Who mimic infant words might infant toys” (88). As the queen cannot protect her country Dalica has assumed the responsibility to do so and she has planned to kill Gebir. One notable matter in her speech is her misinterpretation of Charoba’s behaviour. She suspected that Charoba has fallen in love with Gebir but Charoba protests that she was in love: “Then saw I, plainly saw I, 'twas not love,” because it is her “natural temper” that “what she likes/ She speaks it out, or rather she commands.” Dalica is confirmed that the queen is not in love with Gebir and “the death of Gebir is resolved” (92-93). To protect the queen and her country she plans Gebir’s murder. Accordingly, she is not the person to blame; yet at the end of the poem, she is made the villain while Gebir becomes the victim of her villainy achieving the status of a tragic hero.
If the poem is interpreted as a radical critique of British imperialism as indicated by Butler, Sharafuddin and Garcia, Dalica’s actions should be celebrated in the poem because Gebir’s colonial desire is thwarted by her. However, Dalica and her sister are represented as masters of witchery. The sisters seem to have their forerunners in the demonic women of the Gothic novels exemplified by Carathis in Vathek or Matilda in The Monk who in turn look back to the figures of Eastern women like Cleopatra or the Eastern heroines of the Middle English romances like Floripas in Swodne of Babylon and Josian in Sir Bevis of Hampton— violent, cunning and lustful. A close look reveals that Dalica belongs to the race of seductive but demonic female in Romantic poetry, the femme fatale figure represented by characters like Maimuna and Khawla in Southey’s Thalaba, the Destroyer, Geraldine in Coleridge’s Christabel, the eponymous heroine of in Shelley Queene Mab, Gulnare in Byron’s Lara or the mysterious lady in Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Landor portrays Dalica as a vicious women and queen Charoba as innocent and meek. No such difference between Charoba and Dalica is found in the earlier versions of the tale. This distancing of the two women is problematic.  Dalica’s actions are not approved by the author and the readers’ sympathy is drawn towards Gebir, the dying hero and Charoba, the suffering queen. In Reeve’s narrative, the queen and her nurse (Dalica) together plan to kill the invader, but Landor’s scheme Dalica alone commits the murder. She is conceived as a hindrance to the union of the invader and the invaded, the colonized and the colonizer. Her counterpart is primarily Tamar’s beloved nymph who has magical power but she uses it for ‘good.’ The nymph is the docile sister of Dalica. Dalica also stands in contrast to Charoba, the innocent queen who is acquiescent to the desire of the king and gives Gebir the upper hand: “He was a conqueror, still am I a queen” (Book IV, 71). Reading Dalica in the context of the history of Western polemics and politics of representation it becomes impossible to read the romance as an anti-colonial tale.

Nigel Leask interprets Landor’s tale as depicting the fall of the old mercantilism (Gebir's colonizing mission) and the rise of the new free trade empire (Napoleon's redemptive freedom). Leask’s study once again concentrates on the first two journeys; particularly, on the sixth book of Gebir where Tamar’s beloved the Egyptian nymph takes him on a flight over Europe (25-26). Leask’s reading once again has in focus the colonizers not the colonized. As it is argued here if we concentrate on Charoba and Dalica instead of on Gebir and Napoleon we may better understand the politics in the poem. If we accept Butler’s interpretation that Iberia is not Spain but England, Gebir can be the English invader/ colonizer and Egypt may be any colonized/ to be colonized country. Following the same formulation Dalica and Charoba are the natives of any of the colonised nations. In Landor’s poem, Charoba is conquerable and awaiting assimilation whereas Dalica is resistant and unassailable. The tale, therefore, becomes a narrative of the ‘good native’ and the ‘bad native.’ Gayatri Spivak’s interesting formulations regarding the distinction between the ‘self- consolidating other’ and the ‘absolute other’ helps one to understand the politics in Landor’s poem. Spivak analyses the Western myth making of the Other in terms of psychoanalysis and her psychoanalytical triangle consists of a self and two kind of Others ‘a self consolidating other’ and an ‘absolute other’ (128). Gebir, therefore, can be interpreted as an allegorical tale of Empire building/colonisation. In the allegorical framework of the poem, Dalica who resists the imperial force is the ‘absolute other’ and therefore, the villain, and Charoba is the ‘self consolidating’ other who suffers with the helpless victim (imperialist), Gebir. Shifting the scene of the poem away from the present into some ancient time gives it allegoric orientation and helps Landor negotiate British imperial anxiety of the time.

In conclusion it is necessary to point out that Gebir established the thematic and formal conventions of the Romantic verse narrative dealing with the Orient. Characterising the Orient as the mysterious semi-mythical exotic world of magic, witchery, darkness and savagery, contrasting its past glory to the present ruin, characterising the oriental women as dangerous but seductive and using them as a metaphor for Orient itself will become standard tropes of Romantic representation of the Orient.  Combining elements from the Gothic novels, Epics, pastorals, romances and Oriental tales to weave a loosely connected narrative whose source is some Oriental history/story and whose setting is invariably some place in the East will also become the recurring elements in Romantic writing on the East.  Southey’s oriental epic Thalaba, the Destroyer, Shelley’s Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, Alastor, Queene Mab and The Witch of Atlas,  Moore’s Lalla Rookh, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Turkish Tales, Wordsworth’s  The Prelude, Book V all share the most of the formal and thematic elements found in Landor’s Gebir. In the first edition of the Gebir, however, the extensive annotations and notes that most of these poems use were absent. The explanatory notes were added in the second edition of the poem only after Southey’s suggestion and use of it in Thalaba. Long before Thalaba, the prose romance Vathek made use of such annotations. Robert Southey was one of the few admirers of this Gebir and his Thalaba, the Destroyer was largely modelled on it.Beckford's Vathek exercised a potent influence both on Landor and Southey, so did many other Oriental tales. What is most common among these three tales, one in prose the other two in verse, is their attempt to tap the new sources of creativity made available by the Oriental Renaissance. Beckford was one of the first writers to exploit this new source and was followed by Landor, Southey and the other Romantic poets.



Works Cited

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David B. Pirie. New York: Penguin, 1994.395-446. Print. .

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1 Gebir was revised and republished with addition of the annotations in 1803.

2 It is interesting note that the authors of the Lyrical Ballads, especially Wordsworth in expounding his expressive theory of poetry in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, were considerably influenced by Jones’s formulations.

3 Schwab gives a chronological list of works published between 1784 and 1794 to show the eruption in Oriental scholarship during the last years of the eighteenth century after the Asiatic Society of Bengal was established (51-52).See also the first chapter of O. P. Kejariwal’s book, The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India’s Past, 1784- 1838, entitled “The Background,” which analyses the modern Western effort to know and discover India.

4 It is a perhaps a coincidence that Aylmer had Eastern connections and she died in Calcutta in the yaer1800, one year after she came to visit her uncle who was judge in the Supreme Court of Bengal.

5 Coleridge and Southey in their Pantisocracy project, for example, wanted to establish a colony at Susquehanna which they imagined as a habitat of wild animals uninhabited by human beings.