Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

A New Divan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th August, 2019

Genius Loci Weimar 2016 / Ackerwand / Foto: Henry SowinskiIn Weimar, where the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died in 1832, there is a monument: two solid seats, facing each other. They look as if they are waiting for two people to come along and exchange ideas across a divide that is nonetheless bridgeable. And that is indeed their function, actual and metaphorical, recalling the encounter between East and West, the Islamic world and the Christian, in particular the Persian poet Hafez/Hafiz (1315-1390) and Goethe. Hafez was born and died in the garden city of Shiraz and he wrote of love (towards favourites, whose gender is contested, thanks to the ambiguity of the Persian language), wine and religious hypocrisy. Not someone who the the mullahs at the head of the current Islamic Republic of Iran therefore might view with favour, one might imagine, though when I visited Shiraz some years ago (long after the 1979 Revolution), people in Shiraz still brought up Hafez’s name, and recited his poems. Even if one cannot understand Farsi the rhythm  is intoxicating. Goethe obviously felt this, too. His encounter with Hafez was through the translations of the gifted Austrian Orientalist and diplomat, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. In particular, Goethe was inspired by Hafiz’s work to write his own West-Eastern Divan, published in 1819 — a collection of lyrical poems suffused with the tastes and perfumes of the Orient and effectively an act of homage to Hafiz. Goethe’s work was not greatly appreciated by his contemporaries, unlike much of his output. But it caused echoes across many countries and resonates still today.

A New DivanTwo hundred years on, to mark the bicentenary of the original publication of East-Western Divan, the UK-based publisher Gingko has produced an admirable and elegant volume that is also an act of homage: A New Divan: A lyrical dialogue between East & West (£20) that is itself a celebration of artistic sensibility transcending geographical and ideological or religious boundaries. Edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson the volume contains poems by 24 authors, East and West, in nearly a dozen different languages, with English translation on the facing pages. The act of translation is itself at the heart of the project, as most of the poems in English are renderings by an English mother-tongue poet based on a more literal translation by a third party. To emphasize the importance of the nature and art of translation even more, there are three essays (among a few others) which follow the poems and which give added food for thought. The poems themselves are to be read and reread, some raising a smile, others a wince of pain, all inviting the reader to enter into the poet’s state of consciousness. Beautiful, certainly; troubling at times, particularly when one considers the traumas that the whole of the Middle East and North Africa has been going through in recent years. I think Goethe would have been intrigued, and I hope Hafez would have been proud — knowing that seven centuries after his birth, under the fiery reign of Timur/Tamerlane, his influence persists.

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