The Figure of "The Poet"

“[Leyden] believed himself capable of becoming a great physician, the greatest orientalist, or surpassing Milton as a poet”
Martin Eastwood, "John Leyden, Poet and Linguist"

When attempting to analyze the verse John Leyden uses in his manuscript The Tale of the Peries, the history of the author himself must first be taken into account. His background and pursuits prior to his composition of the manuscript actually reveals several major sources of inspiration for his work. The first is his geographic origin; indeed, as a Scot from Teviotdale, Leyden was immediately and inexorably a part of a heritage rich with history and literary tradition. An early poetic influence of his was likely the “ballads full of romantic braggarty tinged with a gentle poetry of great beauty” (Eastwood 639) that came out of the borderlands from which he hailed. These ballads described the noble, epic Scottish warriors as they conducted piratical, and no doubt romanticized, excursions across the Scottish border and into England in search of plunder. These types of ballads began as oral tradition that were only written down later, when learned monks came into the country and recorded the traditions of the people. The Tales of the Peries, in both its prose and its verse, owes a lot to the English oral epic tradition. From a young age Leyden was exposed to this, thanks to his mother’s investment in these border ballads 1, and it doubtlessly contributed to his developing writing style.

Leyden actually went on to become a collector and parser of these ballads, which reveal how deeply they impacted him as a child. He was working the hardest at the turn of the century in helping Sir Walter Scott, a friend and colleague, in collecting these Scottish border ballads into Scott’s Border Minstrelsy, a uniform and comprehensive collection of these works. Eastwood, in his article “John Leyden, Poet and Linguist,” writes that Leyden was a “principal but poorly rewarded contributor to this collection” (Eastwood 640), which indicates that Leyden worked diligently to assist Scott and yet received very little in return for his efforts. He is known to have “believed himself capable of becoming a great physician, the greatest Orientalist, or surpassing Milton as a poet” 1, and likely the fact that he was toiling alongside Scott without receiving any of his peer’s acclaim rankled him. He laid grand plans for himself that were impossible to achieve, such as how Leyden himself strove hard to write both fiction and poetry, nearly all of which was universally panned. The lone one to survive with some semblance of critical praise is titled “The Scenes of Infancy,” the result of his failure to find passage aboard a boat to India that actually hit rocks and crashed before reaching its destination.

Leyden also conducted undergraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, and attempted to continue on at the university with an education in the medical field. He was summarily rejected, however, because it became known that Leyden actually had no interest in pursuing medicine out of actual passion for the field. Rather, he knew that the only way he would be able to travel to India would be as a surgeon, due to the strict codes and restrictions placed upon the country by the then-thriving East India Company (Eastwood 640). While conducting his ballad work alongside Scott, Leyden had studied languages at Edinburgh and yearned to take his philology to an international level. He proposed “investigating the ‘languages, literature, antiquities, and history’ of the Deccan, the ‘Indo-Persic nations,’ and the ‘Indo-Chinese nations’” which would include an in-depth look at the histories of each of these cultural groups as well as a general survey and background of their languages 2.

Before leaving for India, Leyden attempted to convey his interest in indigenous cultures with his book Historical and philosophical sketch of the discoveries and settlements of the Europeans in northern and western Africa, which he published in 1799. His interest in the east, particularly Persian or Arabic culture, is extremely prevalent in this account even from the start. On only the third page of his preface3, he writes, "Houssa was reported by Shabeni, an Arab merchant who visited London, to be the capital of a powerful empire in the centre of Africa" (Leyden A2). His pointed description of the man as an "Arab merchant" should be noted. He might have merely said "a merchant," given the name Shabeni is exotic enough to inspire several ideas as to its origin, and yet he makes a clear and distinct attempt to draw attention to his nationality. This is a small window or a bridge to his next big work, The Tale of the Peries, which is entirely concerned with Arabic culture and geography. His work with Africa is merely a preface to the story that he would spend the rest of his time writing.

It can be clearly seen in The Tale of the Peries the ways in which Leyden was attempting to fuse all of the areas of his learning together to create a work of fiction that felt authentic. His prodigious language experience, his time spent immersed in the ballads of his Scottish ancestry, and the travels he undertook in the East are all reflected in his manuscript, and especially in his verse. A prime example of the way in which this knowledge influences his verse is how, at the beginning of the tale, he attributes the snatches of poetry that appear to the poet Huzret Mullah: "From stage to stage from Caravansera to Caravansera they journeyed onwards a procession to use the words of the Poet Huzret Mullah like a rose garden in its beauty."6 By presenting an offscreen, unknown, but Persian-sounding author, Leyden lends an air of authenticity to his work; truly, he could be quoting an actual Arabic or eastern poet. The time that he spent traveling around southeast Asia and the intensive study he devoted to its cultures back in England easily offer an explanation as to how he would know the words of an obscure Persian poet.

There are two possible explanations for his inclusion of "the poet" Huzret Mullah. The first is that he appropriated the name of an Arabic saint and used it either hoping his readers would attribute the words to that saint or that he would use a familiar, accurate name and twist it for his own purposes. There exists in Lahore, Pakistan a shrine to a Saint Hazrat Mulla Shah. It is said that this saint died in 1661, and that he was a Khalifa of Mian Mir.4 It is entirely possible that Leyden came across this figure in his studies and perhaps deemed him obscure enough to pass as his faceless poet while still enjoying the benefit of his actual existence, which would offer some credibility to his use of him as a benevolent, oft-quoted wordsmith.

The other possibile explanation for Huzret Mullah's existence in Peries is more plausible: namely, that Leyden's study of southeast Asia came into play while he wrote, and he used his knowledge of their languages and cultures to construct the figure of the poet from scratch. When one looks closely at his choice of name, one can see the ways in which his attention to detail in studying eastern languages contributes to Peries. In her article “The Structure of Afghan Names," Karine Megerdoomian writes, “Honorific names can be inherited from the tribe and then be added to the two-part name. Other honorifics signify a religious position...Religious [examples]: Hazrat, … Mullah” 5. The fact that the name attributed to this “poet” is simply two religious honorifics put together indicates that there is in fact no actual, once-living figure who these verses can be attributed to. Rather, it is likely that Leyden, in an attempt to legitimize his work and lend an air of authentic ethnicity to it, simply concocted a name that was “Persian-sounding” enough to cite as a reference. Because the two titles are part of the Persian/Afghan vocabulary, it looks and sounds legitimate, when in fact it is just an empty string of words. Leyden was an avid Orientalist and spent his time in southeast Asia researching the languages of the cultures among whom he lived.

The variations in spelling on the name do puzzle, however. In Peries, Leyden writes "Huzret Mullah", while the shrine in Lahore spells the name "Hazrat Mulla." Even more confusingly, Megerdoomian uses the spelling "Hazrat Mullah." What is the true spelling? Does it matter? Perhaps Leyden altered his personal spelling of the name just so to make it recognizable while also retaining the ability to deny that the character was firmly off of the shah or saint. It could also be that the convention of the name's spelling is not firm, and that Leyden in his spelling choices (which also vary throughout the manuscript) is accurate, and that the proper and firm spelling has changed since the early 1800s when he was writing.

Another intriguing aside is the way Leyden phases out the use of the name Huzret Mullah as Peries progresses. He quotes "the poet" continually throughout the tale, but not even a quarter of the way through stops attributing these poems and drops of wisdom to anyone named Huzret Mullah. In fact, he uses the name but twice in the entire tale. Whether capitalized or not, "the poet" is referenced constantly and uniformly all the way to the very end. Why, if he was going to deploy the name only twice, and take it from an actual figure who was not a poet, would Leyden use it at all? He might have only referred to this mysteriously wise man as "the poet" throughout the course fo the tale, since he offers no explanation as to who this man actually is and fails to use his name consistently, or even at all beyond a mere two mentions. The clearest conclusion is that Leyden in beginning Peries was striving for an air of authenticity, perhaps to hook his readers enough to convince them that Peries was a worthy investment of time and that it would actually shed light on Persian, east Asian, or Arab culture. Once he had established his expertise and drawn his readers in after the first dozen or so pages, perhaps Leyden felt that the need to over-embellish had passed and that he could drop the name. A simpler explanation could also be that he was juggling so many complex names and stories that he felt letting one go by the wayside would not be noticed.

Even before he left for his Indian sojourn, Leyden studied language. Jane Rendall writes in her article “Scottish Orientalism: From Robertson to James Milly that “before going to India, Leyden had begun to study Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian” and that “John Leyden was master a very large number of oriental languages"2. As a linguist, especially one who was studying eastern languages while he still lived in England, Leyden would have been able to understand both the meanings of Arabic or Persian phrases and the kinds of cache or connotations that they would hold for English audiences. His exposure and access to western, specifically English, perceptions of eastern dialects undoubtedly directed his concept of how broad or specific he had to be in his writings to come across as the expert he so longed to embody.

1. Eastwood, Martin. “John Leyden, Poet and Linguist.” The British Medical Journal 3.5984 (1975), 639-641.

2. Rendall, Jane. “Scottish Orientalism: From Robertson to James Mill.” The Historical Journal 25.1 (1982), 43-69.

4. "Hazrat Mulla Shah."

5. Megerdoomian, Karine. “The Structure of Afghan Names.” Mitre Nov 2009.

6. Leyden, John. The Tales of the Peries.