Literary Influences: Romanticism and Urdu

“The enduring lesson of the approach to literature and culture that Edward Said inaugurated in 1978 in Orientalism, after all, is that literary texts are far more worldly than scholars once used to allow: more aware of their location in the world, of their connections to world events, and even of their affiliations with world powers; at the very least, more rooted in the world and its affairs than used to be acknowledged.”

- Saree Makdisi, “Worldly Romanticism”

In order to understand the nature of the verse crafted by John Leyden, it is necessary to take into account the contemporary literary movements surrounding its creation. This essay speaks in particular of Western Romanticism and Eastern Urdu poetry for when studying the verse of The Tales of The Peries, one discovers the author’s attempt to fuse both poetic traditions. The lyrical forms of Western Romanticism meet the sensibilities and aesthetics of the Urdu poetry indigenous to the East. Although Leyden worked within the immediate context of Indian culture, it is clear he was nonetheless influenced by literary and poetic inventions nearer to his birthplace. He attempted to present a melding or rather a reconciliation of these two simultaneously developing cultures, although it can surely be debated whether he succeeded or simply created a caricature of higher poetic traditions. Regardless of the extent of his success or his failure, Leyden fosters a novel interaction between two literary cultures spanning continents.

In terms of Western influence, Leyden’s work corresponds to the rise of Romanticism. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, this literary movement strove to create an entirely new aesthetic. It was one that recognized the necessity of emotion and the purity of nature. Sentiment, raw and spontaneous, overrode the need for rationality. Nature itself became associated with transcendence and individual agency. Edwin Berry Burgum comments, "nature [was] an objective reality, virtually synonymous with God, to which the poet reverently subordinate[d] himself" (481) 1. In this sense, nature assumed its very own sense of divinity, demanding a sort of written genuflection. The Romantic poet recognized its power and its potential. He expressed his appreciation and enthusiasm through terms of unadulterated sentiment. Still, despite this certain welcoming of overflowing emotion, the Romantic poets also recognized the need for formal poetic structures, placing particular emphasis on meter.

In addition to these aesthetics, Romanticism also called into discussion both the virtues and the vices of political acquisition and occupation. In his introduction entitled “Worldly Romanticism,” Saree Makdisi comments that Romanticism “was one of the earliest to take the question of empire seriously” (429) 2. Within this field, there was an ever evolving dynamic between eloquent poetics and “the blood and sweat of imperial conquest” (Makdisi, 429). In this respect, Romantic poets were not only concerned with the aesthetics to be found in their backyard, but also those to be found across continents and those to be gained by imperialism. As Nigel Leask suggests with his discussion of Byron and Byron's Eastern Tales, the Orient in particular held special allure to Romantic writers 3. This attraction was not only derived from the imaginative quality that the mystical Orient presented, but it was also founded upon the Romantic’s ability to judge the public’s desires. As Leask describes, Byron, in particular, recognized the commercial success that was to be made off of the European public’s “Orientalization.”

It can be seen that Leyden appreciated the finer talents of his contemporaries and worked to integrate these new poetic conventions within his own literary creation. For example, his characterization of nature through verse is consistent with that of the Romantic tradition. In the beginning of his tale, Leyden contemplates the environment of Azar Shah’s realm, remarking, “Where languid streamlets sleep between/ The verdure wakes in livelier green/ While every rose a thousand tints/ Along its blushing leaves depaints” (Leyden, 5). In this example, like many other descriptions of fantastic environments throughout his tale, he presents nature in its most sublime and yet most mystical form. There is a sense of a poetic reverence for nature as a separate and transcendent entity. The diction in itself, such as the use of "languid" and "verdure" attempt to recapture a quality of old world grandeur. The use of these conventions work to replicate the Romantic spirit.

Like Byron, Leyden was also similarly attracted to the poetic potential of the Orient. He found inspiration in the culture and the literary customs of his immediate context. Thus, his very choice of subject matter points to a Romantic foundation. However, there is also the sense that Leyden had hoped to profit off a Western audience's penchant for Eastern tales. One could possibly speculate about the presence of a personal, financial interest paralleling the author's intellectual intrigue. Whatever may be the motivation, it is clear that Leyden's The Tale of the Peries looked to engage a broader readership that yearned for details of a "mysterious" Orient.

Although Leyden became engaged with eastern languages and traditions and took up residence in the East, he still remained under the influence of Western literary innovation. In particular, the author tried to interact with the interests of the Romantics and to replicate their various sensibilities. In fact, it is noted that his first point of literary reference was based off of the poeticism of the West for “[Leyden] believed himself capable of...surpassing Milton as a poet” (Eastwood, 640) 4. Although it could be said that the verse in The Tale of the Peries cannot truly compare with that produced by great Romantics, such as Byron or Wordsworth, it is clear by studying Leyden’s poetic language and form that he was indeed influenced by the Romantic tradition.

In terms of Eastern influence, Leyden’s work shows traces of the Urdu tradition to which he must have been introduced during his academic reign in India. Appearing in the mid-eighteenth century, Urdu was derived from Sanskrit, although it borrowed equally from the Persian language. The former, early Sanskrit literature, developed in the form of court poetry. It became a public performance and soon gained ritual significance (Das, 37) 5. This court poetry responded to the demands of the aristocracy, containing imagery of lavishness and monarchical power. The Perso-Arabic tradition began in the Middle East, based partly in the mystic culture of Sufism. Sisir Kumar Das, author of A History of Indian Literature: 1800-1910 Western Impact: Indian Response, comments that Indian sensibility welcomed with open arms the “gorgeous epics and the beautiful mystic lyrics” born from the Perso-Arabic movement (50).

It is therefore no surprise that Urdu blended these elements in the creation of its verse. The Urdu tradition took elements of both Sanskrit lavishness, the language from which it was primarily derived, and Persian mysticism. Of Urdu poetry, Das writes “verbal grandeur, overelaboration, and exaggeration took priority over feeling and simplicity and directness” (64). Of key importance to The Tale of The Peries, Das further comments, “the poetic world moves around [the lover], [the beloved], [the lover’s rival], [the cup bearer] and [the religious leader]… equally predictable are the elements of nature, the flowers and the birds, from which the poetic images are derived. Poetic forms, elegant and neat, admirably suited for this well-ordered, sensuous, and chiseled world, appeared to be fixed forever” (92). He emphasizes the characters around which Urdu verse revolves, but also the timelessness of the mystical world they inhabit.

Like the aforementioned influence of Romanticism, it can be assumed that Leyden worked within these indigenous traditions during his time spent in the Indian academic system and ultimately imported features of them into his own creations. Without a doubt, one can certainly see elements of which Das speaks within The Tales of the Peries: Leyden’s verse is sustained by the lover, the beloved, and the lover’s rival. In this respect, Leyden achieves a certain authenticity to his verse and his larger work in general by incorporating these stock characters from Eastern poetic traditions. The Peries also reflects these “fixed” poetic forms for Leyden’s verse usually remains static in terms of meter and structure. He rarely experiments with different and varied forms. “Verbal grandeur, overelaboration, and exaggeration” are also continually showcased in Leyden’s overwrought style. Rarely does Leyden express himself in simplistic terms. Furthermore, Leyden also succeeds in achieving the traditional Urdu balance between poetic form and the imagined world. His poetic structures, likewise compact and mildly eloquent, reflect the “well-ordered, sensuous, and chiseled” environment of Gheti Afroz and Melech Mohammed.

In conclusion, Leyden's work presents an interesting glimpse into the fusion of two literary traditions. Both Romanticism and Urdu share similar aesthetics, although they emerge from very different cultural contexts. Leyden's inclusion of verse reflects the author's self-appraisal as a scholar in both worlds and his attempt to create literary grounding for his work 6.

1. Burgum, Edwin Berry. "Romanticism." The Kenyon Review 3.4 (1941):479-90. JStor. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

2. Makdisi, Saree. "Worldly Romanticism." Nineteenth-Century Literature 65.4 (2011): 429-32. JStor. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

3. Leask, Nigel. British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

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

5. Das, Sisir Kumar. "A History of Indian Literature: 1800-1910 Western Impact: Indian Response. Delhi: Swastik Offset, 1991.

6. For an account of John Leyden's biography and his introduction into literary academia, see The Figure of "The Poet"