The Afterlife of the Peries in Western Culture

Though the term “peri” is now fairly obscure, in the literature of Leyden’s day and for some decades after his death in 1811, it still saw a lively cultural currency. Perhaps the most famous treatment of the Peries was in Thomas Moore’s (1780-1853) Oriental romance Lalla-Rookh (1817), which, like The Tales and The Arabian Nights, uses the literary device of the “frame story.” in Lalla-Rookh, it is the story (told in prose) of a Mogul princess waiting to be married to a foreign prince, who falls in love with the poet Feramorz, only to discover that he is in fact her betrothed in disguise; the stories are the poems Feramorz performs. “The Paradise and the Peri” is the fourth; here is an introductory excerpt from the frame story:

“As they sat in the cool fragrance of this delicious spot and LALLA ROOKH remarked that she could fancy it the abode of that flower-loving Nymph whom they worship in the temples of Kathay, or of one of those Peris, those beautiful creatures of the air who live upon perfumes and to whom a place like this might make some amends for the Paradise they have lost, --the young Poet, in whose eyes she appeared while she spoke to be one of the bright spiritual creatures she was describing, said hesitatingly that he remembered a Story of a Peri, which if the Princess had no objection he would venture to relate.”

The poem goes on to follow a Peri quest to regain access to Paradise, which she does after securing “the Gift that is most dear to heaven”—a tear from the eye of “an old repentant sinner.” For an online text of the poem see here and for more information on contemporary views of Moore’s poetry, see W.M. Rossetti’s"Biographical Sketch" (which includes Rossetti's own stinging evaluation that “No poetical reader of the present day is the poorer for knowing absolutely nothing of Lalla Rookh.”)

The composer Robert Schumann was of a different mind; not only did he collaborate on a German translation of the poem, but he also made “The Paradise and the Peri” the subject of his 1853 cantata "Das Paradies und Die Peri" (Op 50) for which the Nazis would later show an unfortunate preference (Ostwald 182-3)

Peries are alluded to in other Orientalist works such as Samuel Beckford’s 1786 novel Vathek (“Are the Peries come down from their spheres?”). Byron’s 1813 poem “Bride Abydos” uses "Peri" as a general endearment, but Byron is still conscious of its "Oriental" cultural context

But hark! - I hear Zuleika's voice;
Like Houris' hymn it meets mine ear:

She is the offspring of my choice;

Oh! more than ev'n her mother dear,

With all to hope, and nought to fear
My Peri! - ever welcome here!

Sweet, as the desert fountain's wave,

To lips just cool'd in time to save
Such to my longing sight art thou;

Nor can they waft to Mecca's shrine

More thanks for life, than I for thine,

Who blest thy birth, and bless thee now" (146-157)

In contrast, by the mid to late 19th century, references to Peries were increasingly on the wane, and though the word never entirely disappeared, though it did lose much of its mythological context and instead came to denote little more than an exceptionally bewitching young woman.

It this sense of Peri that we see in the subtitle “The Peer and the Peri” Gilbert in Sullivan chose for their 1882 operetta Iolanthe. Though the seductive lady is in fact a supernatural being, she bears little resemblance to the Peris of Persian mythology; the libretto even refers to these creatures as “fairies,” which it is probably best to consider them. For a clip of a 2008 performance of Iolanthe by the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Players, click here. The full libretto can be accessed here.

Even today, the Peries occasionally resurface in Western culture, though usually again in this same general connotation of a seductively attractive young woman, as in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada, or Ardor (1969):

“He fondled and savoured‥in unmentionable but fascinating ways, flesh‥that was both that of his wife and that of his mistress, the blended and brightened charms of twin peris.” (I.II)

An exception is a Doctor Who reference to “peries” in the 1984 season, playing off a female character named Peri. Though the Doctor quotes Lalla Rookh “One morn a Peri at the gate Of Eden stood disconsolate.” (133) he also shows an impressive (if somewhat condensed) knowledge of the complicated scope of the Peris’ history and mythological context:

“Who wrote that? You don't even know what a Peri is - do you, Peri? I'll tell you. A Peri is a good and beautiful fairy in Persian mythology. But the interesting thing is that before it became good - it was evil! And that's what you are - thoroughly EVIL!”

see the clip here

Though somewhat infrequent, Schumann’s Das Paradies und Die Peri also still sees performances (one of the more recent was at Düsseldorf’s 2004 Schumann Festival.) For a selection of reviews of the performance, and some of the stunning stills from the film that accompanied the vocal and instrumental components of the performance,see here. The piece was also performed in last year's Edinburgh Festival. The score can also be accessed through the International Music Scores Library project.

References Ostwald, Peter. Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius. Boston: Northeast University Press, 1985