- Islam and Romanticism: Muslim Currents from Goethe to Emerson by Jeffrey Einboden
Jeffrey Einboden begins Islam and Romanticism by signalling his awareness of Edward Said’s Orientalism and the critical literature it has inspired, but goes on to state that his own work focuses on “cultural conversation, rather than political power, accenting models of imaginative reception, rather than material dominion.” His book “sketches a select genealogy of literary influence” that explores [End Page 276] “the catalyzing effect which Muslim sources have exercised on Western creativity” (5). Unlike critics who focus on one national tradition, Einboden treats Romanticism as an international phenomenon, following its development from Germany to England and the United States.
The book consists of a series of short chapters that provide examples of ways in which Western writers have been inspired by Islamic sources. Einboden begins with Goethe’s reworking of Voltaire’s Mahomet for the Weimar stage in 1800, loops back to “Mahomets Gesang” (1774) and the fragmentary drama for which it was written, and jumps forward to Goethe’s desultory efforts to learn Arabic and his sustained engagement with Persian poetry, which led to the publication of the West-östlicher Divan (1819). A chapter on Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall gives an overview of his life and explains the importance of his translations of the Persian poet Hafiz’s works for Goethe’s Divan. Einboden also includes brief discussions of Islamic themes in Herder’s Ideen, focusing on his sympathetic portrait of Mohammed and the early spread of the religious movement he inspired. Einboden rounds out his overview of German writers with a short chapter on the Romantic fascination with the East revealed in Friedrich Schlegel’s early fragments and Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a novel that features medieval Crusaders to the Holy Lands and an Islamic refugee in Europe.
A second cluster of chapters in Islam and Romanticism centers on a series of British authors. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the summer of 1798 gave a new urgency to Islamic themes in Western art, as Romantic poets pictured “the Prophet’s career as an ambivalent allegory for Napoleon’s conquests” (81). Coleridge wrote a poem on the “Flight and Return of Mohammed” (1799) together with Robert Southey, who went on to compose Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), a mythic fantasy inspired by the Arabian Nights. Southey’s Orientalist poetry, in turn, was inspired by the work of his friend Walter Savage Landor, whose Gebir (1798) features a Spanish prince on a mission to the Nile in a thinly veiled reference to Napoleon.
Unlike these poets, who conjured up images of the East while living in England, Lord Byron actually travelled to the Mediterranean and even confessed that at one point, he “was very near becoming a Musselman” (113). His Turkish Tales (1813–16) were popular with his contemporary readers and influential for subsequent generations of British authors. His friend Percy Bysse Shelley also explored Islamic topics, although, as Einboden observes, The Revolt of Islam (1818) has more to do with British politics than the Muslim religion. Shelley’s wife Mary, in turn, introduced the Orientalist Henry Clerval as Victor Frankenstein’s best friend in her first novel, while the monster learns to speak and read by overhearing the education of Safie, the Arabian, who is the victim of anti-Islamic prejudice in Paris and escapes the anti-feminist tyranny of her Turkish father by fleeing to Germany.
Three final chapters concentrate on nineteenth-century American authors. Washington Irving, who formed a friendship with Mary Shelley while living in England, published a two-volume Life of Mahomet and his Successors in 1849–50. Before he established his fame in short fiction, Edgar Allan Poe published an early poem on the Muslim conqueror Tamerlane in 1827; he also broached Islamic [End Page 277] topics in some of his later poems. Ralph Waldo Emerson, finally, purchased a copy of the Koran while visiting Coleridge in London. The sacred text inspired some of his early poetry and left its mark on...