- Islam and Romanticism: Muslim Currents from Goethe to Emerson by Jeffrey Einboden
In 1800, just as Johann Wolfgang Goethe was working on Muhammad: A Tragedy in Five Acts, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were collaborating on an ultimately-aborted lyric poem about the Islamic prophet, 'The Flight and Return of Mohammed'. As well as inspiring Southey's Thalaba, the Destroyer and Lord Byron's 'Turkish Tales', Islam was a religion that fascinated German Romantics such as Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and later Americans such as Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe. Islam and Romanticism provides a survey of such Romantic-period literary engagements with Islam in Germany, Britain and America.
This monograph stems from an excellent article that Einboden published in 2005 entitled 'The Genesis of Weltliteratur', in which he argued that Johann Wolfgang Goethe's West-Östlicher Divan, a collection of lyrical poems written between 1814 and 1819 and inspired by the Persian poet Muhammad Shamsuddīn Hāfiz, provided an influential model for religious and literary synthesis between Occident and Orient in the nineteenth century. In both article and book, as an emblem of such cross-cultural exchange, Einboden offers the Hafis-Goethe Memorial—a Weimar monument erected in 2000 comprising two dark grey slab-like chairs facing one another to symbolise sympathy and engagement between East and West. In Islam and Romanticism, the most striking and moving example Einboden provides of this cultural parallelism is the Austrian orientalist and diplomat Joseph Hammer's Zeitwarte des Gebetes in Sieben Tageszeiten, a collection of prayers intended as a requiem for Hammer's dead spouse Caroline Henikstein. As Einboden describes,
Hammer's Prayer-book is split in half, its German prayers serving as translations of Arabic originals, these alternate languages mirrored at alternate ends of this 1844 collection. Identical in content, yet inverse in form.
As Einboden shows, Hammer's volume seeks to transcend cultural and religious distinctions between Christian West and Islamic East, positing a universal spirituality.
In the British context, Einboden identifies the years 1809-19 as 'the most fertile decade of British literary engagement with Islam'. In his view, Southey's Thalaba and Walter Savage Landor's Gebir provided important precursors to the flourishing interest in the religion displayed by Thomas Moore, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley and, most crucially, Lord Byron. According to Einboden, Byron is the central British figure due to the poet's first-hand knowledge of Islamic societies, thereby '[a]ppealing to Islam not only imaginatively, but experientially'. He traces Byron's lifelong engagement with the religion: from the nineteen-year-old Lord's claim that the Qur'ān 'contains the most sublime poetical passages far surpassing European poetry' to his 'Turkish Tales'. Einboden describes how the prominent role of Byron's protagonist Leila in The Giaour enables the poet to examine 'Muslim religiosity through a definitively female lens', although he does not clarify sufficiently how this perspective might alter Western perceptions of the religion. In his subsequent account of The Bride of Abydos, Einboden underscores intriguingly the auditory nature of Byron's representation of Islam, citing Selim's aural similes of praise for the title-character Zuleika—for instance, she is 'Blest—as the Muezzin's strain from Mecca's wall'. Slightly disappointingly, he does not explain the significance of his observation, other than presenting the rather bland formulation that '[e]mphasising the elegiac sounds of the [End Page 85] Muslim sacred, Byron seeks to deepen both the artistic and the spiritual import of his poetry'. On occasion, Einboden can be a little too earnest in his appreciation of the poet. He takes somewhat literally Byron's claim that 'I was very near becoming a Mussulman', ignoring firstly that this apparent confession was reported by the hostile Lady Annabella Byron, secondly Byron's general habitual delight in making ridiculous provocations and thirdly, the critical discussion that already exists about Byron's proclamation that he might convert to Islam. In the latter regard, for example, he might usefully have referenced Peter Cochran...