Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Iqbal and Cowper

If we compare Cowper and Iqbal, we find that almost the entire work of the English poet is paralleled by the Poet of the East, but invariably the latter seeks to draw out a stronger basis for certainty. Consider the following proverbially famous passage from ‘Lines Shining Out of Darkness’ in the Olney Hymns (1799):
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

It is unlikely that Iqbal never pondered over this hymn before writing his famous Persian poem in Zuboor-i-Ajam (1927), opening with lines that can be translated as:

We are separated from God, and He is looking for us;
Like us, He is in love and is yearning with desire.
At times writing His message on the petal of a flower;
Lamenting inside the breasts of singing birds at times.

Here, Iqbal draw us into an intimacy with the very nature of the Divine while Cowper was content with just pointing at it. The Western critic relegated the English poet to the back row after the First World War, but in the East where Iqbal is venerated as one of the greatest of all times, Cowper is bound to be rediscovered once his close affinity with the works of Iqbal becomes known. This is the second implication of the glowworm illuminating the dark night of the nightingale: Iqbal has salvaged the work of Cowper from those dungeons of oblivion into which it has been thrown by current literary trends in the West.

There is also a third implication. In Cowper’s poem ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm’, the bird is about to eat the worm when the latter gives a message of love and unity. Hence, when Iqbal’s glowworm offers to illuminate the night, it is a victim offering help to predator and letting bygones be bygones. This is relevant because Cowper’s nation had enslaved the country of Iqbal – “flying around and feeding” is how the nightingale spent his day, but what did he feed on? Glowworms! This “flying around and feeding” is that very act of colonization which led the Western civilization astray from the message of Jesus. Hence “darkness has descended on everything.”

Cowper’s fear of damnation may not have been strictly personal. Unconsciously, the mystical poet may have trembled at what was to come out of the various activities of his civilization, be they territorial conquests or evangelical conversions of weaker nations. In his poem ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm,’ where a glowworm preaches love and unity to the predator, Cowper concludes by drawing the following moral:

Hence jarring sectaries may learn
Their real interest to discern;
That brother should not war with brother,
And worry and devour each other;
But sing and shine by sweet consent,
Till life’s poor transient night is spent,
Respecting in each other’s case
The gifts of nature and of grace.
Those Christians best deserve the name
Who studiously make peace their aim;
Peace both the duty and the prize
Of him that creeps and him that flies.

1 comment: