Monday, October 19, 2009

The return of William Cowper

‘Hamdardi’ (Sympathy) is one of the most well-known of the seven poems which Iqbal wrote for children. In eight couplets, it is a parable about a nightingale worrying about reaching its nest after dark and a glowworm offering its light to show the way.

In his anthology Baang-i-Dara (1924), Iqbal captioned the poem as “Makhooz az William Cowper” (adapted from William Cowper), and that is the problem. Scholars have not found anything in the work of Cowper to be identified as source. The closest is ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm’ but there the nightingale is about to eat the glowworm when the worm asks the bird to remember that the garden needs both of them.

It is safe to presume that Iqbal captioned his own poem as “adapted from William Cowper” because characters were similar even if he had altered the story. As soon as we presume this, as some scholars have, we face another problem. Iqbal’s anthology contains a separate and more faithful translation of Cowper’s poem by the title ‘Aik Parinda aur Jugno’ (literally ‘A Nightingale and A Glowworm’), where characters as well as the story are exactly the same as Cowper’s, but that poem is not marked as an adaptation at all (although it was sub-titled “az Angrayzi,” i.e. "from English" when first printed in a magazine several years before the anthology).

How come that Iqbal is willing to attribute his more original poem to Cowper but seems to be stingy about giving him acknowledgement where it is due? This brings us to the third problem: Iqbal’s poem ‘Parinday ki Faryad’ (The Lament of a Bird) is the only one of his seven poems for children which is not marked as an adaptation, and again, it turns out to be adapted from a poem by Cowper, ‘On a Goldfinch Starved to Death in His Cage’!

This is a bit too complicated to pass either as mere carelessness or plagiarism. Throughout his works, Iqbal is careful to indicate when something is an adaptation. Why would he make the borrowings from Cowper to be the only exceptions? If so, why name Cowper as the source poet of ‘Sympathy', a piece which could genuinely be treated as an original?

One possible solution to this riddle sounds wild and outlandish but it is also the most satisfactory. Indeed, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall in place if we only suppose that ‘Sympathy’ is not adapted from a poem by William Cowper but from the story of his life. The nightingale of Iqbal’s poem is none other than Cowper himself.

To be continued.


  1. Amazing, and how outlandish that might sound but this is a real discovery-Sympathty is not an adaptation of Cowper's poem but the Story of his Life...just see his biographical notes and the code breaks...

  2. How I love to read notes on literature and find that the notes themselves are a delicious mystery as compelling as any piece of art in words!

  3. Not to equate myself with Iqbal but perhaps his reason was the same as mine. I don't always state that some of my own poems are translations from Urdu poets. This is because they are poems on their own using conventional meters, rhyme and form. In my personal collection of poems I have compiled them under a separate section as 'Adaptations from ...' they are at best adaptations. Sometimes I liberally move away from a transliteration but always make sure to preserve the essence of the original work.

    Poetry composition is a highly complex process.