Monday, April 25, 2011

Where Iqbal scores over T.S.Eliot

It is a barely concealed fact that T.S.Eliot, American-turned-Englishman (Henry James too belonged to this category), he aspired to be a philosophical poet, somewhat in the manner of Dante. That is why, he argued in his essay on Dante, which was a reaction to a piece written French modernist poet Paul Valery, that Dante did not have to construct a philosophy and that he inherited one from the medieval church thinker St. Thomas Aquinas. Eliot knew that he was on a weak ground because medieval church philosophy had disappeared the 20th version of Thomism that the French thinker Jacques Maritain tried to popularise did not work well enough. Eliot had done his doctorate in philosophy at Harvard on the British idealist/Hegelian philosopher F.H.Bradley, the brother of Shakespearean critics A.C.Bradley. But that did not seem to help. Any way, Eliot wrote the Four Quartets with the unstated intention of making a philosophical statement through poetry. Four Quartets have a lyrical resonance but there is no thought there, and if there is one it is confused.

Iqbal too did his doctoral thesis in philosophy and the subject was 'Metpahysics in Persia" from the Heidelberg University in Germany and the University of Cambridge in England. There is some confusion as to how he managed to present the same thesis at the two universities. Any way, Iqbal was able to express philosophical ideas in his poetry, in Urdu as well as in Persian. Critics like Waris Alavi think that Iqbal's Persian was written in archaic language and that he should not have written in Persian in the first place. One also gets from reading the English translation of his Persian poems, "Asrar-e-Khudi" and "Ramuz-e-Bekhudi", that it is much too didactic. But there is plenty of lyricism in the English translation of his long Persian poem, "Javed Nama" done by A.J.Arberry.

But there are some lines in his Urdu poetry which express teasing philosophical reflections in poetic language. For example, these lines from one of his short poems:
"baagh-e-behisht se mujhe hukm-e-safar diya thaa kyon/ kaar-e-jahaan daraaz hain ab mera intezar kar." The idea is brilliant and it is expressed in simple language.

A slightly more difficult one is the one expressed in the opening lines of "Haqeeqat-e-Husn", which read: "khuda ek roz husn ne ye sawaal kiya, kyon na tu mujhe duniya mein lazawaal kiya/mila jawab tasveer-khana hain duniya, shab-e-daraaze-a'dam fsaana hai duniya." This can be roughly translated as "Beauty asked God one day why did you not make me undecaying in the world? Came the reply: the world is a storehouse of images, in the long night of tales without a beginning." This is absolutely superb. Iqbal was drawing unconsciously on eastern philosophies and religious insights!

The next line in the poem though slightly difficult is equally interesting: "huee rang-e-taghayyur se nabood jab iski, hasseen wohi hain haqeeqat zawal hain jis ki". This is to be translated as: "Beauty was made in the colours of change, the reality (truth) of beauty is because it decays."

Of course, Iqbal died in 1938 and he was older to Eliot by about a decade and more. Iqbal was born either in 1876 or 1877, and Eliot was born in 1888.

But surely Eliot would have envied Iqbal's philosophical resources as well as his poetic felicity.

1 comment:

Ashwini Kumar said...

Iqbal, as you have rightly pointed out, was a great poet. But we must accept that someone with such apparent religious fundamentalism should not be regarded highly as a philosopher. Another negative aspect of Iqbal's poetry it is elitist and devoid of subaltern feel. For example if you read Baba Nagarjuna's poetry in Hindi it's written in simple hindi and the issues are so close to what vast masses of this country experience everyday.

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