Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxx.

Adrianople. — Manner in which the Turks pass their time — the present pastoral manners of the Easterns, a confirmation of the descriptions in the Grecian poets — give great light into many scripture passages — specimen of Turkish poetry — a version given by Lady M. in the English style.

To Mr Pope.

Adrianople, April 1. O. S. 1717.

I DARE say you expect, at least, something very new in this letter, after I have gone a journey, not undertaken by any Christian for some hundred years. The most remarkable accident that happened to me, was my being very near overturned into the Hebrus; and, if I had much regard for the glories that one’s name enjoys after death, I should certainly be sorry for having missed the romantic conclusion of swimming down the same river in which the musical head of Orpheus repeated verses so many ages since:

Caput a cervice revulsum,

“Gurgite cum medio, portans Oeagrius Hebrus,

“Volveret, Eurydicen vox ipsa, et frigida lingua,

“Ah! miseram Eurydicen! anima fugiente vocabat,

“Eurydicen toto referebant flumine ripae

Who knows but some of your bright wits might have found it a subject affording many poetical turns, and have told the world, in an heroic elegy, that,

As equal were our souls, so equal were our fates?

I despair of ever hearing so many fine things said of me, as so extraordinary a death would have given occasion for.

I AM at this present moment writing in a house situated on the banks of the Hebrus, which runs under my chamber window. My garden is full of all cypress trees, upon the branches of which several couple of true turtles are saying soft things to one another from morning till night. How naturally do boughs and vows come into my mind, at this minute? and must not you confess, to my praise, that ’tis more than an ordinary discretion that can resist the wicked suggestions of poetry, in a place where truth, for once, furnishes all the ideas of pastoral. The summer is already far advanced in this part of the world; and, for some miles round Adrianople, the whole ground is laid out in gardens, and the banks of the rivers are set with rows of fruit-trees, under which all the most considerable Turks divert themselves every evening, not with walking, that is not one of their pleasures; but a set party of them chuse out a green spot, where the shade is very thick, and, there they spread a carpet, on which they sit drinking their coffee, and are generally attended by some slave with a fine voice, or that plays on some instrument. Every twenty paces you may see one of these little companies listening to the dashing of the river; and this taste is so universal, that the very gardeners are not without it. I have often seen them and their children sitting on the banks of the river, and playing on a rural instrument, perfectly answering the description of the ancient fistula, being composed of unequal reeds, with a simple, but agreeable softness in the sound.

MR ADDISON might here make the experiment he speaks of in his travels; there not being one instrument Of music among the Greek or Roman statues, that is not to be found in the hands of the people of this country. The young lads generally divert themselves with making garlands for their favourite lambs, which I have often seen painted and adorned with flowers, lying at their feet, while they sung or played. It is not that they ever read romances, but these are the ancient amusements here, and as natural to them as cudgel-playing and foot-ball to our British swains; the softness and warmth of the climate forbidding all rough exercises, which were never so much as heard of amongst them, and naturally inspiring a laziness and aversion to labour, which the great plenty indulges. These gardeners are the only happy race of country people in Turkey. They furnish all the city with fruits and herbs, and seem to live very easily. They are most of them Greeks, and have little houses in the midst of their gardens, where their wives and daughters take a liberty, not permitted in the town, I mean, to go unveiled. These wenches are very neat and handsome, and pass their time at their looms, under the shade of the trees.

I No longer look upon Theocritus as a romantic writer; he has only given a plain image of the way of life amongst the peasants of his country; who, before oppression had reduced them to want, were, I suppose, all employed as the better sort of them are now. I don’t doubt, had he been born a Briton, but his Idyliums had been filled with descriptions of threshing and churning, both which are unknown here, the corn being all trode out by oxen; and butter (I speak it with sorrow) unheard of.

I READ over your Homer here, with an infinite pleasure, and find several little passages explained, that I did not before entirely comprehend the beauty of; many of the customs, and much Of the dress then in fashion, being yet retained. I don’t wonder to find more remains here, of an age so distant, than is to be found in any other country, the Turks not taking that pains to introduce their own manners, as has been generally practised by other nations, that imagine themselves more polite. It would be too tedious to you, to point out all the passages that relate to present customs. But, I can assure you, that the princesses and great ladies pass their time at their looms, embroidering veils and robes, surrounded by their maids, which are always very numerous, in the same manner as we find Andromache and Helen described. The description of the belt of Menelaus, exactly resembles those that are now worn by the great men, fastened before with broad golden clasps, and embroidered round with rich work. The snowy veil that Helen throws over her face, is still fashionable; and I never see half a dozen of old bashaws (as I do very often) with their reverend beards, sitting basking in the sun, but I recollect good king Priam and his counsellors. Their manner of dancing is certainly the same that Diana is sung to have danced on the banks of Eurotas. The great lady still leads the dance, and is followed by a troop of young girls, who imitate her steps, and, if she sings, make up the chorus. The tunes are extremely gay and lively, yet with something in them wonderfully soft. The steps are varied according to the pleasure of her that leads the dance, but always in exact time, and infinitely more agreeable than any of our dances, at least in my opinion. I sometimes make one in the train, but am not skilful enough to lead; these are the Grecian dances, the Turkish being very different.

I SHOULD have told you, in the first place, that the Eastern manners give a great light into many scripture-passages, that appear odd to us, their phrases being commonly what we should call scripture-language. The vulgar Turk is very different from what is spoke at court, or amongst the people of figure; who always mix so much Arabic and Persian in their discourse, that it may very well be called another language. And ’tis as ridiculous to make use of the expressions commonly used, in speaking to a great man or lady, as it would be to speak broad Yorkshire, or Somersetshire, in the drawing room. Besides this distinction, they have what they call the sublime, that is, a style proper for poetry, and which is the exact scripture style. I believe you will be pleased to see a genuine example of this; and I am very glad I have it in my power to satisfy your curiosity, by sending you a faithful copy of the verses that Ibrahim Bassa, the reigning favourite, has made for the young princess, his contracted wife, whom he is not yet permitted to visit without witnesses, though she is gone home to his house. He is a man of wit and learning; and whether or no he is capable of writing good verse, you may be sure, that, on such an occasion, he would not want the assistance of the best poets in the empire. Thus the verses may be looked upon as a sample of their finest poetry; and I don’t doubt you’ll be of my mind, that it is most wonderfully resembling The song of Solomon, which was also addressed to a royal bride.

TURKISH VERSES addressed to the Sultana, eldest daughter of SULTAN ACHMET III.

STANZA I.

Ver.

1. THE nightingale now wanders in the vines:

Her passion is to seek roses.

2. I went down to admire the beauty of the vines:

The sweetness of your charms has ravished my soul.

3. Your eyes are black and lovely,

But wild and disdainful as those of a stag.

STANZA II.

1. The wished possession is delayed from day to day;

The cruel Sultan ACHMET will not permit me

To see those cheeks, more vermilion than roses.

2. I dare not snatch one of your kisses;

The sweetness of your charms has ravished my soul.

3. Your eyes are black and lovely,

But wild and disdainful as those of a stag.

STANZA III

1. The wretched IBRAHIM sighs in these verses:

One dart from your eyes has pierc’d thro’ my heart.

2. Ah! when will the hour of possession arrive?

Must I yet wait a long time?

The sweetness of your charms has ravished my soul.

3. Ah! SULTANA! stag-ey’d — an angel amongst angels!

I desire — and, my desire remains unsatisfied. — Can

you take delight to prey upon my heart?

STANZA IV

1. My cries pierce the heavens!

My eyes are without sleep!

Turn to me, SULTANA—let me gaze on thy beauty.

2. Adieu — I go down to the grave.

If you call me — I return.

My heart is — hot as sulphur; — sigh, and it will flame.

3. Crown of my life! fair light of my eyes!

My SULTANA! my princess!

I rub my face against the earth; I am drown’d in scalding tears —

I rave!

Have you no compassion? Will you not turn to look upon me?

I have taken abundance of pains to get these verses in a literal translation; and if you were acquainted with my interpreters, I might spare myself the trouble of assuring you, that they have received no poetical touches from their hands. In my opinion (allowing for the inevitable faults of a prose translation into a language so very different) there is a good deal of beauty in them. The epithet of stag-ey’d (though the sound is not very agreeable in English) pleases me extremely; and I think it a very lively image of the fire and indifference in his mistress’s eyes. — Monsieur Boileau has very justly observed, that we are never to judge of the elevation of an expression in an ancient author, by the sound it carries with us; since it may be extremely fine with them, when, at the same time, it appears low or uncouth to us. You are so well acquainted with Homer, you cannot but have observed the same thing, and you must have the same indulgence for all Oriental poetry. The repetitions at the end of the two first stanzas are meant for a sort of chorus, and are agreeable to the ancient manner of writing. The music of the verses apparently changes in the third stanza, where the burden is altered; and I think he very artfully, seems more passionate at the conclusion, as ’tis natural for people to warm themselves by their own discourse, especially on a subject in which one is deeply concerned; ’tis certainly far more touching than our modern custom of concluding a song of passion with a turn which is inconsistent with it. The first verse is a description of the season of the year; all the country now being full of nightingales, whole amours with roses, is an Arabian fable, as well known here as any part of Ovid amongst us, and is much the same as if an English poem should begin, by saying — “Now Philomela sings.” Or what if I turned the whole into the style of English poetry, to see how it would look?

STANZA I.

“NOW Philomel renews her tender strain,

“Indulging all the night her pleasing pain;

“I sought in groves to hear the wanton sing,

“There saw a face more beauteous than the spring.

“Your large stag-eyes, where thousand glories play,

“As bright, as lively, but as wild as they.

STANZA II.

“In vain I’m promis’d such a heav’nly prize,

“Ah! cruel SULTAN! who delay’st my joys!

“While piercing charms transfix my am’rous heart,

“I dare not snatch one kiss to ease the smart.

“Those eyes! like, &c.

STANZA III.

“Your wretched lover in these lines complains;

“From those dear beauties rise his killing pains.

“When will the hour of wish’d-for bliss arrive?

“Must I wait longer? — Can I wait and live?

“Ah! bright Sultana! maid divinely fair!

“Can you, unpitying, see the pains I bear?

STANZA IV.

“The heavens relenting, hear my piercing cries,

“I loathe the light, and sleep forsakes my eyes;

“Turn thee, Sultana, ere thy lover dies:

“Sinking to earth, I fight the last adieu,

“Call me, my goddess, and my life renew.

“My queen! my angel! my fond heart’s desire!

“I rave — my bosom burns with heav’nly fire!

“Pity that passion, which thy charms inspire.”

I have taken the liberty, in the second verse, of following what I suppose the true sense of the author, though not literally expressed. By his saying, He went down to admire the beauty of the vines, and her charms ravished his soul, I understand a poetical fiction, of having first seen her in a garden, where he was admiring the beauty of the spring. But I could not forbear retaining the comparison of her eyes with those of a stag, though perhaps the novelty of it may give it a burlesque sound in our language. I cannot determine upon the whole, how well I have succeeded in the translation, neither do I think our English proper to express such violence of passion, which is very seldom felt amongst us. We want also those compound words which are very frequent and strong in the Turkish language.

YOU see I am pretty far gone in Oriental learning; and, to say truth, I study very hard. I wish my studies may give me an occasion of entertaining your curiosity, which will be the utmost advantage hoped for from them, by,

Your’s, &c.

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