A journey to the source of Arnold’s Oxus

[An essay on my favourite English-language poem, Sohrab and Rustum by Matthew Arnold, from the TLS quite a few years ago. I don’t think anyone’s reading it there any more, so I might as well blog it.]

This is a story about a spy, an epic poem and a Central-Asian river. Or perhaps, at root, about British children’s reading matter when Britain had an empire. The epic is Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem Sohrab and Rustum, first published in 1853 in a collection prefaced by a classicizing manifesto that this overtly Homeric composition was clearly designed to exemplify. The spy is Arnold’s great secret, appropriately enough, and we’ll come to him presently. The river is the Oxus, on the banks of which the action of Arnold’s poem is set, but which Arnold makes such a constant accompaniment to the human action that it effectively becomes a third protagonist. The coda of the poem, especially, takes leave of its human characters, isolated in their private tragedy, and follows the onward course of the Oxus to the Aral Sea, a passage that divided critical opinion as sharply as did the poem as a whole:

But the majestic River floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there mov’d,
Rejoicing, through the hush’d Chorasmian waste,
Under the solitary moon: he flow’d
Right for the Polar Star, past Orgunjè,
Brimming, and bright, and large: then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcell’d Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles —
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil’d circuitous wanderer: — till at last
The long’d-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bath’d stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

‘Who cares whither the Oxus goes, or what becomes of it,’ complained Charles Kingsley, ‘while Rustum is lying in the sand by his dead son?’

The plot of Sohrab and Rustum is adapted from the most celebrated episode of the Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’) of the Persian poet Ferdowsi (c. AD 1000), the ‘national epic’ of Persian-speaking peoples (although, as we shall see, it came to Arnold indirectly). The hero Rustum has a son, Sohrab, but is unaware of it: Sohrab’s mother, far away in Aderbaijan, has told Rustum their child is a girl. When Sohrab comes in search of his father, and challenges the bravest of the Persians to single combat in an attempt to draw him out, they fight to the death on ‘the low flat strand/ of Oxus’, failing to recognise their kinship until it is too late and Sohrab lies dying by his father’s hand.

Sohrab deserves to be better known, a beautiful poem in its own right but also a fascinating by-product of the British imperial encounter with Asia. It once received much more attention than it does today, a staple of British (and to some extent American) literary education, notwithstanding the confident prediction of Coventry Patmore in 1854 that ‘Mr Arnold has of necessity confined his audience to a small circle of scholars.’ On the contrary, Algernon Swinburne quipped in 1867 that its ‘stream of Oxus’ was almost as familiar to boys at Eton as the Thames, but the strongest (and strangest) evidence for the popularity it once enjoyed is a novel that caused quite a stir on its publication in 1937. The Far-Distant Oxus was written by a couple of teenage girls whose love of ponies was only matched by their devotion to the works of Arthur Ransome, but their title, and quotations at the head of every chapter, came from Sohrab. The child protagonists rename their Exmoor surroundings after geographical features in the poem (‘every member of the gang had become proficient in the art of stilt-walking through the Oxus’), and have adventures that parallel it, including a trip down the ‘Oxus’ to the ‘Aral Sea’.

An issue that came to the fore very soon after publication was Arnold’s sources for the poem. In the second edition of the collection Arnold was explicit about them, printing after the text of the poem a summary of the legend from Sir John Malcolm’s History of Persia and sections of a review of Jules Mohl’s ongoing French version of the Shahnama (translating its more than 50,000 couplets was a life’s work) by the French essayist Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and claiming thereby to have put ‘the reader … in possession of the whole of the sources from which I have drawn the story of Sohrab and Rustum.’ What provoked Arnold to divulge his sources was an at times scorching review of the first edition by an anonymous critic who, alongside qualms about Arnold’s religious commitment, had effectively accused the poet of plagiarism. ‘Some of the passages given by Sainte Beuve from M. Mohl’s version are simply translated, and very closely translated, by Mr. Arnold’ who ‘has not thought fit to offer a single syllable of acknowledgment to an author to whom he has manifestly been very largely indebted.’ The reviewer sets part of Mohl’s translation alongside a section of Sohrab ‘that our readers may judge for themselves.’

Arnold is indeed indebted to Ferdowsi, or rather to Sainte-Beuve’s citations of Mohl’s translation of one thread of the complex textual tradition of Ferdowsi’s poem, but for the reviewer (who turned out to be a friend, John Coleridge) to accuse Arnold of an excessive debt to Ferdowsi is a decidedly eccentric line of criticism when the poem is so overwhelmingly indebted to another poet entirely. In fact Sainte-Beuve’s most significant contribution to Sohrab, aside from the story itself, was his insistent assimilation of Ferdowsi to Homer, ‘l’Homère de son pays,’ and his hero Rustum to Achilles. Arnold’s poem is, in Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘a wonderfully stately epic, full of the spirit of Homer,’ an episode which has transformed the Persian narrative into a model example of Western epic technique. The passage cited by Coleridge as unadulterated Ferdowsi, where Rustum addresses tenderly the unknown warrior Sohrab at their first encounter, is a case in point, an obvious recollection also of a moment in the Iliad when Achilles rejects, with a disturbingly untimely lyricism, the Trojan Lycaon’s plea for mercy.

But Arnold’s engagement with Greco-Roman epic was more profound than the occasional reminiscence of Homer. What he achieves in the poem is in fact a remarkable condensation of classical epic. The sequence of duels with which the Iliad and the Aeneid move towards their denouements, Hector against Patroclus, Achilles against Hector, Turnus against Pallas, Aeneas against Turnus, are boiled down here into one quintessential encounter between, as it were, Achilles and Patroclus, Aeneas and Pallas, a conflict between friends and intimates, here presented by Arnold in the starkest form possible: father against son. The Oxus can be read in a similar way, a realisation of an archetypal image of epic inspiration. When the ancient critic Longinus sought to illustrate humans’ innate attraction to the sublime in literature, he used the analogy of rivers: ‘by some sort of natural impulse we admire not, surely, the small streams, however clear and useful they may be, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and even more than these the Ocean.’ Ocean, the world-circling river and mythically the source of all others, is a common figure for Homer’s transcendent genius. Perhaps Arnold’s greatest achievement in Sohrab is to give a poem which is in the last analysis only the length of a single book of Virgil’s Aeneid the gravity of a full-scale epic, and it is the Oxus more than anything that bestows that (somewhat specious) epic status.

That is one way of reading Arnold’s Oxus, but only one. The Oxus is a counterpart of Longinus’ European rivers, yet it matters that the fit is not quite perfect, that this river is ‘far-distant’ from Europe. For there is a quite different way of considering the Oxus, and of contemplating the genesis of Sohrab and Rustum, that reads the poem not, as Arnold wished it to be read, as a return to universal, timeless principles of literary composition and human value (as embodied above all in the Homeric model), but as the reflection of much more specific cultural conditions in nineteenth-century Britain—a heroic poem with feet of clay. It is paradoxical, but only at first sight, that in Arnold’s Central-Asian river also resides much of the inalienable Britishness of this poetic exercise.

The clue is in a letter from Arnold to his sister Frances (Fan) a quarter of a century after his composition of the poem, describing an encounter at a dinner party with Sir Henry Yule, a great expert on Central Asia and editor of Marco Polo. Yule, a literal-minded old soldier, had queried a reference in Sohrab to a prophylactic against altitude sickness:

But as a troop of pedlars, from Cabool,
Cross underneath the Indian Caucasus,
That vast sky-neighbouring mountain of milk snow;
Crossing so high, that, as they mount, they pass
Long flocks of travelling birds dead on the snow,
Choked by the air, and scarce can they themselves
Slake their parched throats with sugar’d mulberries —
In single file they move, and stop their breath,
For fear they should dislodge the o’er hanging snows —
So the pale Persians held their breath with fear.

Rather than ‘sugar’d mulberries’, Yule’s informants had talked of sucking cloves of garlic. ‘But he had been sure, he said, that I had authority for the mulberries, I was so faithful about Asiatic things.’ And Arnold confirms that he had: ‘Burnes says that the pedlars eat them in crossing the highest passes, but it was curious to find my poetry taken so seriously.’

‘Burnes’ is Alexander Burnes, author of Travels into Bokhara (1834), in which he had reported how travellers in the Hindu Kush ‘carry sugar and mulberries with them, to ease their respiration.’ Travels into Bokhara may be an obscure title today, but it was a sensation in its own time. It was the story of Lieut. Burnes’ expeditions into the little-known regions beyond the north-western boundary of British-controlled India: its three volumes recounted an intelligence-gathering mission in 1832 through Afghanistan to Bokhara, and a journey up the river Indus in the previous year to deliver a team of shire horses to the Maharajah of the Punjab (and reconnoitre the strategic waterway as he went). Burnes’ exploits made him a celebrity on his return to Britain in 1834, and the account he published shifted 900 copies on its first day on sale. In the words of Peter Hopkirk, ‘Burnes’s epic … brought to the reader for the first time the romance, mystery and excitement of Central Asia’—a weighty responsibility, given where that fascination took the British in the following decade. Burnes himself would reap what he had done much to sow, lynched by a Kabuli mob in 1841 while serving as a high official in the British occupation of Afghanistan.

The impact of Burnes’ Bokhara on Sohrab and Rustum extends far beyond the pedlars from Kabul and their folk remedies. To read Burnes’ description of the Oxus after Arnold’s poem is, quite simply, to revisit familiar terrain. A recurrent image in Sohrab, for instance,is of a derelict structure isolated in an uninhabited landscape: a tent is placed on a hillock ‘a little back/ From the stream’s brink’, ‘The men of former times had crowned the top/ With a clay fort; but that was fallen, and now/ The Tartars built there Peran-Wisa’s tent’; and Rustum himself is ‘like some single tower, which a chief/ Has builded on the waste in former years/Against the robbers.’ The model is from Burnes’ account of a section of the route he and his companions followed after leaving Bokhara: ‘There was no water throughout the whole march, and no signs of inhabitants but a ruined fort, that had once served as a look-out from the Oxus.’ Another passage in Burnes treats of the ‘Source and course of the Oxus’ from the Pamirs to the Aral Sea, and is the origin of Arnold’s coda. When it was, precisely, that Matthew Arnold’s imagination was first fired by Bokhara is now beyond recovery, but he seems to have been consulting the first edition of 1834, and it was quite possibly when everyone else was devouring the glamorous young Lieutenant’s memoirs, in the mid-1830s, Arnold’s impressionable teenage years. Whenever it was, Sohrab and Rustum reveals itself as perhaps the most striking symptom, albeit belated, of the intense excitement that Burnes’s mission of espionage provoked in his homeland.

Arnold was happy enough to acknowledge his debt to Sainte-Beuve’s refraction of Ferdowsi, and positively evangelical about the Homeric inspiration of his poem. By comparison, Arnold’s other great model, the source of the Central-Asian scene setting so essential to the poem, goes unacknowledged. An intriguing exchange is recorded between an American scholar, F.L. Jouard, and Arnold’s surviving sister Fan. Jouard was researching another poem with a Central-Asian theme, The Sick King in Bokhara, and was struck by the accuracy of Arnold’s evocation of Bokhara, a place he had obviously never seen. ‘After searching in vain for some time—as neither Arnold’s Note-Book nor any critical works that I know of [in 1906] contain any allusion to the subject—I finally wrote to the poet’s sister, Miss Frances Arnold… In reply, she very kindly sent me the following extract from a work on Bokhara by Lieut. Burnes, adding, however, that it was very doubtful whether her brother had actually obtained the story from that source.’

And yet her brother indubitably had, just as he had obtained a great deal of material from the same source for Sohrab. Fan’s fastidiousness about her brother’s tastes in reading is intriguing, and the recovery by scholars of Burnes’ importance for Arnold (in The Strayed Reveller as well as Sohrab and The Sick King) has been a laborious business (aided by a stirling contribution on the letters page of the TLS on April 11 1936). From Arnold himself, there was little guidance, and none in the public realm: that reference to Burnes in a letter to Fan, a note in his diary, ‘Burnes’s Bokhara ii’, in January 1853, as he was composing the poem, and Fan’s own contradictory indications to Jouard. ‘It was the hard fate of Alexander Burnes,’ according to Sir John Kaye’s forthright assessment in 1851, ‘to be over-rated at the outset and under-rated at the close of his career.’ We might speculate why Arnold denied Burnes the limelight shed so generously on Homer and Sainte-Beuve. Was Travels into Bokhara not so incontestably an example of the ‘great actions, calculated powerfully and delightfully to affect what is permanent in the human soul’ that Arnold wanted his readers to find in Sohrab and Rustum?

Suppressed by Arnold, it could nevertheless be argued that Burnes’ contribution was the one that did most to ensure the longer-term success of Sohrab. Teachers may have set it for the lessons it taught about epic technique, but what did it for the twelve-year old C.S. Lewis was the ambience: ‘I hardly appreciated then, as I have since learned to do, the central tragedy; what enchanted me was the artist in Pekin with his ivory forehead and pale hands, the cypress in the queen’s garden, the backward glance at Rustum’s youth, the pedlars from Khabul, the hushed Chorasmian waste.’ To the authors of The Far-Distant Oxus, the exoticism of the scenery is the key. ‘Why do we pretend that this is Persia,’ asks one of them—to be told, ‘Because Persia is a marvellous country, miles of open land and deserts, magic beliefs in stars, beautiful Arab horses, mystery.’ A sequel to The Far-Distant Oxus was entitled Escape to Persia.

The Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon no doubt encountered Sohrab during his time at Eton. He certainly carried it with him as he pursued an unusually intense interest in Central Asia, the culmination of which, in 1894, was an expedition by the Member of Parliament for Southport to the source of the Oxus in the high Pamirs. In 1888 he travelled on the new Transcaspian Railway through the Central Asian states recently subjugated by the Russians. At Tcharjui Curzon encountered the Oxus, and only Arnold’s epic magniloquence could meet the needs of the moment:

There in the moonlight gleamed before us the broad bosom of the mighty river that from the glaciers of the Pamir rolls its 1,500 miles of current down to the Aral Sea. In my ears were continually ringing the beautiful words of Matthew Arnold, who alone of English poets has made the Central Asian river the theme of his muse, and has realised its extraordinary and mysterious personality. Just as when upon its sandy marge the hero Rustum bewailed his dead son, so now before our eyes

                                        the majestic river floated on

Out of the mist and hum of that low land

Into the frosty twilight, and there moved

Rejoicing through the hushed Chorasmian waste

Under the solitary moon.”

Little did Curzon realise it, but ‘Charjooee’ was where Burnes had encountered the Oxus on his return journey from Bokhara, and thus the source of much of Arnold’s scenic detail: Sohrab had come home, and Arnold’s poem formed the unlikely link between one of the last players of the Great Game, as the imperial manoeuvres between Russia and Britain came to be known, and one of the first, Alexander Burnes.

Peter Levi, a more recent visitor, wrote a very odd thing about Arnold: ‘there are some lines in “Sohrab and Rustum” and “The Strayed Reveller” that give a clearer, sharper, more accurate sense of what central Asia is like than any other sentences in the English language.’ If so, it is a remarkable achievement for a poet who, though he ventured a little way beyond Dover Beach, had never gone anywhere near the Oxus. But it illustrates nicely the point that, of the three great sources for Sohrab and Rustum, Homer, Sainte-Beuve and Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes, it is not at all clear that the last is not the most significant of all.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

2 responses to “A journey to the source of Arnold’s Oxus”

  1. Thomas Corcoran says :

    If only Matthew Arnold had had such a romantic view of Ireland. Not that his statues should be pulled down mind you.

  2. Christian Koefoed-Nielsen says :

    One of the great English poems by a very underrated poet. I was lucky to have been set the very two pieces you quote to learn by heart by our English teacher at RGS High Wycombe in 1965, Major Hollingsworth, a brusque Yorkshireman, under whose impassive facade there beat the heart of a true Romantic. I have loved Arnold ever since…..such is the mark of a great teacher, though I don’t think we recognised it at the time!

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