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Leigh Hunt's 'Abraham and the Fire-Worshipper': a possible source.

Some of Leigh Hunt's poems - 'Mahmoud', 'Cambus Khan', 'Jaffar', 'The Bitter Gourd', 'Abou Ben Adhem', 'The Trumpets of Doolkarnien', and 'Abraham and the Fire-Worshipper' - stand apart for their distinctly Oriental colour and materials. Only for 'Abou Ben Adhem', however, has any Oriental source been conclusively established, through a series of articles involving Mrs James Fields, Myoga, Edward M. Borrajo, Ernest E. Leisy, and Thomas O. Mabbott.(1)

The aim of the present note is to draw attention to the close similarity between Hunt's 'Abraham and the Fire-Worshipper' (1850) and Tale 20, 'God rebukes Abraham for harshness to a Fire-Worshipper', in the Bustan of the Persian poet Sadi (1213-92). The Bustan, a collection of moral tales, had been translated into English by John Chardin and appended to his Travels ... into Persia and the East Indies (London, 1691).

Both Sadi's Tale and Hunt's poem relate how God admonished the prophet Abraham for denying, out of his religious fervour, hospitality to a Fire-Worshipper (Zoroastrian) who had refused to affirm God's Oneness and His beneficence. While Hunt's 'Abraham and the Fire-Worshipper' drives its plot, action, dramatis personae, and didactic content from Sadi's Tale, it displays a far greater artistic ingenuity in its development of dramatic effect and intense human drama. In particular, unlike Sadi's essentially straight forward parable, 'Abraham and the Fire-Worshipper' succeeds in evoking sympathy for the recalcitrant Fire-Worshipper and in projecting Abraham's gradual self-awakening and regeneration.

Notwithstanding the unmistakable affinity between the two texts, it is, however, difficult to say whether Hunt borrowed the material for his poem directly from Sadi, available to him in Chardin's translation. For this fable of Sadi had reached Western literary Orientalism at a much earlier date by another route. J. D. Yohannan recounts in rich detail the 'curious history' of Sadi's fable gaining currency in the West:

The apologue [relating to Abraham and the Fire-Worshipper] had been cited by the Dutch Orientalist Gentius in the preface of his Historia Judaica (1651), where it was attributed to one 'Sadus', whose nationality was left unmentioned. Jeremy Taylor, the English divine, reading this 'Jews' Book', as he called it, took up the parable and translated it into English at the end of the second edition of his Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying.

About one hundred years later, Benjamin Franklin, presumably having read the tale in the Discourse was able jocosely to pass it off among the English literati as a missing chapter of the Book of Genesis. In 1789, nearly thirty years after Franklin's prank, a writer in the New Asiatic Miscellany remarked on the curious coincidence that the American statesman and the Persian poet should have told the same story. Still another writer, Jonathan Boucher, who had read the tale in both Sadi and Taylor, brought a charge of plagiarism against Franklin. For while it was clear that there had been plagiarism on Franklin's part, it was not at all clear whether it had been at Taylor's expense or Sadi's or that of 'the Jews' Book'.

Early in the nineteenth century, Taylor's editor, Bishop Heber, ... was still searching out Talmudists and Orientalists to discover the source of the parable. It finally took the testimony of Lord Teignmouth, one-time governor-general of India and biographer of Sir William Jones, to establish Sadi's claim to the ultimate authorship of the tale. And, as if in spite, Franklin's editors have continued to retain the parable among the learned doctor's work. This, despite the fact that it is virtually a copy of an English translation of a Latin version of a Persian original!(2)

Despite his thorough knowledge of the history of Sadi's piece, even Yohannan fails to point out that Hunt's 'Abraham and the Fire-Worshipper' grew out of it by one means or another.

A. R. KIDWAI Aligarh Muslim University

VINCENT NEWEY University of Leicester

1 Mrs James Fields, 'A Shelf of Old Books ... Leigh Hunt', Scribner's, iii (March 1888), 285-305; Myoga, 'Queries: About Ben Adhem', N&Q, 7th Series 11 (10 January 1891), 26; Edward M. Borrajo, 'Abou Ben Adhem', N&Q 7th Series 11 (24 January 1891), 77; Ernest E. Leisy, 'Hunt's "Abou Ben Adhem'", Explicator, V, 2 (November 1946), item 9; Thomas O. Mabbott, 'Hunt's "Abou Ben Adhem'", Explicator, V, 5 (March 1947), item 39.

2 John D. Yohannan, Persian Poetry in England and America: A 200-Year History (New York, 1977), xvii-xviii.
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Author:Kidwai, A.R.; Newey, Vincent
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Mar 1, 1996
Words:724
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