POETRY: SPOKEN ABOVE A MORTAL MOUTH

Published November 21, 2021
‘The Shepherd’s Dream’ by Swiss painter Henry Fuseli illustrates a moment from Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost | Wikimedia
‘The Shepherd’s Dream’ by Swiss painter Henry Fuseli illustrates a moment from Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost | Wikimedia

Perhaps the world needs another John Milton for our “age of anxiety” to explain man’s fall from grace, or another ‘poet of the East’ to justify God’s ways to man. But with luminaries of the stature of Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Milton, history is particularly thrifty.

In their epics Shikwa [Complaint], Jawaab-i-Shikwa [Reply to a Complaint] and Paradise Lost, both poets put a sullen Man (in case of Milton, also his cloven-hoofed accomplice) on the couch to analyse the abiding scars of that most soul-shattering of moments: Man’s fall from grace, his expulsion from Paradise by a Creator defied. Grave subject matter, this ‘art for God’s sake’ where the decline of man takes a religious view: him straying from the right path.

How about verse that eschews the melancholy drama, that pokes fun at the hubris of mere mortals with a God Complex? An epic spun from momentous historical events, reflecting upon the character of Man who shaped them, seemingly neglectful of the Divine Plan in his all-consuming ‘war for earth’, through a tumultuous 2000 years of human civilisation? One that is sombre if need be, but speaking many a true word by jest?

B.J. Hughes’s satirical epic Of Kings and Nobilities, while wearing Shikwa’s grand aspect of engaging God and Man in a dialogue, eludes the religious by putting human history centre-stage, employing humour to extract wisdom from human foibles.

Rooted in the classics, it is ‘art for art’s sake’, but if one is to take God’s word for it — “verse my dear is nothing but a dress of thought” — it also seeks to edify by way of wit and wisdom. More immediately, it is fine poetry simply for the joy of it, delivered through playful lyrical flourishes woven with astute observations on history.

A British-Pakistani poet’s satirical epic is fine poetry delivered through playful lyrical flourishes woven with astute observations on history

Perhaps it is inevitable to find parallels in a work that, while seeking to soar on its own strengths, stays true to the tradition of the classics. For that aspiration, Of Kings and Nobilities is admirable, even worthy in the manner few contemporary Pakistani works of poetry are for such ambition. But the parallels drawn are, by no means, meant to equate it to, or give the impression of it being a classic. For that, it has to stand the test of time.

For now, though, it is satire that manages to be both serious and sagacious. Quoting John Dryden, the poem’s epigraph promises to deliver droll humour and wit aplenty: “To tell men freely of their foulest faults;/ To laugh at their vain deeds, and vainer thoughts.”

At the heart of the epic is an endearing God — not judgemental, just indifferent — and a Bard risen from the grave to find himself in the Creator’s august company. God comes across as avuncular, with an eccentric, indulgent mien, eager to be entertained by the Bard (Hughes). Or perhaps a little bored, weary of His own creation? The Bard, called upon to “speaketh somewhat above a mortal mouth”— as the poet Ben Jonson puts it — pours out his muse, ad-lib, for the Almighty to be amused.

There is nothing by way of dark prophecy, but Hughes does, like Milton, draw on the Greek tradition to enact historical theatre. In rhyme and metre, though, the epic owes more to Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage than the blank verse of Paradise Lost. Indeed, its sensibility is entirely English, whose literary canon and influence it bows to in marked reverence.

This debt to English is acknowledged in the introduction, where the British Pakistani poet says his nom de plume is taken from the Hughes Hall college of the University of Cambridge. It was there that he was “corrupted by an English education and a voracious appetite for world history.”

But while English may hold a certain appeal for the Bard, God prefers Greek:

“But bard you seem too inclined towards the English tongue,
Can’t blame you, they controlled all commerce,
Of the world after all. Though their language is still young,
And sweet sounding when you tune Milton’s verse,
But of all languages it doesn’t quite pique,
My interest as does the Greek.”

Audacious as the idea of talking history with its very architect — God — is, there’s a certain geniality to this repartee. As the Bard muses over events played out on the stage of world history, the epic stays rooted in the poet’s — or, for that matter, any writer’s — insecurities. Will his work be read and appreciated? Will it find a publisher? And, more importantly, will it outlive him?

Doubts assail him even when he is certain that his work is worthy of the best of publishers. “I write this at a time when books aren’t popular,/ The thought of the subject occurred while playing bridge,/ With a certain dilettante who sounded jocular,/ And had no love of books, though himself from Cambridge./ I grew confident as that made my lays less ignoble,/ Meaning my scribbles may sit at Barnes and Noble.”

The Bard concedes that ours is a world where reading has fallen out of favour, evocatively describing it as “the sad age”:

“It’s true, I belong to the sad age,
When rich merchants live in sprawling homes,
When papers aren’t read beyond one fourth of a page,
When libraries don’t excite, never mind the tomes,
Such sorry circumstances in effect,
Subdues the human potential, and kills the intellect.”

Quickly, though, he builds his case with a certain confidence that “[his poem] could be the finest from his soil”, stating, as always, with self-deprecating humour, that he wrote the epic “so that some simpleton in a land very far,/ should say “what an incredible writer you are.” Doubts get displaced by confidence, the facetious by the grand, the ridiculous by the subtle. Philosophical observations sit comfortably alongside the eccentric, humour with wisdom: “For life’s journey indeed was more tiring than life/ But life’s such, it harms more and mends little/ Which explains why man in faith’s so brittle.”

To say the epic draws solely from the English tradition would be ignoring Hughes’s own Eastern poetic sensibilities. This comes across when the Bard says Persian should be the language of heaven, and

God, with His universal love for arts, is partial to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib:

“Oh Ghalib, of most beloved Delhi,
I still see him with his scotch and his quill,
Scrawling away the horrors of his city’s catastrophe,
And the ordeal of King Zafar, who’d lost Victoria’s goodwill,
And my dear, no writer may learn at a university,
The treasures his pen bleeds through adversity.”

Of Kings and Nobilities is a bit of riddle and response, where the Bard tells of a king or a noble, a philosopher or a poet, of events from their lives, anecdotes culled from history, to jog the memory of the ancient God who always comes up all knowing, with a recognising “Ah!”

Both a duel for rhyme and reason, the Bard’s opinion goading the opinionated God to squeeze sense out of satire, it evokes the old courts of the East, where extempore poetry, often satirical, was recited to amuse kings and their courtiers.

It was a time when tales and travels were woven into prose and poetry, and the courts encouraged and supported those who made it their profession as an ‘improvisatore’ in the Arabic, Persian and Urdu traditions. Great feats of imagination and memory were mustered to amuse the kings and nobles, or credulous folks hungry for tales from the road and distant kingdoms.

In that sense, Hughes’s epic is also a nod to the storytelling culture of the East — whether on the road or in the court — taken to high heaven to amuse the Almighty. But God — the sire, the king of kings — is no naive listener. Familiar with the feats and follies of men, He even has a few favourites among them: Socrates, now a chief in heaven’s finest college; and Iqbal, whom the Almighty in His vast eternal solitude, muses over often:

“But sometimes in a moment of loneliness I ponder,
Iqbal’s verse, wit’s monument which cast,
Its flame on fallen men who grew fonder,
Of glories of a long forgotten past,
But I say a poet drunk by the deeds of past ages,
Is either a fool or a prince of all sages.”

A sense of irony, yes, but a God with flair for poetry? And the audacity of a mere mortal to put the words in His mouth? There is a certain egotism to the epic for a poet daring to do that, as is there desperation of a bard uncertain where he stands with poetry in a world out of tune with the “rhyming season.”

But amidst musings that are, by turn, satirical and wise, there is a certain Miltonic ambition to Of Kings and Nobilities that insists on the soul’s need to see, even if the eyes have turned blind.

The reviewer is a journalist based in Peshawar. He tweets @aayzee

Of Kings and Nobilities
By B.J. Hughes
Liberty, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698729455
112pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 21st, 2021

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