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The Critical Corner - 09/11/2006

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Why we should read...

`Collected Works' by Bedros Tourian
(Library of Armenian Classics, 1981, Yerevan, 456pp)

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 11, 2006

By Eddie Arnavoudian


LOVE'S REVOLT

	Do not go gentle into that good night,
	Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
	Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
		-- Dylan Thomas


The Romantic label has been readily wrapped around Bedros Tourian
(1852-1872). But this enchanting poet is of no school but his own. He
died before he was 21, producing only the slimmest volume of poetry:
altogether 43 pieces, including mere verse written for the patriotic
occasion, as well as drafts and variants. But among them, 15-20 enact
with an impeccable originality and an unmatched beauty the timeless
and eternal drama of our revolt against the inescapable finality of
death; a drama of infinite possibilities - of love, mind, imagination
and spirit - disputing total negation. Here bewilderment and outrage
against the ultimate ruthlessness of Nature: all passion and
sensitivity, all ambition and potential must fall victim to the
scythe, revealing the frailty of all love and life in the face of
Nature's categorical Refusal. Minas Tololyan, who of all commentators
has perhaps understood Tourian best, wrote that:

    `Tourian's love is the beginning and the end of his desire to live
    and the dark fate of being predestined to die...The motive of
    (his) poetry is always the battle between the desire to live and
    the fate of not being able to live...the clash between being and
    not being, striving and not reaching...'
    (A Century of Literature, p185-187)

Mekhitarist literary commentator Mesrop Janashian supplements Tololyan
when commenting on the force of Tourian's poetry. In contrast to
Mkrtich Beshigtashlian, another prominent Armenian poet, Bedros Tourian
is, he says:
    `the poet of rage and revolt, the poet of a huge amassing of the
    spirit, of protest and fierce battle.'
    (History of Modern Armenian Literature, p196)

Only linguistic idiosyncrasies betray period in poems that are
crystallized moments of life. Hagop Oshagan rightly wrote that:
`No living person will find it hard to feel himself/herself, or at
least a part of her/himself, behind each and every one of those lines,
the young in accord with their age, the teenager in accord with
his/her character, the adult with her/his cup of bitterness and the
old man/woman with the despair of lost illusions...'
(Panorama of Western Armenian Literature, Volume II, p366)



I. THE YOUNG GENIUS

When Bedros Tourian died in Istanbul in 1872, some 4,000 people turned
out for his funeral.  Today in a city the size of Beirut, Caracas, or
London this would be equivalent to 100-150,000 people reclaiming the
streets. The people came not just to honour an exceptional poet but an
exceptional man. Tourian was poet. But he was also a play-write,
actor, publicist, intellectual and national activist - and not yet
21. Given his fame as poet he wrote amazingly that `from the day' he
`first was able to move the pen, this bayonet for ideas, I preferred
debate in the public domain to paging the folds of my soul in
solitude.' (p407).

The Armenian communities in Istanbul, and beyond, loved Tourian
because he personified that commitment to public service, to the
advancement and progress of the people that was then (but alas not
now) the hallmark of the intellectual, the writer and the artist.
Drained of life each time he coughed up blood he explains in a poem
`My Pain' that what hurt him most about his fate was not that he was
to be denied room for full personal development, not that he `wilted
before flowering', not that he was `to lay his head on a pillow of
soil before being burnt by a fiery kiss', not that he `had to breathe
the dank and musty air of a hovel' but that he would die before he
could `be of help to his suffering nation'.

`To love and to struggle: here two that are written in fire within my
heart; two volcanoes fixed behind my forehead.' (p407) Tourian was
young, talented and spirited to the point of genius. Yet at 19, he was
afflicted by consumption - that deadly disease of poverty - and was to
die less than two years later. He lived the drama of his poetry and
more.

	`Once it was that my soul possessed
	The fire of the stars, the wings of a butterfly
	My forehead lit by flaming dreams
	Like the clouds at sundown
	...
	Once I had Roses plenty, also stars
	Dark fate judged these too much.
	It snatched them, took them from my heart.

Tourian has, and justifiably so, been compared to Keats and Shelley.
But he was different in a decisive way. He had to write and create in
impossibly inhospitable conditions, remote from the culture, the
privilege and the luxuries available to the two Englishmen. He was
born, he writes in one of his many beautiful letters, in a world that
`seems to have escaped Victor Hugo's attention', a world where `the
rich party beneath their chandeliers' while `the poor freeze before
the spluttering flame of their lanterns.' (p418) His father, a
blacksmith, could not support the family alone and at 16 Tourian was
forced to abandon school and work to support his family.  But still
they could barely make ends meet. In a letter Tourian complains that
`these days employers... want not human beings but cattle that they
can put to work and exploit. (p418). He complains also about a Mr.
Tigran who produced plays Tourian wrote but `refused to pay' him any
fees. In a last unfinished poem Tourian again reminds us of his
material plight when he beseeches the moon `not to forget the hovel in
which the fireplace is empty' and where `only despairing hearts
smoulder and fume'. Hagop Oshagan rightly dismisses those who sought
to disguise these social causes of Tourian's early death behind
ridiculous phrases about him being a`victim of the poet's sickness.'
`Bedros Tourian did not bring his illness from his mother's womb. He
contracted it from a terrible and merciless environment that applauded
this pale boy in the theatre but did not care that the fireplace in
his home lacked not just a fire but even a spark.' (p296)

This burden of poverty did not dim the poet's passion for creativity.
`I do not hate money, but I love the pen' Tourian wrote even though he
was forced to hold it `with frozen fingers'`in a cold corner' of his
home. It was amidst such conditions that this boy-genius managed to
produce not just his poetry but 9 plays, a stock of classical
translations, some quality journalism and a handful of gems in the
form of personal letters, all of them in some manner infused with a
grand love that is pleasure and delight, harmony and reciprocation,
generosity and solidarity in the journey of life.

Tourian felt deeply the tragedy of his own early death. He `came into
the world', he writes `only to witness and to feel' his `own misery
and his own death...It is as if I speak from the grave. I am as a ray
of sunshine that is setting, I am an extinguishing, a crumbling...'
But he did not regard his fate as unique. In a remark recalling one by
Napoleon during the latter's Russian campaign, Tourian writes about
`mounds of soil in public cemeteries that could have been volcanoes,
but instead the spark buried in the dense darkness of the heart never
burst into flame.' (p419) Tourian's poetry lights the fire of their
their dreams too.



II. RAGING AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT

As he was slowly wasted by illness Bedros Tourian felt more keenly all
that he was about to leave behind - a vast expanse of love, imagination
and flight, all life's pleasures and its pains, all the beauty of
nature, its stars and the sun, its rivers and its trees, its flowers
and its birds. His poems are those moments come alive as he looked
passionately, wistfully and then angrily at all that was passing. What
he wanted of life he describes in a remembrance for his friend Vartan,
a young kindred spirit, who was, in Tourian's words, `dedicated to
becoming a revolutionary of ideas', who was `a soldier of
enlightenment. Speaking to his friend now in a world beyond Bedros
Tourian says:

    `Oh, if there is shade from a tree
    And beside it a stream,
    If there is love uncorrupted
    If there is free air to breath and freedom

    Then this very day I shall shake off this
    Dirty rag of life that clothes my spirit
    And will readily cloak myself in mournful soil.

Here the passion and imagery reminds one of Shakespeare's grave -`that
small model of the barren earth/Which serves as paste and cover to our
bones.' This is not the only reminder of Shakespeare in Tourian's
poetry that catches in fine dramatic balance all the oppositions
between life's fading and the desires that still flame within. These
reach a climax in `Complaints', a poem of despaired, impotent anger,
of enraged disbelief and fuming against fate's cruel turn, against
Nature's scorn and God's disdain, against the inevitability of dream
and ambition being shattered and buried.
In vain the flowers, dawn of the spring, breathed forth Incense to my
heart's altar, from the sod.  Alas, they all have mocked me! All the
world Is nothing but the mockery of God.'

Tourian feels `rich with giant thoughts' that are 'infinite'. He has
will and spirit that:
    `Dares defy its mortal bars:
    And seeks to delve into the deep of heaven
    And climb the endless stairways of the stars.

Yet he is reduced to a `withered leaf' that `the strife of autumn
winds must quickly bear away'. He is a `sigh that moans among the sad
dark cypresses' who will soon be forced to bid `farewell to thee, O
God, to thee, O Sun'. But Tourian does not `go gentle' into Dylan
Thomas's `goodnight'. For him this night holds nothing good. Dragged
to its entrance his `heart foams with a Hell of bitterness'. Tourian
is tutored in Christian doctrine, aware of the promise of a glorious
afterlife for `guiltless souls', confident that Deity has reserved
for him `a future life' of `boundless light, of fragrance, prayer, and
praise.' But he wants none of this, not at least until he has lived
earthly beauty of which he has had a `brief, transitory dream'. So he
pleads:
    Oh, grant my soul one particle of fire!
    I would still love, would live, and ever
    Stars, drop into my soul! A single spark
    Of life to your ill-fated lover give!

But conscious of fate's intent he utters his vengeful threat:
    `If my last breath here below must end
    Speechless and mute, breathed out in mist and haze-
    Ah, then instead of any heavenly life
    To greet me when my earthly span is o'er
    May I become a pallid lighting flash,
    Cling to thy name, and thunder evermore.
    Let me become a curse, and pierce thy side
    Yea, let me call thee `God the pitiless'.

This rage was not fired by personal pain alone. `Repentance' written a
day after `Complaints' explains that Tourian wrote it after witnessing
his `mother's sobs as she `wept besides (his) bed'. He saw `her tears
of pity o'er (him) shed' and feels guilt that it was he `who caused
her anguish sore'.

    Ah, then a tempest rose and shook my soul
    A storm of bitter grief, that blasts and sears
    Then I poured forth that torrent dark. My God,
    Forgive me! I had seen my mother's tears.

`The Little Lake' and `What They Say' also register the irreconcilable
contrasts between the barrenness of what is and the glory of what
should be. But they do so at another level. Here desolate loneliness
in a world seemingly uncomprehending and indifferent to his life and
energy trapped and sapped in a body that is frail and fading. Secluded
and in communion with the lake Tourian ponders:
    `For as many waves that you have
    My head contains as many thoughts
    For as many shimmers that you have
    My heart has as many wounds.

    Even if into your lap
    A thousand heaven's stars were to fall
    You would never resemble
    My soul that is an infinite flame.'

But none feel for a `heart that has not been crossed by a single
sunrise.' They ask why the `silence', why the `unending sadness', why
`the lack of fire'?
    `Oh does the dawn that explodes
    Have word or speech
    But it too like my soul is infinite.

`Many reject' him, perhaps because he is not rich and healthy. `He has
but a lyre' they say. Others whisper that `he trembles and has no
colour'. And others still that `he is about to die.' But no one asks
`why do you smoulder?'
    `No one has said `Lets
    Tear open this sad heart
    Let's see what is written within.'
    Oh there is fire, not a book!

As he prepares to go all that remains in his heart are `ashes and
memories.' Tourian acknowledges defeat but he is never reconciled to
the emptiness of death and continues to hope for `roses, fluttering,
flight and stars' even beyond the grave.

The young Tourian felt particularly acutely the barrenness of life
lived without the delights and passions of romantic and sexual love.
    `In vain for me the stars have written `love',
    The bulbul taught it me with silver tongue;
    In vain the zephyrs breathed it, and in vain
    My image in the clear stream showed me young.'

His youthful desires inspired some of the most beautiful but also most
profoundly wise love poetry written. Love is an overwhelming need and
an overwhelming force. It can be neither escaped nor rejected. He
wished `to live retired, to love the flowers and the bosky glades'. He
sought to `dwell in meditation deep and visionary joy' or `tomake a
comrade dear of the transparent brook'. But still he was overwhelmed
as:
    A galaxy of glances bright
    A sweet bouquet of smiles
    A crucible of melting words
    Bewitched me with their wiles.

If other poets judge human beauty by comparing it to Nature's majesty,
Tourian does the reverse, showing Nature paling before human beauty.
Whether she is `flame from heaven' or `a radiant smile':
    `The heaven has not the bright gleam of your eyes
    The rose has not your snowy breast
    In the moon's face we seek
    In vain the rosy flush that dyes
    Your soft and blushing cheek

The beauty of his beloved is superior to all the elements of the
galaxy, it humbles all Nature's beauties.
    When your sweet and thrilling voice
    Is heard upon the air
    In cypress trees the nightingale
    Is silent in despair.

Tourian's love poetry is not ignorant of the darker side of the human
soul. The wonder and the light of nature, the song of the bird and the
wind, the colour of the flowers and the green of the grass are all in
`The Abandoned Virgin' counter-points to the pain of a woman abused
and betrayed in the name of love. Life should have been for her as
joyous and colourful as Nature. Yet it is its opposite. Abuse and
betrayal that here acquires private form appear in Tourian's patriotic
poetry as deadly social vices.



III. THE POET AS LIBERATOR

Bedros Tourian was a man of his times and as a labour of love, like
many ofhis generation, he committed his talents and energies to the
Armenian national and social revival. The theatre and his plays - 9
when not yet 21 - were here Tourian's main medium. `The theatre' he
wrote `was one of those institutions' that constitute the `first steps
of a nation that is in pursuit of progress and enlightenment...without
it progress is impossible.' (p403). The theatre he adds `is a mirror
in which man can see his truthful image and begin to clean and clear
the unpleasant traits that are reflected.' (p404)

Besides his plays three of Tourian's better patriotic poems - `Sorrows
of Armenia' `Wishes for Armenia' and `My Pain' - display an
imaginative development and maturing transition that break an older
mould of bombastic drum beating and desiccated classicism and so echo,
even if only sometimes, the harshness and humiliation of national
oppression and the alienation of exile and emigration.

Declamation and misplaced hyperbole banish real people and genuine
feeling from `Sorrows of Armenia'. But it retains in the spirit of its
patriotic dedication and the occasional vitality of its images a
certain force. Armenia that was once a home `to glorious centuries',
is now a land `of dark blood-drenched soil clothed in ash. 'Ancient
monuments are now platforms for foreign thrones' while:
    `The glowing crown of yesterday is no more.
    Instead of its priceless jewels
    The sweat of bitter thought
    That has turned to stone
    Adorn your furrowed brows.'

The poem also etches, with some accuracy, the internal dissension that
contributed to the demise of ancient Armenia and criticises the flight
of the Armenian elites that:
    `Have across the centuries
    Lost all feeling and don't remember you
    And don't move to emotionally embrace you.'

But its patriotism lacks depth. It is not founded on the experience of
the Armenian people in their historic homeland, in their homes,
villages, fields and valleys as they begin to resist the increasingly
unbearable oppression of Ottoman tyranny. The central terms of
`Sorrows of Armenia', the very structure of its vision - ancient,
classical glories, royal thrones, crowns and courts - are not born of
the homeland peasant whose notion of liberation was a passion for
rights to land and the security to work it. It expresses rather, an
alienated, distorted patriotism, a mirage generated by the experience
of a displaced and un-rooted Diaspora intelligentsia. Subsisting at
the very centre of the oppressive Empire it fabricated a patriotism
that was a romantic combination of bookish learning and the influence
of the awe inspiring glamour of the European powers and even of the
Ottoman Court that together only suppressed and manipulated Armenian
ambition for emancipation. If these nations have Crown and Court as
marks of freedom,power and glory so must the Armenians. So the effort
to reconstruct an appropriate Armenian past that it could then strive
to resurrect.

`Wishes for Armenia' surmounts this alienation with couplets that
register passion for national ambition and public service:
    `What, forget you Armenia!
    Never. But to be a dark oak tree to give you shade.

            Freedom days, forget you!
            Never, but be a flame and give you to the Armenian.

            Dark, dark days, forget you!
            Never, be blood instead and give you colour

            Freedom, forget you!
            Never, but be a sword to open you to the heart.
           
And with `My Pain' Tourian's vision attains a simple but profound
humanism.
    `I have a homeland stricken
    A desiccated branch of suffering humanity
    To die unknown before I assisted it
    Oh that alone is pain for me.'

Elsewhere, in an article about the theatre he also displays the
beginnings of a commendable sense of national reliance that was alas
never to become an imprint of modern Armenian politics. He writes that
to solidly establish the Armenian theatre `we should leave the
foreigner, for there is no hope for us from foreigners, let us place
hope only on the Armenian...only the Armenian can help the
Armenian...'(p406).

Beyond patriotic preoccupations Tourian also did early poetic battle
against a world that he witnessed to be dislocated by discord,
inequality, sectarianism and religious conflict war. Written in 1868
`Love One Another' lashes those `false Christs' who flout their lord's
commandments and `make of the cross a handle to their axe'. Despite
the Christian entreaty to `love one another' in the society of his
time `none love the poor':
    `Effaced and trampled is the poor man's tomb;
    The poor man's candle flickers in the gloom;
    And in that darkness starving children weep
    While in the palace revellers light their chandeliers
    The rich man's carriage dashes gaily past,
    The beggar's lonely corpse to earth is silently cast.

The contemporary and social dimension and concerns of Tourian's
imaginative world acquire bold emphasis in his last play `Theatre or
The Wretched Ones'. It marked a departure from themes of alienated
nationalism based on the romanticised classical histories that then
prevailed in the theatre. In his introduction Tourian writes that with
it he hopes to be:
    `an example for other authors to follow, so that they work to
    create plays that contain episodes from modern domestic life.
    These would be of greater value to the Armenian community than
    (stories) of ancient epic tragedies...that do not always deviate
    from the monotonous...' (p338)

For his own efforts in this direction Tourian's play, irrespective of
its artistic merits, was regarded as a path-breaking step in modern
Armenian theatre.


		   * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Tourian had intimations of immortality that were perhaps inspired by
the boldness and confidence of 21. `Death's pale angels' may arrive
for sure and in a `shroud they may enfold me, cold and chill as any
stone'. But even when' `they have set my tomb in order fair' and `my
dear ones from the grave at length depart':
    Yet know, my friends, I shall be living still.

    But when my grave forgotten shall remain
    In some dim nook, neglected and passed by,-
    When from the world my memory fades away,
    That is the time when I indeed shall die!

For decades after his death Tourian's tomb became a public shrine
visited by the lovelorn and the alienated, by admirers and by aspiring
writers and political activists. His poetry has been published and
republished unendingly and testimony to his living legacy is a new
English translation that will soon appear. Barouyr Sevak truly said
that `for so long as love, laughter and tears exist, so will Bedros
Tourian's poetry.'


(Being no poet I have borrowed translations from various sources -
Alice Stone Blackwell, www.love.poemslibrary.com, www.sacred-texts.com
- resorting to my efforts only when forced to. On their quality I
shall not comment suffice it to note that each translator produces
something new in accord with her or his appreciation. How different
efforts measure up to each other and to an assumed meaning of the
original can be a source of eternally beneficial debate.)

--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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