Palimpsesting the Raven: From Poe to Persian Poets

Out of all natural and supernatural beings, world poets have shown a particular and unique bonding with birds, from nightingales and peacocks to canaries, parrots, and eagles. These poets have often referred to them as harbingers of good or bad omens: either as aesthetically pleasing muses or as messengers of death, who foretell the emergence of the Grim Reaper. Likewise, Persian poetry has often celebrated the presence of various species of these winged creatures, symbolically or allegorically. Nevertheless, not all birds have been treated with equal tinges of joy or affection. Whereas the eagle and the hawk are often praised for their peerless strength and grandeur, and the nightingale as epitomes of beauty, some other birds such as vultures, owls, or crows are frowned upon as they are negatively associated with sorrow, decay, death and the darker side of nature.

In A Fine Book of Crow (Kalagh Publishing House | کتاب مستطاب کلاغ, 2022, a more faithful translation of which could be The Book of the Raven Its Excellency), Iranian researcher Kamyar Abedi has collected and briefly introduced exemplary references to the crow (scientifically referred to as the corvus; also including ravens and magpies) both in Western and Eastern literature from classical fables of “The Crow and the Fox, “The Crow and the Peacock”, and “The Crow and the Eagle” in Aesop, De la Fontaine, Krylov, and Pushkin as well as a number of Persian variations as early as Kelileh-o-Demneh and Onsori Balkhi, Jami, and Nasser-Khosrow, to more modern narratives of Nasim-e-Shomal, Iraj Mirza, Parvin Etesami, Nima Youshij and Natel-Khanlari.

In Persian there are different words for referring to this family of birds, including: Kalagh (کلاغ), Zaagh (زاغ), Zaghcheh (زاغچه), Zaghie (زاغی), Zaghan (زغن), Ghorab (غراب) that is its Arabic equivalent, and Ghalivaj (غلیواژ). Abedi argues that the image of the crow, which was symbolically sinister and negative in pre-modern periods, gradually transformed into a more realistic being, and the crow was acknowledged as an avian company to man or at least as an animal worth addressing (11). As for modern instances, he mentions Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow (London: Faber and Faber, 1970) by Ted Hughes and “The Crow that Flew Over Us” in “The Conquest of the Garden” by Forough Farrokhzad. The last but not the least part of the book is devoted to the instance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1845) and its Persian translations/adaptations to date.

The Persian Raven

In Poe’s poem “The Raven,” the narrator is visited upon by a strange bird repeating the refrain “Nevermore!” which, as the narrative unfolds, has apparently ascended from the world of the dead with a doomed message for the depressed and bereaved poet who has lost his beloved wife Lenore.

The first Persian translation of “The Raven” appeared in 1950s/1330s. Translator Shojaeddin Shafa (شجاع الدین شفا) had first read a French translation and decided to render it into Persian, which according to Abedi, had too many mistakes and lacked three stanzas of the original English. The poem was well-received by Iranian readers of the time, and was therefore followed by more ambitious attempts to translate the poem from the original English. Thanks to Abedi, we can read and compare more faithful prose translations by Sadeq Choubak (1950s), Masoud Farzad (1960s), Ahmad Mir-Alaei (1990s), Hossein Mohyeddin Ghomshei (2000s), and Mohammad-Sadeq Raeisi (2010s), as well as two appreciable attempts by Mohammad Dehghani (1990s) and Sepideh Jodeyri (2000s) to reconstruct the poem in verse and with respect to Persian poetic traditions.

There specifically two more examples in Abedi’s collection that is worth noticing: palimpsestuous adaptations of Poe and invocations of the spirit of the Raven by renowned poets Mehdi Akhavan Saless (“Maya”) and Mahasti Bahraini “The Swamp”). “Maya” is a black bird – most probably a talking myna – that Akhavan Saless is offering to his mother as a gift and future company:

Come hither, my mother

Groan no longer, at my somber, despondent silence

I’ve brought you a new companion: Maya

Lonely, rueful and forlorn, like your son

Look, have you ever seen – except for your son –

Someone lonelier and more rueful than him?

I cherish him so much

A like-minded fellow-sufferer

And like me a slave — cage-raised and captive-bred

A slave who can never set free of his tight cage

– by Destiny’s deceit or the trapper’s tyranny –

Never been or will be free

Not even by the skin of his teeth

And “nevermore”! (translation mine)

Abedi only mentions that although Saless openly alludes to “Poe’s old raven” and its “dark and bitter nocturnal chatter”, in his otherwise fine poem the rhetorical aspect dominates over the emotional one and therefore lacks the Romantic effect of the original poem by Poe. As for the other adaptation, we can observe a “more coherent poetic form” and a “more internalized impression” (92), argues Abedi, and more intricate, as I would like to add here:

Bahraini’s delicate poem “The Swamp” begins with an open allusion to Poe’s raven and his persistence over time as a supernatural being and a long-lasting creature that has surpassed two centuries only to come back with a prophecy to another poet in another geography:

It’s now nesting on my roof –

the raven that used to say “Nevermore”!

I wonder how life, or circumstance,

or whatever you call it, has put us –

two incongruous creatures –

together as housemates. (translation mine)

At the heart of the night, the poet perforce embarks on a conversation with the ages-old raven. Unlike Poe, however, this Persian female poet doesn’t crave for the long-lost Lenore. Her obsession and only question is with the destiny of her Town and the people in it. In other words, Bahraini transforms the character Lenore, Poe’s object of desire, into a feminized town lost in her sound sleep of inaction and oblivion, and therefore adds a sociopolitical edge to the poem’s object of desire. The implication is strengthened with the titular image of the Swamp – or “Mordab” (Dead Water) – which doubles the emotional effect of the raven’s bitter response: “Nevermore!”

Bahraini’s ending lines are as bitter as Poe’s when she realizes, having heard the bird’s prophecy, that her people/town are long dead and gone and any hopes to get back to them or see them active and alive are equally futile:

       Over my roof

       He spreads his black wings

       And I wonder if I can one day  

Ever get rid of him          

– Nevermore!

Or put my hands on him?

– Nevermore!

The Town’s heart has no pulse,

Like the swamp’s,

The Town’s asleep, asleep, asleep. (translation mine)

In the history of Persian translations and adaptations of “The Raven”, Akhavan Saless and Bahraini’s poems stand out as noteworthy instances of hypertextuality, and how the poets manipulate symbols and images as well as appropriate and personalize preexisting world-known narratives to express their own concerns and reflect upon their own cultural issues.

About Farzaneh Doosti 34 Articles

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.