Poetry and the First Afghan War 37

I am still pruning back Sikunder Burnes to reach the publisher’s target of 180,000 words (which to be fair is more generous than modern publishers generally are). It is a difficult process, and it feels like deadwood and weak branches went some time ago, and sap is now flowing with a vengeance.

Had I room I would have added a section on poetry. For those of you who are not Great Game aficionados, the dramatis personae here will be obscure, and make a note to come back to this after you have read the book. But in a tale of adventure, exploration and ruthless conquest in British India, I have been constantly surprised by the connection of almost all the leading characters to poetry, and how closely the poetic was woven into their lives.

Alexander Burnes’ grandfather was of course first cousin to Robert Burns. Alex continually quotes Burns in his correspondence, but not only Burns. He was very fond of and frequently quotes Thomas Moore, and Alex’ correspondence with Moore and meetings with him in London are accounted an influence on his poetry. Alex also frequently quotes Fergusson, Ramsay, Byron, Milton, Shelley and often passages of poetry I cannot place. He also had a real passion for the Persian classical poets, who he regularly quotes in Persian.

The Burnes family were stationed at the cantonment in Bhuj, Cutch for 13 years. Their first chaplain in Bhuj was James Gray, himself a noted poet, editor of Fergusson, Hogg’s brother-in-law and one time teacher of Robert Burns’ children.

The President of the Board of Control, John Cam Hobhouse, had been Byron’s closest friend and companion. The Secretary of the Secret Committee working under him was the poet Thomas Love Peacock. (I digress from poetry to note the Secretary of the Political Committee was John Stuart Mill). Alex’ friend and colleague Darcy Todd was the son of Coleridge’s muse Mary Evans. Henry Torrens, Auckland’s secretary, was a minor poet of some merit and in addition to his original work translated the Thousand and One Nights, on which even the apparently unpoetic William Hay Macnaghten worked (a sadly bowdlerised affair). Surprisingly, Mohan Lal reckoned Charles Masson a “great poet”, very probably in the Persian language, though I have been unable to find his poetry among his papers in the British Library. Lal was himself a poet. Shah Shuja was reputed a fine poet. Mehir Dil Khan of Kandahar, a key participant in Burnes’ Kabul negotiations of 1837, led an important revival in Afghan courtly poetry.

There is much more. I was not in any sense considering poetry as a theme when I started research, but have been struck by the way that poetry was interwoven into daily life, and a poetic sensibility was part of the world view of the administrators of the British imperium in India in the 1820s and 1830s. I did not expect that at all. How their world views were reconciled with imperial aggression, exploitation and even atrocity (and individual reactions were very different) is a major part of the study.

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37 thoughts on “Poetry and the First Afghan War

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  • Fwl

    Baal – Ah yes, good points.

    And then the Americans criticised the British and French for continuing imperialism post WW1 pretending to be a modern post imperialist nation whilst putting up the House of Saud – with the assistance of Kim Philby’s father.

  • Abe Rene

    Good luck with your book! I hope you will manage to include at least something about the influence of poetry on these characters, if it is necessary to the reader’s understanding of them.

  • Mary

    Ref the new BLiar job, I really think he should intervene here as he is all for ‘tolerance’ now.

    The war by the Zionist entity on the native people in their bits of land becomes steadily more intensive and cruel. The NZ bulletin records invasion of the Al Aqsa mosque now almost every day. It is the third most holy site in Islam.

    3-06-15 “Israeli Army Mosque violation: Jerusalem – 09:00, settler militants, escorted by Israeli forces, invaded the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and molested worshippers.”
    New Zealand Palestine Human Rights Campaign.

    Imagine the response if Muslims here entered a synagogue or Christian cathedral with paramilitaries whilst shouting obscenities?

  • Clydebuilt

    Looking forward to reading your book.
    Perhaps poetry meant more to folk from the Victorian as they weren’t Continually exposed to the numerous stimuli of our electronic age.

  • conjunction

    Poetry doesn’t really work unless it’s true. Maybe that’s why it sustains people when nothing else can.

    ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty”-that is all
    Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Poets used to lead armies into battle. There is nothing inherently peaceful, or healing, or progressive, about poetry (or indeed art of any sort). It is ‘music by other means’. And without going too Kubrick, the first music created by humans, or our progenitors, may have been the banging of a bone on a skull.

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