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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.