Lalla Rookh, one of Romantic Great Britain’s literary sensations, is a prose narrative that frames four successive episodes. The setting is Lalla Rookh’s journey from Delhi to Kashmir. The irony of her story is her love for Feramorz, the young and handsome poet who tells verse tales to entertain the entourage sent by her husband-to-be, Aliris; only after much agitation of spirit does Lalla Rookh discover that Feramorz is Aliris in disguise.
The frame of the journey and the storytelling places Lalla Rookh structurally in the tradition of The Canterbury Tales(1387-1400) by Geoffrey Chaucer. In the four poems, Thomas Moore’s musical gifts tap a rich vein of lyricism in the English language, revivifying the aural qualities of written verse. The first tale, “The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan,” told in heroic couplets, combines the Romantic era’s fascination with the gothic and with the East. Moore transforms history to tell the story of two ill-fated lovers destroyed by the evil magician Mokanna, a gothic villain who entraps a pure and virtuous heroine. The veiled prophet was the historical figure al-Muqannaՙ (Hashim ibn Hakim), who led a revolt against the Abbasid caliphs between 775 and 780 c.e. in the mountains of what later became known as Uzbekistan. The tragedy of Zelica and her nightmarish sufferings draws on a familiar theme of death by mistaken identity, not unlike the melodrama found in contemporary opera. The ending, with Azim praying by Zelica’s grave, must have appealed to the sentimental literary tastes of the time.
The second tale, “Paradise and the Peri,” is written in a very different vein and displays Moore’s gift for song. As in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), the easy, elegant tone and accessible language of this piece disguises the seriousness of its moral theme. The piece looks forward to the sentimental Victorian ideal of the purity of children.
By Moore’s time, the English in India had become acquainted with the Parsis, descendants of those who had escaped to India during the Arab conquest of Zoroastrian Persia in the seventh century. Moore takes another turn in tone and execution when he uses this as his grim subject in “The Fire-Worshippers,” in which there are no happy endings. The star-crossed lovers are parted forever, and warring nations will never make peace. For contemporaneous readers, this tragic drama evoked a sense of remote history and satisfied...
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