Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1036

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 their pleasure in weeping copious tears over inexorable twists of fate.

The fourth poem, “The Light of the Haram,” deals with the doting love of the Mughal emperor for his wife, Nur Mahal (later Nur Jahan). With this tale of Aurungzebe’s grandfather, the reader is returned to Mughal India, where the work began with Aurungzebe receiving Abdalla at his court. Reflecting contemporary British familiarity with India and Persia, Moore’s stories are drawn from either Persian literature and tradition or from the Persianized court culture of Mughal India.

The whimsical Moore introduces a satirical note into an otherwise serious text. Critical of Feramorz’s poetry as melodramatic and exaggerated, the pedantic Fadladeen brings the fanciful and exotic storytelling heavily down to earth. He dismisses the ghastly Mokanna as “an ill-favoured gentleman, with a veil over his face.” A charlatan who knows little about poetry or religion, he thinks himself qualified to pronounce upon both. In this character, Moore, who had suffered personally from the vituperative literary criticism of Sir Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850) in the Edinburgh Review, may have seized the opportunity to retaliate by pricking the bubble of critical pretentiousness.

The most fruitful way for readers to evaluate Lalla Rookh is to see it as Moore’s contemporaries saw it. The reading public had anticipated the work’s publication for six years. When the first readers of Lalla Rookh opened their copies in May, 1817, they found that Moore had not disappointed them in satisfying their voracious taste for all things Eastern. They had just learned of places like Bukhara, to which no European had been since the time of Queen Elizabeth I; the name of Kashmir evoked images of incomparable natural beauty, of perfumed gardens and limpid lakes. New scholarship had revealed the East for the first time to British readers, travelers had been writing exotic accounts, and poets knew the great theme of the time was the mysterious, remote, and opulent “Orient.” When the conquering British reached Delhi in 1803, the Taj Mahal in Agra and other fascinating examples of Indo-Islamic architecture became known to the West through paintings and engravings. Moore’s readers had already heard of Mughal India and the splendor of its Persianized culture. They had read William Beckford’s Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1786) and countless gothic novels set in the East as well as the translations by Sir William Jones of the Persian poetry of Hafez. Literary Britain was eager for more in such a book as Lalla Rookh.

Moore’s readers reveled in the evocative power of the Eastern names and the images of wealth, power, and exotic beauty that Moore conjured up. Since the time of the heroic drama Aureng-Zebe (pr. 1675) by John Dryden, they would have known about the sixth and last of the great Mughal emperors, Aurungzebe. Moore’s readers were aware of the story of the love of Jahangir, the fourth great Mughal emperor, for Nur Mahal; they had recently been introduced to Persian folklore and the history of the conflicts between the Arabs and the pre-Islamic Persians. Moore’s detailed footnotes from respected authorities authenticated for his readers the images of the remote East, of “all Bocára’s vaunted gold” and of “all the gems of Samarcand,” of which they had read in Jones’s translations.

Just as the Prince Regent indulged himself by building his Royal Pavilion at Brighton—a Taj Mahal on the English Channel coast—Moore indulged his readers by bringing them the quintessential Romantic poem about the sumptuous East, replete with sensuous images of nightingales, roses, perfumed fountains, and shimmering gossamer veils. Moore’s readers could learn of the world of the remote East through the enchanted verses of Lalla Rookh and enjoy the love story of concealed identity in which all is well that ends well.

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