Goethe's The West-Eastern Divan revisited 200 years later

Goethe's The West-Eastern Divan revisited 200 years later
4 min read
25 July, 2019
Book Club: Two hundred years after Goethe's The West-Eastern Divan was first published, Gingko has embarked on an ambitious project to reignite poetic dialogue between east and west.
The release comes part of a UK tour of poetry readings from the anthology [TNA]
In a quiet corner of the ancient German city of Weimer, two imposing statues cut from grey granite sit opposite one another. 

On the left is a throne-like structure representing the famed German romantic author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Facing him is an identical stone monument to the Persian poet Hafiz.

The two poets are honoured here, in this most German of cities, because one day in 1814 Goethe and Hafiz met, although their lives were separated by thousands of miles and several centuries. 

The chance meeting took place when Goethe first read Hafiz's enigmatic ghazals translated by Austrian diplomat, Joseph von Hammer. 

Enraptured by this new world of poetry unveiled to him by the part-time Persian-language translator, Goethe began a correspondence with the long-dead poet. 

The collection of poems that was created became known as The West-Eastern Divan and widely considered to be one of the first, and great, dialogues between East and West.

Know yourself and in that instant
Know the Other and see therefore
Orient and Occident 
Cannot be parted for ever more

Like the Persian poet, Goethe was known as a master of the romantic word and Hafiz's poetry inspired his German counterpart to exchange letters with a great love of his life, Marianne von Willemer. 

Here lies another twist in the tale. The West-Eastern Divan was thought to be for many years the sole work of Goethe, until it was discovered that von Willemer also authored some of the poems in the anthology.

Marking the 200th anniversary of The West-Eastern Divan, London-based publishers Gingko began a project to reignite this spirit of poetic exchange between East and West through a contemporary lens. 

The result was A New Divan: A Lyrical Dialogue Between East & West, which included the work of 24 poets – 12 from the east and 12 from the west – commissioned for the project.

The poets worked together to produce poems inspired by Goethe's anthology.

It features poems written in their original languages including, from the Eastern side Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, with translations in English which – like the two stone statues in Weimar – sit side-by-side on the page.

The anthology is divided into 12 sections, each representing the chapters and themes of Goethe's West-Eastern Divan, which was also translated and published by Gingko this year in a new, scholarly, annotated bilingual version, translated by Eric Ormsby, to commemorate its 200th anniversary of Goethe's original work.

In A New Divan, the poems of these "12 books" mirror the themes of Goethe's original work, but they are also reinterpreted for another age.

Scottish poet Don Paterson penned Eleven Maxims from the Book of Ill-Humour for the New Divan, where he writes:

Poets: if it already has a name,
stop bothering it.

Jordanian Arabic-language poet Amjad Nasser dedicated Iron Horses to Paolo Dall'Oglio, the Italian priest who went missing in Syria in 2013 after a lifetime devoted to dialogue, exchange and love of "the Other".

Nasser's sorrow echoes the loss of hope and pain experienced by so many in the Arab world over the past years, in a beautifully scripted poem that remains defiant to the end.

Syrian poet Adonis penned Letter to Goethe for the book, with Khaled Mattawa writing the corresponding poem in "The Poet" section.

Love is one dominant theme in Goethe's work and the recent anthology by Gingko. 

The Book of Suleika was inspired by the romantic story of Suleika and Yusuf, two figures that feature in the Bible and Quran.

It is also a well-known tale in Iran, where Suleika is not portrayed as female representation of temptation and lust, but as a symbol of love and devotion.

Goethe and von Willemer were likely aware and inspired by this sympathetic portrayal of Suleika, so much so that in their exchanges Marianne chose the pen name Suleika, Goethe adopted the nom de plume Hatem, after the pre-Islamic Arab poet Hatem al-Ta'i.

Emirati poet and filmmaker Nujoom Alghanem penned The Crimson Shades, inspired by the story of Suleika and Yusuf and reflecting the rich dialogue between Arabic and Persian, along with the many shared stories on both sides of the Gulf waters.

The communication between East and West that has will continue to inspire artists and writers generations to come and The New Divan project will contribute to this poetic exchange.