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Mar 3, 2022

Courteous Exchange in an Age of Empire

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Sarah Barnette

Sarah Barnette is a scholar of English literature with an interest in Victorian literary ethics.

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Courteous Exchange in an Age of Empire

How Victorian Poets Looked to Islam for Paradigms of Civility

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Interior view of the Jones & Co bookstore in Finsbury Square, London known as "Temple of the Muses," engraved by William Wallis c. 1828

Shadow-maker, shadow-slayer, arrowing light from clime to clime,
Hear thy myriad laureates hail thee monarch in their woodland rhyme.
Warble bird, and open flower, and men below the dome of azure
Kneel adoring Him the Timeless in the flame that measures Time!
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from “Akbar’s Dream”

Penetrating the poetry and religious life of a past era is a challenge. The vast soundscape of Victorian religious discourse often falls flat on modern ears. Added to this, it’s easy, and fairly commonplace, to dismiss much of this period’s literature as imperial, to assume that it’s not worthwhile to read the works of writers who lived at the heart and height of the British Empire. I’d like to challenge that assumption and suggest that poetry from this period often exhibited a courteousness we can learn from—a sensitivity in its handling of the myriad influences coming out of empire because its citizens routinely met with religious differences at home. 

Still, even as a Victorian scholar, when I lately reached for The Death of Œnone, Akbar’s Dream, and Other Poems (1892) by the British Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), I questioned how well I would be able to interpret its design and Tennyson’s intentions. As his final collection, the volume occupies a unique position in his oeuvre. Tennyson revised its contents five times before his death, just managing to see it through the press in his final weeks. It distills and embodies his lifelong grappling with religion. “Akbar’s Dream” is the fifth of twenty-three poems in the collection, and its inclusion in the title indicates its prominent position in the volume. 

“Akbar’s Dream” speaks to questions of religious tolerance, to the complex images of Indian history and Eastern religions in Victorian imaginations, to Akbar’s (and Tennyson’s) Persian Sufi influences, and to a much wider project of growing religious awareness unfolding in Victorian Britain in the late 1800s.1 To my mind, it raises questions: What should be our comportment during interreligious dialogue? How can we practice civility and tolerance in a way that nurtures syncretic dialogue and porous exchange? What might poetry from an imperial moment in history offer us in a postcolonial-aware era? 

The poetry of another Victorian poet, Edwin Arnold (1832–1904), is also worth considering alongside Tennyson’s “Akbar’s Dream.” The influential Arnold worked hard to draw the religious peripheries of empire into the mainstream in Britain. Arnold may not have always succeeded in accuracy where non-Christian religions were concerned, but he did seek to bring about more civility in interreligious matters and to instruct his readers on how to approach and accept religious differences with composure. Poetry in the Victorian period was a particularly potent medium for efforts of this kind. It could set unfamiliar histories and beliefs into familiar stanzas, meters, and rhymes. Today, as readers, we are often unused to navigating poetry but, by examining poetic works, we impose on ourselves slower reading practices and opportunities for careful attention to context and intention. 

“Akbar’s Dream” 

Tennyson had little patience for displays of religious intolerance. He stood by his friend, the theologian F. D. Maurice (1805–1872), when he was dismissed as chair of theology at King’s College, London, for his unorthodox views.2 For decades, Tennyson remained close with Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893), a cleric and classicist, who similarly jostled up against the abrasive fronts of Anglican orthodoxy.3 Jowett fed Tennyson ideas for his poems throughout their friendship. Toward the end of their careers, he nourished Tennyson on a steady diet of comparative religion, what was then a new and developing enterprise seeking to produce a systematic account of the growth and nature of religious belief around the world and through the ages. The phrase “unity in diversity” served as comparative religion’s central maxim, and one historic figure in particular rose to prominence in the minds of comparative religionists: the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542–1605), who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from 1556 to 1605. 

Akbar believed that the diverse religions across his empire—Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity among them—should be respected and interrogated in a spirit of tolerant curiosity. He famously held a court at Fatehpur Sikri in which different religious viewpoints could be expressed. By 1582, Akbar began to promote what was called Tawĥīd-i Ilāhī, or “Oneness of God,” which is now referred to as Dīn-i Ilāhī, or “the Divine Faith.”4 Grounded largely in esoterism and belief in divine monotheism, it was nevertheless an eclectic selection of what Akbar considered the best concepts and rituals from every religion. Victorian audiences interpreted it as an admirable attempt to simultaneously acknowledge and transcend religious differences. When Jowett brought the history of Akbar to Tennyson’s attention, Tennyson became enraptured with Akbar’s example of religious liberalism—from Akbar’s rejection of religious persecution as a political ploy to his civility toward practitioners of diverse religions. Moved by the significance of Akbar’s example, Tennyson sought to bring the historical context, religious import, and spiritual atmosphere of Akbar’s reign to the page in verse. 

Alfred Tennyson 2

Portrait of Alfred Tennyson housed in the Portrait Gallery of the University of Texas at Austin. 1873.

What is true of any artwork applies to poetry: overall form communes with individual element. The shape of a poem is just as significant as its line-by-line detail. “Akbar’s Dream” presents readers with a unique structure; it is divided into three sections: an inscription, a monologue, and a hymn. The inscription and hymn, each sixteen lines long, create a symmetrical framework to buttress the poem’s monologue of 208 lines. The inscription and hymn also pull the poem forward through history, acting as bookends of old and new. The “Inscription by Abul Fazl for a Temple in Kashmir” comes from a translation of Abul Fazl’s Persian chronicle of Akbar’s rule, the A'īn-i Akbarī.5 This work formed part of Tennyson’s extensive research for the poem’s composition. The sixteen lines he chose to represent Abul Fazl’s beliefs waft soft Sufi overtones. They may remind some readers of the eighteenth-century Punjabi Sufi Bulleh Shah, whose verses are popularly sung today in South Asia and globally. The inscription alludes to various places of worship—the mosque, the cloister, the temple—and unites all religions and languages under one God. Its themes are universality and transcendence, which prepare us for Akbar’s monologue. To cement Akbar’s monologue and usher in the new, Tennyson composed a two-quatrain “Hymn to the Sun” for the poem’s close. Written in an original, spirited, and vigorous meter—“a magnificent metre,” Tennyson called it—the hymn’s rhythm mimics the relentless return of the rising sun, symbolizing God the eternal: “Him the Timeless in the flame that measures Time!”6

The hymn may come at the end of the poem, but its forward-driving energy thrums through Akbar’s monologue, which is an extended reflection on his tolerant policies toward diverse religious practices across his empire. The monologue takes place at night in the palace gardens of Akbar’s capital city, Fatehpur Sikri. Abul Fazl comes across Akbar, the “Light of the nations,” and asks him why he looks “darken’d.” Akbar refers vaguely to “The shadow of a dream” that has troubled him but does not share the dream right away. Instead, he leaves us to wonder what he could mean as he reflects on his stance toward religious multiplicity during his reign thus far. He contrasts the jarring nature of narrow sectarianism—“For every splinter’d fraction of a sect / Will clamour ‘I am on the Perfect Way, / All else is to perdition’”—with his belief that “There is light in all, / And light, with more or less of shade, in all / Man-modes of worship.” He narrates the reactionary behavior of the ulama in his court, whose “furious formalisms” sound in his ears like “The clash of tides that meet in narrow seas,— / Not the Great Voice not the true Deep.” He gives proofs of his religious inclusivity: his decision to lift taxes from Hindu practices; his thoughtful attention to the words of a Jesuit priest; his respect for the Persian Sufi poet Abū Sa¢īd, “Who all but lost himself in Alla.” 

The climax of the monologue comes when Akbar strains to voice the distinction between faith and form, or to settle the question of the relationship between unity and underlying diversity. Fervently he queries, “what are forms?” and answers: 

The Spiritual in Nature’s market-place—
The silent Alphabet-of-heaven-in-man
Made vocal—banners blazoning a Power
That is not seen and rules from far away—
A silken cord let down from Paradise,
When fine Philosophies would fail, …

Written in the fluid familiarity of iambic pentameter, these lines are peppered with dashes and hyphens.7 They stand out visually on the page and enact a Something trying to break through the meter. Tennyson’s choice of form here mirrors Akbar’s message. The dashes and hyphens emphasize what Akbar strives to assert: that a divine Unity pulses beneath all we see—that “the living pulse of Alla beats / Thro’ all His world!”—and that, conversely, all diverse forms crane toward the Divine. To emphasize the ubiquity of this reality in every religion’s practice, Tennyson closes the climax of Akbar’s monologue on the word “Pray”: 

Here on this bank [we] in some way live the life
Beyond the bridge, and serve that Infinite
Within us, as without, that All-in-all,
And over all, the never-changing One
And ever-changing Many, in praise of Whom
The Christian bell, the cry from off the mosque,
And vaguer voices of Polytheism
Make but one music, harmonising, “Pray.”

In effect, Tennyson relays Akbar’s message that diverse religions are needful, but that they require a ruler who can “Mould them” for his people with “politic care” and “gentleness.” For Akbar, this is what led to his spread of “the Divine Faith,” his Dīn-i-Ilāhī. This aspiration, however, is laced with uncertainty in Tennyson's rendition. At the close of his monologue, Akbar finally narrates the dream that has been troubling him. We find that it encapsulates “A doubt, a fear,—” that his ecumenical religion and policy of tolerance will not last. Akbar’s dream portends that his son will murder both him and his advisor Abul Fazl, that his son will tear down all his “fair work” so it remains lost until “an alien race” comes from the West to rebuild it centuries later. 

Here, we come to the eight lines that are most often cited to place British imperialism at the heart of Tennyson’s poem: 

From out the sunset pour’d an alien race, 
Who fitted stone to stone again, and Truth, 
Peace, Love and Justice came and dwelt therein, 
Nor in the field without were seen or heard 
Fires of Suttee, nor wail of baby-wife, 
Or Indian widow; and in sleep I said 
“All praise to Alla by whatever hands 
My mission be accomplish’d!” 

At first glance, to a modern reader, these lines present the British as Christlike saviors who bring light to a dark land. But when we judge a poem on the basis of a few lines or the general outline of its historic moment, we miss its instances of vision and truth and risk discounting its human and imperfect, but also honest, struggles with complex issues. Where we are able, we must remain open to learning, bending our ear to the work in a posture of fair-mindedness, putting courtesy and curiosity ahead of resistance and egoism.8 If we listen carefully here, we find that Tennyson is complicating rather than upholding British imperial policy in India. He found a way to make that clear to his readers. As part of “Akbar’s Dream,” Tennyson included extensive notes after the poem, explaining elements of history, quoting his sources, and pointing to comparisons between India in the sixteenth century and England in the same period. The lines of poetry that ring as suspect to modern readers in fact interact with the notes, which include this telling line: “[Akbar’s] tolerance of religions and his abhorrence of religious persecution put our Tudors to shame.” To Tennyson, Britain could not have been what it became in the nineteenth century without the influences of Indian religion and culture on British orientalists in the eighteenth century.9 Britain’s role, then, is to revitalize Akbar’s display of religious tolerance through his Dīn-i Ilāhī, not to bring it fresh from the West. Akbar, inspired by the pre-existing multiculturalism of his empire, remains its architect, and the British are a vehicle for its restoration. 

The modern reader must beware of reading as if she “knows best.” Unexamined, modern interpretations easily slip into either reductionism or solipsism. It’s important to conjure the atmosphere in which an author wrote. Victorian writers knew something of living in a society caught in the throes of religious difference. They were steeped in the intensities of religious discourse. It was a period of unflagging religious debate and reform—of higher biblical criticism, rival theological treatises, and the emergence of comparative religion as its own discipline. It was an age when one’s daily decisions—in dress and reading and music and home interior—carried the weight of religious significance. Whether the church one attended used incense or the religious poetry one read contained Latin or the crucifix one wore was ornate meant something, conveying subtle messages of allegiance and belief.10 Within this context, Tennyson was heavily invested in the concept of universal religion. He felt the tension between accepting diversity, with its attendant sectarianism, intolerance, and incivility, and seeking a more inclusive unity (which might entail the sacrifice of irreplaceable uniqueness). He writes, “I dread the losing hold of forms. I have expressed this in my ‘Akbar.’ There must be forms, yet I hate the need for so many sects and separate services.”11  

Edwin Arnold: The Oriental Poet 

If Tennyson’s final poetry collection leaves us with a sense of his eagerness to see past religious diversity, then the journalist and poet Sir Edwin Arnold pushes us to relish the individuality of world religions. Much of what Tennyson accomplished with “Akbar’s Dream” was made possible by the growing interest in comparative religion during his lifetime. Comparative religion, known then as “the science of religion,” flourished in Britain in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The lectures, essays, and translations it produced fed the creative minds of men and women of letters, who used the material to foster an amplified awareness in the reading public of religious traditions around the globe. Arnold applied his study of Eastern languages and religions to his many compositions in verse. Once upon a time, Arnold’s poetry could be found on the bookshelves of nearly every middle-class Victorian family. For many years, it was widely assumed that Arnold would succeed Tennyson as Poet Laureate. Like Tennyson, Arnold had both a sentimental affinity for the traditional Anglican forms that defined his religious upbringing, such as the Book of Common Prayer, and a yearning for a religious outlook that was less narrow or confining. He studied Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish while he lived in India between 1857 and 1861. Oriental themes and subjects directed his poetry so often after his return to Britain that he became known as “the Oriental poet.” 

As with much of Tennyson’s work, Arnold’s compositions brought the unfamiliar into the realm of the familiar for Victorian readers. His most popular work was The Light of Asia; or, the Great Renunciation (1879), on Buddhism. It reached such heights that by Arnold’s death it had gone through sixty editions in England and eighty in the United States. This work marked Arnold’s continuation of what he called his “Oriental Trilogy.” He began it with The Indian Song of Songs (1875), on Hinduism, and completed it with Pearls of the Faith; or, Islam’s Rosary, Being the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah (1883). Arnold alludes to this completed project in his preface to Pearls of the Faith:

I have thus at length finished the Oriental Trilogy which I designed. In my “Indian Song of Songs” I sought to transfer to English poetry a subtle and lovely Sanskrit idyll of the Hindu theology. In my “Light of Asia” I related the story and displayed the gentle and far-reaching doctrines of that great Hindoo prince who founded Buddhism. I have tried to present here, in the simple, familiar, and credulous, but earnest spirit and manner of Islām—and from its own points of view—some of the thoughts and beliefs of the followers of the notable Prophet of Asia.12

Through his Oriental Trilogy, Arnold encouraged readers to sink slowly into the rich histories, meditative narrations, and spiritual teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. He was adept at presenting the strange in attractive poetic forms.  

Sir Edwin Arnold

Sir Edwin Arnold by Henry Van der Weyde albumen cabinet card, 1889, National Portrait Gallery, London

I first discovered Arnold when I was a doctoral student at Oxford. As I researched the impact of comparative religion on Victorian literature, I became intrigued by the ways in which the comparative method, promoted by that era’s scholars of world religions, so readily fostered positive attitudes of sympathy, humility, and curiosity. Arnold’s poetry struck me as a comparative project in its own right. For instance, he puts Christianity and Buddhism into conversation with one another through using parallel forms for his poems on each. Both his Christian work The Light of the World; or, the Great Consummation (1891) and his Buddhist poem The Light of Asia are composed in eight books of blank verse and climax with final stanzas printed in all caps. Similarly, Arnold compared his Indian Song of Songs with the biblical Song of Songs. And, in the subtitle of Pearls of the Faith, he uses the phrase “Islam’s Rosary” to subtly draw different religious traditions together in readers’ minds. His interpretations of Eastern religions may not have always been accurate, but there is no doubt that an underlying attitude of sympathy, with its attendant message of civility, pervades his work. 

It is remarkable to me and serves, I think, as a testament to Arnold’s method of sympathetic engagement that, even 138 years after its original appearance, Pearls of the Faith can still be used devotionally by Western converts to Islam. When I began to memorize the ninety-nine names, I turned to Arnold’s book as a resource.13 My relationship to Victorian poets like Arnold and Tennyson is not one of unconditional acceptance; I agree with many postcolonial critiques of imperialism. However, I carefully strive not to entirely dismiss writers from an imperial moment in history. Where Arnold and Tennyson are concerned, it perhaps helps me, as a Victorian scholar, to know what I do of the widespread misrepresentations of Islam in the press and literature of the nineteenth century. With a nuanced view of this period in mind, I am frequently moved by Arnold's fair-minded attitude throughout this work, which extends to the rest of his oeuvre. Arnold’s preface to the original volume of Pearls, for example, speaks with adamant civility of the Prophet ﷺ and his religion: 

Thereby that marvellous and gifted Teacher created a vast empire of new belief and new civilization, and prepared a sixth part of humanity for the developments and reconciliations which later times will bring. For Islām must be conciliated; it cannot be thrust scornfully aside or rooted out. It shares the task of the education of the world with its sister religions.14

As Tennyson invested in illuminating the universality of religion, Arnold traces its diversity with respectful care. Together, these poets represent two sides of the nineteenth century’s comparative religion coin, each acting out a portion of its motto, “Unity in diversity.” 

A Return to Commonality 

Should all our churchmen foam in spite 
At you, so careful of the right, 
Yet one lay-hearth would give you welcome 
(Take it and come) to the Isle of Wight 

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “To the Rev. F. D. Maurice” 

From this little verse unfolds a story of tenderhearted civility, one that encapsulates a lesson we can glean from these authors: that our first step in any dialogue should be toward our similarities rather than our differences. When Tennyson’s friend Maurice was dismissed from his post as chair of theology at King’s College, Tennyson composed “To the Rev. F. D. Maurice” (1854). A modest twelve-stanza poem, it acted as a public show of support. Today, it still discloses a personal moment of kindness. Tennyson knew Maurice from their years at Cambridge. Maurice was godfather to Tennyson’s son Hallam. In the poem, Tennyson asks Maurice to stay with him and his family at their home on the Isle of Wight. He invites Maurice to leave behind London’s noise and gossip, its squabbling churchmen and theological diatribes, and to spend time instead with his godson, see the crocuses and violets spring up on the lawn, and feel sheltered by the pine groves around the house—all as a backdrop for talking with Tennyson about “dearer matters, / Dear to the man that is dear to God,” moral philosophy, and practical religion. 

The poem, with the halo of its small charitable history in mind, takes on a beautiful aspect of courteousness. It does not offer theological assurances. It does not dwell on the reasons for Maurice’s dismissal. Tennyson, like Maurice, did not agree with every Anglican doctrine, but the two men differed on other points of religion. (Tennyson was well-known for his intrusive religious doubt.) The poem is generous in its honest show of warm solidarity amidst mingling similarities and differences. Tennyson wrote it, too, very carefully in a difficult meter: the alcaic.15 The meter, originally Greek, is associated with movement from imbalance to balance, from difficulty to resolution. Maurice, a trained classicist, would have recognized it and immediately taken its implication to heart. It meant that the poem did more than invite Maurice to stay among friends in the wake of his difficult dismissal. It also soothed and encouraged, conveying Tennyson’s confidence that Maurice would eventually recover from his setback and progress toward something better. It invited Maurice to rest in the security of a return, much as the closing hymn of “Akbar’s Dream” invites all people and all of nature to join together in welcoming the sun’s return and bask in its symbolic unity. 

Today, we have a dearth of prevalent examples of courteous exchange between differing or opposing viewpoints. Our historic moment is one of “cancel culture,” a policy of ostracism at the slightest hint of variance or provocation. The ubiquitous social media outlets have enabled this by prioritizing conflict: threats, shaming, rage, retribution. In no way was the Victorian era immune from conflict; yet, as a period of theological debate, empire building, and comparative religion, it produced generations of writers who composed poetry to edify readers and bring them to a place of civility, exchange, self-improvement, and hope. It was a period that held many stories, small and large, of tolerance, moral searching, and courteous support in religious matters. If we take the time to look, we find a focus on commonality worth carrying forward in the present day.

Pearls of the Faith is a book that harkens back to a slower time; before the nanosecond; before supersonic travel; before the advent of cyberspace; when handwritten letters took weeks to deliver; and people could sit under a canopy and read light verse about other faiths in faraway lands. It was a time when lettered men and women wrote prose and poetry in the hope that it might engender greater understanding of a richly diverse world in dire need of peaceful co-existence; reciprocal respect; and a deeper knowledge of the evergreen truths hidden in the myriad teachings of our various world faiths.

by Hamza Yusuf

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