Prophet Muhammad in Early American Literature: The Works and Thought of Bayard Taylor

One of Bayard Taylor’s most impressive works in changing attitudes towards the Arab-Islamic world was ‘The Birth of the Prophet’ in his 1854 collection Poems of the Orient. This poem, with reverence and sensitivity, honors the prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace), who brought the universal message of Islam to mankind — spreading from the cradle of Arabia to the far corners of the Earth.

Bayard Taylor (1825-1878CE) is best seen as part of a tradition which extends from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth to the present — mainly the American search for an identity and role in the modern world. Interest in the outside world was a prominent feature of nineteenth-century America, and the Americans were proving that they could not, in the long run, be as inward-looking as the momentous rise in the spirit of nationalism, especially after the second war with Britain, had tended to make them.

Nineteenth-century Americans traveled extensively; first to Europe, then to the Near East, North Africa, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent, and later to the Far East. Books of travel surged in popularity, and translations of Near Eastern material, in addition to original works, appeared in a large number of magazines and journals. As a result, traditional European misconceptions about the Arab-Islamic world gradually gave way to a less biased attitude. This growing interest was shared by architects and furniture designers, merchants and missionaries, politicians and poets. Bayard Taylor, who visited the area three times during the course of his life, must be considered a key figure in this movement. The Near East figures prominently not only in his Poems of the Orient (1854), which represents a peak in his Eastern interest, but in various other works. The collection, however, was the first of its kind in American literature.

Poets, one must assume, are never secluded from the political, social and cultural concerns of their nations. This is particularly applicable in the case of Taylor, who was not only an artist and a man of letters, but also (and concurrently) a diplomat and representative of the ‘American way.’ His role as translator was most poignant in this regard as he in effect was constructing a bridge across cultures. In his movement towards the Near East, Taylor was an heir to a spirit of pioneering and more immediately in his time to the Romantic tradition, which had had its roots in the European experience and consciousness.

Taylor’s contribution to the American interest in the Near East, especially to the genre of the Near Eastern poem in nineteenth-century American literature, was both considerable and worthwhile — his Poems of the Orient (in addition to other long individual poems) devoted its entire length to Near Eastern themes. It is significant that William Alger, Thomas Aldrich, and Richard Stoddard published their Eastern collections after the publication of Poems of the Orient.

There is no doubt that Taylor’s popularity as a poet or the particular appeal of his Near Eastern poetry drew strength from his several roles in public life as a man of action, journalist, diplomat, traveler, and lecturer. His travel accounts, which were being published as he was still touring the Near East and Africa, made a strong impact at home. The exaggerated accounts and news in the media of his intentions to drive through undiscovered regions made the public await his correspondence in the Tribune with much eagerness and anticipation. And as masses of Americans increasingly turned to newspapers and magazines for more easily available and interesting material than books, the impact of such accounts and news was widespread.

His lectures, his several pictures and portraits in Near Eastern costume, and his songs excited great interest and attention, thus creating a legend, and turning Taylor into cultural phenomena of considerable interest and popularity.’ He was read and admired by the ordinary man in America as well as by the major Literati in both Europe and America. Again it may be significant that Taylor who developed these several roles very successfully in the Near East had done so via Europe. Certainly Taylor is sincere in his attempt to redress the Arab-Islamic image in the West. He accuses the majority of Western travelers of Misrepresentation and describes them as the ignorant, “the complainer,’ `the desponder,’ and ‘the depreciating,’ while presenting himself indirectly as ‘the sympathetic’ traveler, one who endeavours to transcend the narrow boundaries of sect and creed in a perception of universal truth. Taylor is at pains to convince his audience as much as himself that he was not an imposter but, rather, ‘an humble follower in the steps of Burkhardt and Layard. ‘He states further in an unpublished lecture entitled The Arabs:

No travellers, except the lamented Burkhardt and Layard, the Ninevite, have done justice to the nobler qualities which so eminently characterizes the Arab race. These travellers claim our confidence, for they speak as those haying authority. They pursued the only true method of travel, by adopting, as far as possible, the habits of the people: with whom.they were thrown, — wearing their dress, speaking their languages, and respecting the faith and traditions which they held sacred.

Much ahead of his time, Taylor, most poignantly expresses his resentment, for the largely unstudied and destructive excavations carried out by some Western archaeologists and contractors who were motivated by financial greed and little concern for scientific knowledge —people Taylor described as ‘carrying a mallet and chisel and leaving records of their “vulgar vanity.”

Although he accused other travellers of misrepresentation, he him­self, fell, on some occasions into the same trap. Indeed, even with the best intentions, it is not easy to understand the complexities of any culture or people in a relatively short period of time. Taylor, like many other travellers, failed to realize that to understand and represent the Eastern cultures to the Western mind was a task which required a lot more than months of travel or the knowledge of a few words or phrases or alternatively, the indulgence in certain habits or activities.

The Near East does not figure strongly or prominently in Taylor’s other poetical works though images and metaphors of isolated and fragmentary nature appear infrequently here and there. Perhaps Taylor was able to control his Eastern streak and compartmentalize it separately from his other activities, but, seen in perspective, he lacked the ability and the genius to completely master his various social roles and other manifestations of his energy. He once wrote to a friend: “How should I dare think of poetry, when there is a murder trial, two accidents, and a religious anniversary to put in shape for the evening paper!” This, perhaps, was one of the reasons why he failed to become — as he always desperately desired — a ‘great poet’ with everlasting fame and appeal.

Taylor, though reflecting in many ways the concerns of his age, did not indulge in the spiritualism or transcendentalism pursued by many of his contemporary poets and friends. One must remember that he was following in the tradition of Browning, whose scepticism of spiritualism and of its professional advocates — influencing Taylor’s own contempt of charlatans who were trying to exploit the age’s desperate interest in spiritual matters in the face of the growing materialism and industrialism. It is a credit to Taylor that he did not exaggerate the ‘mystical’ quality of the East as he might have been expected to do. His travels in that part of the world exposed him to realities which counter balanced the fictitious image of the East in Western mind. He himself once commented: ‘I am more interested in a live Arab, than a dead Pharaoh.’

The interest in Taylor, especially immediately after his death in 1878, inevitably dwindled with the shift, on a national level, from a global awareness, in which the Near East figures prominently, to a more domestic emphasis. However, through articles, travel books, lectures, poetry, portraits in Near Eastern costume, and the widely popular ‘Bedouin Song’ which was set to music, and was still being sung in the 1920’s, Taylor helped more than any other nineteenth-century American to perpetuate the lure of the Near East (and to certain extent the Far East). Because of such popularity his impact and influence were far reaching in bringing the Arab-Islamic Near East within the reach of a wide section of the American public. His often unconventional approach to the Arabs and Islam, as well as the injection of his material with new significance through his tolerance, sensitivity, and humanistic views, helped him lead a new approach developed by Gibbon, Goethe, and Carlyle in Europe, and Irving in America.

In spite of Taylor’s influence, the Near East was a passing vogue which never took lasting roots in American literature, but it certainly helped to enrich and diversify it. Nevertheless, one cannot dismiss the closeness of that experience to the American psyche since certain im­portant features of that experience survived and surfaced during several later episodes in American history. Thus the approach to the Near East, historically early and formative to both politicians and poem in America, was later adopted in confrontations, or at least encounters, between the American nation and other foreign states and cultures.

One may assume therefore that the contact with the Near East helped to establish a pattern in American politics and letters. However, issues which were nearer to the domestic scene and more deeply entrenched in the American (and largely Western) ethos were bound to be still more fer­vently and far more convincingly presented. Such works are inevitably closer to home and, if handled by writers or poets of superior talents, are destined to have longer life and a more enduring quality and appeal.

What may be considered to be one of Taylor’s most impressive works in changing attitudes towards the Arab-Islamic world was ‘The Birth of the Prophet’ in his 1854 collection Poems of the Orient. This poem, with reverence and sensitivity, honors the prophet Muhammad, who brought the universal message of Islam to mankind — spreading from the cradle of Arabia to the far corners of the Earth.

[Adapted from the unpublished ‘Bayard Taylor and his Contempo¬raries: The Near East in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry’ by Anas S. Al-Shaikh-Ali, PhD Thesis, Victoria. University of Manchester, UK, 1983]


 The Birth of the Prophet
[Bayard Taylor; As published in his Poems of the Orient (1854)]

I

THRICE three moons had waxed in heaven,
thrice three moons had waned away,
Since Abdullah, faint and thirsty, on the Desert’s bosom lay
In the fiery Lap of Summer, the meridian of the day;

II

SINCE from out the sand upgushing, lo! A sudden fountain leapt;
Sweet as musk and Clear as amber; to his parching lips it crept.
When he drank it straightway vanished, but his blood its virtue kept.

III

ERE the morn his forehead’s lustre, signet of the Prophet’s line,
To the beauty of Amina had transferred its flame divine:
Of the germ within her sleeping, such the consecrated sign.

IV.

And with every moon that faded waxed the splendor more and more,
Till Amina’s beauty lightened through the matron veil she wore,
AND the tent was filled with glory, and of Heaven it seemed the door.

V.

WHEN her quickened womb its burden had matured, and Life began
Struggling in its living prison, through the wide Creation ran
Premonitions of the coming of a God-appointed man.

VI.

FOR the oracles of Nature recognize a Prophet’s birth
Blossom of the tardy ages; crowning type of human worth
And by miracles and wonders he is welcomed to the Earth

VII.

THEN the stars in heaven grew brighter, stooping down ward from their zones;
Wheeling round the towers of Mecca, sang the moon in silver tones
And the Kaaba’s grisly idols trembled on their granite thrones.

VIII

MIGHTY arcs of rainbow splendor, pillared shafts of purple fire,
Split the sky and spanned the darkness, and with many a golden spire,
Beacon-like, from all the mountains streamed the lambent meteors higher,

IX.

BUT when first the breath of being to the sacred infant came,
Paled the pomp of airy lustre, and the stars grew dim with shame,
For the glory of his countenance outshone their feebler flame.

X.

OVER Nedjid’s sands it lightened, unto Oman’s coral deep,
Startling all the gorgeous regions of the Orient from sleep,
Till, a sun on night new-risen, it illumed the Indian steep.

XI.

THEY who dwelt in Mecca’s borders saw the distant realms appear
All around the vast horizon, shining marvelous and clear,
From the gardens of Damascus unto those of Bendomeer.

XII.

FROM the colonnades of Tadmor to the hills of Hadramaut,
Ancient Araby was lighted, and her sands the splendor caught,
Till the magic sweep of vision overtook the track of Thought.

XIII.

SUCH on Earth the wondrous glory, but beyond the sevenfold skies
God His mansions filled with gladness, and the seraphs saw arise
Palaces of pearl and ruby from the founts of Paradise.

XIV.

AS the surge of heavenly anthems shook the solemn midnight air,
From the shrines of false religions came a wailing of despair,
And the fires on Pagan altars were extinguished everywhere.

XV.

MID the sounds of salutation, mid the splendor and the balm,
Knelt the sacred child, proclaiming, with a brow of heavenly
“God is God; there is none other; I his chosen Prophet am!”