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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Sir Edwin Arnold (1832–1904)

THE FAVORITE and now venerable English poet, Edwin Arnold, showed his skill in smooth and lucid verse early in life. In 1852, when twenty years of age, he won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford for a poem, ‘The Feast of Belshazzar.’ Two years later, after graduation with honors, he was named second master of Edward the Sixth’s School at Birmingham; and, a few years subsequent, principal of the Government Sanskrit College at Poona, in India. In 1856 he published ‘Griselda, a Tragedy’; and after his return to London in 1861, translations from the Greek of Herodotus and the Sanskrit of the Indian classic ‘Hitopadeça,’ the latter under the name of ‘The Book of Good Counsels.’ There followed from his pen ‘Education in India’; ‘A History of the Administration in India under the Late Marquis of Dalhousie’ (1862–64); and ‘The Poets of Greece,’ a collection of fine passages (1869). In addition to his other labors he has been one of the editors-in-chief of the London Daily Telegraph.

Saturated with the Orient, familiar with every aspect of its civilization, moral and religious life, history and feeling, Sir Edwin’s literary work has attested his knowledge in a large number of smaller poetical productions, and a group of religious epics of long and impressive extent. Chiefest among them ranks that on the life and teachings of Buddha, ‘The Light of Asia; or, The Great Renunciation’ (1879). It has passed through more than eighty editions in this country, and almost as many in England. In recognition of this work Mr. Arnold was decorated by the King of Siam with the Order of the White Elephant. Two years after its appearance he published ‘Mahābhārata,’ ‘Indian Idylls,’ and in 1883, ‘Pearls of the Faith; or, Islam’s Rosary Being the Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of Allah, with Comments in Verse from Various Oriental Sources.’ In 1886 the Sultan conferred on him the Imperial Order of Osmanli, and in 1888 he was created Knight Commander of the Indian Empire by Queen Victoria. ‘Sa’di in the Garden; or, The Book of Love’ (1888), a poem turning on a part of the ‘Bôstâni’ of the Persian poet Sa’di, brought Sir Edwin the Order of the Lion and Sun from the Shah of Persia. In 1888 he published also ‘Poems National and Non-Oriental.’ Since then he has written ‘The Light of the World’; ‘Potiphar’s Wife, and Other Poems’ (1892); ‘The Iliad and Odyssey of Asia,’ and in prose, ‘India Revisited’ (1891); ‘Seas and Lands’; ‘Japonica,’ which treats of life and things Japanese; and ‘Adzuma, the Japanese Wife: a Play in Four Acts’ (1893). During his travels in Japan the Emperor decorated him with the Order of the Rising Sun. In 1893 Sir Edwin was chosen President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute. ‘The Tenth Muse and Other Poems’ appeared in 1895, ‘The Queen’s Justice’ (1899) was dedicated to his Japanese wife. He died in March, 1904.

‘The Light of Asia,’ the most successful of his works, attracted instant attention on its appearance, as a novelty of rich Indian local color. In substance it is a graceful and dramatic paraphrase of the mass of more or less legendary tales of the life and spiritual career of the Buddha, Prince Gautama, and a summary of the principles of the great religious system originating with him. It is lavishly embellished with Indian allusions, and expresses incidentally the very spirit of the East. In numerous cantos, proceeding from episode to episode of its mystical hero’s career, its effect is that of a loftily ethical, picturesque, and fascinating biography, in highly polished verse. The metre selected is a graceful and dignified one, especially associated with ‘Paradise Lost’ and other of the foremost classics of English verse. Sir Edwin says of the poem in his preface, “I have sought, by the medium of an imaginary Buddhist votary, to depict the life and character and indicate the philosophy of that noble hero and reformer, Prince Gautama of India, the founder of Buddhism;” and the poet has admirably, if most flatteringly, succeeded. The poem has been printed in innumerable cheap editions as well as those de luxe; and while it has been criticized as too complaisant a study of even primitive Buddhism, it is beyond doubt a lyrical tract of eminent utility as well as seductive charm.