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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 Friedrich von Bodenstedt (1819–1892)

BODENSTEDT was born at Peine, Hanover, April 22d, 1819. From his earliest years his poetic nature broke through the barriers of his prosaic surroundings; but in spite of these significant manifestations, the young poet was educated to be a merchant. He was sent to a commercial school in Brunswick, and then put to serve an apprenticeship in business. His inclinations, however, were not to be repressed; and he devoted all of his holidays and many hours of the night to study and writing. At last he conquered his adverse fate, and at the age of twenty-one entered the University. He studied at Göttingen, Munich, and Berlin, and then through a fortunate chance went to Moscow as tutor in the family of Prince Galitzin. Here he remained three years, during which time he diligently studied the Slavonic languages and literature.

The first fruits of these studies were translations from the poems of Kaslow, Pushkin, and Lermontov (1843); which were considered equal to the originals in poetic merit. In Stuttgart, two years later, appeared his ‘Poetische Ukraine’ (Poetical Ukraine). He went to Tiflis in 1842 as instructor in Latin and French in the Gymnasium. Here he studied the Tartar and Persian languages, under the direction of the “wise man” Mirza-Schaffy (Scribe Schaffy), and began to translate Persian poems. “It was inevitable,” he afterwards said, “that with such occupations and influences many Persian strains crept into my own poetry.” Here he wrote his first poems in praise of wine. Later he became an extensive traveler, and made long tours through the Caucasus and the East. The fruit of these journeys was the book ‘Die Völker des Caucasus und ihre Freiheitskämpfe gegen die Russen’ (The People of the Caucasus and their Struggle for Freedom against the Russians), published in 1848. After his return to Germany he settled in Münich to study political economy in the University.

Two years later, in 1850, appeared his delightful book in prose and poetry, ‘Tausend und ein Tag im Orient’ (Thousand and One Days in the East), a reminiscence of his Eastern wanderings and his sojourn at Tiflis. The central figure is his Oriental friend Mirza-Schaffy. “It occurred to me,” he says, “to portray with poetic freedom the Caucasian philosopher as he lived in my memory, with all his idiosyncrasies, and at the same time have him stand as the type of an Eastern scholar and poet; in other words, to have him appear more important than he really was, for he never was a true poet, and of all the songs which he read to me as being his own, I could use only a single one, the little rollicking song, ‘Mullah, pure is the wine, and it’s sin to despise it.’ For his other verse I substituted poems of my own, which were in keeping with his character and the situations in which he appeared.” The poems by themselves, together with others written at different times and places, Bodenstedt published in 1856 under the title ‘Lieder des Mirza-Schaffy’ (Songs of Mirza-Schaffy). Quite unintentionally they have occasioned one of the most amusing of literary mystifications. For a long time they were supposed to be real translations; and even to-day, despite the poet’s own words, the “Sage of Tiflis” is considered by some a very great poet. A Tartar by birth, who had absorbed Persian culture, he was a skillful versifier, and could with facility translate simple songs from the Persian into the Tartar language. Bodenstedt put into Mirza-Schaffy’s mouth the songs which were written during his intercourse with the Eastern sage, to give vividness to the picture of an Eastern divan of wisdom.

They portray Oriental life on its more sensuous, alluring side. In most musical, caressing verse they sing of wine and love, of the charms of Zuleika and Hafisa, of earthly bliss and the delights of living. Yet with all their warm Eastern imagery and rich foreign dress they are essentially German in spirit, and their prevailing note of joyousness is now and again tempered by more serious strains.

The book was received with universal applause, and on it Bodenstedt’s fame as poet rests. It has been translated into all the European languages, even into Hebrew and Tartar, and is now in its one hundred and forty-third German edition. Twenty-four years later Bodenstedt followed it with a similar collection, ‘Aus dem Nachlass des Mirza-Schaffy’ (From the Posthumous Works of Mirza-Schaffy: 1874), where he shows the more serious, philosophic aspect of Eastern life. Bodenstedt’s poems and his translations of Persian poetry are the culmination of the movement, begun by the Romantic School, to bring Eastern thought and imagery home to the Western world. Other well-known examples are Goethe’s ‘West-Eastern Divan,’ and the poems and paraphrases of Rückert and others; but the ‘Songs of Mirza-Schaffy’ are the only poems produced under exotic influences which have been thoroughly acclimatized on German soil.

Bodenstedt was for a time director of the court theatre at Meiningen; and though he held this difficult position for only a short time, he did much to lay the foundation of the success which the Meininger, as the best German stock company of actors, achieved later on their starring tours through the country. He was ennobled in 1867, while in this position. He spent the last year of his life at Wiesbaden, where he died in 1892.

Bodenstedt was a voluminous writer; his work includes poems, romances, novels, and dramas. ‘Vom Atlantischen zum Stillen Ocean’ (From the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean: 1882) is a description of his lecturing tour to the United States the year before. His autobiography, ‘Erinnerungen aus Meinem Leben’ (Recollections of my Life), gives interesting glimpses into his eventful career. His mind was more receptive than creative, and this, combined with his great technical skill and his quick intuition, fitted him peculiarly to be a translator and adapter. His translation of Shakespeare’s works, in conjunction with Paul Heyse, Kurz, and others (fifth edition, Leipzig, 1890), is especially noteworthy, as also his rendering of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But he will live in German literature as the poet Mirza-Schaffy.