Ab­dül­hak Hamid Tarhan: Aris­to­cratic, enig­matic, ex­per­i­men­tal 19th-cen­tury poet

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Culture & Arts - HAKAN ARSLANBENZ­ER

THE TANZİMAT pe­riod, or Re­or­ga­ni­za­tions, was not only an age of in­sti­tu­tional West­ern­iza­tion but also the be­gin­ning of mod­ern Turk­ish thought and lit­er­a­ture. While changes in the law and or­der of the Ot­toman Em­pire were prompted by the Im­pe­rial Edict of Re­or­ga­ni­za­tion in 1839, the pi­o­neers of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture – in­clud­ing İbrahim Şi­nasi, Namık Kemal and Ziya Pasha – be­gan to di­vert the path of writ­ings and thought in the early 1860s.

The pi­o­neers, how­ever, were in the mid­dle of a deep-rooted cul­ture ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with mod­ernism. Their lit­er­ary tastes were tra­di­tional, but they wished to cre­ate a West­ern­ized style and con­tent in lit­er­a­ture. They did not have a thor­ough pro­gram nor did they have a strict con­sen­sus on what to do about ques­tions of thought and lit­er­a­ture. On the other hand, they were de­ter­mined to make a per­ma­nent change. As such, the next gen­er­a­tion’s con­tri­bu­tion to that in­cli­na­tion to­ward change was crit­i­cal, and the Tanz­i­mat au­thors gave great sup­port to their dis­ci­ples.

The sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of the Tanz­i­mat lit­er­ary move­ment, the young au­thors fol­low­ing the path opened by Kemal in par­tic­u­lar, not only con­tin­ued what their pre­de­ces­sors started but widened, diver­si­fied and the­o­rized it. Re­caizade Mahmut Ekrem was the ma­jor the­o­reti­cian of the time, while Ab­dül­hak Hamid Tarhan played the role of the era’s lead­ing poet.

Tarhan was called the “Great­est Poet” by his peers and fol­low­ers but was harshly crit­i­cized by later mod­ernists such as Nazım Hik­met and Ah­met Hamdi Tan­pı­nar. Af­ter these at­tacks and be­cause of a rapid change in lan­guage and po­etic style, Tarhan was re­moved from his place as Turk­ish lit­er­a­ture’s cen­ter of fo­cus, and thus fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of the Re­pub­lic knew less about him com­pared to his sta­tus in Ot­toman times. It is very ironic that the pi­o­neers of lit­er­ary mod­ernism, who did their best to make their fol­low­ers for­get about ear­lier gen­er­a­tions, were them­selves for­got­ten by the fu­ture. The fa­mous say­ing, “The rev­o­lu­tion devours its chil­dren,” can be ap­plied to the lit­er­ary rev­o­lu­tion as well.


Tarhan was born on Jan. 2, 1852, in Is­tan­bul. He was the son of Hayrul­lah Efendi, who was in turn the son of Ab­dül­hak Molla, an of­fi­cial physi­cian of the Ot­toman court. Tarhan’s mother was Mün­teha Na­sib, a slave girl taken from the Cau­ca­sus. They all lived at the kiosk of Ab­dül­hak Molla in the his­toric Be­bek neigh­bor­hood along the Bosporus. Tarhan was first en­rolled at Be­bek Ele­men­tary School and also re­ceived pri­vate lessons from Evliya Efendi and Hoca Tahsin Efendi, from whom he re­ceived a vi­sion of poetry.

Tarhan was sent to Paris with his el­der brother Na­suhi in or­der to get an education in French. He stud­ied the lan­guage at a pri­vate school for 1 1/2 years be­fore he re­turned to join his father, who was as­signed as a diplo­mat in Tehran.

In the fol­low­ing year there, Tarhan’s father died and his fam­ily had to re­turn to Is­tan­bul. He was as­signed as a pub­lic ser­vant at sev­eral pub­lic of­fices, which func­tioned like schools for young of­fi­cials.


As a son of a diplo­mat, Tarhan was ap­pointed as one as well af­ter he had worked for a cou­ple of years. He was as­signed as the sec­ond sec­re­tary at the Paris Em­bassy in 1876, but was fired be­cause of “Nesteren” (“Wild Rose”), a drama in verse he pub­lished in 1878. “Nesteren” was in­spired by Pierre Corneille’s five-act French tragi­com­edy “Le Cid” and cre­ated sus­pi­cion in the Ot­toman gov­ern­ment against Tarhan since the drama men­tioned the fury and re­volt of a peo­ple against a tyrant.

Tarhan pub­lished sev­eral vol­umes of drama and poetry af­ter his dis­missal. Two years later, he was re­as­signed as a diplo­mat, though he re­fused the job. The ex­act cause of his re­fusal is un­known.

Af­ter some years of poverty and dis­tress, Tarhan was sent to Bom­bay (to­day’s Mum­bai) as the Ot­toman con­sul gen­eral. He re­ceived other diplo­matic mis­sions as the first sec­re­tary at the London Em­bassy, where he was fired once again over an­other dra­matic poem, and as the chief ad­viser to the London Am­bas­sador af­ter he apol­o­gized to the then-sul­tan and swore that he would not write again. He was ap­pointed as en­voy ex­tra­or­di­nary at the Brussels Em­bassy, though he al­ways wished to be the Ot­toman am­bas­sador in London, the city of his dreams.


Tarhan’s young wife Fatma died in 1885, and her death led him to write one of his mas­ter­pieces, “Mak­ber” (“The Grave”), which has be­come his most re­mem­bered poem thanks to the song ex­cerpted from it. “Mak­ber” is a long philo­soph­i­cal poem about hu­man ex­is­tence and noth­ing­ness, life and death, in­spired by his spouse’s early pass­ing.

Tarhan later mar­ried Nelly Clower, a young Bri­tish girl, and af­ter her death, the poet thought to write an­other mourn­ing poem like “Mak­ber,” but he couldn’t fin­ish the job. Tarhan’s third wife was Lu­ci­enne Sacare, a cit­i­zen of Bel­gium, whom he called “the spring of my later life.”


Tarhan was per­haps one of the most pro­duc­tive Turk­ish po­ets of all time. He wrote fast, long and in a di­ver­sity of gen­res. Yet, his style can be rec­og­nized in ev­ery piece he wrote thanks to his per­sona and sim­ple prosody. His dra­mas and po­ems ex­clude noth­ing as non­signif­i­cant or non­po­et­i­cal. His pieces can put col­lo­quial ir­rel­e­vance next to on­to­log­i­cal med­i­ta­tions.

Though not a tar­get of mass read­ing, Tarhan’s poetry was the textbook of young po­ets un­til the first folk­loric gen­er­a­tion of the 1920s. He had a huge in­flu­ence on the 1890 gen­er­a­tion, the New Lit­er­a­ture stream, and the 1910 gen­er­a­tion, the Na­tional Lit­er­a­ture stream of the Sec­ond Con­sti­tu­tional Era, which in turn had a great ef­fect on the fol­low­ing eras. Tarhan served as a con­veyor, since he brought the rev­o­lu­tion­ary thoughts of his masters such as Kemal to the po­etic gen­er­a­tions of the 20th cen­tury.

Tarhan died on April 13, 1937, at the age of 85 in a ho­tel room in Maçka Palas. His grave is in Is­tan­bul’s Zin­cir­likuyu Ceme­tery.

Ab­dül­hak Hamid Tarhan with his third wife, Lu­ci­enne Sacar.

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