Monday, January 21, 2013

Death of Bedros Tourian (January 21, 1872)

It has been said that Armenian literature had two great foes whose names started with the letter թ (t): tuberculosis (թոքախտ, tokakhd) and Turks (թուրքեր). Five famous poets were among the victims of the terrible illness, related to poverty and malnourishment. One of them was Bedros Tourian, the great name of Armenian romanticism.

Tourian was born in Scutari, a suburb of Constantinople, on May 20, 1851 (Julian calendar, equivalent to June 1 in the Gregorian calendar). His father, Abraham Zmbayan, was a struggling blacksmith in a poverty stricken family, named after his profession (Turkish zımba “chisel”), from which his son derived the Armenian translation Tourian (Armenian դուր[tour]“chisel”).

Young Bedros studied at the Armenian lyceum of Scutari, where he was a pupil of the future great Armenian satirist, Hagop Baronian (1843-1891). He was thirteen when he wrote his first poem. He was particularly interested in theater. He read Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, and other contemporaries of French romanticism. In 1866 he wrote his first play, “Vart and Shushan.” Another noted contemporary, poet Meguerdich Beshigtashlian (1828-1868), who would die of tuberculosis shortly thereafter, read it and exclaimed: “This young boy will overcome me.”

He finished school in 1867 and started working to help his parents. He first was a secretary for a moneylender and then for a merchant. However, he soon left these menial jobs to devote himself to literary and theatrical works. He worked on the editorial board of the newspaper Orakir and gave private lessons, and later became an actor in Hagop Vartovian’s theatrical group. On the advice of the latter, he started to write plays. Some of them were performed during his lifetime, mostly being historical plays which were the favorite of the Armenian public. His tragedy “Artashes I the Conqueror” brought him 10 golden Turkish pounds, but his other plays did not ensure financial gains, although they were warmly received by the public. He wrote a total of 10 plays and also translated Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” into Armenian. His last play, “Theater or the Wretched,” abandoned the historical subject for social and realist issues, opening a new page in Armenian theatrical literature.

On February 2 2012, Bedros Tourian's relics (fragments of his skull) mixed with the soil brought from the poet's grave from the Armenian cemetery of Constantinople were placed in the memorial wall at Yerevan Pantheon Cemetery.
He was famous for his plays during his life, but he became a celebrated poem after his death. He wrote a total of 39 poems, of which 26 were composed in his last year of life. His patriotic poems did not survive time, but his lyrical and love pieces ensured him a place in the pantheon of Armenian poetry. Early in 1871, the first signs of the feared tuberculosis appeared. Some of his most well-known pieces, such as “Lake” and “Complaint,” were written at that time. Aware of his forthcoming end, he rode the roller coaster of emotion, complaining to the Almighty in one poem and beseeching forgiveness in another. Unrealized dreams and an anxiety to live caused him deep pain and sorrow, which are reflected in his writing. He did not publish any book in his lifetime, but a volume of his poems and plays was posthumously printed in 1872 by a group of friends and admirers. An English translation of his complete poems by James Russell has been published by Harvard University Press.

Tourian passed away on January 21, 1872. He was 21 years old. The Armenian community wished to do a solemn burial. The youth requested Patriarch Meguerdich Khrimian (Khrimian Hayrig) to allow the burial with an orchestra. Khrimian, visibly moved, answered: “I don’t allow it, but I pardon it.” The coffin was followed by 4,000 youngsters. The poet was buried in the cemetery of Scutari. His friends built a memorial; the inscription was written by Tourian’s young brother, who later would become Patriarch Yeghishe Tourian (1852-1930), also a poet and writer.