1902 Encyclopedia > Edward William Lane

Edward William Lane
English Orientalist, translator and lexicographer

EDWARD WILLIAM LANE (1801-1876), one of the greatest of European Arabists, was the son of Dr Theophilus Lane, a prebendary of Hereford. He lost his father in boyhood, and his character was mainly formed by the influence of his mother, a woman of strong and beautiful nature. He was designed for Cambridge and the church, and became proficient in mathematics, but, abandoning the purpose of proceeding to the university, gave himself for some time to the study of engraving. Weak health, aggravated by intense application to Eastern study, com-pelled him to throw aside the burin, and in 1825 he started for Egypt, where he spent three years, twice ascended the Nile, proceeding as far as the second cataract, and composed a complete description of Egypt, with a portfolio of one hundred and one drawings. This work was never pub-lished, but the account of the modern Egyptians, which formed a part of it, was accepted for separate publication by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. To perfect this work Lane again visited Egypt in 1833-35, residing mainly in Cairo, but retiring to Luxor during the plague of 1835. An interesting journal of this visit to Egypt is included in the memoir by his grand-nephew pre-fixed to the sixth part of his great Lexicon. Perfected by the additional observations collected during these years, the Modern Egyptians appeared in 1836, and at once took the place which it has never lost as the best description of Eastern life and an Eastern country ever written. In accuracy, completeness, and graphic simplicity of descrip-tion the book approaches ideal perfection. It was followed from 1838 to 1840 by a translation of the Arabian Nights, with a mass of valuable notes and illustrations, designed to make the book a sort of encyclopaedia of Eastern manners, and rivalling the merit of his first work. The translation itself is an admirable proof of scholarship, but is characterized by a somewhat stilted mannerism, which is not equally appropriate to all parts of the motley-coloured original. The character of some of the tales, and the tedious repetitions of the same theme which are found in the Arabic collection, induced Lane to leave considerable parts of the work untranslated. In 1840 Lane married a Greek lady. A useful volume of Selections from the Kur-dn was published in 1843, but before it passed through the press the indefatigable author was again in Egypt, where he spent seven years (1842-49) collecting materials for a great Arabic lexicon, which the munificence of LordPrudhoe (afterwards duke of Northumberland) enabled him to under-take. The most important of the materials amassed during this sojourn (in which he was accompanied by his wife and by his sister, Mrs Poole, authoress of the Englishwoman in Egypt, with her two sons, afterwards well known in Eastern letters) was a copy in 24 thick quarto volumes of Sheikh Murtad&'s great lexicon, the Taj et 'Ariis, which, though itself a compilation, is so extensive and exact that it formed the main basis of Lane's subsequent work. The author, who lived in Egypt in last century, used more than a hundred sources, interweaving what he learned from them with the Kdmus of Firuzabady in the form of a commentary. By far the larger part of this commentary was derived from the Lisdn el 'Arab of Ibn Mokarram, a work of the 13th century, which Lane was also able to use while in Cairo.

Returning to England in the year 1849, Lane devoted the whole remainder of his life to the task of digesting and translating his Arabic material in the form of a great thesaurus of the lexicographical knowledge of the Arabs. In spite of weak health he continued this arduous task with unflagging diligence till a few days before his death, which took place at Worthing 10th August 1876. The work remains unfinished; five parts appeared during his lifetime (1863-1874), and two smaller parts have since been published from his papers. Even in its imperfect state the Lexicon is an enduring monument, the complete-ness and finished scholarship with which it is executed making each article an exhaustive monograph. All Lane's, work has the stamp of masterly perfection. He produced no occasional writings, and two essays contributed to the magazine of the German Oriental Society complete the record of his publications. Lane was not an original mind; his powers were those of observation, industry, and sound judgment. He had singular tact in accommodating himself to the Eastern character; he lived in the East as an Oriental; and his familiarity with Eastern life and ways of thought was unique. His personal character was elevated and pure, his strong sense of religious and moral duty being of the type that characterized the best circles of English evangelicalism in the early part of this century.

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