Al-Maʿarri

But this affected not the songful ones,
And evermore in beauty lived the rose.
And when the worms were old and wiser too,
They fell to silence and humility
.

Deep in a silent chamber of the rose
There was a fattened worm. He looked around,
Espied a relative and spoke at him:
It seems to me this world is very good
.

Have I not heard sagacious ones repeat
  An irresistibly grim argument:
  That we for all our blustering content
Are as the silent shadows at our feet.

Beneath our palaces the corner-stone
  Is quaking. What of noble we possess,
  In love or courage or in tenderness,
Can rise from our infirmities alone.

The rolling, ever-rolling years of time
  Are as a diwan of Arabian song;
  The poet, headstrong and supremely strong,
Refuses to repeat a single rhyme.

A most unlovely world, said brother worm,
For all of us are piteous prisoners.
And if, declared the first, your thought is true,
And this a prison be, melikes it well
.

No Sultan at his pleasure shall erect
  A dwelling less obedient to decay
  Than I, whom all the mysteries obey,
Build with the twilight for an architect.

Now to the Master of the World resign
  Whatever touches you, what is prepared,
  For many sons of wisdom are ensnared
And many fools in happiness recline.

Live well! Be wary of this life, I say;
  Do not o'erload yourself with righteousness.
  Behold! the sword we polish in excess,
We gradually polish it away.

Now this religion happens to prevail
  Until by that religion overthrown,—
  Because men dare not live with men alone,
But always with another fairy-tale.

God pities him who pities. Ah, pursue
  No longer now the children of the wood;
  Or have you not, poor huntsman, understood
That somebody is overtaking you?

And yet—and yet this very seed I throw
  May rise aloft, a brother of the bird,
  Uncaring if his melodies are heard—
Or shall I not hear anything below?

If you will do some deed before you die,
  Remember not this caravan of death,
  But have belief that every little breath
Will stay with you for an eternity.

But shall the fearing eyes of humankind
  Have peeped beyond the curtain and excel
  The boldness of a wondering gazelle
Or of a bird imprisoned in the wind?

But if in some enchanted garden bloom
  The rose imperial that will not fade,
  Ah! shall I go with desecrating spade
And underneath her glories build a tomb?

Then, cried the second, I shall raise a voice
And see what poor apologies are made.
And so they sang, these two, for many days,
And while they sang the rose was beautiful
.

The good law and the bad law disappear
  Below the flood of custom, or they float
  And, like the wonderful Sar'aby coat,
They captivate us for a little year.

Religion is a charming girl, I say;
  But over this poor threshold will not pass,
  For I may not unveil her, and alas!
The bridal gift I can't afford to pay.

As little shall it serve you in the fight
  If you remonstrate with the storming seas,
  As if you querulously sigh to these
Of some imagined haven of delight.

Ah! never may we hope to win release
  Before we that unripeness overthrow,—
  So must the corn in agitation grow
Before the sickle sings the songs of peace.

Dark leans to dark! the passions of a man
  Are twined about all transitory things,
  For verily the child of wisdom clings
More unto dreamland than Arabistan.

God who created metal is the same
  Who will devour it. As the warriors ride
  With iron horses and with iron pride—
Come, let us laugh into the merry flame.

Send into banishment whatever blows
  Across the waves of your tempestuous heart;
  Let every wish save Allah's wish depart,
And you will have ineffable repose.

No longer as a wreck shall I be hurled
  Where beacons lure the fascinated helm,
  For I have been admitted to the realm
Of darkness that encompasses the world.

But there is one who trembles at the touch
  Of sorrow less than all of you, for he
  Has got the care of no big treasury,
And with regard to wits not overmuch.

Have conversation with the wind that goes
  Bearing a pack of loveliness and pain:
  The golden exultation of the grain
And the last, sacred whisper of the rose

Zohair the poet sang of loveliness
  Which is the flight of things. Oh, meditate
  Upon the sorrows of our earthly state,
For what is lovely we may not possess.

Ah! let the burial of yesterday,
  Of yesterday be ruthlessly decreed,
  And, if you will, refuse the mourner's reed,
And, if you will, plant cypress in the way.

For as a gate of sorrow-land unbars
  The region of unfaltering delight,
  So may you gather from the fields of night
That harvest of diviner thought, the stars.

And if you find a solitary sage
  Who teaches what is truth—ah, then you find
  The lord of men, the guardian of the wind,
The victor of all armies and of age.

A deed magnanimous, a noble thought
  Are as the music singing thro' the years
  When surly Time the tyrant domineers
Against the lute whereoutof it was wrought.

So well that I shall weave a song of praise
And thankfulness because the world was wrought
For us and with such providential care—
My brother, I will shame you into singing
.

You cultivate the ranks of golden grain,
  He cultivates the cavaliers. They go
  With him careering on some other foe,
And your battalions will be staunch again.

Be gracious to the King. You cannot feign
  That nobody was tyrant, that the sword
  Of justice always gave the just award
Before these Ghassanites began to reign.

God is above. We never shall attain
  Our liberty from hands that overshroud;
  Or can we shake aside this heavy cloud
More than a slave can shake aside the chain?

I look on men as I would look on trees,
  That may be writing in the purple dome
  Romantic lines of black, and are at home
Where lie the little garden hostelries.

How strange that we, perambulating dust,
  Should be the vessels of eternal fire,
  That such unfading passion of desire
Should be within our fading bodies thrust.

He was the glazier out of Erzerûm,
  Whose wizardry would make the children cry—
  There will be no such wizardry when I
Am broken by the chariot-wheels of Doom.

I think our world is not a place of rest,
  But where a man may take his little ease,
  Until the landlord whom he never sees
Gives that apartment to another guest.

You strut in piety the while you take
  That pilgrimage to Mecca. Now beware,
  For starving relatives befoul the air,
And curse, O fool, the threshold you forsake.

We that with song our pilgrimage beguile,
  With purple islands which a sunset bore,
  We, sunk upon the sacrilegious shore,
May parley with oblivion awhile
.

There was a time when I was fain to guess
  The riddles of our life, when I would soar
  Against the cruel secrets of the door,
So that I fell to deeper loneliness.

There is a palace, and the ruined wall
  Divides the sand, a very home of tears,
  And where love whispered of a thousand years
The silken-footed caterpillars crawl.

Our fortune is like mariners to float
  Amid the perils of dim waterways;
  Shall then our seamanship have aught of praise
If the great anchor drags behind the boat?

The days are dressing all of us in white,
  For him who will suspend us in a row.
  But for the sun there is no death. I know
The centuries are morsels of the night.

So shall you find all armour incomplete
  And open to the whips of circumstance,
  That so shall you be girdled of mischance
Till you be folded in the winding-sheet.

I have imagined that our welfare is
  Required to rise triumphant from defeat;
  And so the musk, which as the more you beat,
Gives ever more delightful fragrancies.

How man is made! He staggers at the voice,
  The little voice that leads you to the land
  Of virtue; but, on hearing the command
To lead a giant army, will rejoice.

An archer took an arrow in his hand;
  So fair he sent it singing to the sky
  That he brought justice down from—ah, so high!
He was an archer in the morning land.

Perchance the world is nothing, is a dream,
  And every noise the dreamland people say
  We sedulously note, and we and they
May be the shadows flung by what we seem.

Man has been thought superior to the swarm
  Of ruminating cows, of witless foals
  Who, crouching when the voice of thunder rolls,
Are banqueted upon a thunderstorm.

Alas! I took me servants: I was proud
  Of prose and of the neat, the cunning rhyme,
  But all their inclination was the crime
Of scattering my treasure to the crowd.

But in the noisy ranks you will forget
  What is the flag. Oh, comrade, fall aside
  And think a little moment of the pride
Of yonder sun, think of the twilight's net.

I never look upon the placid plain
  But I must think of those who lived before
  And gave their quantities of sweat and gore,
And went and will not travel back again.

Vain are your dreams of marvellous emprise,
  Vainly you sail among uncharted spaces,
  Vainly seek harbour in this world of faces
If it has been determined otherwise.

Shall I that am as dust upon the plain
  Think with unloosened hurricanes to fight?
  Or shall I that was ravished from the night
Fall on the bosom of the night again?

The lowliest of the people is the lord
  Who knows not where each day to make his bed,
  Whose crown is kept upon the royal head
By that poor naked minister, the sword.

For once the witcheries a maiden flung—
  Then afterwards I knew she was the bride
  Of Death; and as he came, so tender-eyed,
I—I rebuked him roundly, being young.

"There is no God save Allah!"—that is true,
  Nor is there any prophet save the mind
  Of man who wanders through the dark to find
The Paradise that is in me and you.

My faith it is that all the wanton pack
  Of living shall be—hush, poor heart!—withdrawn,
  As even to the camel comes a dawn
Without a burden for his wounded back.

Aye, when the torch is low and we prepare
  Beyond the notes of revelry to pass—
  Old Silence will keep watch upon the grass,
The solemn shadows will assemble there.

My village is the loneliness, and I
  Am as the travellers through the Syrian sand,
  That for a moment see the warning hand
Of one who breasted up the rock, their spy.

No sword will summon Death, and he will stay
  For neither helm nor shield his falling rod.
  We are the crooked alphabet of God,
And He will read us ere he wipes away.

Abandon worship in the mosque and shrink
  From idle prayer, from sacrificial sheep,
  For Destiny will bring the bowl of sleep
Or bowl of tribulation—you shall drink.

Behold, my friends, there is reserved for me
  The splendour of our traffic with the sky:
  You pay your court to Saturn, whereas I
Am slain by One far mightier than he.

The glazier out of sounding Erzerûm,
  Frequented us and softly would conspire
  Upon our broken glass with blue-red fire,
As one might lift a pale thing from the tomb.

Behold the cup whereon your slave has trod;
  That is what every cup is falling to.
  Your slave—remember that he lives by you,
While in the form of him we bow to God.

The dwellers of the city will oppress
  Your days: the lion, a fight-thirsty fool,
  The fox who wears the robe of men that rule—
So run with me towards the wilderness.

One is behind the draperies of life,
  One who will tear these tanglements away—
  No dark assassin, for the dawn of day
Leaps out, as leapeth laughter, from the knife.

There is a tower of silence, and the bell
  Moves up—another man is made to be.
  For certain years they move in company,
But you, when fails your song do fail as well.

Heigho! the splendid air is full of wings,
  And they will take us to the—friend, be wise
  For if you navigate among the skies
You too may reach the subterranean kings.

The man who shot his arrow from the west
  Made empty roads of air; yet have I thought
  Our life was happier until we brought
This cold one of the skies to rule the nest.

Yet if all things that vanish in their noon
  Are but the part of some eternal scheme,
  Of what the nightingale may chance to dream
Or what the lotus murmurs to the moon!

If there should be some truth in what they teach
  Of unrelenting Monkar and Nakyr,
  Before whose throne all buried men appear—
Then give me to the vultures, I beseech.

Myself did linger by the ragged beach,
  Whereat wave after wave did rise and curl;
  And as they fell, they fell—I saw them hurl
A message far more eloquent than speech:

Which is the tyrant? say you. Well, 'tis he
  That has the vine-leaf strewn among his hair
  And will deliver countries to the care
Of courtesans—but I am vague, you see.

The chariot-wheels of Doom! Now, hear them roll
  Across the desert and the noisy mart,
  Across the silent places of your heart—
Smile on the driver you will not cajole.

The shadows come, and they will come to bless
  Their brother and his dwelling and his fame,
  When I shall soil no more with any blame
Or any praise the silence I possess.

Rise up against your troubles, cast away
  What is too great for mortal man to bear.
  But seize no foolish arms against the share
Which you the piteous mortal have to pay.

The songs we fashion from our new delight
  Are echoes. When the first of men sang out,
  He shuddered, hearing not alone the shout
Of hills but of the peoples in the night.

You that must travel with a weary load
  Along this darkling, labyrinthine street—
  Have men with torches at your head and feet
If you would pass the dangers of the road.

I shook the trees of knowledge. Ah! the fruit
  Was fair upon the bleakness of the soil.
  I filled a hundred vessels with my spoil,
And then I rested from the grand pursuit.

Run! follow, follow happiness, the maid
  Whose laughter is the laughing waterfall;
  Run! call to her—but if no maiden call,
'Tis something to have loved the flying shade.

Our wilderness will be the laughing land,
  Where nuts are hung for us, where nodding peas
  Are wild enough to press about our knees,
And water fills the hollow of our hand.

The scarlet eyes of Morning are pursued
  By Night, who growls along the narrow lane;
  But as they crash upon our world the twain
Devour us and are strengthened for the feud.

Death leans to death! nor shall your vigilance
  Prevent him from whate'er he would possess,
  Nor, brother, shall unfilial peevishness
Prevent you from the grand inheritance.

A night of silence! 'Twas the swinging sea
  And this our world of darkness. And the twain
  Rolled on below the stars; they flung a chain
Around the silences which are in me.

Some yellow sand all hunger shall assuage
  And for my thirst no cloud have need to roll,
  And ah! the drooping bird which is my soul
No longer shall be prisoned in the cage.

If I have harboured love within my breast,
  'Twas for my comrades of the dusty day,
  Who with me watched the loitering stars at play,
Who bore the burden of the same unrest.

Now fear the rose! You travel to the gloom
  Of which the roses sing and sing so fair,
  And, but for them, you'd have a certain share
In life: your name be read upon the tomb.

Endure! and if you rashly would unfold
  That manuscript whereon our lives are traced,
  Recall the stream which carols thro' the waste
And in the dark is rich with alien gold.

Life is a flame that flickers in the wind,
  A bird that crouches in the fowler's net—
  Nor may between her flutterings forget
That hour the dreams of youth were unconfined.

Farewell, my soul!—bird in the narrow jail
  Who cannot sing. The door is opened! Fly!
  Ah, soon you stop, and looking down you cry
The saddest song of all, poor nightingale.

But for the grandest flame our God prepares
  The breast of man, which is the grandest urn;
  Yet is that flame so powerless to burn
Those butterflies, the swarm of little cares.

Aye! verily, the fields of blandishment
  Where shepherds meditate among their cattle,
  Those are the direst of the fields of battle,
For in the victor's train there is no tent.

Lo! there are many ways and many traps
  And many guides, and which of them is lord?
  For verily Mahomet has the sword,
And he may have the truth—perhaps! perhaps!

We suffer—that we know, and that is all
  Our knowledge. If we recklessly should strain
  To sweep aside the solid rocks of pain,
Then would the domes of love and courage fall.

Long have I tarried where the waters roll
  From undeciphered caverns of the main,
  And I have searched, and I have searched in vain,
Where I could drown the sorrows of my soul.

Where is the valiance of the folk who sing
  These valiant stories of the world to come?
  Which they describe, forsooth! as if it swum
In air and anchored with a yard of string.

Astrologers!—give ear to what they say!
  "The stars be words; they float on heaven's breath
  And faithfully reveal the days of death,
And surely will reveal that longer day."

See that procession passing down the street,
  The black and white procession of the days—
  Far better dance along and bawl your praise
Than if you follow with unwilling feet.

I would not have you keep nor idly flaunt
  What may be gathered from the gracious land,
  But I would have you sow with sleepless hand
The virtues that will balance your account.

And all the marvels that our eyes behold
  Are pictures. There has happened some event
  For each of them, and this they represent—
Our lives are like a tale that has been told.

Where are the doctors who were nobly fired
  And loved their toil because we ventured not,
  Who spent their lives in searching for the spot
To which the generations have retired?

Say that you come to life as 'twere a feast,
  Prepared to pay whatever is the bill
  Of death or tears or—surely, friend, you will
Not shrink at death, which is among the least?

Two merchantmen decided they would battle,
  To prove at last who sold the finest wares;
  And while Mahomet shrieked his call to prayers,
The true Messiah waved his wooden rattle.

Steed of my soul! when you and I were young
  We lived to cleave as arrows thro' the night,—
  Now there is ta'en from me the last of light,
And wheresoe'er I gaze a veil is hung.

And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek
  Of wind is flying through the court of state:
  "Here," it proclaims, "there dwelt a potentate
Who could not hear the sobbing of the weak."

"Great is your soul,"—these are the words they preach,—
  "It passes from your framework to the frame
  Of others, and upon this road of shame
Turns purer and more pure."—Oh, let them teach!

On the Name Abu'L-Ala

Arab names have always been a stumbling-block, and centuries ago there was a treatise written which was called "The Tearing of the Veil from before Names and Patronymics." Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Jarit al-Misri is a fair example of the nomenclature; here we have the patronymic (Abu Bakr—father of Bakr), the personal name (Ahmad), the surname (ibn Jarit—son of Jarit), and the ethnic name (al-Misri—native of Egypt). In addition, they made use of fancy names if they were poets (such as Ssorrdorr, the sack of pearls, who died in the year 1072), names connoting kindred, habitation (such as Ahmad al-Maidani, the great collector of proverbs, who lived near the Maidan, the race-course of Naisapur), faith or trade or personal defects (such as a caliph who was called the father of flies, since on account of his offensive breath no fly would rest upon his lip), and finally they gave each other names of honour (such as sword of the empire, helper of the empire, etc.). Then the caliph gave, as a distinction, double titles and, when these became too common, triple titles. ("In this way," says al-Biruni, "the matter is opposed to sense and clumsy to the last degree, so that a man who says the titles is fatigued when he has scarcely started and he runs the risk of being late for prayer.") . . . The patronymic was, of all of these, the most in favour. At first it was assumed when the eldest son was born; when Bakr came into the world his father took the name of Abu Bakr, and acquired a new importance. This was not by any means peculiar to the Arabs: "O Queen," says Das, a king of Indian folk-song, "O Queen, the name of childless has departed from me." When the Arab had no son, he used an honorific patronymic (such as Abu'l-Ala, father of excellence, or Abu'l-Feda, father of redemption). At times this manufactured patronymic was a thing of mockery, more or less gentle (such as a companion of the Prophet who was fond of cats, and was entitled "father of the cat"). The prevalence among the Arabs of the patronymic is immediately noticed, (a camel is the father of Job; a strongly built person is the father of the locust; a licentious person is the father of the night; and there are multitudes of such formations). . . . With regard to surnames, it was not the custom always for them to denote that so-and-so was the son of his father's family. "Who is your father?" says an Arab to the mule, and he replies, "The horse is my maternal uncle." So there are some people who, for shame, prefer that we should think of them as members of their mother's family. . . .

The following additional quatrains may be quoted:

  Unasking have we come,—too late, too soon
    Unasking from this plot of earth are sent.
    But we, the sons of noble discontent,
  Use half our lives in asking for the moon.

("We all sorely complain," says Seneca, "of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.")

  So then your hand has guarded me! Be blessed,
    And, if you like such reading, read, I pray,
    Through Moses' book, or credit them who say
  That old Isaiah's hand is far the best.

  Some day, some day the potter shall return
    Into the dust. O potter, will you make
    An earth which I would not refuse to take,
  Or such unpleasant earth as you would spurn?

  Then out of that—men swear with godly skill—
    Perchance another potter may devise
    Another pot, a piece of merchandise
  Which they can love and break, if so they will.

  And from a resting-place you may be hurled
    And from a score of countries may be thrust—
    Poor brother, you the freeman of the dust,
  Like any slave are flung about the world.