Attar: Conference of the Birds


Name: Fardid al-Din Attar: Manriq al-Tayr (Conference of Birds)  
Info: Original language: Persian
English transl. by C.S. Nott
More Editions: goodreads.com | Transl. C.S. Nott | Transl. Darbandi / Davis London: Penguin, 1984 | transl. Fitzgerald

Translations:

Darbandi/Davis Excerpts

Attar: Conference of the Birds – Manṭiq al-ṭayr (the Language/Speech/Logic of the Birds)
Extracts from translation by Dick Davies and Afkham Darbandi (Penguin Classics, 1984)


Q.27:16-17:
And Solomon was David’s heir. He said: “O ye people! We have been taught the speech of birds,
and on us has been bestowed (a little) of all things: this is indeed Grace manifest (from Allah.)”
And before Solomon were marshalled his hosts – of Jinns and men and birds, and they were all
kept in order and ranks.

A.
The world’s birds gathered for their conference
and said: ‘Our constitution makes no sense.
All nations in the world require a king;
how is it we alone have no such thing?
Only a kingdom can be justly run;
we need a king and must inquire for one’…
(hoopoe) I know our king – but how can I alone
endure the journey to His distant throne?
Join me, and when at last we end our quest
our king will greet you as His honoured guest.
Escape your selfhood’s vicious tyranny –
whoever can evade the self transcends
this world and as a lover he ascends.
Set free your soul; impatient of delay,
step out along our sovereign’s royal Way.
We have a king; beyond Qaf’s mountain peak
the Simurgh lives, the sovereign whom you seek,
and He is always near to us, though we
live far from His transcendent majesty…
Do not imagine that the Way is short;
vast seas and deserts lie before His court.
Consider carefully before you start;
the journey asks of you a lion’s heart…
If you desire this quest, give up your soul
and make our sovereign’s court your only goal…
Renounce your soul for love; He you pursue
will sacrifice His inmost soul for you. (pp. 32-34)

B.
… How can love thrive

in hearts impoverished and half-alive?
‘Beggars’ you say – such niggling poverty
will not encourage truth or charity.
A man whose eyes love opens risks his soul –
his dancing breaks beyond the mind’s control.
When long ago the Simurgh first appeared –
his face like sunlight when the clouds have cleared –
he cast unnumbered shadows on the earth,
on each one fixed his eyes, and each gave birth.
Thus we were born; the birds of every land
are still his shadows – think and understand.
If you had known this secret you would see
the link between yourselves and Majesty.
Do not reveal this truth, and God forfend
that you mistake for God Himself God’s friend.
If you become that substance I propound,
you are not God, though in God you are drowned…
If He had kept His majesty concealed,
no earthly shadow would have been revealed.
And where that shadow was directly cast
the race of birds sprang up before it passed.
Your heart is not a mirror bright and clear
if there the Simurgh’s form does not appear;
no-one can bear His Beauty face to face,
and for this reason, of His perfect grace,
He makes a mirror in our hearts – look there
to see Him, search your hearts with anxious care. (pp. 52–53)

C.
A lover, said the hoopoe, now their guide,
is one in whom all thoughts of self have died;
those who renounce the self deserve that name;
righteous or sinful, they are all the same!
Your heart is thwarted by the self’s control;
destroy its hold on you and reach your goal. (p. 56)

D. The Valleys
(2. Love)

Love’s valley is the next, and here desire
willl plunge the pilgrim into seas of fire
until his very being is enflamed
and those whom fire rejects turn back ashamed.
The lover is a man who flares and burns,
whose face is fevered, who in frenzy yearns,
who knows no prudence, who will gladly send
a hundred worlds toward their blazing end,
who knows of neither faith nor blasphemy,
who has no time for faith or certainty,
to whom both good and evil are the same,
and who is neither, but a living flame.
But you! Lukewarm in all you say or do,
backsliding, weak – o no, this is not you!
True lovers give up everything they own
to steal one moment with the Friend alone… (p. 172)

(6. Bewilderment)

Next comes the valley of bewilderment,
a place of pain and gnawing discontent –
each second you will sigh, and every breath
will be a sword to make you long for death;
blinded by grief, you will not recognise
the days and nights that pass before your eyes.
Blood drips from every hair and writes “Alas!”
beside the highway where the pilgrims pass;
in ice you fry, in fire you freeze – the Way
is lost, with indecisive steps you stray –
the Unity you knew has gone; your soul
is scattered and knows nothing of the Whole.
If someone asks: ‘what is your present state?
is drunkenness or sober sense your fate,
and do you flourish now or fade away?’
the pilgrim will confess: ‘I cannot say;
I have no certain knowledge any more;
I doubt my doubt, doubt itself is unsure;
I love, but who is it for whom I sigh?
Not Moslem, yet not heathen; who am I?
My heart is empty, yet with love is full;
my own love is to me incredible.’ (p. 196)
(7. story from the Valley of Nothingness)
Moths gathered in a fluttering throng one night
to learn the truth about the candle’s light,
ad they decided one of them should go
to gather news of the elusive glow.
One flew till in the distance he discerned
a palace window where a candle burned –
and went no nearer; back again he flew
to tell the others wha he thought he knew.
The mentor of the moths dismissed his claim,
remarking: ‘He knows nothing of the flame.’
A moth more eager than the one before
set out and passed beyond the palace door.
He hovered in the aura of the fire,
a trembling blur of timorous desire,
then headed back to say how far he’d been,
and how much he had undergone and seen.
The mentor said: ‘You do not bear the signs
of one who’s fathomed how the candle shines.’
Another moth flew out – his dizzy flight
turned to an ardent wooing of the light;
he dipped and soared, and in his frenzied trance
both Self and fire were mingled by his dance –
the flame engulfed his wing-tips, body, head;
his being glowed a fierce translucent red;
amd when the mentor saw that sudden blaze,
the moth’s form lost within the glowing rays,
he said: ‘He knows, he knows the truth we seek,
that hidden truth of which we cannot speak.’ (p. 206)

E. Stories:
When Bayazid had left the world behind,
he came that night before the dreaming mind
of one of his disciples, who in fear
asked how he’d fared with Munkar and Nakir2.
He said: “when these two angels questioned me
about the Lord, I told them I could see
no profit in our talk – if I should say
‘He is my God’, my answer would betray
a proud, ambitious heart; they should return
to God and ask Him what they wishes to learn –
God says who is His slave; the slave is dumb,
waiting for Him to say: ‘Good servant, come!'”
If grace is given to you from God above,
then you are wholly worthy of His love;
and if He kindles fire in you, the fire
will burst out and its flames beat ever higher –
It is His works that act, no yours, you fool;
when will these dunces understand His rule! (p. 145)
A sufi once, with nothing on his mind,
was – without warning– struck at from behind.
He turned and murmured, choking back the tears:
‘the man you hit’s been dead for thrity years;
he’s left this world!’ The man who’d struck him said:
‘You talk a lot for someone who is dead!
But talk’s not action – while you boast, you stray
further and further from the secret Way,
and while a hair of you remains, your heart
and Truth are still a hundred worlds apart.’…
Withdraw into yourself, and one by one
give up the things you own – when this is done
be still in selflessness and pass beyond
all thoughts of good and evil; break this bond,
and as it shatters you are worthy of
oblivion, the nothingness of Love. (p. 207)
2 Two angels who question the dead on their faith.
A royal hunt swept out across the plain.
The monarch called for someone in his train
to bring a greyhound, and the handler brought
a dark, sleek dog, intelligent, well-taught;
a jewelled gold collar sparkled at its throat,
its back was covered by a satin coat –
gold anklets clasped its paws; its leash was made
of silk threads twisted in a glistening braid.
The king thought him a dog who’d understand,
and took the silk leash in his royal hand;
the dog ran just behind his lord, then found
a piece of bone abandoned on the ground –
he stooped to sniff, and when the king saw why
a glance of fury flashed out from his eye.
‘When you’re with me’, he said, ‘your sovereign king,
how dare you look at any other thing?’
He snapped the leash and to his handler cried:
‘Let this ill-mannered brute roam far and wide.
He’s mine no more – better for him if he
had swallowed pins than found such liberty!’
The handler stared and tried to remonstrate:
‘The dog, my lord, deserves an outcast’s fate;
but we should keep the satin and the gold.’
The king said: ‘No, do just as you are told;
drive him, exactly as he is away –
and when he comes back to himself some day,
he’ll see the riches that he bears and know
that he was mine, a king’s, but long ago.’ (p. 113)
A man whose job it was to keep the peace
beat up a drunk, who fought for his release
and cried: “It’s you who’s tippled too much wine;
your rowdiness is ten times worse than mine –
who’s causing this disturbance, you or me?
But yours is drunkenness that men can’t see;
leave me alone! let justice do its worst –
enforce the law and beat yourself up first!” (p. 156)

Darbandi/Davis Partial

Transl. Darbandi / Davis
London Penguin, 1984

This translation has been made from the edition of Attar’s Manteq at-Tair prepared by Dr
Sadegh Gouharin (Tehran, 1978), and the notes to his edition have been consulted in the
preparation of the Biographical Index which follows the poem. [Line numbers, given in the
original, are omitted here – KA] Other books to which we are particularly indebted, apart
from those cited in the introduction, are The Encyclopaedia of Islam and A. J. Arberry’s
translation of episodes from Attar’s Tadh-kirat al-Auliya (London, 1966). We are grateful to
the British Institute of Persian Studies for generous financial assistance and to those
friends who have read the manuscript through, entirely or in part, and made many
valuable suggestions.

Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide;
It was on you King Solomon relied
To carry secret messages between
His court and distant Sheba’s lovely queen.
He knew your language and you knew his heart —
As his close confidant you learnt the art
Of holding demons captive underground,
And for these valiant exploits you were crowned.
And you are welcome, finch! Rise up and play
Those liquid notes that steal men’s hearts away;
Like Moses you have seen the flames burn high
On Sinai’s slopes and there you long to fly,
Like him avoid cruel Pharaoh’s hand, and seek
Your promised home on Sinai’s mountain peak.
There you will understand unspoken words
Too subtle for the ears of mortal birds.
And welcome, parrot, perched in paradise!
Your splendid plumage bears a strange device,
A necklace of bright fire about the throat;
Though heaven’s bliss is promised by your coat,
This circle stands for hell; if you can flee
Like Abraham from Nimrod’s enmity,
Despise these flames — uninjured will you tread
Through fire if first you cut off Nimrod’s head,
And when the fear of him has died put on
Your gorgeous coat; your collar’s strength has gone!
Welcome, dear partridge — how you strut with pride
Along the slopes of wisdom’s mountain-side;
Let laughter ring out where your feet have trod,
Then strike with all your strength the door of God;
Destroy the mountain of the Self, and here,
From ruined rocks a camel will appear;
Beside its new-born noble hooves, a stream
Of honey mingled with white milk will gleam —
Drive on this beast and at your journey’s end
Saleh will greet you as a long-lost friend.
Rare falcon, welcome! How long will you be
So fiercely jealous of your liberty?
Your lure is love, and when the jess is tied,
Submit, and be for ever satisfied.
Give up the intellect for love and see
In one brief moment all eternity;
Break nature’s frame, be resolute and brave,
Then rest at peace in Unity’s black cave.
Rejoice in that close, undisturbed dark air —
The Prophet will be your companion there.*
And welcome, francolin! Since once you heard
And answered God’s first all-commanding word,
Since love has spoken in your soul, reject
The Self, that whirlpool where our lives are wrecked;
As Jesus rode his donkey, ride on it;
Your stubborn Self must bear you and submit —
Then burn this Self and purify your soul;
Let Jesus’ spotless spirit be your goal.
Destroy this burden, and before your eyes
The Holy Ghost in glory will arise.
Welcome, dear nightingale — from your sweet throat
Pour out the pain of lovers note by note.
Like David in love’s garden gently sigh;
There sing the songs that make men long to die,
O, sing as David did, and with your song
Guide home man’s suffering and deluded throng.
The Self is like a mail coat — melt this steel
To pliant wax with David’s holy zeal,
And when its metal melts, like David you
Will melt with love and bid the Self adieu.
And welcome, peacock — once of paradise,
Who let the venomous, smooth snake entice
Your instincts to its master’s evil way,
And suffered exile for that fateful day;
He blackened your untutored heart and made
A tangled darkness of the orchard’s shade —
Until you crush this snake, how can you be
A pilgrim worthy of our mystery?
Destroy its ugly charm and Adam then
Will welcome you to paradise again.
Cock pheasant, welcome! With your piercing sight,
Look up and see the heart’s source drowned in light;
You are imprisoned in your filthy well,
A dark and noisome, unremitting hell —
Rise from this well as Joseph did and gain
The throne of Egypt’s fabulous domain,
Where you and Joseph will together reign.
Dear pigeon, welcome — with what joy you yearn
To fly away, how sadly you return!
Your heart is wrung with grief, you share the gaol
That Jonah knew, the belly of a whale —
The Self has swallowed you for its delight;
How long will you endure its mindless spite?
Cut off its head, seek out the moon, and fly
Beyond the utmost limits of the sky;
Escape this monster and become the friend
Of Jonah in that ocean without end.
Welcome, sweet turtle-dove, and softly coo
Until the heavens scatter jewels on you —
But what ingratitude you show! Around
Your neck a ring of loyalty is bound,
But while you live you blithely acquiesce
From head to claw in smug ungratefulness;
Abandon such self-love and you will see
The Way that leads us to Reality.
There knowledge is your guide, and Khezr will bring
Clear water drawn from life’s eternal spring.
And welcome, hawk! Your flight is high and proud,
But you return with head politely bowed —
In blood and in affliction you must drown,
And I suggest you keep your head bent down!
What are you here? Mere carrion, rotten flesh,
Withheld from Truth by this world’s clumsy mesh;
Outsoar both this world and the next, and there,
Released from both, take off the hood you wear —
When you have turned from both worlds you will land
On Zulgharnin’s outstretched and welcome hand.
And little goldfinch, welcome! May your fire
Be an external sign of fierce desire.
Whatever happens, burn in those bright flames,
And shut your eyes and soul to earthly claims.
Then, as you burn, whatever pain you feel,
Remember God will recompense your zeal;
When you perceive His hidden secrets, give
Your life to God’s affairs and truly live —
At last, made perfect in Reality,
You will be gone, and only God will be.
* A reference to the Companion of the Cave. During a period of danger the Prophet
Mohammad and a close companion, Abou Bakr, hid for a while in a cave on Mount Thaur.
In mystical poetry this episode became a symbol of withdrawal from the world.
The birds assemble and the hoopoe tells them of the Simorgh
The world’s birds gathered for their conference
And said: “Our constitution makes no sense.
All nations in the world require a king;
How is it we alone have no such thing?
Only a kingdom can be justly run;
We need a king and must inquire for one.”
They argued how to set about their quest.
The hoopoe fluttered forward; on his breast
There shone the symbol of the Spirit’s Way
And on his head Truth’s crown, a feathered spray.
Discerning, righteous and intelligent,
He spoke: “My purposes are heaven-sent;
I keep God’s secrets, mundane and divine,
In proof of which behold the holy sign
Bisillah * etched for ever on my beak.
No one can share the grief with which I seek
Our longed-for Lord, and quickened by my haste
My wits find water in the trackless waste.
I come as Solomon’s close friend and claim
The matchless wisdom of that mighty name
(He never asked for those who quit his court,
But when I left him once alone he sought
With anxious vigilance for my return —
Measure my worth by this great king’s concern!).
I bore his letters — back again I flew —
Whatever secrets he divined I knew;
A prophet loved me; God has trusted me;
What other bird has won such dignity?
For years I travelled over many lands,
Past oceans, mountains, valleys, desert sands,
And when the Deluge rose I flew around
The world itself and never glimpsed dry ground;
With Solomon I set out to explore
The limits of the earth from shore to shore.
I know our king — but how can I alone
Endure the journey to His distant throne?
Join me, and when at last we end our quest
Our king will greet you as His honoured guest.
How long will you persist in blasphemy?
Escape your self-hood’s vicious tyranny —
Whoever can evade the Self transcends
This world and as a lover he ascends.
Set free your soul; impatient of delay,
Step out along our sovereign’s royal Way:
We have a king; beyond Kaf’s mountain peak
The Simorgh lives, the sovereign whom you seek,
And He is always near to us, though we
Live far from His transcendent majesty.
A hundred thousand veils of dark and light
Withdraw His presence from our mortal sight,
And in both worlds no being shares the throne
That marks the Simorgh’s power and His alone —
He reigns in undisturbed omnipotence,
Bathed in the light of His magnificence —
No mind, no intellect can penetrate
The mystery of his unending state:
How many countless hundred thousands pray
For patience and true knowledge of the Way
That leads to Him whom reason cannot claim,
Nor mortal purity describe or name;
There soul and mind bewildered miss the mark
And, faced by Him, like dazzled eyes, are dark —
No sage could understand His perfect grace,
Nor seer discern the beauty of His face.
His creatures strive to find a path to Him,
Deluded by each new, deceitful whim,
But fancy cannot work as she would wish;
You cannot weigh the moon like so much fish!
How many search for Him whose heads are sent
Like polo-balls in some great tournament
From side to giddy side — how many cries,
How many countless groans assail the skies!
Do not imagine that the Way is short;
Vast seas and deserts lie before His court.
Consider carefully before you start;
The journey asks of you a lion’s heart.
The road is long, the sea is deep — one flies
First buffeted by joy and then by sighs;
If you desire this quest, give up your soul
And make our sovereign’s court your only goal.
First wash your hands of life if you would say:
‘I am a pilgrim of our sovereign’s Way’;
Renounce your soul for love; He you pursue
Will sacrifice His inmost soul for you.
It was in China, late one moonless night,
The Simorgh first appeared to mortal sight —
He let a feather float down through the air,
And rumours of its fame spread everywhere;
Throughout the world men separately conceived
An image of its shape, and all believed
Their private fantasies uniquely true!
(In China still this feather is on view,
Whence comes the saying you have heard, no doubt,
‘Seek knowledge, unto China seek it out.’)
If this same feather had not floated down,
The world would not be filled with His renown —
It is a sign of Him, and in each heart
There lies this feather’s hidden counterpart.
But since no words suffice, what use are mine
To represent or to describe this sign?
Whoever wishes to explore the Way,
Let him set out — what more is there to say?”
The hoopoe finished, and at once the birds
Effusively responded to his words.
All praised the splendour of their distant king;
All rose impatient to be on the wing;
Each would renounce the Self and be the friend
Of his companions till the journey’s end.
But when they pondered on the journey’s length,
They hesitated; their ambitious strength
Dissolved: each bird, according to his kind,
Felt flattered but reluctantly declined.
* ‘In the name of God’, the opening words of the Koran.
The nightingale’s excuse
The nightingale made his excuses first.
His pleading notes described the lover’s thirst,
And through the crowd hushed silence spread as he
Descanted on love’s scope and mystery.
“The secrets of all love are known to me,”
He crooned. “Throughout the darkest night my song
Resounds, and to my retinue belong
The sweet notes of the melancholy lute,
The plaintive wailing of the love-sick flute;
When love speaks in the soul my voice replies
In accents plangent as the ocean’s sighs.
The man who hears this song spurns reason’s rule;
Grey wisdom is content to be love’s fool.
My love is for the rose; I bow to her;
From her dear presence I could never stir.
If she should disappear the nightingale
Would lose his reason and his song would fail,
And though my grief is one that no bird knows,
One being understands my heart — the rose.
I am so drowned in love that I can find
No thought of my existence in my mind.
Her worship is sufficient life for me;
The quest for her is my reality
(And nightingales are not robust or strong;
The path to find the Simorgh is too long).
My love is here; the journey you propose
Cannot beguile me from my life — the rose.
It is for me she flowers; what greater bliss
Could life provide me — anywhere — than this?
Her buds are mine; she blossoms in my sight —
How could I leave her for a single night?”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe answered him: “Dear nightingale,
This superficial love which makes you quail
Is only for the outward show of things.
Renounce delusion and prepare your wings
For our great quest; sharp thorns defend the rose
And beauty such as hers too quickly goes.
True love will see such empty transience
For what it is — a fleeting turbulence
That fills your sleepless nights with grief and blame —
Forget the rose’s blush and blush for shame!
Each spring she laughs, not for you, as you say,
But at you — and has faded in a day.
The story of a dervish and a princess
There was a king whose comely daughter’s grace
Was such that any many who glimpsed her face
Declared himself in love. Like starless dusk
Her dark hair hung, soft-scented like fine musk;
The charm of her slow humid eyes awoke
The depths of sleeping love, and when she spoke,
No sugar was as sweet as her lips’ sweet;
No rubies with their colour could compete.
A dervish saw her, by the will of Fate.
From his arrested hand the crust he ate
Dropped unregarded, and the princess smiled.
This glance lived in his heart — the man grew wild
With ardent love, with restless misery;
For seven years he wept continually
And was content to live alone and wait,
Abject, among stray dogs, outside her gate.
At last, affronted by this fool and tired
Of his despair, her serving-men conspired
To murder him. The princess heard their plan,
Which she divulged to him. ‘O wretched man,’
She said, ‘how could you hope for love between
A dervish and the daughter of a queen?
You cannot live outside my palace door;
Be off with you and haunt these streets no more.
If you are here tomorrow you will die!’
The dervish answered her: ‘That day when I
First saw your beauty I despaired of life;
Why should I fear the hired assassin’s knife?
A hundred thousand men adore your face;
No power on earth could make me leave this place.
But since your servants mean to murder me,
Explain the meaning of this mystery:
Why did you smile at me that day?’ ‘Poor fool,
I smiled from pity, almost ridicule —
Your ignorance provoked that smile.’ She spoke,
And vanished like a wisp of strengthless smoke.”
The parrot’s excuse
The pretty parrot was the next to speak,
Clothed all in green, with sugar in her beak,
And round her neck a circle of pure gold.
Even the falcon cannot boast so bold
A loveliness — earth’s variegated green
Is but the image of her feathers’ sheen,
And when she talks the fascinating sound
Seems sweet as costly sugar finely ground;
She trilled: “I have been caged by heartless men,
But my desire is to be free again;
If I could reassert my liberty
I’d find the stream of immortality
Guarded by Khezr — his cloak is green like mine,
And this shared colour is an open sign
I am his equal or equivalent.
Only the stream Khezr watches could content
My thirsting soul — I have no wish to seek
This Simorgh’s throne of which you love to speak.”
The hoopoe answers her
The hoopoe said: “You are a cringing slave —
This is not noble, generous or brave,
To think your being has no other end
Than finding water and a loyal friend.
Think well — what is it that you hope to gain?
Your coat is beautiful, but where’s your brain?
Act as a lover and renounce your soul;
With love’s defiance seek the lover’s goal.
A story about Khezr
Khezr sought companionship with one whose mind
Was set on God alone. The man declined
And said to Khezr: ‘We two could not be friends,
For our existences have different ends.
The waters of immortal life are yours,
And you must always live; life is your cause
As death is mine — you wish to live, whilst I
Impatiently prepare myself to die;
I leave you as quick birds avoid a snare,
To soar up in the free, untrammelled air’.”
The peacock’s excuse and the hoopoe’s answer
Next came the peacock, splendidly arrayed
In many-coloured pomp; this he displayed
As if he were some proud, self-conscious bride
Turning with haughty looks from side to side.
“The Painter of the world created me,”
He shrieked, “but this celestial wealth you see
Should not excite your hearts to jealousy.
I was a dweller once in paradise;
There the insinuating snake’s advice
Deceived me — I became his friend, disgrace
Was swift and I was banished from that place.
My dearest hope is that some blessèd day
A guide will come to indicate the way
Back to my paradise. The king you praise
Is too unknown a goal; my inward gaze
Is fixed for ever on that lovely land —
There is the goal which I can understand.
How could I seek the Simorgh out when I
Remember paradise?”
Hoopeo Reply
And in reply
The hoopoe said: “These thoughts have made you stray
Further and further from the proper Way;
You think your monarch’s palace of more worth
Than Him who fashioned it and all the earth.
The home we seek is in eternity;
The Truth we seek is like a shoreless sea,
Of which your paradise is but a drop.
This ocean can be yours; why should you stop
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew?
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in its beams.
Turn to what truly lives, reject what seems —
Which matters more, the body or the soul?
Be whole: desire and journey to the Whole.
A story about Adam
A novice asked his master to explain
Why Adam was forbidden to remain
In his first undivided happiness.
The master said: ‘When he, whose name we bless,
Awoke in paradise a voice declared:
“The man whose mind and vision are ensnared
By heaven’s grace must forfeit that same grace,
For only then can he direct his face
To his true Lord”.’ The lover’s live and soul
Are firmly focused on a single goal;
The saints in paradise teach that the start
Of drawing near is to renounce the heart.”
The duck’s excuse
The coy duck waddled from her stream and quacked:
“Now none of you can argue with the fact
That both in this world and the next I am
The purest bird that ever flew or swam;
I spread my prayer-mat out, and all the time
I clean myself of every bit of grime
As God commands. There’s no doubt in my mind
That purity like mine is hard to find;
Among the birds I’m like an anchorite —
My soul and feathers are a spotless white.
I live in water and I cannot go
To places where no streams or rivers flow;
They wash away a world of discontent —
Why should I leave this perfect element?
Fresh water is my home, my sanctuary;
What use would arid deserts be to me?
I can’t leave water — think what water gives;
It is the source of everything that lives.
Water’s the only home I’ve ever known;
Why should I care about this Simorgh’s throne?”
The hoopoe answers her
The hoopoe answered her: “Your life is passed
In vague, aquatic dreams which cannot last —
A sudden wave and they are swept away.
You value water’s purity, you say,
But is your life as pure as you declare?
A fool described the nature both worlds share:
‘The unseen world and that which we can see
Are like a water-drop which instantly
Is and is not. A water-drop was formed
When time began, and on its surface swarmed
The world’s appearances. If they were made
Of all-resisting iron they would fade;
Hard iron is mere water, after all —
Dispersing like a dream, impalpable’.”
The partridge’s excuse
The pompous partridge was next to speak,
Fresh from his store of pearls. His crimson beak
And ruddy plumage made a splendid show —
A headstrong bird whose small eyes seemed to glow
With angry blood. He clucked: “My one desire
Is jewels; I pick through quarries for their fire.
They kindle in my heart an answering blaze
Which satisfies me — though my wretchèd days
Are one long turmoil of anxiety.
Consider how I live, and let me be;
You cannot fight with one who sleeps and feeds
On precious stones, who is convinced he needs
No other goal in life. My heart is tied
By bonds of love to this fair mountain-side.
To yearn for something other than a jewel
Is to desire what dies — to be a fool.
Nothing is precious like a precious stone.
Besides, the journey to the Simorgh’s throne
Is hard. I cannot tear myself away;
My feet refuse as if caught fast in clay.
My life is here; I have no wish to fly;
I must discover precious stones or die.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “You have the colours of
Those jewels you so inordinately love,
And yet you seem — like your excuses — lame.
Your beak and claws are red as blood or flame
Yet those hard gems from which you cannot part
Have only helped you to a hardened heart;
Without their colours they are nothing more
Than stones — and to the wise not worth a straw.
King Solomon and his ring
No jewel surpasses that which Solomon
Wore on his finger. It was just a stone,
A mere half-dang in weight, but as a seal
Set in his ring it brought the world to heel.
When he perceived the nature of his rule —
Dependent on the credit of a jewel —
He vowed that no one after him should reign
With such authority.” (Do not again,
Dear God, I pray, create such puissant kings;
My eyes have seen the blight their glory brings.
But criticizing courts is not my task;
A basket-weaver’s work is all I ask,
And I return to Solomon’s great seal.)
“Although the power it brought the king was real,
Possession of this gem meant that delay
Dogged his advance along the spirit’s Way —
The other prophets entered paradise
Five hundred years before the king. This price
A jewel extracted from great Solomon,
How would it hinder such a dizzy one
As you, dear partridge? Rise above this greed;
The Simorgh is the only jewel you need.”
The homa’s excuse
The homa* next addressed the company.
Because his shadow heralds majesty,
This wandering portent of the royal state
Is known as Homayun, ‘The Fortunate’.
He sang: “O birds of land and ocean, I
Am not as other birds, but soar and fly
On lofty aspiration’s lordly wings.
I have subdued the dog desire; great kings
Like Feridoun and Jamshid** owe their place
To my deark shadow’s influence. Disgrace
And lowly natures are not my concern.
I throw desire its bone; the dog will turn
And let the soul go free. Who can look down
On one whose shadow brings the royal crown?
The world should bask in my magnificence —
Let Khosroe’s glory stand in my defence.
What should this haughty Simorgh mean to me?”
* A mythical bird whose shadow would fall on a future king
** Two of the most illustrious of the legendary kings of ancient Persia
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Poor slave to vanity,
Your self-importance is ridiculous;
Why should a shadow merit so much fuss?
You are not now the sign of Khosroe’s throne,
More like a stray dog squabbling for a bone.
Though it is true that you confer on men
This majesty, kings must sink down again
And bear the punishments of Judgement Day.
King Mahmoud after death
There was a man, advanced along the Way,
Who one night spoke to Mahmoud in a dream.
He said: ‘Great king, how does existence seem
To one beyond the grave?’ Mahmoud replied:
‘I have no majesty since I have died;
Your greetings pierce my soul. That majesty
Was only ignorance and vanity;
True majesty belongs to God alone —
How could a heap of dust deserve the throne?
Since I have recognized my impotence,
I blush for my imperial pretence.
Call me “unfortunate”, not “king”. I should
Have been a wanderer who begged for food,
A crossing-sweeper, any lowly thing
That drags its way through life, but not a king.
Now leave me; I have no more to say;
Hell’s devils wait for me; I cannot stay.
I wish to God the earth beneath my feet
Had swallowed me before I heard the beat
Of that accursèd homa’s wings; they cast
Their shade, and may they shrivel in hell’s blast!’ ”
The hawk’s excuse
The hawk came forward with his head held high;
His boasts of grand connections filled the sky.
His talk was stuffed with armies, glory, kings.
He bragged: “The ecstasy my sovereign brings
Has turned my gaze from vulgar company.
My eyes are hooded and I cannot see,
But I perch proudly on my sovereign’s wrist.
I know court etiquette and can persist
In self-control like holy penitents;
When I approach the king, my deference
Correctly keeps to the established rule.
What is this Simorgh? I should be a fool
If I so much as dreamt of him. A seed
From my great sovereign’s hand is all I need;
The eminence I have suffices me.
I cannot travel; I would rather be
Perched on the royal wrist than struggling through
Some arid wadi with no end in view.
I am delighted by my life at court,
Waiting on kings or hunting for their sport.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Dear hawk, you set great store
By superficial graces, and ignore
The all-important fact of purity.
A king with rivals in his dignity
Is no true king; the Simorgh rules alone
And entertains no rivals to his throne.
A king is not one of these common fools
Who snatches at a crown and thinks he rules.
The true king reigns in mild humility,
Unrivalled in his firm fidelity.
An earthly king acts righteously at times,
But also stains the earth with hateful crimes,
And then whoever hovers nearest him
Will suffer most from his destructive whim.
A courtier risks destruction every hour —
Distance yourself from kings and worldly power.
A king is like a raging fire, men say;
The wisest conduct is to keep away.
A king and his slave
There was a monarch once who loved a slave.
The youth’s pale beauty haunted him; he gave
This favourite the rarest ornaments,
Watched over him with jealous reverence —
But when the king expressed a wish to shoot,
His loved one shook with fear from head to foot.
An apple balanced on his head would be
The target for the royal archery,
And as the mark was split he blenched with fear.
One day a foolish courtier standing near
Asked why his lovely face was drained and wan,
For was he not their monarch’s chosen one?
The slave replied: “If I were hit instead
Of that round apple balanced on my head,
I would be then quite worthless to the king —
Injured or dead, lower than anything
The court can show; but when the arrow hits
The trembling target and the apple splits,
That is his skill. The king is highly skilled
If he succeeds — if not, the slave is killed’.”
The heron’s excuse
The heron whimpered next: “My misery
Prefers the empty shoreline of the sea.
There no one hears my desolate, thin cry —
I wait in sorrow there, there mourn and sigh.
My love is for the ocean, but since I —
A bird — must be excluded from the deep,
I haunt the solitary shore and weep.
My beak is dry — not one drop can I drink —
But if the level of the sea should sink
By one drop, jealous rage would seize my heart.
This love suffices me; how can I start
A journey like the one that you suggest?
I cannot join you in this arduous quest.
The Simorgh’s glory could not comfort me;
My love is fixed entirely on the sea.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe answered him: “You do not know
The nature of this sea you love: below
Its surface linger sharks; tempests appear,
Then sudden calms — its course is never clear,
But turbid, varying, in constant stress;
Its water’s taste is salty bitterness.
How many noble ships has it destroyed,
Their crews sucked under in the whirlwind’s void:
The diver plunges and in fear of death
Must struggle to conserve his scanty breath;
The failure is cast up, a broken straw.
Who trusts the sea? Lawlessness is her law;
You will be drowned if you cannot decide
To turn away from her inconstant tide.
She seethes with love herself — that turbulence
Of tumbling waves, that yearning violence,
Are for her Lord, and since she cannot rest,
What peace could you discover in her breast?
She lives for Him — yet you are satisfied
To hear His invitation and to hide.
A hermit questions the ocean
A hermit asked the ocean: ‘Why are you
Clothed in these mourning robes of darkest blue?*
You seem to boil, and yet I see no fire!’
The ocean said: ‘My feverish desire
Is for the absent Friend. I am too base
For Him; my dark robes indicate disgrace
And lonely pain. Love makes my billows rage;
Love is the fire which nothing can assuage.
My salt lips thirst for Kausar’s** cleansing stream.’
For those pure waters tens of thousands dream
And are prepared to perish; night and day
They search and fall exhausted by the Way.”
* Blue was the colour of mourning in ancient Persia; the epic poet Ferdowsi (10th -11th
centuries) mentions it as being worn by the first of the legendary Persian kings,
Keyumars, when in mourning for his son Siyamak.
** A stream that flows through paradise.
The owl’s excuse
The owl approached with his distracted air,
Hooting: “Abandoned ruins are my lair,
Because, wherever mortals congregate,
Strife flourishes and unforgiving hate;
A tranquil mind is only to be found
Away from men, in wild, deserted ground.
These ruins are my melancholy pleasure,
Not least because they harbour buried treasure.
Love for such treasure has directed me
To desolate, waste sites; in secrecy
I hide my hopes that one fine day my foot
Will stumble over unprotected loot.
Love for the Simorgh is a childish story;
My love is solely for gold’s buried glory.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe answered him: “Besotted fool,
Suppose you get this gold for which you drool —
What could you do but guard it night and day
While life itself — unnoticed — slips away?
The love of gold and jewels is blasphemy;
Our faith is wrecked by such idolatry.
To love gold is to be an infidel,
An idol-worshipper who merits hell.
On Judgement Day the miser’s secret greed
Stares from his face for everyone to read.
The miser who became a mouse
A miser died, leaving a cache of gold;
And in a dream what should the son behold
But his dead father, shaped now like a mouse
That dashed distractedly about the house,
His mouse-eyes filled with tears. The sleeping son
Spoke in his dream: ‘Why, father, must you run
About our home like this?’ The poor mouse said:
‘Who guards my store of gold now I am dead?
Has any thief found out its hiding-place?’
The son asked next about his mouse-like face
And heard his father say: ‘Learn from my state;
Whoever worships gold, this is his fate —
To haunt the hidden cache for evermore,
An anxious mouse that darts across the floor’.”
The finch’s excuse
The timid finch approached. Her feeble frame
Trembled from head to foot, a nervous flame;
She chirped: “I am less sturdy than a hair
And lack the courage that my betters share;
My feathers are too weak to carry me
The distance to the Simorgh’s sanctuary.
How could a sickly creature stand alone
Before the glory of the Simorgh’s throne?
The world is full of those who seek His grace,
But I do not deserve to see His face.
And cannot join in this delusive race —
Exhaustion would cut short my foolish days,
Or I should turn to ashes in His gaze.
Joseph was hidden in a well and I
Shall seek my loved one in the wells nearby.”
The hoopoe answers her
The hoopoe said: “You teasing little bird,
This humble ostentation is absurd!
If all of us are destined for the fire,
Then you too must ascend the burning pyre.
Get ready for the road, you can’t fool me —
Sew up your beak, I loathe hypocrisy!
Though Jacob mourned for Joseph’s absent face,
Do you imagine you could take his place?
Jacob’s dream when Joseph was lost
When Jacob lost his son his eyes grew blind;
Tears flooded for the child he could not find.
His lips repeatedly formed Joseph’s name —
To his despair the angel Gabriel came
And said: ‘Renounce this word; if you persist,
Your own name will be cancelled from the list
Of prophets close to God.’ Since this command
Came from his God, dear Joseph’s name was banned
Henceforth from Jacob’s lips; deep in his soul
He hid the passions he could not control.
But as he slept one night the long-lost child
Appeared before him in a dream, and smiled;
He started up to call him to his side —
And then remembered, struck his breast and sighed
When from his vivid dream the old man woke,
The angel Gabriel came to him, and spoke:
‘Though you did not pronounce your lost son’s name,
You sighed — the exhalation meant the same
As if you had renounced your vow; a sigh
Reveals the heart as clearly as a cry’.”
The other birds protest and the hoopoe tells them of their relationship with
the Simorgh
The other birds in turn received their chance
To show off their loquacious ignorance.
All made excuses – floods of foolish words
Flowed from these babbling, rumour-loving birds.
Forgive me, reader, if I do not say
All these excuses to avoid the Way;
But in an incoherent rush they came,
And all were inappropriate and lame.
How could they gain the Simorgh? Such a goal
Belongs to those who discipline the soul.
The hoopoe counselled them: “The world holds few
As worthy of the Simorgh’s throne as you,
But you must empty this first glass; the wine
That follows it is love’s devoted sign.
If petty problems keep you back — or none —
How will you seek the treasures of the sun?
In drops you lose yourselves, yet you must dive
Through untold fathoms and remain alive.
This is no journey for the indolent —
Our quest is Truth itself, not just its scent!”
When they had understood the hoopoe’s words,
A clamour of complaint rose from the birds:
“Although we recognize you as our guide,
You must accept — it cannot be denied —
We are a wretched, flimsy crew at best,
And lack the bare essentials for this quest.
Our feathers and our wings, our bodies’ strength
Are quite unequal to the journey’s length;
For one of us to reach the Simorgh’s throne
Would be miraculous, a thing unknown.
At least say what relationship obtains
Between His might and ours; who can take pains
To search for mysteries when he is blind?
If there were some connection we could find,
We would be more prepared to take our chance.
He seems like Solomon, and we like ants;
How can mere ants climb from their darkened pit
Up to the Simorgh’s realm? And is it fit
That beggars try the glory of a king?
How ever could they manage such a thing?”
The hoopoe answered them: “How can love thrive
In hearts impoverished and half alive?
‘Beggars’, you say — such niggling poverty
Will not encourage truth or charity.
An man whose eyes love opens risks his soul —
His dancing breaks beyond the mind’s control
When long ago the Simorgh first appeared —
His face like sunlight when the clouds have cleared —
He cast unnumbered shadows on the earth,
On each one fixed his eyes, and each gave birth.
Thus we were born; the birds of every land
Are still his shadows — think, and understand.
If you had known this secret you would see
The link between yourselves and Majesty;
Do not reveal this truth, and God forfend
That you mistake for God Himself God’s friend.
If you become that substance I propound,
You are not God, though in God you are drowned;
Those lost in Him are not the Deity —
This problem can be argued endlessly.
You are His shadow, and cannot be moved
By thoughts of life or death once this is proved.
If He had kept His majesty concealed,
No earthly shadow would have been revealed,
And where that shadow was directly cast
The race of birds sprang up before it passed.
Your heart is not a mirror bright and clear
If there the Simorgh’s for does not appear;
No one can bear His beauty face to face,
And for this reason, of His perfect grace,
He makes a mirror in our hearts — look there
To see Him, search your hearts with anxious care.
A king who placed mirrors in his palace
There lived a king; his comeliness was such
The world could not acclaim his charm too much.
The world’s wealth seemed a portion of his grace;
It was a miracle to view his face.
If he had rivals, then I know of none;
The earth resounded with this paragon.
When riding through his streets he did not fail
To hide his features with a scarlet veil.
Whoever scanned the veil would lose his head;
Whoever spoke his name was left for dead,
The tongue ripped from his mouth; whoever thrilled
With passion for this king was quickly killed.
A thousand for his love expired each day,
And those who saw his face, in blank dismay
Would rave and grieve and mourn their lives away —
To die for love of that bewitching sight
Was worth a hundred lives without his light.
None could survive his absence patiently,
None could endure this king’s proximity —
How strange it was that men could neither brook
The presence nor the absence of his look!
Since few could bear his sight, they were content
To hear the king in sober argument,
But while they listened they endured such pain
As made them long to see their king again.
The king commanded mirrors to be placed
About the palace walls, and when he faced
Their polished surfaces his image shone
With mitigated splendour to the throng.
If you would glimpse the beauty we revere
Look in your heart — its image will appear.
Make of your heart a looking-glass and see
Reflected there the Friend’s nobility;
Your sovereign’s glory will illuminate
The palace where he reigns in proper state.
Search for this king within your heart; His soul
Reveals itself in atoms of the Whole.
The multitude of forms that masquerade
Throughout the world spring from the Simorgh’s shade.
If you catch sight of His magnificence
It is His shadow that beguiles your glance;
The Simorgh’s shadow and Himself are one;
Seek them together, twinned in unison.
But you are lost in vague uncertainty …
Pass beyond shadows to Reality.
How can you reach the Simorgh’s splendid court?
First find its gateway, and the sun, long-sought,
Erupts through clouds; when victory is won,
Your sight knows nothing but the blinding sun.
A story about Alexander the Great
When Alexander, that unconquered lord,
Who subjugated empires with his sword,
Required a lengthy message to be sent
He dressed up as the messenger and went.
‘The king gives an order,’ he would say,
And none of those who hurried to obey
Once guessed this messenger’s identity —
They had no knowledge of such majesty.
And even if he said: ‘I am your lord’,
The claim was thought preposterous and ignored.
Deluded natures cannot recognize
The royal way that stands before their eyes.
Ayaz’s sickness
Ayaz, afflicted with the Evil Eye,
Fell ill. For safety he was forced to lie
Sequestered from the court, in loneliness.
The king (who loved him) heard of his distress
And called a servant. ‘Tell Ayaz,’ he said,
‘What tears of sympathy I daily shed.
Tell him that I endure his suffering,
And hardly comprehend I am the king;
My soul is with him (though my flesh is here)
And guards his bed solicitous with fear;
Ayaz, what could this Evil Eye not do,
If it destroys such loveliness as you!’
The king was silent; then again he spoke:
‘Go quickly as a fire, return like smoke;
Stop nowhere, but outrun the brilliant flash
That lights the world before the thunder’s crash.
Go now; if you so much as pause for breath
My anger will pursue you after death.’
The servant scuttled off, consumed with dread,
And like the wind arrived at Ayaz’ bed —
There sat his sovereign, by the patient’s head!
Aghast, the servant trembled for his life
And pictured in his mind the blood-smeared knife.
‘My king,’ he said, ‘I swear, I swear indeed,
That I have hurried here with utmost speed —
Although I see you here I cannot see
How in the world you have preceded me;
Believe my innocence, and if I lie
I am a heathen and deserve to die.’
His sovereign answered him: ‘You could not know
The hidden ways by which we lovers go;
I cannot bear my life without his face,
And every minute I am in this place.
The passing world outside is unaware
Of mysteries Ayaz and Mahmoud share;
In public I ask after him, although
Behind the veil of secrecy I know
Whatever news my messengers could give;
I hide my secret and in secret live’.”
The birds question the hoopoe and he advises them
An ancient secret yielded to the birds
When they understood the hoopoe’s words —
Their kinship with the Simorgh was now plain
And all were eager to set off again.
The homily returned them to the Way
And with one voice the birds were heard to say:
“Tell us, dear hoopoe, how we should proceed —
Our weakness quails before this glorious deed.”
“A lover,” said the hoopoe, now their guide,
“Is one in whom all thoughts of Self have died;
Those who renounce the Self deserve that name;
Righteous or sinful, they are all the same!
Your heart is thwarted by the Self’s control;
Destroy its hold on you and reach your goal.
Give up this hindrance, give up mortal sight,
For only then can you approach the light.
If you are told: ‘Renounce our Faith’, obey!
The Self and Faith must both be tossed away;
Blasphemers call such actions blasphemy —
Tell them that love exceeds mere piety.
Love has no time for blasphemy or faith,
Nor lovers for the Self, that feeble wraith.
They burn all that they own; unmoved they feel
Against their skin the torturer’s sharp steel.
Heart’s blood and bitter pain belong to love,
And tales of problems no one can remove;
Cupbearer, fill the bowl with blood, not wine —
And if you lack the heart’s rich blood take mine.
Love thrives on inextinguishable pain,
Which tears the soul, then knits the threads again.
A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives
The vital essence to whatever lives.
But where love thrives, there pain is always found;
Angels alone escape this weary round —
They love without that savage agony
Which is reserved for vexed humanity.
Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s path at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam;
Put childish dread aside — like heroes meet
The hundred problems which you must defeat.
The story of Sheikh San’an
San’an was once the first man of his time.
Whatever praise can be expressed in rhyme
Belonged to him: for fifty years this sheikh
Kept Mecca’s holy place, and for his sake
Four hundred pupil’s entered learning’s way.
He mortified his body night and day,
Knew theory, practice, mysteries of great age,
And fifty times had made the Pilgrimage.
He fasted, prayed, observed all sacred laws —
Astonished saints and clerics thronged his doors.
He split religious hairs in argument;
His breath revived the sick and impotent.
He knew the people’s hearts in joy and grief
And was their living symbol of Belief.
Though conscious of his credit in their sight,
A strange dream troubled him, night after night;
Mecca was left behind; he lived in Rome,
The temple where he worshipped was his home,
And to an idol he bowed down his head.
‘Alas!’ he cried, when awoke in dread,
‘Like Joseph I am in a well of need
And have no notion when I shall be freed.
But every man meets problems on the Way,
And I shall conquer if I watch and pray.
If I can shift this rock my path is clear;
If not, then I must wait and suffer here.’
Then suddenly he burst out: ‘It would seem
That Rome could show the meaning of this dream;
There I must go!’ And off the old man strode;
Four hundred followed him along the road.
They left the Ka’abah * for Rome’s boundaries,
A gentle landscape of low hills and trees,
Where, infinitely lovelier than the view,
There sat a girl, a Christian girl who knew
The secrets of her faith’s theology.
A fairer child no man could hope to see —
In beauty’s mansion she was like a sun
That never set — indeed the spoils she won
Where headed by the sun himself, whose face
Was pale with jealousy and sour disgrace.
The man about whose heart her ringlets curled
Became a Christian and renounced the world;
The man who saw her lips and knew defeat
Embraced the earth before her bonny feet.’
And as the breeze passed through her musky hair
The men of Rome watched wondering in despair.
Her eyes spoke promises to those in love,
Their fine brows arched coquettishly above —
Those brows sent glancing messages that seemed
To offer everything her lovers dreamed.
The pupils of her eyes grew wide and smiled,
And countless souls were glad to be beguiled;
The face beneath her curls glowed like soft fire;
Her honeyed lips provoked the world’s desire;
But those who thought to feast there found her eyes
Held pointed daggers to protect the prize,
And since she kept her counsel no one knew —
Despite the claims of some — what she would do.
Her mouth was tiny as a needle’s eye,
Her breath as quickening as Jesus’ sigh;
Her chin was dimpled with a silver well
In which a thousand drowning Josephs fell;
A glistering jewel secured her hair in place,
Which like a veil obscured her lovely face.
The Christian turned, the dark veil was removed,
A fire flashed through the old man’s joints — he loved!
One hair converted hundreds; how could he
Resist that idol’s face shown openly?
He did not know himself; in sudden fire
He knelt abjectly as the flames beat higher;
In that sad instant all he had been fled
And passion’s smoke obscured his heart and head.
Love sacked his heart; the girl’s bewitching hair
Twined round his faith impiety’s smooth snare.
The sheikh exchanged religion’s wealth for shame,
A hopeless heart submitted to love’s fame.
‘I have no faith,’ he cried. ‘The heart I gave
Is useless now; I am the Christian’s slave.’
When his disciples saw him weeping there
And understood the truth of the affair
They stared, confounded by his frantic grief,
And strove to call him back to his belief.
Their remonstrations fell on deafened ears;
Advice has no effect when no one hears.
In turn the sheikh’s disciples had their say;
Love has no cure, and he could not obey.
(When did a lover listen to advice?
When did a nostrum cool love’s flames to ice?)
Till evening came he could not move but gazed
With stupefaction in his face, amazed.
When gloomy twilight spread its darkening shrouds —
Like blasphemy concealed by guilty clouds —
His ardent heart gave out the only light,
And loved increased a hundredfold that night.
He put aside the Self and selfish lust;
In grief he smeared his locks with filth and dust
And kept his haunted vigil, watched and wept,
Lay trembling in love’s grip and never slept.
‘O Lord, when will this darkness end?’ he cried,
‘Or is it that the heavenly sun has died?
Those night I passed in faith’s austerities
Cannot compare with this night’s agonies;
But like a candle now my flame burns high
To weep all night and in the daylight die.
Ambush and blood have been my lot this night;
Who knows what torments day will bring to light?
This fevered darkness and my wretched state
Were made when I was made, and are my fate;
The night continues and the hours delay —
Perhaps the world has reached its Judgement Day;
Perhaps the sun’s extinguished with my sighs,
Or hides in shame from my belovèd’s eyes.
This long, dark night is like her flowing hair —
The thought in absence comforts my despair,
But love consumes me through this endless night —
I yield to love, unequal to the fight.
Where is there time enough to tell my grief?
Where is the patience to regain belief?
Where is the luck to waken me, or move
Love’s idol to reciprocate my love?
Where is the reason that could rescue me,
Or by some trick prove my auxiliary?
Where is the hand to pour dust on my head,
Or lift me from the dust where I lie dead?
Where is the foot that seeks the longed-for place?
Where is the eye to show me her fair face?
Where is the loved one to relieve my pain?
Where is the guide to help me turn again?
Where is the strength to utter my complaint?
Where is the mind to counsel calm restraint?
The loved one, reason, patience — all are gone
And I remain to suffer love alone.’
At this the fond disciples gathered round,
Bewildered by his groans’ pathetic sound.
‘My sheikh,’ urged one, ‘forget this evil sight;
Rise, cleanse yourself according to our rite.’
‘In blood I cleanse myself,’ the sheikh replied;
‘In blood, a hundred times, my life is dyed.’
Another asked, ‘Where is your rosary?’
He said: ‘I fling the beads away from me;
The Christian’s belt ** is my sole sanctuary!’
One urged him to repent; he said, ‘I do,
Of all I was, all that belonged thereto.’
One counselled prayer; he said: ‘Where is her face
That I may pray toward that blessèd place?’
Another cried: ‘Enough of this; you must
Seek solitude and in repentant dust
Bow down to God.’ ‘I will,’ replied the sheikh,
‘Bow down in dust, but for my idol’s sake.’
And one reproached him: ‘Have you no regret
For Islam and those rites you would forget?’
He said: ‘No man repents past folly more;
Why is it I was not in love before?’
Another said: ‘A demon’s poisoned dart —
Unknown to you — has pierced your trusting heart.’
The sheikh said: ‘If a demon straight from hell
Deceives me, I rejoice and wish her well.’
One said: ‘Our noble sheikh has lost his way;
Passion has led his wandering wits astray.’
‘True, I have lost the fame I once held dear,’
Replied their sheikh, ‘and fraud as well, and fear.’
One said: ‘You break our hearts with this disgrace.’
He laughed: ‘The Christian’s heart will take their place.’
One said: ‘Stay with old friends awhile, and come —
We’ll seek the Ka’abah’s shade and journey home.’
The sheikh replied: ‘A Christian monastery
And not the Ka’abah’s shade suffices me.’
One said: ‘Return to Mecca and repent!’
He answered: ‘Leave me here, I am content.’
One said: ‘You travel on hell’s road. ‘This sigh
Would shrivel seven hells’ was his reply.
One said: ‘In hope of heaven turn again.’
He said: ‘Her face is heaven; I remain.’
One said: ‘Before our God confess your shame.’
He replied: ‘God Himself has lit this flame.’
One said: ‘Stop vacillating now and fight;
Defend the ways our faith proclaims as right.’
He said: ‘Prepare your ears for blasphemy;
An infidel does not prate piety.’
Their words could not recall him to belief,
And slowly they grew silent, sunk in grief.
They watched; each felt the heart within him fail,
Fearful of deeds Fate hid beneath her veil.
* A building of grey stone at the centre of the great mosque in Mecca, circumambulated by
every pilgrim seven times. It is the geographical centre of Islam.
** The zonnar, a belt or cord worn by Eastern Christians and Jews; thus a symbol of
heresy.
At last white day displayed her golden shield;
Black night declined his head, compelled to yield —
The world lay drowned in sparkling light, and dawn
Disclosed the sheikh, still wretched and forlorn,
Disputing with stray dogs the place before
His unattainable belovèd’s door.
There in the dust he knelt, till constant prayers
Made him resemble one of her dark hairs;
A patient month he waited day and night
To glimpse the radiance of her beauty’s light.
At last fatigue and sorrow made him ill —
Her street became his bed and he lay still.
When he perceived he would — and could — not move,
She understood the fury of his love,
But she pretended ignorance and said:
‘What is it, sheikh? Why is our street your bed?
How can a Moslem sleep where Christians tread?’
He answered her: ‘I have no need to speak;
You know why I am wasted, pale and weak.
Restore the heart you stole, or let me see
Some glimmer in your heart of sympathy;
In all your pride find some affection for
The grey-haired, lovesick stranger at your door.
Accept my love or kill me now — your breath
Revives me or consigns me here to death.
Your face and curls command my life; beware
Of how the breeze displays your vagrant hair;
The sight breeds fever in me, and your deep
Hypnotic eyes induce love’s restless sleep.
Love mists my eyes, love burns my heart — alone,
Impatient and unloved, I weep and groan;
See what a sack of sorrow I have sewn!
I give my soul and all the world to burn,
And endless tears are all I hope to earn.
My eyes beheld your face, my heart despaired;
What I have seen and suffered none have shared.
My heart has turned to blood; how long must I
Subsist on misery? You need not try
To humble wretchedness, or kick the foe
Who in the dust submissively bows low.
It is my fortune to lament and wait —
When, if, love answers me depends on Fate.
My soul is ambushed here, and in your street
Relives each night the anguish of defeat;
Your threshold’s dust receives my prayers — I give
As cheap as dust the soul by which I live.
How long outside your door must I complain?
Relent a moment and relieve my pain.
You are the sun and I a shadow thrown
By you — how then can I survive alone?
Though pain has worn me to a shadow’s edge,
Like sunlight I shall leap your window’s ledge;
Let me come in and I shall secretly
Bring seven heavens’ happiness with me.
My soul is burnt to ash; my passion’s fire
Destroys the world with unappeased desire.
Love binds my feet and I cannot depart;
Love holds the hand pressed hard against my heart.
My fainting soul dissolves in deathly sighs —
How long must you stay hidden from my eyes?’
She laughed: ‘You shameless fool, take my advice —
Prepare yourself for death and paradise!
Forget flirtatious games, your breath is cold;
Stop chasing love, remember you are old.
It is a shroud you need, not me! How could
You hope for wealth when you must beg for food?’
He answered her: ‘Say what you will, but I
In love’s unhappy torments live and die;
To Love, both young and old are one — his dart
Strikes with unequalled strength in every heart.’
The girl replied: ‘There are four things you must
Perform to show that you deserve my trust:
Burn the Koran, drink wine, seal up Faith’s eye,
Bow down to images.’ And in reply
The sheikh declared: ‘Wine I will drink with you;
The rest are things that I could never do.’
She said: ‘If you agree to my commands,
To start with, you must wholly wash your hands
Of Islam’s faith — the love which does not care
To bend to love’s requests is empty air.’
He yielded then: ‘I must and will obey;
I’ll do whatever you are pleased to say.
Your slave submits — lead me with ringlets twined
As chains about my neck; I am resigned!’
She smiled: ‘Come then and drink,’ and he allowed
Her to escort him to a hall (the crowd
Of scholars followed, weeping and afraid)
Where Christians banqueted, and there a maid
Of matchless beauty passed the cup around.
Love humbled our poor sheikh — without a sound
He gave his heart into the Christian’s hands;
His mind had fled, he bowed to her commands,
And from those hands he took the proffered bowl;
He drank, oblivion overwhelmed his soul.
Wine mingled with his love — her laughter seemed
To challenge him to take the bliss he dreamed.
Passion flared up in him; again he drank,
And slave-like at her feet contented sank —
This sheikh who had the whole Koran by heart
Felt wine spread through him and his faith depart;
Whatever he had known deserted him,
Wine conquered and his intellect grew dim;
Wine sluiced away his conscience; she alone
Lived in his heart, all other thoughts had flown.
Now love grew violent as an angry sea,
He watched drink and moved instinctively —
Half-fuddled with the wine — to touch her neck.
But she drew back and held his hand in check,
Deriding him: “What do you want, old man?
Old hypocrite of love, who talks but can
Do nothing else? To prove your love declare
That your religion is my rippling hair.
Love’s more than childish games, if you agree —
For love — to imitate my blasphemy
You can embrace me here; if not, you may
Take up your stick and hobble on your way.’
The abject sheikh had sunk to such a state
That he could not resist his wretched fate;
Now ignorant of shame and unafraid,
He heard the Christian’s wishes and obeyed —
The old wind sidled through the old man’s veins
And like a twisting compass turned his brains;
Old wine, young love, a lover far too old,
Her soft arms welcoming — could he be cold?
Beside himself with love and drink he cried:
‘Command me now; whatever you decide
I will perform. I spurned idolatry
When sober, but your beauty is to me
An idol for whose sake I’ll gladly burn
My faith’s Koran.’ ‘Now you begin to learn,
Now you are mine, dear sheikh,’ she said. ‘Sleep well,
Sweet dreams; our ripening fruit begins to swell.’
News spread among the Christians that this sheikh
Had chosen their religion for love’s sake.
They took him to a nearby monastery,
Where he accepted their theology;
He burnt his dervish cloak and set his face
Against the faith and Mecca’s holy place —
After so many years of true belief,
A young girl brought this learnèd sheikh to grief.
He said: ‘This dervish has been well betrayed;
The agent was mere passion for a maid.
I must obey her now — what I have done
Is worse than any crime beneath the sun.’
(How many leave the faith through wine! It is
The mother of such evil vagaries.)
‘Whatever you required is done,’ he said.
‘What more remains? I have bowed down my head
In love’s idolatry, I have drunk wine;
May no one pass through wretchedness like mine!
Love ruins one like me, and black disgrace
Now stares a once-loved dervish in the face.
For fifty years I walked an open road
While in my heart high seas of worship flowed;
Love ambushed me and at its sudden stroke
For Christian garments I gave up my cloak;
The Ka’abah has become love’s secret sign,
And homeless love interprets the Divine.
Consider what, for your sake, I have done —
Then tell me, when shall we two be as one?
Hope for that moment justifies my pain;
Have all my troubles been endured in vain?’
The girl replied: ‘But you are poor, and I
Cannot be cheaply won — the price is high;
Bring gold, and silver too, you innocent —
Then I might pity your predicament;
But you have neither, therefore go — and take
A beggar’s alms from me; be off, old sheikh!
Be on your travels like the sun — alone;
Be manly now and patient, do not groan!’
‘A fine interpretation of your vow,’
The sheikh replied; ‘my love, look at me now —
I have no one but you; your cypress gait,
Your silver form, decide my wretched fate.
Take back your cruel command; each moment you
Confuse me by demanding something new.
I have endured your absence, promptly done
All you have asked — what profit have I won?
I’ve passed beyond loss, profit, Islam, crime,
For how much longer must I bide my time?
Is this what we agreed? My friends have gone,
Despising me, and I am here alone.
They follow one way, you another — I
Stand witless here uncertain where to fly;
I know without you heaven would be hell,
Hell heaven with you; more I cannot tell.
At last his protestations moved her heart,
‘You are too poor to play the bridegroom’s part,’
She said, ‘but be my swineherd for a year
And then we’ll stay together, never fear.’
The sheikh did not refuse — a fractious way
Estranges love; he hurried to obey.
This reverend sheikh kept swine — but who does not
Keep something swinish in his nature’s plot?
Do not imagine only he could fall;
This hidden danger lurks within us all,
Rearing its bestial head when we begin
To tread salvation’s path — if you think sin
Has no place in your nature, you can stay
Content at home; you are excused the Way.
But if you start our journey you will find
That countless swine and idols tease the mind —
Destroy these hindrances to love or you
Must suffer that disgrace the sad sheikh knew.
Despair unmanned his friends; they saw his plight
And turned in helpless horror from the sight —
The dust of grief anointed each bowed head;
But one approached the hapless man and said:
‘We leave for Mecca now, O weak-willed sheikh;
Is there some message you would have us take?
Or should we all turn Christians and embrace
This faith men call a blasphemous disgrace?
We get no pleasure from the thought of you
Left here alone — shall we be Christians too?
Or since we cannot bear your state should we,
Deserting you, incontinently flee;
Forget that you exist and live in prayer
Beside the Ka’abah’s stone without a care?’
The sheikh replied: ‘What grief has filled my heart!
Go where you please — but quickly, now, depart;
Only the Christian keeps my soul alive,
And I shall stay with her while I survive.
Though you are wise your wisdom cannot know
The wild frustrations through which lovers go.
If for one moment you could share my pain,
We could be old companions once again.
But now go back, dear friends; if anyone
Asks after me explain what I have done —
Say that my eyes swim blood, that parched I wait
Trapped in the gullet of a monstrous fate.
Say Islam’s elder has outsinned the whole
Of heathen blasphemy, that self-control
Slipped from him when he saw the Christian’s hair,
That faith was conquered by insane despair.
Should anyone reproach my actions, say
That countless others have pursued this Way,
This endless Way where no one is secure,
Where danger waits and issues are unsure.’
He turned from them; a swineherd sought his swine.
His friends wept vehemently — their sheikh’s decline
Seemed death to them. Sadly they journeyed home,
Resigning their apostate sheikh to Rome.
They skulked in corners, shameful and afraid.
A close companion of the sheikh had stayed
In Mecca while the group had journeyed west —
A man of wisdom, fit for any test,
Who, seeing now the vacant oratory
Where once his friend had worshipped faithfully,
Asked after their lost sheikh. In tears then they
Described what had occurred along the way;
How he had bound his fortunes to her hair,
And blocked the path of faith with love’s despair;
How curls usurped belief and how his cloak
Had been consumed in passion’s blackening smoke;
How he’d become a swineherd, how the four
Acts contrary to all Islamic law
Had been performed by him, how this great sheikh
Lived like a pagan for his lover’s sake.
Amazement seized the friend — his face grew pale,
He wept and felt the heart within him fail.
‘O criminals!’ he cried. ‘O frailer than
Weak women in your faith — when does a man
Need faithful friends but in adversity?
You should be there, not prattling here to me.
Is this devoted love? Shame on you all,
Fair-weather friends who run when great men fall.
He put on Christian garments — so should you;
He took their faith — what else had you to do?
This was no friendship, to forsake your friend,
To promise your support and at the end
Abandon him — this was sheer treachery.
Friend follows friend to hell and blasphemy —
When sorrows come a man’s true friends are found;
In times of joy ten thousand gather round.
Our sheikh is savaged by some shark — you race
To separate yourselves from his disgrace.
Love’s built on readiness to share love’s shame;
Such self-regarding love usurps love’s name.’
‘Repeatedly we told him all you say,’
They cried. ‘We were companions of the Way,
Sworn to a common happiness or grief;
We should exchange the honours of belief
For odium and scorn; we should accept
The Christian cult our sheikh could not reject.
But he insisted that we leave — our love
Seemed pointless then; he ordered us to move.
At his express command we journeyed here
To tell his story plainly, without fear.’
He answered them: ‘However hard the fight,
You should have fought for what was clearly right.
Truth struggled there with error; when you went
You only worsened his predicament.
You have abandoned him; how could you dare
To enter Mecca’s uncorrupted air?’
They heard his speech; not one would raise his head.
And then, ‘There is no point in shame,’ he said.
‘What’s done is done’ we must act justly now,
Bury this sin, seek out the sheikh and bow
Before him once again.’ They left their home
And made their way a second time to Rome;
They prayed a hundred thousand prayers — at times
With hope, at times disheartened by their crimes.
They neither ate nor slept but kept their gaze
Unswerving throughout forty nights and days.
Their wailing lamentations filled the sky,
Moving the green-robed angels ranked on high
To clothe themselves with black, and in the end
The leader of the group, the sheikh’s true friend,
His heart consumed by sympathetic grief,
Let loose the well-aimed arrows of belief.
For forty nights he had prayed privately,
Rapt in devotion’s holy ecstasy —
At dawn there came a musk-diffusing breeze,
And in his heart he knew all mysteries.
He saw the Prophet, lovely as the moon,
Whose face, Truth’s shadow, was the sun at noon,
Whose hair in two black heavy braids was curled —
Each hair, a hundred times, outpriced the world.
As he approached with his unruffled pace,
A smile of haunting beauty lit his face.
The sheikh’s friend rose and said, ‘God’s Messenger,
Vouchsafe your help. Our sheikh has wandered far;
You are our Guide; guide him to Truth again.’
The Prophet answered: ‘I have loosed the chain
Which bound your sheikh — your prayer is answered, go.
Thick clouds of dust have been allowed to blow
Between his sight and Truth — those clouds have gone;
I did not leave him to endure alone.
I sprinkled on the fortunes of your sheikh
A cleansing dew for intercession’s sake —
The dust is laid; sin disappeared before
His new-made vow. A world of sin, be sure,
Shall with contrition’s spittle be made pure.
The sea of righteousness drowns in its waves
The sins of those sincere repentance saves.’
With grateful happiness the friend cried out;
The heavens echoed his triumphant shout.
He told the good news to the group; again
They set out eagerly across the plain.
Weeping they ran to where the swineherd-sheikh,
Now cured of his unnatural mistake,
Had cast aside his Christian clothes, the bell,
The belt, the cap, freed from the strange faith’s spell.
He saw how he had forfeited God’s grace;
He ripped his clothes in frenzies of distress;
He grovelled in the dust with wretchedness.
Tears flowed like rain; he longed for death; his sighs’
Great heat consumed the curtain of the skies;
Grief dried the blood within him when he saw
How he had lost all knowledge of God’s law;
All he had once abandoned now returned
And he escaped the hell in which he’d burned.
He came back to himself, and on his knees
Wept bitterly for past iniquities.
When his disciples saw him weeping there,
Bathed in shame’s sweat, they reeled between despair
And joy — bewildered they drew near and sighed;
From gratitude they gladly would have died.
They said: ‘The mist has fled that hid your sun;
Faith has returned and blasphemy is gone;
Truth has defeated Rome’s idolatry;
Grace has surged onward like a mighty sea.
The Prophet interceded for your soul’
The world sends up its thanks from pole to pole.
Why should you mourn? You should thank God instead
That out of darkness you’ve been safely led;
God who can turn the day to darkest night
Can turn black sin to pure repentant light —
He kindles a repentant spark, the flame
Burns all our sins and all sin’s burning shame.’
I will be brief: the sheikh was purified
According to the faith; his old self died —
He put the dervish cloak on as before.
The group set out for Mecca’s gates once more.
And then the Christian girl whom he had loved
Dreamed in her sleep; a shaft of sunlight moved
Before her eyes, and from the dazzling ray
A voice said: ‘Rise, follow your lost sheikh’s way;
Accept his faith, beneath his feet be dust;
You tricked him once, be pure to him and just,
And, as he took your path without pretence,
Take his path now in truth and innocence.
Follow his lead; you once led him astray —
Be his companion as he points the Way;
You were a robber preying on the road
Where you should seek to share the traveller’s load.
Wake now, emerge from superstition’s night.’
She woke, and in her heart a stead light
Beat like the sun, and an unwonted pain
Throbbed there, a longing she could not restrain;
Desire flared up in her; she felt her soul
Slip gently from the intellect’s control.
As yet she did not know what seed was sown —
She had no friend and found herself alone
In an uncharted world; no tongue can tell
What then she saw — her pride and triumph fell
Like rain from her; with an unearthly shout
She tore the garments from her back, ran out
And heaped the dust of mourning on her head.
Her frame was weak, the heart within her bled,
But she began the journey to her sheikh,
And like a cloud that seems about to break
And shed its downpour of torrential rain
(The heart’s rich blood) she ran across the plain.
But soon the desert’s endless vacancy
Bewildered her; wild with uncertainty,
She wept and pressed her face against the sand.
‘O God,’ she cried, ‘extend your saving hand
To one who is an outcast of the earth,
To one who tricked a saint of unmatched worth —
Do not abandon me; my evil crime
Was perpetrated in a thoughtless time;
I did not know what I know now — accept
The prayers of one who ignorantly slept.’
The sheikh’s heart spoke: ‘The Christian is no more;
The girl you loved knocks at religion’s door —
It is our way she follows now; go back
And be the comforter her sorrows lack.’
Like wind he ran, and his disciples cried:
‘Has your repentant vow so quickly died?
Will you slip back, a shameless reprobate?’
But when the sheikh explained the girl’s sad state,
Compassion moved their hearts and they agreed
To search for her and serve her every need.
They found her with hair draggled in the dirt,
Prone on the earth as if a corpse, her skirt
Torn fro her limbs, barefoot, her face death-pale.
She saw the sheikh and felt her last strength fail;
She fainted at his feet, and as she slept
The sheikh hung over her dear face and wept.
She woke, and seeing tears like rain in spring
Knew he’d kept faith with her through everything.
She knelt before him, took his hands and said
‘The shame I brought on your respected head
Burns me with shame; how long must I remain
Behind this veil of ignorance? Make plain
The mysteries of Islam to me here,
And I shall tread its highway without fear.’
The sheikh spelt out the faith to her; the crowd
Of gratified disciples cried aloud,
Weeping to see the lovely child embrace
The search for Truth. Then, as her comely face
Bent to his words, her heart began to feel
An inexpressible and troubling zeal;
Slowly she felt the pall of grief descend,
Knowing herself still absent from the Friend.
‘Dear sheikh,’ she said, ‘I cannot bear such pain;
Absence undoes me and my spirits wane.
I go from this unhappy world; farewell
World’s sheikh and mine — further I cannot tell,
Exhaustion weakens me; O sheikh, forgive …’
And saying this the dear child ceased to live.
The sun was hidden by a mist — her flesh
Yielded the sweet soul from its weakening mesh.
She was a drop returned to Truth’s great sea;
She left this world, and so, like wind, must we.
Whoever knows love’s path is soon aware
That stories such as this are far from rare.
All things are possible, and you may meet
Despair, forgiveness, certainty, deceit.
The Self ignores the secrets of the Way,
The mysteries no mortal speech can say;
Assurance whispers in the heart’s dark core,
Not in the muddied Self — a bitter war
Must rage between these two. Turn now and mourn
That your existence is so deeply torn!”
The birds set off on their journey, pause, then choose a leader.
They heard the tale; the birds were all on fire
To quit the hindrance of the Self; desire
To gain the Simorgh had convulsed each heart;
Love made them clamour for the journey’s start.
They set out on the Way, a noble deed!
Hardly had they begun when they agreed
To call a halt: “A leader’s what we need,”
They said, “one who can bind and loose, one who
Will guide our self-conceit to what is true;
We need a judge of rare ability
To lead us over danger’s spacious sea;
Whatever he commands along the Way,
We must, without recalcitrance, obey,
Until we leave this plain of sin and pride
And gain Kaf’s distant peak. There we shall hide,
A mote lost in the sun; the Simorgh’s shade
Will cover those who travelled and obeyed.
But which of us is worthy of this trust?
A lottery is suitable and just.
The winning lot must finally decide
Which bird should be our undisputed guide.”
A hush fell, arguments were laid aside,
The lots were chosen, and the hoopoe won,
A lucky verdict that pleased everyone.
He was their leader; they would sacrifice
Their lives if he demanded such a price;
And as they travelled on the Way his word
Would spell authority to every bird.
The birds are frightened by the emptiness of the Way, and the hoopoe tells
them a story about Sheikh Bayazid.
The hoopoe, as their chief, was hailed and crowned —
Huge flocks of birds in homage gathered round;
A hundred thousand birds assembled there,
Making a monstrous shadow in the air.
The throng set out — but, clearing the first dune,
Their leader sent a cry up to the moon
And panic spread among the birds; they feared
The endless desolation which appeared.
They clung together in a huddling crowd,
Drew in their heads and wings and wailed aloud
A melancholy, weak, faint-hearted song —
Their burdens were too great, the way too long!
How featureless the view before their eyes,
An emptiness where they could recognize
No marks of good or ill — a silence where
The soul knew neither hope nor blank despair.
One said, “The Way is lifeless, empty — why?”
To which the hoopoe gave this strange reply:
“To glorify the king.
One moonlit night
Sheikh Bayazid, attracted by the sight
Of such refulgent brilliance, clear as day,
Across the sleeping city took his way
And thence into the desert, where he saw
Unnumbered starts adorning heaven’s floor.
He walked a little and became aware
That not a sound disturbed the desert air,
That no one moved in that immensity
Save him. His heart grew numb and gradually
Pure terror touched him. ‘O great God,’ he cried,
‘Your dazzling palace beckons far and wide —
Where are the courtiers who should throng this court?’
A voice said: ‘Wanderer, you are distraught;
Be calm. Our glorious King cannot admit
All comers to His court; it is not fit
That every rascal who sleeps out the night
Should be allowed to glimpse its radiant light.
Most are turned back, and few perceive the throne;
Among a hundred thousand there is one’.”
The birds ask the hoopoe to resolve their doubts
The trembling birds stared out across the plain;
The road seemed endless as their endless pain.
But in the hoopoe’s heart new confidence
Transported him above the firmaments —
The sands could not alarm him nor the high
Harsh sun at noon, the peacock of the sky.
What other bird, throughout the world, could bear
The troubles of the Way and all its care?
The frightened flock drew nearer to its guide.
“You know the perils of the Way,” they cried,
“And how we should behave before the king —
You served great Solomon in everything
And flew across his lands — therefore you know
Exactly where it’s safe and right to go;
You’ve seen the ups and downs of this strange Way.
It is our wish that as our guide you say
How we should act before the king we seek;
And more, as we are ignorant and weak,
That you should solve the problems in our hearts
Before the fearful company departs.
First hear our doubts; the thing we do not doubt
Is that you’ll answer them and drive them out —
We know that on this lengthy Way no light
Will come to clear uncertainty’s dark night;
But when the heart is free we shall commit
Our hearts and bodies, all we have, to it.”
The hoopoe stood to speak, and all the birds
Approached to be encouraged by his words;
A hundred thousand gathered with one mind,
Serried in ranks according to their kind.
The dove and nightingale voiced their complaint;
Such beauty made the company grow faint —
A cry of ecstasy went up; a state
Where neither Self nor void predominate
Fell on the birds. The hoopoe spoke; he drew
The veil from what is ultimately true.
One asked: “How is it that you surpass us in
This search for Truth; what is our crippling sin?
We search and so do you — but you receive
Truth’s purity while we stand by and grieve.”
The hoopoe tells them about the glance of Solomon
The hoopoe answered him: “Great Solomon
Once looked at me — it is that glance alone
Which gave me what I know; no wealth could bring
The substance I received from wisdom’s king.
No one can gain this by the forms of prayer,
For even Satan bowed with pious care;
Though don’t imagine that you need not pray;
We curse the fool who tricks you in this way.
Pray always, never for one moment cease,
Pray in despair and when your goods increase,
Consume your life with prayer, till Solomon
Bestows his glance, and ignorance is gone.
When Solomon accepts you, you will know
Far more than my unequal words can show.”
The story of King Mas’oud and the fisherboy
He said: “King Mas’oud, riding out one day,
Was parted from his army on the way.
Swift as the wind he galloped till he saw
A little boy sat by the ocean’s shore.
The child was fishing — as he cast his hook,
The king dismounted with a friendly look
And sat by him; but the unhappy child
Was troubled in his heart and hardly smiled.
‘You seem the saddest boy I’ve ever seen,’
The monarch said. ‘What can such sorrow mean?’
‘Our father’s gone; for seven children I
Must cast my line’ was his subdued reply.
‘Our mother’s paralysed and we are poor;
It is for food that I must haunt this shore —
I come to fish here in the dawn’s first light
And cannot leave until the fall of night.
The meagre harvest of my toil and pain
Must last us all till I return again.’
The king said: ‘Let’s be friends, do you agree?’
The poor child nodded and, immediately,
His new friend cast their line into the sea.
That day the boy drew up a hundred fish.
‘This wealth is far beyond my wildest wish,’
He said. ‘A splendid haul,’ the king replied.
‘Good Fortune has been busy at your side —
Accept your luck, don’t try to comprehend
How this has happened; you’d be lost, my friend.
Your wealth is greater than my own; today
A king has fished for you — I cannot stay.’
He leapt onto his horse. ‘But take your share,’
The boy said earnestly. ‘That’s only fair.’
‘Tomorrow’s catch is mine. We won’t divide
Today’s; you have it all,’ the king replied.
‘Tomorrow when I fish you are the prey,
A trophy I refuse to give away.’
The next day, walking in his garden’s shade,
The king recalled the friend that he had made.
A captain fetched the boy, and this unknown
Was at the king’s command set on his throne.
The courtiers murmured at his poverty —
‘He is my friend, this fact suffices me;
He is my equal here in everything
The partner of my throne,’ declared the king;
To every taunt the boy had one reply:
‘My sadness vanished when the king passed by.’
A murderer who went to heaven
A murderer, according to the law,
Was killed. That night the king who’d killed him saw
The same man in a dream; to his surprise
The villain lorded it in paradise —
The king cried: ‘You! In this celestial place!
Your life’s work was an absolute disgrace;
How did you reach this state?’ The man replied:
‘A friend to God passed by me as I died;
The earth drank up my blood, but stealthily
That pilgrim on Truth’s journey glanced at me,
And all the glorious extravagance
That laps me now came from his searing glance.’
The man on whom that quickening glance alights
Is raised to heaven’s unsuspected heights;
Indeed, until this glance discovers you
Your life’s a mystery without a clue;
You cannot carve your way to heaven’s throne
If you sit locked in vanity alone.
You need a skilful guide; you cannot start
This ocean-voyage with blindness in your heart.
It may be you will meet the very guide
Who glanced at me; be sure he will provide —
Whatever troubles come — a place to hide.
You cannot guess what dangers you will find,
You need a staff to guide you, like the blind.
Your sight is failing and the road is long;
Trust one who knows the journey and is strong.
Whoever travels in a great lord’s shade
Need never hesitate or be afraid;
Whoever undertakes this lord’s commands
Finds thorns will change to roses in his hands.
The story of King Mahmoud and the woodcutter
King Mahmoud went out hunting. In the chase
His courtiers flagged, unequal to the pace.
An old man led a donkey whose high load
Of brushwood slipped and fell into the road.
The old man scratched his head; the king came near
And said: ‘Do you need help?’ ‘I do, that’s clear,’
The old man said. ‘If you could lend a hand,
You won’t lose much. I see that you command
Your share of grace — such men are always good.’
The king got down and helped him with the wood,
His flower-like hands embraced the thorns; and then
He rode back to his waiting lords again.
He said to them: ‘An old man will appear,
Riding a piled-high donkey — lead him here;
Block all the paths and highways to this place;
I want him to confront me face to face.’
The winding roads were blocked up in a ring,
Of which the centre was the waiting king.
The old man mumbled as he rode alone:
‘Why won’t he go … this donkey’s skin and bone.
Soldiers! … Good day, my lords!’ and still the way
Led pitilessly on; to his dismay
There rose ahead a royal canopy,
And there was no escape that he could see.
He rode, for there was nothing else to do,
And found awaiting him a face he knew.
‘I made a king hump wood for me,’ he cried;
‘God help all sinners now, I’m terrified.’
‘What troubles you, my man?’ inquired the king.
‘Don’t play with me, you took in everything.’
The old man said: ‘I’m just a wretched fool
Who day and night must scour the plain for fuel;
I sell the thorns I get and buy dry bread —
Give me some scraps, and blessings on your head.’
The king replied: ‘Old man, I’ll buy your wood —
Come, name a price you think is fair and good.’
‘My lord, such wood cannot be cheaply sold;
It’s worth, I reckon, ten full bags of gold.’
The courtiers laughed: ‘It’s worth two barley grains.
Shut up and sell, and thank you for your pains.’
‘Two grains, my friends, that’s true — but this rare buyer
Can surely manage something rather higher?
A great one touched these thorns — his hand brought forth
A hundred flowers; just think what that is worth!
A dinar buys one root — a little gain
Is only right, I’ve had my share of pain;
The wood itself is worthless, I agree —
It is that touch which gives it dignity’.”
A cowardly bird protests
One of the birds let out a helpless squeak:
“I can’t go on this journey, I’m too weak.
Dear guide, I know I can’t fly any more;
I’ve never tried a feat like this before.
This valley’s endless; dangers lie ahead;
The first time that we rest I’ll drop down dead.
Volcanoes loom before the goal is won —
Admit this journey’s not for everyone.
The blood of multitudes has stained the Way;
A hundred thousand creatures, as you say,
Address themselves to this great enterprise —
How many die, a useless sacrifice!
On such a road the best of men are cowed,
Hoods hide the frightened features of the proud —
What chance have timid souls? What chance have I?
If I set out it’s certain I shall die!”
The hoopoe admonishes him
The hoopoe said: “Your heart’s congealed like ice;
When will you free yourself from cowardice?
Since you have such a short time to live here,
What difference does it make? What should you fear?
The world is filth and sin, and homeless men
Must enter it and homeless leave again.
They die, as worms, in squalid pain; if we
Must perish in this quest, that, certainly,
Is better than a life of filth and grief.
If this great search is vain, if my belief
Is groundless, it is right that I should die.
So many errors throng the world — then why
Should we not risk this quest? To suffer blame
For love is better than a life of shame.
No one has reached this goal, so why appeal
To those whose blindness claims it is unreal?
I’d rather die deceived by dreams than give
My heart to home and trade and never live.
We’ve seen and heard so much — what have we learned?
Not for one moment has the Self been spurned;
Fools gather round and hinder our release:
When will their stale, insistent whining cease?
We have no freedom to achieve our goal
Until from Self and fools we free the soul.
To be admitted past the veil you must
Be dead to all the crowd considers just.
Once past the veil you understand the Way
From which the crowd’s glib courtiers blindly stray.
If you have any will, leave women’s stories,
And even if this search for hidden glories
Proves blasphemy at last, be sure our quest
Is not mere talk but an exacting test.
The fruit of love’s great tree is poverty;
Whoever knows this knows humility.
When love has pitched his tent in someone’s breast,
That man despairs of life and knows no rest.
Love’s pain will murder him, then blandly ask
A surgeon’s fee for managing the task —
The water that he drinks brings pain, his bread
Is turned to blood immediately shed;
Though he is weak, faint, feebler than an ant,
Love forces him to be her combatant;
He cannot take one mouthful unaware
That he is floundering in a sea of care.
Sheikh Noughani at Neishapour
Sheikh Noughani set out for Neishapour,
The way was more than he could well endure
And he fell sick — he spent a hungry week
Huddled in tattered clothes, alone and weak.
But after seven days had passed he cried:
‘Dear God, send bread.’ An unseen voice replied:
‘Go, sweep the dirt of Neishapour’s main square,
And with the grain of gold that you find there
Buy bread and eat.’ The sheikh abruptly said:
‘If I’d a broom I wouldn’t beg for bread,
But I have nothing, as you plainly see;
Give me some bread and stop tormenting me!’
The voice said: ‘Calm yourself, you need not weep —
If you want bread take up your broom and sweep.’
The sheikh crawled out and publicized his grief
Till he was lent a broom and sweeper’s sieve.
He swept the filthy square as he’d been told,
And in his last sieve’s dust-heap found the gold.
He hurried to the baker’s, bought his bread —
Thoughts of the broom and sieve then filled his head.
He stopped short in his tracks; the shining grain
Was spent and he was destitute again.
He wandered aimlessly until he found
A ruined hut, and on the stony ground
He flung himself headlong; to his surprise
The broom and sieve appeared before his eyes.
Joy seized the old man — then he cried: ‘O Lord,
Why must I toil so hard for my reward?
You tell me to exhaust myself for bread!’
‘Bread needs the sauce of work,’ the Lord’s voice said;
‘Since bread is not enough, I will increase
The sauce that makes it tasty; work in peace!’
A simpleton walked naked through the crowd,
And seeing such fine clothes he cried aloud:
‘God give me joy like theirs.’ A voice replied:
‘I give the sun’s kind warmth; be satisfied.’
He said: ‘My Lord, the sun clothes you, not me!’
The voice said: ‘Wait ten days, then you will see
The garment I provide.’ Ten days had gone;
A poor man offered to this simpleton
A ragged cloak made up of scraps and shreds.*
‘You’ve spent tend days with patches and old threads
Stitching this cloak,’ the madman said; ‘I’ll bet
You spoiled a treasury of clothes to get
So many bits together — won’t you tell
Your servant where you learned to sew so well?’
The answer came: ‘In His great court one must
Be humble as His royal highway’s dust;
So many, kindled by His glory, come —
But few will ever reach the longed-for home.’
* i.e. the dervish cloak.
A story about Rabe’eh
Saint Rabe’eh for seven years had trod
The pilgrimage to Mecca and her God.
Now drawing near the goal she cried: ‘At last
I’ve reached the Ka’abah’s stone; my trials are past’ —
Just at that moment the aspiring saint
Succumbed to woman’s intimate complaint —
She was impure; she turned aside and said:
“For seven years a pilgrim’s life I’ve led,
And as I reach the throng of pilgrims He
Plants this unlooked-for thorn to hinder me;
Dear God, give access to your glorious home,
Or send me back the weary way I’ve come.’
No lover lived as true as Rabe’eh,
Yet look, she too was hindered on the Way.
When first you enter Wisdom’s sea, beware —
A wave of indecision floods you there.
You worship at the Ka’abah’s shrine and then
You’re weeping in some worthless pagan’s den;
If from this whirlpool you can raise your head,
Tranquillity will take the place of dread.
But if you sink into its swirl alone
Your head will seem some mill’s enormous stone;
The least distraction will divert your mind
From that tranquillity you hoped to find.
A troubled fool
A saintly fool lived in a squalid place.
One day he saw the Prophet face to face,
Who said to him: ‘In your life’s work I see
The signs of heaven-sent tranquillity.’
‘Tranquillity! When I can’t get away
From hungry fleas by night or flies by day!
A tiny gnat got into Nimrod’s brain
And by its buzzing sent the man insane;
I seem the Nimrod of this time — flies, fleas,
Mosquitoes, gnats do with me as they please!’ ”
A bird complains of his sinfulness
Another bird complained: ‘Sin stains my soul;
How can the wicked ever reach our goal?
How can a soul unclean as noisome flies
Toward the Simorgh’s mountains hope to rise?
When sinners leave the path, what power can bring
Such stragglers to the presence of our king?
And the hoopoe answers him
The answer came: ‘You speak from ignorance;
Do not despair of His benevolence.
Seek mercy from Him; throw away your shield,
And by submission gain the longed-for field.
The gate stands open to contrition’s way —
If you have sinned, squeeze through it while you may,
And if you travel with an honest heart,
You too will play the victor’s glorious part.
Shame forced a vicious sinner to repent.
Once more his strength returned, once more he went
Down his old paths of wickedness and lust;
Leaving the Way, he wallowed in his dust.
But pain welled in his heart, his life became —
A second time — the source of bitter shame.
Since sin had brought him nothing but despair,
He wanted to repent, but did not dare;
His looks betrayed more agitation than
Ripe corn grains jumping in a heated pan —
His heart was racked by grief and warring fears;
The highway’s dust was laid by his sad tears.
But in the dawn he heard a voice: ‘The Lord
Was merciful when first you pledged your word.
You broke it and again I gave you time,
Asking no payment for this newer crime;
Poor fool — would you repent once more? My gate
Stands open always; patiently I wait.’
Gabriel and the unbeliever
One night in paradise good Gabriel heard
The Lord say: ‘I am here’, and at His word
There came another voice which wept and prayed —
‘Who knows whose voice this is?’ the angel said.
‘It comes from one, of this at least I’m sure,
Who has subdued the Self, whose heart is pure.’
But no one in the heavens knew the man,
And Gabriel swooped toward the earth to scan
The deserts, seas and mountains — far and wide
He searched, without success, until he cried
For God to lead his steps. ‘Seek him in Rome,’
God said. ‘A pagan temple is his home.’
There Gabriel went and saw the man in tears —
A worthless idol ruled his hopes and fears.
Astonished, Gabriel turned and said: ‘Tell me,
Dear Lord, the meaning of this mystery;
You answer with Your kindness one who prays
Before a senseless idol all his days!’
And God replied: ‘He does not know our Way;
Mere ignorance has led this man astray —
I understand the cause of his disgrace
And will not coldly turn aside My face;
I shall admit him to My sanctuary
Where kindness will convert his blasphemy’.”
The hoopoe paused and raised his voice in prayer,
Then said: “This man for whom God showed such care
Was one like you — and if you cannot bring
Great virtues to the presence of our king,
Do not alarm yourself; the Lord will bless
The saint’s devotion and your nothingness.
A sufi who wanted to buy something for nothing
A voice rang out one morning in Baghdad:
‘My honey’s sweet, the best that can be had —
The price is cheap; now who will come and buy?’
A sufi passing in the street nearby
Asked: ‘Will you sell for nothing?’ But he laughed:
‘Who gives his goods for nothing? Don’t be daft!’
A voice came then: ‘My sufi, turn aside —
A few steps higher — and be satisfied.
For nothing We shall give you everything;
If you want more, that “more” We’ll also bring.
Know that Our mercy is a glittering sun;
No particle escapes its brilliance, none —
Did We not send to sin and blasphemy
Our Prophet as a sign of clemency?’
God remonstrates with Moses
God said: ‘Gharoun has ten times seven times,
Dear Moses, begged forgiveness for his crimes —
Still you ignore him, though his soul is free
From all the twisting growths of blasphemy;
I have uprooted them and now prepare
A robe of grace in answer to his prayer.
You have destroyed him; wound has followed wound;
You force his head to bow down to the ground —
If you were his creator you would give
Some respite to this suffering fugitive.’
One who shows mercy to the merciless
Brings mercy close to Godlike blessèdness;
The ocean of God’s grace is infinite —
Our sins are like a tear dissolved in it.
How could His mercy change? — it can contain
No trace of temporal corruption’s stain.
One who accuses sinners takes the part
Of tyranny, and bears a tyrant’s heart.
A sinner enters heaven
A sinner died, and, as his coffin passed,
A man who practised every prayer and fast
Turned ostentatiously aside — how could
He pray for one of whom he knew no good?
He saw the sinner in his dreams that night,
His face transfigured with celestial light.
‘How did you enter heaven’s gates,’ he said,
‘A sinner stained with filth from foot to head?’
‘God saw your merciless, disdainful pride,
And pitied my poor soul,’ the man replied.
What generous love His wisdom here displays!
His part is mercy, ours is endless praise;
His Wisdom’s like a crow’s wing in the night —
He sends a child out with a taper’s light,
And then a wind that quenches this thin flame;
The child will suffer words of scathing blame,
But in that narrow darkness he will find
The thousand ways in which his Lord is kind.
If all were pure of all iniquity,
God could not show His generosity;
The end of Wisdom is for God to show —
Perpetually — His love to those below.
One drop of God’s great Wisdom will be yours,
A sea of mercy with uncharted shores;
My child, the seven heavens, day and night,
For your sake wage their old unwearied fight;
For your sake angels pray — your love and hate
Reflected back are hell’s or heaven’s gate.
The angels have bowed down to you and drowned
Your soul in Being, past all plummet’s sound —
Do not despise yourself, for there is none
Who could with you sustain comparison;
Do not torment yourself — your soul is All,
Your body but a fleeting particle.
This All will clarify, and in its light
Each particle will shine, distinctly bright —
As flesh remains an agent of the soul,
Your soul’s an agent of the sacred Whole.
But ‘part’ and ‘whole’ must disappear at last;
The Way is one, and number is surpassed.
A hundred thousand clouds above you press;
Their rain is pure, unending happiness;
And when the desert blooms with flowers, their scent
And beauty minister to your content;
The prayers of all the angels, all they do,
All their obedience, God bestows on you.
The angels’ jealousy of man
Abbasseh said: ‘At God’s last Judgement Day,
When panic urges men to run away
And at the same time paralyses them,
When sinners stumble, overwhelmed by shame,
When terror seizes on the human race,
And each man seeks to hide his anguished face,
Then God, whom all the earth and heavens adore,
Will His unstinted benedictions pour
On man, the handful of unworthy dust.
The angels will cry out: ‘Lord, is this just,
That man, before us all, take precedence?’
And God will say: ‘There is no consequence
Of loss or gain in this for you, but man
Has reached the limit of his earthy span —
Hunger must always be supplied with bread;
A mortal nation clamours to be fed’.”
An indecisive bird complains
Another bird declared, “As you can see,
I lack the organs of virility;
Each moment I prefer a different tree —
I’m drunk, devout, the world’s, then (briefly) His;
Caught between ‘No, it isn’t’, ‘Yes, it is’.
The flesh will send me drinking, then I’ll find
The praise of God awakening in my mind;
What should I do between these two extremes,
Imprisoned by conflicting needs and dreams?”
And the hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “This troubles everyone;
What man is truly single-minded? None!
If all of us could boast a spotless mind,
Why should the prophets mingle with mankind?
If it is love which prompts your fervent prayers,
A hundred kindnesses will calm your cares.
Life is an obstinate young colt — until
He’s broken in by your restraining will;
He knows no peace; but you are indolent,
Stretched out beside the oven, warm, content.
Tears temper hearts; but living’s well’s a rust
That inch by inch reduces them to dust —
You’re just a eunuch pampering his needs;
Your Self’s grown gross, a dog that sleeps and feeds.
A story about Shebli
Shebli would disappear at times; no one
In all Baghdad could guess where he had gone —
At last they found him where the town enjoys
The sexual services of men and boys,
Sitting among the catamites; his eye
Was moist and humid, and his lips bone-dry.
One asked: ‘What brings you here, to such a place?
Is this where pilgrims come to look for grace?’
He answered: ‘In the world’s way these you see
Aren’t men or women; so it is with me —
For in the way of Faith I’m neither man
Nor woman, but ambiguous courtesan —
Unmanliness reproaches me, then blame
For my virility fills me with shame.’
The man of understanding puts aside,
To travel on this path, all outward pride
(The courage of his choice will honour those
Who taught this pilgrim everything he knows).
If you seem more substantial than a hair,
You’ve made an idol of yourself — take care,
Whatever praise or blame may say of you,
You’re an idolater in all you do.
As truth’s sworn slave, beware of Azar’s ways
Who carved the stone to which he offered praise —
Devotion is the crown of all mankind;
Leave Uzza * and such idols far behind.
You seem a sufi to the common folk
But hide a hundred idols with your cloak —
If you’re a eunuch underneath, don’t dress
In clothes of high heroic manliness!
* A goddess in pre-Islamic Arabia.
Two sufis go to court
One day two dressed as wandering sufies came
Before the courts to lodge a legal claim.
The judge took them aside. ‘This can’t be right,
For sufis to provoke a lawyers’ fight,’
He said. ‘You wear the robes of resignation,
So what have you to do with litigation?
If you’re the men to pay a lawyer’s fee,
Off with your sufi clothes immediately!
And if you’re sufis as at first I thought,
It’s ignorance that brings you to this court.
I’m just a judge, unversed in your affair,
But I’m ashamed to see the clothes you wear;
You should wear women’s veils — that would be less
Dishonest than your present holy dress.’
How will you solve love’s secret lore if you —
Not man, not woman — glide between the two?
If on its path loves forces you to yield,
Then do so gladly, throw away your shield;
Resist and you will die, your soul is dead —
To ward off your defeat bow down your head!
A pauper in love with the king of Egypt
A poor man fell in love with Egypt’s king,
Who heard the news and ordered guards to bring
The wretch to him. ‘You love the king,’ he said;
‘Now choose: give up your home here or your head —
You must make up your mind between these two,
Exile or death. Well, which seems best to you?’
For all his love this pauper wasn’t brave;
His choice was exile rather than the grave.
He left; the king’s command came loud and clear:
‘Cut off his head at once and bring it here.’
The porter said: ‘But he is innocent;
Why should my lord command this punishment?’
‘He did not really love,’ the king replied.
‘Though he pretended love for me, he lied:
If he were valiant in love he would
Have chosen death here as the highest good.
If one prefers his head to love, then he
Must pay to love the traitor’s penalty —
Had he required my head, at his command
There would have been no lord to rule this land;
I would have worn his livery, a king
Would have become his slave in everything —
But he resisted love, and it is right
That he should lose his head in such a fight.
The man who leaves me, though he rave and cry,
Is an impostor and his love’s a lie —
I say this as a warning to that crowd
Whose boasts of love for me ring long and loud’.”
A bird complains of the Self
One of the birds then said: “My enemy’s
That veteran of highway robberies,
My Self; how can I travel on the Way
With such a follower? The dog won’t pay
The least attention to a word I say —
The dog I knew is gone and in his place
A slavering wolf stalks by me, pace for pace.”
And the hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “How has this dog betrayed
And brought to dust whatever plans you made!
The Self’s squint-eyed and cannot guide you well,
Part dog, part parasite, part infidel.
When you are praised your Self swells up with pride
(Aware that praise is quite unjustified);
There’s no hope for the Self — the dog grows fatter
The more it hears men fawn, deceive and flatter.
What is your childhood but a negligence,
A time of carelessness and ignorance?
What is your youth but madness, strife and danger,
Knowledge that in this world you are a stranger?
What is your age but torpid helplessness,
The flesh and spirit sapped by long distress?
Until this dog, the Self, can be subdued,
Our life is folly, endlessly renewed;
If all of life from birth to death is vain,
Blank nothingness will be our only gain —
Such slaves the Self owns! What a catalogue!
How many rush to worship this foul dog!
The Self is hell — a furnace belching fire,
An icy pit as Price succeeds Desire,
And though a hundred thousand die of grief,
That this same dog should die is past belief.
A gravedigger
A man who lived by digging graves survived
To ripe old age. A neighbour said: ‘You’ve thrived
For years, digging away in one routine —
Tell us the strangest thing you’ve ever seen.’
He said: ‘All things considered, what’s most strange
Is that for seventy years without a change
That dog, my Self, has seen me digging graves,
Yet neither dies, nor alters, nor behaves!’
Abbasseh’s description of the Self
One night Abbasseh said: ‘The world could be
Thronged with wild infidels and blasphemy,
Or it could be a place of pious works,
Filled with the faithful, keen as zealous Turks.
Instead the prophets came — that infidel
The Self must choose between the faith and hell
(One seemed too difficult, one terrified —
How could the indecisive soul decide?).
Beneath the Self’s reign we are infidels
And nourish blasphemy in all our cells;
Its life is stubborn, strong, intractable —
To kill it seems well-nigh impossible.
It draws its strength from both alternatives;
No wonder it so obstinately lives.
But if the heart can rule, then day and night
This dog will labour for the heart’s delight,
And when the heart rides out he sprints away
Eager to flush his noble master’s prey.
Whoever chains this dog will find that he
Commands the lion of eternity;
Whoever binds this dog, his sandals’ dust
Surpasses all the councils of the just.’
A king questions a sufi
A ragged pilgrim of the sufis’ Way
By chance met with a king, and heard him say:
‘Who’s better, me or you?’ The old man said:
‘Silence, your words are empty as your head!
Although self-praise is not our normal rule
(The man who loves himself is still a fool).
I’ll tell you, since I must, that one like me
Exceeds a thousand like your majesty.
Since you find no delight in faith — alas,
Your Self has made of you, my lord, an ass
And sat on you, and set its load on you —
You’re just its slave in everything you do;
You wear its halter, follow its commands,
A no-one, left completely in its hands.
My study is to reach Truth’s inmost shrine —
And I am not my Self’s ass, he is mine;
Now since the beast I ride on rides on you,
That I’m your better is quite plainly true.
You love the Self — it’s lit in you a fire
Of nagging lust, insatiable desire,
A blaze that burns your vigour, wastes your heart,
Leaving infirmity in every part —
Consuming all your strength, till deaf and blind
You’re old, forgetful, rambling in your mind.
This man, and hundreds like him, constitute
The mighty phalanx of the Absolute;
When such an army charges you will find
You and your puny Self are left behind.
How you delight in this dog’s partnership —
But it’s the dog, not you, that cracks the whip!
The forces of the king will separate
This dog and you — why not anticipate
Their order and forestall the pain? If though
You weep that here on earth you cannot know
Enough of this audacious infidel —
Don’t worry; you’ll be comrades down in hell.
Two foxes
Two foxes met, and tasted such delight
They could not let each other out of sight.
But then a king came hunting on the plain
And parted them. ‘Where shall we meet again?’
She yelped. He barked back as he reached their hole:
‘At the furrier’s, dear — hung up as a stole!’ ”
A bird complains of pride
Another said: “Whenever I decide
To seek His presence, that arch-devil Pride
Obstructs my path. I can’t fight back with force;
Against his specious talk I’ve no recourse.
How can I find salvation from his lies,
Drink down the wine of meaning and be wise?”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “This devil never leaves
Until the Self has gone; if he deceives
You now, his cunning is your own deceit —
Your wishes are the devil, you the cheat!
If you accomplish one desire, a shoal
Of struggling demons rises in your soul;
The world’s a furnace and a prison cell,
The devil’s province, an unending hell —
Draw back your hand from it if you would win
An unmolested life secure from sin.
The devil complains
A sluggard once approached a fasting saint
And, baffled by despair, made this complaint:
‘The devil is a highwayman, a thief,
Who’s ruined me and robbed me of belief.’
The saint replied: ‘Young man, the devil too
Has made his way here to complain — of you.
‘My province is the world,’ I heard him say;
‘Tell this new pilgrim of God’s holy Way
To keep his hands off what is mine — if I
Attack him it’s because his fingers pry
In my affairs; if he will leave me be,
He’s no concern of mine and can go free.’
Malek Dinar
One dear to God addressed Malek Dinar:
‘I’ve lost myself — but tell me how you are.’
He said: ‘I get my bread from God’s own hands,
Then carry out the Evil One’s commands.’
Your vaunted faith is wordy insolence;
The devil strikes, and you have no defence —
This world’s grief clings to you, yet you decide
You’re ready for our quest! God damn your pride!
I said ‘Give up the world’, and now I say
Stand firm to be admitted to the Way;
If you have given Him this earthly show
When will you spread your hands and let it go?
Your sloth has drowned you in a sea of greed;
You don’t know why you wait or what you need —
Though earth and heaven weep you seek out sin;
Greed blunts your faith, passion corrupts within.
What is this world, this nest of greed and lust
But leavings of oppression, windswept dust?
Here tyranny intensified its reign,
Here cruelty struck and left an emptied plain.
God calls this world a nothing, but its snare
Has trapped you, and you struggle in despair —
When will you die to such unhappiness
And take the hand that leads you from distress?
Can one who’s lost in nothing rightly claim
The attributes of man, much less the name?
The creature who abandons what he sought
For nothing’s sake is nought and less than nought.
What is this world’s work? — idle lethargy,
That idleness a long captivity.
What is the world but a consuming pyre,
Where nation follows nation to the fire?
And when its flames turn night to blinding day,
The lion-hearted hero runs away —
To close your eyes and flee is courage here,
Or like some fluttering moth you’ll draw too near
And in the blaze be burnt; to worship flame
Is drunken pride, the path to death and shame.
The fire surrounds you, and with every breath
The scorching flames reach out and threaten death;
But they are quenched when we achieve our goal,
And look — there waits asylum for your soul.
A rich lord and a dervish
At public prayers a great lord cried: ‘O God,
Have mercy on me now and spare the rod!’
A crazy dervish heard his prayer and said:
‘You dare to call His mercies on your head
When your behaviour seems to say “The earth
Can hardly hold a person of my worth” —
You’ve raised a palace up against the sky,
Embellished it with gold to daze the eye;
Ten boys and ten young girls await your whim,
What claim have you on mercy or on Him?
Look on your life, on all that you possess —
There isn’t room for mercy in this mess!
If Fate gave you my daily round of bread,
Then you could call down mercies on your head.
Shame on you, man! Until you turn aside
From power and wealth and all your stinking pride,
There’s nothing to be done — turn now, and see
How like a hero you can still break free.’
Death-bed repentance
A true believer said: ‘There is a crowd
Who when they come to die will cry aloud
And turn to God. But they are fools; they should
Have spent their lives in seeking what is good.
When leaves are falling it’s too late to sow;
Repentance on a death-bed is too slow —
The time to turn aside has flown; be sure
Whoever waits till then will die impure’.”
A miserly bird
Another bird said: “I love gold alone;
It’s life to me, like marrow to a bone —
When I have gold I blossom like a flower;
With restless pride I revel in its power.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Appearances delight
The heart that cannot see Truth’s dawning light;
You are as blind by day as in the night —
Your life’s a crawling ant’s. What essence lies
In surfaces? A void! Direct your eyes
To meaning’s core; gold is a stone, and you
Are like a child attracted by its hue.
It is an idol when it holds the soul
Back from its God — hide it in some dark hole!
And if it is a sovereign remedy
It also has a foul utility
(Men make a ring of it that stops a mule
From being covered). O unhappy fool,
Who’s helped by all this gold? And what real pleasure
Can you derive from heaps of glittering treasure?
If you can give a dervish just a grain
You’ll nag at him, or wish it back again!
It’s true that backed by gold you’ll never lack
For friends — your friendship’s brand burns every back!
Each month you count the profits from your trade,
What trade! — your soul’s been sold, the bargain’s made.
Life’s sweetness passes and you spend your time
Scrabbling for farthings — isn’t this a crime?
You give this All for nothing, while your heart
Is given wholly to the merchant’s art;
But underneath your gibbet I shall wait
Until its steps are jerked away by Fate.
How many times you’ll hang! Each sliding noose
Will seem a hundred burning flames — what use
Will your religion, gold, be to you then?
Or when you’re drowned, you business acumen?
In that last tumult as you gasp for air
You’ll know your doom and shriek in while despair.
Remember the Koran: “You cannot gain
Salvation while the things you love remain.”
You must abandon all things that exist;
Even the soul itself must be dismissed —
Renounce its fellowship; it too must go,
Along with all you own and all you know.
If you have made this world a place for sleep,
Your bed’s the load that makes the Way so steep —
Burn it! and pass beyond what merely seems;
You can’t deceive the Truth with sleepy dreams.
Let fear persuade you, and the fire is lit;
Burn your bed now if you would rise from it.
The novice who had some gold
A novice hid a little store of gold.
His sheikh knew this, although he’d not been told.
There was a journey that they had to make —
The two set out, the young man and his sheikh;
Then night came to the valley where they walked,
And into two the path they followed forked.
The novice trembled for his hidden gold
(Which makes its owners rather less than bold);
‘Which way do you advice?’ he asked his sheikh.
‘There are two paths; which is the best to take?’
The sheikh said: ‘Throw out what you cannot hide,
Then either way will do — as you decide.’
Let gold win someone’s heart, and when that’s done
Even the Devil, out of fear, will run
(When gold is weighed what arguments ensue:
‘One grain too many!’ ‘No, one grain too few!’);
In ways of faith he’s like an ass that’s lame,
Cast down, preoccupied and full of shame —
A king when cheating people, but a fool
When faith is mentioned — a bewildered mule.
The man whom shining gold can lead astray
Is captured by the world, he’s lost the Way.
Remember Joseph and beware this well;
Tread carefully; it leads to death and hell.
Rabe’eh and the two grains of silver
A sheikh of Basra said to Rabe’eh:
‘How much have you endured along love’s Way!
And all this strength is from yourself — tell me
The source of your profound ability,
This inward light which you have neither read
Nor learnt nor copied.’ Saint Rabe’eh said:
‘Great sheikh, I simply spin coarse cotton thread;
I sell this and am satisfied to get
Two grains of silver — though I never yet
Held both these grains together in my palm,
But one in each hand. I fear the harm
That follows from the clink of coin on coin,
The sleepless nights when sums of money join.’
The worldly man’s embroiled in bloody cares,
Laying a hundred thousand different snares
Until unlawfully he gets his gold,
And promptly dies! Before his body’s cold,
The eager heir has claimed his property,
His legal right to strife and misery.
You sell the Simorgh for this gold; its light
Has made your heart a candle in the night!
We seek the Way of perfect Unity,
Where no one counts his own prosperity;
But you are like an ant that’s led astray
Too easily from our strict, narrow Way —
The strait path offers no deceitful smiles;
What living creature can endure its trials?
The hermit who listened to a bird
A man divinely blessed filled all his days
For twice two hundred years with sacred praise.
He lived alone where no man ever trod
And, hidden by Truth’s veil, conversed with God
(His one companion was the Lord, and He
Makes other friends a useless luxury).
His garden had a tree — this tree a guest;
For there a lovely bird had built its nest.
Such sweetly trilling songs poured from its throat,
A hundred secrets lurked in every note!
Charmed by this liquid voice the hermit found
Companionship in its beguiling sound.
God called the prophet of that time and said:
‘We must reproach this man: “The life you’ve led
Has day and night been given up to prayer;
For years you burnt with love — and now you dare
To sell Me for the singing of a bird,
The willing dupe of that fine voice you heard!
I’ve bought and cared for you — your negligence
Has cheaply sold me off as recompense:
I pay the price for you, you auction Me,
Is this your meaning for ‘fidelity’?
I am the one Companion you should keep,
Not some quick bargain to be marked down ‘cheap’ ”.’ ”
An ostentatious bird
Another bird declared: “My happiness
Comes from the splendid things which I possess:
My palace walls inlaid with gold excite
Astonishment in all who see the sight.
They are a world of joy to me — how could
I wrench my heart from this surpassing good?
There I am king; all bow to my commands —
Shall I court ruin in the desert sands?
Shall I give up this realm, and live without
My certain glory in a world of doubt?
What rational mind would give up paradise
For wanderings filled with pain and sacrifice?”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Ungrateful wretch! Are you
A dog that you should need a kennel too?
This world’s a kennel’s filthy murk at best;
Your palace is a kennel with the rest.
If it seems paradise, at your last breath
You’ll know it is your dungeon after death.
There’d be no harm in palaces like yours,
Did not the thought of death beat at our doors.
A king who built a splendid palace
A king who loved his own magnificence
Once built a palace and spared no expense.
When this celestial building had been raised,
The gorgeous carpets and its splendour dazed
The crowd that pressed round — a servant flung
Trays heaped with money to the scrabbling throng.
The king now summoned all his wisest friends
And said: ‘What do I lack? Who recommends
Improvements to my court?’ ‘We must agree,’
They said, ‘no man could now or ever see,
In all the earth, a palace built like this.’
An old ascetic spoke. ‘One thing’s amiss,’
He said; ‘there’s one particular you lack.
This noble structure has a nasty crack
(Though if it weren’t for that it would suffice
To be the heavenly court of paradise).’
The king replied: ‘What crack? Where is it? Where?
If you’ve come for trouble, then take care!’
The man said: ‘Lord, it is the truth I tell —
And through that crack will enter Azra’el. *
It may be you can block it, but if not,
Then throne and palace are not worth a jot!
Your palace now seems like some heavenly prize,
But death will make it ugly to your eyes;
Nothing remains for ever and you know —
Although you live here now — that this is so.
Don’t pride yourself on things that cannot last;
Don’t gallop your high-stepping horse so fast.
If one like me is left to indicate
Your faults to you, I pity your sad fate.’
* The angel of death.
A merchant gives a party
To gratify his busy self-esteem,
A merchant built a mansion like a dream,
And when the preparations were all done,
He regally invited everyone
To an enormous entertainment there,
At which they’d feast and dutifully stare.
But running self-importantly around,
He met a begging fool, who stood his ground
And mocked the merchant’s diligence. ‘My lord,’
He said, ‘I’m desolate (O, rest assured!)
That I can’t come and drink your health, but I’m
So busy that I really haven’t time —
You will forgive me?’ and he gave a grin.
‘Of course,’ the merchant answered, taken in.
The spider
You’ve seen an active spider work — he seems
To spend his life in self-communing dreams;
In fact the web he spins is evidence
That he’s endowed with some far-sighted sense.
He drapes a corner with his cunning snare
And waits until a fly’s entangled there,
Then dashes out and sucks the meagre blood
Of his bewildered, buzzing, dying food.
He’ll dry the carcass then, and live off it
For days, consuming bit by tasty bit —
Until the owner of the house one day
Will reach up casually to knock away
The cunning spider’s home — and with her broom
She clears both fly and spider from the room.
Such is the world, and one who feeds there is
A fly trapped by all that spider’s subtleties;
If all the world is yours, it will pass by
As swiftly as the blinking of an eye;
And though you boast of kings and patronage,
You are a child, an actor on a stage.
Don’t seek for wealth unless you are a fool;
A herd of cows is all that you can rule!
Whoever lives for banners, drums and glory
Is dead; the dervish understands this story
And calls it windy noise — winds vainly flap
The banners, hollowly the brave drums tap.
Don’t gallop on the horse of vanity;
Don’t pride yourself on your nobility.
They skin the leopard for his splendid pelt;
They’ll flay you too before your nose has smelt
A whiff of danger. When your life’s made plain,
Which will be better, death or chastening pain?
You cannot hold your head up then — obey!
How long must you persist in childish play?
Either give up your wealth or lay aside
The rash pretensions of your crazy pride.
Your palace and your gardens! They’re your gaol,
The dungeon where your ruined soul will wail.
Forsake this dusty pride, know what it’s worth;
Give up your restless pacing of the earth.
To see the Way, look with the eyes of thought;
Set out on it and glimpse the heavenly court —
And when you reach that souls’ asylum, then
Its glory will blot out the world of men.
The restless fool and the dervish
A fool dashed onward at a reckless pace
Till in the desert he came face to face
With one who wore the ragged dervish cloak,
And asked: ‘What is your work?’ The dervish spoke:
‘Poor shallow wretch, can you not see I faint
With this strict pressure of the world’s constraint?’
‘Constraint? That can’t be right,’ the man replied;
‘The empty desert stretches far and wide.’
The dervish said, ‘If there is no strict Way,
How has it led you to me here today?’
A myriad promises beguile your mind,
But flames of greed are all that you can find.
What are such flames? Tread down the world’s desire,
And like a lion shun this raging fire.
Accomplish this, and you will find your heart;
There waits your palace, pure in every part.
Fire blocks the path, the goal is long delayed —
Your heart’s a captive and your soul’s afraid,
But in the midst of such an enterprise
You will escape this universe of lies.
When worldly pressures cloy, prepare to die —
The world gives neither name nor truth, pass by!
The more you see of it the less you see,
How often must I warn you to break free?
Seeing the world
A mourner following a coffin cried:
‘You hardly saw the world, and yet you’ve died.’
A fool remarked: ‘Such noise! You’d think that he
Had seen the world himself repeatedly!’
If you would take the world with you, you must
Descend with all the world unseen to dust;
You rush to savour life, and so life goes
While you ignore the balm for all its woes;
Until the Self is sacrificed your soul
Is lost in filth, divided from its goal.
A perfumed wood was burning, and its scent
Made someone sigh with somnolent content.
One said to him: ‘Your sigh means ecstasy;
Think of the wood, whose sigh means misery’.”
A bird who cannot leave his beloved
“Great hoopoe,” said another bird, “my love
Has loaded me with chains, I cannot move.
This bandit, Love, confronted me and stole
My intellect, my heart, my inmost soul —
The image of her face is like a thief
Who fires the harvest and leaves only grief.
Without her I endure the pangs of hell,
Raving and cursing like an infidel;
How can I travel when my heart must stay
Lapped here in blood? And on that weary Way,
How many empty valleys lie ahead,
How many horrors wait for us? I dread
One moment absent from her lovely face;
How could I seek the Way and leave this place?
My pain exceeds all cure or remedy;
I’ve passed beyond both faith and blasphemy —
My blasphemy and faith are love for her;
My soul is her abject idolater —
And though companionless I weep and groan,
My friend is sorrow; I am not alone.
My love has brought me countless miseries,
But in her hair lie countless mysteries;
Without her face, blood chokes me, I am drowned,
I’m dust blown aimlessly across the ground.
Believe me, everything I say is true —
This is my state; now tell me what to do.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “You are the prisoner of
Appearances, a superficial love;
This love is not divine; it is mere greed
For flesh — an animal, instinctive need.
To love what is deficient, trapped in time,
Is more than foolishness, it is a crime —
And blasphemous the struggle to evade
That perfect beauty which can never fade.
You would compare a face of blood and bile
To the full moon — yet what could be more vile
In all the world than that same face when blood
And bile are gone? — it is no more than mud.
This is the fleshly beauty you adore;
This is its being, this and nothing more.
How long then will you seek for beauty here?
Seek the unseen, and beauty will appear.
When that last veil is lifted neither men
Nor all their glory will be seen again,
The universe will fade — this mighty show
In all its majesty and pomp will go,
And those who loved appearances will prove
Each other’s enemies and forfeit love,
While those who loved the absent, unseen Friend
Will enter that pure love which knows no end.
Shebli and a man whose friend had died
Once Shebli saw a poor wretch weeping. ‘Why
These tears?’ the sheikh inquired. ‘What makes you cry?’
He said: ‘O sheikh, I had a friend whose face
Refreshed my soul with its young, candid grace —
But yesterday he died; since then I’m dead,
There’s nothing that could dry the tears I shed.’
The sheikh replied: ‘And is that all you miss?
Don’t grieve, my friend, you’re worth much more than this.
Choose now another friend who cannot die —
For His death you will never have to cry.
The friend from who, through death, we must soon part
Brings only sorrow to the baffled heart;
Whoever loves the world’s bright surfaces
Endures in love a hundred miseries;
Too soon the surface flees his groping hand,
And sorrow comes which no man can withstand.’
A merchant who sold his favourite slave
There was a merchant once who had slave
As sweet as sugar — how did he behave?
He sold that girl beyond comparison —
And O, how he regretted what he’d done!
He offered her new master heaps of gold
And would have paid her price a thousandfold;
His heart in flames, his poor head in a whirl,
He begged her owner to resell the girl.
But he was adamant and would not sell;
The merchant paced the street, his mind in hell,
And groaned: ‘I cannot bear this searing pain —
But anyone who gives his love for gain,
Who stitches tight the eyes of common-sense
Deserves as much for his improvidence —
To think that on that fatal market-day
I tricked myself and gave the best away.’
Your breaths are jewels, each atom is a guide
To lead you to the Truth, and glorified
From head to foot with his great wealth you stand;
O, if you could entirely understand
Your absence from Him, then you would not wait
Inured by patience to your wretched fate —
God nourished you in love and holy pride,
But ignorance detains you from His side.
A king and his greyhound
A royal hunt swept out across the plain.
The monarch called for someone in his train
To bring a greyhound, and the handler brought
A dark, sleek dog, intelligent, well-taught;
A jewelled gold collar sparkled at its throat,
Its back was covered by a satin coat —
Gold anklets clasped its paws; its leash was made
Of silk threads twisted in a glistening braid.
The king thought him a dog who’d understand,
And took the silk leash in his royal hand;
The dog ran just behind his lord, then found
A piece of bone abandoned on the ground —
He stopped to sniff, and when the king saw why,
A glance of fury flashed out from his eye.
‘When you’re with me,’ he said, ‘your sovereign king,
How dare you look at any other thing?’
He snapped the leash and to his handler cried:
‘Let this ill-mannered brute roam far and wide.
He’s mine no more — better for him if he
Had swallowed pins than found such liberty!’
The handler stared and tried to remonstrate:
‘The dog, my lord, deserves an outcast’s fate;
But we should keep the satin and the gold.’
The king said: ‘No, do just as you are told;
Drive him, exactly as he is, away —
And when he comes back to himself some day,
He’ll see the riches that he bears and know
That he was mine, a king’s, but long ago.’
And you, who had a king once as your friend,
And lost Him through your negligence, attend:
Give yourself wholly to the love of Truth;
Drink with this dragon like a reckless youth —
Now is the dragon’s time — the lover must
Submit and see his throat’s blood stain the dust;
What terrifies the human soul’s so slight —
An ant at most — in this vast dragon’s sight;
His lovers’ thirst will not be quenched till they
Drink their own love and take the selfless Way.
The martyrdom of Hallaj
Hallaj was taken to the gallows tree
And cried: ‘I am the Truth’; they could not see
The meaning of his words and hacked at him,
Tearing his bleeding carcass limb from limb.
Then as his face grew deathly pale he raised
The bleeding stumps of broken arms and glazed
His moon-like face with glittering blood. He said:
‘Since it is blood which paints a man’s face red,
I’ve painted mine that no one here may say
“Hallaj turned pale on that last bloody day” —
If any saw me pale they’d think that I
Felt fear to face my torturers and die —
My fear’s of less than one hair’s consequence;
Look on my painted face for evidence!
When he must die and sees the gallows near,
The hero’s courage leaves no room for fear —
Since all the world is like a little “o”,
Why should I fear whatever it may show?
Who knows the seven-headed dragon’s lair,
And sleeps and eats through summer’s dog-days there,
Sees many games like this — the gallows seems
The least of all his transitory dreams.’ *
That sea of faith, Junaid, in Baghdad once
Discoursed with such persuasive eloquence
It seemed the stars bowed down to hear him speak.
This stalwart guide and comfort of the weak
Delighted in his son, a lovely child
Who as his father lectured was beguiled
And murdered by a gang — they tossed his head
In that assembly’s midst and quickly fled.
Junaid looked steadfastly at this cruel sight
And did not weep but said: ‘What seems tonight
So strange was certain from eternity;
What happens happens from necessity’.”
* The last four lines of this passage are Attar’s paraphrase of a poem by Hallaj. In this and
the following anecdote Attar juxtaposes the attitude to death of the “ecstatic” mystic
(Hallaj) and that of the “somber” mystic (Junaid).
A bird who fears death
Another bird spoke up: “The Way is long,
And I am neither valiant nor strong.
I’m terrified of death; I know that I —
Before the first stage is complete — must die;
I tremble at the thought; when death draws near,
I know I’ll shriek and groan in snivelling fear.
Whoever fights death with his sword will meet
Inevitable, absolute defeat;
His sword and hand lie smashed. Alas! What grief
They grasp who grasp the sword as their belief!”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “How feebly you complain!
How long will this worn bag of bones remain?
What are you but a few bones? — and at heart
Each bone is soft and hastens to depart.
Aren’t you aware that life, from birth to death,
Is little more than one precarious breath?
That all who suffer birth must also die,
Their being scattered to the windy sky?
As you are reared to live, so from your birth
You’re also reared to one day leave this earth.
The sky is like some huge, inverted bowl
Which sunset fills with blood from pole to pole —
The sun seems then an executioner,
Beheading thousands with his scimitar.
If you are profligate, if you are pure,
You are but water mixed with dust, no more —
A drop of trembling instability,
And can a drop resist the surging sea?
Though in the world you are a king, you must
In sorrow and despair return to dust.
The phoenix
In India lives a bird that is unique:
The lovely phoenix has a long, hard beak
Pierced with a hundred holes, just like a flute —
It has no mate, its reign is absolute.
Each opening has a different sound; each sound
Means something secret, subtle and profound —
And as these shrill, lamenting notes are heard,
A silence falls on every listening bird;
Even the fish grow still. It was from this
Sad chant a sage learnt music’s artifice.
The phoenix’ life endures a thousand years
And, long before, he knows when death appears;
When death’s sharp pangs assail his tiring heart,
And all signs tell him he must now depart,
He builds a pyre from logs and massy trees
And from its centre sings sad threnodies —
Each plaintive note trills out, from each pierced hole
Comes evidence of his untarnished soul —
Now like a mourner’s ululating cries,
Now with an inward care the cadence dies —
And as he sings of death, death’s bitter grief
Thrills through him and he trembles like a leaf.
Then drawn to him by his heart-piercing calls
The birds approach, and savage animals —
They watch, and watching grief; each in his mind
Determines he will leave the world behind.
Some weep in sympathy and some grow faint;
Some die to hear his passionate complaint.
So death draws near, and as the phoenix sings
He fans the air with his tremendous wings,
A flame darts out and licks across the pyre —
Now wood and phoenix are a raging fire,
Which slowly sinks from that first livid flash
To soft, collapsing charcoal, then to ash:
The pyre’s consumed — and from the ashy bed
A little phoenix pushes up its head.
What other creature can — throughout the earth —
After death takes him, to himself give birth?
If you were given all the phoenix’ years,
Still you would have to die when death appears.
For years he sings in solitary pain
And must companionless, unmated, reign;
No children cheer his age and at his death
His ash is scattered by the wind’s cold breath.
Now understand that none, however sly,
Can slip past death’s sharp claws — we all must die;
None is immortal in the world’s vast length;
This wonder shows no creature has the strength
To keep death’s ruthless vehemence in check —
But we must soften his imperious neck;
Though many tasks will fall to us, this task
Remains the hardest that the Way will ask.
A mourning son
Before his father’s coffin walked a son —
It seemed his tears would never cease to run.
‘No day for me is like the day you died;
My wounded soul despairs,’ the poor man cried.
A passing sufi said: ‘And such a day
Has never come your wretched father’s way!’
The son knows sorrow, but do not compare
Such grief with all his father has to bear.
You come into the world a helpless child
And spend your life by foolishness beguiled —
How your heart longs for sovereignty! — alas,
Like wind through outstretched fingers you will pass.
A vice-roy at the point of death
A vice-roy lingered close to death. One said:
‘You are in sight of secrets all men dread —
What do you feel?’ ‘There’s nothing I can say,’
The man replied, ‘except that every day
I lived was wasted on what’s trivial,
And now I shall be dust — and that is all.’
To seek death is death’s only cure — the leaf
Grows hectic and must fall; our life is brief.
Know we are born to die; the soul moves on;
The heart is pledged and hastens to be gone.
King Solomon, whose seal subdued all lands,
Is dust compounded with the desert sands,
And tyrants whose decrees spelt bloody doom
Decay to nothing in the narrow tomb;
How many sleep beneath the ground! And sleep
Like theirs is bitter, turbulent and deep.
Look hard at death — in our long pilgrimage
The grave itself is but the first grim stage;
How your sweet life would change if you could guess
The taste of death’s unequalled bitterness.
Jesus and the stream
Once Jesus reached a clear stream’s shaded bank —
He scooped up water in his palms and drank;
How sweet that water was! as if it were
Some rose-sweet sherbet or an elixir.
One with him filled a jug, and on they went.
When Jesus drank, to his astonishment,
The jug seemed filled with bitterness. ‘How strange,’
He said, ‘that water can so quickly change —
They were the same; what can this difference mean?
What tasted sweet is brackish and unclean!’
The jug spoke: ‘Lord, once I too had a soul
And was a man — but I have been a bowl,
A cruse, a pitcher of crude earthenware,
Remade a thousand times; and all forms share
The bitterness of death — which would remain
Though I were baked a thousand times again;
No water could be sweet which I contain.’
O careless of your fate! From this jug learn,
And from your inattentive folly turn;
O pilgrim, you have lost yourself — before
Death takes you seek the hidden Way once more!
If while you live and breathe you fail to see
The nature of your own reality,
How can you search when dead? The man who lives
And does not strive is lost; his mother gives
Him life but he cannot become a man —
He strays, a self-deluded charlatan.
How many veils obstruct the sufi’s quest,
How long his search till truth is manifest!
The death of Socrates
When Socrates lay close to death, a youth —
Who was his student in the search for truth —
Said: ‘Master, when we’ve washed the man we knew
And brought your shroud, where should we bury you?’
He said: ‘If you can find me when I’ve died,
Then bury me wherever you decide —
I never found myself; I cannot see
How when I’m dead you could discover me.
Throughout my life not one small particle
Had any knowledge of itself at all!’ ”
A bird complains of his bad luck
Another bird said: “Hoopoe, it’s no good.
Things never happen as I’d hoped they would;
I’ve spent my time in misery since birth,
The most unlucky wretch in all the earth —
My heart knows so much torment that it seems
Each atom of my body raves and screams;
My life has trodden out a hopeless way;
God damn me if I’ve had one happy day!
These sorrows lock me in myself — how can
I undertake this journey which you plan?
If I were happy I would gladly start;
What stops me is this sorrow in my heart.
What can I do? Look, I appeal to you —
I’ve told you everything, what can I do?”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “How arrogant you are
To think your wretched self so singular!
The disappointments of this world will die
In less time than the blinking of an eye,
And as the earth must pass, pass by the earth —
Don’t even glance at it, know what it’s worth;
What empty foolishness it is to care
For what must one day be dispersed to air.
The man who refused to drink
There was a man advanced along the Way
Who always, to his puzzled friends’ dismay,
Refused to drink sweet sherbet. ‘Why is this?’
One asked: ‘What could explain this prejudice?’
He said: ‘I see a man who stands on guard
And notes who drinks — his eyes are cold and hard,
And if I drank, the sweetest sherbet would,
I know, act like a poison in my blood.
While he stands here the contents of the bowl
Are liquid fire to sear the drinker’s soul.’
Whatever lasts a moment’s only worth
One barley grain — though it were all the earth;
How can I trust what has no rooted power
And holds existence for a transient hour?
If you achieve your every wish, why boast
Of glory insubstantial as a ghost?
If disappointments darken all your days,
You need not grieve, for nothing worldly stays —
It is your passion for magnificence
That prompts your tears, not fancied indigence.
What is your grief compared with all the pain
God’s martyrs suffered on Kerbelah’s plain? *
In His clear sight the hardships you endure
Show like a treasure, glittering and pure —
Each breath you breathe His kindness reaches you,
And untold love envelops all you do —
But you forget His grace, and negligence
Makes friendship look like meaningless pretence.
* It was at Kerbelah that Husain, the son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Mohammad,
was killed. Husaine refused to swear allegiance to the Caliph Yazid; he and his followers
were surrounded at Kerbelah, and a swift decisive battle resulted in victory for Yazid’s
troops. It is Husain’s death which is remembered with such fervour by Shi’a Moslems
through the mourning month of Moharram. Before the battle Husain’s water-supply was
cut off, and he and his followers suffered greatly from thirst. During Moharram, and
particularly on the anniversary of Husain’s death, many Moslems will refuse to drink in
commemoration of this thirst. It is this memory which is behind the otherwise rather
obscure anecdote about the sufi who refused to touch sherbet, which precedes the
mention of Kerbelah.
The king who gave his slave an apple
A good kind-hearted monarch one day gave
A rosy apple to his favourite slave,
Who seemed to eat the fruit with such delight
The laughing king said: ‘Here, give me a bite!’
The slave returned him half, but when the king
Bit into it it seemed a paltry thing,
Unripe and tart. Frowning he said: ‘And how
Is what appeared so sweet so bitter now?’
The slave replied: ‘My lord, you’ve given me
Such proofs of constant generosity,
I could not find it in my grateful heart
To grumble just because one apple’s tart —
I must accept whatever you bestow;
No harm can come to me from you, I know.’
If you meet tribulations here be sure
That wealth will come from all you must endure;
The paths of God are intricate and strange —
What can you do? Accept what will not change!
The wise know every mouthful on this Way
Tastes bitter with their blood. Until that day
When as His guests they break their bread, they must
Consume in suffering each broken crust.
One asked a sufi how he spent his time.
He said: ‘I’m thirsty, filthy, smeared with grime,
Burnt in this stove men call the world, but I
Shall keep my courage up until I die.’
If in this world you seek for happiness
You are asleep, your search is meaningless —
If you seek happiness you would do well
To think of that thin bridge arched over hell. *
The world’s apparent joy cannot compare
With what we seek — it isn’t worth a hair;
Here the Self rages like an unquenched fire,
And nothing satisfies the heart’s desire —
Encompass all the earth, you will not find
One happy heart or one contented mind.
* Sirat: a hair-thin bridge over the pit of hell. The good will be able to cross it; the wicked
will slip and plung into the pit (cf. the ‘brig o’ dread’ in the “Lyke Wake Dirge”).
A woman who wished to pray for happiness
An old, sad woman talked to Mahna’s sheikh:
‘Teach me to pray for joy, for pity’s sake —
I’ve suffered so much that I cannot bear
To think of future grief — give me some prayer
To murmur every day.’ The sheikh replied:
‘How many years I wandered far and wide
Until I found the fortress that you seek —
It is the knee, bend it, accept, be meek;
I found no other way — this remedy,
And only this, will cure your misery.’
One sat before Junaid. ‘You are God’s prey,’
He said, ‘yet you are free in every way —
Tell me, when does a man know happiness?
When does his heart rejoice? I cannot guess.’
Junaid replied: ‘That hour he finds the heart.’
Unless we reach our king we must depart —
With all our courage wasted — into night.
We atoms are amazed, and lack the light
Of the immortal sun; what circumstance,
What suffering, could cleanse our ignorance?
An atom looked at from which way you will
Remains unalterably an atom still;
And one who has an atom’s nature shows
That stubborn fact, no matter how he grows.
If he were lost within the blazing sun
He’d stay an atom till his life were done,
And, good or bad, no matter how he strains,
A tiny atom is what he remains.
O atom, weaving like a drunk until
You reach the sun — unsettled, never still —
My patience knows that one day you will see,
Beside the sun, your insufficiency.
The bat who wanted to see the sun
One night a bat said: ‘How is it that I
Have never seen the sun; I wonder why?
I long to lose myself in its pure light;
Instead my wretched life is one long night —
But though I travel with my eyes shut fast
I know I’ll reach that promised blaze at last.’
A seer had overheard and said: ‘What pride!
A thousand years might bring you to its side;
You are bewildered, lost — you could as soon
Attain the sun as could an ant the moon.’
The unpersuaded bat said: ‘Never mind,
I’ll fly about and see what I can find.’
For years he flew in dismal ignorance,
Till he collapsed in an exhausted trance
And murmured as he tried in vain to fly:
‘Where is the sun? Perhaps I’ve passed it by?’
The seer was there and said: ‘You’ve managed one
Short step, and yet you think you’ve passed the sun;
You live in dreams!’ Shame crushed the bat; he felt
The last thin remnants of his courage melt.
Humble and wretched, he sought out the Way —
‘He understands,’ he said, ‘I will obey’.”
A bird accepts the hoopoe’s leadership
Another bird said: “Hoopoe, you’re our guide.
How would it be if I let you decide?
I’m ignorant of right and wrong — I’ll wait
For any orders that you stipulate.
Whatever you command I’ll gladly do,
Delighted to submit myself to you.”
“Bravo!” the hoopoe cried. “By far the best
Decision is the one that you suggest;
Whoever will be guided finds relief
From Fate’s adversity, from inward grief;
One hour of guidance benefits you more
Than all your mortal life, however pure.
Those who will not submit like dogs stray,
Beset by misery, and lose their way —
How much a dog endures! and all in vain;
Without a guide his pain is simply pain.
But one who suffers and is guided gives
His merit to the world; he truly lives.
Take refuge in the orders of your guide,
And like a slave subdue your restive pride.
The king who stopped at the prison gates
A king returned once to his capital.
His subjects had prepared a festival,
And each to show his homage to the crown
Had helped to decorate the glittering town.
The prisoners had no wealth but iron gives,
Chains, severed heads, racked limbs and ruined lives —
With such horrific ornaments they made
A sight to greet their monarch’s cavalcade.
The king rode through the town and saw the way
His subjects solemnized the happy day,
But nothing stopped the progress of his train
Till he approached the prison and drew rein.
There he dismounted and had each man told
That he was free and would be paid in gold.
A courtier asked the king: ‘What does this mean?
To think of all the pageantry you’ve seen —
Brocade and satin shining everywhere,
Musk and sweet ambergris to scent the air,
Jewels scattered by the handful on the ground —
And not so much as once did you look round;
Yet here you stop — before the prison gate!
Are severed heads a way to celebrate?
What is there here to give you such delight?
Torn limbs and carcasses? A grisly sight!
And why did you dismount? Should you sit down
With all the thieves and murderers in town?’
The king replied: ‘The others make a noise
Like rowdy children playing with new toys;
Each takes his part in some festivity,
Careful to please himself as much as me —
They do their duty and are quite content,
But here in prison more than duty’s meant.
My word is law here, and they’ve plainly shown
This spectacle was made for me alone.
I see obedience here; need I explain
Why it is here I’m happy to draw rein?
The others celebrate in pompous pride,
Conceited, giddy and self-satisfied,
But these poor captives sacrifice their will
And bow to my commands through good and ill —
They have no business but to spend each breath
In expectation of the noose and death,
Yet they submit — and to my grateful eyes
Their prison is a flower-strewn paradise.’
Wisdom accepts authority and waits;
The king paused only at the prison gates.
A sufi who surpassed Bayazid and Tarmazi
A master of the Way once said: ‘Last night
I saw a strange, unprecedented sight —
I dreamt that Bayazid and Tarmazi
Were walking, and they both gave way to me —
I was their guide! I sought to understand
How two such sheikhs were under my command,
And then remembered that one distant dawn
A sigh was from my very entrails torn;
That sigh had cleared the Way — a massive gate
Swung open, and I entered the debate
Of sheikhs and dervishes. All questioned me
But Bayazid, who was content to see
That I was there; he uttered no request
But said: “I heard the sigh that tore your breast,
And knew I must accept you as you are,
Not seek for this or that particular —
Embrace the soul and disregard the pain,
Or weigh up what is loss and what is gain;
Your wish is my command, for who am I
To question those commands or to reply?
Your faithful slave cannot demure or tire;
I will perform whatever you desire.”
This shows why Bayazid and Tarmazi,
Though they are great, gave precedence to me.’
When once a slave accepts his Lord’s control
And hears Him whisper in his inmost soul
He does not boast, no outward signs are shown,
But when life’s crises come — then he is known.
The death of Sheikh Kherghan
When Sheikh Kherghan lay near to death he cried:
‘If men could split my heart and see inside,
They’d tell the world my misery and pain,
A wise man’s secret doctrine would be plain:
Forsake idolatry; if you do this
You are His slave, and cannot go amiss;
All else is pride. If you are neither slave
Nor God you’re substance less, however brave —
I call you “No-one”; turn now, no-one, seek
Devotion’s path, be humble, lowly, meek.
But when you bow the head in slavery,
Be resolute, bow down with dignity:
The king who sees a cringing, stupid slave
Who has no notion how he should behave
Expels him from his court, and Mecca’s shrine
Is closed to louts and fools. If you combine
True servitude with dignity your Lord
Will not deny you your desired reward.’
The slave who was given a splendid robe
A slave was given, from his sovereign’s hand,
A splendid robe — and feeling very grand
He put it on to wander through the town.
By chance, as he paraded up and down,
Some mud splashed in his face, and with his sleeve
He quickly wiped it off: who should perceive
His action but a sneaking sycophant —
The king was told and hanged the miscreant.
From this unhappy story you can see
How kings treat those who have no dignity.”
A bird questions the hoopoe about purity
Another bird spoke next: “Dear hoopoe, say
What purity consists of on this Way,
It seems a settled heart’s forbidden me —
All that I gain I lose immediately.
It’s either scattered to the winds or turns
To scorpions in my hands; my being yearns
For this great quest, I’m bound to nothing here —
I smashed all worldly chains and knew no fear;
With purity of heart, who knows, I might
Behold His face with my unaided sight.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Our Way does not belong
To anyone, but to the pure and strong —
To those who let go every interest
And give themselves entirely to our quest;
All your possessions are not worth a hair.
(Don’t mend what’s torn, what’s sewn together tear!)
Consign them to the fire, and when its flash
Has burnt them, rake together all the ash
And sit on it — then you will know their worth.
But you will curse the day that gave you birth
If you ignore my words. Until your heart
Is free of ownership you cannot start —
Since we must leave this prison and its pains,
Detach yourself from all that it contains;
Will what you own bribe death? Will death delay?
If you would enter on the pilgrim’s Way,
Tie up your grasping hands: all you endure
Is valueless if you set out impure.
A sheikh of Turkistan once said: ‘Above
All other things there are just two I love.
My swiftly trotting piebald horse is one —
The second is none other than my son —
If death should take my son I’d sacrifice
My horse in thanks — I know these two entice,
As idols would, my spirit from the Way.’
Don’t brag of purity until the day
You flare as candles do whose substance turns
To nothing as the flame leaps up and burns;
Whoever boasts a pure, unsullied name
Will find his actions contradict his claim,
When purity gives way to greed, the power
Of retribution strikes within the hour.
Sheikh Kherghani and the aubergine
One day Sheikh Kherghani’s devout routine
Was spoilt by cravings for an aubergine.
His mother was unsure what should be done
But hesitantly gave him half a one —
The moment that he bit its flesh a crew
Of ruffians seized his son and ran him through.
That night, outside the sheikh’s front door they laid
His boy’s head hacked off by a cutlass blade.
The sheikh cried out: ‘How often I’d foreseen
Disaster if I tasted aubergine!’
The man who has been chosen by this Guide
Must follow Him and never swerve aside —
His service is more terrible than war,
Than shame that cringes to a conqueror.
It is not knowledge keeps a man secure —
With all his understanding, fate is sure;
Each moment we receive a different guest,
And each that comes presents another test,
Although a hundred sorrows wring your soul,
The future will not bow to your control.
But one who breaks illusion’s hold will find
Misfortune will not always cloud his mind.
A hundred thousand of His lovers sigh
To sacrifice themselves for him and die;
How many waste their idle lives until
They bleed and groan, subservient to His will.
A voice speaks to Zulnoon
Zulnoon said: ‘I was in the desert once.
Trusting in God, I’d brought no sustenance —
I came on forty men ahead of me,
Dressed all in rags, a closed community.
My heart was moved. “O God,” I cried, “take heed,
What wretched lives you make your pilgrims lead!”
“We know their life and death,” a voice replied;
“We kill these pilgrims first; when they have died
We compensate them for the blood we shed.”
I asked, “When will this killing stop?” He said:
“When my exchequer has no love * to give,
While I can pay for death they shall not live,
I drink my servant’s blood and he is hurled
In frenzied turbulence about the world —
Then when he is destroyed and cannot find
His head, his feet, his passions or his mind,
I clothe him in the splendour he has won
And grace enfolds him, radiant as the sun:
Though I will have his face bedaubed by blood,
A starved ascetic smeared with dust and mud,
A denizen of shadows and the night —
Yet I will rise before him robed in light,
And when that sun, My countenance, is here
What can these shadows do but disappear?” ’
Shadows are swallowed by the sun, and he
Who’s lost in God is from himself set free;
Don’t chatter about loss — be lost! Repent,
And give up vain, self-centred argument;
If one can lose the Self, in all the earth
No other being can approach his worth.
I know of no one in the world profound
As Pharaoh’s sorcerers: the wealth they found
Was faith’s true Way, which is to sift apart
The grosser Self from the aspiring heart.
The world’s known nothing of them since that day
They took this first short step along the Way —
And in the world no wisdom could provide
A surer path than this, a better guide!”
* The metaphor is based on the notion of blood-money. A murder could be compensated,
if the victim’s relatives agreed, by payment of a sum of money; God destroys the
dervishes, then pays for this ‘crime’ with His love; He will continue to do this until He has
no more love to give, i.e. for ever.
A bird who burns with aspiration
“O hoopoe,” cried another of the birds,
“What lofty ardour blazes from your words!
Although I seem despondent, weak and lame,
I burn with aspiration’s noble flame —
And though I’m not obedient I feel
My soul devoured by an insatiate zeal.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “This strange, magnetic force
That holds God’s ancient lovers to their course
Still shows the Truth: if you will but aspire
You will attain to all that you desire.
Before an atom of such need the sun
Seems dim and murky by comparison —
It is life’s strength, the wings by which we fly
Beyond the further reaches of the sky.
The old woman who wanted to buy Joseph
When Joseph was for sale, the market-place
Teemed with Egyptians wild to see his face;
So many gathered there from dawn to dusk
The asking price was five whole tubs of musk.
An ancient crone pushed forward — in her hand
She held a few threads twisted strand by strand;
She brandished them and yelled with all her might:
‘Hey, you, the seller of the Canaanite!
I’m mad with longing for this lovely child —
I’ve spun these threads for him, he drives me wild!
Don’t argue now, I haven’t got all day!’
The merchant laughed and said: ‘Come on, old girl,
It’s not for you to purchase such a pearl —
His value’s reckoned up in gold and jewels;
He can’t be sold for threads to ancient fools!’
‘O, I knew that before,’ the old crone said;
‘I knew you wouldn’t sell him for my thread —
But it’s enough that everyone will say
“She bid for Joseph on that splendid day”.’
The heart that does not strive can never gain
The endless kingdom’s gates and lives in vain;
It was pure aspiration made a king
Set fire to all he owned — to everything —
And when his goods had vanished without trace
A thousand kingdoms sprang up in their place.
When noble aspiration seized his mind,
He left the world’s corrupted wealth behind —
Can one who craves the sun be satisfied
With petty ignorance? Is this his guide?
The poverty of Abraham Adam
I know of one who whined unceasingly,
Complaining of his abject poverty,
Till Abraham Adham said: ‘Do you weep
Because you bought your poverty too cheap?’
The man replied: ‘What’s that supposed to mean?
To purchase poverty would be obscene.’
He said: ‘I gave a kingdom up for mine,
But for the earthly realm which I resign
I still receive, each moment that I live,
A hundred worlds: my realm was fugitive —
I said farewell to it, to all the earth,
And put my trust in goods of proven worth.
I know what value is; I praise His name —
And you know neither, to your lasting shame.’
Those who aspire renounce both heart and soul,
Content through years to suffer for their goal;
The bird of aspiration seeks His throne,
Outsoaring faith and all the world, alone:
But if you lack this zeal, be off with you —
You’re quite unfit for all we have to do.
Sheikh Ghouri and Prince Sanjar
When Sheikh Ghouri, an adept of the Way,
Took refuge under a bridge one day
Together with a group of crazy fools,
Sanjar rode by, resplendent in his jewels,
And said: ‘Who’s huddled over there?’ ‘O king,’
The sheikh replied, ‘we haven’t got a thing,
But we’ve decided on a choice for you —
Be good to us, and bid the world adieu,
Or be our enemy, and you will find
It is your faith that you must leave behind.
If you will join us for a moment here,
Your pride and gorgeous pomp will disappear —
Look at our friendship and our enmity
And make your mind up; which is it to be?’
Sanjar replied: ‘I’m not the man for you.
It’s not your kind my hate and love pursue;
You’re not my enemy, you’re not my friend;
My heart’s directed to a different end.
In front of you I’ve neither pride nor shame
And have no business with your praise or blame.’
The bird of aspiration spreads its wings
And quickly soars beyond terrestrial things —
Beyond the lower world’s complacent guess
Of what is temperance, what drunkenness.
The feathers of the soul
One night a fool of God wept bitterly
And said: ‘The world, as far as I can see,
Is like a box, and we are locked inside,
Lost in the darkness of our sin and pride;
When death removes the lid we fly away —
If we have feathers — to eternal day,
But those who have no feathers must stay here,
Tormented in this box by pain and fear.’
Give wings to aspiration; love the mind;
And if at death you’d leave this box behind,
Grow wings and feathers for the soul; if not,
Burn all your hopes, for you will die and rot.”
A bird questions the hoopoe about justice and loyalty
Another bird said: “What are loyalty
And justice, put beside such majesty?
God gave me boundless loyalty and I’ve
Not been unjust to any man alive —
What is the ghostly rank of those who own
Such qualities, before our sovereign’s throne?”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said “Salvation’s Lord is just,
And justice raises man above the dust;
To live with justice in your heart exceeds
A lifetime’s earnest prayer and pious deeds;
And tales of lavish generosity
Are less than one just act done secretly
(Though justice given in a public place
Suggests deceit beneath the smiling face).
The just man does not argue for his rights;
It is for others that he stands and fights.
Ahmad Hanbal and the beggar
Ahmad Hanbal, a man renowned and wise,
Whose knowledge no one dared to criticize,
Would when he felt his mind inadequate
Consult a barefoot beggar at his gate.
If anyone discovered him they’d say:
‘But you’re our wisest man in every way;
When one of us is called upon to speak
You scarcely hear our words — yet here you seek
A barefoot beggar out; what can it mean?’
Ahman Hanbal replied: ‘As you have seen,
My commentaries have carried off the prize;
In matters of hadith* and law I’m wise —
I know more worldly things than him, it’s true,
But he knows God — much more than I can do.’
Look at this action well before you claim
A justice that does not deserve the name.
* Actions or (more particularly) sayings of the Prophet Mohammad. The scholar’s task is
to sort out which are genuine.
An Indian king
As Mahmoud’s army moved through India,
They chanced to take an old king prisoner
Who learnt the Moslem faith at Mahoud’s court
And counted this world and the next as nought.
Alone, a hermit in a ragged tent,
He lived for prayer, an eager penitent,
His face bathed day and night in scalding tears —
At last the news of this reached Mahmoud’s ears.
He summoned him and said: ‘I’ll give to you
A hundred kingdoms and their revenue;
It’s not for you to weep, you are a king;
I promise to return you everything!’
To this the Indian king replied: ‘My lord,
It’s not my kingdom conquered by your sword
That makes me weep, but thoughts of Judgement Day;
For at the resurrection God will say
“O faithless wretch, you had no thoughts of Me
Till you were crushed by Mahmoud’s cavalry —
It took an army’s might to change your mind
And till you stood defenceless you were blind —
Does this make you My friend or enemy?
How long did I treat you with loyalty
And in return endure your thankless hate?
Is this the friendship that you advocate?”
If God says this, what answer can I give
To contradict the damning narrative?
Young man, if you could understand my fears
You’d know the reason for an old man’s tears.’
Learn from these faithful words, and if your heart
Holds faith like this, prepare now to depart;
But if your heart is faithless, give up now,
Forget our struggle and renounce your vow;
The faithless have no place on any page
Within the volume of our pilgrimage.
The faithless Moslem and the faithful infidel
A Moslem fought an infidel one day
And as they fought requested time to pray.
He prayed and fought again — the infidel
Then asked for time to say his prayers as well;
He went aside to find a cleaner place
And there before his idol bowed his face.
The Moslem, when he saw him kneel and bow,
Said: Victory is mine if I strike now.”
But as he raised his sword for that last stroke,
A warning voice from highest heaven spoke:
‘O vicious wretch — from head to foot deceit —
What promises are these, you faithless cheat?
His blade was sheathed when you asked him for time;
For you to strike him now would be a crime —
Have you not read in Our Koran the verse
“Fulfil your promises”? And will you curse
The word you gave? The infidel was true;
He kept his promises, and so should you.
You offer evil in return for good —
With others act as to yourself you would!
The infidel kept faith with you, and where
Is your fidelity, for all your prayer?
You are a Moslem, but false piety
Is less than this poor pagan’s loyalty.’
The Moslem heard this speech and went apart;
Sweat poured from him, remorse accused his heart.
The pagan saw him as if spell-bound stand,
Tears in his eyes, his sword still in his hand,
And asked: ‘Why do you weep?’ The man replied:
‘My shame is not a matter I can hide’ —
He told him of the voice that he had heard
Reproaching him when he would break his word,
And ending said: ‘My tears anticipate
The fury of your vengeance and your hate.’
But when the infidel had heard this tale,
His eyes were filled with tears, his face turned pale —
‘God censures you for your disloyalty
And guards the life of His sworn enemy —
Can I continue to be faithless now?
I’ll burn my gods, to Allah I will bow,
Expound His law! Too long my heart has lain
In darkness bound by superstition’s chain.’
What infidelity you give for love!
But I shall wait until the heavens above
Confront you with the actions you have done
And number them before you, one by one.
Joseph and his brothers
Ten starving brothers left their home to stand
In Joseph’s presence, in a foreign land,
And begged for some benevolent relief
To ease the torments of their wretched grief.
Now Joseph’s face was veiled; he took a bowl
And struck it hard — a sound as if a soul
Cried out in misery was heard. He said:
‘Do you know what this means?’ Each shook his head.
‘Lord, no one in the world, search far and wide,
Could give this noise a meaning,’ they replied.
Then Joseph said: ‘It speaks to you; it says
You had a brother once, in former days,
More precious than this bowl — he bore the name
Of Joseph; and it says that, to your shame,
His goodness overshadowed all of you.’
Once more he struck the bowl. ‘It says you threw
This Joseph in a well, then stained his cloak
With wolf’s blood; and it says the smeared rags broke
Poor Jacob’s heart.’ He touched the bowl again:
‘It says you brought your father needless pain
And sold the lovely Joseph. Is this true?
May God bestow remorse to chasten you!’
These brothers who had come to beg for bread
Stood speechless, faint with apprehensive dread:
When they gave Joseph for the merchant’s gold,
It was themselves, and all the world, they sold —
And when they threw their brother in that well,
They threw themselves in the abyss of hell.
Whoever hears these words and cannot find
How they apply to him is truly blind.
There is no need to scrutinize my tale,
It is your own; when thoughtlessly you fail
To render loyalty its proper due,
How can the light of friendship shine for you?
But, till you’re woken, sleep — too soon you’ll see
Your shameful crimes, your infidelity,
And when you stand a prisoner in that place
They’ll count them one by one before your face;
There, when the bowl is struck, you too will find
That fear dissolves your reason and your mind.
You’re like a lame ant struggling for its soul,
Aimlessly sliding, caught inside this bowl —
Blood fills it, but a voice beyond its rim
Still calls to you — rise now, and fly to Him.”
A bird questions the hoopoe about audacity
Another bird said: “Is audacity
Allowable before such majesty?
One needs audacity to conquer fear —
But is it right in His exalted sphere?”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Those who are worthy reach
A subtle understanding none can teach;
They guard the secrets of our glorious king
And therefore are not kept from anything —
But how could one who knows such secrets be
Convicted of the least audacity?
Since he is filled with reverence to the brim,
A breath of boldness is permitted him.
(The ignorant, it’s true, can never share
The secrets of our king. If one should dare
To ape the ways of the initiate,
What does he do but blindly imitate?
He’s like some soldier who kicks up a din
And spoils the ranks with his indiscipline.)
But think of some new pilgrim, some young boy
Whose boldness comes from mere excess of joy;
He has no certain knowledge of the Way
And what seems rudeness is but loving play —
He’s like a madman — love’s audacity
Will have him walking on the restless sea.
Such ways are laudable; we should admire
This love that turns him to a blazing fire;
One can’t expect discretion from a flame,
And madmen are beyond reproach or blame —
When madness chooses you to be its prey
We’ll hear what crazy things you have to say.
The dervish who envied a king’s slaves
Once Khorasan enjoyed great affluence
Beneath a prince of proved benevolence —
His slaves were lovely as the moon at dusk,
Straight-limbed and silver, scented with soft musk,
And in their ears shone pearls whose milky light
Reflected daytime in the darkest night.
Gold ornaments half hid and half revealed
Their silver limbs; each held a golden shield.
Bright gems adorned their belts; a white horse bore
Each slave as if he were a conqueror.
Whoever saw this shining army gave
His heart to them, the slaves’ contented slave.
A barefoot, hungry dervish once, by chance,
Caught sight of this unique magnificence,
And wondering asked: ‘What houris might these be?’
The crowd exclaimed: ‘The splendid troop you see
Are slaves belonging to our noble lord.’
The dervish writhed as if in pain, then roared:
‘Great God, look down from your exalted sphere —
Learn how to treat your slaves from this man here!’
If you are mad like him, if you possess
Such leaves of Truth, forget all bashfulness,
Be bold! But if these leaves are not your style,
Control yourself, and wipe away your smile.
Boldness like this does not deserve our blame;
Such men are moths, ambitious for the flame —
They only see their goal and cannot say
What’s good or bad along the pilgrims’ Way.
A madman seeks shelter
A naked madman, gnawed by hunger, went
Along the road — his shivering frame was bent
Beneath the icy sleet; no house stood there
To offer shelter from the wintry air.
He saw a ruined hut and with a dash
Stood underneath its roof; a sudden crash
Rang out — a tile had fallen on his head,
And how the gaping gash it cut there bled!
He looked up at the sky and yelled: ‘Enough!
Why can’t you clobber me with better stuff?’
The poor man, the rich man and the ass
A poor man living in a drainage-ditch
Once borrowed from his neighbour (who was rich)
A valued ass, and rode it to the mill.
He slept there, and the ass made off at will —
A wolf devoured the beast; with indignation
The owner made a claim for compensation.
The poor man and his neighbour went to court,
Submitting an exhaustive, full report —
‘Now who should pay?’ they asked. The judge replied:
‘Whoever * lets this wolf hunt far and wide,
Whoever put him here to roam about,
Should compensate you both without a doubt —
O God, who is the debtor, who can say?
It’s certain that no mortal ought to pay.’
As Egypt’s noble maidens swooned to see
Dear Joseph’s radiant face, so ecstasy
Is mirrored in the sufi’s maddened heart —
Then he has lost himself and moves apart
From all that we perceive — the world grows dim
As all the world resolves to follow him.
i.e. God.
A famine in Egypt
In Egypt once a baleful famine spread —
The people perished as they begged for bread.
Death filled the roads; the living gnawed the dead.
A crazy dervish saw their wretched plight
And cried: ‘O God, look down from Your great height —
If there’s no food for them, make fewer men!’
A man who speaks like this asks pardon when
He comes back to himself — if he’s to blame
He knows the ways to cancel all his shame.
A dervish deceived by a hailstorm
A dervish suffered bruises and sore bones
From children who continually threw stones.
He found a ruined hut and in he stole,
Not noticing its roof contained a hole.
A hailstorm started — through the leaky shed
The hail came bouncing on the old man’s head.
The hail was stones for all that he could tell —
He lost his temper and began to yell.
Convinced that they were throwing stones once more,
He screamed out filthy names, fumed, stamped and swore —
Then thought: ‘This dark’s so thick it’s possible
It’s not the children this time after all.’
A door blew open and revealed the hail;
He saw his error and began to wail:
‘The darkness tricked me, God — and on my head
Be all the foolish, filthy names I said.’
If crazy dervishes behave like this
It’s not for you to take their words amiss;
If they seem drunk to you, control your scorn —
Their lives are painful, savage and forlorn;
They must endure a lifetime’s hopelessness
And every moment brings some new distress —
Don’t meddle with their conduct; don’t reprove
Those given up to madness and to love.
You would excuse them — nothing is more sure —
If you could share the darkness they endure.
AlVasati passes the Jewish cemetery
AlVasati, cast down by grief one day,
Proceeded on his troubled, weary way
Until he saw the Jewish cemetery
And said: ‘These souls are pardoned and go free;
But this is not a truth that can be taught,’
His words were heard and he was haled to court,
Where angry judges asked him what he meant —
AlVasati replied: ‘Your government
Accuses them; their pardon’s heaven-sent’.”
A bird claims that he lives only for the Simorgh
Another bird spoke up: ‘I live for love,
For Him and for the glorious world above —
For Him I’ve cut myself from everything;
My life’s one song of love to our great king.
I’ve seen the world’s inhabitants, and know
I could not worship any here below;
My ardent love’s for Him alone; how few
Can manage to adore Him as I do!
But though I’ve struggled on with all my soul,
It seems I haven’t quite achieved our goal.
The time has come — my Self will disappear;
I’ll drink the wine of meekness and draw near;
His beauty will illuminate my heart;
His neck will know my touch; we shall not part.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “The Simorgh isn’t won
By boasts of who you are and what you’ve done —
Don’t brag of love; He’s not deceived by lies,
And no one pulls the wool across his eyes.
His call is like some lightly wafted breeze
Lifting the veil from hidden mysteries —
Then He will draw you to Himself, alone;
Your place will be with Him, beside His throne
(Though if mere pride of place prompts your desire,
Your love prepares you for eternal fire).
Bayazid after death
When Bayazid had left the world behind,
He came that night before the dreaming mind
Of one of his disciples, who in fear
Asked how he’d fared with Monkar and Nakir.*
He said: “When those two angels questioned me
About the Lord, I told them I could see
No profit in our talk — if I should say
‘He is my God’, my answer would betray
A proud, ambitious heart; they should return
To god and ask him what they wished to learn —
God says who is His slave; the slave is dumb,
Waiting for Him to say: ‘Good servant, come!’
If grace is give you from God above,
Then you are wholly worthy of His love;
And if He kindles joy in you, the fire
Will burst out and its flames beat ever higher —
It is His works that act, not yours, you fool;
When will these dunces understand His rule!
* Two angels who question the dead on their faith.
A dervish in love with God
A dervish wept to feel the violence of
The inextinguishable fires of love.
His spirit melted, and his soul became
A seething mass of incandescent flame;
He wept as he proceeded on his way,
And through his scalding tears was heard to say:
‘For how much longer must I weep? Desire
Has burnt my life in its consuming fire.’
‘What’s all this boasting for?’ a voice replied,
‘Can you approach Him with such senseless pride?’
‘And when did I approach Him?’ asked the saint;
‘No, He approaches me; that’s my complaint —
How could a wretched thing like me pretend
To have the worth to claim Him as my friend?
Look — I do nothing; He performs all deeds
And He endures the pain when my heart bleeds.’
When He draws near and grants you audience
Should you hang back in tongue-tied diffidence?
When will your cautious heart consent to go
Beyond the homely boundaries you know?
O slave, if He should show His love to you,
Love which His deeds perpetually renew,
You will be nothing, you will disappear —
Leave all to Him who acts, and have no fear.
If there is any ‘you’, if any wraith
Of Self persists, you’ve strayed outside our faith.
Shah Mahmoud and the stoker at the public baths
Shah Mahmoud, full of sorrow, went one night
To one who keeps the baths’ huge fires alight;
The man made room among the ash and grime
(Feeding the furnace-mouth from time to time),
Then brought the king some stale, unwholesome bread.
‘When he knows who I am,’ Shah Mahmoud said,
‘He’ll beg to be allowed to keep his head!’
When, finally, the king prepared to go,
The poor man said: ‘I haven’t much to show —
You’ve seen my home and food (I brought the best;
You were a rather unexpected guest),
But if in future you feel sorrow’s pain
I hope you’ll come and be my guest again.
If you weren’t king you could be happy, sire;
I’m happy shovelling wood on this great fire —
So I’m not less than you or more, you see …
I’m nothing next to you, your majesty.’
The king was so impressed that he returned,
What more could I desire from you than you?
May my perverse heart die if it should crave
Another fate than to remain your slave!
What’s sovereignty to me? All I request
Is that from time to time you’ll be my guest.’
The bath attendant’s love should teach you yours;
Learn from him all the loving heart endures —
And if this love has stirred in you, then cling
With passion to the garments of your king;
He too is moved; hold fast and do not stop —
He is a sea; He asks of you one drop.
Two water-sellers
A man who lived by selling water found
He’d very little left; he looked around
And saw another water-seller there —
‘Have you got any water you could spare?’
He asked. ‘No, fool, I certainly have not,’
The other snapped: ‘make do with what you’ve got!’
‘O, give me some,’ the man began to plead;
‘I’m sick of what I have; it’s yours I need.’
When Adam’s heart grew tired of all he knew,
He yearned for wheat; a substance strange and new —
He gave up all he owned for one small grain,
And naked suffered love’s relentless pain;
He disappeared in love’s intensity —
The old and new were gone and so was he;
He was annihilated, lost, made naught —
Nothingness swallowed all his hands had sought.
To turn from what we are, to yearn and die
Is not for us to choose or to deny.”
A bird you claims to be satisfied with his spiritual state
Another bird squawked: “There can be no doubt
I’ve made myself unworldly and devout.
To reach this wise perfection which you see
I’ve lived a life of cruel austerity,
And as I’ve gained the sum of wisdom here,
I really couldn’t move, I hope that’s clear.
What fool would leave his treasury to roam
In deserts and dry mountains far from home?”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Hell’s pride has filled your soul;
Lost in self-love, you dread our distant goal.
Your arrogance deceives you, and you stray
Further and further from the spirit’s Way.
Your Self has trapped your soul and made it blind;
The devil’s throne is your complacent mind.
The light that guides you is a fantasy,
Your love a self-induced absurdity —
All your austerities are just a cheat,
And all you say is nothing but deceit.
Don’t trust the light which shows you where you go;
Your own Self sheds this dim, misleading glow —
It has no sword, but such an enemy
Will threaten any man’s security.
If it’s your Self’s light which the road reveals,
It’s like the scorpion’s sting which parsley heals;
Don’t be deceived by this false glow, but run
And be an atom since you’re not the sun
(Don’t grieve because the Way is dark as night,
Or strive to emulate the sun’s pure light);
Whilst you are locked within yourself your cares
Are worthless as your worthless cries and prayers.
If you would soar beyond the circling sky,
First free yourself from thoughts of “me” and “I”;
If any thought of selfhood stains your mind
An empty void is all the Self will find,
If any taste of selfhood stays with you
Then you are damned whatever you may do.
If selfhood beckons you for but one breath
A rain of arrows will decide your death.
While you exist endure the spirit’s pain;
A hundred times bow down, then bow again —
But if you cling to selfhood and its crimes,
Your neck will feel Fate’s yoke a hundred times.
How Sheikh Abou Bakr’s self-satisfaction was reproved
Sheikh Abou Bakr of Neishapour one day
Led his disciples through a weary way.
His donkey carried him, aloof, apart —
And then the beast let out a monstrous fart!
The sheikh began to tear his clothes and cry
Till one of his disciples asked him why.
The sheikh said: ‘When I looked I saw a sea
Of my disciples sworn to follow me;
They filled the roads and in my mind there slid
The thought: ‘By God, I equal Bayazid!
So many praise me, can I doubt this sign
That heaven’s boundless glories will be mine?’
Then as I triumphed in my inmost heart,
My donkey answered me — and with a fart;
My pompous, self-deceiving soul awoke,
And this is why I weep and tear my cloak.’
How far away the truth remains while you
Are lost in praise for all you say and do —
Destroy your arrogance, and feed the fire
With that vain Self you foolishly admire.
You change your face each moment, but deep down
You are a Pharaoh and you wear his crown,
Whilst one small atom of this ‘you’ survives
Hypocrisy enjoys a hundred lives.
If you put all your trust in ‘I’ and ‘me’
You’ve chosen both worlds as your enemy —
But if you kill the Self, the darkest night
Will be illuminated with your light.
If you would flee from evil and its pain
Swear never to repeat this ‘I’ again!
The devil’s secret
God said to Moses once: ‘Go out and find
The secret truth that haunts the devil’s mind.’
When Moses met the devil that same day
He asked for his advice and heard him say:
‘Remember this, repeat it constantly,
Don’t speak of ‘me’, or you will be like me.’
If life still holds you by a single hair,
The end of all your toil will be despair;
No matter how you prosper, there will rise
Before your face a hundred smirking ‘I’s.
A saint once said: ‘The novice ought to see
A door that opens on obscurity —
Then seas of love will inundate his mind,
And he will leave our earthly life behind;
If he sees anything but darkness there,
He is deceived and worships empty air.’
Though others see them, you have not the art
To recognize the passions in your heart.
There is a den in you where dragons thrive;
Your folly keeps the prowling beasts alive —
By day and night you watch them sleep and eat
And cosset them, and toss them blood-soaked meat.
From dust and blood your earthly being grew —
Is it not strange that both should be taboo?
That blood, which flows within your every vein,
Is an impurity, an unclean stain?
What you most love defiles, and deep within
The chambers of your heart hide guilt and sin;
If you have seen this filth, why do you sit
Smiling as if you’d never heard of it?
The sheikh and the dog
A dog brushed up against a sheikh, who made
No move to draw his skirts in or evade
The filthy stray — a puzzled passer-by
Who’d noticed his behaviour asked him why.
He said: ‘The dog is filthy, as you see,
But what is outside him is inside me —
What’s clear on him is hidden in my heart;
Why should such close companions stay apart?’
If inward filth is slight or if it’s great,
The outcome is the same disgusting state —
If straws impede you, or a mountain-top,
Where is the difference if you have to stop?
The anchorite who loved his beard
In Moses’ time there lived an anchorite
Who prayed incessantly by day and night,
And yet derived no pleasure from his quest;
No sun had risen in his troubled breast.
He had a beard, of which he took great care,
Loving to comb it hair by silky hair.
It happened that this pious man one day
Caught sight of Moses walking far away —
He ran to him and cried: ‘Mount Sinai’s lord,
Ask God why he denies me my reward.’
When next on Sinai’s slopes good Moses trod,
He put this poor man’s question to his God,
Who answered: ‘Tell this would-be saint that he
Pays more attention to his beard than Me.’
When Moses told the man of God’s reply,
He tore his beard out with a piteous cry —
Then Gabriel appeared to them and said:
‘Concern for that grey beard still fills his head;
He loved it then, and now he pulls it out,
His wretched love is even more devout.’
Whatever stage you’ve reached, to spend one breath
Unmindful of your God is worse than death —
And what of you, still wrapped up in your beard,
For whom grief’s ocean has not yet appeared?
Forget this beard and you will understand
How you can swim across and gain dry land —
But keep it as you enter that profound
Ungoverned sea, and with it you’ll be drowned.
A drowning fool
A fool with an enormous beard once fell
Into a violent sea’s tumultuous swell.
As he was struggling he heard someone shout:
‘That bag tied on your collar — throw it out!’
‘It’s not a bag, it’s my huge beard!’ he cried.
‘Well, that’s just marvellous,’ the man replied,
‘A splendid growth; but now the harvest’s come.’
Your goatish beards have made you quarrelsome,
Self-willed and vain, the devil’s followers,
Strutting like Pharaoh and his ministers.
But beard this Pharaoh, as did Moses once,
And set out on the Way with confidence —
The pilgrim has no time to preen and comb;
Long suffering will attend his journey home.
If bleaching’s his profession he’ll complain
There is sun — if crops, there is no rain.
A sufi washing his clothes
Once, as a sufi washed his clothes, a cloud
Filled all the heavens like a darkening shroud —
But though the world seemed plunged in deepest night,
The sufi’s clothes shone clean and strangely bright.
He’d been about to find a grocer’s stall
To buy some soap — ‘I don’t need soap at all,’
He told himself, and then he said aloud:
‘I’ll buy some raisins, thanks to you, O cloud —
You do far more than grocer’s powders could,
I’ve washed my hands of earthly soap for good!’ ”
A bird asks for help and advice
Another bird spoke next: “Dear hoopoe, say
What will sustain my heart along the Way —
To travel as I should I need your aid;
If you can help me I’ll be less afraid —
To make me start this quest, then persevere,
I must be told how I can conquer fear.
I spurn the crowd’s advice; I’m quite alone
And haven’t any wisdom of my own.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Trust Him, and while you live,
Avoid whoever seems too talkative.
With Him you will rejoice — when He is there
The saddest soul is freed from every care;
There is no sorrow He cannot console —
On Him depends the sky’s revolving bowl.
Let His joy teach you yours, as planets move
Within the orbit of sustaining love;
What is His equal? Say that nothing is,
Then happiness is yours, and you are His.
A dervish in ecstasy
A frenzied dervish, mad with love for God,
Sought out bare hills where none had ever trod.
Wild leopards kept this madman company —
His heart was plunged in restless ecstasy;
He lived within this state for twenty days,
Dancing and singing in exultant praise:
‘There’s no division; we two are alone —
The world is happiness and grief has flown.’
Die to yourself — no longer stay apart,
But give to Him who asks for it your heart;
The man whose happiness derives from Him
Escapes existence, and the world grows dim;
Rejoice for ever in the Friend, rejoice
Till you are nothing, but a prating voice.
‘For seventy years my happy heart has led
A life of constant bliss,’ a sufi said.
‘My God has been so good to me that I
Am bound to Him until the day I die.’
You seek for faults to censure and suppress
And have no time for inward happiness —
How can you know God’s secret majesty
If you look out for sin incessantly?
To share His hidden glory you must learn
That others’ errors are not your concern —
When someone else’s failings are defined
What hairs you split — but to your own you’re blind!
Grace comes to those, no matter how they’ve strayed,
Who know their own sin’s strength, and are afraid.
A drunkard accuses a drunkard
A sot became extremely drunk — his legs
And head sank listless, weighed by wine’s thick dregs.
A sober neighbour put him in a sack
And took him homewards hoisted on his back.
Another drunk went stumbling by the first,
Who woke and stuck his head outside and cursed.
‘Hey, you, you lousy dipsomaniac,’
He yelled as he was borne off in the sack,
‘If you’d had fewer drinks, just two or three,
You would be walking now as well as me,’
He saw the other’s state but not his own,
And in this blindness he is not alone;
You cannot love, and this is why you seek
To find men vicious, or depraved, or weak —
If you could search for love and persevere
The sins of other men would disappear.
The lover who saw a blemish in his beloved’s eye
A lion-hearted hero met defeat —
Five years he loved, and slavery was sweet.
The girl for whom he was content to sigh
Had one small blemish lurking in her eye,
And though, as often as she would permit,
He gazed at her he never noticed it.
(How could a man possessed by frenzy see
This unimportant, faint deformity?)
Then imperceptibly love ceased to reign;
A balm was found to ease his aching pain —
The girl and all her blandishments
Became a matter of indifference;
And now the blemish in her eye was clear —
He asked her: ‘When did that white speck appear?’
She answered: ‘As your love began to die,
This speck was brought to being in my eye.’
How long will others’ faults distract your mind?
Your own accuse you, but your heart is blind.
Your sins are heavy, and while they are there,
Another’s guilt is none of your affair.
The drunk and the constable
A man whose job it was to keep the peace
Beat up a drunk, who fought for his release
And cried: “It’s you who’s tippled too much wine;
Your rowdiness is ten times worse than mine —
Who’s causing this disturbance, you or me?
But yours is drunkenness that men can’t see;
Leave me alone! Let justice do its worst —
Enforce the law and beat yourself up first!’ ”
A bird wonders what gift he should ask for from the Simorgh
Another bird said: “Leader of my soul,
What shall I ask for if I reach our goal?
His light will fill the world, but I’m not sure
What special gift I should be looking for —
I’ll ask Him for whatever you suggest.”
The hoopoe answers him
The hoopoe said: “Poor fool, make one request;
Seek only Him — of all things He is best;
If you’re aware of Him, in all the earth
What could you wish for of a greater worth?
Whoever joins Him in that secret place
Is step by step admitted to His grace —
No bribe can turn aside the penitent
Who knows the fragrance of His threshold’s scent.
The death of Bou Ali Roudbar
When Bou Ali Roudbar drew near to death,
He said: ‘Impatience hastens my last breath.
I see the gates of heaven part and rise;
A throne of glory shines before my eyes —
Angelic voices fill the glistening dome;
Like nightingales they call my ardour home.
“Rejoice!” they sing, “no man has ever known
This radiant splendour which is yours alone.”
Though I believe in this refulgent state,
It’s not for this my soul and spirit wait;
They murmur to me: “What is this to you?
Was it for this you bid the world adieu?”
I cannot share the cravings of that tribe
Who sneak and bow and snatch each petty bribe —
Infuse my soul with Your sustaining love,
And I know neither hell nor heaven above;
I know but You; no faith or blasphemy
Could make me swerve from my fidelity;
I love but You; to You I must resign
My thirsting soul and take Your soul for mine —
Both worlds for me are You; You are my creed;
I recognise no other hope or need —
A hair’s breadth lies between us now — remove
This last impediment to perfect love,
And if my wayward soul attempts to stir
Our mingled whispers will admonish her.’
God said to David: ‘Tell my servants prayer
Should be creation’s all-consuming care;
Though hell were not his fear nor heaven his goal,
The Lord should wholly occupy man’s soul.
But if the sun did not light up the day,
They would not think of Me, nor ever pray —
Their prayers know nothing of love’s selfless pain;
Not love inspires them but mere lust for gain.
True prayer seeks God alone; its motives start
Deep in the centre of a contrite heart.
Tell them to turn from all that is not Me;
To worship none but God continuously;
To heap together all the world can show;
To break it piece by piece and blow by blow;
To burn these fragments in one vivid flash,
And scatter on the winds the swirling ash —
When they have done this they will understand
The ash they grasped for with each greedy hand.’
If it is paradise for which you pray
You can be sure that you have lost your way.
A story of Mahmoud and Ayaz
Shah Mahmoud called Ayaz to him and gave
His crown and throne to this bewitching slave,
Then said: ‘You are the sovereign of these lands;
I place my mighty army in your hands —
I wish for you unrivalled majesty,
That you enslave the very sky and sea.’
But when the soldiers heard of this, their eyes
Grew black with envy they could not disguise.
‘What emperor in all the world,’ they say,
‘Has heaped such honours on a servile head?’
Though even as they murmured Ayaz wept
That what the king decreed he must accept;
The courtiers said to him: ‘You are insane
To change from slave to king and then complain!’
But Ayaz answered them: ‘O, rather say
My king desires me to be far away,
To lead the army and be occupied
In almost any place but by his side.
What he commands I’ll do, but in my heart
We shall not — for one instant — live apart;
And what have I to do with majesty?
To see my king is realm enough for me.’
If you would be a pilgrim of the Truth,
Learn how to worship from this lovely youth.
Day follows night — you argue and protest
And cannot pass the first stage of our quest;
Each night you chatter as the hours pass by
And send Orion down the dawning sky,
And still you linger — though another day
Has broken, you’re no further on your way.
From highest heaven they came to welcome you,
And you made lame excuses and withdrew!
Alas! You’re not the man for this; your thoughts
See hell’s despair and heaven’s wondrous courts —
Forget these two, and glory’s radiant light
Will stage by stage emerge from darkest night;
The pilgrim does not long for paradise —
Keep back your heart; He only will suffice.
Rabe’eh’s prayer
This was the common hymn of Rabe’eh:
‘O God, who knows all secrets,’ she would pray,
‘May fortune favour all my enemies,
And may my friends taste heaven’s ecstasies;
It is not this world or the next I crave
But, for one moment, to be called Your slave —
With passion I embrace this poverty;
Such endless blessings flow from you to me
If I desire this world or shrink from hell,
I am no better than an infidel.’
A man has everything who knows his Lord —
The world and all its seven seas afford.
All that the universe has ever shown
Can find its match but God, who is alone;
And only He, wherever you may seek,
Is absolute, abiding, and unique.
God counselled David: ‘There is nothing here
Of good or bad, unseen or far or near,
Which does not have some cunning complement;
For only I have no equivalent.
I am alone; make me your single goal —
My presence is sufficient for your soul;
I am your God, your one necessity —
With every breath you breathe remember Me;
Make God your one desire, for only I
Shall live eternally and never die.’
And you — obsessed with what the world contains,
Subjected day and night to envy’s pains —
Turn now and put our journey to the test;
In this world and the next make Him your quest;
To choose what is not God is to prefer
To be some worthless idol’s worshipper,
And if this idol is your soul, your creed
Is nothing more than irreligious greed.
Shah Mahmoud at Somnat
When Mahmoud’s army had attacked Somnat
They found an idol there that men called “Lat”.*
Its worshippers flung treasure on the ground
And as a ransom gave the glittering mound;
But Mahmoud would not cede to their desire
And burnt the idol in a raging fire.
A courtier said: ‘Now if it had been sold
We’d have what’s better than an idol — gold!’
Shah Mahmoud said: ‘I feared God’s Judgement Day;
I was afraid that I should hear Him say
“Here two — Azar and Mahmoud — stand, behold!
One carved his idols, one had idols sold!” ’
And as the idol burned, bright jewels fell out —
So Mahmoud was enriched but stayed devout;
He said: ‘This idol Lat has her reward,
And here is mine, provided by the Lord.’
Destroy the idols in your heart, or you
Will one day be a broken idol too —
First burn the Self, and as its fate is sealed
The gems this idol hides will be revealed.
Your soul has heard the Lord’s commanding call;
Accept, and at His threshold humbly fall.
Your soul and God have formed a covenant;
Do not turn back from that first firm assent —
Will you object to what you once averred,
Swear true allegiance and then break your word?
Your soul needs only Him — through good and ill
Keep faith, and what you promised Him fulfil.
* Lat was the name of an Arabian pre-Islamic goddess. Mahmoud attacked and
conquered Somnat in north-west India in 1026 and destroyed the Hindu temple there;
Attar has either confused the Arabian and Indian deities, or used the name ‘Lat’
generically, or has been seduced by the fortuitous rhyme.
Another story of Shah Mahmoud in India
Mahmoud began his Indian campaign
And saw before him, drawn up on the plain,
The massive army of his enemy —
In fear he prayed to God for victory
And said: ‘If I should win this doubtful day,
The dervishes will bear the spoils away.’
They fought, and Mahmoud’s conquest was complete —
His captives piled their treasures at his feet.
The king declared ‘I will fulfil my vow;
The dervishes shall have this booty now.’
But all his courtiers cried: ‘Can gold and jewels
Be given to that crowd of cringing fools?
Reward the soldiers who have won this war,
Or have it piled up in the royal store.’
What should he do? Shah Mahmoud was unsure.
Just then his eye caught sight of Boul Hoosein,
A pious fool whom many thought insane;
He said: ‘Whatever that man says, I’ll do —
No kings or armies influence his view.’
They called the madman over to the king,
Who welcomed him and told him everything.
The madman said: ‘O king, these anxious plans
Are not worth more than two small barley grains —
If all your dealings with the Lord cease here,
Forget the vow you made and never fear;
But if you think you might need Him again
Then keep your promise to the final grain.
God gave the victory to you; now where
In this agreement is your lordship’s share?’
So Mahmoud gave the gold where it was owed,
And took his way along the royal road.”
A bird asks what gifts he should take the Simorgh
Another bird said: “You have seen our king —
What gifts would it be right for me to bring?
I’ll gladly get whatever you advise;
What would be welcome to our sovereign’s eyes?
A king deserves a quite distinctive gift;
Only a miser would be ruled by thrift!”
The hoopoe answers him
“Be ruled by me,” the hoopoe said. “Take care
To offer something which is lacking there —
Where is the point in dragging all that way
A costly present common there as day?
There mystery resides and confidence,
Pure knowledge and the soul’s obedience —
But take the torment of a heart alone,
The soul’s distress, for these are there unknown,
And let the anguish you endure arise
Borne upward to the king in bitter sighs;
If one sigh rises from the inmost soul,
That man is saved, and has attained our goal.
Zuleikha has Joseph whipped
Zuleikha used her great authority
To have poor Joseph kept in custody —
She gave her callous orders to the guard:
‘Give that man fifty lashes, good and hard!
Deal with this Joseph’s body so that I
From far away can hear him groan and sigh.’
But when the guard saw Joseph’s face he felt
The cold indifference of his calling melt.
There was a leather coat left on the ground,
And with his whip he made this skin resound —
As every blow descended on the coat,
A scream of pain went up from Joseph’s throat.
But when Zuleikha heard his voice she cried:
‘You are too soft; whip harder, break his pride!’
The guard said: ‘What, dear Joseph, can I do?
Zuleikha only has to look at you
And see no weals or bruises on your back,
And I’ll be torn to pieces on the rack —
So bare your shoulders to the lash; some sign
Must mar your skin if I’m to rescue mine.’
When Joseph stripped in readiness, a sound
Of mourning spread from heaven to the ground;
The guard’s right arm was raised, and its descent
Produced a cry that split the firmament —
Zuleikha said: ‘Now Joseph cannot bluff;
This sigh is from his inmost soul — enough!
This sigh was real and from his essence came —
His former groans were nothing but a game.’
The mourners at a funeral
A hundred mourners at a funeral grieved;
One truly sighed — the man who was bereaved.
They were a ring, but only one of them
Was set within that circle as a gem —
Till you have truly mourned beside the grave,
You cannot take your place among the brave.
Love drives the wandering pilgrim on his quest;
And where by day or night will he find rest?
The devout slave
A negro had a slave devout and wise
Who at an early hour would wake and rise,
Then pray until the sun came peeping through.
His master said: ‘Wake me up early too,
And we can pray together till the dawn.’
The slave said: ‘Just before a baby’s born,
Who tells the mother “Now your time draws near”?
She knows it does — her pain has made it clear;
If you have felt this pain you are awake —
No other man can feel it for your sake.
If someone has to rouse you every day,
Then someone else instead of you should pray.’
The man without this pain is not a man;
May grief destroy the bragging charlatan!
But one who is entangled in its spell
Forgets all thoughts of heaven or of hell.
A vision of heaven and hell
Sheikh Bou Ali Tousi’s long pilgrimage
(He was the wisest savant of his age)
Conducted him so far that I know none
Who could draw near to what this man has done.
He said: ‘The wretches damned in hell will cry
To those in paradise: “O, testify
To us the nature of your happiness;
Describe the sacred joys which you possess!”
And they will say: “Ineffable delight
Shines in the radiance of His face; its light
Draws near us, and this vast celestial frame —
The eightfold heaven — darkens, bowed by shame.”
And then the tortured souls in hell will say:
“From joys of paradise you turn away;
Such lowly happiness is not for you —
All that you say is true, we know how true!
In hell’s accursèd provinces we reign
Clothed head to foot in fire’s devouring pain;
But when we glimpse that radiant face and know
That we must live for ever here below,
Cut off through all eternity from grace —
Such longing seizes us for that far face,
Such unappeasable and wild regret,
That in our anguished torment we forget
The pit of hell and all its raging fire;
For what are flames but comfortless desire?” ’
The man who feels such longing takes no part
In public prayers; he prays within his heart.
Regret and sighs should be your portion here;
In sighs rejoice, in longing persevere —
And if beneath the sky’s oppressive dome
Wounds scar you, you draw nearer to your home;
Don’t flinch from pain or search here for its cure.
Uncauterised your wounds must bleed; endure!
The man who wanted a prayer-mat
Once someone asked the Prophet to provide
A prayer-mat, and the best of men replied:
‘The desert’s arid sands are burning now.
Pray there; against the hot dust press your brow
And feel it sear your flesh; the wounded skin
Will be an emblem of the wound within.’
If no scar marks your heart, the countenance
Of love will pass you by without a glance;
But heart’s wounds show that on the battlefield
Your friends have found a man who will not yield.”
A bird asks how long the journey is, and the hoopoe describes the seven
valleys of the Way
Another bird said: “Hoopoe, you can find
The way from here, but we are almost blind —
The way seems full of terrors and despair.
Dear hoopoe, how much further till we’re there?”
“Before we reach our goal,” the hoopoe said,
“The journey’s seven valleys lie ahead;
How far this is the world has never learned,
For no one who has gone there has returned —
Impatient bird, who would retrace this trail?
There is no messenger to tell the tale,
And they are lost to our concerns below —
How can men tell you what they do not know?
The first stage is the Valley of the Quest;
Then Love’s wide valley is our second test;
The third is Insight into Mystery,
The fourth Detachment and Serenity —
The fifth is Unity; the sixth is Awe,
A deep Bewilderment unknown before,
The seventh Poverty and Nothingness —
And there you are suspended, motionless,
Till you are drawn — the impulse is not yours —
A drop absorbed in seas that have no shores.
The Valley of the Quest
When you begin the Valley of the Quest
Misfortunes will deprive you of all rest,
Each moment some new trouble terrifies,
And parrots there are panic-stricken flies.
There years must vanish while you strive and grieve;
There is the heart of all you will achieve —
Renounce the world, your power and all you own,
And in your heart’s blood journey on alone.
When once your hands are empty, then your heart
Must purify itself and move apart
From everything that is — when this is done,
The Lord’s light blazes brighter than the sun,
Your heart is bathed in splendour and the quest
Expands a thousandfold within your breast.
Though fire flares up across his path, and though
A hundred monsters peer out from its glow,
The pilgrim driven on by his desire
Will like a moth rush gladly on the fire.
When love inspires his heart he begs for wine,
One drop to be vouchsafed him as a sign —
And when he drinks this drop both worlds are gone;
Dry-lipped he founders in oblivion.
His zeal to know faith’s mysteries will make
Him fight with dragons for salvation’s sake —
Though blasphemy and curses crowd the gate,
Until it opens he will calmly wait,
And then where is this faith? this blasphemy?
Both vanish into strengthless vacancy.
Eblis* and God’s curse
God breathed the pure soul into Adam’s dust,
And as He did so said the angels must,
In sight of Adam, bow down to the ground
(God did not wish this secret to be found).
All bowed, and not one saw what God had done,
Except Eblis, who bowed himself to none.
He said: ‘Who notices if I don’t bow?
I don’t care if they cut my head off now;
I know this Adam’s more than dust — I’ll see
Why God has ordered all this secrecy.’
He hid himself and kept watch like a spy.
God said: ‘Come out — I see you peer and pry;
You know my treasure’s home and you must die.
The kings who hide a treasure execute
Their secret’s witnesses to keep them mute —
You saw the place, and shall the fact be spread
Through all the world? Prepare to lose your head!”
Eblis replied: “Lord, pity me; I crave
For mercy, Lord; have mercy on your slave.”
God answered him: “Well, I will mitigate
The rigour and the justice of your fate;
But round your neck will shine a ring to show
Your treachery to all the world below —
For fraudulence and guile you will be known
Until the world ends and the last trump’s blown.’
Eblis replied: ‘And what is that to me?
I saw the treasure and I now go free!
To curse belongs to You and to forgive,
All creatures of the world and how they live;
Curse on! This poison’s part of Your great scheme
And life is more than just an opium-dream.
All creatures seek throughout the universe
What will be mine for ever now — Your curse!’
Search for Him endlessly by day and night,
Till victory rewards your stubborn fight;
And if He seems elusive He is there —
Your search is incomplete; do not despair.
* The devil.
The death of Shebli
As Shebli’s death approached his eyes grew dim;
Wild torments of impatience troubled him —
But strangest was that round his waist he tied
A heathen’s belt,* and weeping sat beside
Heaped ash, with which he smeared his hair and head.
‘Why wait for death like this?’ a stranger said,
And Shebli cried: ‘What will become of me?
I melt, I burn with fevered jealousy,
And though I have renounced the universe
I covet what Ebli procured — God’s curse.’
So Shebli mourned, uncaring if his Lord
Gave other mortals this or that reward;
Bright jewels and stones are equal from His hand,
And if His gems are all that you demand,
Ours is a Way you cannot understand —
Think of the stones and jewels he gives as one;
They are not yours to hope for or to shun.
The stone your angry lover flings may hurt,
But others’ jewels compared with it are dirt.
Each moment of this quest a man must feel
His soul is spilt, and unremitting zeal
Should force him onward at whatever cost —
The man who pauses on our path is lost.
* The zonnar.
Majnoun searches for Leili
Once someone saw Majnoun, oppressed with pain,
Sifting the dusty highway grain by grain,
And asked, ‘What are you searching for, my friend?’
He cried: ‘My search for Leili has no end.’
The man protested: ‘Leili is a girl,
And dust will not conceal this precious pearl!’
Majnoun replied: ‘I search in every place;
Who knows where I may glimpse her lovely face?’
Yusef of Hamadan, a learnèd seer,
Once said: ‘Above, below, in every sphere,
Each atom is a Jacob fervently
Searching for Joseph through eternity.’
By pain and grief the pilgrim is perplexed
But struggles on through this world and the next —
And if the goal seems endlessly concealed,
Do not give up your quest; refuse to yield.
What patience must be theirs who undertake
The pilgrim’s journey for salvation’s sake!
Now, like a baby curled inside the womb,
Wait patiently within your narrow room;
Ignore the world — blood is your element;
Blood is the unborn child’s sole nourishment.*
What is the world but wretchedness and fear?
Endure, be steadfast till your time draws near.
* The comparison depends on a pun; to ‘feed on blood’ is to ‘suffer’.
Sheikh Mahna and the peasant
In deep despair Sheikh Mahna made his way
Across the empty desert wastes one day.
A peasant with a cow came into sight,
And from his body played a lambent light —
He hailed the man and started to narrate
The hopeless turmoil of his wretched state.
The old man heard, then said: ‘O Bou Sa’id,
Imagine someone piled up millet seed
From here to highest heaven’s unknown climes,
And then repeated this a hundred times;
And now imagine that a bird appears
And pecks one grain up every thousand years,
Then flies around the earth’s circumference
A hundred times — from heaven’s eminence
In all those years no sign would come to show
Sheikh Bou Sa’id the Truth he longs to know.’
Such is the patient that our pilgrims need,
And many start our quest, but few succeed;
Through pain and blood their journey lies — blood hides
The precious musk the hunted deer provides;
And he who does not seek is like a wall,
Dead, blank and bland, no living man at all;
He is, God pardon me, a walking skin,
A picture with no life or soul within.
If you discover in your quest a jewel,
Do not, like some delighted doting fool,
Gloat over it — search on, you’re not its slave;
It is not treasures by the way you crave.
To make an idol of the gems you find
Is to be drunk, to cloud the searching mind —
At this first glass your soul should not submit;
Seek out the wine-press of the infinite.
Shah Mahmoud and the sweeper
Shah Mahmoud rode without a guard one night.
A man who swept the streets came into sight,
Sifting through dust-heaps pile by filthy pile.
The king drew rein and with a gracious smile
Flung down his bracelet on the nearest heap;
Then like the wind he left the searching sweep.
Some later night the king returned and saw
The man engaged exactly as before.
He said: ‘I threw a bracelet on the ground;
You could redeem the world with what you found!
You could be like a king, a lord of men,
And yet I find you sifting dust again!’
The sweep replied: ‘The treasure that you gave
Made me a hidden, greater treasure’s slave —
I have perceived the door to wealth and I
Shall sift through dust-heaps till the day I die.’
Search for the Way! The door stands open, but
Your eyes that should perceive the door are shut!
Once someone cried to God: ‘Lord, let me see
The door between us opened unto me!’
And Rabe’eh said: ‘Fool to chatter so —
When has the door been closed, I’d like to know?’
The Valley of Love
Love’s valley is the next, and here desire
Will plunge the pilgrim into seas of fire,
Until his very being is enflamed
And those whom fire rejects turn back ashamed.
The lover is a man who flares and burns,
Whose face is fevered, who in frenzy yearns,
Who knows no prudence, who will gladly send
A hundred worlds toward their blazing end,
Who knows of neither faith nor blasphemy,
Who has no time for doubt or certainty,
To whom both good and evil are the same,
And who is neither, but a living flame.
But you! Lukewarm in all you say or do,
Backsliding, weak — O, no, this is not you!
True lovers give up everything they own
To steal one moment with the Friend alone —
They make no vague, procrastinating vow,
But risk their livelihood and risk it now.
Until their hearts are burnt, how can they flee
From their desire’s incessant misery?
They are the falcon when it flies distressed
In circles, searching for its absent nest —
They are the fish cast up upon the land
That seeks the sea and shudders on the sand.
Love here is fire; its thick smoke clouds the head —
When love has come the intellect has fled;
It cannot tutor love, and all its care
Supplies no remedy for love’s despair.
If you could seek the unseen you would find
Love’s home, which is not reason or the mind,
And love’s intoxication tumbles down
The world’s designs for glory and renown —
If you could penetrate their passing show
And see the world’s wild atoms, you would know
That reason’s eyes will never glimpse one spark
Of shining love to mitigate the dark.
Love leads whoever starts along our Way;
The noblest bow to love and must obey —
But you, unwilling both to love and tread
The pilgrim’s path, you might as well be dead!
The lover chafes, impatient to depart,
And longs to sacrifice his life and heart.
A lord who loved a beer-seller
Love led a lord through paths of misery.
He left his splendid house and family
And acted like a drunkard to be near
The boy he loved, who lived by selling beer —
He sold his house and slaves and all he had
To get the means to buy beer from this lad.
When everything was gone and he grew poor
His love grew stronger, more and then yet more —
Though food was given him by passers-by,
His endless hunger made him long to die
(Each morsel that he had would disappear,
Not to be eaten but exchanged for beer,
And he was happy to endure the pain,
Knowing that soon he could buy beer again).
When someone asked: ‘What is this love?’ he cried:
‘It is to sell the world and all its pride —
A hundred times — to buy one drop of beer.’
Such acts denote true love, and it is clear
That those who cannot match this devotee
Have no acquaintance with love’s misery.
Majnoun’s love for Leili
When Leili’s tribe refused Majnoun, he found
They would not let him near their camping-ground.
Distraught with love, he met a shepherd there
And asked him for a sheepskin he could wear,
And then, beneath the skin, began to creep
On hands and knees as if he were a sheep.
‘Now lead your flock,’ he cried, ‘past Leili’s tent;
It may be I shall catch her lovely scent
And hidden by this matted fleece receive
From untold misery one hour’s reprieve.’
And so Majnoun, disguised beneath the skin,
Drew near his love unnoticed by her kin —
Joy welled in him and in its wild excess
The frenzied lover lost all consciousness;
Love’s fire had dried the fluids of his brain —
He fainted and lay stretched out on the plain;
The shepherd bore him to a shaded place
And splashed cold water on his burning face.
Later, Majnoun was talking with some friends
When one said: ‘What a tattered fleece defends
Your body from the cold; but trust in me
I’ll bring you all you need immediately.’
Majnoun replied: ‘No garment’s worth of
Dear Leili, but I wear this skin for love —
I know how fortune favours me, and I
Burn rue to turn away the Evil eye.’
The fleece for him was silk and rare brocade;
With what else should a lover be arrayed?
I too have known love scent the passing air —
What other finer garment could I wear?
If you would scour yourself of each defect,
Let passion wean you from the intellect —
To leave such toys and sacrifice the soul
Is still the first small step towards our goal.
Begin, if you can set aside all shame —
To risk your life is not some childish game.
The beggar who fell in love with Ayaz
A better fell in love once with Ayaz —
The news soon spread through markets and bazaars,
And when he rode about the gaping town
There was the beggar running up and down;
Or if Ayaz once halted in the square,
His eyes would meet the beggar’s hungry stare.
But someone gossiped to Mahmoud, who went
To try and apprehend the miscreant —
Ayaz rode out; Mahmoud was horrified
To see the beggar running at his side,
And from his hiding-place the monarch saw
The beggar’s face, wasted like yellow straw,
His back bent like a polo-mallet’s curve —
From side to side he watched him duck and swerve,
As if he had no self-control at all
But moved when hit just like a polo-ball.
He summoned him, then said: ‘And so you thought
A beggar could be equal to the court?’
The man replied: ‘In matters of desire,
A beggar is his monarch’s equal, sire —
You cannot sunder love from pauper’s rags;
They’re like a rich man and his money bags —
And poverty in love resembles salt:
It gives love taste; you can’t call that a fault!
You have the world and love your sovereignty —
You should leave passion to the likes of me!
Your love is with you; you need never know
The pains of absence love should undergo.
O, you are proud to have him, but love’s trial
Would come if you should lose him for a while.’
The king said: ‘You are ignorant, that’s all —
Staring as if he were a polo-ball!’
‘It’s me who is the ball,’ the man replied;
‘Look — both of us are struck from side to side;
Each shares the other’s pain, each feels the force
Of Ayaz when he rides by on his horse —
We’re both bewildered by his mallet’s blows,
And where we’re going neither of us knows.
But if we share the same predicament
And seem in grief to be equivalent,
Yet still the ball does more than I can do
And sometimes gets to kiss his horse’s shoe.
Though both are hurt, mine is the grimmer part —
Its skin is scarred, my scars are in my heart.
Ayaz pursues the ball he hits — but I
In unregarded agony must sigh;
The ball will sometimes land at Ayaz’ feet,
But when shall Ayaz and a beggar meet?
The ball will know the scent of victory
But all such joys have been denied to me!’
The king cried: ‘You may boast that you are poor,
But where’s your witness? How can I be sure?’
‘I don’t belong here, sire,’ the beggar said,
‘But I’m not poor and you have been misled;
You want a witness — if I sacrifice
My living soul for love, will that suffice?
O Mahmoud, love like yours is meaningless;
Die if you want to boast of your distress!’
Then, in the silence after he replied,
He sank at his belovèd’s feet and died —
And when he saw the lifeless body there
The world was darkened by Mahmoud’s despair.
Prepare to risk your being while you live,
And know the glory sacrifice will give —
If you are summoned by that distant call,
Pursue the fading sound until you fall;
And as you fall the news you longed to find
Will break at last on your bewildered mind.
The Arab in Persia
Through Persia once an Arab took his way,
Where foreign customs filled him with dismay —
He met a group of dervishes, who had
Renounced the world and seemed to him quite mad
(But don’t be fooled — if they seem filthy thieves
They are far purer than the world believes,
And though in drunkenness they seem to sink
The ecstasy they know is not from drink).
The Arab saw these men; without a sound
He fainted and lay stretched out on the ground —
They quickly splashed his face to bring him round
And then cried: ‘Enter, no-one, enter here!’
And in he went, though torn by doubt and fear.
They made him drunk, he lost himself, and soon
His mind had foundered in a vacant swoon;
His gold, his jewels, his very livelihood
Were stolen there and disappeared for good —
A dervish gave him more to drink, and then
They pushed him naked out of doors again.
Dry-lipped and poor the man was forced to roam,
A naked beggar, till he reached his home,
And there the Arabs said: ‘But what’s gone wrong?
Where is your wealth, where have you been so long?
Your gold and silver’s gone, what can you do?
This Persian expedition’s ruined you!
Did thieves attack you? You don’t say a word —
You seem so different; tell us what occurred.’
He said: ‘I went as usual — full of pride —
Then saw a dervish by the highway’s side.
But then what happened next I can’t be sure;
My gold and silver went and now I’m poor!’
They said: ‘Describe this man who blocked your way.’
He said: ‘I have, there’s nothing more to say.’
His mind was still elsewhere and all he heard
Seemed idle chatter, empty and absurd.
Enter the Way or seek some other goal,
But do so to the utmost of your soul;
Risk all, and as a naked Beggar roam
If you would hear that ‘Enter’ call you home.

Fitzgerald

Farid ud-Din Attar:

Bird Parliament
English transl. by Edward FitzGerald


Once on a time from all the Circles seven 1
Between the stedfast Earth and rolling Heaven
THE BIRDS, of all Note, Plumage, and Degree,
That float in Air, and roost upon the Tree;
And they that from the Waters snatch their Meat,
And they that scour the Desert with long Feet;
Birds of all Natures, known or not to Man,
Flock’d from all Quarters into full Divan,
On no less solemn business than to find
Or choose, a Sultan Khalif of their kind, 10
For whom, if never theirs, or lost, they pined.
The Snake had his, ’twas said; and so the Beast
His Lion-lord: and Man had his, at least:
And that the Birds, who nearest were the Skies,
And went apparell’d in its Angel Dyes.
Should be without—under no better Law
Than that which lost all other in the Maw—
Disperst without a Bond of Union—nay,
Or meeting to make each the other’s Prey—
This was the Grievance—this the solemn Thing 20
On which the scatter’d Commonwealth of Wing,
From all the four Winds, flying like to Cloud
That met and blacken’d Heav’n, and Thunder-loud
With Sound of whirring Wings and Beaks that clash’d
Down like a Torrent on the Desert dash’d:
Till by Degrees, the Hubbub and Pell-mell
Into some Order and Precedence fell,
And, Proclamation made of Silence, each
In special Accent, but in general Speech
That all should understand, as seem’d him best, 30
The Congregation of all Wings addrest.

And first, with Heart so full as from his Eyes
Ran weeping, up rose Tajidar the Wise;
The mystic Mark upon whose Bosom show’d
That He alone of all the Birds THE ROAD
Had travell’d: and the Crown upon his Head
Had reach’d the Goal; and He stood forth and said:

‘O Birds, by what Authority divine
I speak you know by His authentic Sign,
And Name, emblazon’d on my Breast and Bill: 40
Whose Counsel I assist at, and fulfil:
At His Behest I measured as he plann’d
The Spaces of the Air and Sea and Land;
I gauged the secret sources of the Springs
From Cloud to Fish: the Shadow of my Wings
Dream’d over sleeping Deluge: piloted
The Blast that bore Sulayman’s Throne: and led
The Cloud of Birds that canopied his Head;
Whose Word I brought to Balkis: and I shared
The Counsel that with Asaf he prepared. 50
And now you want a Khalif: and I know
Him, and his whereabout, and How to go:
And go alone I could, and plead your cause
Alone for all: but, by the eternal laws,
Yourselves by Toil and Travel of your own
Must for your old Delinquency atone.
Were you indeed not blinded by the Curse
Of Self-exile, that still grows worse and worse,
Yourselves would know that, though you see him not,
He is with you this Moment, on this Spot, 60
Your Lord through all Forgetfulness and Crime,
Here, There, and Everywhere, and through all Time.
But as a Father, whom some wayward Child
By sinful Self-will has unreconciled,
Waits till the sullen Reprobate at cost
Of long Repentance should regain the Lost;
Therefore, yourselves to see as you are seen,
Yourselves must bridge the Gulf you made between
By such a Search and Travel to be gone
Up to the mighty mountain Kaf, whereon 70
Hinges the World, and round about whose Knees
Into one Ocean mingle the Sev’n Seas;
In whose impenetrable Forest-folds
Of Light and Dark “Symurgh” his Presence holds;
Not to be reach’d, if to be reach’d at all
But by a Road the stoutest might apal;
Of Travel not of Days or Months, but Years—
Life-long perhaps: of Dangers, Doubts, and Fears
As yet unheard of: Sweat of Blood and Brain
Interminable—often all in vain—80
And, if successful, no Return again:
A Road whose very Preparation scared
The Traveller who yet must be prepared.
Who then this Travel to Result would bring
Needs both a Lion’s Heart beneath the Wing,
And even more, a Spirit purified
Of Worldly Passion, Malice, Lust, and Pride:
Yea, ev’n of Worldly Wisdom, which grows dim
And dark, the nearer it approaches Him,
Who to the Spirit’s Eye alone reveal’d, 90
By sacrifice of Wisdom’s self unseal’d;
Without which none who reach the Place could bear
To look upon the Glory dwelling there.’

One Night from out the swarming City Gate
Stept holy Bajazyd, to meditate
Alone amid the breathing Fields that lay
In solitary Silence leagues away,
Beneath a Moon and Stars as bright as Day.
And the Saint wondering such a Temple were,
And so lit up, and scarce one worshipper, 100
A voice from Heav’n amid the stillness said:
‘The Royal Road is not for all to tread,
Nor is the Royal Palace for the Rout,
Who, even if they reach it, are shut out.
The Blaze that from my Harim window breaks
With fright the Rabble of the Roadside takes;
And ev’n of those that at my Portal din,
Thousands may knock for one that enters in.’

Thus spoke the Tajidar: and the wing’d Crowd,
That underneath his Word in Silence bow’d, 110
Clapp’d Acclamation: and their Hearts and Eyes
Were kindled by the Firebrand of the Wise.
They felt their Degradation: they believed
The word that told them how to be retrieved,
And in that glorious Consummation won
Forgot the Cost at which it must be done.
‘They only long’d to follow: they would go
Whither he led, through Flood, or Fire, or Snow’—
So cried the Multitude. But some there were
Who listen’d with a cold disdainful air, 120
Content with what they were, or grudging Cost
Of Time or Travel that might all be lost;
These, one by one, came forward, and preferr’d
Unwise Objection: which the wiser Word
Shot with direct Reproof, or subtly round
With Argument and Allegory wound.

The Pheasant first would know by what pretence
The Tajidar to that pre-eminence
Was raised—a Bird, but for his lofty Crest
(And such the Pheasant had) like all the Rest—130
Who answer’d—’By no Virtue of my own
Sulayman chose me, but by His alone:
Not by the Gold and Silver of my Sighs
Made mine, but the free Largess of his Eyes.
Behold the Grace of Allah comes and goes
As to Itself is good: and no one knows
Which way it turns: in that mysterious Court
Not he most finds who furthest travels for’t.
For one may crawl upon his knees Life-long,
And yet may never reach, or all go wrong: 140
Another just arriving at the Place
He toil’d for, and—the Door shut in his Face:
Whereas Another, scarcely gone a Stride,
And suddenly—Behold he is Inside!—
But though the Runner win not, he that stands,
No Thorn will turn to Roses in his Hands:
Each one must do his best and all endure,
And all endeavour, hoping but not sure.
Heav’n its own Umpire is; its Bidding do,
And Thou perchance shalt be Sulayman’s too.’ 150

One day Shah Mahmud, riding with the Wind
A-hunting, left his Retinue behind,
And coming to a River, whose swift Course
Doubled back Game and Dog, and Man and Horse,
Beheld upon the Shore a little Lad
A-fishing, very poor, and Tatter-clad
He was, and weeping as his Heart would break.
So the Great Sultan, for good humour’s sake
Pull’d in his Horse a moment, and drew nigh,
And after making his Salam, ask’d why 160
He wept—weeping, the Sultan said, so sore
As he had never seen one weep before.
The Boy look’d up, and ‘O Amir,’ he said,
‘Sev’n of us are at home, and Father dead,
And Mother left with scarce a Bit of Bread:
And now since Sunrise have I fish’d—and see!
Caught nothing for our Supper—Woe is Me!’
The Sultan lighted from his horse. ‘Behold,’
Said he, ‘Good Fortune will not be controll’d:
And, since Today yours seems to turn from you, 170
Suppose we try for once what mine will do,
And we will share alike in all I win.’
So the Shah took, and flung his Fortune in,
The Net; which, cast by the Great Mahmud’s Hand,
A hundred glittering Fishes brought to Land.
The Lad look’d up in Wonder—Mahmud smiled
And vaulted into Saddle. But the Child
Ran after—’Nay, Amir, but half the Haul
Is yours by Bargain’—’Nay, Today take all,’
The Sultan cried, and shook his Bridle free—180
‘But mind—Tomorrow All belongs to Me—’
And so rode off. Next morning at Divan
The Sultan’s Mind upon his Bargain ran,
And being somewhat in a mind for sport
Sent for the Lad: who, carried up to Court,
And marching into Royalty’s full Blaze
With such a Catch of Fish as yesterday’s,
The Sultan call’d and set him by his side,
And asking him, ‘What Luck?’ The Boy replied,
This is the Luck that follows every Cast, 190
Since o’er my Net the Sultan’s Shadow pass’d.’

Then came The Nightingale, from such a Draught
Of Ecstasy that from the Rose he quaff’d
Reeling as drunk, and ever did distil
In exquisite divisions from his Bill
To inflame the Hearts of Men—and thus sang He—
‘To me alone, alone, is giv’n the Key
Of Love; of whose whole Mystery possesst,
When I reveal a little to the Rest,
Forthwith Creation listening forsakes 200
The Reins of Reason, and my Frenzy takes:
Yea, whosoever once has quaint this wine
He leaves unlisten’d David’s Song for mine.
In vain do Men for my Divisions strive,
And die themselves making dead Lutes alive:
I hang the Stars with Meshes for Men’s Souls:
The Garden underneath my Music rolls.
The long, long Morns that mourn the Rose away
I sit in silence, and on Anguish prey:
But the first Air which the New Year shall breathe 210
Up to my Boughs of Message from beneath
That in her green Harim my Bride unveils,
My Throat bursts silence and her Advent hails,
Who in her crimson Volume registers
The Notes of Him whose Life is lost in hers.
The Rose I love and worship now is here;
If dying, yet reviving, Year by Year;
But that you tell of, all my Life why waste
In vainly searching; or, if found, not taste?’

So with Division infinite and Trill 220
On would the Nightingale have warbled still,
And all the World have listen’d; but a Note
Of sterner Import check’d the lovesick Throat.

‘O watering with thy melodious Tears
Love’s Garden, and who dost indeed the Ears
Of men with thy melodious Fingers mould
As David’s Finger Iron did of old:
Why not, like David, dedicate thy Dower
Of Song to something better than a Flower?
Empress indeed of Beauty, so they say, 230
But one whose Empire hardly lasts a Day,
By Insurrection of the Morning’s Breath
That made her hurried to Decay and Death:
And while she lasts contented to be seen,
And worshipt, for the Garden’s only Queen,
Leaving thee singing on thy Bough forlorn,
Or if she smile on Thee, perhaps in Scorn.’

Like that fond Dervish waiting in the throng
When some World-famous Beauty went along,
Who smiling on the Antic as she pass’d—240
Forthwith Staff, Bead and Scrip away he cast,
And grovelling in the Kennel, took to whine
Before her Door among the Dogs and Swine.
Which when she often went unheeding by,
But one day quite as heedless ask’d him—’Why?’—
He told of that one Smile, which, all the Rest
Passing, had kindled Hope within his Breast—
Again she smiled and said, ‘O self-beguiled
Poor Wretch, at whom and not on whom I smiled.’

Then came the subtle Parrot in a coat 250
Greener than Greensward, and about his Throat
A Collar ran of sub-sulphureous Gold;
And in his Beak a Sugar-plum he troll’d,
That all his Words with luscious Lisping ran,
And to this Tune—’O cruel Cage, and Man
More iron still who did confine me there,
Who else with him whose Livery I wear
Ere this to his Eternal Fount had been,
And drunk what should have kept me ever-green.
But now I know the Place, and I am free 260
To go, and all the Wise will follow Me.
Some’—and upon the Nightingale one Eye
He leer’d—’for nothing but the Blossom sigh:
But I am for the luscious Pulp that grows
Where, and for which the Blossom only blows:
And which so long as the Green Tree provides
What better grows along Kaf’s dreary Sides?
And what more needful Prophet there than He
Who gives me Life to nip it from the Tree?’

To whom the Tajidar—’O thou whose Best 270
In the green leaf of Paradise is drest,
But whose Neck kindles with a lower Fire—
O slip the collar off of base Desire,
And stand apparell’d in Heav’n’s Woof entire!
This Life that hangs so sweet about your Lips
But, spite of all your Khizar, slips and slips,
What is it but itself the coarser Rind
Of the True Life withinside and behind,
Which he shall never never reach unto
Till the gross Shell of Carcase he break through?’ 280

For what said He, that dying Hermit, whom
Your Prophet came to, trailing through the Gloom
His Emerald Vest, and tempted—’Come with Me,
And Live.’ The Hermit answered—’Not with Thee.
Two Worlds there are, and This was thy Design,
And thou hast got it; but The Next is mine;
Whose Fount is this life’s Death, and to whose Side
Ev’n now I find my Way without a Guide.’

Then like a Sultan glittering in all Rays
Of Jewelry, and deckt with his own Blaze, 290
The glorious Peacock swept into the Ring:
And, turning slowly that the glorious Thing
Might fill all Eyes with wonder, thus said He.
‘Behold, the Secret Artist, making me,
With no one Colour of the skies bedeckt,
But from its Angel’s Feathers did select
To make up mine withal, the Gabriel
Of all the Birds: though from my Place I fell
In Eden, when Acquaintance I did make
In those blest days with that Sev’n-headed Snake, 300
And thence with him, my perfect Beauty marr’d
With these ill Feet, was thrust out and debarr’d.
Little I care for Worldly Fruit or Flower,
Would you restore me to lost Eden’s Bower,
But first my Beauty making all complete
With reparation of these ugly Feet.’

‘Were it,’ ’twas answer’d, ‘only to return
To that lost Eden, better far to burn
In Self-abasement up thy pluméd Pride,
And ev’n with lamer feet to creep inside—310
But all mistaken you and all like you
That long for that lost Eden as the true;
Fair as it was, still nothing but the shade
And Out-court of the Majesty that made.
That which I point you tow’rd, and which the King
I tell you of broods over with his Wing,
With no deciduous leaf, but with the Rose
Of Spiritual Beauty, smells and glows:
No plot of Earthly Pleasance, but the whole
True Garden of the Universal Soul.’ 320

For so Creation’s Master-Jewel fell
From that same Eden: loving which too well,
The Work before the Artist did prefer,
And in the Garden lost the Gardener.
Wherefore one Day about the Garden went
A voice that found him in his false Content,
And like a bitter Sarsar of the North
Shrivell’d the Garden up, and drove him forth
Into the Wilderness: and so the Eye
Of Eden closed on him till by and by. 330

Then from a Ruin where conceal’d he lay
Watching his buried Gold, and hating Day,
Hooted The Owl.—’I tell you, my Delight
Is in the Ruin and the Dead of Night
Where I was born, and where I love to wone
All my Life long, sitting on some cold stone
Away from all your roystering Companies,
In some dark Corner where a Treasure lies;
That, buried by some Miser in the Dark,
Speaks up to me at Midnight like a Spark; 340
And o’er it like a Talisman I brood,
Companion of the Serpent and the Toad.
What need of other Sovereign, having found,
And keeping as in Prison underground,
One before whom all other Kings bow down,
And with his glittering Heel their Foreheads crown?’

‘He that a Miser lives and Miser dies,
At the Last Day what Figure shall he rise?’

A Fellow all his life lived hoarding Gold,
And, dying, hoarded left it. And behold, 350
One Night his Son saw peering through the House
A Man, with yet the semblance of a Mouse,
Watching a crevice in the Wall—and cried
‘My Father?’—’Yes,’ the Musulman replied,
‘Thy Father!’—’But why watching thus?’—’For fear
Lest any smell my Treasure buried here.’
‘But wherefore, Sir, so metamousified?’
‘Because, my Son, such is the true outside
Of the inner Soul by which I lived and died.’

‘Aye,’ said The Partridge, with his Foot and Bill 360
Crimson with raking Rubies from the Hill,
And clattering his Spurs—’Wherewith the Ground
I stab,’ said he, ‘for Rubies, that, when found
I swallow; which, as soon as swallow’d, turn
To Sparks which though my beak and eyes do burn.
Gold, as you say, is but dull Metal dead,
And hanging on the Hoarder’s Soul like Lead:
But Rubies that have Blood within, and grown
And nourisht in the Mountain Heart of Stone,
Burn with an inward Light, which they inspire, 370
And make their Owners Lords of their Desire.’

To whom the Tajidar—’As idly sold
To the quick Pebble as the drowsy Gold,
As dead when sleeping in their mountain mine
As dangerous to Him who makes them shine:
Slavish indeed to do their Lord’s Commands,
And slave-like aptest to escape his Hands,
And serve a second Master like the first,
And working all their wonders for the worst.’

Never was Jewel after or before 380
Like that Sulayman for a Signet wore:
Whereby one Ruby, weighing scarce a grain
Did Sea and Land and all therein constrain,
Yea, ev’n the Winds of Heav’n—made the fierce East
Bear his League-wide Pavilion like a Beast,
Whither he would: yea, the Good Angel held
His subject, and the lower Fiend compell’d.
Till, looking round about him in his pride,
He overtax’d the Fountain that supplied,
Praying that after him no Son of Clay 390
Should ever touch his Glory. And one Day
Almighty God his Jewel stole away,
And gave it to the Div, who with the Ring
Wore also the Resemblance of the King,
And so for forty days play’d such a Game
As blots Sulayman’s forty years with Shame.

Then The Shah-Falcon, tossing up his Head
Blink-hooded as it was—’Behold,’ he said,
‘I am the chosen Comrade of the King,
And perch upon the Fist that wears the Ring; 400
Born, bred, and nourisht, in the Royal Court,
I take the Royal Name and make the Sport.
And if strict Discipline I undergo
And half my Life am blinded—be it so;
Because the Shah’s Companion ill may brook
On aught save Royal Company to look.
And why am Ito leave my King, and fare
With all these Rabble Wings I know not where?’—

‘O blind indeed’—the Answer was, ‘and dark
To any but a vulgar Mortal Mark, 410
And drunk with Pride of Vassalage to those
Whose Humour like their Kingdom comes and goes;
All Mutability: who one Day please
To give: and next Day what they gave not seize:
Like to the Fire: a dangerous Friend at best,
Which who keeps farthest from does wiseliest.

A certain Shah there was in Days foregone
Who had a lovely Slave he doted on,
And cherish’d as the Apple of his Eye,
Clad gloriously, fed sumptuously, set high, 420
And never was at Ease were He not by,
Who yet, for all this Sunshine, Day by Day
Was seen to wither like a Flower away.
Which, when observing, one without the Veil
Of Favour ask’d the Favourite—’Why so pale
And sad?’ thus sadly answer’d the poor Thing—
‘No Sun that rises sets until the King,
Whose Archery is famous among Men,
Aims at an Apple on my Head. and when
The stricken Apple splits. and those who stand 430
Around cry “Lo! the Shah’s unerring Hand!”
Then He too laughing asks me “Why so pale
And sorrow-some? as could the Sultan fail,
Who such a master of the Bow confest,
And aiming by the Head that he loves best.”‘

Then on a sudden swoop’d The Phoenix down
As though he wore as well as gave The Crown:
And cried—’I care not, I, to wait on Kings,
Whose crowns are but the Shadow of my Wings!’

‘Aye,’ was the Answer—’And, pray, how has sped, 440
On which it lighted, many a mortal Head?’

A certain Sultan dying, his Vizier
In Dream beheld him, and in mortal Fear
Began—’O mighty Shah of Shahs! Thrice-blest’—
But loud the Vision shriek’d and struck its Breast,
And ‘Stab me not with empty Title!’ cried—
‘One only Shah there is, and none beside,
Who from his Throne above for certain Ends
Awhile some Spangle of his Glory lends
To Men on Earth; but calling in again 450
Exacts a strict account of every Grain.
Sultan I lived, and held the World in scorn:
O better had I glean’d the Field of Corn!
O better had I been a Beggar born,
And for my Throne and Crown, down in the Dust
My living Head had laid where Dead I must!
O wither’d, wither’d, wither’d, be the Wing
Whose overcasting Shadow made me King!’

Then from a Pond, where all day long he kept,
Waddled the dapper Duck demure, adept 460
At infinite Ablution, and precise
In keeping of his Raiment clean and nice.
And ‘Sure of all the Race of Birds,’ said He,
‘None for Religious Purity like Me,
Beyond what strictest Rituals prescribe—
Methinks I am the Saint of all our Tribe,
To whom, by Miracle, the Water, that
I wash in, also makes my Praying-Mat.’

To whom, more angrily than all, replied
The Leader, lashing that religious Pride, 470
That under ritual Obedience
To outer Law with inner might dispense:
For, fair as all the Feather to be seen,
Could one see through, the Maw was not so clean:
But He that made both Maw and Feather too
Would take account of, seeing through and through.

A Shah returning to his Capital,
His subjects drest it forth in Festival,
Thronging with Acclamation Square and Street,
And kneeling flung before his Horse’s feet 480
Jewel and Gold. All which with scarce an Eye
The Sultan superciliously rode by:
Till coming to the public Prison, They
Who dwelt within those grisly Walls, by way
Of Welcome, having neither Pearl nor Gold,
Over the wall chopt Head and Carcase roll’d,
Some almost parcht to Mummy with the Sun,
Some wet with Execution that day done.
At which grim Compliment at last the Shah
Drew Bridle: and amid a wild Hurrah 490
Of savage Recognition, smiling threw
Silver and Gold among the wretched Crew,
And so rode forward. Whereat of his Train
One wondering that, while others sued in vain
With costly gifts, which carelessly he pass’d,
But smiled at ghastly Welcome like the last;
The Shah made answer—’All that Pearl and Gold
Of ostentatious Welcome only told:
A little with great Clamour from the Store
Of hypocrites who kept at home much more. 500
But when those sever’d Heads and Trunks I saw—
Save by strict Execution of my Law
They had not parted company; not one
But told my Will not talk’d about, but done.’

Then from a Wood was heard unseen to coo
The Ring-dove—’Yúsuf! Yúsuf! Yúsuf! Yú-‘
(For thus her sorrow broke her Note in twain,
And, just where broken, took it up again)
‘-suf! Yúsuf! Yúsuf! Yúsuf!’—But one Note,
Which still repeating, she made hoarse her throat: 510

Till checkt—’O You, who with your idle Sighs
Block up the Road of better Enterprise;
Sham Sorrow all, or bad as sham if true,
When once the better thing is come to do;
Beware lest wailing thus you meet his Doom
Who all too long his Darling wept, from whom
You draw the very Name you hold so dear,
And which the World is somewhat tired to hear.’

When Yusuf from his Father’s Home was torn,
The Patriarch’s Heart was utterly forlorn, 520
And, like a Pipe with but one stop, his Tongue
With nothing but the name of ‘Yusuf’ rung.
Then down from Heaven’s Branches flew the Bird
Of Heav’n
and said ‘God wearies of that word:
Hast thou not else to do and else to say?’
So Jacob’s lips were sealéd from that Day.
But one Night in a Vision, far away
His darling in some alien Field he saw
Binding the Sheaf; and what between the Awe
Of God’s Displeasure and the bitter Pass 530
Of passionate Affection, sigh’d ‘Alas—’
And stopp’d—But with the morning Sword of Flame
That oped his Eyes the sterner Angel’s came
‘For the forbidden Word not utter’d by
Thy Lips was yet sequester’d in that Sigh.’
And the right Passion whose Excess was wrong
Blinded the aged Eyes that wept too long.

And after these came others—arguing,
Enquiring and excusing—some one Thing,
And some another—endless to repeat, 540
But, in the Main, Sloth, Folly, or Deceit.
Their Souls were to the vulgar Figure cast
Of earthly Victual not of Heavenly Fast.
At last one smaller Bird, of a rare kind,
Of modest Plume and unpresumptuous Mind,
Whisper’d ‘O Tajidar, we know indeed
How Thou both knowest, and would’st help our Need;
For thou art wise and holy, and hast been
Behind the Veil, and there The Presence seen.
But we are weak and vain, with little care 550
Beyond our yearly Nests and daily Fare—
How should we reach the Mountain? and if there
How get so great a Prince to hear our Prayer?
For there, you say, dwells The Symurgh alone
In Glory, like Sulayman on his Throne,
And we but Pismires at his feet: can He
Such puny Creatures stoop to hear, or see;
Or hearing, seeing, own us—unakin
As He to Folly, Woe, and Death, and Sin?’—

To whom the Tajidar, whose Voice for those 560
Bewilder’d ones to full Compassion rose
‘O lost so long in exile, you disclaim
The very Fount of Being whence you came,
Cannot be parted from, and, will or no,
Whether for Good or Evil must re-flow!
For look—the Shadows into which the Light
Of his pure Essence down by infinite
Gradation dwindles, which at random play
Through Space in Shape indefinite—one Ray
Of his Creative Will into defined 570
Creation quickens: We that swim the Wind,
And they the Flood below, and Man and Beast
That walk between, from Lion to the least
Pismire that creeps along Sulayman’s Wall—
Yea, that in which they swim, fly, walk, and crawl—
However near the Fountain Light, or far
Removed, yet His authentic Shadows are;
Dead Matter’s Self but the dark Residue
Exterminating Glory dwindles to.
A Mystery too fearful in the Crowd 580
To utter—scarcely to Thyself aloud—
But when in solitary Watch and Prayer
Consider’d: and religiously beware
Lest Thou the Copy with the Type confound;
And Deity, with Deity indrown’d,—
For as pure Water into purer Wine
Incorporating shall itself reline
While the dull Drug lies half-resolved below,
With Him and with his Shadows is it so:
The baser Forms, to whatsoever Change 590
Subject, still vary through their lower Range:
To which the higher even shall decay,
That, letting ooze their better Part away
For Things of Sense and Matter, in the End
Shall merge into the Clay to which they tend.
Unlike to him, who straining through the Bond
Of outward Being for a Life beyond,
While the gross Worldling to his Centre clings,
That draws him deeper in, exulting springs
To merge him in the central Soul of Things. 600
And shall not he pass home with other Zest
Who, with full Knowledge, yearns for such a Rest,
Than he, who with his better self at strife,
Drags on the weary Exile call’d This Life?—
One, like a child with outstretcht Arms and Face
Upturn’d, anticipates his Sire’s Embrace;
The other crouching like a guilty Slave
Till flogg’d to Punishment across the Grave.
And, knowing that His glory ill can bear
The unpurged Eye; do thou Thy Breast prepare: 610
And the mysterious Mirror He set there,
To temper his reflected Image in,
Clear of Distortion, Doubleness, and Sin:
And in thy Conscience understanding this,
The Double only seems, but The One is,
Thyself to Self-annihilation give
That this false Two in that true One may live.
For this I say: if, looking in thy Heart,
Thou for Self-whole mistake thy Shadow-part,
That Shadow-part indeed into The Sun 620
Shall melt, but senseless of its Union:
But in that Mirror if with purged eyes
Thy Shadow Thou for Shadow recognise,
Then shalt Thou back into thy Centre fall
A conscious Ray of that eternal All.’

He ceased, and for awhile Amazement quell’d
The Host, and in the Chain of Silence held:
A Mystery so awful who would dare—
So glorious who would not wish—to share?
So Silence brooded on the feather’d Folk, 630
Till here and there a timid Murmur broke
From some too poor in honest Confidence,
And then from others of too much Pretence;
Whom both, as each unduly hoped or fear’d,
The Tajidar in answer check’d or cheer’d.

Some said their Hearts were good indeed to go
The Way he pointed out: but they were slow
Of Comprehension, and scarce understood
Their present Evil or the promised Good:
And so, tho’ willing to do all they could, 640
Must not they fall short, or go wholly wrong,
On such mysterious Errand, and so long?
Whom the wise Leader bid but Do their Best
In Hope and Faith, and leave to Him the rest,
For He who fix’d the Race, and knew its Length
And Danger, also knew the Runner’s Strength.

Shah Mahmud, absent on an Enterprise,
Ayas, the very Darling of his eyes,
At home under an Evil Eye fell sick,
Then cried the Sultan to a soldier ‘Quick! 650
To Horse! to Horse! without a Moment’s Stay,—
The shortest Road with all the Speed you may,—
Or, by the Lord, your Head shall pay for it!’—
Off went the Soldier, plying Spur and Bit—
Over the sandy Desert, over green
Valley, and Mountain, and the Stream between,
Without a Moment’s Stop for rest or bait,
Up to the City—to the Palace Gate—
Up to the Presence-Chamber at a Stride—
And Lo! The Sultan at his Darling’s side!—660
Then thought the Soldier—’I have done my Best,
And yet shall die for it.’ The Sultan guess’d
His Thought and smiled. ‘Indeed your Best you did,
The nearest Road you knew, and well you rid:
And if I knew a shorter, my Excess
Of Knowledge does but justify thy Less.’

And then, with drooping Crest and Feather, came
Others, bow’d down with Penitence and Shame.
They long’d indeed to go; ‘but how begin,
Mesh’d and entangled as they were in Sin 670
Which often-times Repentance of past Wrong
As often broken had but knit more strong?’
Whom the wise Leader bid be of good cheer,
And, conscious of the Fault, dismiss the Fear,
Nor at the very Entrance of the Fray
Their Weapon, ev’n if broken, fling away:
Since Mercy on the broken Branch anew
Would blossom were but each Repentance true.

For did not God his Prophet take to Task?
‘Sev’n-times of Thee did Karun Pardon ask; 680
Which, hadst thou been like Me his Maker—yea,
But present at the Kneading of his Clay
With those twain Elements of Hell and Heav’n,—
One prayer had won what Thou deny’st to Sev’n.’

For like a Child sent with a fluttering Light
To feel his way along a gusty Night
Man walks the World: again and yet again
The Lamp shall be by Fits of Passion slain:
But shall not He who sent him from the Door
Relight the Lamp once more, and yet once more? 690

When the rebellious Host from Death shall wake
Black with Despair of Judgment, God shall take
Ages of holy Merit from the Count
Of Angels to make up Man’s short Amount,
And bid the murmuring Angel gladly spare
Of that which, undiminishing his Share,
Of Bliss, shall rescue Thousands from the Cost
Of Bankruptcy within the Prison lost.

Another Story told how in the Scale
Good Will beyond mere Knowledge would prevail. 700

In Paradise the Angel Gabriel heard
The Lips of Allah trembling with the Word
Of perfect Acceptation: and he thought
‘Some perfect Faith such perfect Answer wrought,
But whose?’—And therewith slipping from the Crypt
Of Sidra, through the Angel-ranks he slipt
Watching what Lip yet trembled with the Shot
That so had hit the Mark—but found it not.
Then, in a Glance to Earth, he threaded through
Mosque, Palace, Cell and Cottage of the True 710
Belief—in vain; so back to Heaven went
And—Allah’s Lips still trembling with assent!
Then the tenacious Angel once again
Threaded the Ranks of Heav’n and Earth—in vain—
Till, once again return’d to Paradise,
There, looking into God’s, the Angel’s Eyes
Beheld the Prayer that brought that Benison
Rising like Incense from the Lips of one
Who to an Idol bowed—as best he knew
Under that False God worshipping the True. 720

And then came others whom the summons found
Not wholly sick indeed, but far from sound:
Whose light inconstant Soul alternate flew
From Saint to Sinner, and to both untrue;
Who like a niggard Tailor, tried to match
Truth’s single Garment with a worldly Patch.
A dangerous Game; for, striving to adjust
The hesitating Scale of either Lust,
That which had least within it upward flew,
And still the weightier to the Earth down drew, 730
And, while suspended between Rise and Fall,
Apt with a shaking Hand to forfeit all.

There was a Queen of Egypt like the Bride
Of Night, Full-moon-faced and Canopus-eyed,
Whom one among the meanest of her Crowd
Loved—and she knew it (for he loved aloud),
And sent for him, and said ‘Thou lov’st thy Queen:
Now therefore Thou hast this to choose between:
Fly for thy Life: or for this one night Wed
Thy Queen, and with the Sunrise lose thy Head.’ 740
He paused—he turn’d to fly—she struck him dead.
‘For had he truly loved his Queen,’ said She,
‘He would at once have giv’n his Life for me,
And Life and Wife had carried: but he lied;
And loving only Life, has justly died.’

And then came one who having clear’d his Throat
With sanctimonious Sweetness in his Note
Thus lisp’d—’Behold I languish from the first
With passionate and unrequited Thirst
Of Love for more than any mortal Bird. 750
Therefore have I withdrawn me from the Herd
To pine in Solitude. But Thou at last
Hast drawn a line across the dreary Past,
And sure I am by Foretaste that the Wine
I long’d for, and Thou tell’st of, shall be mine.’

But he was sternly checkt. ‘I tell thee this:
Such Boast is no Assurance of such Bliss:
Thou canst not even fill the sail of Prayer
Unless from Him breathe that authentic Air
That shall lift up the Curtain that divides 760
His Lover from the Harim where He hides—
And the Fulfilment of thy Vows must be,
Not from thy Love for Him, but His for Thee.’

The third night after Bajazyd had died,
One saw him, in a dream, at his Bedside,
And said, ‘Thou Bajazyd? Tell me O Pyr,
How fared it there with Munkar and Nakyr?’
And Bajazyd replied, ‘When from the Grave
They met me rising, and “If Allah’s slave”
Ask’d me, “or collar’d with the Chain of Hell?” 770
I said “Not I but God alone can tell:
My Passion for his service were but fond
Ambition had not He approved the Bond:
Had He not round my neck the Collar thrown
And told me in the Number of his own;
And that He only knew. What signifies
A hundred Years of Prayer if none replies?”‘

‘But,’ said Another, ‘then shall none the Seal
Of Acceptation on his Forehead feel
Ere the Grave yield them on the other Side 780
Where all is settled?’

                      But the Chief replied—
‘Enough for us to know that who is meet
Shall enter, and with unreprovéd Feet,
(Ev’n as he might upon the Waters walk)
The Presence-room, and in the Presence talk
With such unbridled Licence as shall seem
To the Uninitiated to blaspheme.’

Just as another Holy Spirit fled,
The Skies above him burst into a Bed
Of Angels looking down and singing clear 790
‘Nightingale! Nightingale! thy Rose is here!’
And yet, the Door wide open to that Bliss,
As some hot Lover slights a scanty Kiss,
The Saint cried ‘All I sigh’d for come to this?
I who lifelong have struggled, Lord, to be
Not of thy Angels one, but one with Thee!’

Others were sure that all he said was true:
They were extremely wicked, that they knew:
And much they long’d to go at once—but some,
They said, so unexpectedly had come 800
Leaving their Nests half-built—in bad Repair—
With Children in—Themselves about to pair—
‘Might he not choose a better Season—nay,
Better perhaps a Year or Two’s Delay,
Till all was settled, and themselves more stout
And strong to carry their Repentance out—
And then’—

               ‘And then, the same or like Excuse,
With harden’d Heart and Resolution loose
With dallying: and old Age itself engaged
Still to shirk that which shirking we have aged: 810
And so with Self-delusion, till, too late,
Death upon all Repentance shuts the Gate;
Or some fierce blow compels the Way to choose,
And forced Repentance half its Virtue lose.’

As of an aged Indian King they tell
Who, when his Empire with his Army fell
Under young Mahmud’s Sword of Wrath, was sent
At sunset to the Conqueror in his Tent;
But, ere the old King’s silver head could reach
The Ground, was lifted up—with kindly Speech, 820
And with so holy Mercy reassured,
That, after due Persuasion, he abjured
His idols, sate upon Mahmud’s Divan,
And took the Name and Faith of Musulman.
But when the Night fell, in his Tent alone
The poor old King was heard to weep and groan
And smite his Bosom; which, when Mahmud knew,
He went to him and said ‘Lo, if Thou rue
Thy lost Dominion, Thou shalt wear the Ring
Of thrice as large a Realm.’ But the dark King 830
Still wept, and Ashes on his Forehead threw
And cried ‘Not for my Kingdom lost I rue:
But thinking how at the Last Day, will stand
The Prophet with The Volume in his Hand,
And ask of me “How was’t that, in thy Day
Of Glory, Thou didst turn from Me and slay
My People; but soon as thy Infidel
Before my True Believers’ Army fell
Like Corn before the Reaper—thou didst own
His Sword who scoutedst Me.” Of seed so sown 840
What profitable Harvest should be grown?’

Then after cheering others who delay’d,
Not of the Road but of Themselves afraid,
The Tajidar the Troop of those address’d,
Whose uncomplying Attitude confess’d
Their Souls entangled in the old Deceit,
And hankering still after forbidden Meat—
    ‘O ye who so long feeding on the Husk
Forgo the Fruit, and doting on the Dusk
Of the false Dawn, are blinded to the True: 850
That in the Maidan of this World pursue
The Golden Ball which, driven to the Goal,
Wins the World’s Game but loses your own Soul:
Or like to Children after Bubbles run
That still elude your Fingers; or, if won,
Burst in Derision at your Touch; all thin
Glitter without, and empty Wind within.
So as a prosperous Worldling on the Bed
Of Death—”Behold, I am as one,” he said,
“Who all my Life long have been measuring Wind, 860
And, dying, now leave even that behind”—
This World’s a Nest in which the Cockatrice
Is warm’d and hatcht of Vanity and Vice:
A false Bazaar whose Wares are all a lie,
Or never worth the Price at which you buy:
A many-headed Monster that, supplied
The faster, faster is unsatisfied;
So as one, hearing a rich Fool one day
To God for yet one other Blessing pray,
Bid him no longer bounteous Heaven tire 870
For Life to feed, but Death to quench, the Fire.
And what are all the Vanities and Wiles
In which the false World decks herself and smiles
To draw Men down into her harlot Lap?
Lusts of the Flesh that Soul and Body sap,
And, melting Soul down into carnal Lust,
Ev’n that for which ’tis sacrificed disgust:
Or Lust of worldly Glory—hollow more
Than the Drum beaten at the Sultan’s Door,
And fluctuating with the Breath of Man 880
As the Vain Banner flapping in the Van.
And Lust of Gold—perhaps of Lusts the worst;
The mis-created Idol most accurst
That between Man and Him who made him stands:
The Felon that with suicidal hands
He sweats to dig and rescue from his Grave,
And sets at large to make Himself its Slave.

‘For lo, to what worse than oblivion gone
Are some the cozening World most doted on.
Pharaoh tried Glory: and his Chariots drown’d: 890
Karun with all his Gold went underground:
Down toppled Nembroth with his airy Stair:
Schedad among his Roses lived—but where?

‘And as the World upon her victims feeds
So She herself goes down the Way she leads.
For all her false allurements are the Threads
The Spider from her Entrail spins, and spreads
For Home and hunting-ground: And by and by
Darts at due Signal on the tangled Fly,
Seizes, dis-wings, and drains the Life, and leaves 900
The swinging Carcase, and forthwith re-weaves
Her Web: each Victim adding to the store
Of poison’d Entrail to entangle more.
And so She bloats in Glory: till one Day
The Master of the House, passing that way,
Perceives, and with one flourish of his Broom
Of Web and Fly and Spider clears the Room.

‘Behold, dropt through the Gate of Mortal Birth,
The Knightly Soul alights from Heav’n on Earth;
Begins his Race, but scarce the Saddle feels, 910
When a foul Imp up from the distance steals,
And, double as he will, about his Heels
Closer and ever closer circling creeps,
Then, half-invited, on the Saddle leaps,
Clings round the Rider, and, once there, in vain
The strongest strives to thrust him off again.
In Childhood just peeps up the Blade of Ill,
That Youth to Lust rears, Fury, and Self-will:
And, as Man cools to sensual Desire,
Ambition catches with as fierce a Fire; 920
Until Old Age sends him with one last Lust
Of Gold, to keep it where he found—in Dust.
Life at both ends so feeble and constrain’d
How should that Imp of Sin be slain or chain’d?

‘And woe to him who feeds the hateful Beast
That of his Feeder makes an after-feast!
We know the Wolf: by Strategem and Force
Can hunt the Tiger down: but what Resource
Against the Plague we heedless hatch within,
Then, growing, pamper into full-blown Sin 930
With the Soul’s self: ev’n, as the wise man said,
Feeding the very Devil with God’s own Bread;
Until the Lord his Largess misapplied
Resent, and drive us wholly from his Side?

‘For should the Greyhound whom a Sultan fed,
And by a jewell’d String a-hunting led,
Turned by the Way to gnaw some nasty Thing
And snarl at Him who twitch’d the silken String,
Would not his Lord soon weary of Dispute,
And turn adrift the incorrigible Brute? 940

‘Nay, would one follow, and without a Chain,
The only Master truly worth the Pain,
One must beware lest, growing over-fond
Of even Life’s more consecrated Bond,
We clog our Footsteps to the World beyond.
Like that old Arab Chieftain, who confess’d
His soul by two too Darling Things possess’d—
That only Son of his: and that one Colt
Descended from the Prophet’s Thunderbolt.
“And I might well bestow the last,” he said, 950
“On him who brought me Word the Boy was dead.”
‘And if so vain the glittering Fish we get,
How doubly vain to dote upon the Net,
Call’d Life, that draws them, patching up this thin
Tissue of Breathing out and Breathing in,
And so by husbanding each wretched Thread
Spin out Death’s very terror that we dread—
For as the Raindrop from the sphere of God
Dropt for a while into the Mortal Clod
So little makes of its allotted Time 960
Back to its Heav’n itself to re-sublime,
That it but serves to saturate its Clay
With Bitterness that will not pass away.’

One day the Prophet on a River Bank,
Dipping his Lips into the Channel, drank
A Draught as sweet as Honey. Then there came
One who an earthen Pitcher from the same
Drew up, and drank: and after some short stay
Under the Shadow, rose and went his Way.
Leaving his earthen Bowl. In which, anew 970
Thirsting, the Prophet from the River drew,
And drank from: but the Water that came up
Sweet from the Stream. drank bitter from the Cup.
At which the Prophet in a still Surprise
For Answer turning up to Heav’n his Eyes,
The Vessel’s Earthen Lips with Answer ran—
‘The Clay that I am made of once was Man,
Who dying, and resolved into the same
Obliterated Earth from which he came
Was for the Potter dug, and chased in turn 980
Through long Vicissitude of Bowl and Urn:
But howsoever moulded, still the Pain
Of that first mortal Anguish would retain,
And cast, and re-cast, for a Thousand years
Would turn the sweetest Water into Tears.’

And after Death?—that, shirk it as we may,
Will come, and with it bring its After-Day—

For ev’n as Yusuf (when his Brotherhood
Came up from Egypt to buy Corn, and stood
Before their Brother in his lofty Place, 990
Nor knew him, for a Veil before his Face)
Struck on his Mystic Cup, which straightway then
Rung out their Story to those guilty Ten:—
Not to them only, but to every one;
Whatever he have said and thought and done,
Unburied with the Body shall fly up,
And gather into Heav’n’s inverted Cup,
Which, stricken by God’s Finger, shall tell all
The Story whereby we must stand or fall.
And though we walk this World as if behind 1000
There were no Judgement, or the Judge half-blind,
Beware, for He with whom we have to do
Outsees the Lynx, outlives the Phoenix too—

So Sultan Mahmud, coming Face to Face
With mightier numbrs of the swarthy Race,
Vow’d that if God to him the battle gave,
God’s Dervish People all the Spoil should have.
And God the Battle gave him; and the Fruit
Of a great Conquest coming to compute,
A Murmur through the Sultan’s Army stirr’d 1010
Lest, ill committed to one hasty Word,
The Shah should squander on an idle Brood
What should be theirs who earn’d it with their Blood,
Or go to fill the Coffers of the State.
So Mahmud’s Soul began to hesitate:
Till looking round in Doubt from side to side
A raving Zealot in the Press he spied,
And call’d and had him brought before his Face,
And, telling, bid him arbitrate the case.
Who, having listen’d, said—’The Thing is plain: 1020
If Thou and God should never have again
To deal together, rob him of his share:
But if perchance you should—why then Beware!’

So spake the Tajidar: but Fear and Doubt
Among the Birds in Whispers went about:
Great was their Need: and Succour to be sought
At any Risk: at any Ransom bought:
But such a Monarch—greater than Mahmud
The Great Himself! Why how should he be woo’d
To listen to them? they too have come 1030
O So suddenly, and unprepared from home
With any Gold, or Jewel, or rich Thing
To carry with them to so great a King—
Poor Creatures! with the old and carnal Blind,
Spite of all said, so thick upon the Mind,
Devising how they might ingratiate
Access, as to some earthly Potentate.

‘Let him that with this Monarch would engage
Bring the Gold Dust of a long Pilgrimage:
The Ruby of a bleeding Heart, whose Sighs 1040
Breathe more than Amber-incense as it dies;
And while in naked Beggary he stands
Hope for the Robe of Honour from his Hands.’
And, as no gift this Sovereign receives
Save the mere Soul and Self of him who gives,
So let that Soul for other none Reward
Look than the Presence of its Sovereign Lord.’
And as his Hearers seem’d to estimate
Their Scale of Glory from Mahmud the Great,
A simple Story of the Sultan told 1050
How best a subject with his Shah made bold—

One night Shah Mahmud who had been of late
Somewhat distemper’d with Affairs of State
Stroll’d through the Streets disguised, as wont to do—
And, coming to the Baths, there on the Flue
Saw the poor Fellow who the Furnace fed
Sitting beside his Water-jug and Bread.
Mahmud stept in—sat down—unask’d took up
And tasted of the untasted Loaf and Cup,
Saying within himself, ‘Grudge but a bit, 1060
And, by the Lord, your Head shall pay for it!’
So having rested, warm’d and satisfied
Himself without a Word on either side,
At last the wayward Sultan rose to go.
And then at last his Host broke silence—’So?—
Art satisfied? Well, Brother, any Day
Or Night, remember, when you come this Way
And want a bit of Provender—why, you
Are welcome, and if not—why, welcome too.’—
The Sultan was so tickled with the whim 1070
Of this quaint Entertainment and of him
Who offer’d it, that many a Night again
Stoker and Shah forgather’d in that Vein—
Till, the poor Fellow having stood the Test
Of true Good-fellowship, Mahmud confess’d
One Night the Sultan that had been his Guest:
And in requital of the scanty Dole
The Poor Man offer’d with so large a soul,
Bid him ask any Largess that he would
A Throne—if he would have it, so he should. 1080
The Poor Man kiss’d the Dust, and ‘All,’ said he,
‘I ask is what and where I am to be;
If but the Shah from time to time will come
As now and see me in the lowly Home
His presence makes a palace, and my own
Poor Flue more royal than another’s Throne.’

So said the cheery Tale: and, as they heard,
Again the Heart beneath the Feather stirr’d:
Again forgot the Danger and the Woes
Of the long Travel in its glorious Close:—1090
‘Here truly all was Poverty, Despair
And miserable Banishment—but there
That more than Mahmud, for no more than Prayer
Who would restore them to their ancient Place,
And round their Shoulders fling his Robe of Grace.’
They clapp’d their Wings, on Fire to be assay’d
And prove of what true Metal they were made,
Although defaced, and wanting the true Ring
And Superscription of their rightful King.

‘The Road! The Road!’ in countless voices cried 1100
The Host—’The Road! and who shall be our Guide?’
And they themselves ‘The Tajidar!’ replied:
Yet to make doubly certain that the Voice
Of Heav’n according with the People’s Choice,
Lots should be drawn; and He on whom should light
Heav’n’s Hand—they swore to follow him outright.
This settled, and once more the Hubbub quell’d,
Once more Suspense the Host in Silence held,
While, Tribe by Tribe, the Birds their fortune drew;
And Lo! upon the Tajidar it flew. 1110
Then rising up again in wide and high
Circumference of wings that mesh’d the sky
‘The Tajidar! The Tajidar!’ they cry—
‘The Tajidar! The Tajidar!’ with Him
Was Heav’n, and They would follow Life and Limb!
Then, once more fluttering to their Places down,
Upon his Head they set the Royal Crown
As Khalif of their Khalif so long lost,
And Captain of his now repentant Host;
And setting him on high, and Silence call’d, 1120
The Tajidar, in Pulpit-throne install’d,
His Voice into a Trumpet-tongue so clear
As all the winged Multitude should hear
Raised, to proclaim the Order and Array
Of March; which, many as it frighten’d—yea,
The Heart of Multitudes at outset broke,
Yet for due Preparation must be spoke.

—A Road indeed that never Wing before
Flew, nor Foot trod, nor Heart imagined—o’er
Waterless Deserts—Waters where no Shore—1130
Valleys comprising cloud-high Mountains: these
Again their Valleys deeper than the Seas:
Whose Dust all Adders, and whose vapour Fire:
Where all once hostile Elements conspire
To set the Soul against herself, and tear
Courage to Terror—Hope into Despair,
And Madness; Terrors, Trials, to make stray
Or Stop where Death to wander or delay:
Where when half dead with Famine, Toil, and Heat,
‘Twas Death indeed to rest, or drink, or eat. 1140
A Road still waxing in Self-sacrifice
As it went on: still ringing with the Cries
And Groans of Those who had not yet prevail’d,
And bleaching with the Bones of those who fail’d:
Where, almost all withstood, perhaps to earn
Nothing: and, earning, never to return.—
And first the VALE OF SEARCH: an endless Maze,
Branching into innumerable Ways
All courting Entrance: but one right: and this
Beset with Pitfall, Gulf, and Precipice, 1150
Where Dust is Embers, Air a fiery Sleet,
Through which with blinded Eyes and bleeding Feet
The Pilgrim stumbles, with Hyena’s Howl
Around, and hissing Snake, and deadly Ghoul,
Whose Prey he falls if tempted but to droop,
Or if to wander famish’d from the Troop
For fruit that falls to ashes in the Hand,
Water that reacht recedes into the Sand.
The only word is ‘Forward!’ Guide in sight,
After him, swerving neither left nor right, 1160
Thyself for thine own Victual by Day,
At night thine own Self’s Caravanserai.
Till suddenly, perhaps when most subdued
And desperate, the Heart shall be renew’d
When deep in utter Darkness, by one Gleam
Of Glory from the far remote Harim,
That, with a scarcely conscious Shock of Change,
Shall light the Pilgrim toward the Mountain Range
Of KNOWLEDGE: where, if stronger and more pure
The Light and Air, yet harder to endure; 1170
And if, perhaps, the Footing more secure,
Harder to keep up with a nimble Guide,
Less from lost Road than insufficient Stride—
Yet tempted still by false Shows from the Track,
And by false Voices call’d aside or back,
Which echo from the Bosom, as if won
The Journey’s End when only just begun,
And not a Mountain Peak with Toil attain’d
But shows a top yet higher to be gain’d.
Wherefore still Forward, Forward! Love that fired 1180
Thee first to search, by Search so re-inspired
As that the Spirit shall the carnal Load
Burn up, and double wing Thee on the Road;
That wert thou knocking at the very Door
Of Heav’n, thou still would’st cry for More, More, More!

Till loom in sight Kaf’s Mountain Peak ashroud
In Mist—uncertain yet Mountain or Cloud,
But where the Pilgrim ‘gins to hear the Tide
Of that one Sea in which the Sev’n subside;
And not the Sev’n Seas only: but the sev’n 1190
And self-enfolded Spheres of Earth and Heav’n—
Yea, the Two Worlds, that now as Pictures sleep
Upon its Surface—but when once the Deep
From its long Slumber ‘gins to heave and sway—
Under the Tempest shall be swept away
With all their Phases and Phenomena:
Not senseless Matter only, but combined
With Life in all Varieties of Kind;
Yea, ev’n the abstract Forms that Space and Time
Men call, and Weal and Woe, Virtue and Crime, 1200
And all the several Creeds like those who fell
Before them, Musulman and Infidel
Shall from the Face of Being melt away,
Cancell’d and swept as Dreams before the Day.
So hast thou seen the Astrologer prepare
His mystic Table smooth of sand, and there
Inscribe his mystic figures, Square, and Trine,
Circle and Pentagram, and heavenly Sign
Of Star and Planet: from whose Set and Rise,
Meeting and Difference, he prophesies; 1210
And, having done it, with his Finger clean
Obliterates as never they had been.

Such is when reacht the Table Land of One
And Wonder: blazing with so fierce a Sun
Of Unity that blinds while it reveals
The Universe that to a Point congeals,
So, stunn’d with utter Revelation, reels
The Pilgrim, when that Double-seeming House,
Against whose Beams he long had chafed his Brows,
Crumbles and cracks before that Sea, whose near 1220
And nearer Voice now overwhelms his Ear.
Till blinded, deafen’d, madden’d, drunk with doubt
Of all within Himself as all without,
Nay, whether a Without there be, or not,
Or a Within that doubts: and if, then what?—
Ev’n so shall the bewilder’d Pilgrim seem
When nearest waking deepliest in Dream,
And darkest next to Dawn; and lost what had
When All is found: and just when sane quite Mad—
As one that having found the Key once more 1230
Returns, and Lo! he cannot find the Door
He stumbles over—So the Pilgrim stands
A moment on the Threshold—with raised Hands
Calls to the eternal Saki for one Draught
Of Light from the One Essence: which when quaff’d,
He plunges headlong in: and all is well
With him who never more returns to tell.
Such being then the Race and such the Goal,
Judge if you must not Body both and Soul
With Meditation, Watch and Fast prepare. 1240
For he that wastes his body to a Hair
Shall seize the Locks of Truth: and He that prays
Good Angels in their Ministry waylays:
And the Midnightly Watcher in the Folds
Of his own Darkness God Almighty holds.
He that would prosper here must from him strip
The World, and take the Dervish Gown and Scrip:
And as he goes must gather from all Sides
Irrelevant Ambitions, Lusts and Prides,
Glory and Gold, and sensual Desire, 1250
Whereof to build the fundamental Pyre
Of Self-annihilation: and cast in
All old Relations and Regards of Kin
And Country: and, the Pile with this perplext
World platform’d, from the Fables of the Next
Raise it tow’rd Culmination, with the torn
Rags and Integuments of Creeds out-worn;
And top the giddy Summit with the Scroll
Of Reason that in dingy Smoke shall roll
Over the true Self-sacrifice of Soul: 1260
(For such a Prayer was his—’O God, do Thou
With all my Wealth in the other World endow
My Friends: and with my Wealth in this my Foes,
Till bankrupt in thy Riches I repose!’)
Then, all the Pile completed of the Pelf
Of either World—at last throw on Thyself,
And with the torch of Self-negation fire;
And ever as the Flames rise high and higher,
With Cries of agonising Glory still
All of that Self burn up that burn up will, 1270
Leaving the Phoenix that no Fire can slay
To spring from its own Ashes kindled—nay,
Itself an inextinguishable Spark
Of Being, now beneath Earth-ashes dark,
Transcending these, at last Itself transcends
And with the One Eternal Essence blends.

The Moths had long been exiled from the Flame
They worship: so to solemn Council came,
And voted One of them by Lot be sent
To find their Idol. One was chosen: went. 1280
And after a long Circuit in sheer Gloom,
Seeing, he thought, the TAPER in a Room
Flew back at once to say so. But the chief
Of Mothistan slighted so slight Belief,
And sent another Messenger, who flew
Up to the House, in at the window, through
The Flame itself; and back the Message brings,
With yet no sign of Conflict on his wings.
Then went a Third, and spurr’d with true Desire,
Plunging at once into the sacred Fire, 1290
Folded his Wings within, till he became
One Colour and one Substance with the Flame.
He only knew the Flame who in it burn’d;
And only He could tell who ne’er to tell return’d.

After declaring what of this declared
Must be, that all who went should be prepared,
From his high Station ceased the Tajidar—
And lo! the Terrors that, when told afar,
Seem’d but as Shadows of a Noonday Sun,
Now that the talkt-of Thing was to be done, 1300
Lengthening into those of closing Day
Strode into utter Darkness: and Dismay
Like Night on the husht Sea of Feathers lay,
Late so elate—’So terrible a Track!
Endless—or, ending, never to come back!—
Never to Country, Family, or Friend!’—
In sooth no easy Bow for Birds to bend!—
Even while he spoke, how many Wings and Crests
Had slunk away to distant Woods and Nests;
Others again in Preparation spent 1310
What little Strength they had, and never went:
And others, after preparation due—
When up the Veil of that first Valley drew
From whose waste Wilderness of Darkness blew
A Sarsar, whether edged of Flames or Snows,
That through from Root to Tip their Feathers froze—
Up went a Multitude that overhead
A moment darken’d, then on all sides fled,
Dwindling the World-assembled Caravan
To less than half the Number that began. 1320
Of those who fled not, some in Dread and Doubt
Sat without stirring: others who set out
With frothy Force, or stupidly resign’d,
Before a League, flew off or fell behind.
And howsoever the more Brave and Strong
In Courage, Wing, or Wisdom push’d along,
Yet League by League the Road was thicklier spread
By the fast falling Foliage of the Dead:
Some spent with Travel over Wave and Ground;
Scorcht, frozen, dead for Drought, or drinking drown’d. 1330
Famisht, or poison’d with the Food when found:
By Weariness, or Hunger, or Affright
Seduced to stop or stray, become the Bite
Of Tiger howling round or hissing Snake,
Or Crocodile that eyed them from the Lake:
Or raving Mad, or in despair Self-slain:
Or slaying one another for a Grain:—

Till of the mighty Host that fledged the Dome
Of Heav’n and Floor of Earth on leaving Home,
A Handful reach’d and scrambled up the Knees 1340
Of Kaf whose Feet dip in the Seven Seas;
And of the few that up his Forest-sides
Of Light and Darkness where The Presence hides,
But Thirty—thirty desperate draggled Things,
Half-dead, with scarce a Feather on their Wings,
Stunn’d, blinded, deafen’d with the Crash and Craze
Of Rock and Sea collapsing in a Blaze
That struck the Sun to Cinder—fell upon
The Threshold of the Everlasting One,
With but enough of Life in each to cry, 1350
On THAT which all absorb’d—
                                  And suddenly
Forth flash’d a winged Harbinger of Flame
And Tongue of Fire, and ‘Who?’ and ‘Whence they came?’
And ‘Why?’ demanded. And the Tajidar
For all the Thirty answer’d him—’We are
Those Fractions of the Sum of Being, far
Dis-spent and foul disfigured, that once more
Strike for Admission at the Treasury Door.’
To whom the Angel answer’d—’Know ye not
That He you seek recks little who or what 1360
Of Quantity and Kind—himself the Fount
Of Being Universal needs no Count
Of all the Drops o’erflowing from his Urn,
In what Degree they issue or return?’

Then cried the Spokesman, ‘Be it even so:
Let us but see the Fount from which we flow,
‘And, seeing, lose Ourselves therein!’ and, Lo!
Before the Word was utter’d, or the Tongue
Of Fire replied, or Portal open flung.
They were within—they were before the Throne, 1370
Before the Majesty that sat thereon,
But wrapt in so insufferable a Blaze
Of Glory as beat down their baffled Gaze.
Which, downward dropping, fell upon a Scroll
That, Lightning-like, flash’d back on each the whole
Past half-forgotten Story of his Soul:
Like that which Yusuf in his Glory gave
His Brethren as some Writing he would have
Interpreted; and at a Glance, behold
Their own Indenture for their Brother sold! 1380
And so with these poor Thirty: who, abasht
In Memory all laid bare and Conscience lasht,
By full Confession and Self-loathing flung
The Rags of carnal Self that round them clung;
And, their old selves self-knowledged and self-loathed,
And in the Soul’s Integrity re-clothed,
Once more they ventured from the Dust to raise
Their Eyes—up to the Throne—into the Blaze,
And in the Centre of the Glory there
Beheld the Figure of—Themselves—as ’twere 1390
Transfigured—looking to Themselves, beheld
The Figure on the Throne en-miracled,
Until their Eyes themselves and That between
Did hesitate which Sëer was, which Seen;
They That, That They: Another, yet the Same:
Dividual, yet One: from whom there came
A Voice of awful Answer, scarce discern’d
From which to Aspiration whose return’d
They scarcely knew; as when some Man apart
Answers aloud the Question in his Heart—1400
‘The Sun of my Perfection is a Glass
Wherein from Seeing into Being pass
All who, reflecting as reflected see
Themselves in Me, and Me in Them: not Me,
But all of Me that a contracted Eye
Is comprehensive of Infinity:
Nor yet Themselves: no Selves, but of The All
Fractions, from which they split and whither fall.
As Water lifted from the Deep, again
Falls back in individual Drops of Rain 1410
Then melts into the Universal Main.
All you have been, and seen, and done, and thought,
Not You but I, have seen and been and wrought:
I was the Sin that from Myself rebell’d:
I the Remorse that tow’rd Myself compell’d:
I was the Tajidar who led the Track:
I was the little Briar that pull’d you back:
Sin and Contrition—Retribution owed,
And cancell’d—Pilgrim, Pilgrimage, and Road,
Was but Myself toward Myself: and Your 1420
Arrival but Myself at my own Door:
Who in your Fraction of Myself behold
Myself within the Mirror Myself hold
To see Myself in, and each part of Me
That sees himself, though drown’d, shall ever see.
Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide
Return, and back into your Sun subside.’—

This was the Parliament of Birds: and this 1430
The Story of the Host who went amiss,
And of the Few that better Upshot found;
Which being now recounted, Lo, the Ground
Of Speech fails underfoot: But this to tell—
Their Road is thine—Follow—and Fare thee well. 1435

 

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