Salaman and Absal
Category: Islam
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"Salaman-o Absāl" (سلامان و ابسال, Salaman and Absal): A doomed romance between a prince and his nursemaid. The original story is Greek, translated in the early Islamic times to Arabic by Ibn Hunain and then rendered into Persian poem by Jami.

Salaman and Absal

An Allegory

Edward Fitzgerald

Translated from the Persian of Jámi

My Dear Cowell,

Two years ago, when we began (I for the first time) to read this Poem together, I wanted you to translate it, as something that should interest a few who are worth interesting. You, however, did not see the way clear then, and had Aristotle pulling you by one Shoulder and Prakrit Vararuchi by the other, so as indeed to have hindered you up to this time completing a Version of Hafiz’ best Odes which you had then happily begun. So, continuing to like old Jámi more and more, I must try my hand upon him; and here is my reduced Version of a small Original. What Scholarship it has is yours, my Master in Persian and so much beside; who are no further answerable for all than by well liking and wishing publisht what you may scarce have Leisure to find due fault with.

Had all the Poem been like Parts, it would have been all translated, and in such Prose lines as you measure Hafiz in, and such as any one should adopt who does not feel himself so much of a Poet as him he translates and some he translates for — before whom it is best to lay the raw material as genuine as may be, to work up to their own better Fancies. But, unlike Hafiz’ best — (whose Sonnets are sometimes as close packt as Shakespeare’s, which they resemble in more ways than one) — Jámi, you know, like his Countrymen generally, is very diffuse in what he tells and his way of telling it. The very structure of the Persian Couplet — (here, like people on the Stage, I am repeating to you what you know, with an Eye to the small Audience beyond) — so often ending with the same Word, or Two Words, if but the foregoing Syllable secure a lawful Rhyme, so often makes the Second Line but a slightly varied Repetition, or Modification of the First, and gets slowly over Ground often hardly worth gaining. This iteration is common indeed to the Hebrew Psalms and Proverbs — where, however, the Value of the Repetition is different. In your Hafiz also, not Two only, but Eight or Ten Lines perhaps are tied to the same Close of Two — or Three — words; a verbal Ingenuity as much valued in the East as better Thought. And how many of all the Odes called his, more and fewer in various Copies, do you yourself care to deal with? — And in the better ones how often some lines, as I think for this reason, unworthy of the Rest — interpolated perhaps from the Mouths of his many Devotees, Mystical and Sensual — or crept into Manuscripts of which he never arranged or corrected one from the First? This, together with the confined Action of Persian Grammar, whose organic simplicity seems to me its difficulty when applied, makes the Line by Line Translation of a Poem not line by line precious tedious in proportion to its length. Especially — (what the Sonnet does not feel) — in the Narrative; which I found when once eased in its Collar, and yet missing somewhat of rhythmical Amble, somehow, and not without resistance on my part, swerved into that “easy road” of Verse — easiest as unbeset with any exigencies of Rhyme. Those little Stories, too, which you thought untractable, but which have their Use as well as Humour by way of quaint Interlude Music between the little Acts, felt ill at ease in solemn Lowth-Isaiah Prose, and had learn’d their tune, you know, before even Hiawatha came to teach people to quarrel about it. Till, one part drawing on another, the Whole grew to the present form.

As for the much bodily omitted — it may be readily guessed that an Asiatic of the 15th Century might say much on such a subject that an Englishman of the 19th would not care to read. Not that our Jámi is ever licentious like his Contemporary Chaucer, nor like Chaucer’s Posterity in Times that called themselves more Civil. But better Men will not now endure a simplicity of Speech that Worse men abuse. Then the many more, and foolisher, Stories — preliminary Te Deums to Allah and Allah’s-shadow Shah — very much about Alef Noses, Eyebrows like inverted Nuns, drunken Narcissus Eyes — and that eternal Moon Face which never wanes from Persia — of all which there is surely enough in this Glimpse of the Original. No doubt some Oriental character escapes — the Story sometimes becomes too Skin and Bone without due interval of even Stupid and Bad. Of the two Evils? — At least what I have chosen is least in point of bulk; scarcely in proportion with the length of its Apology which, as usual, probably discharges one’s own Conscience at too great a Price; people at once turning against you the Arms they might have wanted had you not laid them down. However it may be with this, I am sure a complete Translation — even in Prose — would not have been a readable one — which, after all, is a useful property of most Books, even of Poetry.

In studying the Original, you know, one gets contentedly carried over barren Ground in a new Land of Language — excited by chasing any new Game that will but show Sport; the most worthless to win asking perhaps all the sharper Energy to pursue, and so far yielding all the more Satisfaction when run down. Especially, cheer’d on as I was by such a Huntsman as poor Dog of a Persian Scholar never hunted with before; and moreover — but that was rather in the Spanish Sierras — by the Presence of a Lady in the Field, silently brightening about us like Aurora’s Self, or chiming in with musical Encouragement that all we started and ran down must be Royal Game! Ah, happy Days! When shall we Three meet again — when dip in that unreturning Tide of Time and Circumstance! — In those Meadows far from the World, it seemed, as Salaman’s Island — before an Iron Railway broke the Heart of that Happy Valley whose Gossip was the Millwheel, and Visitors the Summer Airs that momentarily ruffled the sleepy Stream that turned it as they chased one another over to lose themselves in Whispers in the Copse beyond. Or returning — I suppose you remember whose Lines they are

When Winter Skies were ting’d with Crimson still

Where Thornbush nestles on the quiet hill,

And the live Amber round the setting Sun,

Lighting the Labourer home whose Work is done,

Burn’d like a Golden Angel-ground above

The solitary Home of Peace and Love —

at such an hour drawing home together for a fireside Night of it with Aeschylus or Calderon in the Cottage, whose walls, modest almost as those of the Poor who cluster’d — and with good reason — round, make to my Eyes the Tower’d Crown of Oxford hanging in the Horizon, and with all Honour won, but a dingy Vapour in Comparison. And now, should they beckon from the terrible Ganges, and this little Book begun as a happy Record of past, and pledge perhaps of Future, Fellowship in Study, darken already with the shadow of everlasting Farewell!

But to turn from you Two to a Public — nearly as numerous — (with whom, by the way, this Letter may die without a name that you know very well how to supply), — here is the best I could make of Jámi’s Poem — “Ouvrage de peu d’etendue,” says the Biographie Universelle, and, whatever that means, here collaps’d into a nutshell Epic indeed; whose Story however, if nothing else, may interest some Scholars as one of Persian Mysticism — perhaps the grand Mystery of all Religions — an Allegory fairly devised and carried out — dramatically culminating as it goes on; and told as to this day the East loves to tell her Story, illustrated by Fables and Tales, so often (as we read in the latest Travels) at the expense of the poor Arab of the Desert.

The Proper Names—and some other Words peculiar to the East — are printed as near as may be to their native shape and sound — “Sulayman” for Solomon “Yusuf” for Joseph, etc., as being not only more musical, but retaining their Oriental flavour unalloyed with European Association. The accented Vowels are to be pronounced long, as in Italian — Salaman — Absal — Shirin, etc.

The Original is in rhymed Couplets of this measure: —

Salaman and Absal

which those who like Monkish Latin may remember in: —

“Due Salaman verba Regis cogitat,
Pectus intra de profundis aestuat.”

or in English — by way of asking, “your Clemency for us and for our Tragedy” —

“Of Salaman and of Absal hear the Song;
Little wants Man here below, nor little long.”

Life of Jámi

[I hope the following disproportionate Notice of Jámi’s Life will be amusing enough to excuse its length. I found most of it at the last moment in Rosenzweig’s “Biographische Notizen” of Jámi, from whose own, and Commentator’s, Works it purports to be gathered.]

Nuruddin Abdurrahman, Son of Maulana Nizamuddin Ahmed, and descended on the Mother’s side from One of the Four great “Fathers” of Islamism, was born A.H. 817, A.D. 1414, in Jám, a little Town of Khorasan, whither (according to the Heft Aklim — “Seven Climates”) his Grandfather had migrated from Desht of Ispahan, and from which the Poet ultimately took his Takhalus, or Poetic name, Jámi. This word also signifies “A Cup;” wherefore, he says, “Born in Jám, and dipt in the “Jam” of Holy Lore, for a double reason I must be called Jámi in the Book of Song.” He was celebrated afterwards in other Oriental Titles — “Lord of Poets” — “Elephant of Wisdom,” &c., but often liked to call himself “The Ancient of Herat,” where he mainly resided.

When Five Years old he received the name of Nuruddin — the “Light of Faith,” and even so early began to show the Metal, and take the Stamp that distinguished him through Life. In 1419, a famous Sheikh, Khwajah Mehmed Parsa, then in the last year of his Life, was being carried through Jám. “I was not then Five Years old,” says Jámi, “and my Father, who with his Friends went forth to salute him, had me carried on the Shoulders of one of the Family and set down before the Litter of the Sheikh, who gave a Nosegay into my hand. Sixty years have passed, and methinks I now see before me the bright Image of the Holy Man, and feel the Blessing of his Aspect, from which I date my after Devotion to that Brotherhood in which I hope to be enrolled.”

So again, when Maulana Fakhruddin Loristani had alighted at his Mother’s house — “I was then so little that he set me upon his Knee, and with his Fingers drawing the Letters of ‘Ali’ and ‘Omar’ in the Air, laughed delightedly to hear me spell them. He also by his Goodness sowed in my Heart the Seed of his Devotion, which has grown to Increase within me — in which I hope to live, and in which to die. Oh God! Dervish let me live, and Dervish die; and in the Company of the Dervish do Thou quicken me to Life again!”

Jámi first went to a School at Herat; and afterward to one founded by the Great Timur at Samarcand. There he not only outstript his Fellows in the very Encyclopaedic Studies of Persian Education, but even puzzled the Doctors in Logic, Astronomy, and Theology; who, however, with unresenting Gravity welcomed him — “Lo! a new Light added to our Galaxy!” — In the wider Field of Samarcand he might have liked to remain; but Destiny liked otherwise, and a Dream recalled him to Herat. A Vision of the Great Sufi Master there, Mehmed Saaduddin Kaschgari, of the Nakhsbend Order of Dervishes, appeared to him in his Sleep, and bade him return to One who would satisfy all Desire. Jámi went back to Herat; he saw the Sheikh discoursing with his Disciples by the Door of the Great Mosque; day after day passed by without daring to present himself; but the Master’s Eye was upon him; day by day draws him nearer and nearer — till at last the Sheikh announces to those about him — “Lo! this Day have I taken a Falcon in my Snare!”

Under him Jámi began his Sufi Noviciate, with such Devotion, and under such Fascination from the Master, that going, he tells us, but for one Summer Day’s Holiday into the Country, one single Line was enough to “lure the Tassel-gentle back again;”

“Lo! here am I, and Thou look’st on the Rose!”

By and bye he withdraws, by course of Sufi Instruction, into Solitude so long and profound, that on his Return to Men he has almost lost the Power of Converse with them. At last, when duly taught, and duly authorized to teach as Sufi Doctor, he yet will not, though solicited by those who had seen such a Vision of Him as had drawn Himself to Herat; and not till the Evening of his Life is he to be seen with White hairs taking that place by the Mosque which his departed Master had been used to occupy before.

Meanwhile he had become Poet, which no doubt winged his Reputation and Doctrine far and wide through Nations to whom Poetry is a vital Element of the Air they breathe. “A Thousand times,” he says, “I have repented of such Employment; but I could no more shirk it than one can shirk what the Pen of Fate has written on his Forehead” — “As Poet I have resounded through the World; Heaven filled itself with my Song, and the Bride of Time adorned her Ears and Neck with the Pearls of my Verse, whose coming Caravan the Persian Hafiz and Saadi came forth gladly to salute, and the Indian Khosru and Hasan hailed as a Wonder of the World.” “The Kings of India and Rum greet me by Letter: the Lords of Irak and Tabriz load me with Gifts; and what shall I say of those of Khorasan, who drown me in an Ocean of Munificence?”

This, though Oriental, is scarcely Bombast. Jámi was honoured by Princes at home and abroad, and at the very time they were cutting one another’s Throats; by his own Sultan Abou Said; by Hasan Beg of Mesopotamia — “Lord of Tabriz” — by whom Abou Said was defeated, dethroned, and slain; by Mahomet II. of Turkey — “King of Rum” — who in his turn defeated Hasan; and lastly by Husein Mirza Baikara, who extinguished the Prince whom Hasan had set up in Abou’s Place at Herat. Such is the House that Jack builds in Persia.

As Hasan Beg, however — the Usuncassan of old European Annals — is singularly connected with the present Poem, and with probably the most important event in Jámi’s Life, I will briefly follow the Steps that led to that as well as other Princely Intercourse.

In A.H. 877, A.D. 1472, Jámi set off on his Pilgrimage to Mecca. He, and, on his Account, the Caravan he went with, were honourably and safely escorted through the intervening Countries by order of their several Potentates as far as Bagdad. There Jámi fell into trouble by the Treachery of a Follower he had reproved, and who (born 400 Years too soon) misquoted Jámi’s Verse into disparagement of Ali, the Darling Imam of Persia. This getting wind at Bagdad, the thing was brought to solemn Tribunal, at which Hasan Beg’s two Sons assisted. Jámi came victoriously off; his Accuser pilloried with a dockt Beard in Bagdad Marketplace: but the Poet was so ill pleased with the stupidity of those who believed the Report, that, standing in Verse upon the Tigris’ side, he calls for a Cup of Wine to seal up Lips of whose Utterance the Men of Bagdad were unworthy.

After 4 months’ stay there, during which he visits at Helleh the Tomb of Ali’s Son, Husein, who had fallen at Kerbela, he sets forth again — to Najaf, where he says his Camel sprang forward at sight of Ali’s own Tomb — crosses the Desert in 22 days, meditating on the Prophet’s Glory, to Medina; and so at last to Mecca, where, as he sang in a Ghazal, he went through all Mahommedan Ceremony with a Mystical Understanding of his Own.

He then turns Homeward: is entertained for 45 days at Damascus, which he leaves the very Day before the Turkish Mahomet’s Envoys come with 5000 Ducats to carry him to Constantinople. Arriving at Amida, the Capital of Mesopotamia (Diyak bakar), he finds War broken out in full Flame between that Mahomet and Hasan Beg, King of the Country, who has Jámi honourably escorted through the dangerous Roads to Tabriz; there receives him in Divan, “frequent and full” of Sage and Noble (Hasan being a great Admirer of Learning), and would fain have him abide at Court awhile. Jámi, however, is intent on Home, and once more seeing his aged Mother — for he is turned of Sixty! — and at last touches Herat in the Month of Schaaban, 1473, after the Average Year’s absence.

This is the Hasan, “in Name and Nature Handsome” (and so described by some Venetian Ambassadors of the Time), of whose protection Jámi speaks in the Preliminary Vision of this Poem, which he dedicates to Hasan’s Son, Yacub Beg: who, after the due murder of an Elder Brother, succeeded to the Throne; till all the Dynasties of “Black and White Sheep” together were swept away a few years after by Ismael, Founder of the Sofi Dynasty in Persia.

Arrived at home, Jámi finds Husein Mirza Baikara, last of the Timuridae, fast seated there; having probably slain ere Jámi went the Prince whom Hasan had set up; but the date of a Year or Two may well wander in the Bloody Jungle of Persian History. Husein, however, receives Jámi with open Arms; Nisamuddin Ali Schir, his Vizir, a Poet too, had hailed in Verse the Poet’s Advent from Damascus as “The Moon rising in the West;” and they both continued affectionately to honour him as long as he lived.

Jámi sickened of his mortal Illness on the 13th of Moharrem, 1492 — a Sunday. His Pulse began to fail on the following Friday, about the Hour of Morning Prayer, and stopped at the very moment when the Muezzin began to call to Evening. He had lived Eighty-one years. Sultan Husein undertook the Burial of one whose Glory it was to have lived and died in Dervish Poverty; the Dignities of the Kingdom followed him to the Grave; where 20 days afterward was recited in presence of the Sultan and his Court an Eulogy composed by the Vizir, who also laid the first Stone of a Monument to his Friend’s Memory — the first Stone of “Tarbet’i Jámi,” in the Street of Mesched, a principal Thoro’fare of the City of Herat. For, says Rosenzweig, it must be kept in mind that Jámi was reverenced not only as a Poet and Philosopher, but as a Saint also; who not only might work a Miracle himself, but leave the Power lingering about his Tomb. It was known that once in his Life, an Arab, who had falsely accused him of selling a Camel he knew to be mortally unsound, had very shortly after died, as Jámi had predicted, and on the very selfsame spot where the Camel fell. And that Libellous Rogue at Bagdad — he, putting his hand into his Horse’s Nose-bag to see if “das Thier” has finisht his Corn, had his Fore-finger bitten off by the same — “von demselben der Zeigefinger abgebissen” — of which “Verstummlung” he soon died — I suppose, as he ought, of Lock jaw.

The Persians, who are adepts at much elegant Ingenuity, are fond of commemorating Events by some analogous Word or Sentence whose Letters, cabalistically corresponding to certain Numbers, compose the Date required. In Jámi’s case they have hit upon the word “Kas,” A Cup, whose signification brings his own name to Memory, and whose relative Letters make up his 81 years. They have Tariks also for remembering the Year of his Death: Rosenzweig gives some; but Ouseley the prettiest, if it will hold: —

Dud az Khorasan bar amed —
“The smoke” of Sighs “went up from Khorasan.”

No Biographer, says Rosenzweig cautiously, records of Jámi that he had more than one Wife (Grand-daughter of his Master Sheikh) and Four Sons; which, however, are Five too many for the Doctrine of this Poem. Of the Sons, Three died Infant; and the Fourth (born to him in very old Age), and for whom he wrote some Elementary Tracts, and the more famous “Beharistan” lived but a few years, and was remembered by his Father in the Preface to his Chiradnameh Iskander — a book of Morals, which perhaps had also been begun for the Boy’s Instruction.

Of Jámi’s wonderful Fruitfulness — “bewunderungswerther Fruchtbarkeit” — as Writer, Rosenzweig names Forty-four offsprings — the Letters of the word “Jám” completing by the aforesaid process that very Number. But Shar Khan Ludi in his “Memoirs of the Poets,” says Ouseley, counts him Author of Ninety-nine Volumes of Grammar, Poetry, and Theology, which “continue to be universally admired in all parts of the Eastern World, Iran, Turin, and Hindustan” — copied some of them into precious Manuscript, illuminated with Gold and Painting, by the greatest Penmen and Artists of the Time; one such — the “Beharistan” — said to have cost Thousands of Pounds — autographed as one most precious treasure of their Libraries by two Sovereign Descendants of Timur upon the Throne of Hindustan; and now reposited away from “the Drums and Tramplings” of Oriental Conquest in the tranquil Seclusion of an English Library.

Of these Ninety-nine, or Forty-four Volumes few are known, and none except the Present and one other Poem ever printed, in England, where the knowledge of Persian might have been politically useful. The Poet’s name with us is almost solely associated with “Yusuf and Zulaikha,” which, with the other two I have mentioned, count Three of the Brother Stars of that Constellation into which Jámi, or his Admirers, have clustered his Seven best Mystical Poems under the name of “Heft Aurang” — those “Seven Thrones” to which we of the West and North give our characteristic Name of “Great Bear” and “Charles’s Wain.”

He must have enjoyed great Favour and Protection from his Princes at home, or he would hardly have ventured to write so freely as in this Poem he does of Doctrine which exposed the Sufi to vulgar abhorrence and Danger. Hafiz and others are apologized for as having been obliged to veil a Divinity beyond what “The Prophet” dreamt of under the Figure of Mortal Cup and Cup-bearer. Jámi speaks in Allegory too, by way of making a palpable grasp at the Skirt of the Ineffable; but he also dares, in the very thick of Mahommedanism, to talk of REASON as sole Fountain of Prophecy; and to pant for what would seem so Pantheistic an Identification with the Deity as shall blind him to any distinction between Good and Evil.

I must not forget one pretty passage of Jámi’s Life. He had a nephew, one Maulana Abdullah, who was ambitious of following his Uncle’s Footsteps in Poetry. Jámi first dissuaded him; then, by way of trial whether he had a Talent as well as a Taste, bid him imitate Firdusi’s Satire on Shah Mahmud. The Nephew did so well, that Jámi then encouraged him to proceed; himself wrote the first Couplet of his First (and most noted) Poem — Laila & Majnun.

This Book of which the Pen has now laid the Foundation,
May the diploma of Acceptance one day befall it, —

and Abdallah went on to write that and four other Poems which Persia continues and multiplies in fine Manuscript and Illumination to the present day, remembering their Author under his Takhalus of Hatifi — “The Voice from Heaven” and Last of the so reputed Persian Poets.

The several Spellings of some Proper Names, especially the Prophet’s, in Memoir and Appendix, must be excused by the several Writers they are quoted from.

I. Prologue

Oh Thou whose Memory quickens Lovers’ Souls, Whose Fount of Joy renews the Lover’s Tongue,
Thy Shadow falls across the World, and They
Bow down to it; and of the Rich in Beauty
Thou art the Riches that make Lovers mad.
Not till thy Secret Beauty through the Cheek
Of Laila smite does she inflame Majnun,
And not till Thou have sugar’d Shirin’s Lip
The Hearts of those Two Lovers fill with Blood.
For Lov’d and Lover are not but by Thee,
Nor Beauty; — Mortal Beauty but the Veil
Thy Heavenly hides behind, and from itself
Feeds, and our Hearts yearn after as a Bride
That glances past us Veil’d — but ever so
As none the Beauty from the Veil may know.
How long wilt thou continue thus the World
To cozen with the Fantom of a Veil

From which Thou only peepest? — Time it is
To unfold thy perfect Beauty. I would be
Thy Lover, and Thine only — I, mine Eyes
Seal’d in the Light of Thee to all but Thee,
Yea, in the Revelation of Thyself
Self-Lost, and Conscience-quit of Good and Evil.
Thou movest under all the Forms of Truth,
Under the Forms of all Created Things;
Look whence I will, still nothing I discern
But Thee in all the Universe, in which
Thyself Thou dost invest, and through the Eyes
Of Man, the subtle Censor scrutinize.
To thy Harím Dividuality
No Entrance finds — no Word of This and That;
Do Thou my separate and Derivéd Self
Make one with thy Essential! Leave me room
On that Diván which leaves no Room for Two;
Lest, like the Simple Kurd of whom they tell,
I grow perplext, Oh God! ‘twixt “I” and “Thou;”
If I — this Dignity and Wisdom whence?
If Thou — then what this abject Impotence?

A Kurd perplext by Fortune’s Frolics
Left his Desert for the City.
Sees a City full of Noise and
Clamour, agitated People,
Hither, Thither, Back and Forward
Running, some intent on Travel,
Others home again returning,
Right to Left, and Left to Right,
Life-disquiet everywhere!
Kurd, when he beholds the Turmoil,
Creeps aside, and, Travel-weary,
Fain would go to Sleep; “But,” saith he,
“How shall I in all this Hubbub
“Know myself again on waking?”
So by way of Recognition
Ties a Pumpkin round his Foot,
And turns to Sleep. A Knave that heard him
Crept behind, and slily watching
Slips the Pumpkin off the Sleeper’s
Ancle, ties it round his own,
And so down to sleep beside him.
By and by the Kurd awaking
Looks directly for his Signal —
Sees it on another's Ancle —
Cries aloud, "Oh Good-for-Nothing
“Rascal to perplex me so!”
“That by you I am bewilder’d,”
“Whether I be I or no!”
“If I—the Pumpkin why on You?”
“If You—then Where am I, and Who?”

Oh God! this poor bewilder’d Kurd am I,
Than any Kurd more helpless! — Oh, do thou
Strike down a Ray of Light into my Darkness!
Turn by thy Grace these Dregs into pure Wine,
To recreate the Spirits of the Good!
Or if not that, yet, as the little Cup
Whose Name I go by, not unworthy found
To pass thy salutary Vintage round!


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