Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE TEMPTATION OF HASSAN BEN KHALED, by BAYARD TAYLOR



Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

THE TEMPTATION OF HASSAN BEN KHALED, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Hassan ben khaled, singing in the streets
Last Line: And allah grant he go no more astray.
Alternate Author Name(s): Taylor, James Bayard
Subject(s): Death; Heaven; Love; Poetry & Poets; Temptation; Dead, The; Paradise


I.

HASSAN BEN KHALED, singing in the streets
Of Cairo, sang these verses at my door:
"Blessed is he, who God and Prophet greets
Each morn with prayer; but he is blest much more
Whose conduct is his prayer's interpreter.
Sweeter than musk, and pleasanter than myrrh,
Richer than rubies, shall his portion be,
When God bids Azrael, 'Bring him unto me!'
But woe to him whose life casts dirt upon
The Prophet's word! When all his days are done,
Him shall the Evil Angel trample down
Out of the sight of God." Thus, with a frown
Of the severest virtue, Hassan sang
Unto the people, till the markets rang.

II.

But two days after this, he came again
And sang, and I remarked an altered strain.
Before my shop he stood, with forehead bent
Like one whose sin hath made him penitent, --
In whom the pride, that like a stately reed
Lifted his head, is broken. "Blest indeed,"
(These were his words,) "is he who never fell,
But blest much more, who from the verge of Hell
Climbs up to Paradise: for Sin is sweet;
Strong is Temptation; willing are the feet
That follow Pleasure, manifold her snares,
And pitfalls lurk beneath our very prayers:
Yet God, the Clement, the Compassionate,
In pity of our weakness keeps the gate
Of Pardon open, scorning not to wait
Till the last moment, when His mercy flings
Splendor from the shade of Azrael's wings."
"Wherefore, O Poet!" I to Hassan said,
"This altered measure? Wherefore hang your head,
O Hassan! whom the pride of virtue gives
The right to face the holiest man that lives?
Enter, I pray thee: this poor house will be
Honored henceforth, if it may shelter thee."
Hassan Ben Khaled lifted up his eyes
To mine, a moment: then, in cheerful guise,
He passed my threshold with unslippered feet.

III.

I led him from the noises of the street
To the cool inner chambers, where my slave
Poured out the pitcher's rosy-scented wave
Over his hands, and laid upon his knee
The napkin, silver-fringed: and when the pipe
Exhaled a grateful odor from the ripe
Latakian leaves, said Hassan unto me:
"Listen, O Man! no man can truly say
That he hath wisdom. What I sang to-day
Was not less truth than what I sang before,
But to Truth's house there is a single door,
Which is Experience. He teaches best,
Who feels the hearts of all men in his breast,
And knows their strength or weakness through his own.
The holy pride, that never was o'erthrown,
Was never tempted, and its words of blame
Reach but the dull ears of the multitude:
The admonitions, fruitful unto good,
Come from the voice of him who conquers shame."

IV.

"Give me, O Poet! (if thy friend may be
Worthy such confidence,)" I said, "the key
Unto thy words, that I may share with thee
Thine added wisdom." Hassan's kindly eye
Before his lips unclosed, spake willingly,
And he began: "But two days since, I went
Singing what thou didst hear, with son, intent
On my own virtue, all the markets through;
And when about the time of prayer, I drew
Near the Gate of Victory, behold!
There came a man, whose turban fringed with gold
And golden cimeter, bespake his wealth:
'May God prolong thy days, O Hassan! Health
And Fortune be thy wisdom's aids!' he cried;
'Come to my garden by the river's side,
Where other poets wait thee. Be my guest,
For even the Prophets had their times of rest,
And Rest, that strengthens unto virtuous deeds,
Is one with Prayer.' Two royal-blooded steeds,
Held by his grooms, were waiting at the gate,
And though I shrank from such unwonted state
The master's words were manna to my pride,
And, mounting straightway, forth we twain did ride
Unto the garden by the river's side.

V.

"Never till then had I beheld such bloom.
The west-wind sent its heralds of perfume
To bid us welcome, midway on the road.
Full in the sun the marble portal glowed
Like silver, but within the garden wall
No ray of sunshine found a place to fall,
So thick the crowning foliage of the trees,
Roofing the walks with twilight; and the air
Under their tops was greener than the seas,
And cool as they. The forms that wandered there
Resembled those who populate the floor
Of Ocean, and the royal lineage own
That gave a Princess unto Persia's throne.
All fruits the trees of this fair garden bore,
Whose balmy fragrance lured the tongue to taste
Their flavors: there bananas flung be waste
Their golden flagons with thick honey filled;
From splintered cups the ripe pomegranates spilled
A shower of rubies; oranges that glow
Like globes of fire, enclosed a heart of snow
Which thawed not in their flame; like balls of gold
The peaches seemed, that had in blood been rolled;
Pure saffron mixed with clearest amber stained
The apricots; bunches of amethyst
And sapphire seemed the grapes, so newly kissed
That still the mist of Beauty's breath remained;
And where the lotus slowly swung in air
Her snowy-bosomed chalice, rosy-veined,
The golden fruit swung softly-cradled there,
Even as a bell upon the bosom swings
Of some fair dancer, -- happy bell, that sings
For joy, its golden tinkle keeping time
To the heart's beating and the cymbal's chime!
There dates of agate and of jasper lay,
Dropped from the bounty of the pregnant palm,
And all ambrosial trees, all fruits of balm,
All flowers of precious odors, made the day
Sweet as a morn of Paradise. My breath
Failed with the rapture, and with doubtful mind
I turned to where the garden's lord reclined,
And asked, 'Was not that gate the Gate of Death?'

VI.

"The guests were near a fountain. As I came
They rose in welcome, wedding to my name
Titles of honor, linked in choicest phrase,
For Poets' ears are ever quick to Praise,
The 'Open Sesame!' whose magic art
Forces the guarded entrance of the heart.
Young men were they, whose manly beauty made
Their words the sweeter, and their speech displayed
Knowledge of men, and of the Prophet's laws.
Pleasant our converse was, where every pause
Gave to the fountain leave to sing its song,
Suggesting further speech; until, erelong,
There came a troop of swarthy slaves, who bore
Ewers and pitchers all of silver ore,
Wherein we washed our hands; then, tables placed,
And brought us meats of every sumptuous taste
That makes the blood rich, -- pheasants stuffed with spice;
Young lambs, whose entrails were of cloves and rice;
Ducks bursting with pistachio nuts, and fish
That in a bed of parsley swam. Each dish,
Cooked with such art, seemed better than the last,
And our indulgence in the rich repast
Brought on the darkness ere we missed the day:
But lamps were lighted in the fountain's spray,
Or, pendent from the boughs, their colors told
What fruits unseen, of crimson or of gold,
Scented the gloom. Then took the generous host
A basket filled with roses. Every guest
Cried, 'Give me roses!' and he thus addressed
His words to all: 'He who exalts them most
In song, he only shall the roses wear.'
Then sang a guest: 'The rose's cheeks are fair;
It crowns the purple bowl, and no one knows
If the rose colors it, or it the rose.'
And sang another: 'Crimson is its hue,
And on its breast the morning's crystal dew
Is changed to rubies.' Then a third replied:
'It blushes in the sun's enamored sight,
As a young virgin on her wedding night,
When from her face the bridegroom lifts the veil.'
When all had sung their songs, I, Hassan, tried.
'The Rose,' I sang, 'is either red or pale,
Like maidens whom the flame of passion burns,
And Love or Jealousy controls, by turns.
Its buds are lips preparing for a kiss;
Its open flowers are like the blush of bliss
On lovers' cheeks; the thorns its armor are,
And in its centre shines a golden star,
As on a favorite's cheek a sequin glows;
And thus the garden's favorite is the Rose.'

VII.

"The master from his open basket shook
The roses on my head. The others took
Their silver cups, and filling them with wine,
Cried, 'Pledge our singing, Hassan, as we thine!"
But I exclaimed, 'What is it I have heard?
Wine is forbidden by the Prophet's word:
Surely, O Friends! ye would not lightly break
The laws which bring ye blessing?' Then they spake:
'O Poet, learn thou that the law was made
For men, and not for poets. Turn thine eye
Within, and read the nature there displayed;
The gifts thou hast doth Allah's grace deny
To common men; they lift thee o'er the rules
The Prophet fixed for sinners and for fools.
The vine is Nature's poet: from his bloom
The air goes reeling, tipsy with perfume,
And when the sun is warm within his blood
It mounts and sparkles in a crimson flood;
Rich with dumb songs he speaks not, till they find
Interpretation in the Poet's mind
If Wine be evil, Song is evil too;
Then cease thy singing, lest it bring thee sin;
But wouldst thou know the strains which Hafiz knew,
Drink as he drank, and thus the secret win.'
They clasped my glowing hands; they held the bowl
Up to my lips, till, losing all control
Of the fierce thirst, which at my scruples laughed,
I drained the goblet at a single draught.
It ran through every limb like fluid fire:
'More, O my Friends!' I cried, the new desire
Raging within me: 'this is life indeed!
From blood like this is coined the nobler seed
Whence poets are begotten. Drink again,
And give us music of a tender strain,
Linking your inspiration unto mine,
For music hovers on the lips of Wine!'

VIII.

"'Music!' they shouted, echoing my demand,
And answered with a beckon of his hand
The gracious host, whereat a maiden, fair
As the last star that leaves the morning air,
Came down the leafy paths. Her veil revealed
The beauty of her face, which, half concealed
Behind its thin blue folds, showed like the moon
Behind a cloud that will forsake it soon.
Her hair was braided darkness, but the glance
Of lightning eyes shot from her countenance,
And showed her neck, that like an ivory tower
Rose o'er the twin domes of her marble breast.
Were all the beauty of this age compressed
Into one form, she would transcend its power.
Her step was lighter than the young gazelle's,
And as she walked, her anklet's golden bells
Tinkled with pleasure, but were quickly mute
With jealousy, as from a case she drew
With snowy hands the pieces of her lute,
And took her seat before me. As it grew
To perfect shape, her lovely arms she bent
Around the neck of the sweet instrument,
Till from her soft caresses it awoke
To consciousness, and thus its rapture spoke:
'I was a tree within an Indian vale,
When first I heard the love-sick nightingale
Declare his passion: every leaf was stirred
With the melodious sorrow of the bird,
And when he ceased, the song remained with me.
Men came anon, and felled the harmless tree,
But from the memory of the songs I heard,
The spoiler saved me from the destiny
Whereby my brethren perished. O'er the sea
I came, and from its loud, tumultuous moan
I caught a soft and solemn undertone;
And when I grew beneath the maker's hand
To what thou seest, he sang (the while he planned)
The mirthful measures of a careless heart,
And of my soul his songs became a part.
Now they have laid my head upon a breast
Whiter than marble, I am wholly blest.
The fair hands smite me, and my strings complain
With such melodious cries, they smite again,
Until, with passion and with sorrow swayed,
My torment moves the bosom of the maid,
Who hears it speak her own. I am the voice
Whereby the lovers languish or rejoice;
And they caress me, knowing that my strain
Alone can speak the language of their pain.'

IX.

'Here ceased the fingers of the maid to stray
Over the strings; the sweet song died away
In mellow, drowsy murmurs, and the lute
Leaned on her fairest bosom, and was mute.
Better than wine that music was to me:
Not the lute only felt her hands, but she
Played on my heart-strings, till the sounds became
Incarnate in the pulses of my frame.
Speech left my tongue, and in my tears alone
Found utterance. With stretched arms I implored
Continuance, whereat her fingers poured
A tenderer music, answering the tone
Her parted lips released, the while her throat
Throbbed, as a heavenly bird were fluttering there,
And gave her voice the wonder of his note.
'His brow,' she sang, 'is white beneath his hair;
The fertile beard is soft upon his chin,
Shading the mouth that nestles warm within,
As a rose nestles in its leaves; I see
His eyes, but cannot tell what hue they be,
For the sharp eyelash, like a sabre, speaks
The martial law of Passion; in his cheeks
The quick blood mounts, and then as quickly goes,
Leaving a tint like marble when a rose
Is held inside it: -- bid him veil his eyes,
Lest all my soul should unto mine arise,
And he behold it!' As she sang, her glance
Dwelt on my face; her beauty, like a lance,
Transfixed my heart. I melted into sighs,
Slain by the arrows of her beauteous eyes.
'Why is her bosom made' (I cried) 'a snare?
Why does a single ringlet of her hair
Hold my heart captive?' 'Would you know?' she said;
'It is that you are mad with love, and chains
Were made for madmen.' Then she raised her head
With answering love, that led to other strains,
Until the lute, which shared with her the smart,
Rocked as in storm upon her beating heart.
Thus to its wires she made impassioned cries:
'I swear it by the brightness of his eyes,
I swear it by the darkness of his hair;
By the warm bloom his limbs and bosom wear;
By the fresh pearls his rosy lips enclose;
By the calm majesty of his repose;
By smiles I coveted, and frowns I feared,
And by the shooting myrtles of his beard, --
I swear it, that from him the morning drew
Its freshness, and the moon her silvery hue,
The sun his brightness, and the stars their fire,
And musk and camphor all their odorous breath:
And if he answer not my love's desire,
Day will be night to me, and Life be Death!'

X.

"Scarce had she ceased, when, over come, I fell
Upon her bosom, where the lute no more
That night was cradled; song was silenced well
With kisses, each one sweeter than before,
Until their fiery dew so long was quaffed,
I drank delirium in the infectious draught.
The guests departed, but the sounds they made
I heard not; in the fountain-haunted shade
The lamps burned out; the moon rode far above,
But the trees chased her from our nest of love.
Dizzy with passion, in mine ears the blood
Tingled and hummed in a tumultuous flood,
Until from deep to deep I seemed to fall,
Like him, who from El Sirat's hair-drawn wall
Plunges to endless gulfs. In broken gleams
Glimmered the things I saw, so mixed with dreams
The vain confusion blinded every sense,
And knowledge left me. Then a sleep intense
Fell on my brain, and held me as the dead,
Until a sudden tumult smote my head,
And a strong glare, as when a torch is hurled
Before a sleeper's eyes, brought back the world.

XI.

"Most wonderful! The fountain and the trees
Had disappeared, and in the place of these
I saw the well-known Gate of Victory.
The sun was high; the people looked at me,
And marvelled that a sleeper should be there
On the hot pavement, for the second prayer
Was called from all the minarets. I passed
My hand across my eyes, and found at last
What man I was. Then straightway through my heart
There rang a double pang, -- the bitter smart
Of evil knowledge, and the unhealthy lust
Of sinful pleasure; and I threw the dust
Upon my head, the burial of my pride, --
The ashen soil, wherein I plant the tree
Of Penitence. The people saw, and cried,
'May God reward thee, Hassan! Truly, thou,
Whom men have honored, addest to thy brow
The crowning lustre of Humility:
As thou abasest, God exalteth thee!'
Which when I heard, I shed such tears of shame
As might erase the record of my blame,
And from that time I have not dared to curse
The unrighteous, since the man who seemeth worse
Than I, may purer be; for, when I fell
Temptation reached a loftier pinnacle.
Therefore, O Man! be Charity thy aim
Praise cannot harm, but weigh thy words of blame.
Distrust the Virtue that itself exalts,
But turn to that which doth avow its faults,
And from Repentance plucks a wholesome fruit.
Pardon, not Wrath, is God's best attribute."

XII.

"The tale, O Poet! which thy lips have told,"
I said, "is words of rubies set in gold.
Precious the wisdom which from evil draws
Strength to fulfil the good, of Allah's laws.
But lift thy head, O Hassan! Thine own words
Shall best console thee, for my tongue affords
No phrase but thanks for what thou hast bestowed;
And yet I fain would have thee shake the load
Of shame from off thy shoulders, seeing still
That by this fall thou hast increased thy will
To do the work which makes thee truly blest."
Hassan Ben Khaled wept and smote his breast:
"Hold! hold, O Man!" he cried: "why make me feel
A deeper shame! Why force me to reveal
That Sin is as the leprous taint no art
Can cleanse the blood from? In my secret heart
I do believe I hold at dearer cost
The vanished Pleasure, than the Virtue lost."

So saying, he arose and went his way;
And Allah grant he go no more astray.





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