SABCL - Volume 5
III. Longer Poems
Khaled of the Sea
An Arabic1 Romance
An early work, conceived in twelve cantos with a Prologue and Epilogue, found unrevised and incomplete.
Alnuman and the Peri
The Story of Alnuman and the Emir
The Companions of Alnuman 1
The Companions of Alnuman 2
The Companions of Alnuman 3
The First Quest of the Sapphire Crown
The Quest of the Golden Snake
The Quest of the Marble Queen
The Quest of the Snowbird
The Second Quest of the Sapphire Crown
The Journey of the Green Oasis
The Journey of the Irremeable Ocean
The Journey of the Land without Pity
The Arabian and the Caliph.
Alnuman and the Peri
In Bagdad by Euphrates, Asia’s river,
Euphrates that through deserts must deliver
The voices which of human daybreaks are
Into the dim mysterious surge afar,
The Arabian dwelt; after long travel he
Regions deserted, wastes of silent sea,
Wide Ocean ignorant of ships and lands
Never made glad by toil of mortal hands,
For he had seen the Indian mountains bare
Save of hard snow and the unbreathed huge air
And swum through giant waters and had heard
In those unhuman forests beast and bird,
The peacock’s cry and tiger’s hoarse appeal
Calling to God for prey, marked the vast wheel
Of monstrous birds shadowing whole countries; he
From Singhal through the long infinity
Of southern floods had steered his shuddering ship
Where unknown winds their lonely tumult keep
And he had lived with strong and pitiless men,
Nations unhumanised2 by joy and pain,
And he had tasted grain not sown by man
And drunk strange milk in weird Mazinderan.
Silent he was, as one whom thoughts attend,
Distant whom stiller hearts than ours befriend
He lived with memories only; no sweet voice
Made the mute echoes of his life rejoice;
No lovely face of children brought the dawn
Into his home; but silent, calm, withdrawn,
He watched the ways of men with godlike eyes
Released from trammelling affinities,3
Yet was he young and many women strove
Vainly to win his marble mind to love.
One day when wind had fled to the cool north
And the strong earth was blind with summer, forth
The Arabian rode from great Bagdad and turned
Into the desert. All around him burned
The imprisoned spirit of fire; above his head
The sky was like a tyranny outspread,
The sun a fire in those heavens, and fire
The sands beneath; the air burning desire
And breathless, a plumb weight of flame; yet rode
The Arabian unfeeling like a god.
Three hours he rode and now no more was seen
Bagdad, the imperial city, nor aught green,
But the illimitable sands around
Extend, a silent world waiting for sound,
When in the distance he descried a grace
Of motion beautiful in that dead place.
Wondering he turned, but suddenly the horse
Pricked up his slender ears, swerved from the course
And pawing stood the unwilling air, nor heard
The guiding voice nor the familiar word.
Whinnying with wrath he smote the desert sand
And mocked the rein and raged at the command.
Then raised the man his face and saw above
No cloud with the stark face of heaven strove,
A single blaze of light from pole to pole.
Smiling the Arabian spoke unto his soul.
“Here too then are you strong, O influences
That trouble the earth and air and the strong seas!
Therefore I will not stay your gathering wings
Who watch me from the air, you living things,
But go to find whatever peril or wonder
Wait me of life above the earth or under.
Strange will it be if quiet Bagdad yield
More terror or more sweetness than in field
Has stayed me yet or in untravelled flood
Or mountain or the tiger-throated wood.”
So saying he grasped the strong and shaken mane
And set swift footing on that4 fiery plain.
At once the beast as if by sorcery
Strangely compelled, calmed his impetuous eye:
His angry tremor ceased and bounding wrath
Following unbidden in the Arabian’s path.
But he with silent toil the sands untried
Vanquishing through that luminous world and wide
Went a slow shadow, till his feet untired
The fruit of all his labour long acquired.
Before a mile complete he was aware
Of a strange shape of beauty sitting there
On a sole boulder in the level wild,
Maiden, a marvellous bloom, a naked child;
All like a lily from her leaves escaped
The golden summer kissed her close and wrapped
In soft revealing sunshine,– a sweet bareness,
A creature made of flowers and choicest fairness;
And all her limbs were like a luminous dream,
So wonderfully white they burn and gleam,
Her shoulder ivory richly bathed in gold,
Her sides a snowy wonder to behold,
Marble made amorous; her body fair
Seemed one with the divine, translucent air,
A light within the light, a glorious treasure,
A thing to hold, to press5, to slay with pleasure.
The6 girl was not alone, but with her watched
Two shapes of beauty and of terror hatched,
A strong, fierce snake, round her sweet middle twined,
A tigress at her lovely feet reclined.
Dreaming on those tremendous sands she waited
And often with that splendour miscreated
Played thoughtfully; about her wondrous knees
Binding the brilliant death or would increase
The whiteness of her limbs with its fierce hues
Or twine it in her tresses flowing loose.
Below that other restless evil played,
The fierce, sleek terror on the sands outspread.
First of the wonderful three rose with a bound
Waking the desert from its sleep with sound
The tigress, but the Arabian strode more near
As one who had forgotten how to fear
And frowning like a god with kingly look
He threatened the preparing death and shook
His javelin in the sun. Back crouched the fiend
Amazed nor could the steely light attend
Nor that unconquerable glance; yet lowered
To find her dreadful violence overpowered
By any smaller thing than death; and he
Heeded no more crouched limb nor stealthy eye.
He on that flowerlike shape a moment gazed
As one by strange felicity amazed,
Who, long grown sorrow’s friend his whole life grieves,
Blest beyond expectation, scarce believes
That joy is in his heart, so gazed, so laid
At last upon the white and gleaming maid
The question of his hands. O soft and real
The nakedness he grasped, no marble ideal
Born of the blazing light and infinite air,
A breathing woman with lovely limbs and bare.
Then with a strong melodious voice he cried
And all his cheek was flushed with kingly7 pride.
“Thou then art mine, after long labour mine,
O earthly body and O soul divine,
After long labour and thy sounding home
Hast left and caverns where thy sisters roam,
O dweller where the austral tempest raves!
O daughter of the wild and beautiful waves!
O8 breasts of beauty! O shoulder! my delight!9
O luminously near! O woman white!10
At length I grasp thee11 then and snared at length
The ivory swiftness of thy feet and strength
Of this immortal body shaped for kings,
O memory of sweet and dreadful things!
Ah, welcome to the streets that human tread
Makes musical and joy of human bread
Broken between dry hands and to the sight
Of the untroubled narrow rivers, light
Of lamps and warmth of kindled fires and man.
Fairer shall be thy feet on greensward than
On ocean rocks and O! more bright thy beauty
For human passion and for womanly duty
And softer in my bosom shalt thou sleep
Than lulled by the sublime and monstrous deep.
Much have I laboured; the resplendent face
Of summer I have hated, as the days
Went by and no delightful brook was found
Sprinkling with earth’s cool love the ruthless ground,
And in my throat there was a desert’s thirst
And on my tongue a fire: I have cursed
The spring and all its flowers; the wrathful cry
Of the wild waters and their cruelty
I have endured, labouring with sail and oar
Through the mad tempest for some human shore
And fought with winds and seen vast Hell aflame
Down in the nether flood till I became
Blind with the sight of those abysmal graves
And deaf with the eternal sound of waves
And all my heart was broken alone to be
Day after day with the unending sea.
And much on land I have laboured without moan
Or weakening tears making my heart a stone.
But thou art come and I shall hear no more
By inexorable rocks the Ocean roar,
Nor pine in dungeons far from pity or aid.
But in far other prison, seaborn maid,
Thy limbs shall minister to my delight
Even as an ordinary woman’s might
And I shall hear thy voice around my heart
Like a cool rivulet and shall not start
To see thee ivory gleaming and all night
Shall feel thee in my arms, O darling white –
With after-joys that spring from these; the face
Of childish loveliness shall light my days,
About my doors the feet of children tread
And little heads with jonquils garlanded,
That often to sweetness win war-hardened eyes
And hearts grown iron their soft masteries
Compel and the light touch of little hands
Bend sworded fingers to their sweet commands.
O bright felicity, labour’s dear end,
Into my arms, into my heart descend.”
So as he spoke, the silent desert air
Lived with his gladness, and the maiden there
Listened with downcast lids and a soft flush
Upon her like the coming of a blush.
But when he finished and the air was mute,
She laughed with happy lips most like a flute
Or voice of cuckoo in an Indian grove
Waking the heart to vague delightful love.
And with divine eyes gleaming where strange mirth
A smiling mischief was, the living girth
Of her delicious waist she suddenly
Unbound and by the middle lifting high
Betwixt them shook. Hissed the fierce snake and raised
Its jewelled hood for spotted radiance praised,
Its jewelled hood to the dread leap intended12;
Sad limit of noble life, had that descended.
Since short were his13 breath and evil, who that pang
Experienced; but before the serpent sprang,
Wrathful, the Arabian seized the glittering neck
And twines of bronze burning with many a fleck
Of coloured fire. His angry grasp to quell
Vainly the formidable folds rebel:
Not all that gordian force and slippery strength
Of coils availed. Inanimate at length
The immense destroyer on the Arabian’s wrist
Hung in a ruin loose; and to resist
The14 wrath of love none now might intervene,
Nor she deny him. Yet with tranquil mien
Smiling she sat and swept with noble gesture
Her hair back that had fallen a purple investure
Over her glowing grace. Strong arms he cast
Around her naked loveliness and fast
Showered kisses on her limbs whose marble white
Grew woman with a soft and rosy light
In each kissed place. “Deemedst thou then,” he cried,
“Bright fugitive, lovely wanderer with the tide,
By shaking death before death-practised eyes
My crown to wrest of strenuous enterprise,
Thyself, thyself and beauty? O too sweet
To touch our hard earth with thy faultless feet!
Yet on hard earth must dwell. For with the ground
Thy dreadful guardians who have fenced thee round
Are equalled, and thyself, sweet, though thou shame
The winds with swiftness or like mounting flame
Strive all thy days in my imprisoning arms
Couldst burn thyself no exit. With alarms
Menace and shapes of death; call on the flood
For thy deliverance on these sands to intrude
And lead thee to its jealous waters rude;
But hands that have flung back the swallowing sea
Shall stay and chastise and habituate thee
To yield sweet service due, being my slave15
Bought with hard pains from the reluctant wave,
With pain ineffable bought and deep despair
And passion of impracticable care.”
So saying he seized his lovely prize and grasping
Her fair soft arm in one hand, the other clasping
Her smooth desirèd thighs, from that rude seat,
The grey sun-blistered boulder most unmeet
To bear her snow-white radiance, lifted. She
As to his horse he bore her mightily,
A little strove in his strong arms, but round
Her lithe, reluctant limbs closer he bound
His despot hands and on the saddle set,
Never with such sweet rider burdened yet.
Then to his seat he sprang and musical
His cry in that vast silence, wherewithal
He urged his horse, which delicately went
Arching its neck with joy and proud content.
Great were the Arabian’s labours; many seas
He had passed and borne impossible miseries
And battled with impracticable ills
O’er uncrossed rivers and forbidden hills,
Till nature fainted. Yet too little was this
To merit all the heaven now made his.
For she, earth’s wonder, hard to grasp as fire,
She whom all ocean’s secret depths admire,
Laid her delicious cheek to his and flung
Sweet, bare arms on his neck and round him clung:
Her snowy side was of his being a part;
Her naked breast burdened his throbbing heart,
And all her hair streamed over him and the whiteness
Of her was in his eyes and her soft brightness
A joy beneath his hands to his embrace
And he was clothed with her as in a dress.
Round them the strong recovered coils were rolled
Of the great snake and with imperious fold
Compelled their limbs together, and by their side
Pacing the tigress checked her dangerous stride.
So rode they like a vision. All the time
She murmured accents as of linkčd rhyme
Musical, in a language like the sea,
Accents of undulating melody.
For sometimes it was like a happy noon
Murmuring with waves and sometimes like the swoon
Of calm, a silence heard, or rich by noise
Of rivers pouring with their seaward voice
And leaping laughters and sometimes was wild
And passionate as the sobbing of a child.
But often it was like the cold salt spray
On a health-reddened cheek and glad with day
And life and sad with the far-moaning call
Of wind upon the waters funeral.
Not on the lips of man might fashioned be
A language of such wild variety.
Now of that magic tongue no separate word
Was of Alnuman understood or16 heard,
And yet he knew that of the caves she spoke
Where never earthly light of sunshine woke,
And of unfathomed things beneath the floods
And peopled depths and Ocean solitudes
And mighty creatures of the main and light
Of jewels making a subluminous night
Lower than even the dead may sink; and walls
Of coral and in what majestic halls
The naked sea-born sisters link their dance;
How sometimes on the shores their white limbs glance
In the mysterious moonlight; how they come
To river banks far from their secret home;
And last she spoke of mighty Love that reaches
Resistless arms beyond the long sea-beaches
And mocks the barriers of the storm, and how
Pearls unattainable a human brow
Have decked and man, the child of misery,
Been mated with the sisters of the sea.
So on she murmured like a ceaseless song
Making the weary sands a rapture; long
The patient desert round them waits; nor soon
The sun toiled through the endless afternoon:
But they paced always like a marvellous dream,
And dreamlike in the eyes of man might seem
Such magic vision (had human eyes been found
In the sole desert void of sign or bound),–
The horse that feared its dread companion not,
The kingly man with brow of reaching thought
And danger-hardened strength; fair as the morn,
The radiant girl upon his saddle borne,
Naked, a vision not of earth; the fell
Serpent that twined about them, terrible
With burning hues, and the fierce tigress there
Following with noiseless step the godlike pair.
Nor when to Bagdad and its street17 they came,
Did any eye behold. Only a name
Was in the ears of the grim warders. Straight
Like engines blind of some overmastering18 fate
They rose, the mighty bolts they drew; loud jarred
The doors unhearing with deaf iron barred
And groaned upon their road; then backward swung
Whirling and kissed again with clamorous tongue;
Nor in the streets was any step of man,
Before loud wheels no swift torchbearers ran
Setting the night on fire; bright and rare
The garlanded high-shuttered windows, where
Men revelled and sound into the shadows cast:
All else was night and silence where they passed.
So is the beautiful sea-stranger gone
To her new home, who now no more must run
Upon the bounding waves, nor feel the sun.
On wind-blown limbs, destined a mortal’s bride.
So is the strong Arabian deified
In bliss. Moreover from the wondrous night
When with those small beloved feet grew bright
His lonely house, wealth like a sea swept through
Its doors and as a dwelling of gods it grew
In beauty and in brightness. All that thrives
Costly or fragrant upon earth or lives
Of riches in the hoarding ocean lost
And all bright things with gold or gems embossed
By Indian or by Syrian art refined
And all rich cloths and silks with jewels lined
Regal Bokhara weaves or Samarcand,
Increased and gathered to Alnuman’s hand
And girls of glorious limb and feature he
Bought for his slaves, of rose and ivory,
Sweet Persians with the honey-hiding mouth
And passionate Arab girls and strong-limbed youth
Of Tartar maidens for his harem doors.
For now not vainly the fair child implores
Of Shaikh or of Emir his love for boon,
But with high marriage-rites some prosperous moon
At last has brought into the marble pride
Of that great house for envy edified.
So in Bagdad the Arabian dwelt nor seemed
Other his life than theirs who never dreamed
Beyond earth’s ken, nor made in sun and breeze
Their spirits great with shock of the strong seas,
Nor fortified their hearts with pains sublime
Nor wrestled with the bounds of space and time.
Like common men he lived to whom the ray
Of a new sun but brings another day
Unmeaning, who in their own selves confined
Know not the grandeur which the mightier mind
Inherits when it makes the destinies rude
The chisel by which its marble mass and crude
With God’s or hero’s likeness is indued.
Yet this was also rumoured that within
The sheath of that calm life he sojourned in
An edge of flaming rapture was, that things
Beyond all transitory imaginings
Came to him secret and vast pleasures more
Than frail humanity had dared to feel before.
Since too much joy man’s heart can hardly bear
And all too weak man’s narrow senses were
For raptures that eternal spirits attain
In sensuous heavens ignorant of pain.
Yet even such raptures mortal man’s could be
Wed with the child of the unbounded sea.
The Story of Almaimun19 and the Emir’s Daughter
Now in great Bagdad of the Abbasside
The wanderer rests, to peace at last allied,
Whom storm so long had tossed to storm, and grace
Of love dwelt with him and the nobleness
Of hearts made golden by felicity,
Which is earth’s preferable alchemy.
The20 other is from pain the metal wrought,
Anguish and wrestling in the coils of thought.
These strengthen, these the mind as marble hard
Make and as marble pure, which has not feared
To scourge itself with insight; but the stress
Of joy heightened to self-forgetfulness
Is sweeter and to sweeter uses tends.
With such felicity were crowned the friends
And lovers of Almaimun and increase
In the glad strength that grows from boundless peace.
And each as to her orb the sunflower burns
His spirit to his spirit’s image turns.
Such puissance great well-poisèd natures prove
To mould to their own likeness all they love.
But where is she who lit his doubtful morn,
Whose sweet imagined shape each hour new-born
Brightened but to illumine, kindled each
Stray look with godhead and her daily speech
A far ethereal music made, for whom
He sought the wild waves and the peopled gloom
Of the unseen? Must only she make moan?
She in the crowded chambers is alone
And closes eyes kept dry by anguished pride
To wake in tears that hardly will be dried.
Happy the heart and more than earthly blest
That for those hands was meant where ’tis possessed
That to no alien house at the end has come
But winging goes as to its natural home.
The evening bird with no more simple flight
Reaches its one unfailing nest at night.
The heart which Fate not always here perverse
With the one possible home out of an universe,
Makes simply happy there secure shall dwell,
Feeling that to be there is only well
And equal happy whether queenly chair
Her portion or she kneel loose-girdled there
And serve him as a slave. Alike ’tis heaven,
Rule or obedience to the one heart given.
So did not bright Zuleikha deem when she
The temple was of his idolatry.
Impatient of divine subjection, all
Love’s wealth was to her grace imperial
Purple and diadems and earth’s noblest gift
But vantage her disdainful pride to lift.
She was an Emir’s daughter and her sire
Clothed her in jewels and sublime attire,
From silver dishes fed and emerald
And in a world of delicate air installed
So that her nature with these costly things
Being burdened raised in vain its heavenward wings.
From Koraish and the Abbasside he drew
His stern extraction. Yet what brighter grew
About his formidable name accursed
Was a white fire of riches and the thirst
Of poor men gazing with a bitter stealth
On that impossibility of wealth.
“Abdullah, the Emir”, so men would say
Drawing their rags about them, “has display
Of gold and silver and the sunlight fades
At noon in his wide treasury and the shades
Of midnight are more luminous there than birth
Of day upon the ordinary earth.
He has rich garments, would the naked clothe
From Bagdad to the sea, were he not loth;
The leavings of his menials far exceed
In Khorassan the labourer’s sharpened need,
And since by thee this fair display was planned,
O God, yet from the beggar’s outstretched hand
He guards his boundless trust ignobly well,
Just Lord, display to him the fires of Hell.”
And here another pressing from his eye
His children’s pining looks, made sad reply:
“Richer his wealth than widest chambers hold,
Not in the weary heaps of ingots told
Entirely, nor the cloths Damascus yields,
Nor what the seas give up, nor what the fields.
He gathers ever with exhaustless hands:
His camels heave across the endless sands.
Through Balkh when to Caboul or Candahar
The wains go groaning or the evening star
Watches the pomp of the wide caravan
Intend to provinces Arabian,
Half is Abdullah the Emir’s: and he
Gets spices of the south and porphyry;
His are the Chinese silks, the Indian work
Saved hardly from the horsehooves of the Turk;
From Balsora the ships that o’er the bar
Reel into Ocean’s grasp, Abdullah’s are;
Yemen’s far ports are with his ventures full;
Muscat transmits him horses, arms and wool.
The desert rider hopes no richer prize
To handle than Abdullah’s merchandize;
With joy the Malayan sea-robber hails
His argosy and for his western sails
The Moorish pirates all the horizon scan
Upon the far Mediterranean.
Yet though his losses make the desert great
And Ocean a new treasury create
From his sole rapine, yet untouched endure
His riches by that vast expenditure.
He takes but to increase his piles of gold,
He gives but to recover hundredfold.
Thereby the poor increase. Wherefore I trust,
When Azrael shall smite his limbs to dust
And he upon that dolorous bridge is led
Which, lord and peasant, all must one day tread,
The bitter sword that spans the nether hell,
He may be evened with the infidel.”
And one might answer mid these wretched men
Who quiet was from constancy to pain:
“Curse him not either lest the Kazi find
And God loose not the chains that he shall bind.”
For he indeed was mighty in the town,
A man acceptable in his renown.
The Mullahs to his will interpreted
Their books and the law’s lightning from his head
Glanced on the rash accuser; for his word
Was Hédoya before the Kazi heard.
But whence the fountain of his wealth might flow
Well did the sad and toiling peasant know.
For he as governor in Khorassan
Had held the balance betwixt man and man
And justified his rule benevolent
By rape and torture for their own good meant,
The fallen roof-tree and the broken door
And rents wrung from the miserable poor.
And now hemmed in with lustrous things and proud,
Each day a pomp, each night with music loud,
He blazed, however his eye a darkness cast
And pleasure by his sense external passed.
Yet joy he had over his gathered gold
And in that one sweet maiden joy untold.
Daughter of Noureddin the Barmecide
Was she who bore this brightness, but when died
Jaafar and all his house fell like a tower
Loosened in the mutation of an hour,
Abdullah found his foe an outlawed man,
Proscribed, a heretic and Persian
And slew him with the sword juridical
Between his golden house and Allah’s wall.
Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volume 2.- Collected Poems.- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2009.- 751 p.
1 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: Arabian
2 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: unhumanized
3 Large as from commerce with infinities,
4 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: the
5 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: kiss
6 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: This
8 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: Ah
9 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: Ah delicious shoulder!
10 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: Leading from bliss to bliss the hands that hold her,
11 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: you
12 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: distended
13 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: short his
14 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: His
15 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2:
To service due.” He said and with the words
The power in his soul increased, as birds
With sounds encourage love and like great waves
Exulting, rose against the breasts he craves,
So he engrossed the lovely limbs. Then grasping
16 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: nor
17 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: streets
18 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: o’ermastering
19 Name changed from “Alnuman” to “Almaimun” in MS. on this page
20 2009 ed. CWSA, vol.2: For