Richard Burton's Kasidah - A Lay of the Higher Law


FIE, fie! you visionary things,
   ye motes that dance in sunny glow,
Who base and build Eternities
   on briefest moment here below;

Who pass through Life liked cagèd birds,
   the captives of a despot will;
Still wond'ring How and When and Why,
   and Whence and Whither, wond'ring still;

Still wond'ring how the Marvel came
   because two coupling mammals chose
To slake the thirst of fleshly love,
   and thus the "Immortal Being" rose;

Wond'ring the Babe with staring eyes,
   perforce compel'd from night to day,
Gript in the giant grasp of Life
   like gale-born dust or wind-wrung spray;

Who comes imbecile to the world
   'mid double danger, groans, and tears;
The toy, the sport, the waif and stray
   of passions, error, wrath and fears;

Who knows not Whence he came nor Why,
   who kens not Whither bound and When,
Yet such is Allah's choicest gift,
   the blessing dreamt by foolish men;

Who step by step perforce returns
   to couthless youth, wan, white and cold,
Lisping again his broken words
   till all the tale be fully told:

Wond'ring the Babe with quenchèd orbs,
   an oldster bow'd by burthening years,
How 'scaped the skiff an hundred storms;
   how 'scaped the thread a thousand shears;

How coming to the Feast unbid,
   he found the gorgeous table spread
With the fair-seeming Sodom-fruit,
   with stones that bear the shape of bread:

How Life was nought but ray of sun
   that clove the darkness thick and blind,
The ravings of the reckless storm,
   the shrieking of the rav'ening wind;

How lovely visions 'guiled his sleep,
   aye fading with the break of morn,
Till every sweet became a sour,
   till every rose became a thorn;

Till dust and ashes met his eyes
   wherever turned their saddened gaze;
The wrecks of joys and hopes and loves,
   the rubbish of his wasted days;

How every high heroic Thought
   that longed to breathe empyrean air,
Failed of its feathers, fell to earth,
   and perisht of a sheer despair;

How, dower'd with heritage of brain,
   whose might has split the solar ray,
His rest is grossest coarsest earth,
   a crown of gold on brow of clay;

This House whose frame be flesh and bone,
   mortar'd with blood and faced with skin,
The home of sickness, dolours, age;
   unclean without, impure within:

Sans ray to cheer its inner gloom,
   the chambers haunted by the Ghost,
Darkness his name, a cold dumb Shade
   stronger than all the heav'nly host.

This tube, an enigmatic pipe,
   whose end was laid before begun,
That lengthens, broadens, shrinks and breaks;
   --puzzle, machine, automaton;

The first of Pots the Potter made
   by Chrysorrhoas' blue-green wave;1
Methinks I see him smile to see
   what guerdon to the world he gave!

How Life is dim, unreal, vain,
   like scenes that round the drunkard reel;
How "Being" meaneth not to be;
   to see and hear, smell, taste and feel.

A drop in Ocean's boundless tide,
   unfathom'd waste of agony;
Where millions live their horrid lives
   by making other millions die.

How with a heart that would through love
   to Universal Love aspire,
Man woos infernal chance to smite,
   as Min'arets draw the thunder-fire.

How Earth on Earth builds tow'er and wall,
   to crumble at a touch of Time;
How Earth on Earth from Shînar-plain
   the heights of Heaven fain would climb.

How short this Life., how long withal;
   how false its weal, how true its woes,
This fever-fit with paroxysms
   to mark its opening and its close.

Ah! gay the day with shine of sun,
   and bright the breeze, and blithe the throng
Met on the River-bank to play,
   when I was young, when I was young:

Such general joy could never fade;
   and yet the chilling whisper came
One face had paled, one form had failed;
   had fled the bank, had swum the stream;

Still revellers danced, and sang, and trod
   the hither bank of Time's deep tide,
Still one by one they left and fared
   to the far misty thither side;

And now the last hath slipt away
   yon drear death-desert to explore,
And now one Pilgrim worn and lorn
   still lingers on the lonely shore.

Yes, Life in youth-tide standeth still;
   in manhood streameth soft and slow;
See, as it nears the 'abysmal goal
   how fleet the waters flash and flow!

And Deaths are twain; the Deaths we see
   drop like the leaves in windy Fall;
But ours, our own, are ruined worlds,
   a globe collapst, last end of all.

We live our lives with rogues and fools,
   dead and alive, alive and dead,
We die 'twixt one who feels the pulse
   and one who frets and clouds the head.

And,--oh, the Pity!--hardly conned
   the lesson comes its fatal term;
Fate bids us bundle up our books,
   and bear them bod'ily to the worm:

Hardly we learn to wield the blade
   before the wrist grows stiff and old;
Hardly we learn to ply the pen
   ere Thought and Fancy faint with cold.

Hardly we find the path of love,
   to sink the self, forget the "I,"
When sad suspicion grips the heart,
   when Man, the Man begins to die:

Hardly we scale the wisdom-heights,
   and sight the Pisgah-scene around,
And breathe the breath of heav'enly air,
   and hear the Spheres' harmonious sound;

When swift the Camel-rider spans
   the howling waste, by Kismet sped,
And of his Magic Wand a wave
   hurries the quick to join the dead.2

How sore the burden, strange the strife;
   how full of splendour, wonder, fear;
Life, atom of that Infinite Space
   that stretcheth 'twixt the Here and There.

How Thought is imp'otent to divine
   the secret which the gods defend,
The Why of birth and life and death,
   that Isis-veil no hand may rend.

Eternal Morrows make our day;
   our is is aye to be till when
Night closes in; 'tis all a dream,,
   and yet we die,--and then and THEN?

And still the Weaver plies his loom,
   whose warp and woof is wretched Man
Weaving th' unpattern'd dark design,
   so dark we doubt it owns a plan.

Dost not, O Maker, blush to hear,
   amid the storm of tears and blood,
Man say Thy mercy made what is,
   and saw the made and said 'twas good?

The marvel is that man can smile
   dreaming his ghostly ghastly dream;-
Better the heedless atomy
   that buzzes in the morning beam!

O the dread pathos of our lives!
   how durst thou, Allah, thus to play
With Love, Affection, Friendship, all
   that shows the god in mortal clay.

But ah! what 'vaileth man to mourn;
   shall tears bring forth what smiles ne'er brought;
Shall brooding breed a thought of joy?
   Ah hush the sigh, forget the thought!

Silence thine immemorial quest,
   contain thy nature's vain complaint
None heeds, none cares for thee or thine;
   like thee how many came and went?

Cease, Man, to mourn, to weep, to wail;
   enjoy thy shining hour of sun;
We dance along Death's icy brink,
   but is the dance less full of fun?

1. The Abana, River of Damascus.
2. Death in Arabia rides a Camel, not a pale horse.

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