HARUN AL-RASHID AND THE THREE POETS



The Prince of True Believers, Caliph Harun al-Rashid, was exceeding restless one night; so he rose and walked about his palace, till he happened upon a handmaid overcome with wine.  Now he was prodigiously enamoured of this damsel; so he played with her and pulled her to him, whereupon her zone fell down and her petticoat-trousers were loosed and he besought her of amorous favour.  But she said to him, “O Commander of the Faithful wait till to-morrow night, for I am unprepared for thee, knowing not of thy coming.”  So he left her and went away.  But, when the morrow showed its light and the sun shone bright, he sent a page to her saying, “The Commander of the Faithful is about to visit thine apartment;” but she replied, “Day doth away with the promise of night.”  So he said to his courtiers, “Make me somewhat of verse, introducing these words, ‘The Promise of Night is effaced by Day.’” Answered they, “We hear and obey,” and Al-Rakáshi [FN#109] came forward and recited the following couplets,

    “By Allah, couldst thou but feel my pain, *
         Thy rest had turned and had fled away.  
    Hath left me in sorrow and love distraught, *
         Unseen and unseeing, that fairest may:
    She promised me grace, then jilted and said, *
         ‘The promise of night is effaced by day!’”

Then Abu Mus’ab came forward and recited these couplets,

    “When wilt thou be wise and love-heat allay *
         That from food and sleeping so leads astray?
    Suffices thee not ever weeping eye, *
         And vitals on fire when thy name they say?
    He must smile and laugh and in pride must cry *
         ‘The promise of Night is effaced by Day.’”

Last came Abu Nowas and recited the following couplets,

    “As love waxt longer less met we tway *
         And fell out, but ended the useless fray;
    One night in the palace I found her fou’; *
         Yet of modesty still there was some display:
    The veil from her shoulders had slipt; and showed *
         Her loosened trousers Love’s seat and stay:
    And rattled the breezes her huge hind cheeks *
         And the branch where two little pomegranates lay:
    Quoth I, ‘Give me tryst;’ whereto quoth she *
         To-morrow the fane shall wear best array:’
    Next day I asked her, ‘Thy word?’  Said she *
         ‘The promise of Night is effaced by Day.’”

The Caliph bade give a myriad of money each to Al-Rakashi and Abu Mus’ab, but bade strike off the head of Abu Nowas, saying, “Thou wast with us yesternight in the palace.”  Said he, “By Allah, I slept not but in my own house!  I was directed to what I said by thine own words as to the subject of the verse; and indeed quoth Almighty Allah (and He is the truest of all speakers): ‘As for poets (devils pursue them!) dost thou not see that they rove as bereft of their senses through every valley and that they say that which they do not?’” [FN#110]  So the Caliph forgave him and gave him two myriads of money.  And another tale is that of




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