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Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems

The Sick King in Bokhara

[First published 1849. Reprinted 1855.]

O MOST just Vizier, send away

The cloth-merchants, and let them be,

Them and their dues, this day: the King

Is ill at ease, and calls for thee.

O merchants, tarry yet a day

Here in Bokhara: but at noon

To-morrow, come, and ye shall pay

Each fortieth web of cloth to me,

As the law is, and go your way.

O Hussein, lead me to the King.

Thou teller of sweet tales, thine own,

Ferdousi’s, and the others’, lead.

How is it with my lord?


Ever since prayer-time, he doth wait,

O Vizier, without lying down,

In the great window of the gate,

Looking into the Registàn;

Where through the sellers’ booths the slaves

Are this way bringing the dead man.

O Vizier, here is the King’s door.

O Vizier, I may bury him?

O King, thou know’st, I have been sick

These many days, and heard no thing

(For Allah shut my ears and mind),

Not even what thou dost, O King.

Wherefore, that I may counsel thee,

Let Hussein, if thou wilt, make haste

To speak in order what hath chanc’d.

O Vizier, be it as thou say’st.

Three days since, at the time of prayer,

A certain Moollah, with his robe

All rent, and dust upon his hair,

Watch’d my lord’s coming forth, and push’d

The golden mace-bearers aside,

And fell at the King’s feet, and cried;

‘Justice, O King, and on myself!

On this great sinner, who hath broke

The law, and by the law must die!

Vengeance, O King!’
But the King spoke:

‘What fool is this, that hurts our ears

With folly? or what drunken slave?

My guards, what, prick him with your spears!

Prick me the fellow from the path!’

As the King said, so was it done,

And to the mosque my lord pass’d on.

But on the morrow, when the King

Went forth again, the holy book

Carried before him, as is right,

And through the square his path he took;

My man comes running, fleck’d with blood

From yesterday, and falling down

Cries out most earnestly; ‘O King,

My lord, O King, do right, I pray!

‘How canst thou, ere thou hear, discern

If I speak folly? but a king,

Whether a thing be great or small,

Like Allah, hears and judges all.

‘Wherefore hear thou! Thou know’st, how fierce

In these last days the sun hath burn’d:

That the green water in the tanks

Is to a putrid puddle turn’d:

And the canal, that from the stream

Of Samarcand is brought this way,

Wastes, and runs thinner every day.

‘Now I at nightfall had gone forth

Alone, and in a darksome place

Under some mulberry trees I found

A little pool; and in brief space

With all the water that was there

I fill’d my pitcher, and stole home

Unseen: and having drink to spare,

I hid the can behind the door,

And went up on the roof to sleep.

‘But in the night, which was with wind

And burning dust, again I creep

Down, having fever, for a drink.

‘Now meanwhile had my brethren found

The water-pitcher, where it stood

Behind the door upon the ground,

And call’d my mother: and they all,

As they were thirsty, and the night

Most sultry, drain’d the pitcher there;

That they sate with it, in my sight,

Their lips still wet, when I came down.

‘Now mark! I, being fever’d, sick,

(Most unblest also) at that sight

Brake forth, and curs’d them—dost thou hear?

One was my mother—Now, do right!’

But my lord mus’d a space, and said:

‘Send him away, Sirs, and make on.

It is some madman,’ the King said:

As the King said, so was it done.

The morrow at the self-same hour

In the King’s path, behold, the man,

Not kneeling, sternly fix’d: he stood

Right opposite, and thus began,

Frowning grim down:—‘Thou wicked King,

Most deaf where thou shouldst most give ear!

What, must I howl in the next world,

Because thou wilt not listen here?

‘What, wilt thou pray, and get thee grace,

And all grace shall to me be grudg’d?

Nay but, I swear, from this thy path

I will not stir till I be judg’d.’

Then they who stood about the King

Drew close together and conferr’d:

Till that the King stood forth and said,

‘Before the priests thou shalt be heard.’

But when the Ulemas were met

And the thing heard, they doubted not;

But sentenc’d him, as the law is,

To die by stoning on the spot.

Now the King charg’d us secretly:

‘Ston’d must he be, the law stands so:

Yet, if he seek to fly, give way:

Forbid him not, but let him go.’

So saying, the King took a stone,

And cast it softly: but the man,

With a great joy upon his face,

Kneel’d down, and cried not, neither ran.

So they, whose lot it was, cast stones;

That they flew thick and bruis’d him sore:

But he prais’d Allah with loud voice,

And remain’d kneeling as before.

My lord had cover’d up his face:

But when one told him, ‘He is dead,’

Turning him quickly to go in,

‘Bring thou to me his corpse,’ he said.

And truly, while I speak, O King,

I hear the bearers on the stair.

Wilt thou they straightway bring him in?

—Ho! enter ye who tarry there!

O King, in this I praise thee not.

Now must I call thy grief not wise.

Is he thy friend, or of thy blood,

To find such favour in thine eyes?

Nay, were he thine own mother’s son,

Still, thou art king, and the Law stands.

It were not meet the balance swerv’d,

The sword were broken in thy hands.

But being nothing, as he is,

Why for no cause make sad thy face?

Lo, I am old: three kings, ere thee,

Have I seen reigning in this place.

But who, through all this length of time,

Could bear the burden of his years,

If he for strangers pain’d his heart

Not less than those who merit tears?

Fathers we must have, wife and child;

And grievous is the grief for these:

This pain alone, which must be borne,

Makes the head white, and bows the knees.

But other loads than this his own

One man is not well made to bear.

Besides, to each are his own friends,

To mourn with him, and show him care.

Look, this is but one single place,

Though it be great: all the earth round,

If a man bear to have it so,

Things which might vex him shall be found.

Upon the Russian frontier, where

The watches of two armies stand

Near one another, many a man,

Seeking a prey unto his hand,

Hath snatch’d a little fair-hair’d slave:

They snatch also, towards Mervè,

The Shiah dogs, who pasture sheep,

And up from thence to Orgunjè.

And these all, labouring for a lord,

Eat not the fruit of their own hands:

Which is the heaviest of all plagues,

To that man’s mind, who understands.

The kaffirs also (whom God curse!)

Vex one another, night and day:

There are the lepers, and all sick:

There are the poor, who faint alway.

All these have sorrow, and keep still,

Whilst other men make cheer, and sing.

Wilt thou have pity on all these?

No, nor on this dead dog, O King!

O Vizier, thou art old, I young.

Clear in these things I cannot see.

My head is burning; and a heat

Is in my skin which angers me.

But hear ye this, ye sons of men!

They that bear rule, and are obey’d,

Unto a rule more strong than theirs

Are in their turn obedient made.

In vain therefore, with wistful eyes

Gazing up hither, the poor man,

Who loiters by the high-heap’d booths,

Below there, in the Registàn,

Says, ‘Happy he, who lodges there!

With silken raiment, store of rice,

And for this drought, all kinds of fruits,

Grape syrup, squares of colour’d ice,

‘With cherries serv’d in drifts of snow.’

In vain hath a king power to build

Houses, arcades, enamell’d mosques;

And to make orchard closes, fill’d

With curious fruit trees, bought from far;

With cisterns for the winter rain;

And in the desert, spacious inns

In divers places;—if that pain

Is not more lighten’d, which he feels,

If his will be not satisfied:

And that it be not, from all time

The Law is planted, to abide.

Thou wert a sinner, thou poor man!

Thou wert athirst; and didst not see,

That, though we snatch what we desire,

We must not snatch it eagerly.

And I have meat and drink at will,

And rooms of treasures, not a few.

But I am sick, nor heed I these:

And what I would, I cannot do.

Even the great honour which I have,

When I am dead, will soon grow still.

So have I neither joy, nor fame.

But what I can do, that I will.

I have a fretted brick-work tomb

Upon a hill on the right hand,

Hard by a close of apricots,

Upon the road of Samarcand:

Thither, O Vizier, will I bear

This man my pity could not save;

And, plucking up the marble flags,

There lay his body in my grave.

Bring water, nard, and linen rolls.

Wash off all blood, set smooth each limb.

Then say; ‘He was not wholly vile,

Because a king shall bury him.’