Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Asia: Vols. XXI–XXIII. 1876–79.

Chinese Empire: Sarra

Cambus Khan

By Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)

(From The Squieres Tale)

Modernized by Leigh Hunt

AT Sarra, in the land of Tartary,

There dwelt a king, and with the Russ warred he,

Through which there perished many a doughty man;

And Cambus was he called, the noble Khan.

Nowhere, in all that region, had a crown

Been ever worn with such entire renown.

Hardy he was, and true, and rich, and wise,

Always the same; serene of soul and eyes;

Piteous and just, benign and honorable,

Of his brave heart as any centre stable;

And therewithal he ever kept a state

So fit to uphold a throne so fortunate,

That there was nowhere such another man.

This noble king, this Tartar, Cambus Khan,

Had by the late Queen Elfeta, his wife,

Two sons, named Cambalu and Algarsife,

And a dear daughter, Canace by name,

Whose perfect beauty puts my pen to shame.

If you could see my heart, it were a glass

To show perhaps how fair a thing she was;

But when I speak of her, my tongue appears

To fail me, looking in that face of hers.

’T is well for me that I regard not those,

Who love what I do, as my natural foes;

Or when I think how dear she is to be

To one that will adorn this history,

And how her heart will love him in return,

My paper, sooner than be touched, should burn:

But she knows nothing of all this at present,

She ’s only young, and innocent, and pleasant;

And sometimes by her father sits and sighs,

On which he stoops to kiss her gentle-lidded eyes.

And so befell, that when this Khan supreme

Had twenty winters borne his diadem,

He bade the feast of his nativity

Be cried through Sarra, as ’t was wont to be.

It was in March; and the young lusty year

Came in with such a flood of golden cheer,

That the quick birds, against the sunny sheen,

What for the season and the thickening green,

Sung their affections loudly o’er the fields:

They seemed to feel that they had got them shields

Against the sword of winter, keen and cold.

High is the feast in Sarra, that they hold:

And Cambus, with his royal vestments on,

Sits at a separate table on a throne;

His sons a little lower on the right;

His daughter on the left, a gentle sight;

And then his peers, apart from either wall,

Ranged in majestic drapery down the hall.

The galleries on two sides have crowded slants

Full as flower-shows, of ladies and gallants;

And o’er the doorway opposite the king,

The proud musicians blow their shawms and sing.

But to relate the whole of the array

Would keep me from my tale a summer’s day;

And so I pass the service and the cost,

The often-silenced noise, the lofty toast,

And the glad-symphonies that leaped to thank

The lustre-giving Lord, whene’er he drank.

Suffice to say, that after the third course

His vassals, while the sprightly wine ’s in force,

And the proud music mingles over all,

Bring forth their gifts, and set them in the hall;

And so befell, that when the last was set,

And while the king sat thus in his estate,

Hearing his minstrels playing from on high

Before him at his board deliciously,

All on a sudden, ere he was aware,

Through the hall door, and the mute wonder there,

There came a stranger on a steed of brass,

And in his hand he held a looking-glass;

Some sparkling ring he wore; and by his side,

Without a sheath, a cutting sword was tied;

And up he rides unto the royal board:

In all the hall there was not spoke a word;

All wait with busy looks, both young and old,

To hear what wondrous thing they shall be told.

The stranger, who appeared a noble page,

High-bred, and of some twenty years of age,

Dismounted from his horse; and kneeling down,

Bowed low before the face that wore the crown:

Then rose, and reverenced lady, lords, and all,

In order as they sat within the hall,

With such observance, both in speech and air,

That certainly, had Kubla’s self been there,

Or sage Confucius, with his courtesy,

Returned to earth to show what men should be,

He could not have improved a single thing;

Then turning lastly to address the king,

Once more, but lightlier than at first, he bowed,

And in a manly voice thus spoke aloud:—

“May the great Cambus to his slave be kind!

My lord, the King of Araby and Ind,

In honor of your feast, this solemn day,

Salutes you in the manner he best may,

And sends you, by a page whom he holds dear,

(His happy but his humble messenger)

This steed of brass; which, in a day and night,

Through the dark half as safely as the light,

O’er sea and land, and with your perfect ease,

Can bear your body wheresoe’er you please.

It matters not if skies be foul or fair;

The thing is like a thought, and cuts the air

So smoothly, and so well observes the track,

The man that will may sleep upon his back.

All that the rider needs, when he would turn,

Or rise, or take him downwards, you may learn,

If it so please you, when we speak within,

And does but take the writhing of a pin.

“This glass too, which I hold, such is its power,

That if, by any chance, an evil hour

Befell your empire or yourself, ’t would show

What men you ought to know of, friend or foe;

And more than this, if any lady’s heart

Be set on one that plays her an ill part,

Or is in aught beneath her love and her,

Here she may see his real character,

All his new loves, and all his old pursuits:

His heart shall all be shown her, to the roots.

“Therefore, my lord, with your good leave, this glass,

And this green ring, the greenest ever was,

My master, with his greeting, hopes may be

Your excellent daughter’s here, my lady Canace.

“The virtues of the ring, my lord, are these—

That if a lady loves the flowers and trees,

And birds, and all fair Nature’s ministers,

And if she bear this gem within her purse,

Or on her hand, like any other ring,

There ’s not a fowl that goes upon the wing,

But she shall understand his speech or strain,

And in his own tongue answer him again.

All plants that gardens or that fields produce,

She shall be also skilled in, and their use,

Whether for sweetness or for stanching wounds:

No secret shall she miss, that smiles in balmy grounds.

“Lastly, my lord, this sword has such a might,

That let it meet the veriest fiend in fight,

’T will carve throughout his armor the first stroke,

Were it as thick as any branchéd oak;

Nor could the wound be better for the care

Of all the hands and skills that ever were;

And yet, should it so please you, of your grace,

To pass the flat side on the wounded place,

Though it were ready to let out his soul,

The flesh should close again, the man be whole.

“O heart of hearts! that nobody shall break!

Pardon me, sir, that thus my leave I take

E’en of a sword, and like a lover grieve,

But its own self, unbidden, will not leave

The hand that wields it, though it smote a block

The dullest in the land, or dashed a rock;

And this my master hopes may also be

Acceptable to Tartary’s majesty,

With favor for himself, and pardon, sir, for me.”

The Khan, who listened with a gracious eye,

Smiled as he stopped, and made a due reply,

Thanking the king, his brother, for the great,

Not gifts, but glories, added to his state,

And saying how it pleased him to have known

So young an honor to his neighbor’s throne.

The youth then gave the proper officers

The gifts; who, midst the music’s bursting airs,

Laid them before the king and Canace,

There as they sate, each in their high degree:

But nothing that they did could move the horse;

Boys might as well have tried their little force

Upon a giant with his armor on:

The brazen thing stood still as any stone.

The stranger hastened to relieve their doubt,

And touched his neck, and led him softly out;

And ’t was a wonder and a joy to see

How well he went, he stepped so tenderly.

Great was the press that from all quarters came

To gaze upon this horse of sudden fame;

And many were the struggles to get close,

And touch the mane to try if it hung loose,

Or pat it on the shining flanks, or feel

The muscles in the neck that sternly swell;

But the Khan’s officers forbade, and fear

E’en of the horse conspired to keep the circle clear.

High was the creature built, both broad and long,

And with a true proportion to be strong;

And yet so horsely and so quick of eye,

As if it were a steed of Araby;

So that from tail to ear there was no part

Nature herself could better, much less art;

Only the people dreaded to perceive

How cold it was, although it seemed alive;

And on all sides the constant wonder was

How it could move, and yet was plainly brass.


The dinner done, Cambus arose; and all

Stood up, prepared to follow from the hall:

On either side they bend beneath his eye:

Before him goeth the loud minstrelsy;

And thus they pace into a noble room,

Where dance and song were waiting till they come

With throng of waxen lights that shed a thin perfume.

But first the king and his young visitor

Go where the horse was put, and close the door;

And there the Khan learns all about the pin,

And how the horse is hastened or held in,

And turned, and made to rise or to descend,

And all by a mere thumb and finger’s end.

The stranger further tells him of a word,

By which the horse, the instant it is heard,

Vanishes with his sparkling shape, like light,

And comes again, whether it be day or night.

“And, sir,” said he, “my master bade me say

The first time I was honored in this way,

(For on the throne you might prefer, he said,

To wave such plain confessions from crowned head)

That one like you were fitter far than he

To ride the elements like a deity,

And with a speed proportioned to your will

Shine on the good and fall upon the ill;

For he, too sensual and too satisfied

With what small good lay near him, like a bride,

Was ever but a common king; but you

A king, and a reforming conqueror, too.”

Glad is great Cambus, both at this discourse,

And to be master of so strange a horse,

And longs to mount at once, and go and see

His highest mountain-tops in Tartary,

Or look upon the Caspian, or appear

Suddenly in Cathay, a starry fear.


So issuing forth, he led into the air,

Saluting the sweet moon which met him there,

And forth the steed was brought; you would have said,

It knew for what, so easily ’t was led,

And leant with such an air its lively head.

But when at rest, still as before it stood,

As though its legs had to the ground been glued.

Some urged it on, some dragged, and some would fain

Have made it lift a foot, but all in vain.

And yet when Cambus whispered it, a thrill

Flashed through its limbs, nor could its feet be still,

But rocked the body with a sprightly grace,

As though it yearned aloft, and weighed it for the race.

The youth had talked of armor like an oak,

And how the sword would joint it with a stroke.

The Khan had no convenient foe at hand,

To see what sort of carving he could stand,

But in the moon there stood some oaken trees,

And suddenly he struck at one of these:

Back, like a giant, fell its towering size,

And let the light on his victorious eyes.

The blow was clearly the sword’s own, and yet

The Khan, as if inspired, felt proud of it,

And leaping on the horse as suddenly,

He touched the pin, and bade the fair good by,

And midst their pretty shrieks, went mounting to the sky.

Cambus ascended such a height so soon,

It seemed as if he meant to reach the moon;

And you might know by a tremendous shout,

That not a soul in Sarra but looked out;

But the fierce noise made some of them afraid,

That it might startle e’en a brazen head,

And threatening looks were turned upon the youth,

Who glowed and said, “By all the faith and truth

That is, or can be, in the heart of man,

Nothing can happen to the noble Khan:

See, he returns!” And at the word, indeed,

They saw returning the descending steed;

Not round and round, careering; but at once;

Oblique and to the point, a fervid pounce.

For to say truth, the noble Khan himself,

Though he had fought on many a mountain shelf,

And drooped through deserts, and been drenched in seas,

Felt somewhat strange in that great emptiness,

And was not sorry to relieve his court

By cutting his return some fathom short:

Such awful looks has utter novelty

To dash, and to confuse the boldest eye.

The Khan returned, they hasten all again

To their warm room, but do not long remain:

For late and long and highly wrought delight

Cannot, at will, resume its giddy height;

And so, his story told, and praises spread

From mouth to mouth, he waved his court to bed;

Yet still in bed, and dozing oft between,

Their fading words recalled what they had seen:

Still of the ring they mumbled, and the glass,

And what amazing things might come to pass:

And when they slept (for suppers produce dreams,

And joined with dinners, mount them to extremes)

A hundred vapor-headed souls that night

Went riding their own brass with all their might:

They skim, they dive, they shoot about, they soar,

They say, “Why rode I not this way before?

Strange! not to think of such a perfect goer!

What leg that crosses brass would stoop to horse-flesh more?”