Attar in Progress: An Officer Falls in Love with a Prince

I’ve been making steady progress working on Ilahi Nama, and I thought it might be interesting to post some of what I’ve done so far. The latest poem of which I have finished the first draft, for example–just about all of the poems in Ilahi Nama are narrative–concerns a beautiful prince with whom an officer falls in love. Through a series of circumstances, the officer and the prince are taken captive by an enemy kingdom and put in the same cell, where they develop a relationship so intimate that, as the poem’s speaker puts it, “it’s not [the] storyteller’s place to reveal.” Eventually, the two kingdoms make peace, but one of the terms of that peace is that the prince should marry the daughter of his former captive, which he does.

Absorbed in the pomp and circumstance of his marriage, the prince puts the officer out of his mind for a time, but he eventually remembers his former cellmate and summons him for an audience. The officer, however, is overwhelmed by the prince’s majesty. He cannot imagine himself worthy of that splendor, and he dies. As he explains to the prince:

“In the prison cell we shared, my king,
I did not feel your majesty.
Today, after forty days and forty
nights of separation, I saw you
for the first time, and all around you
from east to west, swirled the uproar
and confusion of the royal court.
Before you parted from me, like that,
I was accustomed to you, like that
I was at peace; but this I can’t
endure. Wear that lovely garment
and I will love you once again;
but if these robes are yours; if this
splendor is where you will remain,
how will I find the strength to embrace
the truth of who you are?” He had
no more to say. Then, with a hundred
lamentations, his soul ascended,
pure, at his appointed time, to heaven.

The point of the story–though I am giving it here in a simplistic and reductive form–is that if you want to be worthy of enlightenment and union with God (which the prince’s majesty represents), you need to believe that you are worthy, which the officer clearly did not. What I most wanted to share with you, however, was my draft of the beginning of the poem, which describes the prince’s beauty. There are some rough spots still, but I thought people might find it intriguing, since the poem as a whole is clearly an example of a Sufi teaching poem which uses the occasion of a man falling in love with a man to explore what it means to achieve union with God:

A certain prince, a shimmering piece
of moon, once graced this earth. Jealous
of his beauty, the sun left its place
to wander the sky in rags. Face-
to-face with him, the sun shook
uncontrollably, like an epileptic
at the new moon. Inscribed on his forehead,
as in musk on silver, the letters jim
and mim, and when those letters twisted
and curled, he captured the kingdom of Jam.
With those eyebrows, he played the part
of the moon’s chamberlain. The heart
he hunted, and the liver, fell
prey to his eyelashes. A single
glance at the bay horse of his eyes
sent Temptation for its saddle—
the perfect rider for such a horse—
and what good game their hunt brought in!
His lips were honey and sugar,
but each lip was also sweeter
than either of those. When the bee
girded its loins to make the honey,
the sugar cane did the same for the sugar.
Two rows of thirty corals
shone between his carnelians like pearls.
From the seventh heaven, the stars gazed down,
and anyone who looked upon
his face, if he had a life,
would place that life before him, a sacrifice.
Love for this moon-like prince had turned
an officer’s heart upside down
and led his mind astray. A pain
without cure, and so without end,
filled him: his soul was not worthy
of his beloved. In agony,
he nonetheless suffered secretly,
and no one ever knew he bled
more under this grief’s tyranny
than any sufferer ever did.

Cross-posted on my blog.

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5 Responses to Attar in Progress: An Officer Falls in Love with a Prince

  1. 1
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    That’s very much in the spirit of tell, don’t show. There’s no way I could tell the prince from other extremely handsome men. He’s described almost entirely in terms of his effect on people who see him without being directly shown to the reader.

    This doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad approach– it just takes more cooperation from readers than more literal description does. Now I’m wondering whether some styles of criticism made readers less likely to be cooperative with authors.

  2. Nancy,

    The descriptions are entirely conventional, meaning that they are not intended to “show” the way we mean when we say “show, don’t tell.” For a 12th century Persian audience they would have conjured a particular image of ideal male beauty. Not very moving for us in terms of our literary expectations, but the vividness and emotional impact of the description, in our terms, is also not the point. The point is what the officer did with the love that overcame him because of the prince’s beauty.

  3. 3
    Sebastian says:

    Strange. This sounds very familiar, but I think I read it attributed to someone named Farid of Na-something – some Iranian poet who died when the Mongols wiped out the caliphate.

    Is this story a Persian trope or am I just misremembering?

  4. Same guy, Sebastian. Farid al-din Attar of Nishapour. Though the story about dying at the hands of the Mongols, according to the scholars I’ve read, might very well be apocryphal.

  5. 5
    Robert says:

    Everyone dies at the hands of the Mongols, sooner or later.