Al Hassan’s Secret.

From: The Bird and the Bell with Other Poems (1875)
Author: Christopher Pearse Cranch
Published: Osgood and Company 1875 Boston


YOU may tell me that the priests of Egypt,
Muttering charms and raising magic terrors,
Breathed it through him in their tombs and caverns,
Stamped it on him with the seal of silence
And the dread of excommunication.
You may say he heard it on the river,
In the Nile froth by the low shore lapping
In and out among the reeds and rushes;
In the moaning of the lurid sand-storm;
In a noon-dream mid the rustling palm-tufts,
Whispered by the sun-scorched leaves above him.
I, who know so well the Sheik Al Hassan,
I, the poet Yefid, can assure you
Sheik Al Hassan is no vision-seer;
Fears no priests, but laughs at all their juggles;
In the desert never met a Geni;
Worships in the mosque no power but Allah.

Yet Al Hassan has one awful secret,
Known to him alone of all his people,—
Some strange word forbidden to be uttered;
For, if spoken, all the established order
Built upon the solid past would tremble,
Pass, perchance, in chaos and confusion,
And another law control the nations.
What this potent word may be I know not.
How it came to him he never told me.
I his bosom friend have never heard it;
In my deepest thoughts I cannot guess it,
Though long silent days we ride together.

But one night I ever shall remember.
After toiling through the powdery desert,
We were resting in the grove of Kamah.
Clear as noonday shone the wondrous moonlight.
In our tent we slept, but woke together.
Overhead one feathery palm-tree rustled;
On the white tent lay its shortened shadow,
And the shadow’s waving fringes trembled
On the tent-roof, darkening all one corner.
Grouped around the weary camels slumbered,
And the turbaned slaves. A fountain gurgled,
Hid in darkness, while its tiny streamlet
Trickled silvery sparkles o’er the pebbles.
On the grass lay shadow-blots fantastic,
Mixed with moon-gold rounded into circles.

In that moonlight there we woke together,
Suddenly, as if a voice had called us;
Broad awake, as if a spirit passed us.
Something whispered that the air was haunted
With a presence vaguely brooding o’er us,
Pressing close, until the nerves all tingled
Tense and trembling, as a wind-harp shivers
In the coming breeze of autumn evenings,
Ere the first wild minor chords are wakened.
So I lay and stared upon the whiteness
Of the ghostly tent, and on the shadows
On the tent-floor creeping like black fingers;
Till at length Al Hassan broke the silence.

“Could I tell to thee, O son of music,
Could I tell the secret of my bosom,
Ah, what pain, what pain would here be softened!
What a light o’er weary days would brighten!
Could I only shape it in some fashion,
Temper the fierce light to misty softness,
Dwarf the giant’s supermundane stature,
As the fisherman enclosed the Geni
In the box he carried on his shoulders,
It would flush the desert of my bosom
With a sudden burst of flowers and fountains.”

Was I waking then, or was I dreaming,
Or enchanted? “Know,” he said, “O Yefid,
Good and evil in this word are mingled.
Like the angel of the summer lightning,
Cloud-winged, scowling o’er the mountain ceclars,
Darting bolts of death, yet breathing freshness;
So the truth—if truth it be I harbor
In my burdened breast—a double message
On its wings would bear unto my people.
Some must take the good and some the evil
Dropped from either wing of this strange angel.

“Yet could I, the prophet’s weakest servant,
Seize that faith which, means to ends subjecting,
Seeing in the madly shattered systems
But the opening of the eternal order;—
Faith of prophets and of wonder-workers,
In whose white light dazzling and o’erwhelming,
Death is but a spot we hardly notice,
And destruction but the broom that sweeping
Clears the spaces for God’s mighty building,—
Then I might perhaps forsake my desert;
Bear my smothered torch among the cities;
Stand and see the mighty visitation,
The veiled messenger of good and evil
Shaking dew and fire from either pinion;
Watch the firebrand kindling in their houses
Till they walked by light of conflagrations;
Hear the trumpets of divine destroyers
Blaring through the market and the palace;—
Had I only faith;—and yet I tremble,
Scarce even daring to myself to whisper
What would soon rebound in shocks of thunder;
So unlike the language of the present,
So profane perhaps, so wild, that madmen
Might essay to mumble it, half dreaming,
Wl1ile the sane ones passed them with a shudder.
I, alas, am all too weak and faithless
For a mission of so huge a burden.
I am not a sage to explain its meaning,
Nor a saint to avouch its truth unflinching,
Ready for the fate of God’s great martyrs.
Though a voice cries, “Speak,” I falter, tremble,
Turn away, and carry through the desert
Strange, dumb pain that crowds my heart to bursting.”

So Al Hassan from his couch half risen
Poured his sad speech, while the palm-tree’s shadow
Crept upon him, and the tent grew darker.

Then I said: “Tell me alone the secret,
Only me, the strange wild word, not fearing;
So thou drawest the arrow from thy bosom,
While I heal the wound with love’s own balsam.
In the desert here no traitor listens;
Let us share the mystery and the sorrow.”
“Never, O my Yefid!” was his answer.
“No; too well I love thee, dearest poet,
With a heedless hand to blight our friendship.
Better bear alone the fated burden,
Than for one brief moment’s consolation
Turn my friend into my bitter foeman.”

Then upon his couch Al Hassan turned him,
Sighed a deep, long sigh, and watched the moonlight
Pave the tent-floor with its golden patches.
I am wondering still, and dare pot question
What the fatal word is. Word of Heaven—
May it not be so?—if such the ending
In the birth-throes of a new creation.
I am wondering still, but cannot guess it;
While Al Hassan rides upon his camel
Over the desert, like a statue haunted.

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