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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Sick King in Bokhara

By Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)

(See full text.)

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 chanced.

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,

Watched my lord’s coming forth, and pushed

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 did break

The law, and by the law must die!

Vengeance, O King!”

But the King spake:—

“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 passed on.

But on the morrow when the King

Went forth again, the holy book

Carried before him, as his right,

And through the square his way he took,

My man comes running, flecked 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 burned;

That the green water in the tanks

Is to a putrid puddle turned;

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 short space

With all the water that was there

I filled 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 called my mother; and they all,

As they were thirsty, and the night

Most sultry, drained the pitcher there;

That they sate with it, in my sight,

Their lips still wet, when I came down.

“Now mark! I, being fevered, sick

(Most unblest also), at that sight

Brake forth, and cursed them—dost thou hear?—

One was my mother— Now, do right!”

But my lord mused a space, and said:—

“Send him away, sirs, and make on!

It is some madman!” the King said.

As the King bade, so was it done.

The morrow, at the self-same hour,

In the King’s path, behold, the man,

Not kneeling, sternly fixed! 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 grudged?

Nay, but I swear, from this thy path

I will not stir till I be judged!”

Then they who stood about the King

Drew close together and conferred;

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 sentenced him, as the law is,

To die by stoning on the spot.

Now the King charged us secretly:—

“Stoned must he be, the law stands so.

Yet, if he seek to fly, give way;

Hinder 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,

Kneeled down, and cried not, neither ran.

So they, whose lot it was, cast stones,

That they flew thick and bruised him sore,

But he praised Allah with loud voice,

And remained kneeling as before.

My lord had covered 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 favor 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 swerved,

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 pained 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.


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 obeyed,

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-heaped 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 colored ice,

With cherries served in drifts of snow.”

In vain hath a king power to build

Houses, arcades, enameled mosques;

And to make orchard-closes, filled

With curious fruit-trees brought from far;

With cisterns for the winter rain;

And in the desert, spacious inns

In divers places—if that pain

Is not more lightened, which he feels,

If his will be not satisfied;

And that it be not, from all time

The law is planted, to abide.

Thou wast a sinner, thou poor man!

Thou wast athirst, and didst not see

That, though we take 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 honor 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 brickwork 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.”