The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi, by Richard F. Burton


ON the return journey from Meccah, when Richard Burton could secure any privacy, he composed the following exquisite gem of Oriental poetry, and called it “The Kasidah,” or “The Lay of the Higher Law,” by Haji Abd6 al-Yazdi, which was one of his Eastern noms-de-plume. In his little foreword to the Reader, the better to disguise his authorship, he calls himself the Translator, and signs “F. B.,” or Frank Baker, an English nom-de-plume from Francis his second name, and Baker his mother’s family name. It was written twenty-seven years before he ventured to print it. It reminds one, more than any other poem, of the Rubaiydt of Omar Khayyam, the astronomer-poet of Khorasan, known as the tent -maker, written in the eleventh century, which poem was made known by Mr. Edward Fitz-Gerald in 1861, at one and the same time, to Richard Burton, to Swinburne, and to Dante Rosetti. Richard Burton at once claimed him as a brother-Sufi, and said that all his allusions were purely typical, and particularly in the second verse:—

“Before the Phantom of False morning died,

Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,

‘When all the Temple is prepared within,

Why nods the Drowsy Worshipper outside?’”

Yet the Kasidah was written in 1853 — the Rubaiydt he did not know till eight years later.

It is a poem of extraordinary power, on the Nature and Destiny of Man, anti-Christian and Pantheistic. So much wealth of Oriental learning has rarely been compressed into so small a compass. It is a great revelation of the strange phases of Eastern thought and speculation; it is learned in every tongue and science; it shows a thorough acquaintance with Persian and Greek mythology, with Mormonism and Comtism, Huxley and Milton, as well as Buddhistic philosophy. It sets forth the Gospel of Self-Cultivation; it shows a philosopher of much contemplative power, and those who did not know the authorship thought it must have been written by a polyglot Eastern, with Cosmopolitan tendencies.

I was laughed to scorn by a small section of the press for the following remark in my late “Life of Sir Richard.” I said “that I did not believe that this poem had its equal, that it is quite unique.” I said “it will ride over the heads of most, it will displease many, but it will appeal to all large hearts and large brains for its depth, its height, its breadth, for its heart and nobility, its pathos, its melancholy, and its despair. It is the very perfection of romance; it seems as the cry of a Soul, wandering through space, looking for what it does not find. I have read it many times during my married life, and never without bitter tears, and when I read it now it affects me still more; he used to take it away from me because it impressed me so.” I do not think that Mr. W. D. Scull will be vexed with me for quoting his opinion, as one out of many letters that I have received on the subject. In his letter he reminds me of an incident which I forgot to mention before:— He asks me to tell him about “a star sapphire,” which Richard Burton carried on his person as a talisman, in the heart of Arabia, and in the deserts of Africa, because the sight of this wonderful gem always inspired an almost reverential respect. The wild Arabs and Negroes would gaze at the stone, then at its possessor, concluding that he had a talisman of unexampled power, and they would render him all possible assistance for fear of incurring his vengeance.

Speaking of my Biography of my husband, Mr. W. D. Scull was good enough to say “the whole book has produced an impression on me, whose depth I cannot gauge — from its greatness — but full as the Life is of the most valuable and original matter, to me its great raison d’etre is that ‘Tinkling of the Camel Bell.’ It is hard to judge of a thing in the first heat of admiration, but it seems to me worthy to stand level with the greatest poems of the Earth, and in front of most; certainly there is not one that may stand before it, even Ecclesiastes, which to me is a poem of the highest rank, too. No doubt the same opinion has reached you from all quarters, and I am one of many.” And in a letter which I have from Miss Guglielma Frances Moss, she says, “Most especially my gratitude goes out to you, for giving me the knowledge of that marvellous Kasidah, before whose deep probing Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ pales into mere beautiful child’s speech, and Job’s ancient drama alone seems worthy to be coupled. So overpowered I have been by this poem, that had I not seen that you purposed publishing it separately, I should have entreated permission to edit it, that the World might learn what manner of man it had had sent it. Stranger as I am to you, I feel that you are too world-wide in your sympathies to resent the reverent thanks of one to whom your ‘Life of Sir Richard’ has proved a very revelation.” The Kasidah needs no higher praise.

Isabel Burton.

February 15th, 1894.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31