We made our retreat by the same road we came, but not with the same expedition, on account of our prisoners. They sometimes walked and sometimes rode.
The general appearance of the poet had, from the first moment, interested me in his misfortunes; and being a smatterer in learning myself, my vanity, perhaps, was flattered with the idea of becoming the protector of a man of letters in distress. Without appearing to show any particular partiality to him, I succeeded in being appointed to keep watch over him, under the plea that I would compel him to make verses; and conversing in our language, we were able to communicate with each other with great freedom without the fear of being understood. I explained my situation, and informed him of my intentions to escape, and assured him that I would do everything in my power to be useful to him. He seemed delighted to meet with kind words, where he expected nothing but ill-treatment; and when I had thus acquired his confidence, he did not scruple to talk to me freely about himself and his concerns. I discovered what I had before suspected, that he was a man of consequence, for he was no less a personage than the court poet, enjoying the title of Melek al Shoherah, or the Prince of Poets. He was on his road from Shiraz (whither he had been sent by the Shah on business) to Tehran, and had that very day reached Ispahan, when he had fallen into our hands. In order to beguile the tediousness of the road through the Salt Desert, after I had related my adventures, I requested him to give me an account of his, which he did in the following words:
‘I was born in the city of Kerman, and my name is Asker. My father was for a long time governor of that city, during the reign of the eunuch Aga Mohammed Shah; and although the intrigues that were set on foot against him to deprive him of his government were very mischievous, still such was his respectability, that his enemies never entirely prevailed against him. His eyes were frequently in danger, but his adroitness preserved them; and he had at last the good fortune to die peaceably in his bed in the present Shah’s reign. I was permitted to possess the property which he left, which amounted to about 10,000 tomauns. In my youth I was remarkable for the attention which I paid to my studies, and before I had arrived at the age of sixteen I was celebrated for writing a fine hand. I knew Hafiz entirely by heart, and had myself acquired such a facility in making verses, that I might almost have been said to speak in numbers. There was no subject that I did not attempt. I wrote on the loves of Leilah and Majnoun;19 I never heard the note of a nightingale, but I made it pour out its loves to the rose; and wherever I went I never failed to produce my poetry and chant it out in the assembly. At this time the king was waging war with Sadik Khan, a pretender to the throne, and a battle was fought, in which his majesty commanded in person, and which terminated in the defeat of the rebel. I immediately sang the king’s praises. In describing the contest I made Rustam appear standing in a cloud over the field of battle; who seeing the king lay about him desperately, exclaims to himself, “Lucky wight am I to be here instead of below, for certainly I should never escape from his blows.” I also exerted my wit, and was much extolled when I said, that Sadik Khan and his troops ought not to repine after all; for although they were vanquished, yet still the king, in his magnanimity, had exalted their heads to the skies. In this, I alluded to a pillar of skulls which his majesty had caused to be erected of the heads of the vanquished. These sayings of mine were reported to the Shah, and he was pleased to confer upon me the highest honour which a poet can receive; namely, causing my mouth to be filled with gold coin in the presence of the whole court, at the great audience. This led to my advancement: and I was appointed to attend at court, and to write verses on all occasions. In order to show my zeal, I represented to the king, that as in former times our great Ferdousi had written his “Shah Nameh,” or the History of the Kings, it behooved him, who was greater than any monarch Persia ever possessed, to have a poet who should celebrate his reign; and I entreated permission to write a “Shahin Shah Nameh,” or the History of the King of Kings; to which his majesty was most graciously pleased to give his consent. One of my enemies at court was the lord high treasurer, who, without any good reason, wanted to impose upon me a fine of 12,000 tomauns, which the king, on the plea that I was the first poet of the age, would not allow. It happened one day, that in a large assembly, the subject of discussion was the liberality of Mahmoud Shah Ghaznevi to Ferdousi, who gave him a miscal of gold for every couplet in the Shah Nameh. Anxious that the king should hear what I was about to say, I exclaimed: “The liberality of his present majesty is equal to that of Mahmoud Shah — equal did I say? — nay greater; because in the one case, it was exercised towards the most celebrated poet of Persia; and in my case, it is exercised towards the humble individual now before you.”
‘All the company were anxious to hear how and when such great favours had been conferred upon me. “In the first place,” said I, “when my father died, he left a property of 10,000 tomauns; the king permitted me to inherit it; he might have taken it away — there are 10,000 tomauns. Then the lord high treasurer wanted to fine me 12,000 tomauns; the king did not allow it — there are 12,000 more. Then the rest is made up of what I have subsisted upon ever since I have been in the Shah’s service, and so my sum is made out.” And then I took to my exclamations of “May the king live for ever! — may his shadow never be less! — may he conquer all his enemies!"— all of which I flattered myself was duly reported to his majesty: and some days after I was invested with a dress of honour, consisting of a brocade coat, a shawl for the waist, and one for the head, and a brocade cloak trimmed with fur. I was also honoured with the title of Prince of Poets, by virtue of a royal firman, which, according to the usual custom, I wore in my cap for three successive days, receiving the congratulations of my friends, and feeling of greater consequence than I had ever done before. I wrote a poem, which answered the double purpose of gratifying my revenge for the ill-treatment I had received from the lord high treasurer, and of conciliating his good graces; for it had a double meaning all through: what he in his ignorance mistook for praise, was in fact satire; and as he thought that the high-sounding words in which it abounded (which, being mostly Arabic, he did not understand) must contain an eulogium, he did not in the least suspect that they were in fact expressions containing the grossest disrespect. In truth, I had so cloaked my meaning, that, without my explanation, it would have been difficult for any one to have discovered it. But it was not alone in poetry that I excelled. I had a great turn for mechanics, and several of my inventions were much admired at court. I contrived a wheel for perpetual motion, which only wants one little addition to make it go round for ever. I made different sorts of coloured paper; I invented a new sort of ink-stand; and was on the high road to making cloth, when I was stopped by his majesty, who said to me, “Asker, stick to your poetry: whenever I want cloth, my merchants bring it from Europe.” And I obeyed his instructions; for on the approaching festival of the new year’s day, when it is customary for each of his servants to make him a present, I wrote something so happy about a toothpick, I which I presented in a handsome case, that the principal nobleman of the court, at the great public audience of that sacred day, were ordered to kiss me on the mouth for my pains. I compared his majesty’s teeth to pearls, and the toothpick to the pearl-diver; his gums to a coral-bank, near which pearls are frequently found; and the long beard and mustachios that encircled the mouth to the undulations of the ocean. I was complimented by everybody present upon the fertility of my imagination. I was assured that Ferdousi was a downright ass when compared to me. By such means, I enjoyed great favour with the Shah; and his majesty being anxious to give me an opportunity of acquiring wealth as well as honours, appointed me to be the bearer of the usual annual dress of honour which he sends to his son, the prince of the province of Fars. I was received at Shiraz with the greatest distinctions, and presents were made to me to a considerable amount; which, in addition to what I had levied from the villages on the road, made a handsome sum. The event of last night has deprived me of all: all has been stolen from me, and here you see me the most miserable of human beings. If you do not manage to help me to escape, I fear that I shall die a prisoner. Perhaps the king may be anxious to release me, but certainly he will never pay one farthing for my ransom. The lord high treasurer is not my friend; and since I told the grand vizier, that with all his wisdom he did not know how to wind up a watch, much less how it was made, I fear that he also will not care for my loss. The money, with which I might have purchased my ransom, the barbarians have taken; and where to procure a similar sum I know not. It is my fate to have fallen into this disaster, therefore I must not repine; but let me entreat you, as you are a fellow Mussulman — as you hate Omar, and love Ali — let me entreat you to help me in my distress.’20
19 [ The loves of these personages have been treated by various Oriental writers. Majnoun is looked upon as the model of a lover, and Leilah as the most beautiful and perfect of her sex.]
20 [ In sketching the history of the poet Asker, the author has attempted to record part of the life of the late Fatteh Ali Khan, poet- laureate to the Shah, a most ingenious and amiable man, well known to the English who were at Tehran in the years 1812 and 1813.]
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12