Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of William Alexander Clouston > Text of Arabian Tale Of Love

An essay by William Alexander Clouston

An Arabian Tale Of Love

Title:     An Arabian Tale Of Love
Author: William Alexander Clouston [More Titles by Clouston]

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
Midsummer Night's Dream.

Every land has its favourite tale of love: in France, that of Abelard and Eloisa, in Italy, of Petrarch and Laura; all Europe has the touching tale of Romeo and Juliet in common; and Muslims have the ever fresh tale of the loves and sorrows of Majnún and Laylá. Of the ten or twelve Persian poems extant on this old tale those by Nizámí, who died A.D. 1211, and Jámí, of the 15th century, are considered as by far the best; though Hátifí's version (ob. 1520) is highly praised by Sir William Jones. The Turkish poet Fazúlí (ob. 1562) also made this tale the basis of a fine mystical poem, of which Mr. Gibb has given some translated specimens--reproducing the original rhythm and rhyme-movement very cleverly--in his Ottoman Poems. The following is an epitome of the tale of Majnún and Laylá:

Kays (properly, Qays), the handsome son of Syd Omri, an Arab chief of Yemen, becomes enamoured of a beauteous maiden of another tribe: a damsel bright as the moon,[117] graceful as the cypress;[118] with locks dark as night, and hence she was called Laylá;[119] who captivated all hearts, but chiefly that of Kays. His passion is reciprocated, but soon the fond lovers are separated. The family of Laylá remove to the distant mountains of Nejd, and Kays, distracted, with matted locks and bosom bare to the scorching sun, wanders forth into the desert in quest of her abode, causing the rocks to echo his voice, constantly calling upon her name. His friends, having found him in woeful plight, bring him home, and henceforth he is called Majnún--that is, one who is mad, or frantic, from love. Syd Omri, his father, finding that Majnún is deaf to good counsel--that nothing but the possession of Laylá can restore him to his senses--assembles his followers and departs for the abode of Laylá's family, and presenting himself before the maiden's father, proposes in haughty terms the union of his son with Laylá; but the offer is declined, on the ground that Syd Omri's son is a maniac, and he will not give his daughter to a man bereft of his senses; but should he be restored to his right mind he will consent to their union. Indignant at this answer, Syd Omri returns home, and after his friends had in vain tried the effect of love-philtres to make Laylá's father relent, as a last resource they propose that Majnún should wed another damsel, upon which the demented lover once more seeks the desert, where they again find him almost at the point of death, and bring him back to his tribe.

[117] Nothing is more hackneyed in Asiatic poetry than the
comparison of a pretty girl's face to the moon, and not
seldom to the disparagement of that luminary. Solomon,
in his love-songs, exclaims: "Who is she that looketh
forth in the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the
sun?" The greatest of Persian poets, Firdausí, says of a

"Love ye the moon? Behold her face,
And there the lucid planet trace."

And Kalidása, the Shakspeare of India (6th century
B.C.), says:

"Her countenance is brighter than the moon."

Amongst ourselves the epithet "moon-faced" is not usually
regarded as complimentary, yet Spenser speaks of a
beautiful damsel's "moon-like forehead."--Be sure, the
poets are right!

[118] The lithe figure of a pretty girl is often likened by
Eastern poets to the waving cypress, a tree which we
associate with the grave-yard.--"Who is walking there?"
asks a Persian poet. "Thou, or a tall cypress?"

[119] "Nocturnal."

Now the season of pilgrimage to Mecca draws nigh, and it is thought that a visit to the holy shrine and the waters of the Zemzem[120] might cure his frenzy. Accordingly Majnún, weak and helpless, is conveyed to Mecca in a litter. Most fervently his sorrowing father prays in the Kaába for his recovery, but all in vain, and they return home. Again Majnún escapes to the desert, whence his love-plaints, expressed in eloquent verse, find their way to Laylá, who contrives to reply to them, also in verse, assuring her lover of her own despair, and of her constancy.

[120] The sacred well in the Kaába at Mecca, which, according
to Muslim legends, miraculously sprang up when Hagar and
her son Ishmael were perishing in the desert from thirst.

One day a gallant young chief, Ibn Salám, chances to pass near the dwelling of Laylá, and, seeing the beauteous maiden among her companions, falls in love with her, and straightway asks her in marriage of her parents. Laylá's father does not reject the handsome and wealthy suitor, who scatters his gold about as if it were mere sand, but desires him to wait until his daughter is of proper age for wedlock, when the nuptials should be duly celebrated; and with this promise Ibn Salám departs.

Meanwhile, Noufal, the chief in whose land Majnún has taken up his abode, while hunting one day comes upon the wretched lover, and, struck with his appearance, inquires the cause of his distress. Noufal conceives a warm friendship for Majnún, and sends a messenger to Laylá's father to demand her in marriage with his friend. But the damsel's parent scornfully refused to comply, and Noufal then marches with his followers against him. A battle ensues, in which Noufal is victorious. The father of Laylá then comes to Noufal, and offers submission; but he declares that rather than consent to his daughter's union with Majnún he would put her to death before his face. Seeing the old man thus resolute, Noufal abandons his enterprise and returns to his own country.

And now Ibn Salám, having waited the appointed time, comes with his tribesmen to claim the hand of Laylá; and, spite of her tears and protestations, she is married to the wealthy young chief. Years pass on--weary years of wedded life to poor Laylá, whose heart is ever true to her wandering lover. At length a stranger seeks out Majnún, and tells him that his beloved Laylá wishes to have a brief interview with him, near her dwelling. At once the frantic lover speeds towards the rendezvous; but when Laylá is informed of his arrival, her sense of duty overcomes the passion of her life, and she resolves to forego the dangerous meeting, and poor Majnún departs without having seen his darling. Henceforth he is a constant dweller in the desert, having for his companions the beasts and birds of the wilderness--his clothes in tatters, his hair matted, his body wasted to a shadow, his bare feet lacerated with thorns. After the lapse of many more years the husband of Laylá dies, and the beautiful widow passes the prescribed period of separation ('idda),[121] after which Majnún hastens to embrace his beloved. Overpowered by the violence of their emotions, both are for a space silent; at length Laylá addresses Majnún in tender accents; but when he finds voice to reply it is evident that the reaction has completely extinguished the last spark of reason: Majnún is now a hopeless maniac, and he rushes from the arms of Laylá and seeks the desert once more. Laylá never recovered from the shock occasioned by this discovery. She pined away, and with her last breath desired her mother to convey the tidings of her death to Majnún, and to assure him of her constant, unquenchable affection. When Majnún hears of her death he visits her tomb, and, exhausted with his journey and many privations, he lays himself down on the turf that covered her remains, and dies--the victim of pure, ever-during love.

[121] According to Muslim law, four months and ten days must elapse before a widow can marry again.

* * * * *

Possibly, readers of a sentimental turn--oft inclined to the "melting" mood--may experience a kind of pleasing sadness in perusing a rhythmical prose translation of the passage in Nizámí's poem in which

Majnún bewails the Death of Laylá.

When Zayd,[122] with heart afflicted, heard that in the silent tomb that moon[123] had set, he wept and mourned, and sadly flowed his tears. Who in this world is free from grief and tears? Then, clothed in sable garments, like one oppressed who seeks redress, he, agitated, and weeping like a vernal cloud, hastened to the grave of Laylá; but, as he o'er it hung, ask not how swelled his soul with grief; while from his eyes the tears of blood incessant flowed, and from his sight and groans the people fled. Sometimes he mourned with grief so deep and sad that from his woe the sky became obscure. Then from the tomb of that fair flower he to the desert took his way. There sought the wanderer from the paths of man him whose night was now in darkness veiled, as that bright lamp was gone; and, seated near him, weeping and sighing, he beat his breast and struck upon the earth his head. When Majnún saw him thus afflicted he said: "What has befallen thee, my brother, that thy soul is thus overpowered? and why so pale that cheek? and why these sable robes?" He thus replied: "Because that fortune now has changed: a sable stream has issued from the earth, and even death has burst its iron gates; a storm of hail has on the garden poured, and not a leaf of all our rose-bower now remains. The moon has fallen from the firmament, and prostrate on the mead that waving cypress lies! Laylá was, but from the world has now departed; and from the wound thy love had caused she died."

[122] An attendant, who had always befriended Majnún.

[123] "The moon," to wit, the unhappy Laylá. See the note, p. 284.

Scarce had these accents reached his listening ear e'er, senseless, Majnún fell as one by lightning struck. A short time, fainting, thus he lay; recovered, then he raised his head to heaven and thus exclaimed: "O merciless! what fate severe is this on one so helpless? Why such wrath? Why blast a blade of grass with lightning, and on the ant [i.e. himself] thy power exert? One ant and a thousand pains of hell, when one single spark would be enough! Why thus with blood the goblet crown, and all my hopes deceive? I burned with flames that by that lamp were fed; and by that breath which quenched its light I too expire." Thus, like Asra, did he complain, and, like Wamik, traversed on every side the desert,[124] his heart broken, and his garments rent; while, as the beasts gazed on him, his tears so constant flowed, that in their eyes the tear-drop stood; and like a shadow Zayd his footsteps still pursued. When, weeping and mourning, Majnún thus o'er many a hill and many a vale had passed, as grief his path directed, he wished to view the tomb of all he loved; and then inquired of Zayd where was the spot that held her grave, and where the turf that o'er it grew.

[124] See Note on 'Wamik and Asra' at the end of this paper.

But soon as to the tomb he came, struck with its view, his senses fled. Recovering, then he thus exclaimed: "O Heaven! what shall I do, or what resource attempt, as like a lamp I waste away? Alas! that heart-enslaver was all that in this world I prized: and now, alas! in wrath, dire Fate with ruthless blow has snatched her from me. In my hand I held a lovely flower; the wind came and scattered all its leaves. I chose a cypress that in the garden graceful grew; but soon the wind of fate destroyed it. Spring bade a blossom bloom; but Fortune would not guard the flower. A group of lilies I preserved, pure as the thoughts that in my bosom rose; but one unjust purloined them. I sowed, but he the harvest reaped."

Then, resting within the tomb his head, he mourning wept, and said: "O lovely floweret, struck by autumn's blast, and from this world departed ere thou knewest it! A garden once in bloom, but now laid waste! O fruit matured, but not enjoyed! To earth's mortality can such as thou be subject, and such as thou within the darkness of the tomb repose? And where is now that mole which seemed a grain of musk?[125] And where those eyes soft as the gazelle's? Where those ruby lips? And where those curling ringlets? In what bright hues is now thy form adorned? And through the love of whom does now thy lamp consume? To whose fond eyes are now thy charms displayed? And whom to captivate do now thy tresses wave? Beside the margin of what stream is now that cypress seen? And in what bower is now the banquet spread? Ah, can such as thou have felt the pangs of death, and be reclined within this narrow cave?[126] But o'er thy cell I mourn, as thou wast all I loved; and ere my grief shall cease, the grave shall be my friend. Thou wast agitated like the sand of the desert; but now thou reposest as the water of the lake. Thou, like the moon, hast disappeared; but, though unseen, the moon is still the same; and now, although thy form from me is hid, still in my breast remains the loved remembrance. Though far removed beyond my aching sight, still is thy image in my heart beheld. Thy form is now departed, but grief eternal fills its place. On thee my soul was fixed, and never will thy memory be forgot. Thou art gone, and from this wilderness escaped, and now reposest in the bowers of Paradise. I, too, after some little time will shake off these bonds, and there rejoin thee. Till then, faithful to the love I vowed, around thy tomb my footsteps will I bend. Until I come to thee within this narrow cell, pure be thy shroud! May Paradise everlasting be thy mansion blest! And be thy soul received into the mercy of thy God! And may thy spirit by his grace be vivified to all eternity!"

[125] A mole on the fair face of Beauty is not regarded as a
blemish, but the very contrary, by Asiatics--or by
Europeans either, else why did the ladies of the last
century patch their faces, if not (originally) to set
off the clearness of their complexion by contrast with
the little black wafer?--though (afterwards) often to
hide a pimple! Eastern poets are for ever raving over
the mole on a pretty face. Háfíz goes the length of

"For the mole on the cheek of that girl of Shíráz
I would give away Samarkand and Bukhárá"--

albeit they were none of his to give to anybody.

[126] Cf. Shelley, in the fine opening of that wonderful
poetical offspring of his adolescence, Queen Mab:

"Hath, then, the gloomy Power
Whose reign is in the tainted sepulchres
Seized on her sinless soul?"

* * * * *

"This," methinks I hear some misogynist exclaim, after reading it--"this is rank nonsense--it is stark lunacy!" And so it is, perhaps. At all events, these impassioned words are supposed to be uttered by a poor youth who had gone mad from love. Our misogynist--and may I venture to include the experienced married man?--will probably retort, that all love between young folks is not only folly but sheer madness; and he will be the more confirmed in this opinion when he learns that, according to certain grave Persian writers, Laylá was really of a swarthy visage, and far from being the beauty her infatuated lover conceived her to be: thus verifying the dictum of our great dramatist, in the ever-fresh passage where he makes "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet" to be "of imagination all compact," the lover seeing "Helen's beauty in the brow of Egypt!"--Notwithstanding all this, the ancient legend of Laylá and Majnún has proved an inspiring theme to more than one great poet of Persia, during the most flourishing period of the literature of that country--for which let us all be duly thankful.


'WAMIK AND ASRA,' p. 289.

This is the title of an ancient Persian poem, composed in the reign of Núshírván, A.D. 531-579, of which some fragments only now remain, incorporated with an Arabian poem. In 1833, Von Hammer published a German translation, at Vienna: Wamik und Asra; das ist, Glühende und die Blühende. Das älteste Persische romantische Gedicht. Jun fünftelsaft abgezogen, von Joseph von Hammer (Wamik and Asra; that is, the Glowing and the Blowing. The most ancient Persian Romantic Poem. Transfer the Fifth, etc.) The hero and heroine, namely, Wamik and Asra, are personifications of the two great principles of heat and vegetation, the vivifying energy of heaven and the correspondent productiveness of earth.--This noble poem is the subject of a very interesting article in the Foreign Quarterly Review, vol. xviii, 1836-7, giving some of the more striking passages in English verse, of which the following may serve as a specimen:

'The Blowing One' Asra was justly named,
For she, in mind and form, a blossom stood;
Of beauty, youth, and grace divinely framed,
Of holiest spirit, filled with heavenly good.
The Spring, when warm, in fullest splendour showing,
Breathing gay wishes to the inmost core
Of youthful hearts, and fondest influence throwing,
Yet veiled its bloom, her beauty's bloom before;
For her the devotee his very creed forswore.
Her hair was bright as hyacinthine dyes;
Her cheek was blushing, sheen as Eden's rose;
The soft narcissus tinged her sleeping eyes,
And white her forehead, as the lotus shows
'Gainst Summer's earliest sunbeams shimmering fair.

A curious story is related by Dawlat Sháh regarding this poem, which bears a close resemblance to the story of the destruction of the Alexandrian Library, by order of the fanatical khalíf 'Umar: One day when Amír Abdullah Tahir, governor of Khurasán under the Abbasside khalífs, was giving audience, a person laid before him a book, as a rare and valuable present. He asked: "What book is this?" The man replied: "It is the story of Wamik and Asra." The Amír observed: "We are the readers of the Kurán, and we read nothing except that sacred volume, and the traditions of the Prophet, and such accounts as relate to him, and we have therefore no use for books of this kind. They are besides compositions of infidels, and the productions of worshippers of fire, and are therefore to be rejected and contemned by us." He then ordered the book to be thrown into the water, and issued his command that whatever books could be found in the kingdom which were the composition of the Persian infidels should be immediately burnt.


Scarcely less celebrated than the story of Majnún and Laylá--among the Arabs, at least--is that of the poet Jamíl and the beauteous damsel Buthayna. It is said that Jamíl fell in love with her while he was yet a boy, and on attaining manhood asked her in marriage, but her father refused. He then composed verses in her honour and visited her secretly at Wádi-'l Kura, a delightful valley near Medína, much celebrated by the poets. Jamíl afterwards went to Egypt, with the intention of reciting to Abdu-'l Azíz Ibn Marwán a poem he had composed in his honour. This governor admitted Jamíl into his presence, and, after hearing his eulogistic verses and rewarding him generously, he asked him concerning his love for Buthayna, and was told of his ardent and painful passion. On this Abdu-'l Azíz promised to unite Jamíl to her, and bade him stay at Misr (Cairo), where he assigned him a habitation and furnished him with all he required. But Jamíl died there shortly after, A.H. 82 (A.D. 701).

The following narrative is given in the Kitabal-Aghání, on the authority of the famous poet and philologist Al-Asma'í, who flourished in the 8th century:

A person who was present at the death of Jamíl in Egypt relates that the poet called him and said: "If I give you all I leave after me, will you perform one thing which I shall enjoin you?" "By Allah, yes," said the other. "When I am dead," said Jamíl, "take this cloak of mine and put it aside, but keep everything else for yourself. Then go to Buthayna's tribe, and when you are near them, saddle this camel of mine and mount her; then put on my cloak and rend it, and mounting on a hill, shout out these verses: 'A messenger hath openly proclaimed the death of Jamíl. He hath now a dwelling in Egypt from which he will never return. There was a time when, intoxicated with love, he trained his mantle proudly in the fields and palm-groves of Wádi-'l Kura! Arise, Buthayna! and lament aloud: weep for the best of all thy lovers!'" The man did what Jamíl ordered, and had scarcely finished the verses when Buthayna came forth, beautiful as the moon when it appears from behind a cloud. She was muffled in a cloak, and on coming up to him said: "Man, if what thou sayest be true, thou hast killed me; if false, thou hast dishonoured me!" [i.e. by associating her name with that of a strange man, still alive.] He replied: "By Allah! I only tell the truth," and he showed her Jamíl's mantle, on seeing which she uttered a loud cry and smote her face, and the women of the tribe gathered around, weeping with her and lamenting her lover's death. Her strength at length failed her, and she swooned away. After some time she revived, and said [in verse]: "Never for an instant shall I feel consolation for the loss of Jamíl! That time shall never come. Since thou art dead, O Jamíl, son of Mamar! the pains of life and its pleasures are alike to me." And quoth the lover's messenger: "I never saw man or woman weep more than I saw that day."--Abridged from Ibn Khallikan's great Biographical Dictionary as translated by Baron De Slane, vol. i, pp. 331-326.

[The end]
W. A. Clouston's essay: Arabian Tale Of Love