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An essay by William Ernest Henley

Arabian Nights Entertainments

Title:     Arabian Nights Entertainments
Author: William Ernest Henley [More Titles by Henley]

Its Romance.

He that has the book of the Thousand Nights and a Night has Hachisch- made-words for life. Gallant, subtle, refined, intense, humourous, obscene, here is the Arab intelligence drunk with conception. It is a vast extravaganza of passion in action and picarooning farce and material splendour run mad. The amorous instinct and the instinct of enjoyment, not tempered but heightened greatly by the strict ordinances of dogma, have leave to riot uncontrolled. It is the old immortal story of Youth and Beauty and their coming together, but it is coloured with the hard and brilliant hues of an imagination as sensuous in type and as gorgeous in ambition as humanity has known. The lovers must suffer, for suffering intensifies the joy of fruition; so they are subjected to all such modes of travail and estrangement as a fancy careless of pain and indifferent to life can devise. But it is known that happy they are to be; and if by the annihilation of time and space then are space and time annihilated. Adventures are to the adventurous all the world over; but they are so with a difference in the East. It is only Sinbad that confesses himself devoured with the lust of travel. The grip of a humourous and fantastic fate is tight on all the other heroes of this epic-in-bits. They do not go questing for accidents: their hour comes, and the finger of God urges them forth, and thrusts them on in the way of destiny. The air is horrible with the gross and passionate figments of Islamite mythology. Afrits watch over or molest them; they are made captive of malignant Ghouls; the Jinns take bodily form and woo them to their embraces. The sea-horse ramps at them from the ocean floor; the great roc darkens earth about them with the shadow of his wings; wise and goodly apes come forth and minister unto them; enchanted camels bear them over evil deserts with the swiftness of the wind, or the magic horse outspreads his sail-broad vannes, and soars with them; or they are borne aloft by some servant of the Spell till the earth is as a bowl beneath them, and they hear the angels quiring at the foot of the Throne. So they fare to strange and dismal places: through cities of brass whose millions have perished by divine decree; cities guilty of the cult of the Fire and the Light wherein all life has been striken to stone; or on to the magnetic mountain by whose horrible attraction the bolts are drawn from the ship, and they alone survive the inevitable wreck. And the end comes. Comes the Castle of Burnished Copper, and its gates fly open before them: the forty damsels, each one fairer than the rest, troop out at their approach; they are bathed in odours, clothed in glittering apparel, fed with enchanted meats, plunged fathoms deep in the delights of the flesh. There is contrived for them a private paradise of luxury and splendour, a practical Infinite of gold and silver stuffs and jewels and all things gorgeous and rare and costly; and therein do they abide for evermore. You would say of their poets that they contract immensity to the limits of desire; they exhaust the inexhaustible in their enormous effort; they stoop the universe to the slavery of a talisman, and bind the visible and invisible worlds within the compass of a ring.


Its Comedy.

But there is another side to their imaginings. When the Magian has done beating his copper drum--(how its mysterious murmur still haunts the echoes of memory!)--when Queen Lab has finished her tremendous conjurations, wonder gives place to laughter, the apotheosis of the flesh to the spirit of comedy. The enchanter turns harlequin; and what the lovers ask is not the annihilation of time and space but only that the father be at his prayers, or the husband gone on a fool's errand, while they have leave to kiss each other's mouths, 'as a pigeon feedeth her young,' to touch the lute, strip language naked, and 'repeat the following verses' to a ring of laughing girls and amid all such comfits and delicates as a hungry audience may rejoice to hear enumerated. And the intrigue begins, and therewith the presentment of character, the portraiture of manners. Merry ladies make love to their gallants with flowers, or scorn them with the huckle-bones of shame; the Mother Coles of Araby pursue the unwary stranger for their mistress' pleasure; damsels resembling the full moon carouse with genial merchants or inquiring calenders. The beast of burden, even the porter, has his hour: he goes the round at the heels of a veiled but beautiful lady, and lays her in the materials of as liberal and sumptuous a carouse as is recorded in history. Happy lady, and O thrice-fortunate porter! enviable even to the term of time! It is a voluptuous farce, a masque and anti-masque of wantonness and stratagem, of wine-cups and jewels and fine raiment, of gaudy nights and amorous days, of careless husbands and adventurous wives, of innocent fathers and rebel daughters and lovers happy or befooled. And high over all, his heart contracted with the spleen of the East, the tedium of supremacy, towers the great Caliph Haroun, the buxom and bloody tyrant, a Muslim Lord of Misrule. With Giafar, the finest gentleman and goodliest gallant of Eastern story, and Mesrour, the well- beloved, the immortal Eunuch, he goes forth upon his round in the enchanted streets of Bagdad, like Francois Premier in the maze of old- time Paris. The night is musical with happy laughter and the sound of lutes and voices; it is seductive with the clink of goblets and the odour of perfumes: not a shadow but has its secret, or jovial or amorous or terrible: here falls a head, and there you may note the contrapuntal effect of the bastinado. But the blood is quickly hidden with flowers, the bruises are tired over with cloth-of-gold, and the jolly pageant sweeps on. Truly the comic essence is imperishable. What was fun to them in Baghdad is fun to us in London after a thousand years.


Sacer Vates.

The prose of Mr. Payne's translation is always readable and often elegant; Sir Richard Burton's notes and 'terminal essays' are a mine of curious and diverting information; but for me the real author of The Arabian Nights is called not Burton nor Payne but Antoine Galland. He it was, in truth, who gave the world as much exactly as it needed of his preposterous original: who eliminated its tediousness, purged it of its barbarous and sickening immorality, wiped it clean of cruelty and unnaturalness, selected its essentials of comedy and romance, and set them clear and sharp against a light that western eyes can bear and in an atmosphere that western lungs can breathe. Of course the new translations are interesting--especially to ethnologists and the critic with a theory that translated verse is inevitably abominable. But they are not for the general nor the artist. They include too many pages revolting by reason of unutterable brutality of incident and point of view--as also for the vileness of those lewd and dreadful puritans whose excesses against humanity and whose devotion to Islam they record--to be acceptable as literature or tolerable as reading. Now, in Galland I get the best of them. He gave me whatever is worth remembering of Bedreddin and Camaralzaman and that enchanting Fairy Peri-Banou; he is the true poet alike of Abou Hassan and the Young King of the Black Islands, of Ali Baba and the Barber of the Brothers; to him I owe that memory--of Zobeide alone in the accursed city whose monstrous silence is broken by the voice of the one man spared by the wrath of God as he repeats his solitary prayer--which ranks with Crusoe's discovery of the footprint in the thrilling moments of my life; it was he who, by refraining from the use of pepper in his cream tarts, contrived to kitchen those confections with the very essence of romance; it was he that clove asunder the Sultan's kitchen-wall for me, and took me to the pan, and bade me ask a certain question of the fish that fried therein, and made them answer me in terms mysterious and tremendous yet. Nay, that animating and delectable feeling I cherish ever for such enchanted commodities as gold-dust and sandal-wood and sesame and cloth of gold and black slaves with scimitars--to whom do I owe it but this rare and delightful artist? 'O mes chers Mille et une Nuits!' says Fantasio, and he speaks in the name of all them that have lived the life that Galland alone made possible. The damsels of the new style may 'laugh till they fall backwards,' etc., through forty volumes instead of ten, and I shall still go back to my Galland. I shall go back to him because his masterpiece is--not a book of reference, nor a curiosity of literature, nor an achievement in pedantry, nor even a demonstration of the absolute failure of Islamism as an influence that makes for righteousness, but--an excellent piece of art.

[The end]
William Ernest Henley's essay: Arabian Nights Entertainments