three pairs of lovers with space

POEMS IN THE THOUSAND NIGHTS AND ONE NIGHT

 

Many of the boy-love stories or passages in the mediaeval Arabic The Thousand Nights and One Night include poems bringing to life the physical appeal of the boys concerned, and these are included with the stories on this website. However, these are by no means the only poems of their kind: similar ones, scattered throughout the other stories, are presented here.

Often these poems are given without reference to who might fall in love with the boy or in the context of a boy’s appeal to a girl. Sometimes, despite a heterosexual context, it is clear that the boy’s appeal is being described from a man’s point of view. More often, little distinction is drawn between the characteristics of a boy that appeal to men and those that appeal to the other sex, boy characters of superlative beauty often being described as irresistible to both.

Most of the translations are those of Powys Mathers,[1] but, for three omitted by him, recourse has been had to the translations of Anthony Reid[2] and Malcolm Lyons[3]. The source is stated for each poem together with Mathers’s titles for the stories in which the poems appear, but the context is only included where it has more to say about boyish charm.

The references to “nights” are to those in which the extracted texts were recounted according to the Arabic text “Calcutta II”, which Sir Richard Burton and Malcolm Lyons translated, and thus indicate where their (more accurate, but otherwise less desirable)  translations of the poems may be found.

 

The Fisherman and the Jinnī

    

     Sweet and slim is the boy
     With hair of shadows paling the night
     And a brow of light
     Making the stars seem grey.
     My eyes have turned his way
     And found a joy
     Of which I dare not speak
     In a nut-brown beauty spot
     Which he has got
     Below his dark eye on his rose-leaf cheek.  
           [Mathers I 56, 7th night]

 

The Tale of Zubaidah, the First of the Girls

     A watcher of the stars at night
     Looked up and saw so rose and white
     A boy, with such delicious grace,
     Such brilliant tint of breast and face,
     So curved and delicate of limb,
     That he exclaimed on seeing him:
     “Sure it was Saturn gave that hair,
     A black star falling in the air;
     Those roses were a gift from Mars;
     The Archer of the seven stars
     Gave all his arrows to that eye;
     While great sagacious Mercury
     Did sweet intelligence impart;
     Queen Venus forged his golden heart
     And…and…” But here the sage’s art
     Stopped short; and his old wits went wild
     When the new star drew near and smiled. 
          [Mathers I 145-146, 17th night]

 

The Tale of the Wazīr Nūr al-Dīn

     On his cheek musk and roses play;
          His teeth are pearls, his lips like wine;
     His hair is night; his face is day;
          His form perfection; bum divine.  
               Reid I 292, 21st night][4]

In the words of the poet:

     He is a moon to whom the sun bequeaths
     Light for his cheek’s scarlet anemone sheaths;
     He is a king who has beneath his power
     All the warm meadows and each coloured flower.
          [Mathers I 183, 21st night]
         

Nude Boy by Alphons Karpinski, 1900

[Another has said:]

     When the first down adorned his cheek, my lord
     Showed loveliness of face that men adored.
          His fawnlike body would seduce a saint;
     His glances pierce my body like a sword.
          [Reid I 294, allegedly 21st night][5]

 

The Tale of Sweet-Friend and Alī-Nūr

Now the wazīr al-Fadl ibn Kahkān had a son so handsome that people beholding him thought that the moon was rising. His skin was marvellously white, but roses blushed below the silky down of his cheeks, and on one of them lay a beauty spot like a sprinkle of ambergris. He was like the boy in the song:

     Roses sweeter than red dates and grapes,
     But my hand falters
     In putting forth to touch his cheek
     And my eyes close sleepily
     After their feasting.

     If his heart were as tender
     As the peeled wand of his body
     He would not so coldly have sinned against me.

     You cannot accuse me, for I am mad,
     Nor my darling, for he is more than royal.
     Arrest my heart,
     But you will find no room for punishment,
     No room for chains.  
          [Mathers I 373-4, 34th night]

 

The Adventures of Young Kāna Mā Kāna, son of Dū al-Makān

Yet the colouring of his face remained like that of a little girl and his cheeks were more beautiful to see than roses or narcissus. A poet said of him:

     My love was hardly circumcised
     When little downy hairs surprised
     (Eh, but I’m drunk) his cheeks.

     The smiles upon his countenance
     Are little fawns at lonely dance
     (Eh, but I’m drunk) in Spring.

     The wine that flows below his skin
     Is a publican to call us in
     (Eh, but I’m drunk) to sing.

     Of all the charms below, above,
     Those small green silken moulds I love
     (Eh, but I’m drunk) his breeks.  
          [Mathers I 747, 138th night]

 

The Tale of Sympathy the Learned

[…] his beauty was almost a magic thing. His boyish graces, the fresh colour of his cheeks, the flowers of his lips, and the young down of his face were thus celebrated by a poet:

     Though spring has passed already over the rose trees,
          Here are some buds not fully opened yet,
               In this sweet garden ignorant of weather:
               See, the down feather
          Of the violet
     Under those trees!  
          [Mathers II 198-9, 436th night]

 

The Tale of the Yellow Youth

     Never take wine except from a blithe boy,
     For, if you hold him to you while you sup,
     His cheeks’ reflection strengthens the red joy
     And more than roses blossom in the cup.  
          [Mathers III 83, 950th night]

 

The Tale of Pomegranate-Flower and Badr Basīm

A Boy on a Feluca by Frederick Goodall, 1896

by the time he was fifteen he was the fairest and most muscular prince, the most adroit in bodily exercise, the wisest, and the most learned of his time. Throughout the mighty empire of his father none spoke save of his charm and elegance; for his was the true beauty. The poet did not exaggerate who said of him:

     Young down paints black upon his rose,
     Jade on his apple-flower,
     Grey amber on his sea-born pink.

     Until he bids
     His murderers leap on these or those,
     His murderers cower
     Behind his sleepy lids.

     Spent drinkers, if you seek
     A wilder and a sweeter drink,
     Look full upon his shapes
     Until
     Your longing and his shame distil,
     Stronger than grapes,
     A rose wine in his cheek.

     His lovers hold opposing creeds,
     Some say: lace-fine embroidery of night…
     I say it is a chaplet of musk beads
     Warm under crimson light. 
          [Mathers III 113, 743rd night]

 

The Tale of Young Nūr and the Warrior Girl

But incomparably his richest and fairest possession was his fourteen-year-old son, who far surpassed the beauty of the moon upon her fourteenth night. Neither the cool of springtime, the dancing branches of the ban, the rose in her bud, nor light shining through alabaster, could equal this boy, or his walking, or the tints upon his cheeks, or the stainless white of his body. Inspired by the child’s beauty, a poet sang:

          Boys’ crimson lips:
     “But all your singing is insane,
     You must not sing of us again.”
     So I obey and sit and sing
     Of trees, of girls, of everything,
     Inanely and in vain:
     Till beauty takes me by the throat,
     Lifting the theme, changing the note,
     And I make maddest music for
     Your flash of eyes declaring war,
     The black musk spirt on white by your
          Boy’s crimson lips.

Another sang of him:

     I came to a battle, a torment of red,
     And asked of the dying:
     “Ah, what is the prize?”
     Then one died sighing:
     “A fair boy’s eyes,”
     And “Eyes” the smile of a dead man said.

A third sang:

     When he came to see me and found me ill
          “Oh, when did this happen?” the sweet boy cried,
     “About the time when I heard on the sill
          Your footstep,” I replied.

Another said:

     Moons with their pale flame,
     And gazelles came.
     “Bow down, gazelles, before this fawn,
     And moons, before this dawn!”[6]

Yet another said:

     Save by his forehead and his hair
          We tell not day and night apart;
     Who then of his dark mole would dare
          To say it mars the rose’s art?
     Or could the red anemone be fair
          Without her heart?

Another wrote of him also:

     Beauty’s waters were made clear
     When his eyes lay mirrored there;
     So, fierce archers everywhere,
          Let us sing, let us be glad
          For eyes and arrows of my lad.

     His dim white lawns and tissues hide
     The silver dawn of his backside,
     As mists before a moon may ride;
          Let us sing, let us be glad
          For lawns and silvers of my lad.

     All swift, all black his eyes’ attack,
     The mole upon his cheek is black,
     But blacker still my tears of lack;
          Let us sing, let us be glad
          For this thrice darkness of my lad.

     Young moon and silver rush’s limb,
     His face and brow are bright and slim,
     My body, too, is thin for him;
          Let us sing, let us be glad
          For the white slightness of my lad.

     His eyes drank blood and were not red,
     The smile upon his lips was bread,
     He looked away and I lay dead…
          Let us sing, let us be glad
          For the turned eye smile of my lad.

And out of a thousand poets who sang of him, there was one who made this song:

     By arched bows that guard his eyes,
     By their dark sweet treacheries,
     By the white sword of his form
     And his black hair’s scented storm,
     By the laughing eyes which keep
     Fires to burn the rose of sleep,
     By curled scorpions of small hair
     With bright stings to stab despair,
     By the lily and the vine,
     By the honey and the wine,
     Buttocks of this boy of mine;
     By the skin of apricot,
     Silver feet which he has got;
     By the sun which rises pale,
     By the moon, his finger-nail,
     By star and spring, for he is both,
     I swear that I have loved this oath!  
          [Mathers III 412-5, 863rd & 872nd nights]

 

The Honey Cake and the Cobbler’s Wife

[On wine:]

Better than these are the lines of Abu Nuwas:
     Don’t blame me, for this just prompts me to sin,
     But cure my sickness with what was its cause –
     Wine in whose courts sorrows cannot dismount;
     Its touch would fill a rock with happiness.
     In the dark night, as it rests in its jug,
     The house gleams with its glittering light.
     It passes among young men before whom Time is humbled,
     But what it does to them is only what they want,
     Carried by a girl dressed as a boy,
     The darling of sodomites and fornicators alike.
     Tell the man who lays claim to knowledge:
     “You may know something, but there is much you do not know.”
          [Lyons, 998th night][7]

 

[1] The Thousand Nights and One Night, 4 volumes, London, revised edition of 1941.

[2] The Eternal Flame, vol. I (Elmhurst, New York, 1992), pp. 287-298.

[3] The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights, 3 volumes, Penguin, London, 2008.

[4] Mathers omits this poem, as does Lyons. Burton includes it, though Reid’s “bum divine” is “hips a hill” in his translation.

[5] This poem alone of those presented on this page is of dubious provenance and should perhaps not have been included, since there is nothing similar in Lyons, Burton or Mathers’ translations of this story.

[6] This poem and the following one, together with the preceding prose description of the boy’s beauty appear later in Lyons’s version (on his 872nd night, equivalent to Mathers’s 435th).

[7] This poem is omitted from Mardrus’s version of the story, where it would otherwise appear on the 969th night.