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The Gates of Damascus -- James Elroy Flecker

Guest poem submitted by Jairam Panickssery;
one that slots neatly into our theme:
(Poem #518) The Gates of Damascus
        Four great gates has the city of Damascus
                And four Great Wardens, on their spears reclining,
        All day long stand like tall stone men
                And sleep on the towers when the moon is shining.


        This is the song of the East Gate Warden
        When he locks the great gate and smokes in his garden.

 Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster's Cavern, Fort of Fear,
 The Portal of Baghdad am I, and Doorway of Diarbekir.

 The Persian Dawn with new desires may net the flushing mountain spires:
 But my gaunt buttress still rejects the suppliance of those mellow fires.

 Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
 That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?

 Pass not beneath! Men say there blows in stony deserts still a rose
 But with no scarlet to her leaf--and from whose heart no perfume flows.

 Wilt thou bloom red where she buds pale, thy sister rose? Wilt thou not fail
 When noonday flashes like a flail? Leave nightingale the caravan!

 Pass then, pass all! "Baghdad!" ye cry, and down the billows of blue sky
 Ye beat the bell that beats to hell, and who shall thrust you back? Not I.

 The Sun who flashes through the head and paints the shadows green and red,
 The Sun shall eat thy fleshless dead, O Caravan, O Caravan!

 And one who licks his lips for thirst with fevered eyes shall face in fear
 The palms that wave, the streams that burst, his last mirage, O Caravan!

 And one--the bird-voiced Singing-man--shall fall behind thee, Caravan!
 And God shall meet him in the night, and he shall sing as best he can.

 And one the Bedouin shall slay, and one, sand-stricken on the way
 Go dark and blind; and one shall say--"How lonely is the Caravan!"

 Pass out beneath, O Caravan, Doom's Caravan, Death's Caravan!
 I had not told ye, fools, so much, save that I heard your Singing-man.


        This was sung by the West Gate's keeper
        When heaven's hollow dome grew deeper.

 I am the gate toward the sea: O sailor men, pass out from me!
 I hear you high in Lebanon, singing the marvels of the sea.

 The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
 The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.

 Beyond the sea are towns with towers, carved with lions and lily flowers,
 And not a soul in all those lonely streets to while away the hours.

 Beyond the towns, an isle where, bound, a naked giant bites the ground:
 The shadow of a monstrous wing looms on his back: and still no sound.

 Beyond the isle a rock that screams like madmen shouting in their dreams,
 From whose dark issues night and day blood crashes in a thousand streams.

 Beyond the rock is Restful Bay, where no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
 And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.

 Beyond the bay in utmost West old Solomon the Jewish King
 Sits with his beard upon his breast, and grips and guards his magic ring:

 And when that ring is stolen, he will rise in outraged majesty,
 And take the World upon his back, and fling the World beyond the sea.


        This is the song of the North Gate's master,
        Who singeth fast, but drinketh faster.

 I am the gay Aleppo Gate: a dawn, a dawn and thou art there:
 Eat not thy heart with fear and care, O brother of the beast we hate!

 Thou hast not many miles to tread, nor other foes than fleas to dread;
 Home shall behold thy morning meal and Hama see thee safe in bed.

 Take to Aleppo filigrane, and take them paste of apricots,
 And coffee tables botched with pearl, and little beaten brassware pots:

 And thou shalt sell thy wares for thrice the Damascene retailers' price,
 And buy a fat Armenian slave who smelleth odorous and nice.

 Some men of noble stock were made: some glory in the murder-blade;
 Some praise a Science or an Art, but I like honorable Trade!

 Sell them the rotten, buy the ripe! Their heads are weak; their pockets burn.
 Aleppo men are mighty fools. Salaam Aleikum! Safe return!


        This is the song of the South Gate Holder,
        A silver man, but his song is older.

 I am the Gate that fears no fall: the Mihrab of Damascus wall,
 The bridge of booming Sinai: the Arch of Allah all in all.

 O spiritual pilgrim rise: the night has grown her single horn:
 The voices of the souls unborn are half adream with Paradise.

 To Mecca thou hast turned in prayer with aching heart and eyes that burn:
 Ah Hajji, wither wilt thou turn when thou art there, when thou art there?

 God be thy guide from camp to camp: God be thy shade from well to well;
 God grant beneath the desert stars thou hear the Prophet's camel bell.

 And God shall make thy body pure, and give thee knowlede to endure
 This ghost-life's piercing phantom-pain, and bring thee out to Life again.

 And God shall make thy soul a Glass where eighteen thousand aeons pass.
 And thou shalt see the gleaming Worlds as men see dew upon the grass.

 And sons of Islam, it may be that thou shalt learn at journey's end
 Who walks thy garden eve on eve, and bows his head, and calls thee Friend.
-- James Elroy Flecker
Ever since I subscribed to the Minstrels a long time ago (another id, another
time and another country) I've toyed with the idea of sending in a guest poem,
but it always remained just that - an idea. This Monday morning when I opened my
mailbox to find Flecker's poem, it reminded me of this poem that has remained in
my mind over so many years, hence this email.

When I first read Agatha Christie's 'Postern of Fate' I was too young to
understand the deeper connotations of her titles. 'Diabekir', for instance,
sounded like a villain in a kids' comic book... so the snippet of verse that
prefixed the book sounded eerie to me those days and the feeling remained.

"Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?"

The confusion that always accompanies fear sounded very logical in this context.
A desert, a caravan and a Gate - a slice of a strange life, and one that many a
child might want to live in his fantasy (no wonder most kids love stories of
gypsies and such).

Jairam.

[thomas adds]

Another very Kiplingesque poem, but it also reminds me of Tolkien's 'Lament for
Boromir': poem #46

Flecker really is very very good; I'm surprised that his verse is so
little-known. Of course, his poetic career is too short and his output too
limited for him to ever be considered a truly great poet, or even a particularly
insightful one; still, he deserves to be more famous than he actually is. He
certainly has a marvellous way with words: the versification in today's poem,
for example, is as close to perfection as you'll see, this side of Tennyson.
Flecker also has that rarest of poetic abilities, the ability to evoke that
ineffable quality called _atmosphere_... whether it's that of the bazaar:
"Take to Aleppo filigrane, and take them paste of apricots,
 And coffee tables botched with pearl, and little beaten brassware pots: "
or the sea:
"The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
 The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea. "

Simply beautiful.

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