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The Golden Road to Samarkand -- James Elroy Flecker

The piece that prompted my current theme: an extract from
(Poem #509) The Golden Road to Samarkand
 Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
   When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
 And softly through the silence beat the bells
   Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
 We travel not for trafficking alone;
   By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
 For lust of knowing what should not be known
   We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
 Open the gate, O watchman of the night!
   Ho, travellers, I open. For what land
 Leave you the dim-moon city of delight?
 MERCHANTS (with a shout):
   We take the Golden Road to Samarkand!
                (The Caravan passes through the gate)
 THE WATCHMAN (consoling the women):
 What would ye, ladies? It was ever thus.
   Men are unwise and curiously planned.
 They have their dreams, and do not think of us.
 VOICES OF THE CARAVAN (in the distance singing):
   We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
-- James Elroy Flecker
The theme of wanderlust may be hackneyed, but when it's expressed in phrases as
beautiful as Flecker's, well, it's impossible not to be moved. Every single line
of today's poem is close to perfection... indeed, at times, 'The Golden Road'
approaches the lyrical heights achieved by the likes of Keats and Coleridge [1].

The feelings of those left behind by the travellers to Samarkand are captured
wonderfully well, in the poignant line - "They have their dreams, and do not
think of us". Also noteworthy is Flecker's use of slightly archaic phrasing (for
instance, in the Watchman's words) to convey a sense of remove (both temporal
and spatial) from the present day... very nicely done.

Incidentally, I find this a very Kiplingesque poem - devotees of 'Kim',
especially, will know exactly what I mean.


[1] High praise indeed. And sadly, like Keats, Flecker died tragically young -
see the biographical notes below.


James Elroy Flecker, English poet, was born in London on November 5, 1884. His
death in 1915 at the age of thirty was "unquestionably the greatest premature
loss that English literature has suffered since the death of Keats" (Macdonald,
1924). The eldest son of the Rev. W. H. Flecker, Headmaster of Dean Close
School, Flecker attended Trinity College, Oxford, and also Caius College,
Cambridge, where he studied oriental languages in preparation for a consular
career. From 1910 to 1913 he held a series of minor consular posts in
Constantinople, Smyrna, and Beirut, and these appointments reinforced his
life-long love for the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Flecker's health was
not robust (he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1910 shortly after he
entered the consular service) and he was forced to take frequent leaves of
absence from his posts, sometimes to return to England and sometimes to visit
sanatoria in Switzerland. He died in Davos, Switzerland, on January 3, 1915, and
is buried in Cheltenham, England, at the foot of the Cotswold Hills. His grave
is marked with a granite cross inscribed with the poet's own words: "O Lord,
restore his realm to the dreamer."

        -- [broken link]


This is the perfect time to share an extract from Italo Calvino's wonderful
wonderful book 'Invisible Cities':

"Proceeding eighty miles into the northwest wind, you reach the city of
Euphemia, where the merchants of seven nations gather at every solstice and
equinox. The boat that lands there with a cargo of ginger and cotton will set
sail again, its hold filled with pistachio nuts and poppy seeds, and the caravan
that has just unloaded sacks of nutmegs and raisins is already cramming its
saddlebags with bolts of golden muslin for the return journey. But what drives
men to travel up rivers and cross deserts to come here is not only the exchange
of wares, which you could find, everywhere the same, in all the bazaars inside
and outside the Great Khan's empire, scattered at your feet on the same yellow
mats, in the shade of the same awnings protecting them from the flies, offered
with the same lying reduction in prices. You do not come to Euphemia only to buy
and sell, but also because at night, by the fires all around the market, seated
on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of carpets, at each word that one
man says - such as "wolf", "sister", hidden treasure", "battle", "scabies",
"lovers" - the others tell, each one, his tale of wolves, sisters, treasures,
scabies, lovers, battles. And you know that in the long journey ahead of you,
when to keep awake against the camel's swaying or the junk's rocking, you start
summoning up your memories one by one, your wolf will have become another wolf,
your sister a different sister, your battle other battles, on your return from
Euphemia, the city where memory is traded at every solstice and at every

        -- Italo Calvino

About 'Invisible Cities':

"This most beautiful of his books throws up ideas, allusions and breathtaking
imaginative insights on almost every page. Each time he returns from his
travels, Marco Polo is invited by Kublai Khan to describe the cities he has
visited... although he makes Marco Polo summon up many cities for the Khan's
imagination to feed on, Calvino is describing only one city in this book.
Venice, that decaying heap of incomparable splendour, still stands as
substantial evidence of man's ability to create something perfect out of chaos."

        -- Paul Bailey, Times Literary Supplement

Marco Polo may have been talking about Venice, but his words fit Flecker's
description of Samarkand (and the traders who journey there) (not to mention the
romance of the Silk Road) almost perfectly.

[On the theme]

Most of our themes last only for a week or so; this time, though, I'm going to
continue for as long as I can find relevant poems to run. Shouldn't be too hard
a task, actually...

... meanwhile, list-member Vikram Doctor recommends

"Peter Hopkirk's book 'Foreign Devils On The Silk Road'. It's about the
rediscovery of the lost cities of the Silk Route in the Gobi and Takla Makan
deserts in the last century by people like Aurel Stein. Along with the cities
they uncovered huge amounts of book and art treasures, principally in the Caves
of the Thousand Buddhas. The book is totally fascinating and a complete page
turner. Hopkirk has written a series of good books on Central Asia, but this is
the one I enjoyed the most."

Thanks, Vik, I'll definitely try to get my hands on a copy.

[Minstrels Links]

    THE WATCHMAN (consoling the women):
    What would ye, ladies? It was ever thus.
      Men are unwise and curiously planned.
    A WOMAN:
      They have their dreams, and do not think of us.

reminds me of Kipling's 'Harp Song of the Dane Women':

    What is a woman that you forsake her,
    And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
    To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

of which the entirety can be found at poem #143

Another marvellous Kipling evocation of 'The Soul of all the East' is 'The
Buddha at Kamakura, archived at poem #379

19 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

shirl_me said...

where can i find the whole poem though..not just an extract???????

you have links to find other WHOLE POEMS, but not The Golden Road to Samarkand...the one i want

i have searched and no does not seem to be online......and you have chosen to merely print an excerpt

Colin Finnie said...

Dear Sitaram

Here's a small contribution to the correspondence that followed upon your publication of the extract of The Golden Road to Samarkand. Incidentally, the SUBJECT line of this E-mail referred to a different poem, until I updated it. I remember reading a verse of The Golden Road in a prose publication. The author, whose name I have now forgotten, had written this in Flecker's idiom. It seems to me, too, that he had captured a little of the spirit of Flecker's philosophy as expressed in The Golden Road:

To learn the selfsame lesson, day by day,
It is not in the safe arrival planned
But in the dreams we dream along the way
We find the golden road to Samarkand.

Cordial good wishes keep up the good work
Colin Finnie

John Wood said...

But what might Hassan have said if he had come to visit Britain, perhaps the charming town of


Through the arch of time, your memory calls to me!!

The stately avenues, the smell of columbine and asphodel,

and, snaking up from shady bowers,

jasmine, stocks, exotic flowers carpet lanes with vivid scenes as village squares and village greens

slumber neath the cloudless sky, before the azure sea!!.

stately spires and gilded domes

call them all from play

and Sunday sees them pious come

to praise this wonder they call home

to thank the Lord they have been blest

with such a place in which to rest

to meditate and pray!!

Ancient seats of learning thrive.

Their gates are opened wide

And pilgrims kneel to kiss the sod

to tread where Roman feet have trod

They join together hand in hand

And, in this English Samarkand

weep tears that few can hide

San Francisco, none deny
A city of renown

Agra Beijing, I would say are

Most impressive in their way

Bucarest and Bangalore

Both of course have great allure

But none are Ilford town.

When cares and woe press all around

When life itself too harsh is

My spirit seeks its breeding ground

My Shangri-la, my lebensraum

My camel turns, and, belled with gold

retraces steps it learnt of old

beyond the Essex marshes!!

Heather Barry said...

Away, for we are ready, to a man,

Our camels sniff the evening, and are glad.

Lead on, O master of the caravan,

Lead on, the merchant prices of Baghdad.


We have rose- candy, we have spikenard,

Mastic and terabinth, Oil and spice,

And such sweet jams, meticulously jarred

As God's own prophet eats in paradise.

Verse forgotten


And we have manuscripts in peacock style

By Ali of Damascus. We have swords

Engraved with storks and apes and crocodiles,

And heavy beaten necklaces, for lords


But who are ye in rags and rotten shoes,

You dirty - bearded, blocking up the way?


We are the pilgrims, master, we will go

Always a little further. It may be

Beyond that last blue mountain, barred with snow,

Across that angry or that glistening sea,

White on a throne, or guarded in a cave,

There lives a prophet who can understand why even men were born.

But surely we are brave who make the golden journey to Samarkand?

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