THE GOLDEN JOURNEY TO SAMARKAND

PROLOGUE


We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why, -
What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:
And there the world's first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.


THE GOLDEN JOURNEY TO SAMARKAND

EPILOGUE


At the Gate of the Sun, Baghdad, in olden time


THE MERCHANTS :
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-Princes of Baghdad.


THE CHIEF DRAPER :
Have we not Indian carpets dark as wine,
Turbans and sashes, gowns and bows and veils,
And broideries of intricate design,
And printed hangings in enormous bales?


THE CHIEF GROCER :
We have rose-candy, we have spikenard,
Mastic and terebinth and oil and spice,
And such sweet jams meticulously jarred
As God's own Prophet eats in Paradise.


THE PRINCIPAL JEWS :
And we have manuscripts in peacock styles
By Ali of Damascus; we have swords
Engraved with storks and apes and crocodiles,
And heavy beaten necklaces, for Lords.


THE MASTER OF THE CARAVAN :
But you are nothing but a lot of Jews.

THE PRINCIPAL JEWS :
Sir, even dogs have daylight, and we pay.

THE MASTER OF THE CARAVAN :
But who are ye in rags and rotten shoes,
You dirty-bearded, blocking up the way?


THE PILGRIMS :
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the golden road to Samarkand.


THE CHIEF MERCHANT :
We gnaw the nail of hurry. Master, away!

ONE OF THE WOMEN :
O turn your eyes to where your children stand.
Is not Baghdad the beautiful? O stay!

THE MERCHANTS in chorus :
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.


AN OLD MAN :
Have you not girls and garlands in your homes,
Eunuchs and Syrian boys at your command?
Seek not excess: God hateth him who roams!

THE MERCHANTS :
We take the golden road to Samarkand.


A PILGRIM WITH A BEAUTIFUL VOICE :
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.


A MERCHANT :
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.


THE MASTER OF THE CARAVAN :
Open the gate, O watchman of the night!

THE WATCHMAN :
Ho, travellers, I open. For what land
Leave you the dim-moon city of delight?


THE 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.

A WOMAN :
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
1884-1915
It has always been a bit of a mystery to me why this poem delights and possesses me so entirely. I encountered it as an adolescent, and that of course is a time when one makes life-long attachments, for better or worse. The play Hassan, from which this comes, is not well-regarded nowadays, and i have never heard of a production. One can pick up second-hand copies for less than the price of a cup of coffee—as indeed I did, only the other day. Delius set this poem (and indeed much of the play) and i once had an LP of a recording (Beecham, presumably) but it's awful; Delius had no idea what he was good at. His vocal works are one-and-all terrible.

I was more struck by the tale of the hapless eponymous Hassan, who has his heart broken by the heartless baggage Yasmin, and whom my adolescent self naturally felt for, there never being any shortage of heartless baggages when you are an adolescent boy. However i now think that the poem derives its longevity by being placed at the very end of the play, where it is a wonderful evocation of the hopes, potential mysteries and unforseeable revelations promised in the open-ended adventure that it invites us (and indeed the travellers who sing to us) to, draws us into....but does not reveal. ``We are the pilgrims, master, we shall go \\ always a little further...'' and of course I loved the richness and fluidity of the language but also the way it doesn't take itself too seriously.

I had a correspondent from Australia who wrote to me that, having loved this poem all his life, in his retirement he—well—took the Golden Road to Samarkand and just bloody well went there.. He said his family thought him crazy to travel halfway across the world just because of a line in a poem. We should all be crazy like that.

Elroy Flecker had a younger brother, who was a schoolteacher at my father's prep school. (I think this must be The Hall , tho' Wikipaedia says only that he was headmaster of Christ's Hospital and that may be true too.). According to my father, the brother was a red-nosed clown ``God gave him the red nose but the clowning was all his own work''.



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