W. B. Yeats’s “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” is a poem about turning older and being gifted with what you really want, which, stripped down, turns out to be a pretty typical wanting. It’s a poem I’ve loved dearly since my friend Julianne Werlin introduced it to me when we were undergrads at the University of Chicago, and it’s a poem I’ve never been able to read well on my own, both because it’s difficult and because it’s a series of tests. The first being: presented with non-transgressive and socially uninteresting desires, is it possible to not get carried away with the powers of deflation? Especially if the banal desire in question is one that, in paraphrase, should offend our collective disciplinary sensibilities, reflecting as it does the most common power dynamics of our practices of sexual love?
An uncharacteristic dramatic monologue written in 1923, “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” recounts the passing of a young woman from the caliph Harun Al-Rashid to his Christian courtier Kusta Ben Luka. It’s a thinly veiled fictionalization of Yeats’ young bride Georgie’s automatic writings, the output from the trances and séances she underwent right after their marriage, which he recorded and published as A Vision. Unfortunately, the poem’s topical connection to the occult has hindered its comprehension. There’s some mystical math in it but unless you really force it, you cannot find in its forms or structures the phases of the moon, the special curvature of gyres, or the combinatorials of the I-Ching.
This is what happens in the poem, which is also its “concept”: one day Harun Al-Rashid pays a visit to Kusta Ben Luka, “the least considered of his courtiers.” There, with “one hand amid the goldfish,” the mighty caliph proceeds to convince Ben Luka to accept as a bride a young woman that he has expressly chosen for him because she is interested in the same scholarly things that he’s interested in. Al-Rashid has already taken a young bride himself and has found this second (or fiftieth) youth.
For Ben Luka this should be a no-brainer. Somehow, he still has to be talked into it.
In the end the gift is accepted, and Ben Luka is brought to his knees by desire, which sounds about right. The girl is young, likely less than half his age, being “what now can shake more blossom from autumnal chill/ Than all my bursting springtime knew.” In what universe was an aged scholar going to turn down the gift of a beautiful young girl who had scarcely even toured the grounds “Before she had spread a book upon her knees,” who strained to understand the same arcane things he’s strained to understand while remaining “youth’s very fountain,/ Being all brimmed with life”?
And as Ben Luka’s incredible dumb luck would have it, his young wife also has a direct line of access to the “crabbed mysteries” he has been trying to decipher to no avail. Every so often, in the middle of the night, she runs out into the desert in a trance and “there marked out those emblems on the sand that day by day” he studied, all the “gyres and cubes and midnight things.”
Back in college I had asked Julianne what she thought this part of the poem meant. She had said, it means sign me up for that thing where I can fuck someone and then have differential geometry reveal itself to me in the same night.
Along the deflationary axis the poem goes something like this: there are two patriarchs who discuss among themselves the fate of a woman who remains voiceless throughout and who, having no recollection of her special powers, “swept the house and sang about her work in childish ignorance.” Through this conceit, erotically mediated communication is, as an ideal form, displaced onto the Orientalized other. Guys: we have the humanities scholar who dabbles in mathematics, who appropriates the mental activities and body of a young woman with impunity because her special knowledge is seen as something that doesn’t belong to her but is free for the taking, and who then wonders out loud if she’s better off not knowing about the theft because in knowing she might doubt the purity of his motivations. Along the deflationary axis this poem is basically our profession’s upside down.
Here’s the thing, though. Whatever analogies it brings to mind “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’ is proof that reason can be spun from sheer typicality into the unmistakable shape of desire.
Much of the poem’s slow burn takes place in the persuasive dialogue between Ben Luka and Al-Rashid. Ben Luka is worried that his old age has precluded real love and that, being Christian, he would not desire love if it was unrequited. Al-Rashid’s countervailing reasons are the stuff on which reasoning runs aground:
“But such as you and I do not seem old
Like men who live by habit. Every day
I ride with falcon to the river’s edge
Or carry the ringed mail upon my back,
Or court a woman; neither enemy,
Game-bird, nor woman does the same thing twice;
And so a hunter carries in the eye
A mimic of youth. Can poet’s thought
That springs from body and in body falls
Like this pure jet, now lost amid blue sky,
Now bathing lily leaf and fish’s scale
“What matter if our souls
Are nearer to the surface of the body
Than souls that start no game and turn no rhyme!
The soul’s own youth and not the body’s youth
Shows through our lineaments…”
And so on.
Julianne had exclaimed: “Why does he break the iambic pentameter with that word ‘mimicry’? It makes the line almost unsayable.”
The whole thing is fucking difficult to follow. I text both stanzas to Rachel Feder.
I’m thinking that I still don’t understand why, if hunters and poets are the same kinds of things, the hunter carrying a mimic of youth in his eye makes him immune to habituation while the poet’s mimicry sounds like something to be avoided.
In his game of love and theft Ben Luka wonders, too, about the unoriginal desires and unoriginal ideas that have lit up his life. After all, he has only copied Al-Rashid in taking a young wife and then has only copied her copies. To prolong this wonderment, he tries to keep the faculty of reason tethered to the faculty of desire to the very end. Even when there’s really no more reason for thought, he thinks. Should he tell his wife? “What if she lose her ignorance and so/ Dream that I love her only for the voice”? If she doubts his motivations and loses her love then “All my fine feathers would be plucked away/ And I left shivering.” Worse yet, what if her special powers only come with being in love and in losing the one she loses the other? Then, he reasons, he’d really have nothing left.
To settle these matters he decides to reveal his hand. The first reveal, he says, is that all of the math things “are but a new expression of her body/ Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.” I’m still not sure after all this time why or how this constitutes a mystery. We get it. Her body is a wonderland. And as for his big dilemma: there’s really no uncertainty there, either. He’s going to continue to sleep with her and get the math on the side.
Ben Luka, remember, has shrouded the poem in secrecy from the beginning, asking the recipient, the Treasurer Abd Al-Rabban (the poem written “for no ear but his”) to hide it with the Treatise of Parmenides (and not with “books of learning from Byzantium” or “the great book of Sappho’s song”) because what is being recounted is the mystery of “how great violent hearts lose their bitterness and find the honeycomb,” and this should definitely not fall into the wrong hands. Which, lol. Of course when old men take young brides, their hearts lose bitterness with all the honeycombs.
Ben Luka knows he has a beautiful thing that’s also primed for deflation, which is why only some readers can be trusted to properly appreciate it.
I make a phone date with my friend Rebecca Ariel Porte for a 9-10am slot on a Saturday morning. It has to be that hour because she has to write a talk for an all-night lecture marathon at the Brooklyn Public Library and she’s going on at dawn. She is writing about the Golden Age. It has to be that hour because that’s the only hour I have on Saturday free from my wretched kids.
We read these beautiful lines over each other’s interpretations:
And now my utmost mystery is out.
A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner;
Under it wisdom stands, and I alone —
Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone —
Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In the confusion of its night-dark folds,
Can hear the armed man speak.
“A woman’s beauty” and the complex blazon that follows do not necessarily explain or even focalize the “utmost mystery.” We know this by the period after “out.” But we can know something about this utmost mystery in the repetitious “I alone/I alone”: how does one claim something that isn’t easily claimed, something that has to be routed through desiring circuits every single time?
We see now that this uncertainty has been inscribed from the very beginning which casts doubt about the letter reaching its intended auditor. The poet can’t be sure that the right person will find the hidden letter/poem—that it won’t simply be picked up to be dropped by a “boy’s/ Love-lorn, indifferent hands.” That’s the first rerouting—a test whether communication will be consummated. Then again in the garden: it takes a good while for us to figure out what “the gift” even is. When we get the thing that was so easily gotten, it’s only through voice that we get her at all. And even then, when it should be immediate as voice is immediate, it is still coming from the beyond, at a remove.
That might be why—this is Rebecca—the speaker’s “utmost mystery” is “out,” as it were: desire can only be recursively experienced through the formal processes of the series of exchanges that constitute the poem itself. We’re slyly trapped (by the logic of the text) into taking the experience of the poem’s formal workings in trade for a portable consummation.
It’s 10am and my time is up. The gift of Harun Al-Rashid is the fact of desire moving tangent to its object.
How do you like your shapes in the sand?
I love critics who, encouraged by the healthy amount of uncertainty in the wording, try to come up with candidates for the identity of the “armed man” in the last line of the poem. As if the poem didn’t already tell you. As if there’s Wisdom, standing disembodied underneath the storm-tossed banner, and somewhere else, 500 feet away, maybe, up the hill somewhere, there’s a non-referential armed man. As if, neither an integral part of a woman’s beauty nor separable from it, wisdom could not be the armored thing.
I email Julianne to tell her, essentially, that I’ve stolen her favorite poem for an essay without even having come up with an original reading of it myself. I tell her, in effect, that “mimicry,” in the poem as in real life, is hard to get out of one’s mouth.
She writes back with no greeting or sign off:
I took this to be the basic idea – that the most ordinary and banal forms of sexual love, after all of their troubling attendant circumstances have been explained and demystified, remain as mysterious as ever. And that it’s worth thinking about these mysteries, which are after all central to literature, through literature.
I’m reminded of a quote by Stephen Booth: “What does the human mind ordinarily want most? To understand what it does not understand. And what does the human mind customarily do to achieve that goal? It works away – sometimes only for a second or two, sometimes for years – until it understands. What does the mind have then? What it wanted? No. What it has is understanding of something it now understands. What it wanted was to understand something it did not understand.”
Nan Z. Da: Whitman Sampler sampler
Image: Caroline Walls’ “After Thought IV,” screen print 2017
Used with permission of the artist