American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Poems of Places 9

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From Poems of Places, vol. 22, Asia 2 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Afghanistan: Cabul (Cabool)]

Excerpted from Ruins of Many Lands: A Descriptive Poem (1850), by the Cornish poet Nicholas Michell. Longfellow cuts the awkward opening of the Cabul section, which reads like this:

A moment yet we linger ’mid the bowers
Of Northern Ind — a land of fruits and flowers,
Where the proud Affghan treads a blessed soil,
That yields all Nature asks with little toil,
A land where God his heavenliest smile hath thrown
On all beneath — man, man the blot alone.

That last line casts an ominous shadow on the poem — a shadow of original sin, I thought, reading the description of earthly paradise that followed. Alas, no; it’s a thicker, uglier shadow. But here’s the Longfellow excerpt:

Oh, who Cabul’s sweet region may behold,
When Spring laughs out, or Autumn sows her gold,
The meadows, orchards, streams that glide in light,
Nor deem lost Irem charms again his sight,
That wondrous garden rivalling Eden’s bloom,
Too blessed for man to view, this side the tomb?
Flowers here, of every scent and form and dye,
Lift their bright heads, and laugh upon the sky,
From the tall tulip with her rich streaked bell,
Where, throned in state. Queen Mab is proud to dwell.
To lowly wind-flowers gaudier plants eclipse,
And pensile harebells with their dewy lips.
There turns the heliotrope to court the sun,
And up green stalks the starry jasmines run:
The hyacinth in tender pink outvies
Beauty’s soft cheek, and violets match her eyes;
Sweet breathe the henna-flowers that harem girls
So love to twine among their glossy curls;
And here the purple pansy springs to birth,
Like some gay insect rising from the earth.
One sheet of bloom the level greensward yields,
And simple daisies speak of England’s fields;
Drawn by sweet odor’s spell, in humming glee,
Flits round the gloomy stock the robber bee,
While to the gorgeous musk-rose, all night long,
The love-sick bulbul pours his melting song;
Then, too, the fruits through months that hang and glow.
Tempting as those which wrought our mother’s woe;
Soft shines the mango on its stem so tall,
Rich gleams beneath the melon’s golden ball;
How feasts the eye upon the bell-shaped pear!
Bright cherries look like corals strung in air;
The purple plum, the grape the hand may reach,
Vie with the downy-skinned and blushing peach;
Though small, its place the luscious strawberry claims,
Mid snowy flowers the radiant orange flames;
To quench the thirst the cooling guava see,
And ripe pomegranates melting on the tree.
And here, too, England’s favorite fruit is seen,
The red-cheeked apple, veiled by leaves of green;
Ah! at the sight sweet thoughts of home awake,
And foreign lands are welcomed for its sake.

Thrice genial clime! O favored, sweet Cabul!
Well art thou named the blessed, the beautiful!
With snow-peaked hills around thee, — guarding arms!
Ah! would thy sons were worthy of thy charms!

— Nicholas Michell

In Ruins, the poem carries two footnotes. The first explains “Irem” (line 4)

The garden of Irem, say Arabian chroniclers, was made by King Sheddad, in the desert of Aden, in imitation of Paradise. Sheddad perished for his impiety, and the garden became invisible. — See Sale’s “Notes to the Koran.”

The second is keyed to line 8 (“Lift their bright heads, and laugh upon the sky”):

The province of Cabul, in Affghanistan, has been famous from time immemorial for its fertility; the snowy mountains of Hindoo Cosh, on the north, and other lofty ridges on the south-east, render the climate very variable; in the spring and autumn it is delightful, but in the summer the heat is oppressive. Superadded to many of the products of India and Persia, all the fruit trees and flowers that flourish in Europe are found here, and seen from the Sultan Baber’s tomb on a hill near the city of Cabul, the country around looks like a beautiful garden.

Overall, the poem is a beautiful tribute, ruined, however, by the last line — a line that Longfellow should have cut. After all, he did cut the opening reference to man as blot. He also cut the lines that come next, a hideous bit of demonizing that brings Michael Savage to mind:

Ah! would thy sons were worthy of thy charms!
Wild are those tribes, a free but barbarous race,
Crime still the shadow darkening Nature’s face.
What to the Affghan’s eye is smiling earth?
What scenes of glory? — things of little worth;
Not his the finer joys, the charms of lore,
The taste that brightens, and the thoughts that soar,
His highest aim to lead his mountain horde,
And bathe in blood his Koran-graven sword.

But let’s leave this ugliness to the side…

What I love about the poem is Michell’s long passage on fruit (underlined in this copy, from the UCSD library). It reminds me of nothing so much as Tony Harrison’s “Fruitility,” which gives voice to a very different ethos (or maybe not so different, but not so hateful in its anti-religious turn). Here’s an excerpt:

Fuck philosophy that sees
life itself as some disease
we sicken with until released,
supervised by Pope or priest,
into a dry defruited zone
where no James Grieves were ever grown.
I’d barter nebulous Nirvanas
for carambolas or bananas.

And here for good measure is a link to Harrison reading another great fruit poem, “A Kumquat for John Keats.” Recording here; text here.


One Response

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  1. I think this is one of the best poems I have ever read.


    October 6, 2009 at 10:25 am

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