This intense and erotic lyric by a Victorian Englishman, set in an Arabia of the mind, may not be 'authentic' but its power is stunning
This week's poem is "An Arab Love-Song", by Francis Thompson (1859-1907), author of the great Christian ode, "The Hound of Heaven" and not to be confused with the Scottish poet James Thomson (1834-82), who wrote "The City of Dreadful Night". Both men were utterly original, extremists in their work and in their sometimes wretched lives. But James was the true poète maudit, the "laureate of pessimism", as he was nicknamed, who could raise squalor to the level of the visionary. Francis, despite his own dreadful nights of homelessness and addiction, was blessed by a strong religious faith, and by the friendship and support of the Meynells. Thanks largely to their interventions, he kicked his opium habit for extensive periods, made his mark as an essayist, and published three collections of verse before a final descent into dereliction. This little erotic lyric is an oddity in his work, and yet it seems to possess, in miniature, the rhythmic drive and flexibility which make "The Hound Of Heaven" memorable on its more ambitious scale.
While living rough in London, Thompson found occasional refuge with a kindly woman who worked as a prostitute. But the inspiration of "An Arab Love-Song" is thought to be a later acquaintance, a young short story writer named Katie King. Her mother disapproved of Thompson's courtship, and warned him off in a hurtful letter. "Thy tribe's black tents" is eloquent code for what he felt about the King family.
Borrowing the mask of another culture, perhaps pretending to be a translation, the poem might, with some justification, be labelled pastiche. What Thompson knew first-hand about Arabic poetry is unclear. His English filters are plain to see. There's a Biblical tone, particularly audible in the third stanza. Coleridge's poetry, we know, had touched his imagination, and it seems very likely that he had fallen under the spell of Edward FitzGerald's The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Of course, it's not impossible that Thompson had heard real Arabic love songs. He roamed the streets of England's capital city for three years, and must have met and talked with many passing strangers at the all-night coffee stalls he haunted – "those little centres of distressed humanity waiting for the dawn".
More likely, though, Thompson's song belongs to an Arabia of his imagination. Its very informality underlines that impression (Arabic poetry was traditionally highly formalised). With its episodic and asymmetrical stanzas, the verses have a strange and no doubt deliberate nomadic quality.
It opens with three sets of irregular couplets. A certain whimsicality is more than offset by that striking image of the clouds as "hunchèd camels". The expected adjective is "humped" but "hunched" both suggests the characteristic shape, and, in a stroke of realism, shows us animals huddled together on the sand, at rest, because it's night. Then, picking up the "moon" rhyme for the first line, and plainly echoing Fitzgerald, Thompson expands into a longer-lined, highly emotive tercet. The declaration of love leads to a thought that, for a Victorian poet, must remain un-sayable (even for a Victorian poet in Orientalist guise) but the erotic intensity is thoroughly insinuated: "And night will catch her breath up, and be dumb."
The voice of the dramatic lyric, as a genre, does not need to be authentic to the poet; though it has to be, or appear, emotionally authentic. Thompson's title demands we conjure up a speaker – or singer – from a different culture. The genuineness or otherwise of the original impulse can be judged only by criteria belonging to the poet's own language – the rhythmic energy, the linguistic inventiveness. Thompson's poem is endowed with both.
The last, seven-line, verse is structurally the boldest, closer to prose than poetry, with rhymes (mother/ brother/brother/mother) that seem casual, almost accidental, subdued to the rhetoric of invocation. Their sound is suitably breathy, almost gasping. The thought is bold, too, when the speaker claims, God-like, to be his beloved's father, brother and mother. Finally, Thompson leaves us with another vivid picture, earthbound this time, as if to balance the earlier imagery of the night sky. The contrast of the "black tents" and the "red pavilion" (recalling the exclamation, "blood of my heart") is almost simplistic, almost crude – yet it's a striking evocation of the polarity of death and life, resistance and invitation.
Thompson's quirky technique never detracts from the fluidity and inevitability of the utterance. Though it might seem one of the by-products of Victorian poetry, this poem actually expresses an essential quality of the age, its power of synthesis. An Arab love song sung by an Englishman, tenuously linked, if at all, to the real grandeur of Arabic literary tradition, the poem is a cunning disguise. It allows Thompson an intensity unlike anything we find in his other secular poems. If the right hand doesn't always know what the left is doing, this is a left-handed poem. I wish he'd written more.
An Arab Love-Song
The hunchèd camels of the night
Trouble the bright
And silver waters of the moon.
The Maiden of the Morn will soon
Through Heaven stray and sing,
Now while the dark about our loves is strewn,
Light of my dark, blood of my heart, O come!
And night will catch her breath up, and be dumb.
Leave thy father, leave thy mother
And thy brother;
Leave the black tents of thy tribe apart!
Am I not thy father and thy brother,
And thy mother?
And thou – what needest with thy tribe's black tents
Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?