An Oriental Apologue

A poem by James Russell Lowell

Somewhere in India, upon a time,
(Read it not Injah, or you spoil the verse,)
There dwelt two saints whose privilege sublime
It was to sit and watch the world grow worse,
Their only care (in that delicious clime)
At proper intervals to pray and curse;
Pracrit the dialect each prudent brother
Used for himself, Damnonian for the other.

One half the time of each was spent in praying
For blessings on his own unworthy head,
The other half in fearfully portraying
Where certain folks would go when they were dead;
This system of exchanges--there's no saying
To what more solid barter 'twould have led,
But that a river, vext with boils and swellings
At rainy times, kept peace between their dwellings.

So they two played at wordy battledore
And kept a curse forever in the air,
Flying this way or that from shore to shore;
Nor other labor did this holy pair,
Clothed and supported from the lavish store
Which crowds lanigerous brought with daily care;
They toiled not, neither did they spin; their bias
Was tow'rd the harder task of being pious.

Each from his hut rushed six score times a day,
Like a great canon of the Church full-rammed
With cartridge theologic, (so to say,)
Touched himself off, and then, recoiling, slammed
His hovel's door behind him in away
That to his foe said plainly,--you'll be damned;
And so like Potts and Wainwright, shrill and strong
The two D---- D'd each other all day long.

One was a dancing Dervise, a Mohammedan,
The other was a Hindoo, a gymnosophist;
One kept his whatd'yecallit and his Ramadan,
Laughing to scorn the sacred rites and laws of his
Transfluvial rival, who, in turn, called Ahmed an
Old top, and, as a clincher, shook across a fist
With nails six inches long, yet lifted not
His eyes from off his navel's mystic knot.

'Who whirls not round six thousand times an hour
Will go,' screamed Ahmed, 'to the evil place;
May he eat dirt, and may the dog and Giaour
Defile the graves of him and all his race;
Allah loves faithful souls and gives them power
To spin till they are purple in the face;
Some folks get you know what, but he that pure is
Earns Paradise and ninety thousand houris.'

'Upon the silver mountain, South by East,
Sits Brahma fed upon the sacred bean;
He loves those men whose nails are still increased,
Who all their lives keep ugly, foul, and lean;
'Tis of his grace that not a bird or beast
Adorned with claws like mine was ever seen;
The suns and stars are Brahma's thoughts divine,
Even as these trees I seem to see are mine.'

'Thou seem'st to see, indeed!' roared Ahmed back;
'Were I but once across this plaguy stream,
With a stout sapling in my hand, one whack
On those lank ribs would rid thee of that dream!
Thy Brahma-blasphemy is ipecac
To my soul's stomach; couldst thou grasp the scheme
Of true redemption, thou wouldst know that Deity
Whirls by a kind of blessed spontaneity.

'And this it is which keeps our earth here going
With all the stars.'--'Oh, vile! but there's a place
Prepared for such; to think of Brahma throwing
Worlds like a juggler's balls up into Space!
Why, not so much as a smooth lotos blowing
Is e'er allowed that silence to efface
Which broods round Brahma, and our earth, 'tis known,
Rests on a tortoise, moveless as this stone.'

So they kept up their banning amoebæan,
When suddenly came floating down the stream
A youth whose face like an incarnate pæan
Glowed, 'twas so full of grandeur and of gleam;
'If there be gods, then, doubtless, this must be one,'
Thought both at once, and then began to scream,
'Surely, whate'er immortals know, thou knowest,
Decide between us twain before thou goest!'

The youth was drifting in a slim canoe
Most like a huge white water-lily's petal,
But neither of our theologians knew
Whereof 'twas made; whether of heavenly metal
Seldseen, or of a vast pearl split in two
And hollowed, was a point they could not settle;
'Twas good debate-seed, though, and bore large fruit
In after years of many a tart dispute.

There were no wings upon the stranger's shoulders.
And yet he seemed so capable of rising
That, had he soared like thistle-down, beholders
Had thought the circumstance noways surprising;
Enough that he remained, and, when the scolders
Hailed him as umpire in their vocal prize-ring,
The painter of his boat he lightly threw
Around a lotos-stem, and brought her to.

The strange youth had a look as if he might
Have trod far planets where the atmosphere
(Of nobler temper) steeps the face with light,
Just as our skins are tanned and freckled here;
His air was that of a cosmopolite
In the wide universe from sphere to sphere;
Perhaps he was (his face had such grave beauty)
An officer of Saturn's guards off duty.

Both saints began to unfold their tales at once,
Both wished their tales, like simial ones, prehensile,
That they might seize his ear; fool! knave! and dunce!
Flew zigzag back and forth, like strokes of pencil
In a child's fingers; voluble as duns,
They jabbered like the stones on that immense hill
In the Arabian Nights; until the stranger
Began to think his ear-drums in some danger.

In general those who nothing have to say
Contrive to spend the longest time in doing it;
They turn and vary it in every way,
Hashing it, stewing it, mincing it, ragouting it;
Sometimes they keep it purposely at bay,
Then let it slip to be again pursuing it;
They drone it, groan it, whisper it and shout it,
Refute it, flout it, swear to 't, prove it, doubt it.

Our saints had practised for some thirty years;
Their talk, beginning with a single stem,
Spread like a banyan, sending down live piers,
Colonies of digression, and, in them,
Germs of yet new dispersion; once by the ears,
They could convey damnation in a hem,
And blow the pinch of premise-priming off
Long syllogistic batteries, with a cough.

Each had a theory that the human ear
A providential tunnel was, which led
To a huge vacuum (and surely here
They showed some knowledge of the general head,)
For cant to be decanted through, a mere
Auricular canal or mill-race fed
All day and night, in sunshine and in shower,
From their vast heads of milk-and-water-power.

The present being a peculiar case,
Each with unwonted zeal the other scouted,
Put his spurred hobby through its every pace,
Pished, pshawed, poohed, horribled, bahed, jeered, sneered, flouted,
Sniffed, nonsensed, infideled, fudged, with his face
Looked scorn too nicely shaded to be shouted,
And, with each inch of person and of vesture,
Contrived to hint some most disdainful gesture.

At length, when their breath's end was come about,
And both could now and then just gasp 'impostor!'
Holding their heads thrust menacingly out,
As staggering cocks keep up their fighting posture,
The stranger smiled and said, 'Beyond a doubt
'Tis fortunate, my friends, that you have lost your
United parts of speech, or it had been
Impossible for me to get between.

'Produce! says Nature,--what have you produced?
A new strait-waistcoat for the human mind;
Are you not limbed, nerved, jointed, arteried, juiced,
As other men? yet, faithless to your kind,
Rather like noxious insects you are used
To puncture life's fair fruit, beneath the rind
Laying your creed-eggs, whence in time there spring
Consumers new to eat and buzz and sting.

'Work! you have no conception how 'twill sweeten
Your views of Life and Nature, God and Man;
Had you been forced to earn what you have eaten,
Your heaven had shown a less dyspeptic plan;
At present your whole function is to eat ten
And talk ten times as rapidly as you can;
Were your shape true to cosmogonic laws,
You would be nothing but a pair of jaws.

'Of all the useless beings in creation
The earth could spare most easily you bakers
Of little clay gods, formed in shape and fashion
Precisely in the image of their makers;
Why it would almost move a saint to passion,
To see these blind and deaf, the hourly breakers
Of God's own image in their brother men,
Set themselves up to tell the how, where, when,

'Of God's existence; one's digestion's worse--
So makes a god of vengeance and of blood;
Another,--but no matter, they reverse
Creation's plan, out of their own vile mud
Pat up a god, and burn, drown, hang, or curse
Whoever worships not; each keeps his stud
Of texts which wait with saddle on and bridle
To hunt down atheists to their ugly idol.

'This, I perceive, has been your occupation;
You should have been more usefully employed;
All men are bound to earn their daily ration,
Where States make not that primal contract void
By cramps and limits; simple devastation
Is the worm's task, and what he has destroyed
His monument; creating is man's work,
And that, too, something more than mist and murk.'

So having said, the youth was seen no more,
And straightway our sage Brahmin, the philosopher,
Cried, 'That was aimed at thee, thou endless bore,
Idle and useless as the growth of moss over
A rotting tree-trunk!' 'I would square that score
Full soon,' replied the Dervise, 'could I cross over
And catch thee by the beard. Thy nails I'd trim
And make thee work, as was advised by him.

'Work? Am I not at work from morn till night
Sounding the deeps of oracles umbilical
Which for man's guidance never come to light,
With all their various aptitudes, until I call?'
'And I, do I not twirl from left to right
For conscience' sake? Is that no work? Thou silly gull,
He had thee in his eye; 'twas Gabriel
Sent to reward my faith, I know him well.'

'Twas Vishnu, thou vile whirligig!' and so
The good old quarrel was begun anew;
One would have sworn the sky was black as sloe,
Had but the other dared to call it blue;
Nor were the followers who fed them slow
To treat each other with their curses, too,
Each hating t'other (moves it tears or laughter?)
Because he thought him sure of hell hereafter.

At last some genius built a bridge of boats
Over the stream, and Ahmed's zealots filed
Across, upon a mission to (cut throats
And) spread religion pure and undefiled;
They sowed the propagandist's wildest oats,
Cutting off all, down to the smallest child,
And came back, giving thanks for such fat mercies,
To find their harvest gone past prayers or curses.

All gone except their saint's religious hops,
Which he kept up with more than common flourish;
But these, however satisfying crops
For the inner man, were not enough to nourish
The body politic, which quickly drops
Reserve in such sad junctures, and turns currish;
So Ahmed soon got cursed for all the famine
Where'er the popular voice could edge a damn in.

At first he pledged a miracle quite boldly.
And, for a day or two, they growled and waited;
But, finding that this kind of manna coldly
Sat on their stomachs, they erelong berated
The saint for still persisting in that old lie,
Till soon the whole machine of saintship grated,
Ran slow, creaked, stopped, and, wishing him in Tophet,
They gathered strength enough to stone the prophet.

Some stronger ones contrived (by eatting leather,
Their weaker friends, and one thing or another)
The winter months of scarcity to weather;
Among these was the late saint's younger brother,
Who, in the spring, collecting them together,
Persuaded them that Ahmed's holy pother
Had wrought in their behalf, and that the place
Of Saint should be continued to his race.

Accordingly, 'twas settled on the spot
That Allah favored that peculiar breed;
Beside, as all were satisfied, 'twould not
Be quite respectable to have the need
Of public spiritual food forgot;
And so the tribe, with proper forms, decreed
That he, and, failing him, his next of kin,
Forever for the people's good should spin.

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