Poems and Reminiscences of the Captive Sultan


I personally never believed the sultan was a good poet, but after his unfortunate demise I resolved to set his verse to music, as a kind of atonement. Such emotions are a weakness of advancing age, I suppose.

I thought the poems overwrought, sentimental, sometimes vulgar. Others might have called the sultan sensual, sensitive, and gifted with keen aesthetic perception. Perhaps knowing his character flaws so intimately diminished my appreciation for his art. No matter now.


The sultan wrote the following poem not long after I met him. At the time I remember courtiers sighing over the more romantic lines; I’d only rolled my eyes, having never known him to pine after local women.

It was only later, after I’d earned the sultana’s confidence, that she explained to me the sultan’s life before their marriage and the sad meaning behind the poem. The more I knew about him, the more I pitied the sultan. But that’s a tale for another day, I’m afraid.


The naive romanticism of the sultan’s poetry sometimes astonishes even me, who knew him so well; I can assure you the spiritual sentiments he imputes to the mealy-mouthed mongers who babble each morning in the bazaar are pure fantasy.

Merchants of class are too clever to brave the summer sun: I prefer to recline in my office, where I’m cooled by a beautiful slave with an ostrich-feather fan. Nevertheless, I’ve set aside reality and rendered the sultan’s poem into music in accordance with his intentions.

Perhaps the vigorous middle section deviated slightly from that aim; after reading his verses I remain uncertain whether the sultan had an inkling of the chaos and evil that swirls through the marketplace like a hot wind at the end of the dry season.


The famous poem about the dyer’s dog was one of the sultan’s earliest literary successes. But to my mind it neglects to notice dogs’ most salient feature, namely their moral superiority over human slaves, who are not only less obedient and less grateful, but, depending on their assigned task, shorter lived as well.


The complete musical illustrations for The Memoirs of an Evil Vizier are collected in my Orientalist Illuminations.

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