‘The Light Of Asia’ is a long narrative poem by Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), which tells the story of the life of Buddha. It has been admired by, among others, T.S.Eliot, which is not of course necessarily a recommendation, though I always find it interesting when poets reveal a perhaps surprising taste for work very different from their own: it offers a new perspective on both admirer and admired. The poem, published in 1890, is very much of its time, with an unfashionably sub-Keatsian opulence of diction, and I believe it has been criticised by Oriental scholars for giving a misleading impression of Buddhist doctrine, but it does have a considerable exotic charm and sometimes rises to real eloquence, as in the extract below.
To set the scene, the Prince Siddhartha has grown up fiercely protected by his father the King, who has kept him from all knowledge of the suffering and death that lie beyond the palace walls. (Not sure how the King managed this: personally by the time I was five I had already lost two goldfish, a tortoise and a pet rabbit, but there you go). Eventually Siddhartha demands to be allowed out into the city. The King gives orders that all distressing sights are to be hidden away and everyone is to be on their best behaviour, much as now when the Queen visits a place, but as luck would have it one rather decrepit old man hasn’t got the message and staggers out into the road just as Siddhartha is passing. The Prince returns home much burdened with his new knowledge of age and the passing of time, and even his beloved wife Yasodhara and a plate of cakes cannot console him.
I like the ‘Nullius in verba’ aspect of Buddhism. ‘Do not, O Kalamas, be satisfied with hearsay or tradition, with legends or what is written in great scriptures, with conjecture or logic, or with saying, “This comes from a great master or teacher.” But look in yourselves. When you know in yourselves what teachings are unprofitable… you should abandon them… when they lead to virtue, honesty, loving-kindness, clarity, and freedom, then you must follow these’. But I struggle with this non-attachment business, which seems a bit too subtle for me. Love, I say, and pay the price.
Note: Yasodhara is stressed on the second syllable.
From ‘The Light of Asia’
Yasodhara sank to his feet and wept,
Sighing, ‘Hath not my Lord comfort in me?’
‘Ah, Sweet!’ he said, ‘such comfort that my soul
Aches, thinking it must end, for it will end,
And we shall both grow old, Yasodhara!
Loveless, unlovely, weak, and old, and bowed.
Nay, though we locked up love and life with lips
So close that night and day our breaths grew one
Time would thrust in between to filch away
My passion and thy grace, as black Night steals
The rose-gleams from yon peak, which fade to grey
And are not seen to fade. This have I found,
And all my heart is darkened with its dread,
And all my heart is fixed to think how Love
Might save its sweetness from the slayer, Time,
Who makes men old.’