Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IX. Tragedy: Humor
Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IX. Tragedy: Humor.  1904.
Poems of Tragedy: III. The Orient
The Slaying of Sohrab
Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)

  HE spake; and Rustum answered not, but hurled
His spear. Down from the shoulder, down it came—
As on some partridge in the corn, a hawk,
That long has towered in the airy clouds,
Drops like a plummet. Sohrab saw it come,        5
And sprang aside, quick as a flash. The spear
Hissed, and went quivering down into the sand,
Which it sent flying wide. Then Sohrab threw
In turn, and full struck Rustum’s shield. Sharp rang
The iron plates, rang sharp, but turned the spear.        10
And Rustum seized his club, which none but he
Could wield—an unlapped trunk it was, and huge,
Still rough; like those which men, in treeless plains,
To build them boats, fish from the flooded rivers,
Hyphasis or Hydaspes, when, high up        15
By their dark springs, the wind in winter-time
Has made in Himalayan forests wrack,
And strewn the channels with torn boughs—so huge
The club which Rustum lifted now, and struck
One stroke; but again Sohrab sprang aside,        20
Lithe as the glancing snake, and the club came
Thundering to earth, and leapt from Rustum’s hand.
And Rustum followed his own blow, and fell
To his knees, and with his fingers clutched the sand.
And now might Sohrab have unsheathed his sword,        25
And pierced the mighty Rustum while he lay
Dizzy, and on his knees, and choked with sand;
But he looked on, and smiled, nor bared his sword;
But courteously drew back, and spoke, and said:—
  “Thou strik’st too hard; that club of thine will float        30
Upon the summer floods, and not my bones.
But rise, and be not wroth; not wroth am I.
No, when I see thee, wrath forsakes my soul.
Thou sayest thou art not Rustum; be it so.
Who art thou then, that canst so touch my soul?        35
Boy as I am, I have seen battles too;
Have waded foremost in their bloody waves,
And heard their hollow roar of dying men;
But never was my heart thus touched before.
Are they from heaven, these softenings of the heart?        40
O thou old warrior, let us yield to Heaven!
Come, plant we here in earth our angry spears,
And make a truce, and sit upon this sand,
And pledge each other in red wine, like friends;
And thou shalt talk to me of Rustum’s deeds.        45
There are enough foes in the Persian host
Whom I may meet, and strike, and feel no pang;
Champions enough Afrasiab has, whom thou
May’st fight: fight them, when they confront thy spear.
But oh, let there be peace ’twixt thee and me!”        50
  He ceased. But while he spake Rustum had risen,
And stood erect, trembling with rage. His club
He left to lie, but had regained his spear,
Whose fiery point now in his mailed right hand
Blazed bright and baleful—like that autumn star,        55
The baleful sign of fevers. Dust had soiled
His stately crest, and dimmed his glittering arms.
His breast heaved; his lips foamed; and twice his voice
Was choked with rage. At last these words broke way:—
  “Girl! nimble with thy feet, not with thy hands!        60
Curled minion, dancer, coiner of sweet words!
Fight! Let me hear thy hateful voice no more!
Thou art not in Afrasiab’s gardens now
With Tartar girls, with whom thou art wont to dance;
But on the Oxus sands, and in the dance        65
Of battle, and with me, who make no play
Of war. I fight it out, and hand to hand.
Speak not to me of truce, and pledge, and wine!
Remember all thy valor; try thy feints
And cunning; all the pity I had is gone;        70
Because thou hast shamed me before both the hosts,
With thy light skipping tricks, and thy girl’s wiles.”
  He spoke; and Sohrab kindled at his taunts,
And he too drew his sword. At once they rushed
Together; as two eagles on one prey        75
Come rushing down together from the clouds,
One from the east, one from the west. Their shields
Dashed with a clang together; and a din
Rose, such as that the sinewy woodcutters
Make often in the forest’s heart at morn,        80
Of hewing axes, crashing trees; such blows
Rustum and Sohrab on each other hailed.
And you would say that sun and stars took part
In that unnatural conflict; for a cloud
Grew suddenly in heaven, and darkened the sun        85
Over the fighters’ heads; and a wind rose
Under their feet, and moaning swept the plain,
And in a sandy whirlwind wrapped the pair.
In gloom they twain were wrapped, and they alone;
For both the on-looking hosts on either hand        90
Stood in broad daylight, and the sky was pure,
And the sun sparkled on the Oxus stream.
But in the gloom they fought, with bloodshot eyes
And laboring breath. First Rustum struck the shield
Which Sohrab held stiff out. The steel-spiked spear        95
Rent the tough plates, but failed to reach the skin:
And Rustum plucked it back with angry groan.
Then Sohrab with his sword smote Rustum’s helm
Nor clove its steel quite through; but all the crest
He shore away; and that proud horse-hair plume,        100
Never till now defiled, sunk to the dust;
And Rustum bowed his head. But then the gloom
Grew blacker; thunder rumbled in the air,
And lightnings rent the cloud; and Ruksh, the horse,
Who stood at hand, uttered a dreadful cry.        105
No horse’s cry was that, most like the roar
Of some pained desert lion, who all day
Has trailed the hunter’s javelin in his side,
And comes at night to die upon the sand.
The two hosts heard the cry, and quaked for fear;        110
And Oxus curdled as it crossed his stream.
But Sohrab heard, and quailed not—but rushed on,
And struck again; and again Rustum bowed
His head. But this time all the blade, like glass,
Sprang in a thousand shivers on the helm,        115
And in his hand the hilt remained alone.
Then Rustum raised his head; his dreadful eyes
Glared, and he shook on high his menacing spear,
And shouted “Rustum!” Sohrab heard that shout,
And shrank amazed; back he recoiled one step,        120
And scanned with blinking eyes the advancing form;
And then he stood bewildered; and he dropped
His covering shield, and the spear pierced his side.
He reeled, and staggering back, sunk to the ground.
And then the gloom dispersed, and the wind fell,        125
And the bright sun broke forth, and melted all
The cloud; and the two armies saw the pair—
Saw Rustum standing, safe upon his feet,
And Sohrab wounded, on the bloody sand.
  Then with a bitter smile, Rustum began:—        130
  “Sohrab, thou thoughtest in thy mind to kill
A Persian lord this day, and strip his corpse,
And bear thy trophies to Afrasiab’s tent;
Or else that the great Rustum would come down
Himself to fight, and that thy wiles would move        135
His heart to take a gift, and let thee go.
And then all the Tartar host would praise
Thy courage or thy craft, and spread thy fame,
To glad thy father in his weak old age.
Fool! thou art slain, and by an unknown man!        140
Dearer to the red jackals shalt thou be,
Than to thy friends, and to thy father old.”
  And with a fearless mien Sohrab replied:—
  “Unknown thou art; yet thy fierce vaunt is vain.
Thou dost not slay me, proud and boastful man!        145
No! Rustum slays me, and this filial heart.
For were I matched with ten such men as thou,
And I were he who till to-day I was,
They should be lying here, I standing there.
But that belovèd name unnerved my arm—        150
That name, and something, I confess, in thee,
Which troubles all my heart, and made my shield
Fall; and thy spear transfixed an unarmed foe.
And now thou boastest, and insult’st my fate.
But hear thou this, fierce man—tremble to hear!        155
The mighty Rustum shall avenge my death!
My father, whom I seek through all the world,
He shall avenge my death, and punish thee!”
*        *        *        *        *
So Rustum knew not his own loss; but stood
Over his dying son, and knew him not.        160
  But with a cold, incredulous voice, he said:—
“What prate is this of fathers and revenge?
The mighty Rustum never had a son.”
  And, with a failing voice, Sohrab replied:—
“Ah yes, he had! and that lost son am I.        165
Surely the news will one day reach his ear—
Reach Rustum, where he sits, and tarries long,
Somewhere, I know not where, but far from here;
And pierce him like a stab, and make him leap
To arms, and cry for vengeance upon thee—        170
Fierce man, bethink thee—for an only son!
What will that grief, what will that vengeance be!
Oh, could I live till I that grief had seen!
Yet him I pity not so much, but her,
My mother, who in Ader-baijan dwells        175
With that old king, her father, who grows gray
With age, and rules over the valiant Koords.
Her most I pity, who no more will see
Sohrab returning from the Tartar camp,
With spoils and honor, when the war is done,        180
But a dark rumor will be bruited up,
From tribe to tribe, until it reach her ear;
And then will that defenceless woman learn
That Sohrab will rejoice her sight no more;
But that in battle with a nameless foe,        185
By the far-distant Oxus, he is slain.”
*        *        *        *        *
And Rustum gazed on him with grief, and said:
  “O Sohrab, thou indeed art such a son
Whom Rustum, wert thou his, might well have loved!
Yet here thou errest, Sohrab, or else men        190
Have told thee false—thou art not Rustum’s son.
For Rustum had no son. One child he had—
But one—a girl; who with her mother now
Plies some light female task, nor dreams of us;
Of us she dreams not, nor of wounds, nor war.”        195
  But Sohrab answered him in wrath; for now
The anguish of the deep-fixed spear grew fierce,
And he desired to draw forth the steel,
And let the blood flow free, and so to die.
But first he would convince his stubborn foe;        200
And, rising sternly on one arm, he said:
  “Man, who art thou, who dost deny my words?
Truth sits upon the lips of dying men;
And falsehood, while I lived, was far from mine.
I tell thee, pricked upon this arm I bear        205
That seal which Rustum to my mother gave,
That she might prick it on the babe she bore.”
  He spoke: and all the blood left Rustum’s cheeks;
And his knees tottered; and he smote his hand
Against his breast, his heavy mailèd hand,        210
That the hard iron corselet clanked aloud;
And to his heart he pressed the other hand,
And in a hollow voice he spake, and said:
  “Sohrab, that were a proof which could not lie.
If thou show this, then art thou Rustum’s son.”        215
  Then, with weak, hasty fingers, Sohrab loosed
His belt, and near the shoulder bared his arm,
And showed a sign in faint vermilion points
Pricked. As a cunning workman, in Pekin,
Pricks with vermilion some clear porcelain vase,        220
An emperor’s gift; at early morn he paints,
And all day long; and, when night comes, the lamp
Lights up his studious forehead and thin hands:
So delicately pricked the sign appeared
On Sohrab’s arm—the sign of Rustum’s seal.        225
It was that griffin, which of old reared Zal,
Rustum’s great father, whom they left to die,
A helpless babe, among the mountain rocks,
Him that kind creature found and reared and loved.
Then Rustum took it for his glorious sign.        230
And Sohrab bared that figure on his arm,
And himself scanned it long with mournful eyes,
And then he touched it with his hand and said:
  “How sayest thou? Is that sign the proper sign
Of Rustum’s son, or of some other man’s?”        235
  He spoke: but Rustum gazed, and gazed, and stood
Speechless; and then he uttered one sharp cry—
“O, boy—thy father!”—and his voice choked there,
And then a dark cloud passed before his eyes,
And his head swam, and he sank down to earth.        240
But Sohrab crawled to where he lay, and cast
His arms about his neck, and kissed his lips.
And with fond, faltering fingers stroked his cheeks,
Trying to call him back to life. And life
Came back to Rustum, and he oped his eyes,        245
And they stood wide with horror; and he seized
In both his hands the dust which lay around,
And threw it on his head, and smirched his hair—
His hair, and face, and beard, and glittering arms;
And strong, convulsive groanings shook his breast,        250
And his sobs choked him; and he clutched his sword
To draw it, and for ever let life out.
But Sohrab saw his thought, and held his hands;
And with a soothing voice he spoke, and said:
  “Father, forbear! for I but meet to-day        255
The doom that at my birth was written down
In heaven, and thou art heaven’s unconscious hand.
Surely my heart cried out that it was thou,
When first I saw thee; and thy heart spoke too,
I know it. But fate trod those promptings down        260
Under its iron heel; fate, fate engaged
The strife, and hurled me on my father’s spear.
But let us speak no more of this—I find
My father; let me feel that I have found.
Come, sit beside me on this sand, and take        265
My head betwixt thy hands, and kiss my cheeks,
And wash them with thy tears, and say, ‘My son!’
Quick! quick! for numbered are my sands of life,
And swift; for like the lightning to this field
I came, and like the wind I go away—        270
Sudden, and swift, and like a passing wind.
But it was writ in heaven that this should be.”
  So said he: and his voice released the heart
Of Rustum, and his tears broke forth; he cast
His arms round his son’s neck, and wept aloud,        275
And kissed him. And awe fell on both the hosts
When they saw Rustum’s grief; and Ruksh, the horse,
With his head bowing to the ground, and mane
Sweeping the dust, came near, and in mute woe,
First to the one, then to the other moved        280
His head, as if inquiring what their grief
Might mean; and from his dark, compassionate eyes,
The big, warm tears rolled down, and caked the sand.
But Rustum chid him with stern voice, and said:
  “Ruksh, now thou grievest; but, O Ruksh, thy feet        285
Should then have rotted on thy nimble joints,
When first they bore thy master to this field.”
  But Sohrab looked upon the horse, and said:
  “Is this then Ruksh? How often, in past days,
My mother told me of thee, thou brave steed—        290
My terrible father’s terrible horse! and said
That I should one day find thy lord and thee.
Come, let me lay my hand upon thy mane.
O Ruksh, thou art more fortunate than I;
For thou hast gone where I shall never go,        295
And snuffed the breezes of my father’s home,
And thou hast trod the sands of Seïstan,
And seen the river of Helmund, and the lake
Of Zirrah; and the aged Zal himself
Has often stroked thy neck, and given thee food—        300
Corn in a golden platter soaked with wine—
And said—‘O Ruksh! bear Rustum well!’ But I
Have never known my grandsire’s furrowed face,
Nor seen his lofty house in Seïstan,
Nor slaked my thirst at the clear Helmund stream;        305
But lodged among my father’s foes, and seen
Afrasiab’s cities only, Samarcand,
Bokhara, and lone Khiva in the waste,
And the black Toorkmun tents; and only drunk
The desert rivers, Moorghab and Tejend,        310
Kohik, and where the Kalmuks feed their sheep,
The northern Sir; and this great Oxus stream—
The yellow Oxus, by whose brink I die.”
  And, with a heavy groan, Rustum replied:
“Oh that its waves were flowing over me!        315
Oh that I saw its grains of yellow silt
Roll tumbling in the current o’er my head!”
  And, with a grave, mild voice, Sohrab replied:
“Desire not that, my father! Thou must live;
For some are born to do great deeds, and live;        320
As some are born to be obscured, and die.
Do thou the deeds I die too young to do,
And reap a second glory in thine age;
Thou art my father, and thy gain is mine.
But come! thou seest this great host of men        325
Which follow me; I pray thee, slay not these!
Let me entreat for them—what have they done?
They followed me, my hope, my fame, my star.
Let them all cross the Oxus back in peace.
But me thou must bear hence, not send with them,        330
But carry me with thee to Seïstan,
And place me on a bed, and mourn for me—
Thou, and the snow-haired Zal, and all thy friends.
And thou must lay me in that lovely earth,
And heap a stately mound above my bones,        335
And plant a far-seen pillar over all;
That so the passing horseman on the waste
May see my tomb a great way off, and say:
Sohrab, the mighty Rustum’s son, lies there,
Whom his great father did in ignorance kill        340
And I be not forgotten in my grave.”
  And, with a mournful voice, Rustum replied:
  “Fear not! as thou hast said, Sohrab, my son,
So shall it be; for I will burn my tents,
And quit the host, and bear thee hence with me,        345
And carry thee away to Seïstan,
And place thee on a bed, and mourn for thee,
With the snow-headed Zal, and all my friends.
And I will lay thee in that lovely earth,
And heap a stately mound above thy bones,        350
And plant a far-seen pillar over all;
And men shall not forget thee in thy grave;
And I will spare thy host—yea, let them go—
Let them all cross the Oxus back in peace.
What should I do with slaying any more?        355
For would that all whom I have ever slain
Might be once more alive—my bitterest foes,
And they who were called champions in their time,
And through whose death I won that fame I have—
And I were nothing but a common man,        360
A poor, mean soldier, and without renown;
So thou mightest live too, my son, my son!
Or rather, would that I, even I myself,
Might now be lying on this bloody sand,
Near death, and by an ignorant stroke of thine.        365
Not thou of mine; and I might die, not thou;
And I, not thou, be borne to Seïstan;
And Zal might weep above my grave, not thine;
And say—O son, I weep thee not too sore,
For willingly, I know, thou met’st thine end!        370
But now in blood and battles was my youth,
And full of blood and battles is my age;
And I shall never end this life of blood.”
  Then at the point of death, Sohrab replied:—
“A life of blood indeed, thou dreadful man!        375
But thou shalt yet have peace; only not now,
Not yet. But thou shalt have it on that day
When thou shalt sail in a high-masted ship,
Thou and the other peers of Kai-Khosroo,
Returning home over the salt, blue sea,        380
From laying thy dear master in his grave.”
  And Rustum gazed on Sohrab’s face, and said:—
“Soon be that day, my son, and deep that sea!
Till then, if fate so wills, let me endure.”
  He spoke: and Sohrab smiled on him, and took        385
The spear, and drew it from his side, and eased
His wound’s imperious anguish. But the blood
Came welling from the open gash, and life
Flowed with the stream; all down his cold white side
The crimson torrent ran, dim now, and soiled—        390
Like the soiled tissue of white violets
Left, freshly gathered, on their native bank
By romping children, whom their nurses call
From the hot fields at noon. His head drooped low;
His limbs grew slack; motionless, white, he lay—        395
White, with eyes closed; only when heavy gasps,
Deep, heavy gasps, quivering through all his frame,
Convulsed him back to life, he opened them,
And fixed them feebly on his father’s face.
Till now all strength was ebbed, and from his limbs        400
Unwillingly the spirit fled away,
Regretting the warm mansion which it left,
And youth and bloom, and this delightful world.
  So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead.
And the great Rustum drew his horseman’s cloak        405
Down o’er his face, and sate by his dead son.
As those black granite pillars, once high-reared
By Jemshid in Persepolis, to bear
His house, now, mid their broken flights of steps,
Lie prone, enormous, down the mountain-side—        410
So in the sand lay Rustum by his son.
  And night came down over the solemn waste,
And the two gazing hosts, and that sole pair,
And darkened all; and a cold fog, with night,
Crept from the Oxus.        415

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