Tales : The sense of the poet

It happened once upon a time that an Arabian poet of considerable skill came to the palace of a certain king. The king was Turkish by birth, and although he had many excellent qualities, he had been raised without any training in either the Arabic language or in Persian literature.

As was the literary custom in those days, the poet composed an ode of the highest quality in praise of the king and came to the court to present it. There the king sat upon his throne, and all the courtiers sat below on carpets and cushions. Then the poet stood up and began to recite his ode.

As the poet spoke, the king listened attentively – nodding in appreciation of certain skilful lines, looking bewildered and awe-struck at lines exciting fear, and showing becoming modesty when the poet praised him directly.

The courtiers looked at each other in surprise, and some also felt very uneasy. It was believed by all that the king spoke not a word of Arabic, and therefore some had used the language to hide their dishonest schemes. Was it possible that their machinations were known?

When the poet had finished his ode, these courtiers went running to a particular confidant of the king and offered many gifts if he could only tell them whether the king in fact spoke Arabic. This man agreed to see what he could learn.

Some time later, when the king took this confidant with him on a hunting expedition, the man found the opportunity he had been waiting for. “Majesty,” he said, “I would be grateful if you would illuminate me on a certain point. I have always been told that your majesty does not speak Arabic, but you seemed to thoroughly enjoy the poet’s ode. Is it that I have been misinformed?”

“Not at all, my friend,” said the king. “I have no understanding of Arabic whatsoever.”

“Then how was it that you received the ode so favourably?”

“Because,” said the king, “I did not listen to the sense of the words. I listened to the sense of the poet.”

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