from Perceval, the Story of the Grail

Chrétien de Troyes
1130 – 1191


They sat in a hall lit
As brightly as candles can make
An indoor room. And as
They chatted of this and that,
A servant entered the hall,
Carrying — his hand at its center —
A white lance. He came out
Of a room, then walked between
The fire and those seated
On the bed, and everyone saw
The white wood, and the white
Spearhead, and the drop of blood
That rolled slowly down
From the iron point until
It reached the servant’s hand.
The boy saw that wondrous
Sight, the night he arrived there,
But kept himself from asking
What it might mean, for he’d never
Forgotten — as his master at arms
Had warned him, over and over —
He was not to talk too much.
To question his host or his servants
Might well be vulgar or rude,
And so he held his tongue.

And then two other servants
Entered, carrying golden
Candleholders worked
With enamel. They were wonderfully handsome
Boys, and the candleholders
They each clasped in their hands
Bore at least ten
Burning candles. A girl
Entered with them, holding
A grail-dish in both her hands —
A beautiful girl, elegant,
Extremely well dressed. And as
She walked into the hall,
Holding this grail, it glowed
With so great a light that the candles
Suddenly seemed to grow dim,
Like the moon and stars when the sun
Appears in the sky. Then another
Girl followed the first one,
Bearing a silver platter.
The grail that led the procession
Was made of the purest gold,
Studded with jewels of every
Kind, the richest and most costly
Found on land or sea.
No one could doubt that here
Were the loveliest jewels on earth.
Just as they’d done before,
When carrying the lance, the servants
Passed in front of the knight,
Then went to another room.
And the boy watched them, not daring
To ask why or to whom
This grail was meant to be served,
For his heart was always aware
Of his wise old master’s warnings.
But I fear his silence may hurt him,
For I’ve often heard it said
That talking too little can do
As much damage as talking too much.

My Beautiful One

Safwan Ibn Idris
Arab Andalusian
1165 – 1202


How beautiful she is!
And imagine that beauty
is only one of her qualities.
There is nothing more bewitching
than her movements.

She is more enchanting than the moon.
If you asked the real moon,
“What would you like to be?”
it is certain to reply,
“One of her halos.”

When she looks at the real moon
it’s as if she were looking
at her own face in a mirror.

The beauty spot on the page
of her cheek
punctuates the nuns written there
by the curls of her hair.

Once I went out with her when the
shelter of night and her cape
let me mingle the fire of my breath
with the fire of her flaming cheeks.

I clasped her as a miser clasps
his treasure, and bound her tightly
with the cords of my arms
lest she escape like a gazelle.

But my chastity did not permit me
to kiss her mouth
and my heart remained huddled
over its embers.


Lu You
1125 – 1209


In twilit crosslight begins
as cocoon unthreads,

brushes earth,
then hard arrowheads, airborne.

Through mosquito net light rays
to daybreak-dreams

as the brass stove’s sweet grass
steam spring clothes.

Pond fish whip caudal fin
to follow spillway;

over weir swallows zoom, wheel,
touch wings, return.

Petals have only fallen
not yet blown away,

but wet blooms ruddling bough
are where I put trust.

The Dog and the Sheep

Marie de France
c. 1160 – c. 1215


This tale is of a dog, who was
A liar, cheat and treacherous,
Who sued a sheep. He had her led
Before the judge; as plaintiff, said
That he must have the loaf of bread
He’d lent to her, that she still had.
The sheep denied the whole affair;
He had not lent a loaf to her!
The judge said: “Dog, can you produce
Witnesses that the Court can use?”
The dog said that he could, all right,
Two; one the wolf and one the kite.
These witnesses were led forth, both,
And both affirmed by solemn oath
That all the dog had said was true.
You know why they agreed, don’t you?
They hoped to get some portion, if
The sheep, found guilty, lost her life.
The judge, proceeding in the trial,
Summoned the sheep; why the denial
He asked her, that she had the bread
The dog had lent her, as he said.
Why lie? This item was so small!
Return it; or worse would befall!
The wretched sheep, who had no bread,
Was forced to sell her wool instead.
Winter and cold soon had her dead.
The dog came; took some wool she’d shed,
The kite came flying for his share,
And then the wolf. They took from her
All of her flesh; the seized on it,
For they had long been starved for meat.
No vestive of her life was left;
And, too, her master was bereft.

With this example we can state
What many false folk demonstrate.
With lies and tricks of every sort
They drag the poor folk into court;
They get false witnesses to lie,
They bribe with poor folks’ prosperity.
They don’t care how the wretched die;
They only want their slice of pie.

The Mirror

In honor of Tu B’Shavat, we present this work by one of Arab Andalusia’s greatest Jewish poets.

Judah Halevi
Arab Andalusian
1075 – 1141


Into my eyes he lovingly looked,
My arms about his neck were twined,
And in the mirror of my eyes,
What but his image did he find?

Upon my dark-hued eyes he pressed
His lips with breath of passion rare.
The rogue! ‘Twas not my eyes he kissed;
He kissed his picture mirrored there.

If One Can Save One’s Soul by Lying

In honor of the German holiday, Three Kings Day, we present this work by one of Medeival Germany’s most significant poets.

Hartmann von Aue
1165 – 1210


If one can save one’s soul by lying,
Then I know someone who is holy.
He has often sworn false oaths to me.
His shrewd cunning overwhelmed me
And I chose him as a friend.
I thought I had found in him constancy.
But my own good sense deserted me,
As I now announce to the world:
He is as free of duplicity
As the sea is free of waves.

Why should I seek help from others
Since it was my own heart that deceived me?
It led me to the one
Who is worthless to me or to any good woman.
It hardly honors men
How this man conducts himself with regard to women.
He is so well versed in uttering sweet phrases
That one could not write them down.
I followed them even onto slippery ice.
Now I am suffering the harm they caused.

If I were now to begin to detest all men,
I would do so out of hatred of him alone.
But how are they all at fault for this?
Many men show better gratitude to their ladies.
One lady, by using her good sense,
Chose a friend who makes her happy.
She is laughing while I am sad.
Our lives play themselves out quite differently.
I have begun with suffering.
May God, the mighty One, ease my pain.

Would I Thy Lofty Spirit Melt

Wolfram Von Eschenbach
1170 – 1220


Would I the lofty spirit melt
Of that proud dame who dwells so high,
Kind heaven must aid me, or unfelt
By her will be its agony.
Joy in my soul no place can find:
As well might I a suitor be
To thunderbolts, as hope her mind
Will turn in softer mood to me.

Those cheeks are beautiful, are bright
As the red rose with dewdrops grac’d;
And faultless is the lovely light
Of those dear eyes, that, on me plac’d,
Pierce to my very heart, and fill
My soul with love’s consuming fires,
While passion burns and reigns at will;
So deep the love that fair inspires!

But joy upon her beauteous form
Attends, her hues so bright to shed
O’er those red lips, before whose warm
And beaming smile all care is fled.
She is to me all light and joy,
I faint, I die, before her frown;
Even Venus, liv’d she yet on earth,
A fairer goddess here must own…

While many mourn the vanish’d light
Of summer, and the sweet sun’s face
I mourn that these, however bright,
No anguish from the soul can chase
By love inflicted: all around,
Nor song of birds, nor ladies’ bloom,
Nor flowers upspringing from the ground,
Can chase or cheer the spirits’ gloom…

Yet still thine aid, belov’d! impart,
Of all thy power, thy love, make trial;
Bid joy revive in thise sad heart,
Joy that expires at thy denial:
Well may I pour my prayer to thee,
Beloved lady, since ‘tis thine
Alone to send such care on me;
Alone for thee I ceaseless pine.

All Pervading Consciousness

In honor of the Prophet’s Birthday, we present this work by one of Persia’s greatest Muslim poets.

Attar of Nishapur
1145 – 1220


And as His Essence all the world pervades
Naught in Creation is, save this alone.
Upon the waters has He fixed His Throne,
This earth suspended in the starry space,
Yet what are seas and what is air? For all
Is God, and but a talisman are heaven and earth
To veil Divinity. For heaven and earth,
Did He not permeate them, were but names;
Know then, that both this visible world and that
Which unseen is, alike are God Himself,
Naught is, save God: and all that is, is God.

And yet, alas! by how few is He seen,
Blind are men’s eyes, though all resplendent shines
The world by Deity’s own light illumined,
O Thou whom man perceiveth not, although
To him Thou deignest to make known Thyself;
Thou all Creation art, all we behold, but Thou,
The soul within the body lies concealed,
And Thou dost hide Thyself within the soul,
O soul in soul! Myst’ry in myst’ry hid!
Before all wert Thou, and are more than all!

When Night Comes

Li Ching Chao
1084 – 1155


When night comes,
I am so flushed with wine,
I undo my hair slowly:
a plum calyx is
stuck on a damaged branch.
I wake dazed when smoke
breaks my spring sleep.
The dream distant,
so very distant;
and it is quiet, so very quiet.
The moon spins and spins.
The kingfisher blinds are drawn;
and yet I rub the injured bud,
and yet I twist in my fingers this fragrance,
and yet I possess these moments of time!