A noted, middle-aged poet lived like a recluse in a remote area. The country had a strong tradition of poetry; for every public occasion, and some private ones, there would be a commission to write a poem. This poet had, aided by some strokes of luck, established a reputation, and many commissions came to him, so that he became comparatively wealthy.
He was an eccentric man, who lived in solitude, and he never visited the capital. He wrote his poems in a little two-roomed retreat he had built in a corner of his large garden. Hardly anybody knew what he looked like; he employed a local, simple-minded boy as his messenger, to go to the local town with his correspondence. It was popularly supposed that he spent his time in creation and contemplation, but as a matter of fact he had a secret passion for gambling. From time to time he would slip out, incognito, to a gambling hall just across the border.
He was an unsuccessful gambler, and in spite of the numerous commissions, he was often short of money. He put together some of his best poems, and succeeded in publishing them. There was no copyright law, and poets therefore included their own name as part of the poem in order to prevent someone else from simply reproducing poems as their own work. This poet used the pen-name Almas, which means Diamond, and each poem had the name Almas somewhere in it. The poems by Almas were received with acclaim and his reputation flourished. But the money was always used up, and he was again sliding into debt.
Then, one day, he received a letter from a village at the opposite end of the country, which said: ‘I am passionately interested in poetry, and I came across an edition of your poems, which I have read through again and again. Finally, I have been bold enough to attempt to write a few poems myself, following the model of your masterpieces. I enclose a few of them, and humbly request your opinion of them.’ The poet considered the letter for a long time. The poems were indeed talented, and very much in his own style. He sent a message to say that he would see the young poet if he came to his retreat.
After the usual greetings and flattery by the young village poet, the older man said to him: ‘I have more commissions than I can fulfil, but I do not wish to disappoint people. I need somebody who can write adequately in my style, to complement some of the minor pieces. I would give the title of the poem, and the first line or two, and then someone like you, perhaps, would be able to complete it. It is not much more than a copyist’s job really, and I should pay a copyist’s fee.’ And he named it.
‘But I should be actually writing most of the poems. Surely I should be getting more than that, shouldn’t I?’
‘No, I don’t think so. I should be taking a considerable risk anyway, if your work is not up to somewhere near my own standards. But I think the name Almas will see it through. Well, I have made the offer. You could live here, in one room, and perhaps a corner of the house in winter. That’s the proposal, and it is up to you. Accept it or reject it – yes or no.’
The young village poet looked down and said, humbly: ‘I accept.’
All went well, and gradually the young poet was entrusted with whole poems. One day, when the master was ill, he even allowed the young man to send off a poem for an important occasion. To his surprise, the poem was highly praised.
A little later, he had a shock when one of his best clients, a rich courtier, referred to that poem and said: ‘I should have liked that poem – it was, in my opinion, better that the one you have just sent me. Are you sending your best work elsewhere?’
It happened that the king, while out hunting, had a bad fall from his horse, and the physician reported to the Crown Prince and the Chief Minister that His Majesty would probably die. The Minister sent a message to Almas to compose a poem for the contingency, if it occurred. But the Master was again ill with a fever, so the young poet prepared one himself. Almost immediately came the request: the King had died. The young poet gave the manuscript to the boy to take to the appointed contact in the town, and waited with trepidation for the outcome.
The next day, a royal, mounted courier, magnificently caparisoned, rode up to the little retreat. He made a salutation and said: ‘I was told I would find you here. I am commissioned to convey the appreciation of your poem by our new Royal Majesty. I am to pass to you this honorarium of jewels and gold for your masterpiece, which is being copied and distributed to every town in the country.’
And he presented a small bag on a silver tray. The young poet was struck dumb – he had never seen such magnificence in his life. The horseman too seemed to be impressed. He made a bow and murmured, ‘The famous Almas….seemingly so young – living in solitude. Why….? No, please excuse me. It is not for me to ask questions or to have any opinions about one so signally honoured by His Majesty. I shall report to the Chief Minister that the poet Almas has received from me what I was entrusted to pass to him.’
He bowed again and streamed off, pennants flying.
When the Master recovered from his fever, the young man told him what had happened, and showed him the bag of jewels and gold, but did not pass it over.
He said: ‘These were for the poet Almas, and I received them for my work. I am Almas; The royal courier will confirm it, if necessary, and in future I shall take on all the commissions. I will take over your house and your debts – they will soon be paid off. But I can see that I am going to have more commissions than I can execute myself. I need somebody who can write in my style, to complement some of the minor pieces. You can live here, in one room, and perhaps a corner of the house in winter. I would pay the same copyist’s fee. Perhaps it is not much, but it will be better than being imprisoned for debt. That’s the proposal, you can accept it or reject it – it’s up to you – yes or no.’
The old poet looked down humbly and said: ‘I accept.’
A teacher who was asked about this story remarked: ‘It has many points in it, which you must work out for yourselves, but one important one is: Don’t make ugly faces at the karma-mirror, or it will make ugly faces back at you’.
But this was a great poet, and there must have been something more than the account gives us. So here it is:
The young poet looked with satisfaction at the crushed figure before him, still frail from the repeated fevers.
Suddenly he stood up and said: “No. Revenge is supposed to be sweet, but there’s a bitter taste here. We are poets, and our concern is not poetic justice, but just poetics. Come and share the house with me. I won’t give you any more money to gamble anyway, but I’ll see you are well looked after to the end of your days.” He took his arm and they went out together.
© 1999 Trevor Leggett