While reading old books on Arabia in Oxford’s Bodleian Library two summers ago, I came across a rare book indeed. I had the privilege of being the first person ever to read the book, as the folios were still uncut. Considering that the book was published in 1815 and soon thereafter entered the library, it might be readily assumed that it is a book not worth reading. In fact it proved to be a delight and a rarity. The book is called Arabia, A Poem and the author is a man named Johnson Grant. The author was an Oxford chap of St. John’s and is billed as the Domestic Chaplain to the Countess Dowager of Balcarres. No doubt the Countess enjoyed the work, although generations of Oxford students and scholars have somehow passed it by.

It is a rather long poem with extensive commentary. Not surprisingly, the Christian chaplain does not think Islam is the right religion. He notes at one point:

“The success of Mahomet’s imposture may be attributed to several causes. At the time of his appearance Christianity was much debased. Among the Arabs, there were Jews, Pagans, and Christians, all of whom he reconciled by adopting something from the creeds of each. Besides this eclectic recommendation, his allowance of polygamy, and doctrine of a sensual paradise, were grateful to the corrupt disposition of men in general.”

The book is worthy of a much longer commentary, but let me allow you to read it for yourself. I only provide selected passages I copied out by hand, mostly on a description of Yemen (which I doubt Mr. Grant ever visited). See how many stereotypes you can pick out about Islam and Arabs as you read.

Yes; heritage of Abraham’s outcast youth,
Sustain’d to tell that prophecy is truth;
Still through long, changeful centuries the same,
Time hath not touch’d thy features, manners, name;
Like the charm’d sandals that thy deserts trod,
Preserv’d by might – th’ immediate might of God…

Nor Asia’s scymetar, nor Afric’s sword,
Nor rome, nor Greece, th’ Arabian wild explor’d;
Fenc’d from the rage of each impending foe,
By Kedar’s might, by Jetur’s steel-brac’d bow;
While Freedom, wand’ring from a vanquish’d world,
High o’er the billowy waste her waving flag unfurl’d…

They rush’d, they conquer’d with resistless sway,
Track’d, but outstripped the Macedonian’s way.
And bore far off the mandate of their Lord,
‘Death or belief – the Koran or the sword:’
Yes; such their march, led forth by frenzied zeal,
Waving aloft the firebrand and the steel – …

But chief, when Haroun grac’d the Moslem pride –
In arts when Cordova with Baghdad vied _
When Greece had lost her vigour and her fame _
When Rome, deserted Rome! was but a name;
Soft swell’d the lyre, still potent to delight,
And fancy wanton’d in her wildest flight…

Quench then these garish fires, ye lingering bands,
Caaba’s proud fane your tardy steps demands:
See the dread point, Devotion’s polar star,
Sought by all Eslam, bending from afar;
As Zion rose to Daniel’s straining gaze,
Pictur’d in fancy, through Chaldean haze.
There, long rever’d, Arabian legends tell,
Are Abraham’s mosque, and Ishmael’s hallow’d well:
Nor less, an angel’s gift, the jet-black stone,
That once far-off with diamond brightness shone:
Now dimm’d and dark, as moonless midnight blind,
So long, so deep its sorrowing for mankind:
Yet pouring still celestial influence round,
While guardian columns fence the mystic ground:
Bid the baptiz’d their feet profane withdraw,
The pilgrim pause, and wear his garb of awe…

Yet all one desert rude, one wild unblest,
Have Ishmael’s clans their plain thus long possess’d?
No! many a pleasant spot and bdellium vale
There loads with rich perfumes the ling’ring gale.
Where Yemen’s mountains ward th’ intenser beams,
And fling from beetling cliffs their headlong streams,
Luxuriant verdure on each bank to pour,
And scatter freshness, speeding to the shore;
Sweet fruitage, Mocha, thy palmettos shed,
With Sanaa’s uplands, to the day-star spread;
There the rough tamarind, and acacia light,
Start from their rocks, and quaff the dews of night;
Beneath the broad-leav’d plantain’s fost’ring arms,
Mimosa hides her feminine alarms;
And gay globe-amaranths ‘yield their goodly smell,’
And opening lilies shake the pensile bell;
The clust’ring vine and od’rous nard are there;
And Plenty, liberal, waves her golden hair.
Thus, while o’er valleys deck’d with crimson flowers,
Stretch their cool shades rubescent orange-bowers;
Or rills, through arid levels taught to stray,
Their waves to thirsting coffee-rows convey;
Still, as of yore, the region blooms confest,
One grove of fragrance – Araby the Blest:
And gentlest west-winds, playful in their path,
Dip their light pinions in th’ aerial path,
Whisp’ring far off to climates of the morn,
Whence with soft stealth their musky sweets were borne;
Till many a league beyond Socotra’s isles,
Pleas’d with the mingled scent old Ocean smiles;
Smiles, as to catch the gale he lifts his head,
Then rests delighted on his pearly bed…

Ev’n now the soldan Wechab’s bands appal,
And Islam’s mosques slow totter to their fall…

[Poetic excerpt from Johnson Grant, Arabia, a Poem (London, J. Hatchard, 1815, 152 pages)]

Daniel Martin Varisco