The White Elephant

By Heinrich Heine

The king of Siam, Mahawasant,
He rules one half of all India's land,
Twelve kings, indeed the mogul great,
Pay tribute to his scepter's state.

Each year with bugles, flags and drums
The tribute caravans do come;
Thousands of high-humped camels bear
The treasures from most everywhere.

Viewing the heavily laden beasts
His soul smiles secretly, well pleased;
For public consumption he always complains
That here in his storehouse no space remains.

And yet this treasury is so vast,
So glorious, that it surpassed,
In all its real-life splendor bright,
The tale of the Thousand and One Nights.

"Indra's castle" it is called,
Where the gods are all installed,
And gold-emblazoned columns shone,
Encrusted about with precious stones.

Nigh thirty thousand there may be found,
The dreadful chimerae abound.
Of men and beasts were mongrels bred,
With many a hand and many a head.

In the "purple hall" one sees with wonder
Coral-trees, full thirteen hundred,
As big as palms, they strangely spread
Their curly boughs, a forest red.

A floor from the purest crystal made
Reflects the ruddy coral glade.
Pheasants, their plumage all aglow,
Are moving gravely to and fro.

The favorite ape of Mahawasant
Wears on his neck a silken band,
There hangs the key, the wherewithal
To enter the fabled Sleeping Hall.

The precious gems of the highest worth,
They lie like peas right here on the earth
As if spilled from on high, and all around
Diamonds as big as a hen's egg are found.

On the sacks of pearls, all gray and stout,
The king reclines and stretches out;
The ape lies with him, and what is more,
They both go to sleep and begin to snore.

Of all the king's most valued treasures,
His bliss, his soul's most sumptuous pleasure,
The pride and delight of Mahawasant,
That is his great white elephant.

As dwelling for this most sublime of guests
The king built a palace more fine than the rest;
Gold-plated shingles the roof adorn,
By lotus-headed columns borne.

At the gate there stand three hundred trabants,
As honor guard for the elephant,
And kneeling before, with contorted backs,
Attend him one hundred eunuch blacks.

They bring to him there, on a golden tray,
The daintiest morsels his trunk may assay;
He sips the wine from a silver pail,
With the sweetest of seasonings for his regale.

They rub him with attars and ambergris,
A flowery wreath on his head they place;
And to cover the feet of the noble beast,
The finest of shawls brought from Kashmir east.

The happiest life is to him supplied,
Yet no one on earth is all satisfied.
The noble beast, no one knows how,
Is sunk in melancholy now.

The white one, in his gloomy mood,
Stands sad in the midst of plenitude.
They want to encourage him, bring him relief,
But the cleverest plans all come to grief.

The Bajaderes sing and leap about
In vain; and then in vain rings out
The beating of drums and melodious chant,
Yet nothing amuses the elephant.

Now matters are worsening day by day,
Mahawasant's heart's in a troubled way;
And so he has called to the steps of his throne
An astrologer, who is the cleverest known.

"Stargazer, I mean to have thy head,"
So barks the king, "save thou tellst me, instead,
How can I make my poor elephant whole?
Whence comes the shadow that lies on his soul?"

The stargazer throws himself thrice to the earth,
Then gravely he answers for all he is worth,
"O King, the truth to thee I'll commit,
Thou canst then act as thou seest fit.

In the north dwells a woman, a lovely sight,
With towering stature and limbs so white,
Thy elephant surely is splendid and rare,
But with her, nonetheless, he cannot compare.

Compared with her, he seems but a kind
Of little white mouse. Her stature reminds
Of Bimha, the giant, in 'Ramayana',
And of the Ephesians' mighty Diana.

See how the massive limbs do glide
Aloft in beauty! And these do ride,
Graceful and proud, on high pilasters
Of white and dazzling alabaster.

'Tis Cupid's own colossal church,
Love's cathedral; where there besmirch
No taint nor falsity this heart,
That tabernacle light imparts.

Poets hunt images in vain,
Her white skin's beauty to explain;
For this even Gautier's not capable -
O this whiteness is implacable!

The Himalayan summit-snow
Appears ash-gray beside her glow;
The lily, that her hand holds fast,
Seems yellow, from jealousy or contrast.

Countess Bianca is the name
Of this stupendous snow-white dame;
She lives in Paris, in the land of France,
And she is beloved by the elephant.

Through some kind of wondrous affinity
In dreams, he is in her vicinity,
He has made her acquaintance, and there did steal
Into his heart this high ideal.

Yearning consumes him, he's got it bad,
And he, who was always so healthy and glad,
Was changed to a four-footed Werther henceforth,
And is dreaming about a Lotte up north.

Such mysterious sympathy!
He thinks of one whom he never did see.
He tramples about in the moon's clear light,
And sighs: 'Were I only a bird, to take flight!'

In Siam is his body, his thoughts are away
In the land of the Franks, with Bianca they stay;
And this separation of body and soul,
On his throat, on his belly, it's taking a toll.

The daintiest roast he now finds cloying,
Dumplings and Ossian only enjoying.
He's wasting, he's coughing, no sweets does he crave,
His yearning, it shovels an early grave.

If thou wouldst save him, keep him alive,
Help him return to the mammals and thrive,
O King, thou must send him, it is his last chance,
To Paris, the capitol city of France.

There, only there, in reality,
When he the lovely one truly shall see,
The archetype of his dreamt-up lover,
Then he'll from all his dejection recover.

There, where the eyes of his lovely one shine,
There shall his soul's distress decline;
Her smiling will frighten the shadows away,
The shadows that lately have here held sway;

Her voice shall resolve, like a magical song,
The conflict that raged in his heart for so long;
Soon he will raise up his earlobes, and then,
He'll feel all refreshed, as if born again.

Life is so lovely, life is so sweet
In Paris, there where the Seine meets the street!
How it shall civilize, quickly infusing
New life to thine elephant, also amusing!

But above all else, you must give him, O King,
An expense account for his traveling.
Give him a letter of credit replete
With Rothschild Brothers at Rue Lafitte.

A letter of credit for something near
One million ducats, so that we shall hear
Herr Baron von Rothschild say, thereupon,
'The elephant is an honest man!'"

So the astrologer spake, and then
He cast himself thrice to the earth again.
The king bade him go, with a purse that was fatter,
Then stretched himself out to consider the matter.

He thought all about it, thought some more,
Now thinking has become a chore.
His ape once more to his side doth creep,
And finally they go to sleep.

What he decided, I'll tell in good time;
No mail has arrived from India's clime.
The last that had come here, the postman says
It traveled a route down around the Suez.

 Posted by permission of the translator ~ © 2006

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