from The Arabian Nights.

What follows is an earlier version of my Sinbad chapter in Gifts of Rings and Gold




The basic arc of the Seven Voyages is that of the story of the Porter, Sinbad, and his gaining of knowledge, wisdom, and, let’s not forget, entertainment. Financially he does very well out of it too: he is given 100 gold coins every story he attends.

– The Porter begins the series of tales, bewailing his lot as a porter of heavy goods. Stopping for a rest by a wealthy merchant’s house, he finds himself invited in, is introduced to all, and introduces himself to his host: Sinbad, a merchant and sailor.

For six subsequent days he arranges his work around further audiences at the house so he can hear the tales the host has to tell. At the end of the whole tale he is a happier and wiser man: ‘The porter remained a constant visitor at the house of his illustrious friend, and the two lived in amity and peace…’.

There are many translations of the tale; a translation is, almost by definition, a version of the original. When we get to re-tellings of extant versions you get an idea of the variations possible through the ‘Chinese whispers’ of versions, and versions of versions.

For this study I went back to the version by Sir Richard Burton, 1885. The problem with this version is that it is part of the Scheherazade story, which keeps coming in at ‘inappropriate’ moments in the storyline, in the form of breaks in the narrative, then resumptions, reputedly the following night.


– The merchant Sinbad’s story is as follows: he was the son of a wealthy merchant; upon his father’s death he inherited the fortune, and led a carefree and extravagant life. Pulled-up short by the realisation he had nearly squandered it all, he converted the last into merchandise and went out into the world to rebuild, or rescue what he could of his fortune.

There follows seven trading voyages, which turn remarkably odd.

The main thing in favour of this version I am using is that it is still possible to discern an overall pattern to the voyages, which becomes lost in later versions

– the earlier voyages are voyages of acquisition: Sinbad’s whole intent is to regain wealth through trade.

– -the latter voyages are decidedly voyages of exploration.

What is gained by exploration? Knowledge: of market-resources, trading-terrain, of conditions, regions and customs. But also an invaluable network of colleagues and contacts. What is gained is trust, honour and esteem.

Wealth is only a metaphor for knowledge: worldly wealth and spiritual wealth mirror each other in the overall tale.

In Voyage 1 he sets out to sea; the ship sets down at an island, which turns out be a long-basking whale. All escape but Sinbad. He drifts penniless to another island where men take him in; he helps them with their task of luring sea stallions to cover a land mare: the resultant horse is very highly valued. He is taken to their city and introduced to the king. He becomes a trusted courtier, and wealthy merchant; he learns all about the Brahmin castes of India. He finds a ship home, regains his initial merchandise, returns home.

In Voyage 2 he sets out once more, is abandoned on an island: the ship sails without him as he has fallen sleep beside a stream. In the distance is a huge egg, he recognizes it from tales as that of the Roc bird. It arrives at sunset. In order to escape the island he ties himself to it, is taken far away to a cliff top by the bird. He unties himself and the bird flies off. Below him are huge serpents, but also priceless jewels scattered about. The serpents hide away as the sun rises. He loads himself up with these jewels. During the day sheep carcasses are thrown down to stick the jewels to their bloody skins. He has heard of this too; ties himself to one. When the local people retrieve the carcasses he is shunned as an evil spirit, until he is able to convince them otherwise, with his jewels. He is taken to safety and exchanges some jewels for merchandise, sails home trading successfully.

Voyage 3 gets nastier: ship wreck this time involves going off course, and being invaded by apelike creatures from an island, who steal the ship. Inland of the island they discover a huge, well-equipped house where they shelter. It is the house of a giant, who eats them one by one, one per night. They resolve to escape: build a raft during the day, and that night they blind the giant. As they drift off he appears with his mother and hurls rocks at them; some drown, and some escape with him. The next island is the abode of a giant serpent, which also eats them one by one. Sinbad escapes this fate by building himself a coffin out of ship timbers. The serpent cannot break it. Next day he is rescued by a passing ship, the only survivor. In this instance it is he, a man with cunning and wit, who is picked up by a passing ship, and not an apelike creature as at the beginning of the voyage. The captain is amazed at his tale, and he is reunited with previous goods from Voyage 2.

The Fourth Voyage sees all wrecked once more, and the survivors drift to an island. Strange wild men take them to their king; he treats them extraordinarily well; Sinbad is wary, however, and soon finds that his fellow men are being fed adulterated food. They lose their wits, eventually grow corpulent on the fare, and are then eaten, by the king and company. Sinbad grows thinner and thinner. They take no interest in him, and he escapes. On the other side of this vast island he meets a gentle people, who take him in. He provides goods for them and becomes very wealthy by making saddles for their horses, for they have none. As written earlier, he marries, is honoured by their king, then undergoes the ordeal of the grave pit after his wife died. The ring here centres on the subject of the bestiality of living solely in the physical body. He must die in the body and mind in order to be reborn as someone worthy of his life: the man must ride the body, and not vice versa.

I think the question being asked here is: what survives when all else is taken away, one’s lifestyle, honour, even one’s life? It is the life of the spirit, I think.

Voyage 5 we once again encounter the Roc’s egg, and the island – but a member of the crew breaks it, and when the bird returns bombards the ship with rocks until it is smashed. The boat is wrecked. Sinbad lands on an island. There an old man begs him to take him over a stream, which he does. The old man will not let go, though and near strangles him. He has to be carried around like this for weeks, doing ‘his natural filth all down my back’. He is eventually dislodged by trickery, and killed by Sinbad. He is rescued; learns that it was the Old Man of the Sea, who few survive. He is taken to the City of the Apes where he is encouraged to join some workmen throwing stones at apes in trees; they throw back coconuts, which are collected and sold at market. He makes a good profit and heads for home, trading on the way, hiring pearl divers and amassing a good quantity.

In Voyage 6 the ship becomes lost, and eventually wrecked on an island. It was scattered with previous wrecks, and bales of merchandise and treasures.  His crew members die one by one amongst all the wealth and precious jewels scattered about; he himself builds a raft to allow the river to take him away, hopefully to safety. When he wakes he has been rescued. His rescuers marvel at his tale, take him to their king, who takes him in. He becomes a royal courtier in time. He becomes a kind of ambassador for his own monarch, Haroun al-Rashid, and is allowed home with all honours, a fortune, and his story embellished in gold.

The motif of treasures for all to take is repeated here. There is always a price, though. Jewels are, by themselves, useless, that men starve whilst surrounded by such wealth.

In Voyage 7 he sets out, the ship is wrecked by a whale. We have the whale motif again, and the friendly inhabitants. This latter contrasts with the early voyages where the inhabitants of other lands are anything but friendly. He ends up on an island where jewels glitter and liquid amber flows; the crew die of hunger one by one. He is about to give himself, but makes a raft to see where the river would take him. He is rescued in the nick of time and taken-in by an elderly merchant. He becomes rich, marries the merchant’s daughter. After the old merchant dies he discovers he came from elsewhere, that the inhabitants of this land, pleasant as they are, are all worshippers of Satan. They leave, with their fortune intact, and return home.

There is also a religious dimension: the Brahmins, and Indian castes of Tale 1 are here are paralleled with the worshippers of Satan. A bit harsh, perhaps? Both sets of people are very pleasant, and indeed honourable. They just have this unfortunate focus at the centre of their lives.

The Seven Voyages is clearly based in parts on the Odyssey; both books share certain central characters and episodes. However, the Odyssey was not well known in the Arabic world: translations were few and far between. We find in both books the Old Man of the Sea, who plays such a role in Voyage Five. He is surely another take on the Phorcys character in the Odyssey. We also find a Circe story: in Voyage Four, the ship’s crew is entertained by the King who feels them adulterated food until they lose their wits, become bloated and witless creatures. The Cyclops episode is echoed in the Third Voyage down to the giant, and their blinding of him, the giant throwing rocks at their raft as the float away.

Odysseus’ communing with the dead may parallel the death-event in Voyage Four.

A shame about the Sirens; that could have been interesting. In the Seven Voyages woman do not play any role whatsoever: Sinbad marries twice; his first marriage turns to disaster as his wife died; the second marriage, to the old merchant’s daughter in Voyage Seven, marked their joint desire to escape the company of unbelievers, and a final return home.


There is a central voyage where all changes – because, yes, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad are structured in a ring.

Each tale has a repeating pattern of shipwreck, loss, or abandonment; and resolution. This last can come from the restitution of goods/fortune from a previous voyage; or earned honours from the present voyage.

Each tale ends as it begins with the merchant safely back home and turning once more to an indulgent lifestyle. Each tale employs a change of circumstances in the middle section – each tale is a complete ring in itself.

They all add up to the overall ring of the Seven Voyages.

The changeover, in the fourth tale, is very well marked, and prepared for: it is a death experience. Where before, surviving shipwrecks and other catastrophes had been the case, in the fourth tale he is by custom of the land lowered into the grave pit with his dead wife, and a small supply of food, as well as the grave goods.

That he survives is due to his total abasement: he must kill all subsequent burial spouses, and steal their food supplies. He escapes his death-experience by following a carrion-eating animal’s tunnel to a bleak shoreline. He has become that animal almost, crawling on all-fours.

He brings out bales of grave goods as loot. When he is rescued by a passing ship he offers the captain a priceless pearl, but the captain refuses: it is a matter of honour that he was rescued, and not acquisition: honour is more important than wealth.

The changeover is marked, in the Tale 3, by escape from a huge serpent, by way of hiding inside a coffin he constructed from ship’s planks. We get a foreshadowing here of the death-experience to come.


And this brings in another aspect of the Seven Voyages, what the hard-working Porter learns, and what Sinbad the spend-thrift earns: I think maybe what we have is a vestige of a Sufi teaching tale. Either that or it is an approximation of one. The tale may have accrued this ‘atmosphere’ as Orientalism became the fashion.

I’m already on strange ground with this – so might as well go ahead. Think of the Porter as the mind, going through its everyday, then the sailor Sinbad is the heart that sees more, and can learn. The two are in accord at the end.

Think of Sinbad as the Sheik of the Sufi ‘circle’, the leader, whom the novice must submit in spirit to, must ‘become’ to liberate himself from the world, and become wholly ‘spirit’ incarnate. And then see the Voyages as the valleys of the seven ‘nafs’. The trials and tests one must undergo in order to learn the value and meaning of the true way of being, and to rid oneself of falsehood. There are reputedly three stages of nafs: the Inciting nafs; the Self-accusatory nafs; the nafs of Peace.

I do not wish to pursue this further; I am not sufficiently versed in the Quran, or Sufi lore.

So why arrange them as rings? Is this a covert indication of the Sufi circle? Memory plays a big part in Sufism, too: to remember is to remember one’s true nature under the layers of distractions and false fronts that are the world. So, the ring is a device for remembering, but maybe as a Sufi story it is also a device for remembering that the act of remembering is at the heart of one’s true self.

As seen previously the ring device is a mnemonic device: once one can remember the way to the heart, the central change, then one will know the way on from there, by repeating various motifs, events. It is essentially a device of memory. ‘The way of the heart’ is an epithet that Western writers give to Sufism. If my surmises are correct here then we do see a range of metaphors based on the image of a ring. Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles configured another Sufi tale, the Mudhumalati, (by Manjhan, AD1545) as a complex star shape, of four triangles where chapter reflected chapter in the circle of the construction.

We can posit a construction where the whole of the Voyages are connected on various details e.g. 1 and 2 connect on abandonment; 2 and 3 are connected by serpents; 3 and 4 are connected by cannibalism etc to 7 and 1 connected on royal honour and patronage. There are many possible mappings to the tale but I cannot see a figurative arrangement. Voyages 1, 4 and 6 map out honourable positions Sinbad earns at various courts; Voyages 4, 6 and 7, map out the uselessness of jewels and wealth; and 2, 4 and 7 on the theme of peripheral value: jewels, grave goods and sandalwood.  3 and 5 connect on the theme of apes; 1 and 7 on the whale; 2 and 5 on the Roc bird. There does not seem to be an arrangement I am familiar with in this; the patterns of Muslim architecture are all based on harmony and balance. The ring is the only harmonic structure I can see here.


It was late Thursday, an April night,
you were summoning the cat;
next day was work again; then all was quiet.
Look up, you said, alarming me, brought me
down to the garden, in a clatter.

The sky, you said, just look. It took time
to work its charm. How, I griped,
trying to understand, could I lie immobile
when the sky was alive and brimming with light?
And the silence of it unnerving.

A predominant red with purple undertones;
shafts of white, bars of light
processing through, like high tones
on satin curtains. The light blues and greens tight
in the weave, soaked up by streetlights.

A loom of light, a night shift without rest breaks,
warping from the north strong striations
and the dipped sun wefting from the west.
The studs and button-pins of stars, constellations.
A slow ripple across the width of sky.

A silk dressing-gown draped across, and the guest
gone off to sleep with the cat at her feet.


A Gregorian Peace

What were settings in the early poems, now become things in their own right; the world has been stripped down to its constituents. It is interesting to see how far Kopland has travelled when we compare this poem from 1993 with his earlier work:

                                  AMONG CATTLE

                      And when the summer had come back again after all
                     And so we were sitting once more, drinking by the river.
                   …………………………………………….., but the sun went down the same.

                   And he went to sleep. Because the world went to sleep.
                   Black he sat by the river, black hole in the prospect.

Now deeply versed in our human myths of living, our hopes, fears, equivocations and failures to measure up: the tonal and emotional ranges these lines weave, and weave between, are immense. The language and imagery now is scrupulously placed.

The human being becomes as much an object of the world as any other of its constituents parts. And as such just as subject to its laws of natural science.

Kopland uses the image of a ‘patient instrument’: “we were made by an impartial attentive/patient instrument, the same/ that breaks us down again.” (: YOUR BACK). It is also an image for language, and by extension, our ability to comprehend everything, whether by reason or instinct. He examines with it the human dimension. Patient, in that it enables him, by the complex employment of the medium, to look calmly at our extremis: dementia, ageing, death. He sees an aged one’s back, he wants to see the person, not just his own response, or his version of that person; his instrument shows him, not love: “love is a word for something other /than what I was seeking…” (ibid), it shows him the commonplace that everyone ages; he also sees, through his training, profession, a medical anatomy chart. All these have their part, all are acknowledged.

Language, our distinguishing feature, also distances us from that of which we speak or write. Can it also bring the world to us:

                         there must be something now the word morning
                         slowly lights up and it becomes morning
                        that held us together and lets us go
                        as we lie here like this.

( from IN THE MORNING)  ?

His instrument‘s distancing effect allows him to see fables in our existence. His Message from the Isle of Chaos (1997) sits very well amongst Seamus Heaney’s fables in The Haw Lantern, and their background in the east European writers (Holub, Herbert in particular).

These examinations of ways and means, of what language allows us, bears extraordinary fruit in THE LATEST FINDINGS:

                      have searched in human brains
                     they recorded:

                   “Night fell through the windows of our institute
                    moonlight stroked across the young breasts
                    of our female experimental person
                    We are still searching feverishly for formulae.”

Desire, human warmth, love, still escape the limits of our study.

More pertinently, the most important human apprehensions continue to fall outside the scope of our microscopes:

                    because happiness is a memory
                    it exists…………………….
                    the reverse is also true

                   I mean this: because happiness
                   reminds us of happiness it pursues
                   us and therefore we flee from it

                  must exist somewhere at some time because
                 we remember it and it reminds us.

: WHAT IS HAPPINESS? For a fuller discussion of this poem, see:

Richard Pool, reviewing for ‘Poetry Wales’ wrote of Kopland’s “existentialist poetry”. I find the writing more Phenomenological. Based on Husserl’s work, the present-day Phenomenologists present the experience of mind as a series of recursive mental events: echoes of echoes looping back and forth through our brain’s maps of world and body, that create an impression of one’s self. It is as though we continually restructure our maps on a daily basis, as the pattern at play in the brain changes.

The extra ingredient, the rider, is a sense of on-going pattern making.

Here we have Kopland’s exploratory template as he explores and objectifies in his writing. There is an increasing sense of wonder, openness, what Belgian critic Herman de Coninck called the “Gregorian peace” of the later work (timeless rivalries: how the Catholic south never forgave the north ‘s breaking away, or abandonment of them… the wry dig of allotting a Gregorian peace to a Calvanistic northerner).

We now encounter titles like, Until it Lets Us Go (1997), even the title of the Harvill collection, Memories of the Unknown, or the recent book, What Water Leaves Behind. All of these exhibit, I would argue, a Phenomenologist sense of numinous wonder, where the world of objects is found to be the one reality, and our response to it is the possibility of happiness, love, desire, all the human responses. These objects are, as Phenomenologist professor Dan Lloyd called, ‘the insensible dimensions that constitute reality.’

In one of his last poems he wrote:

                                         She gave me a questioning look
                                         you’re so quiet she says and what about

                                        I’d  like to say I am quiet
                                        about myself as I don’t know
                                        who that is.

Here is Husserl, and Sartre: consciousness is interaction, thought is in intention, movement. The ‘mind’ does not exist, except when in involvement with the world.
This is all belief, of course; this is all proposition.

It is always best to let the writer have last say:


                 Things are happening here and I am the only
                 one who knows which
               and what you don’t hear and don’t see – the places
               where we dug holes
               and filled them up again, weeping

              I tell you this because I do not want to be alone
              before I am.


The story goes that ‘Rutger Kopland’ .was involved in a bad car crash in 2005: night driving, a tree, a write-off.  He acquired a bad head injury; so much so he was unable to speak for a while, became frustrated, violent even. The story continues he ended up for a period in one of his own locked wards.
His doctor prescribed plenty of exercise, so he bought a bicycle: but, You don’t realise how often it rains here, he said.

Rutger Kopland died in 2012

For further and more modern work by Rutger Kopland, see:

There is a translation facility.



The time of dandelions is early afternoon
when half the world thinks of siesta,
and half pauses to take breath

and the nettles rest on their push through tarmac
and working fingers into hairline cracks
of concrete: when half the world
thinks How untidy these weeds,
and the other half
A mouthful of food

is the time of dandelions.
Their square-cut, overlapping petals
spreading from a centre
with a splayed-hands gesture,
become sun-bright,
a light amongst lights, that underlying leaves
brighten to yellow.

Early afternoon, and the dust a little restless
emphasising how still it is;
the vibrating of light’s wavelengths,
the faint tingling of nerves, raises them
to a gold colour –
when half the world
turns over to begin a new dream, and half
unwraps its gift, the night’s work,
exploring the finer points
of the underlying argument:

the greenery
that makes the gold glow.








Kindle book ready and waiting.
Roll up! Roll up!

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and to the present day. The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory. The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

I look at twenty-plus texts from ancient times, through the medieval flowering, down to the present day.
You’d be surprised what I found.


I’d been email-chatting with an historian, one of a new group, with their own angle, agenda, their own name. I signed off saying I was just going to re-read some Huizinga.
And that was it. I did not hear from him again.
I had gone beyond the Pale.

That is the problem with Academies, they become so culty, hemmed-in with codes and etiquettes. I had obviously mentioned an historian who was not ‘in’ with their group.
I was going to re-read him because I found so much of value there. But it wasn’t what they valued. He did it differently. Heaven forbid.

Johan Huizinga is mostly known in the English-speaking world for his magisterial The Waning of the Middle Ages. The more correct title, apparently, is The Autumn of the Middle Ages, published 1924. It is this book made the man’s name. He was a leading Dutch historian.

His dates are 1872 to 1945.
That last date in particular I want you to note: died February, 1945. He had been interned in 1942 after criticism of the invasion forces. Eventually, after much clamour and agitation by the international history community, he was released. He was released in that terrible winter of 1944/5.
It is now estimated that 10,000 Dutch people died that winter, after the Nazi’s cut off food and energy supply lines, in retaliation. As the Allied forces moved through France, the Belgian and Dutch citizens could see liberation so near, so inevitable. They cheered them on. When the advance was stalled in the Ardennes, the Nazi’s took their revenge.

He began his academic career as a student of Indo-Germanic languages; he then studied comparative linguistics. He taught Oriental Studies for many years. It was not until his 30s he turned to medieval studies. Here he excelled.

His book on the later middle ages gives us the clamour and spectacle of the period, the life-lived-in-public aspect.
He also fills in with some of the gaps in current information on, for instance, such figures as Georges Chastellain, and others grouped as the grands rhetoriqueurs:
This gives us, in turn, the real nature of the much acclaimed period. In this book he sets the increasing brutality and violence of the time against its constructed images of courtois and chivalry.
The book investigates the Burgundian Court in its positioning as potential alternate power-base to the royal court.
Professor Ralph Strom-Olsen of Madrid University, put up a very interesting paper on this: Georges Chastellain and the Language of Burgundian Historiography, that is available on from

He has other books, influential in modern fields. Take Gaming – for this the ‘go to’ book is his Homo Ludens, published 1938.
Homo Ludens puts forward, and illustrates, the theory that our main and enduring activities as civilized people, is a form of play, serious play, that is play with rules. He traces word games as the origins of rhetoric, to Cicero’s monumental legal disputes; he sees here also the dress-up aspect in legal and royal court costume.
Playing and Knowing is an intriguing chapter, challenging us to consider acquisition of knowledge, experimentation, indeed logic, as forms of play-activity. How can we know anything until we put aside certainty, the known, and step out into maybe-land? But this play is deadly serious: riddle-solving, the penalty of death, are part and parcel of the game.
The point is, he stimulates thought, he makes us look at our institutions differently.
The range of this subject can be seen to refer us back to to the subject of Professor Huizinga’s first PhD: The Role of the Jester in Indian Drama.

You can go to the crazy end and cite the late 1960’s Playpower ideals here. Oz Magazine founder, Richard Neville’s book, Playpower, was the bible for attempts at neutralizing governments and their powers through play, through the skewing of seriousness and power politics, by returning to origins, and seeing what all its accumulated kudos really was.

Another book of his well worth searching out is Men and Ideas, first published in translation in 1959.
This collection of essays is concerned with ‘the task of cultural history.’
The books have dated, that is, their range of subject matter and methods of treatment, have been left behind by modern tastes.
But the general reader will not find a more stimulating essay on Peter Abelard, than this. His essay on John of Salisbury is also outstanding.
Who was he? He was a 12th Century English cleric, who became apologist for Thomas a Beckett. From modest beginnings he worked his way up, studying under Peter Abelard, was secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Theobald; he even met who was to become known as St Bernard of Clairvaux.
John’s main legacy to us, however, is his Policraticus; the study is a slice of his time.
Chaucer valued it highly for its political relevance, its clear thinking, its civil conscience.
His essay on Erasmus, which was the heart of the collection… is it the translation? No; I think Johan Huizinga became exasperated with his subject. The reader comes away with the impression he blamed him for wasting his opportunities, for not being as good as he should have been.

I would dearly love to give as much information on his wife, Mary Schorer.

Her story must be as fascinating, and as eventful.

Their son, Leonard Huizinga, became a prolific and popular Dutch novelist, with his comedic Adriaan and Olivier series.
There is also another son, of whom I can find nothing.

See also:



across the blue sky’s bald pate,
lit and then obscured.
It had been dark all day —
I had no windows like these.

Nine-thirty flexitime nears,
while high above the miles of clouds
gather, move huge weathers.
Their scale constantly changes
how we seem to scurry,
our smallness, and how huge
their slow masses.

We live our lives in words
all scurrying together;
vocabularies like clouds:
huge, full of everything
to sustain us.
So why, then,
the traffic chaos, empty shops,
this late for work, this rush-hour,
these stops?

I have sent words out,
scurrying little helpers,
to draw you back from harm,
with a busy tie-ing in
of reasons for continuing,
where breath fails, voices crack,
on the roof edge.

And I have stood there,
face to face with that wordless place —
it has nothing to say to us
that words can understand