The Wife of Hasan Aga
Heroic Ballads of Serbia
George Rapall Noyes & Leonard Bacon
(1) What shows white in the wood? A flock of swans or a bank of snow?
Swans would have flown and a snow bank would have melted long ago.
It is not snow, nor a milk-white swan, but Hasan Aga’s tent;
Sore wounded was he. His mother and sister to him went;
For very shame his wife came not. (2) When his wounds were healed aright,
He charged his faithful wife withal:
“Come not into my sight;
Await me never, woman, my fair white house within;
Nor yet do thou abide me in the houses of my kin.”
When the faithful woman heard it, sad was her heart indeed.
Suddenly from the house she heard the trampling of the steed.
To the window she ran, to break her neck by leaping down from the tower;
But the daughters of Hasan Aga pursued her in that hour:
“Return to us, dear mother! Our father comes not,” said they;
“It is thy brother, our uncle, Pintórovich the Bey.”
The wife of Hasan Aga, to her brother’s breast she came:
“Ah, brother, from my children five doth he send me! It is shame!”
Naught said the bey; in his silken pouch forthwith his hand he thrust
For a bill of divorce that granted her her dower held in trust, (3)
And bade her go to her mother. When the purport thereof she wist,
Forthwith upon the forehead her two fair sons she kissed,
And on their rosy cheeks she kissed her little daughters twain.
But the little son in the cradle she could not leave for pain.
Her brother took the lady’s hand; and hard it was to lead
That wretched woman from her babe, but he threw her on the steed;
He brought her unto the white house, and there he took her in.
A little while, but scarce a week, she stayed among her kin.
Good is the matron’s parentage, men seek her in marriage withal;
But the great Cadi of Imoski desires her most of all.
“So should I not desire it,” imploringly she said.
“Brother, I prithee, give me not to any to be wed,
That my heart break not with looking on my children motherless.”
But the bey no whit he cared at all because of her distress;
To the great Cadi of Imoski he will give her to be wed.
Still the matron with her brother most miserably she pled,
That he a milk-white letter to the cadi should prepare,
And send it to the cadi:
“The matron (4) greets thee fair,
And implores thee: when that thou hast brought the wooers from every side,
And when thou comest to her white house, (5) do thou bring a veil for the bride,
That she see not by the aga’s house her children motherless.”
When the letter came to the cadi, with pomp and lordliness
He gathered many wooers; ah, nobly did they come!
And splendidly the wooers they brought the fair bride home!
But when they were by the aga’s house, forth looked her daughters fair,
And her two sons came before her, and spoke to their mother there:
“Return with us, dear mother, to eat with us again!”
When the wife of Hasan Aga heard, she spake to the groomsman then:
“Brother in God, my groomsman, stop the steeds, of gentleness,
By my house, that I may give fair gifts to my children motherless.”
They checked the steeds at the house for her. She gave her children gifts;
To either son a gilded knife, to her daughters fair long shifts,
To her babe in the cradle a garment in a bit of linen tied. (6)
When Hasan Aga saw it, to his two sons he cried:
“Hither, my children motherless! and from her stand apart!
Pity and mercy hath she none within her stony heart!”
She heard. Her face smote on the ground in the deep of her distress,
And her soul departed as she saw her children motherless.
(1) This poem is based on the life of the Mohammedan Serbs. It is noteworthy not only from its own literary merit, but from being the first of the Servian ballads to become known to western Europe, and, above all, from the magnificent translation of it by Goethe. It was first printed by the Abate Alberto Fortis, in his Viaggio in Dalmazia, Venice, 1774, with an accompanying Italian translation. Fortis probably derived the ballad from a manuscript that is still preserved. In the next year, 1775, there appeared a German translation of a portion of Fortis’s work (including this ballad) Die Sitten der Morlacken aus dem Italienischen übersetzt, Bern, 1765. Goethe based his own work, which was probably executed in this same year, 1775, on this German translation, but apparently also referred to Fortis’s original work, with its edition of the original text. His poem was first printed in Herder’s Volkslieder, in 1778. Karájich reprinted this ballad from the text of Fortis, but with a changed orthography and several conjectural emendations. Finally, the manuscript to which Fortis was indebted was published by Miklosich in 1883, at Vienna, along with a full discussion of the different questions connected with the poem (Sitzungsberichte der phil.-histor. Classe der kaiserl. Akad, d. W., ciii, 413-490).
(2) “The wife could not even in this case overcome her dread of meeting a man. A girl is praised in a folksong as ‘having never seen a male being.’ ” Miklosich, p. 438.
(3) By the Turkish law a sum of money is promised to a woman at her marriage before the cadi; this she may receive in case she is divorced by her husband.
(4) “Maiden” in the original!
(5) This phrase was inserted by Karájich.
(6) That is, wrapped up, to be saved, for a later time, when he is grown up. But the sense of this line and the preceding is very doubtful. See Jagich, in Archiv für Slavische Philologie, x, 659, 660.