Ali settled nicely into the life of a poet-courtier, much to my surprise. I expected a character as strong as his to be gone with the wind before he could be assuaged into composing anything or doing anything much. Instead, he assumed the mantle with great skill and a great degree of professionalism. Granted, a drunkard such as he was going to have his ill-behaved moments, but the wage he refused was far greater than the cost of the wine and the cleanups put together, and so the King’s household did not mind.
This is not to say that things went smoothly. Johann and Bouvard were suspicious of Ali from the off — they knew of Felix Ambrose’s support of Ali, and suspected that this foreigner may just be another antagonist to them. Moreover, the King’s preference of Ali over time added to tensions between Ali and the romantics. A few months after his arrival in court, Ali received a nominal wage increase, from 5,000 to 6,000 coins (ie, on the same level as Bouvard). Though Ali never accepted his wages, preferring wine, the act was nevertheless symbolic of the high esteem the King held for Ali.
In court, Ali proved himself a masterful panegyrist — just as had been predicted — and it was not long until the popularity of romantic poetry outside the court began to wane, just as it already had inside. I shall provide a few examples of Ali’s work, with appropriate contextualisation.
The following poem was composed at the celebration of the twentieth wedding anniversary of King Roald III and his consort, Queen Ellamaria.
Your majesty, you’re liken the radiant sun
Bestowing light and life on everyone.
Come; let us celebrate your great marriage
On the street, indoors, on horse and carriage.
Upon the outbreak of a border conflict with Asgarnia, which led to a short and inconclusive series of skirmishes which some termed a ‘war.’ In spite of the rather paltry nature of the conflict, Ali managed to drum up considerable support for it before, during and after thanks, in essence, to the following verse.
Be gone, barking dogs of Asgarnia,
Your white faces sick with anemia.
Our King shall reclaim all that ye pillage
By sword and by lance, in town and village.
I estimate that it took Ali a year at court to trounce the romantics Johann and Bouvard. The former, who had always played second fiddle to the latter, retained his place at court only by accepting that his wage would be cut drastically. The rising popularity of panegyric over the romantic ballad was soon followed by a sudden and intense interest among the learned in all things ‘Oriental.’ Ali gave a series of lectures to the nobility, which the press reviewed most favourably (the sole exception being a review by a certain Pécuchet, a cousin of Bouvard), and explained that, in the Orient, there existed only two forms of poetry: panegyric and invective — ie, praise and insult. Often the two were mixed in a poem, as we see in the above panegyric to the King and invective to Asgarnia.
The popularity of Ali and his poems did wonders for the lower classes, who found themselves in awe of the King thanks to his bold depiction in Ali’s verses. From the point of view of public relations, Ali was a great help.
In this period, there was little in the way of conflict between Bouvard and Ali, aside from the odd jealous glare from the former. Yet in an atmosphere as highly charged and competitive as the poets of court had become, rivalries always escalated to the utmost.
It was a year or so after Ali’s arrival that the two entered into a rivalry proper. Beforehand, it was almost as though Ali rose in fortunes without competing, oblivious to the declining fortunes of the other court poets. At the aforementioned time, Bouvard attempted to rescue his fame with a relative masterstroke: he adopted the quatrain form Ali used, and wrote his first poem in an Oriental style. This poem, however, was no panegyric — it was the Kingdom’s first public invective.
Praise comes cheaply and without any skill,
For the deeds of great men speak without verse —
Still, some compose merely to fill their purse.
Others’ motives are altogether worse.