Edwin Atherstone Poems >>
The Fall Of Nineveh. Book The First

On Nineveh's proud towers the sinking sun
In cloudless splendor looks; nor, through the earth,
Like glory doth behold. In golden light
Magnificent the haughty city stands,
Empress of nations; nor her coming doom
Aught feareth; nor the voice of prophet old
Rememb'reth; nor of her iniquities
Repenteth her; nor the avenging hand
Of Heaven incensed doth dread: but, with her pomp
Made drunken, and the wonders of her might,
Her head in pride exalteth; and to fate,
As to a bridal, or a dance, doth pass.

The flaming orb descends: his light is quenched:
The golden splendors from the walls are fled.

But joyous is the stirring city still:
The moon is up, the stars are shining bright;
The fragrant evening breeze fans pleasantly.
In his resplendent hall, Assyria's king
Sits at the banquet; and in love and wine
Revels unfearing. On the gilded roof
A thousand golden lamps their lustre fling;
On the pure marble walls, and on the throne,
Gem--bossed, that, high on jasper steps upraised,
Like to one solid diamond, quivering stands,
His brow might fan, while on the glowing heaven,
Pondering, he gazed. His countenance was pale,
Solemn, yet ardent; such as prophet of old
Might well beseem. Round his broad forehead hung
The black locks clustering, and adown his neck;
And the majestic beard, depending low,
Marked him beyond life's bloom, yet in full strength
Of daring manhood. With the warrior's arms,
The sable vestments of the priest he wore;
Soldier and priest in one. In battle brave,
In council eloquent was he; but, chief,
In the dark learning of Chaldea's seers
Deep skilled. The fate of empires, and of kings,
In solitude, and silence of the night,
He of the stars would ask, and would believe.
And now exultingly hath he beheld
The dawn of a great glory for the East;
When the down--trodden nations should arise;
Pluck from Assyria's tyrant hand the rule;
The city of her strength in ashes lay;
And all the thrones, now fallen, should lift again.
So in the stars had he Heaven's purpose read,
Undoubting: but the manner, and the time,
The chosen instruments--no vision yet
Clearly had figured to him.  That great prince,
From the long line of Median monarchs sprung,
Arbaces--to his searching thought, at length,
The destined one had seemed; for, round his brow
A glory was, and lightning in his eye;
And, in his limbs heroic, matchless strength,
Like his, the chosen Israelite of old,
Son of Manoah, Samson; who, scarce armed,
His foes by thousands slew: and the huge gates
Of Gaza on his shoulders bore away;
Wide entrance showing to the astonished crowds,
When in the morning they looked forth, and saw
On the hill top the brazen portals stand;
Labor of many an hour for man and steed:
And, lastly, who in wrath the pillars shook
Of Dagon's roomy temple; and brake down:
Upon himself, and thousands of his foes,
Death bringing, underneath the ruin crushed.
Such was Arbaces; on the Median throne
Who, sole king, should have reigned: but Media, too,
Of proud Assyria long had been the thrall:
He, now, but leader of the unwilling host
She to the tyrant sent. On that day, first,
With words that idle might have seemed, and nought,--
Yet look and tone, which, of these nothings, made
Forms dark and ominous,--the priest awhile
Subtly had sounded him: but, spirit prompt
For boldest enterprise--so honor joined--
Finding within him, had the mystic veil
In part rolled off; and shown, though faintly yet,
Visions of wondrous glory, and great good,
By great deeds to be won; yet, chiefly, now,
Desire had waked, with his own eyes to see,
At secret hour, that mightiest of the earth,
Assyria's dreaded, unapproachable king;
That, in his weakness, he the man might know
Whose foot was on the nations;--in his soul
So might spring up disdain of bondage base.

Well knew the Mede how perilous the attempt
That gorgeous pile to enter; most of all,
Within its inmost heart, the unholy place
Of kingly dalliance, and of manly shame,
All seeing, while himself unseen, to pierce:
Yet thither, a bribed eunuch aiding him,
At sunset had he gone; and him the priest,
With anxious expectation, now awaits.

A door, at length, flies open; and in haste
Springs forth th' heroic Mede. Even by the head,
In stature he the tall priest overtopped:
His step seemed firm as tread of battle--steed;
And, toward the unclouded moon as he looked up,
His countenance might, surely, some young god
Worthily image: yet upon it now
Burned shame, and anger. Him to meet, the priest
Slowly advanced: but with impetuous speed,
Strode on Arbaces; and, with flashing eyes,
And reckless tone, thus spake. ''Is this, then, he?
This drunkard; this effeminate; this thing,
Man--limbed and woman--hearted! is this he
Before whom cringe the nations? Ye just Gods!
Give me to hurl . . .''  ''Hush! hush! Some other place
For words like these,'' the Babylonian said:
''Let us away unto the sacred grove,
Where foot of man comes not; that of yon host
Of heavenly ministers we may inquire;
And clearer know their will.''  That said, at once,
Communing as they go, they hurry on:
Spring to their chariot: thunder o'er the bridge
That spans broad Tigris: on the ample road,
Palm bordered, swiftly urge their smoking steeds;
Till, far behind, the mighty city's roar
Is but a hum; and the gigantic walls
Incorporal seem, as mist.  ''Here must we stay,''
The Babylonian said; checked then the steeds;
And forth they leap: the golden--studded reins
To a strong fig--tree's branch securely tie;
A leopard's skin on either horse's flank
Throw heedfully; then, grasping each his spear,
The broad road quit; and, o'er the dewy grass,
With quick steps take their way.  Not far removed,
Upon the summit of a hill, there stood
A sacred grove; to the Chaldean Gods
For ages consecrate. Then spake the Priest:
''Abide thou here: alone must I converse
With those that rule the earth. Thy destiny
They may disclose, and proud Assyria's doom.
The sacred rites thine eye must not behold:
Here wait then my return; and be thy thoughts
Still on the things to come.''  The Priest withdrew.
Upon the summit of the hill arrived,
Amid the holy trees--his falchion first,
And glittering spear, upon the ground he laid;
His brazen helmet next, and shining mail;
Then, in his priestly vestments solely clad,
Fell prostrate on the earth. Uprising soon,
His arms he lifted; and his kindled eye
Turned towards the dazzling multitude of heaven,
And the bright moon. His pale and awful face
Grew paler as he gazed, and thus began.
''Look down upon me from your radiant spheres,

Bright ministers of the Invisible,
God o'er all gods supreme! to whom in prayer
Man may not lift the voice! for what are we,
That the sole Infinite to us should stoop
From the pure sanctuary, wherein he dwells,
Throned in eternal light! but, face to face,
Ye see, and hear him, and his words obey,
Vicegerents of the sky. Upon your priest
Look down; and hear his prayer. And you, the chief,
Bright Mediators between God and man,
Who, on your burning chariots, path the heavens,
In ceaseless round--Saturn, and mighty Sol,
Though absent now beyond the ends of earth,
Yet present to man's prayer; great Jupiter,
Venus, and Mars, and Mercury, O! hear,
Interpreters divine! and for your priest,
Draw the dark veil that shades the days to come!
Assyria is made drunken with her power:
On earth lives not a despot like to him
That sitteth on her throne; and holds in bonds
Millions, and tens of millions, whose loud cry
Ascendeth daily to the sky for help!
And will ye then not help?''  He paused; and gazed
Long time in silence on the starry host;
His face like marble, but his large dark eye
Lit as with fire. Then, as though on him shone
Heaven opening; and the vision of the years,
Shadowy, before him passed--with hollow voice,
Broken and tremulous, ''I feel ye will:
I see the dark veil drawn . . . I see a throne
Dashed to the earth . . . I see a mighty blaze,
As of a city flaming to the clouds . . .
Another city rises . . . a new throne;
Thereon a crowned one, god--like: but his face
With cloud o'er--shadowed yet. . . . Ha! then 'tis thou!
The nations clap the hand, and shout for joy!
I hear their voices, like the multitude
Of ocean's tempest--waves: I hear--I see'' . . .

No more he spake; but, in a breathless trance,
On heaven long gazing, sank at length; and lay
  Prostrate and motionless.  The Prince, meanwhile,
Impatiently the coming of the priest
Long time awaited. To and fro he walked;
Looked at the stars; and pondered things to come:
Thought on the past; and on his country's fate.

Next, to his distant home his thoughts take flight;
The palace of his fathers: he beholds
His widowed mother, and his sister loved:
One mildly reverend; the other gay
In youth's bright morn, and sportive as a lamb:
And one, than all beside more dearly loved,
Before him comes; one who for him all day
Sits melancholy; with pale cheek; and eye
Beaming on vacancy. A raven lock,
On her majestic shoulders that had waved,
He at his heart still wore: a curl of gold--
From his imperial brow, in happy hour
Transplanted--in her bosom fragrant grew.

That pleasant vision past, he walked awhile;
Then toward the hill looked up, and the dense grove,
That stood in massive darkness 'gainst the sky.
He saw no figure there; he heard no sound:
What held the priest so long? At times, the voice,
Far distant, of the roaming lion came:
A stir from the huge city, like the hum
Of bees in nightly council, ere the day
When the young brood must flit: a wailing cry
Of lonely night bird, winging over head,
With slow dull clang. Eastward, at length, he looked;
Darkness seemed passing; the grey dawn at hand:
''Some evil hath befallen the man,'' he said;
''I will go up.'' Half way he climbed the hill;
But on the summit saw the gleam of arms,
And heard descending feet. Then to the priest,
As he drew nigh, ''What hath detained thee thus?
The night is almost spent: some ill I feared
  Had fallen upon thee.''  Nought the seer replied;
But, coming up, before him bent the knee,
And said, ''Long live Arbaces, king of kings!
May the king live for ever!''  ''Art thou mad?''
The Mede exclaimed; ''crazed with thy long night watch,
And converse with the Gods? or dost thou mock?''

But then Belesis rose upon his feet;
Lifted his arms on high, and looked to heaven.
''Be witness for me, all ye dazzling host,
That now I speak but that which ye decree:
Nor mad am I: nor crazed with long night watch,
And converse with the Gods; nor do I mock.
Arbaces, thou, even thou, shalt overthrow
Yon tyrant; wrench the sceptre from his grasp;
Cast down his throne for ever! Thou shalt break
The fetters of the nations; shalt wipe out
The foulness of the land; and shalt destroy
Yon haughty city utterly with fire.
Then on Assyria's throne shalt thou be set;
And none shall shake thee from it: for even so
Is it emblazoned on the scroll of heaven;
The Eternal Ones have written it! But come;
Let us go hence. The time is nigh at hand;
  We must not be found slumbering.''  A brief space
They walked in silence; till the Median thus:
''Strange things indeed thou tellest me! most strange!
Wondrous beyond belief! Yet, in thy words,
Some image do I find of dreams long past;
Dreams, or foretokenings; visions of the night,
When judgment slumbers, and quaint fancy rules;
Or shows prophetic, may I call them now?
Dim as through dusky glass beheld; yet, still,
  True forms of things to come?''  To him the Priest.
''Woe to the man who every idle dream
Trusteth to find from heaven! for he shall be
Uncertain as the winds, that never rest;
Unstable as the flitting mist of morn:
He shall rise up in joy; and sleep in grief;
Resolve; and re--resolve; and change again:
Come like a lion on; and, like a sheep,
Fly from his purpose: for our dreams are webs
That bend beneath the dew--drop: but of rock
Should be the base whereon our deeds are built;
Else may they come to ruin. Not the more,
When favoring Heaven in sleep doth visit us;
Drawing aside the veil of things not yet;
And with its manifest finger pointing them;
Should we misdoubt; and call its visions dreams,
Fancies, and idle fallacies: who feels
The hand of Heaven upon him, falters not;
But to its bidding with a firm heart goes,
Through evil, and through good. Such dreams were thine;
For so hath Heaven confirmed them unto me,
In waking vision. On, and prosper then.''

So they: and climbed the chariot. Rapidly
The brazen wheels flew sparkling through the night;
The proud steeds snorted, and the rough road rang.

Tumult of thought now in Arbaces rose;
Yet with a proud hope victor over all;
And to the Babylonian thus he spake:
''I will not doubt, thou favored of the gods,
That Heaven through thee hath spoken its high will:
What thou hast said, will surely be wrought out:
But yet the way is dark: I am but one;
And, to support the tyrant, stands a host
More than the stars of heaven: how shall one arm
Pluck down a throne so strong?''  To him the Priest.
''The arm of God, though single, could this earth
Crush in an instant; quench the burning sun;
Unseat the stars; and shower them down like rain,
To bottomless ocean of eternal night!
What is the Assyrian's throne? Art thou not chosen?
And shalt thou not be taught? The seventh morn hence,
Our year of hateful service will be spent:
New armies take our place. But, toward the king
Their hearts are cold. Go we to meet them then;
Thou to the Medes; the Babylonians I:
The Arabian monarch, like a naphtha spring,
Will of himself blaze out; and all the rest
At our combustion burn. For, when we go
From chief to chief of the reluctant hosts;
And urge them in the name of God to strike,
For freedom, and their country, and the world;
Be sure their hearts will burn, their swords leap out.
Hath not Heaven spoken? Can it come to nought?''

To him Arbaces, glowing as he spake:
''Through thee Heaven's voice hath spoken. As thou sayst,
So shall it be. This day throughout the camp,
Let us be active 'mong our chosen friends;
To our great enterprise inciting them;
And, on the morrow, hence to meet who come.''

Thus talking, to the city they drew nigh.
'Twas silent now; and, for the crowds that late
Had filled the ramparts, a few lonely forms
Glided with lazy step. They cross the bridge:
To the low rumble of the rapid wheels,
The huge walls murmur back: they enter not
The gate that opened as the car drew nigh;
But, to the northward wheeling, seek the camp.
The Day--king's glory--scattering diadem
O'ertopped the horizon as they reached the tents.
On bended knee, with reverential tone,
  Bowing, they worshipped.  Nor, when they arose,
To needful rest retired they; but, all day,
From tent to tent, with unabating zeal,
Went stirring up the bosoms of their friends
To that great enterprise: and when the sun
On the next morrow drove his chariot up,
And overpeered the earth, he saw their steeds,
Far from the city, hurrying on their way.