Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > Asia
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Asia: Vols. XXI–XXIII.  1876–79.
 
Mesopotamia: Nineveh
The Burden of Nineveh
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
 
IN our Museum galleries
To-day I lingered o’er the prize
Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes,—
Her Art forever in fresh wise
  From hour to hour rejoicing me.        5
Sighing I turned at last to win
Once more the London dirt and din;
And as I made the swing-door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
  A wingèd beast from Nineveh.        10
 
A human face the creature wore,
And hoofs behind and hoofs before,
And flanks with dark runes fretted o’er.
’T was bull, ’t was mitred Minotaur,
  A dead disbowelled mystery;        15
The mummy of a buried faith
Stark from the charnel without scathe,
Its wings stood for the light to bathe,—
Such fossil cerements as might swathe
  The very corpse of Nineveh.        20
 
The print of its first rush-wrapping,
Wound ere it dried, still ribbed the thing.
What song did the brown maidens sing,
From purple mouths alternating,
  When that was woven languidly?        25
What vows, what rites, what prayers preferred,
What songs has the strange image heard?
In what blind vigil stood interred
For ages, till an English word
  Broke silence first at Nineveh?        30
 
Oh, when upon each sculptured court,
Where even the wind might not resort,—
O’er which Time passed, of like import
With the wild Arab boys at sport,—
  A living face looked in to see:        35
Oh, seemed it not—the spell once broke—
As though the carven warriors woke,
As though the shaft the string forsook,
The cymbals clashed, the chariots shook,
  And there was life in Nineveh?        40
 
On London stones our sun anew
The beast’s recovered shadow threw.
(No shade that plague of darkness knew,
No light, no shade, while older grew
  By ages the old earth and sea.)        45
Lo thou! could all thy priests have shown
Such proof to make thy godhead known?
From their dead Past thou liv’st alone;
And still thy shadow is thine own
  Even as of yore in Nineveh.        50
 
That day whereof we keep record,
When near thy city-gates the Lord
Sheltered his Jonah with a gourd,
This sun (I said), here present, poured
  Even thus this shadow that I see.        55
This shadow has been shed the same
From sun and moon,—from lamps which came
For prayer,—from fifteen days of flame,
The last, while smouldered to a name
  Sardanapalus’ Nineveh.        60
 
Within thy shadow, haply, once
Sennacherib has knelt, whose sons
Smote him between the altar-stones;
Or pale Semiramis her zones
  Of gold, her incense brought to thee,        65
In love for grace, in war for aid:….
Ay, and who else?…. till ’neath thy shade
Within his trenches newly made
Last year the Christian knelt and prayed—
  Not to thy strength—in Nineveh.        70
 
Now, thou poor god, within this hall
Where the blank windows blind the wall
From pedestal to pedestal,
The kind of light shall on thee fall
  Which London takes the day to be:        75
While school-foundations in the act
Of holiday, three files compact,
Shall learn to view thee as a fact
Connected with that zealous tract:
  “Rome,—Babylon and Nineveh.”        80
 
Deemed they of this, those worshippers,
When, in some mythic chain of verse
Which man shall not again rehearse,
The faces of thy ministers
  Yearned pale with bitter ecstasy?        85
Greece, Egypt, Rome,—did any god
Before whose feet men knelt unshod
Deem that in this unblest abode
Another scarce more unknown god
  Should house with him, from Nineveh?        90
 
Ah! in what quarries lay the stone
From which this pygmy pile has grown,
Unto man’s need how long unknown,
Since thy vast temples, court and cone,
  Rose far in desert history?        95
Ah! what is here that does not lie
All strange to thine awakened eye?
Ah! what is here can testify
(Save that dumb presence of the sky)
  Unto thy day and Nineveh?        100
 
Why, of those mummies in the room
Above, there might indeed have come
One out of Egypt to thy home,
An alien. Nay, but were not some
  Of these thine own “antiquity”?        105
And now,—they and their gods and thou
All relics here together,—now
Whose profit? whether bull or cow,
Isis or Ibis, who or how,
  Whether of Thebes or Nineveh?        110
 
The consecrated metals found,
And ivory tablets underground,
Winged teraphim and creatures crowned,
When air and daylight filled the mound,
  Fell into dust immediately.        115
And even as these, the images
Of awe and worship,—even as these,—
So, smitten with the sun’s increase,
Her glory mouldered and did cease
  From immemorial Nineveh.        120
 
The day her builders made their halt,
Those cities of the lake of salt
Stood firmly ’stablished without fault,
Made proud with pillars of basalt,
  With sardonyx and porphyry.        125
The day that Jonah bore abroad
To Nineveh the voice of God,
A brackish lake lay in his road,
Where erst Pride fixed her sure abode,
  As then in royal Nineveh.        130
 
The day when he, Pride’s lord and Man’s,
Showed all the kingdoms at a glance
To Him before whose countenance
The years recede, the years advance,
  And said, Fall down and worship me:—        135
Mid all the pomp beneath that look,
Then stirred there, haply, some rebuke,
Where to the wind the salt pools shook,
And in those tracts, of life forsook,
  That knew thee not, O Nineveh!        140
 
Delicate harlot! On thy throne
Thou with a world beneath thee prone
In state for ages sat’st alone;
And needs were years and lustres flown
  Ere strength of man could vanquish thee:        145
Whom even thy victor foes must bring,
Still royal, among maids that sing
As with doves’ voices, taboring
Upon their breasts, unto the King,—
  A kingly conquest, Nineveh!        150
 
Here woke my thought. The wind’s slow sway
Had waxed; and like the human play
Of scorn that smiling spreads away,
The sunshine shivered off the day:
  The callous wind, it seemed to me,        155
Swept up the shadow from the ground:
And pale as whom the Fates astound,
The god forlorn stood winged and crowned:
Within I knew the cry lay bound
  Of the dumb soul of Nineveh.        160
 
And as I turned, my sense half shut
Still saw the crowds of kerb and rut
Go past as marshalled to the strut
Of rank in gypsum quaintly cut.
  It seemed in one same pageantry        165
They followed forms which had been erst;
To pass, till on my sight should burst
That future of the best or worst
When some may question which was first,
  Of London or of Nineveh.        170
 
For as that Bull-god once did stand
And watched the burial-clouds of sand,
Till these at last without a hand
Rose o’er his eyes, another land,
  And blinded him with destiny:—        175
So may he stand again; till now,
In ships of unknown sail and prow,
Some tribe of the Australian plough
Bear him afar,—a relic now
  Of London, not of Nineveh!        180
 
Or it may chance indeed that when
Man’s age is hoary among men,—
His centuries threescore and ten,—
His furthest childhood shall seem then
  More clear than later times may be:        185
Who, finding in this desert place
This form, shall hold us for some race
That walked not in Christ’s lowly ways,
But bowed its pride and vowed its praise
  Unto the God of Nineveh.        190
 
The smile rose first,—anon drew nigh
The thought: Those heavy wings spread high
So sure of flight, which do not fly;
That set gaze never on the sky;
  Those scriptured flanks it cannot see;        195
Its crown a brow-contracting load:
Its planted feet which trust the sod
(So grew the image as I trod):
O Nineveh, was this thy God,—
  Thine also, mighty Nineveh?        200
 
 
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