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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Asia: Vols. XXI–XXIII. 1876–79.

Arabia: Red Sea

A Legend of the Red Sea

By Walter Thornbury (1828–1876)

  • “The Genii’s blessings (which are curses) descended upon him.”
  • Arab Proverb.

  • HALF-STARVED, the Arab Abib stands,

    Upon the Red Sea’s burning sands,

    Beating his breast with bleeding hands.

    A poor and half-starved fisherman,

    The deep dark wave he tries to scan,

    Vainly, as but the hopeless can.

    The coral spikes had torn his net,

    That all the night in vain was set,

    His flimsy boat was leaky wet.

    The sun’s hot shafts had through him thrust,

    His hooks the night-dews blunt and rust,—

    In God the Arab has no trust.

    He sees no angel on the hills,

    With eyes that deepest pity fills

    For human griefs and human ills.

    Snapping his oars upon his knee,

    He curses the poor locust-tree,

    That sheds its fruit so lavishly.

    He turned, and lo! a quick star fell

    From where the black-eyed houris dwell

    (What men think heaven is often hell).

    It dropped,—and as it touched the earth,

    It broke to diamond-dust; with mirth

    Of mocking voices came the birth.

    A giant Afrit, wicked, proud,

    Half fire (but fire that ’s hid in cloud),

    Arose, and Abib shrieked aloud.

    “Thou foolish child of clay,” it said,

    “We Genii mourn not for the dead.

    I am your god where’er I tread!

    “There is no ruler of this world,

    He from his throne has long been hurled,

    His sun-cloud banner long since furled.

    “The God you seek is but a thing

    Of mad fool’s trances,—a dream-king,

    A God without a brain or wing.

    “What need of pining?—there is gold,

    More than thy crazy bark can hold,

    In this dark sea—if thou art bold.

    “Fools only kneel: stand on thy feet,

    The world beneath thee tramp and beat;

    Dominion to the wise is sweet.

    “Let down thy net before the sun

    His useless circle hath outrun.

    Thy insect life is but begun.”

    A mist arose out of the sea:

    “My Simoom horse has come for me,”

    The Genii cried: “be rich and free.”

    The fire-wind came and swept the sand,

    And demons, an exulting band,

    Rode with it to the desert land.


    Abib awakes from out his trance;

    The moonbeams on the waters dance,

    The quick waves meeting, flash and glance.

    Without a prayer his net he threw,

    The ropes in a wide circle flew,

    And slowly settled sure and true.

    He drags, and lo! a toiling weight,

    A burden ponderous and great,

    Then glimmers of a golden freight.

    A dead man’s hair mats in the strings,

    A golden robe that laps and clings,

    A blazing crown with emerald rings.

    A chain with jewelled beetles strung,

    A massy golden targe that rung,

    Still to the Pharaoh’s body hung.

    A frown is on the dead king’s face,

    His lips are pressed in stern grimace,

    One hand is on his quiver-case.

    And on his ring a jewel, see

    “Pharaoh, the son of Isis,—he

    Who rules both Egypts,—kneel to me.”

    Now Abib to his hut returns,

    The signet on his turban burns,

    “Yes! this is what God’s chosen earns.”

    They crown him lord,—he spurns the priest,

    Drives pilgrims from the holy East,

    And slays the Christians at their feast.

    The Arab rebels crown him king,

    His mandates fly on tireless wing,

    And make the desert echoes ring.

    The Genii’s curse is on his head,

    The desert, wheresoe’er he tread,

    With human blood is crimson red.

    Soon cohorts come and fire the town,

    And Abib, with his head hung down,

    Upon a cross now wears the crown.