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

Mesopotamia: Babylon


By Bryan Waller Procter (1787–1874)

MANY a perilous age hath gone,

Since the walls of Babylon

Chained the broad Euphrates’ tide,

Which the great king in his pride

Turned, and drained its channel bare,—

Since the Towers of Belus square,

Where the solid gates were hung

That on brazen hinges swung,

Mountain-sized, arose so high

That their daring shocked the sky.

Famous city of the earth,

What magician gave thee birth?

What great prince of sky or air

Built thy floating gardens fair?

Thee the mighty hunter founded:

Thee the star-wise king surrounded

With thy mural girdle thick

Of the black bitumen brick,—

Belus, who was Jove, the God:

He who each bright evening trod

On thy marble streets, and came

Downwards like a glancing flame,

Love-allured, as fables tell.

But the last who loved thee well

Was the king whose amorous pride

(All to please his Median bride)

Fenced thee round and round so fast,

That, while the crumbling earth should last,

Thou, he thought, shouldst be, and Time

Should not spoil thy look sublime.

He is gone, whose spirit spoke

To him in a golden dream:

He who saw the future gleam

On the present, and awoke

Troubled in his princely mind,

And bade his magicians blind

From their eyelids strip the scale,

And translate his hidden tale:

He is gone: but ere he died,

He was tumbled from his pride,

From his Babylonian throne,

And cast out to feed alone,

Like the wild ox and the ass,

Seven years on the sprinkled grass.

He is dead: his impious deeds

Are on the brass; but who succeeds?

Over Babylon’s sandy plains

Belshazzar the Assyrian reigns.

A thousand lords at his kingly call

Have met to feast in a spacious hall,

And all the imperial boards are spread,

With dainties whereon the monarch fed.

Rich cates and floods of the purple grape:

And many a dancer’s serpent shape

Steals slowly upon their amorous sights,

Or glances beneath the flaunting lights:

And fountains throw up their silver spray,

And cymbals clash, and the trumpets bray

Till the sounds in the arched roof are hung;

And words from the winding horn are flung:

And still the carvéd cups go round,

And revel and mirth and wine abound.

But Night has o’ertaken the fading Day;

And Music has raged her soul away:

The light in the Bacchanal’s eye is dim;

And faint is the Georgian’s wild love-hymn.

“Bring forth” (on a sudden spoke the king,

And hushed were the lords, loud-rioting),—

“Bring forth the vessels of silver and gold,

Which Nebuchadnezzar, my sire, of old

Ravished from proud Jerusalem;

And we and our queens will drink from them.”

And the vessels are brought, of silver and gold,

Of stone, and of brass, and of iron old,

And of wood, whose sides like a bright gem shine,

And their mouths are all filled with the sparkling wine.

Hark! the king has proclaimed with a stately nod,

“Let a health be drunk out unto Baal, the god.”

They shout and they drink: but the music moans,

And hushed are the reveller’s loudest tones:

For a hand comes forth, and ’t is seen by all

To write strange words on the plastered wall!

The mirth is over; the soft Greek flute

And the voices of women are low,—are mute;

The bacchanal’s eyes are all staring wide;

And where ’s the Assyrian’s pomp of pride?—

That night the monarch was stung to pain:

That night Belshazzar, the king, was slain!

Many a silent age the prow

Of untiring Time, dividing

Years and days, and ever gliding

Onwards, has passed by: and now,

Where ’s thy wealth of streets and towers?

Where thy gay and dazzling hours?

Where thy crowds of slaves, and things

That fed on the rich breath of kings?

Where thy laughter-crownéd times?

Thou art—what?—a breath, a fame,

In the shadow of thy name

Dwelling, like a ghost unseen;

Grander than if laurels green

Or the massy gold were spread,

Crown-like, upon thy great head:

Mighty in thy own undoing,

Drawing a fresh life from ruin

And eternal prophecy:

Thou art gone, but cannot die.

Like a splendor from the sky

Through the silent ether flung,

Like a hoar tradition hung

Glittering in the ear of Time,

Thou art, like a lamp sublime,

Telling from thy wave-worn tower

Where the raging floods have power,

How ruin lives, and how time flies,

And all that on the dial lies.