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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

By 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.

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.

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;

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.

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?

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?

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:

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?

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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,

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.

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:

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.”

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?

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?

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?

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?

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”?

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?

The consecrated metals found,

And ivory tablets underground,

Winged teraphim and creatures crowned,

When air and daylight filled the mound,

Fell into dust immediately.

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.

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.

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.

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:—

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!

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:

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!

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,

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.

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

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.

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:—

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!

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:

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.

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;

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?