Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Africa: Vol. XXIV. 1876–79.

Egypt, Nubia, and Abyssinia: Thebes


By Nicholas Michell (1807–1880)

(From Ruins of Many Lands)

THEBES, hearing still the Memnon’s mystic tones,

Where Egypt’s earliest monarchs reared their thrones,

Favored of Jove! the hundred-gated queen

Though fallen, grand; though desolate, serene;

The blood with awe runs coldly through our veins,

As we approach her far-spread, vast remains.

Forests of pillars crown old Nilus’ side,

Obelisks to heaven high lift their sculptured pride;

Rows of dark sphinxes, sweeping far away,

Lead to proud fanes, and tombs august as they.

Colossal chiefs in granite sit around,

As wrapped in thought, or sunk in grief profound.

Titans or gods sure built these walls that stand

Defying years, and Ruin’s wasting hand.

So vast, sublime the view, we almost deem

We rove, spell-bound, through some fantastic dream,

Sweep through the halls that Typhon rears below,

And see, in yon dark Nile, hell’s rivers flow.

E’en as we walk these fanes and ruined ways,

In musings lost, yet dazzled while we gaze,

The mighty columns ranged in long array,

The statues fresh as chiselled yesterday,

We scarce can think two thousand years have flown

Since in proud Thebes a Pharaoh’s grandeur shone,

But in yon marble court or sphinx-lined street

Some moving pageant half expect to meet,

See great Sesostris, come from distant war,

Kings linked in chains to drag his ivory car;

Or view that bright procession sweeping on,

To meet at Memphis far-famed Solomon,

When, borne by Love, he crossed the Syrian wild,

To wed the royal Pharaoh’s blooming child.

Here let me sit in Karnak’s gorgeous hall,

Firm as when reared each massy pictured wall:

Yielding to meditation’s calm control,

How shrinks, in conscious littleness, the soul!

And as thought leaps the gulf that yawns between

Past days and now, what is and what hath been,

How brief, how petty human life appears!

A cloud that fleeteth as it rains its tears;

A puny wave on Time’s vast ocean-shore,

That frets and foams, then melts to swell no more.

These ancient piles a higher moral teach

Than sage can write, or orator can preach:

The heart grows humbler in a scene like this,

Yet soars above low schemes of transient bliss;

And while it sighs that man should waste his hours,

Rearing such mighty fanes to unknown powers,

Looks inward at the creed itself maintains,

If born of heaven, or free from error’s stains.

But musing thus, by wandering dreams beguiled,

We half forget the fabrics round us piled,—

Fabrics that breathe from every sculptured stone

Awe and a solemn grandeur all their own.

Dim vistas stretch, white columns yonder rise,

And obelisks point, like flame, into the skies.

There frown huge kings in stone,—such frown they wore

When on their thrones three thousand years before;

And one, the mightiest, Isis’ arms entwine,

Immortal deemed, and like herself divine.

O, wondrous art! yon granite roof behold!

Fair still the colors, glittering still the gold;

In azure skies, moons, clustering stars, appear,—

Alas! the cunning hand that traced them here!

But pass we altars and rich glorious things,

Gigantic pillars, echoing halls of kings;

What see we traced in outline? shadowy, dim,

The very breathing face and sinewy limb,—

’T is Thothmes, he who bade the Hebrew groan,

When hailstones fell and thunders shook his throne,

He to whom Moses spoke, the king who sped

On wings of wrath when trembling Israel fled,

Raised his bright sword, and drove his bickering car,

Comet-like breathing terror from afar,

Pursued his foe adown the Red Sea coast,

Then sank engulfed with all his fiery host.