Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  To the Alabaster Sarcophagus

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

Introductory to Egypt, Nubia, and Abyssinia

To the Alabaster Sarcophagus

By Horace Smith (1779–1849)

Deposited in the British Museum

THOU alabaster relic! while I hold

My hand upon thy sculptured margin thrown,

Let me recall the scenes thou couldst unfold,

Might’st thou relate the changes thou hast known;

For thou wert primitive in thy formation,

Launched from the Almighty’s hand at the creation.

Yes! thou wert present when the stars and skies

And worlds unnumbered rolled into their places;

When God from chaos bade the spheres arise,

And fixed the blazing sun upon its basis,

And with his finger on the bounds of space

Marked out each planet’s everlasting race.

How many thousand ages from thy birth

Thou slept’st in darkness it were vain to ask,

Till Egypt’s sons upheaved thee from the earth,

And year by year pursued their patient task,

Till thou wert carved and decorated thus,

Worthy to be a king’s sarcophagus!

What time Elijah to the skies ascended,

Or David reigned in holy Palestine,

Some ancient Theban monarch was extended

Beneath the lid of this emblazoned shrine,

And to that subterraneous palace borne,

Which toiling ages in the rock had worn.

Thebes, from her hundred portals, filled the plain,

To see the car on which thou wert upheld;

What funeral pomps extended in thy train,

What banners waved, what mighty music swelled,

As armies, priests, and crowds bewailed in chorus,

Their king, their god, their Serapis, their Orus!

Thus to thy second quarry did they trust

Thee, and the lord of all the nations round,

Grim king of silence! monarch of the dust!

Embalmed, anointed, jewelled, sceptred, crowned,

Here did he lie in state, cold, stiff, and stark,

A leathern Pharaoh grinning in the dark.

Thus ages rolled; but their dissolving breath

Could only blacken that imprisoned thing,

Which wore a ghastly royalty in death,

As if it struggled still to be a king;

And each dissolving century, like the last,

Just dropped its dust upon thy lid, and passed.

The Persian conqueror o’er Egypt poured

His devastating host,—a motley crew;

The steel-clad horseman, the barbarian horde,

Music and men of every sound and hue,

Priests, archers, eunuchs, concubines, and brutes,

Gongs, trumpets, cymbals, dulcimers, and lutes.

Then did the fierce Cambyses tear away

The ponderous rock that sealed the sacred tomb;

Then did the slowly penetrating ray

Redeem thee from long centuries of gloom,

And lowered torches flashed against thy side,

As Asia’s king thy blazoned trophies eyed.

Plucked from his grave, with sacrilegious taunt,

The features of the royal corse they scanned;

Dashing the diadem from his temple gaunt,

They tore the sceptre from his graspless hand;

And on those fields, where once his will was law,

Left him for winds to waste and beasts to gnaw.

Some pious Thebans, when the storm was past,

Upclosed the sepulchre with cunning skill,

And nature, aiding their devotion, cast

Over its entrance a concealing rill;

Then thy third darkness came, and thou didst sleep

Twenty-three centuries in silence deep.

But he from whom nor pyramids nor sphinx

Can hide its secrecies, Belzoni, came;

From the tomb’s mouth unlinked the granite links,

Gave thee again to light and life and fame,

And brought thee from the sands and deserts forth,

To charm the pallid children of the north!

Thou art in London, which, when thou wert new,

Was what Thebes is, a wilderness and waste,

Where savage beast more savage men pursue;

A scene by nature cursed, by man disgraced.

Now, ’t is the world’s metropolis! The high

Queen of arms, learning, arts, and luxury!

Here, where I hold my hand, ’t is strange to think

What other hands, perchance, preceded mine;

Others have also stood beside thy brink,

And vainly conned the moralizing line!

Kings, sages, chiefs, that touched this stone, like me,

Where are ye now? Where all must shortly be.

All is mutation; he within this stone

Was once the greatest monarch of the hour.

His bones are dust, his very name unknown!

Go, learn from him the vanity of power;

Seek not the frame’s corruption to control,

But build a lasting mansion for thy soul.