Home  »  The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century  »  Reginald Heber (1783–1826)

Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Poems. II. The Passage of the Red Sea

Reginald Heber (1783–1826)

WITH heat o’erlaboured and the length of way,

On Ethan’s beach the bands of Israel lay.

’Twas silence all, the sparkling sands along,

Save where the locust trilled her feeble song,

Or blended soft in drowsy cadence fell

The wave’s low whisper or the camel’s bell.—

’Twas silence all!—the flocks for shelter fly

Where, waving light, the acacia shadows lie;

Or where, from far, the flattering vapours make

The noon-tide semblance of a misty lake;

While the mute swain, in careless safety spread,

With arms enfolded, and dejected head,

Dreams o’er his wondrous call, his lineage high,

And, late revealed, his children’s destiny.—

For not in vain, in thraldom’s darkest hour,

Had sped from Amram’s sons the word of power;

Nor failed the dreadful wand, whose godlike sway

Could lure the locust from her airy way;

With reptile war assail their proud abodes,

And mar the giant pomp of Egypt’s Gods.

O helpless Gods! who nought availed to shield

From fiery rain your Zoan’s favoured field!—

O helpless Gods! who saw the curdled blood

Taint the pure lotus of your ancient flood,

And fourfold-night the wondering earth enchain,

While Memnon’s orient harp was heard in vain!—

Such musings held the tribes, till now the west

With milder influence on their temples prest;

And that portentous cloud which, all the day,

Hung its dark curtain o’er their weary way,

(A cloud by day, a friendly flame by night),

Rolled back its misty veil, and kindled into light!

Soft fell the eve;—but, ere the day was done

Tall waving banners streaked the level sun;

And wide and dark along the horizon red,

In sandy surge the rising desert spread.

“Mark, Israel, mark!”—On that strange sight intent,

In breathless terror, every eye was bent;

And busy faction’s fast-increasing hum

And female voices shriek, “They come, they come!”

They come, they come! in scintillating show

O’er the dark mass the brazen lances glow;

And sandy clouds in countless shapes combine,

As deepens or extends the long tumultuous line;—

And fancy’s keener glance ev’n now may trace

The threatening aspects of each mingled race:

For many a coal-black tribe and cany spear,

The hireling guards of Misraim’s throne, were there.

From distant Cush they trooped, a warrior train,

Siwah’s green isle and Sennaar’s marly plain:

On either wing their fiery coursers check

The parched and sinewy sons of Amalek:

While close behind, inured to feast on blood,

Decked in Behemoth’s spoils, the tall Shangalla strode.

’Mid blazing helms and bucklers rough with gold

Saw ye how swift the scythèd chariots rolled?

Lo! these are they whom, lords of Afric’s fates,

Old Thebes hath poured through all her hundred gates

Mother of armies!—How the emeralds glowed,

Where, flushed with power and vengeance, Pharaoh rode!

And stoled in white, those brazen wheels before,

Osiris’ ark his swarthy wizards bore;

And still responsive to the trumpet’s cry

The priestly sistrum murmured—Victory!

Why swell these shouts that rend the desert’s gloom?

Whom come ye forth to combat?—warriors, whom?—

These flocks and herds—this faint and weary train—

Red from the scourge, and recent from the chain?—

God of the poor, the poor and friendless save!

Giver and Lord of freedom, help the slave!—

North, south, and west the sandy whirlwinds fly,

The circling horns of Egypt’s chivalry.

On earth’s last margin throng the weeping train:

Their cloudy guide moves on:—“And must we swim the main?”

’Mid the light spray their snorting camels stood,

Nor bathed a fetlock in the nauseous flood:

He comes—their leader comes!—the man of God

O’er the wide waters lifts his mighty rod,

And onward treads—The circling waves retreat,

In hoarse deep murmurs, from his holy feet;

And the chased surges, inly roaring, show

The hard wet sand, and coral hills below.

With limbs that falter, and with hearts that swell,

Down, down they pass—a steep and slippery dell—

Around them rise, in pristine chaos hurled,

The ancient rocks, the secrets of the world;

And flowers that blush beneath the ocean green,

And caves, the sea calves’ low-roofed haunt are seen.

Down, safely down the narrow pass they tread;

The beetling waters storm above their head,

While far behind retires the sinking day,

And fades on Edom’s hills its latest ray.

Yet not from Israel fled the friendly light,

Or dark to them, or cheerless came the night.

Still in their van, along that dreadful road,

Blazed broad and fierce the brandished torch of God.

Its meteor glare a tenfold lustre gave

On the long mirror of the rosy wave;

While its blest beams a sunlike heat supply,

Warm every cheek, and dance in every eye—

To them alone—for Misraim’s wizard train

Invoke for light their monster gods in vain:

Clouds heaped on clouds their struggling sight confine,

And tenfold darkness broods above their line.

Yet on they fare, by reckless vengeance led,

And range unconscious through the ocean’s bed

Till midway now—that strange and fiery form

Showed his dread visage lightening through the storm;

With withering splendour blasted all their might,

And brake their chariot-wheels, and marred their coursers’ flight.

“Fly, Misraim, fly!”—The ravenous floods they see,

And, fiercer than the floods, the Deity.

“Fly, Misraim, fly!”—From Edom’s coral strand

Again the prophet stretched his dreadful wand:—

With one wild crash the thundering waters sweep,

And all is waves—a dark and lonely deep—

Yet o’er those lonely waves such murmurs past,

As mortal wailing swelled the nightly blast:

And strange and sad the whispering breezes bore

The groans of Egypt to Arabia’s shore.

Oh! welcome came the morn, where Israel stood

In trustless wonder by the avenging flood!

Oh! welcome came the cheerful morn, to show

The drifted wreck of Zoan’s pride below:

The mangled limbs of men—the broken car—

A few sad relics of a nation’s war:

Alas, how few!—Then, soft as Elim’s well,

The precious tears of new-born freedom fell.

And he, whose hardened heart alike had borne

The house of bondage and the oppressor’s scorn,

The stubborn slave, by hope’s new beams subdued,

In faltering accents sobbed his gratitude;

Till kindling into warmer zeal, around

The virgin timbrel waked its silver sound;

And in fierce joy, no more by doubt supprest,

The struggling spirit throbbed in Miriam’s breast.

She, with bare arms, and fixing on the sky

The dark transparence of her lucid eye,

Poured on the winds of heaven her wild sweet harmony.

“Where now,” she sang, “the tall Egyptian spear?

On’s sunlike shield, and Zoan’s chariot, where?

Above their ranks the whelming waters spread.

Shout, Israel, for the Lord hath triumphèd!”—

And every pause between, as Miriam sang,

From tribe to tribe the martial thunder rang,

And loud and far their stormy chorus spread,—

“Shout, Israel, for the Lord hath triumphèd!”