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The Burden of Nineveh
In our Museum galleries To-day I lingered o'er the prize Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes,— Her Art for ever 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. 'Twas bull, 'twas 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 preferr'd, What songs has the strange image heard? In what blind vigil stood interr'd 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, pour'd 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 pray'd— 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 pillared pile has grown, Unto man's need how long unknown, Since those thy 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 crown'd. 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 crown'd: 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 ranks 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?
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