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Poem by Bessie Rayner Parkes

Under the Olives

SEATED in a Moorish garden
On the Sahel of Algiers,
Wandering breezes brought the burden
Of its history in past years.
Lost amidst the mist of ages,
Its first chronicles arise;
Yonder is the chain of Atlas,
And the pagan paradise!

Past these shores the wise Phoenicians
Coasted outwards towards the west,
Hoping there to find Atlantis,
And the Islands of the Blest.
Somewhere in these mystic valleys
Grew the golden-fruited trees,
Which the wandering son of Zeus
Stole from the Hesperides.

Many monsters, famed in story,
Had their habitations here,
Scaly coats and tresses hoary
Struck adventurous souls with fear.
Not far off lived Polyphemus,
Glaring with his single eye;
Sailors wrecked upon these waters
Only gained their brink to die.

But if ever, while carousing,
Rescued travellers told their feats,--
How the elephants came browsing
From the inner desert-heats--
How the dragons and the griffins
Likewise howled along the shore--
Those who listened bade their footsteps
Seek those dreadful realms no more!

When the veil of History rises,
Carthage owns the glorious state,
Planted with the Arts of Commerce,
And the men who made her great.
Rivalled only by Etruria,
She was mistress of the main;
Still we have the solemn treaty,
Drawn in brass betwixt them twain.

One among her many daughters,
Iol at her altars prayed;
Merchants, storm-struck on the waters,
Sought this harbour when afraid.
All this coast of ancient Afric
Bore her sway and owned her name;
To her western port of Iol
Buyers flocked and sellers came.

Yearly swarming populations
Poured through Carthage' busy gates,
Bearing forth the seed of nations;
And her ships bore living freights
Costlier far than pearl or coral,--
Hardy, brave, adventurous men!
As our exiles cling to England,
Sons of Carthage loved her then.

They, when working mines in Cornwall--
Gathering ivory near the Line--
Pressing grapes from vines of Cadiz--
Also thought her gods divine!
These blue peaks and golden valleys,
Those white waves of northern foam,
Also had their groups of eager,
Loving hearts, who called her "home."

But, "Delenda est Carthago!"
Was the threat proclaimed of yore,--
Scarce a bird now flaps his pinion,
White-winged vessels dance no more.
Heaps of stone, o'ergrown with brambles,
Mutely eloquent, attest
Men who once called Carthage mother
Sleep forgotten on her breast.

Lo! a troop of white-robed Arabs,
Passing in a silent file,
Fix the eye which else would vainly
Range the plain from mile to mile.
Not a dwelling known to Carthage!
Not one temple on the hill!
Empty lie the land-locked harbours,
Margins bare, and waters still!

Empty graves, through which the hyena
Ranges, laughing at decay,
Strike their dark and dangerous labyrinth
Inward from the light of day.
And such utter desolation
Triumphs here, it may be said,
That of this forgotten nation
Even the graves give up their dead!

On which summit was the Byrsa
Scipio fought five days to gain?
Here is nought but what the footstep
In five minutes might attain.
Can it be that once a million
People dwelt upon this plain!

Such is Carthage, lying eastward
Ten days' journey from Algiers;
On the grassy slopes of Iol
Lie two thousand nameless years.
Dead her sailors, sunk her vessels,
Merchants seek her marts no more;
I have walked 'midst broken columns
Strewed about her sounding shore.

And I have retraced the story,
How across that bright blue sea,
Clove the sharp prows, keen for glory,
Straight from distant Italy,
Manned by warriors whose unbounded
Thirst for conquest nerved them well;
And the state by Dido founded
Vainly struggled, sadly fell.

Even as the walls of Veii
Fell beneath a Latin wile,
Carthage also lowered her sceptre
From the Atlantic to the Nile.
This was then called old Numidia,
Underneath the Roman sway;--
Ere through centuries dark with bloodshed
Rose the Crescent of the Dey.

Once these hills were crowned with villas,
Ripe with harvest all these plains;
Scarce a trace of Roman splendour
Or Athenian art remains.
Little dreams the colon d'Afrique,
Roughly ploughing round his home,
These ravines 'midst which he labours
Once were "granaries of Rome."

From this harbour of Icosium
Passed the many-oared trireme,
Laden with colonial produce
Bound for Ostia's yellow stream.
Sacks of corn, and oil of olives,
Strings of dates and jars of wine,
Such the tribute yearly rendered
Hence unto Mount Palatine.

Now, across that waste of waters,
Sailless is the lonely sea,
Not a vessel tracks the pathway,
Rome, betwixt Algiers and thee!
For the pulses of a people
With their rulers rise and fall,
And Numidia gives her harvest
To defray the tax of Gaul!

What is that red cloud ascending,
Scarcely bigger than a hand,
From where sea and sky are blending,
Till it hovers o'er the land?
See! the mists are slowly dwining,
We shall see its brightness soon!
'Tis no cloud with silver lining,
But the perfect crescent moon!

'Tis the emblem of the Prophet
Hanging in a violet sky,
While amidst the cloudy olives
Breaks the jackal's evening cry.
Just as if to help my story,
Signs and sounds came into play,
Crescent of a fearful glory!
War-cry of a beast of prey!

Dark and dreadful is the legend
Of a thousand years of crime,
Since the writer of the Koran,
Flying, marked the flight of Time.
Since, from depths of far Arabia,
Rolled the fierce, resistless throng,
And the race was to the swift one,
And the battle to the strong.

As I sit within this garden,
All the air is soft and sweet;
Endless length of famous waters
Roll to northward at my feet--
Waters where the pirate vessels,
Year by year and hour by hour,
Swept across a trembling ocean,
Seeking what they might devour!

Still in sunlight lies the city,
Here and there a palm-tree waves
Over Moorish mosque and rampart,
Over nameless Christian graves.
These fair clumps of winter roses
Once drank dew of bitter tears;
Christian hearts grew sick with sunshine
On the Sahel of Algiers!

Yet how gallant is the poem
Of the triumph of the Cross!
How the ranks of instant martyrs
In the front filled up the loss!
How the slave died in the bagnio!
The crusader at his post!
And for each priest struck, another
Served the altar and the Host!

Hither came the good St. Vincent,
Brought a captive o'er the sea,
Slave unto a learned doctor
For two weary years was he;
Next he served the gentle lady,
Wife to an apostate lord;
But, behold, his prayers were fruitful,
And he brought them to accord!

In these prisons languished hundreds;--
Oft the mystic sound of wails,
Wafted over leagues of ocean,
Wept and murmured past Marseilles.
In the chapels shook the tapers
As the spirit-wind passed by,
And the noblest swords in Europe
Leapt responsive to the cry.

When, at length, the Sails of Rescue
Loomed upon the northern wave,
All the voices of the martyrs
Welcome breathed from this their grave.
Past the town, and round the mountains,
See the stately fleet advance;--
And the children of St. Louis
Plant the fleurs-de-lis of France!

Seated in a Moorish garden
On the Sahel of Algiers,
I can hear a tender burden,
Like the music of the spheres.
Not from any mortal voices
Could that tender music come!
No! It is a strain familiar--
'Tis the hymn we sing at home!

As it soars above the olives,
Drops below the pine-clad hills,
What a vast and tender memory
Mine imagination fills!
From the grave where She lay buried,
Fifteen hundred years are rolled,
And the Church of St. Augustine
Steps regenerate as of old!

Hippo lies a shapeless ruin,
All her ramparts overthrown;
Yet, wherever men are Christians,
Her great Bishop's name is known.
Over Hippo blow the breezes,
Sighing from the great blue sea;--
Yet of all our living preachers
Who so powerful as he?

Once, upon a Sabbath morning,
I at Bona heard the bells
In a chorus--as the water
Sharply ebbs and softly swells.
And to me it seemed the mountains
Echoed back a sweet refrain,
That the ruined church of Hippo
Harboured prayer and praise again!

When the bared bowed head of Jerome
Fell before the flashing sword;--
When both Marcellin and Cyril
To the last confessed the Lord;--
When St. Felix fell at Carthage,
Struck with clubs; and in the flames
Saints Severian and Aquila
(Married lovers) knit their names

In a more immortal linking,
As twin martyrs for the faith;
When St. Marcian at Cherchell
Faced the cruel teeth of death;--
They did more than bear brave witness
To the glorious hearts of old;
They laid the strong foundation
Of the universal Fold.

In that great stone ring at Cherchell
Grass has muffled all the ground;
All the circling seats are empty,
Not a motion or a sound!
Pause! O feet that here tread lightly!
Hush! O voice discoursing here!
Spirits of the just made perfect
Doubtless often linger here!

What if in that calm arena
Where the sunbeams softly sleep,
You, with many an aching bosom,
Dared not cry and could not weep!
What if Marcian wore the features--
Dear blue eyes and soft brown hair,--
And you saw the savage creatures
Leap infuriate from their lair?--

Yet, O dreadful dream of Cherchell!
That was what was undergone
In that circle where the fruit-trees
Like a faint reflexion shone.
Now for every martyr noted
In the list I read to-day,
Is a tender special mention
When Algerian Christians pray.

Down the hill I see the belfry
And the quaint old Moorish porch;
Hark! the little bell is swinging,
Calling willing feet to church.
Down the lane between the olives,
Then across the wide white road;
Stranger, if your heart is heavy,
Take it to that hushed abode,

Where the lamp burns ever dimly
All throughout the sunny day,
But shines clear upon the arches
As the twilight fades away.
You will find the weight drop from you,--
Leave it there among the flowers,
Which beneath the Christian altar
Mark the change of Christian hours.

Quaint old court of True Believer,
All thy truth is overthrown!
Servants of another Master
Now have claimed thee for their own;
Built His altar, placed around it
Irises and asphodels;--
Where to-morrow some new glory
Will unfold its buds and bells.

Sitting in this golden stillness
All my thoughts turn back to them
Who in such an Eastern sunshine
Worshipped at Jerusalem!
Are They then a Living Presence,
After all these changing years?
Hark, how many bells are ringing
On the Sahel of Algiers!

Bessie Rayner Parkes

Bessie Rayner Parkes's other poems:
  1. The Old Chateau
  2. Rome
  3. On a Group of Justice and Charity
  4. A Midsummer NightТs Dream
  5. Firelight

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