George Meredith

(12 February 1828 – 18 May 1909 / Portsmouth, England)

The Sleeping City


A Princess in the eastern tale
Paced thro' a marble city pale,
And saw in ghastly shapes of stone
The sculptured life she breathed alone;

Saw, where'er her eye might range,
Herself the only child of change;
And heard her echoed footfall chime
Between Oblivion and Time;

And in the squares where fountains played,
And up the spiral balustrade,
Along the drowsy corridors,
Even to the inmost sleeping floors,

Surveyed in wonder chilled with dread
The seemingness of Death, not dead;
Life's semblance but without its storm,
And silence frosting every form;

Crowned figures, cold and grouping slaves,
Like suddenly arrested waves
About to sink, about to rise, -
Strange meaning in their stricken eyes;

And cloths and couches live with flame
Of leopards fierce and lions tame,
And hunters in the jungle reed,
Thrown out by sombre glowing brede;

Dumb chambers hushed with fold on fold,
And cumbrous gorgeousness of gold;
White casements o'er embroidered seats,
Looking on solitudes of streets, -

On palaces and column'd towers,
Unconscious of the stony hours;
Harsh gateways startled at a sound,
With burning lamps all burnish'd round; -

Surveyed in awe this wealth and state,
Touched by the finger of a Fate,
And drew with slow-awakening fear
The sternness of the atmosphere; -

And gradually, with stealthier foot,
Became herself a thing as mute,
And listened,-while with swift alarm
Her alien heart shrank from the charm;

Yet as her thoughts dilating rose,
Took glory in the great repose,
And over every postured form
Spread lava-like and brooded warm, -

And fixed on every frozen face
Beheld the record of its race,
And in each chiselled feature knew
The stormy life that once blushed thro'; -

The ever-present of the past
There written; all that lightened last,
Love, anguish, hope, disease, despair,
Beauty and rage, all written there; -

Enchanted Passions! whose pale doom
Is never flushed by blight or bloom,
But sentinelled by silent orbs,
Whose light the pallid scene absorbs. -

Like such a one I pace along
This City with its sleeping throng;
Like her with dread and awe, that turns
To rapture, and sublimely yearns; -

For now the quiet stars look down
On lights as quiet as their own;
The streets that groaned with traffic show
As if with silence paved below;

The latest revellers are at peace,
The signs of in-door tumult cease,
From gay saloon and low resort,
Comes not one murmur or report:

The clattering chariot rolls not by,
The windows show no waking eye,
The houses smoke not, and the air
Is clear, and all the midnight fair.

The centre of the striving world,
Round which the human fate is curled,
To which the future crieth wild, -
Is pillowed like a cradled child.

The palace roof that guards a crown,
The mansion swathed in dreamy down,
Hovel, court, and alley-shed,
Sleep in the calmness of the dead.

Now while the many-motived heart
Lies hushed-fireside and busy mart,
And mortal pulses beat the tune
That charms the calm cold ear o' the moon

Whose yellowing crescent down the West
Leans listening, now when every breast
Its basest or its purest heaves,
The soul that joys, the soul that grieves; -

While Fame is crowning happy brows
That day will blindly scorn, while vows
Of anguished love, long hidden, speak
From faltering tongue and flushing cheek

The language only known to dreams,
Rich eloquence of rosy themes!
While on the Beauty's folded mouth
Disdain just wrinkles baby youth;

While Poverty dispenses alms
To outcasts, bread, and healing balms;
While old Mammon knows himself
The greatest beggar for his pelf;

While noble things in darkness grope,
The Statesman's aim, the Poet's hope;
The Patriot's impulse gathers fire,
And germs of future fruits aspire; -

Now while dumb nature owns its links,
And from one common fountain drinks,
Methinks in all around I see
This Picture in Eternity; -

A marbled City planted there
With all its pageants and despair;
A peopled hush, a Death not dead,
But stricken with Medusa's head; -

And in the Gorgon's glance for aye
The lifeless immortality
Reveals in sculptured calmness all
Its latest life beyond recall.

Submitted: Thursday, April 15, 2010

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