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The Fall Of Nineveh. Book The Eigtheenth - Poem by Edwin Atherstone

Three times the glorious god of light, and life,
Along the sapphire pavement of the sky
Careering,--through the immense of space, his beams
Shot, inexpressibly bright; but, on the walls
Of Nineveh, and on the gory plain,
No radiance fell: a thick cloud mantled all,
As though, upon the ghastly piles of dead,
His pure eye might not look. Three days and nights,
By compact mutual, did the hostile hosts
From fight refrain; that, dust to dust, the slain
Might be to earth committed: and three days
Was lamentation heard upon the plain,
And in the fated city. The third night,
The work was finished; and both sides their dead
Had numbered. Of the Assyrians, had there fallen
Full five score thousand men; and, of the Medes,
Had one score thousand fallen. To the camp,
And to the city, then the hosts retired;
For now the truce was o'er; and, with the morn,
Grim war his hell--dogs might let loose anew.

On the king's soul, meantime, thick darkness hung
Alone he kept, and unto none would speak:
Neither unto his children, nor his queen,
Nor to his captains, nor his concubines.

On the fourth night, with Salamenes sat
The sorrowing queen; and, after conference brief,
To council called the captains. With dark brows,
Lips close compressed, and sorrow--speaking eyes,
At distance waiting, silently they stood
Before their pallid queen. With head bowed low,
Tears rolling down her cheeks, awhile she sat,
And words found none. The glistening drops, at length,
Hastily wiping off, she raised her face;
Her soul re--summoned to the task; and thus,
With quivering lip, and faltering utterance, spake.

``Ah! day of woe, unlooked for, and accurs'd!
A full blown flower this mighty city was,
The pride of all the earth! but a sharp wind
Hath withered it, and strown upon the ground
Its shrivelled leaves, that ne'er shall bloom again!
How set the fifth sun passed? Upon a host,
Mighty, and boastful; steeped in revelry
Unto the lips; a world--defying host;
Yea heaven--defying: on a powerful king,
In dazzling splendor throned; and, like a god,
Worshipped, and hymned, by voices numberless.
How rose next morn the sun? On that same host,
Awe--stricken, shrieking, calling on the walls
To shield them from a foe whom they had mocked,
Hooted, and hissed at! on a field of dead!
A hill of clay, which, but few hours before,
Had been all reckless mirth, and boastfulness!
On that same monarch, fallen like a tower,
Stricken, and blackened by the thunderbolt!
Oh Nineveh, proud queen! thy strength is shorn;
Thy glory is gone out! Thou art a grave
For living millions! bodies, soul--bereft!
Animate corpses! creatures that have lost
The life of life,--the noble front of man;
The daring spirit, and the action free,--
And now, with haggard cheek, and downcast eye,
Oh, grief and shame! like fettered bondsmen crawl,
Where once they stood supreme!'' She faltered; stopped;
Her hands in anguish clasped; again bowed down
Her beauteous face, and wept. But, rising soon,
``Enough of this,'' she said; ``if thought, or act,
May yet give hope,--let not an hour be lost.
Speak then who can, and boldly. On you now,
Sage men, and valiant, hangs this tottering state;
On you alone: for, ah! the mind, and arm,
That should direct, and lead,--are, as the dead,
Powerless, and lost! Belovëd brother, thou,--
For yet hope shineth on thy distant view,
Though all at hand is darkness,--do thou, first,
Thy thougths propound; and, afterwards, each man,
Approving, or opposing, freely speak.''

She ceased; and Salamenes for reply
Addressed himself: but, with an angry look,
Even by that lofty presence ill controlled,--
Hastily stepping, Jerimoth stood forth;
Bowed low, and spake. ``Thy royal state, O queen!
All reverence claimeth: but thy virtues more
Subdue the hearts of men; for thy great soul
Might fill a hero's bosom; and the faults
And follies of thy sex, thou knowëst not.
Grief, double grief, then, sinks the brave man's heart,
To see thee, like to one of common mould,
Fall to despair; and melt away in tears,
Useless, and weak. Forgive me, gracious queen,
If I o'er bluntly speak: my heart is charged;
And must have vent, or burst. We have been weak,
Foolish, or heedless,--call it what you will,--
And have been beaten, vanquished utterly.
I grant the worst that any man can say:
Our dead alone, if called to life again,
Were army for a king: our wounded men,
If healed, might prop a falling nation up:
All, all I grant: but, what the remedy?
Could tears, though like the flooded Tigris poured,
Call to our ranks again one single sword
Of all that host thus lost? Could poor despair
Strengthen our arms; or make our enemy quail?
No! we were foolish,--let us now be wise;
That is our remedy: were heedless once,--
Let us now watch like dragons, with the eye
Still open, even in sleep. Our ranks are mowed,
As with a scythe;--call then new harvest up.
Sprinkle but gold enough,--and armëd men
Will rise, like mist when the hot sun looks down.
Such is our remedy; nor long the time
Ere the full crop may ripen. Rather far
Than sit despairing,--would I strike a light,
A spark at least of hope, even now when gloom
Hangs heaviest on us. What if from our foe
We lesson take; and, as on us they fell,
Unlooked for,--so on them, even in their hour
Of sleep, and lapt in full security,
Pour out our myriads. We have rested now,--
From arms at least, have rested,--full four days;
And every soldier must for vengeance thirst.
Ere midnight, thrice a hundred thousand swords
Might rouse a tempest in yon slumbering camp:
And who may say, how many there with morn
Would waken? or whose banner highest fly? . . .

``Ye shake the head, and think my words are rash.
So be they then: yet better the worst freak
Of very madness,--be there daring in it,
And manly action,--than this grave--like gloom;
This damp, cold vapour, creeping through our veins,
And stagnating our blood. Rather I'd strike
My hand off, with one quick and resolute blow,
Than see it slowly rotting from my arm.
Such is my choice. I counsel watchfulness,
Prudence, and caution, great as you desire;
But action ever; war unto the last.
No downcast hearts, and corpse--like visages;
No shrinking back, as from a gaping grave;
But bold, free march, with firm foot, and strong arm,
And eyes that will see nought but victory.

``My thoughts are spoken: pardoned may I be,
My gracious queen, if over rough the shell
That wraps a wholesome kernel. On the earth
Breathes not the man who, more than I, would feel
Heart--pangs for every grief he caused to thee.
Nor liveth he, who truer homage pays
To thy bright virtues, and right noble mind:
But, thee to see cast down, who all the rest
Should'st, with thy strength superior, well uphold,--
That keenly galleth: and, as men in pain,
Do sometimes strike at those whom best they love,--
So my sharp anguish, to my words, perchance,
Hath given a sting, which, where I least would wound,
Hath shot its venom.'' Bending as he stood,
Abashed, and grieved, and, with a faltering tongue,
Excuses pleading,--him the queen, well pleased,
Warmly thus answered. ``True, and valiant man!
In nought hast thou offended. A smooth word,
And supple knee, the veriest knave may bring:
Little costs that, when much 'tis meant to gain:
But thy rough, forthright speech, though causing smart,--
Like medicine by a kind physician given,
At thine own peril is administered,
And all for others' good. Take, then, my thanks,
Not censure: though, perchance, thy caustic words
Not all deserved by me. Tears, ay of blood,
Our fallen state might draw; nor shame the eyes
Of manliest weeper. Tears are no disgrace,
If from pure fountain flowing. 'Twas for all,
As for myself, I wept: for you, for him,
The wretched king,--for this great Nineveh,
Haughty, and valiant once, the queen of earth;
Now seeming like a place of sepulchre.
No foolish sorrow this: but, rise ye now
To strength, and manly action,--then no more
For woman's weakness shall ye censure me.''

So she; and o'er her countenance divine
Flashed a quick light, as when, amid the storm,
A sudden sunshine breaks. With look of love,
And high approval, Salamenes heard;
Promptly stepped forward; on one knee bent down;
Kissed her fair hand, and, rising, thus replied.

``My queen, and sister, loved, and honored, both!
Thy tears not less become thee, than thy words,
Stirring to noblest deeds. The gods themselves,
Though to all ills impregnable, may yet
At sight of human misery drop a tear;
Nor dim their glory.--But, of this enough.
The time portentous our best counsel asks,
And noblest conduct: nor in action more,
Than in endurance. Who the broad, smooth path
Of victory walks,--may, to the right or left,
As ease or pleasure prompts, the straight road quit,
Yet safely reach the goal: but, with defeat
Still scowling in his face,--who the sharp ridge
Precipitous climbs, may, by one heedless step,
Be hurled to the abyss. Not now the hour
For daring act offensive 'gainst the foe,
But for calm prudence. When his strength is gone,
The man must rest, would he new vigour gain;
And his exhausted nature, with all means
That wisdom prompts, restore. Let then the sword,
For a brief season,--as perforce it must,--
Sleep in the scabbard. Our eternal walls
All siege defy: here safely may we rest,
And laugh the Mede to scorn: till, stronger grown,--
As soon we shall be--with glad hearts again
We may fling wide our gates; our banners wave;
Face to face meet the vaunting enemy,--
And once more bring him low. To every land,
Both far and near, that owns Assyria's rule,
Swift messengers already take their way,
Succour to gain: large are the offers made,--
Gold, honors, spoil,--to all who with the king
Their strength join instantly: but, unto them
Who hold aloof, or to the rebel give
Counsel, or aid,--are threatened, bonds, and shame,
Scourgings, and death, and utter overthrow.
Already, from the distant hills and plains,
Are many come; and unto every man
Hath treasure been given freely. Every day
Our strength will wax: our walls with food, and wine,
For years are stored: while,--with long watching worn,
And of provision scant,--the enemy
Each day will weaker, and less numerous grow.
TIME for us fights; Time, whose resistless hand
Shall drain the deep seas, and shall crumble down
Earth's loftiest mountains,--Time for us doth fight.
But, slow, as irresistible, his course;
For his own hour he chooseth: nor may man,
Even for one moment, hasten on his step:
Though oft, insanely fretful, he waits not
The good that Time would bring; but, in its place,
Some smiling evil hugs. Be we, then, wise,
Patient, and prudent; and, our duties done,
To heaven commit the event.'' These words, to most,
Well pleasing were: nor better counsel found
The doubtful few. With aspects clouded still,
But hearts less downcast, the assembly then
Dissolved; and every captain his own home,
Deep pondering, sought. Within Arbaces' tent,
In council also, sat the Median chiefs.
Rabsaris, and the Arabian king, all hot
For instant onset, urged to force the gates;
Or, with tall ladders, scale the battlement.
But them Arbaces, with majestic mien,
And words well weighed, and calm, to wiser thoughts
Subdued; thus summing up the long debate.

``Since, then, too rash, and hopeless, were the attempt
The walls to climb, or burst the brazen gates,--
What course have we, save patiently to 'bide,--
Like hunters watching till from out his lair
The wild beast issue. Every day will men
Flock to our banners; for our messengers
To north, and south, to east, and west make speed:
The long down--trodden nations will with joy
Our triumph learn; skake off their chains; and haste,
To speed the accursed tyrant's overthrow.
Why, then, with weak impatience should we fret?
The power that thrice five hundred years hath stood,
Ye cannot hope, in one short month, to cast
From its broad base,--like to an infant's toy,
Which the first breath blows down. All greatest things
Do slowest move. The mountain rivulet runs,
Rapid and sparkling down; from stone to stone
Playfully bounding, like a sportive kid;
Then at the bottom rests,--a quiet pool:
But the great ocean's tide, as though asleep,
Moves ponderously, yet shakes the solid rock.
Be we the ocean, not the playful brook:
We would not scatter pebbles, as in sport,
But this great scourge of all the east cast down,--
The deep foundations of whose tyranny
Stand fixed, and mighty, as that ocean's cliffs.
Be patient, then, and wait the appointed hour;
For surely will it come. Of food, and wine,
Enough we have; nay, luxuries beside;
And, in our rich spoil, wealth to purchase more.
With nought to fear, and everything to hope,
Why should we, then, by poor impatience, risk
The certain, for the doubtful? Though the walls
Yet stand awhile,--the tyranny hath fallen,
That made them dreaded. All is in our reach:
But, snatch not ere the time, lest all be lost.''

He ended, and sat down: nor after him
Rose any man to speak; for with one voice,
His counsel was applauded. To their tents
Then all repaired; and, in profound repose,
Erelong the city, and the camp, were wrapped.

But, to Assyria's king, no slumber came:
In storm and darkness was his spirit plunged.
Four days alone and speechless had he sat;
By his great grief, as by a heavy flood,
Borne down, and stunned. But, on that night, brief speech
With Salamenes had he held; and learned--
Then first had learned--of that disastrous fight,
The dreadful whole. And, when the tale was told,
How, even in their last extremity,--
Hearing that he, their king, afar was seen,
In his bright chariot coming to their aid,--
His routed host bravely had turned again,--
And how, when, in his stead, the dreadful Mede,
Fierce as a whirling rock, upon them broke,--
Their hearts again had sunk; and utter rout,
And slaughter, driven them shrieking to the gates,--
Then did the frantic king his garments rend;
Pluck from the roots his hair; and on the floor
Recklessly dash himself. Unsated still,
After a while, the number of the slain
Fearfully asked he; and, when he had heard,
Again like maniac raved. When all was told,
Alone once more he sat. Remorse, and shame,
Despair, and fury, like to savage beasts,
By turns his bosom tore. His robes again
He rent; again with both hands plucked his hair;
With glaring eyes, now, as a stone, stood fixed;
Now, stamped upon the floor; and to and fro,
Like a caged tiger, strode; and then, anon,
Bursting in tears, and sobbing like a child,
Covered his face, and sank upon the ground.

But, as the midnight came, by slow degrees,
The storm passed off; and, in its stead, remained
A deep and horrible darkness. All alone
In the vast banquet--hall--one single lamp
Casting sepulchral light--with marble face,
And staring eye, he sat. Beside his couch,
Upon the golden table, near him lay
A dagger, dunly gleaming. 'Twas of death
That now he pondered,--death by his own hand!
Before him, like a picture moving slow,
His whole past life appeared: his tyranny,
His joys, his splendor,--all a phantasm now:
And, in its place, the dread reality
Of the dark present,--the more dark to--come.
The past portrayed him throned, with kings around,
Submissly minist'ring; the future showed
A dungeon, chains and darkness; or, less dread,
A public death, and a dishonored grave.
For his luxurious banquets, he beheld
The scant, unsavoured meal; for flattery, heard
The rebels' mocking laugh. On the bright past
He looked,--and saw himself most like a God;
On the drear future,--and beheld a worm.
What now had life become!--a curse, a thrall;
One blow would end it! Thinking thus, he raised
The dagger; and his throbbing bosom bared.

Why, moveless, stays his hand? why, at the last,
Drops on the table, corpse--like? A new pang
The first expels: how would his foes rejoice!
How would his children, and his stately queen,
He dying, be left desolate! perchance
Reviled, tasked, spit upon! the scorn of slaves!
Never! with life was hope: while yet one man
Should dare to stand in fight, would he resist.
Assyria still into the clouds should lift
Her crownëd head; and earth, as heretofore,
Should crouch beneath her feet. Brief, airy dream!
Shorn of her strength, bowed down, and humbled now,
His cooler thought beheld the earthly queen:
And, on her faded glory as he looked,
The cause, the damning cause, himself, he saw;
His guilt, his folly, his blind arrogance,
The poison that had crept into her veins,
And choked her breath of life! Then came again,
Stinging like adders newly waked to life,
The black thoughts that had slept; and his cold hand
Once more the dagger grasped. With glaring eye
Staring on vacancy; with his whole frame
Stiffened to stone, he sat; his lips compressed,
His nostrils spread, his face like marble fixed.
Silence intense was in that festive hall,
As in a sepulchre: the wretched king
Breathed not; and felt not: even his heart stood still.

At length the trance was broken: one deep sigh
Came forth; then dropped his head; his eye--lids closed;
From his relaxing hand, with tinkling sound,
The dagger fell; and down his pallid cheeks
Large tear--drops trickled. But, as sense returned,
New thoughts arose, which, as they gathered strength,
Strange horror brought. ``'Twas in this very hall,''
He whispered, gazing fearfully around,
``The pale--browed prophet stood, and bade beware.
Ha! is it so? My arm refused to strike,
When death I wished for! Is it then decreed
That thus I shall not die, nor in this hour?
Five woes he threatened,--banquet, drenched with gore--
Flood--earthquake--fire--destruction! Fearfully
Hath one upon me fallen: what mean the rest?
They speak a future to me: and, perhance,
Chained to the years to come, I cannot die!
Abhorrëd thought! Is the air peopled, then,
With fleshless beings, that around us wait,
To unstring our nerves, and force us to our doom?
And he, perchance, he mocking at me stands,
Boneless, and bloodless; an invisible,
Yet powerful tyrant, to compel me on
To my fixed fate. There--on that very spot--
He stood, and threatened: there, with madman's hand,
I seized, and dashed him headlong!--I see now
The glaring eyes turned on me; the gaunt frame,
In the death--quiver!'' Shuddering, he shrank back:
An icy tremor through his body ran;
Quick came his breath; his heart beat audibly:
And lo! before him in the darkness stood
The Spirit of the seer! The form was dim;
The countenance was wan, and terrible.
The air grew cold around the king: his locks
Stiffened; his joints were strengthless; his jaw fell;
His eye--balls from their sockets seemed to burst.

To heaven the phantom raised its arm, and spake.
The voice was like the moan of wintry wind
At midnight, when, upon the mountain's top,
It sweeps the lonely cedar. ``Ruthless king!
Thy realm is passing from thee, like a dream;
Thy glory, like a cloud! Thy countenance,--
Fair to the eye of woman,--shall be black,
And loathsome: and the voice that they have loved,
Shall never more be heard! Upon thy throne,
Thine enemy shall sit; and on his head
Thy crown shall wear. But, as for thee, behold,
Thy kingdom is the pit! Thy name shall be
A mockery, and a hissing among men!
The banquet prophesied, hath come to pass:
Flood--earthquake--fire--destruction, are at hand!

``King of Assyria! ponder on thy doom;
And, ere too late, turn from thy wickedness.
So, though thy kingdom be for ever lost,
Even yet thy soul may live!'' Thus having said,
The vision looked upon him, and was gone.

Amazed, and horrified, the king arose:
His hair stood up; from head to foot he quaked.

But, in brief time, he bade magicians come;
And told them what had been. Till night was spent,
In low talk sat they; nor, till high in heaven
Stood the bright sun, did he in feverish sleep
His trouble lose. Deeper and deeper fell
The darkness on his soul: the song, or harp,
For days was heard not in his lonely halls:
And not a man before him dared to come,--
So stern his countenance, and terrible.

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