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Israel In Egypt. Book Tenth. - Poem by Edwin Atherstone

In that same moment when at Kohath's gate
Paused the bright phantom--chariot,--to the eye
Of Sethos, riding moodily alone,
Appeared a vision. Through thin--foliaged bush,--
Light screen to veil him, feared he,--it shone out,
A living glory. Human could it be?
Or shape celestial? If to mortal sight
Goddess might e'er be visible,--surely now
Such saw he! Isis, in her youthful prime,
It might have seemed; so beauteous past compare
With aught of earthly: feature, form, and mien,
Perfection all. 'Twas in a flowery grove,
Far from all public way. The perfume rich
Thither had lured him; and no fear felt he
Intruder to be reckoned. Still as stone
The vision stood; with graceful head uplift,
Gazing on flowers above, thick set as stars;
And seeming lost in wonder. All alone
In that sweet solitude, 'twas plain she felt;
For in full freedom stood she; negligent
Of all appearance, such as, under eye
Of stranger, maidens heed; her face unveiled;
Arms loosely crossed; one delicate foot, the weight
Of her light form supporting. Full in view
From where he sat, she stood; nor distant far;
For, like the rays shot upward from the sun,
After his setting,--from her eyes appeared
Bright beams upshooting toward the clustering flowers;
Beams which, he thought, even quicker than sun's warmth,
Might ripen them to fruit. One glance direct,
And she might see him! Breathless, motionless,
Upon his horse he sat; heart throbbing quick,
Eyes fixed, and open kept; lest, by one wink,
A gem--worth instant he should lose, of sight,
Aught mortal passing, as heaven passeth earth.

As, looking full on the clear--shining moon,
When nigh the key--stone of heaven's arch she rides,
Nought else the eye can see,--so, on that face,
Dazzling with beauty's splendor, while he gazed,
Viewless was all beside. One glance, at length,
Upon her vesture cast he; and his heart
Sounded; his breath stopped: for that shape of heaven--
All inaccessible--beyond even dream
Of hope to approach it--even its garment's hem
On bended knee to touch,--now to him seemed,
Of earth! a woman! mortal like himself!
Woman! then, haply, to be wooed, embraced!
Madness of bliss to think of! ``Ye great gods,
A Hebrew is she!'' inwardly he said:
``A Hebrew! But, of all Egyptian dames,
Look out the proudest, the most beautiful;
Even to tie the sandal of that foot,
Unworthy were she! Isis might rejoice
To wait upon her! the throned gods might bend
And worship at her feet! the very sun
Stand fixed in heaven to gaze; and all the stars
Come down, and crowd together, for one look
On beauty past celestial! Where hath been
This glory hidden,--that, from end to end,
The world hath not proclaimed it! Is it blood
That paints the delicate rose on that fair cheek?
Or essence from the ruby of the morn?
Flesh is she, truly? or incarnate light?
Or but a fantasy, like forms in clouds,
Glorious awhile, then lost? By sun and stars,
Mortal she is! I saw her bosom heave!
Methought I heard her sigh! I felt, methought,
Music too fine for the ear! Oh, sweetest breeze
Of spicy East, with richest odours mixed
From orange grove and citron, tasteless were,
With that sweet breath compared! On that rose--mouth
One clinging kiss--then death--were happiness,
Even for a god! She turns away her face;
And sky is darkened! But that glorious shape
Brings day again! She walks! Oh, sweetest tone
Of harp, or dulcimer, no such melody hath
As those ecstatic motions! Heaven itself
Moves with her as she goes! There's nought in life
Worth having, to the man who once hath seen,
Then lost thee ever! With a warier eye
Than I would watch the sword that threatened death,
Thy pathway will I mark: for, losing thee,
The life of life I lose! Let me but know
Where thou dost home thee: by what earthly name
Thou, heavenly all, art known; and, while these eyes
Can see, these limbs can move, this heart can beat,
This tongue can utter word,--where'er thou goest,
There will I go; the air thou breath'st, will breathe;
The earth thou tread'st, will tread. I'll worship thee!
My goddess thou shalt be! To other Power
Than thee, no more I'll bow. Henceforth no life,
Save in thy presence, have I; merely dead,
Where thou art not!'' Thus musing franticly,
At gentlest pace of his light--footed steed,
The maddening shape he followed; his eyes fixed,
Lips parted, breath suspended; all his limbs
In painless spasm held rigid: such his fear
Lest the slow hoof--tread on the moss--like turf
Her sensitive ear should catch; and those fine eyes,
Embodied sunbeams, mark how near her heaven
A mortal had presumed. But on she walked,
With such sweet gracefulness, as o'er the ground
She floated rather,--like a lily, loosed,
Adown a gentle stream; nor token showed
Of consciousness that on that solitude
Had aught intruded. Once alone she stopped;
And, sideways turning, lifted up her arm,
And plucked a bending flower. The flowing sleeve
Dropped to the elbow; and discovered shape
Of inconceivable beauty: living pearl
And rose in substance; motion ravishing
As harmony of heaven. And, when the hand,
Down gliding, to the nostril held the flower,--
Blest flower, so favored! and when then, the first,--
Like some new break of splendor in a dream,
Came the side--glory of that countenance,--
Breath stopped for wonderment, and heart stood still,
Palsied by beauty. But again she turned,
And glided on her way. Erelong appeared
The confine of the grove; a rustic gate
Guarding the entrance; and, beyond it close,
In shadow of a tree, two Hebrew men
On foot, mules holding. Through the gate she passed;
Upmounted, lightly as the thistle--down,
Fanned by the breeze; and, with grace exquisite,--
Sweetening, he thought, the air that touched her cheek,--
Skimmed, dove--like, o'er the plain. In haste upsprang
Her serving--men; and the soft beat of hoofs
In distance soon was lost. Forth riding then,
His fleet steed Sethos urged; with eyes still fixed
On that smooth--flying shape celestial:
Half fearing that, like some bright cloud of morn,
It might melt off; yet ever cautiously
Due distance keeping; lest the stamp, or snort
Of his impatient steed should reach the ears
Of whom he followed; and suspicion wake
Of some intent unfriendly. But, right on,
Nought hearing, as it seemed, suspecting nought,
With speed unslacked, head never backward turned,
Still held they; till, when toward the sun he glanced,
And marked declining day; within himself
Thus 'gan he question. ``Whither are they bound?
If farther much they journey, night will fall
Ere home I can return. But, though till morn,--
Ay, till the next day's morn, they keep the way,--
Horse holding out, and my own breath and strength
Sustaining me,--never will I give up
This goddess--chase. Why, in pursuit of beast,
Thousands have toiled, till steed and rider fell;
One dead, the other death--like,--and shall I,
A prize pursuing, worth ten myriad times
All chases, from beginning of the world
Even to its ending,--shall I such resign,
Petty fatigue to shun; or one night's sleep
Beneath a tree, perchance, or on the grass;
Darkness my curtain; and my chamber roof
Heaven's starry vault? No! till breath fail, and eyes
Be darkened, and all strength have passed away,
On will I still! for never instant more
Of joy were mine, this glory should I lose!
Madness would seize me! I should tear myself!
Or fall upon my sword! or plunge in Nile!
Or headlong in deep pit! or poison drink!
Or aught worse do, such misery to end!....
But idle all my fear. Not distant far
From home, thus lightly guarded, would she go.
A visit to some friend; or mere desire
This fresh north wind to breathe, hath brought her forth,
From Israelitish Goshen; her abode,
I doubt not. And now nigh it do we draw.
Plainly the path behold I, winding up
To that sweet land; and toward it right they go.
Oh, Isis! guard me now! Make deaf their ears
To my horse--foot: cast darkness on their eyes,
If hitherward they look! that I may steal,
Unheard, unseen, upon them; and mark well
Where sets this human star; and learn its name;
And how it may be worshipped.'' Mutely thus
Within himself communing,--his eyes still
Fixed on the flying vision,--on he went,
Hoping and fearing; till, the mound o'erpast,
And Goshen brief way entered,--at a gate
He saw the riders pause. With hasty hand
His steed he checked, and waited. From their mules
Alighted they; nor toward him, as it seemed,
One instant looked; but straightway at the gate
Went in, and disappeared. On then rode he;
Yet at such sober pace as travellers use,
Bound on long journey,--lest some curious eye
Should watch, and guess his purpose,--on he rode,
Of all things negligent seeming; yet with look
Still on that gate hard fixed. One stealthy glance,
Passing, he cast within; but all were gone.
A garden fair he saw; a goodly house;
One mighty shadowing tree; and onward went.
Deep, clear, as pressure of a well--cut seal
On liquid wax, upon his memory stamped,
He felt that blest abode; and, pausing not,
Rode forward for awhile, as heedless all
Of what he had beheld. But, turning soon,
The backward path he took; at easy pace
Proceeding; and with quiet look, and air,
Like one, for pleasure, riding carelessly;
Till, opposite that heaven--gate once again
Arriving,--to his joy, an aged man
Forth coming he beheld; and, in the tone
Of wearied traveller, asked him, how far thence
To Zoan; and, when cheerfully the eld
Had answered, that a two hours' easy ride
Thither would bring him,--pointing toward the house,
Again he questioned, who in that sweet place,--
Bower for a princess fit, as it appeared,--
His dwelling had. Then, with a serious look,
Shaking the head; yet with a brightening eye,
And tone of one who of some wonder tells,
The old man answered. ``And a princess there
Verily dwelleth,--though of royal blood
None hath she; princess only in the right
Of beauty, such as all of womankind
Surpasseth; more than robe of richest king
The beggar's rags surpasseth. Of the race
Of Israel are all they who dwell within:
A man, his wife, and one fair daughter; she
Of whom I told thee. Kohath is he called;
Sarah, his wife; and Rachel is the name
Of her, the beauty's princess: and as good
Is she, as beautiful; and in the mouths
Of all her people honored. Look, my lord,--
One moment thou may see her.'' Eagerly,
Following the old man's gaze, his quivering eyes
The duped prince turned; for even one smallest drop
Of that rich beauty thirsting. As a lamp,
Gliding at night amid a thick--set wood,
Gleams,--and is darkened,--and gleams out again,--
Flashing, and fading momently,--even so,
Amid the bushes, and the slender trees,
As that bright vision walked,--now seen, now lost,--
Seemed, to his starting eyes, now day, now night;
Now peep of sunrise, and now blackest dark.
On went she, gleaming, vanishing; and he,
Breathless, with eyes dilate, and beating heart,
The fitful splendor watched: till, like a flame
Suddenly quenched, within the porch she passed;
And thick night fell upon him. One deep sigh
He breathed: turned then his horse, and silently
Toward Zoan 'gan return. But, all the way,
Nought saw he; nothing heard. The eagle swept,
Shrill screaming, over head: in shady nooks
Cooed the soft dove: great birds of splendid hues,
Like living fire streamed by: the nightingale
Gave forth his glorious song: unconscious all
Of aught in heaven, or on the earth, he rode;
Nought seeing, of nought thinking, save, alone,
That more than heavenly vision. Speaking not,
He lighted from his steed: as in a dream,
Glided through court, and hall: with heavy foot,--
Solitude craving,--his own chamber sought:
Sank on a couch, sick, musing, wondering, lost;
Food loathing; all realities around
Bitterly hating; all the pomp of court;
All choicest beauty of Egyptian dames;
All power, all rule, despising: for one thing
Longing alone; as, for the cold, clear stream,
The thirst--fallen perishing desert traveller longs;
One only, which, to body and soul alike,
Both dying for that want, could new life give,--
The presence of that wonderment divine!
That beauty which all beauty else had quenched!
That shape beyond celestial: that face, air,
Motion ecstatic, maddening,--even in dreams
Of Goddess--lustre, never to be reached!
For him, was now no glory in the sun;
No beauty in the earth; in richest flowers
No fragrance; in most luscious fruits, no taste;
No charm in sweetest music. She alone
Was all the light he cared for; hers alone
The beauty he would see; the air she breathed,
Sole fragrance he desired; the music sole
For which he longed, the silent harmony
Of all her infinite graces: and that sound,
Imagined only yet, but such supposed,
As, with aught else of sweetest in compare,
Would be as clustered splendor of all stars,
To each small separate beam,--that wondrous sound,
All other music making harsh,--the breath
Of her celestial voice! Oh! that to hear,
Would be, he thought, to die in bliss; heart--pierced,
As with a sword, by beauty! But, erelong,
A hateful noise his frenzied musings scared;
A stroke from mortal hand upon the door,
To dull earth brought him back. A youthful lord
Then entered; and from Pharaoh message brought,
His presence craving instantly. Ill pleased,
Yet daring not refusal, Sethos rose,
to his father went. ``Guests have we here,
My son,'' said Pharaoh, as, with courteous air,
Toward them he motioned; ``the young Syrian prince,
And that rare excellence, of whom fame speaks
To farthest lands, his sister. These two hours,
And more, dull entertainment have I given,
Though to my best,--for, with all--buoyant youth,
Care--cankered middle--age poor concord makes,--
And now to thee the honor I resign,
Welcome more fit to give them.'' Turning then
To the fair prince and princess, who, with hands
Freely extended, and with sunny looks,
The proffered palm of Sethos gladly met,--
``Know ye my son,'' he said, ``mine eldest born,
And heir to Egypt's throne. Grave state affairs
Compel me elsewhere: yet but slight excuse
Will ye deem ample; for your gain, not loss,
Springs from my absence; since I take away
A smouldering torch, and leave a new--lit lamp.
Sethos will glow, where I but dully burned;
And you had dulled, but that, like stars, ye shone
With your own light. His, now, with yours will join,
Each heightening all; and, from my gloom released,
Gay will ye feel as they who, from dark cave,
Step forth into the sun. But ye have heard
With what strange thing all Egypt hath been scourged;
And how even yet, from those accursed spells
Of Hebrew magic, unknown ills we dread;
And, pitying me, will pardon. Till the morn
I bid ye, then, farewell. What sports ye will,--
Such as our country, and this time disturbed,
May give, the hours to gladden,--all command.
Osiris guard you!'' With a smiling face,
Hiding a mind distraught, he waved his hand,
Inclined the head, and went. As, when the door
On a grave master closes,--in high glee,
From tasks released, and from o'erawing looks,
With faces brightened, and joy--flashing eyes,
The youthful scholars to long--prisoned tongues
Give utterance quick; on some old favorite sport
All eager to begin,--so, from the room
When passed the troubled king,--with mirthful tone,
And sparkling looks, the youthful--seeming guests
To Sethos 'gan discourse. Few words, yet bright;
Cheerful, yet modest, the fair princess spake;
Retiring, as it seemed; yet asking still
Attention, as her due, too scantly given:
But full of pleasant talk, and laughter light,
Her brother: till, the face distract and wan
Of Sethos noting; and his answers grave,
And brief; and his low voice, all spiritless,--
He, too, a sudden gravity put on;
And questioned of the cause which so oppressed
A spirit famed for mirth. As loth to tell
The secret of his sadness,--for awhile
Sethos replied not; but, more earnestly
By both his guests entreated; and, in chief,
By that most beauteous princess; nor with words
Alone, though pressing, but with tone and look
Of gentle, loving tenderness,--at length
He yielded; and, with eyes upcast, hands clenched,
Smiting his breast, broke forth. ``Heart--sick! heart--sick!
Sick as to death I am! My very soul
Trembles within me! Madness lies in wait,
Eager to clutch me! I have seen a sight,
To blind the eyes; and fetter tongue; and sink
A giant's strength to infant's! Oh! such sight!
Woman? No! goddess! Goddess? No! some thing,
Celestial passing, as gold passeth lead!
Oh! I have seen;--I cannot tell,--I see
Even now, in fancy's eye....Impossible!
I must have dreamed! already must be mad!
Tell me, I pray thee, prince,--look on me well,--
And, as thou fear'st the gods, the plain truth speak,--
Am I not mad? Look in my face,--mine eyes,--
Listen my voice,--observe my words, my mien,
Gesture, and motion; all my nature mark,--
Then tell me, if thou darest, I am not mad!
Oh! sick! sick! sick!'' Thus raving, with clenched hands,
Face pallid, flashing eyes, and staggering gait,
To and fro walked he; sighing, groaning deep;
Unconscious of all presence; seeing nought,
Save, in wild fancy's gaze, that phantom shape;
Beauty celestial, yet with earthly fire
Of passion tinged; mixture, to mortal heart,
Fatal as deadliest poison to the blood;
Stark madness gendering; spirit and body, both,
By its dread spell subduing. But the hand
Of the young prince aroused him; the strange touch,--
Like that of finger on a quivering string,--
His spirit--trembling calmed: and the strange voice,
Sweet, firm, and cheerful, soothed him,--as the tones
Of the kind watcher calm the terrified wretch,
Waking from dream of horror. ``Mad? sayst thou?''
Smiling, he questioned; ``Mad? yea, mad, in sooth,
To say thou art mad; no more. Thine eye is bright,
But not with frenzy: healthily as mine,
Beateth thy pulse: thou art but drunk, not mad;
Drunken with draught of beauty, quaffed too quick,
On empty stomach. Why, myself had been
Like mad as thou; and of that self--same cup;
Had I not, body and spirit all, been filled
With love of other beauty; which no room
Left for even wine of heaven. Now,--truth declare:
Hast thou not trodden the enchanted land?
Inhaled its witching odour; seen therein
A flower that brightened heaven, illumined earth,
And dazzled thee with beauty, as the sun
With light would dazzle? Ah! thy looks speak out,
Saying, `'tis so.' That same is she we saw
This morning, journeying hither. To far lands
Fame hath her beauty trumpeted. 'Mong us,
Fair Rose of Goshen called: and, by that name,
Enquiring for her, quickly were we told
The garden where she grew; and wherein still
She glorifies the earth. Ah! mad was I,
Even as thou art, when at first I saw
The wonder of her beauty,--darkening eye,
And stunning sense; and the rich fragrance breathed
That floats about her ever; and first felt
The magic of her presence; fettering tongue,
And palsying limb. But when, all graciously,
She spake to us,--oh, even the very soul
With that immortal harmony was touched,
As by a rapturous death--stroke. Not one word
My lifeless tongue could answer! Even she,
My sister, fairest among thousands fair,
Stood speechless, motionless; in very awe
Of that o'erwhelming beauty. But, at last,
Strength calling up; and of mine own betrothed
In fancy picturing; and that deep love
I owed her, and still felt,--as from a trance,
My soul 'gan waken: as from bonds released,
My limbs felt power of motion; and my tongue
No longer lay as dead: I kneeled, I spake;
Her beauty I adored; but once more felt
Love--proof, and happy,--by my first great love,
Against all other armed. In sweet discourse
Then joined we,--she and I: but other mate
My sister found; a youth, of such rare gifts
In mind, and person, both, that, even for her,
The Rose of Goshen, fit companion he:
Nay, as we heard, already her betrothed;
And, if aught human can be, of such bliss
Not all unworthy. After brief time passed
In double converse thus,--with matchless grace,
Putting to shame the flowery style of courts,
She to the house invited us, and gave
Refection elegant; rich fruits, and wine,
And cates, for lightness, that might snow--flakes seem,
And yet substantial. But so exquisite,
Touched by her hands, were they,--that more like feast
Of mingled odours, breath of flowers, it seemed,
Than food material. Yet, most sweet of all
That banquet heavenly, was her rare discourse;
Wisdom and piety in music breathed,
That even the Powers of Evil might have turned
To goodness; made the miser free of heart;
Softened the cruel; humbled the most proud;
In black Despair waked Hope: for, that to hear,
Was a new life to feel; to shake off flesh;
Spring upward from the earth, and breathe sky--air;
And be etherial all. And when, at last,
In silence, yet with eloquence most sweet,
Graciously answering my prayer o'erbold,
Leave gave she that blest visit to renew,--
Had midnight wrapped us, noon--sun had burst forth,--
Such our souls' joyance! Nor, by courtly forms,
And ceremony cold, shall we be held;
But, ere pass many days, shall seek again
That heaven to enter: and, if thou with us
Wilt breathe celestial air; and in her shrine
The goddess worship, happy shall we be,
Thee to make happy thus. Yet, have thou care,
Prince Sethos, lest the witchery of her charms
Tempt thee to woo; for, Hebrew is the maid;
And, though the queen of beauty, Egypt's queen,
Thou knowest, may never be. Think then again,
Ere thou determine, or to go, or stay:
To smell the flower, 'neath which a precipice yawns;
Or to keep back; and lock up every thought
Of its divinest odour,--as the stone
Locks in a tomb the dead.'' With flaming eyes,
Limbs rigid, open mouth, pale face, and breath,
Now stopped, now softly panting, Sethos stood,
Listening the wild discourse; each word of praise,
The maddest, deeming cold, unfitted, weak,
That glory to express: but when, at length,--
Fire pouring that seemed water,--those soft words
Of subtle caution spake the phantom--prince,
Out burst the frenzy. ``No!--let Egypt's throne
Go to a leper, if 'twixt that and heaven
Must be my choice! The jewels of a crown,
Dirt were, with one glance of those eyes compared!
One hour with her, were worth a life of rule!
One tone of her sweet voice, worth all the lauds
Of bowing nations! All the hills of gold
In Pharaoh's treasure--cities, were but dross,
Valued against one touch of that blest hand!
Betrothed she is not,--must not--shall not be!
Nothing of mortal ever dare presume,--
Or, if...A Hebrew youth, thou saidst?--Black shame!
Pollution! If aught human,--surely then.....
But I shall see her closer,--hear her voice,--
Haply may touch her: and, if mortal be
What seems celestial,--then, before her feet
Will I fall down and worship,--and my life,
And all life promises, to her give up,
So mine she'll deign to be. Oh time, speed on!
Bring quickly the blest morning; that, once more,
Dull earth I may forget, and live in heaven!''

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