Alciphron: A Fragment. Letter II.

Alciphron: A Fragment. Letter II.

By Thomas Moore



'Tis true, alas--the mysteries and the lore
I came to study on this, wondrous shore.
Are all forgotten in the new delights.
The strange, wild joys that fill my days and nights.
Instead of dark, dull oracles that speak
From subterranean temples, those I seek
Come from the breathing shrines where Beauty lives,
And Love, her priest, the soft responses gives.
Instead of honoring Isis in those rites
At Coptos held, I hail her when she lights
Her first young crescent on the holy stream--
When wandering youths and maidens watch her beam
And number o'er the nights she hath to run,
Ere she again embrace her bridegroom sun.
While o'er some mystic leaf that dimly lends
A clew into past times the student bends,
And by its glimmering guidance learns to tread
Back thro' the shadowy knowledge of the dead--
The only skill, alas, I yet can claim
Lies in deciphering some new loved-one's name--
Some gentle missive hinting time and place,
In language soft as Memphian reed can trace.

And where--oh where's the heart that could withstand
The unnumbered witcheries of this sun-born land,
Where first young Pleasure's banner was unfurled
And Love hath temples ancient as the world!
Where mystery like the veil by Beauty worn
Hides but to win and shades but to adorn;
Where that luxurious melancholy born
Of passion and of genius sheds a gloom
Making joy holy;--where the bower and tomb
Stand side by side and Pleasure learns from Death
The instant value of each moment's breath.
Couldst thou but see how like a poet's dream
This lovely land now looks!--the glorious stream
That late between its banks was seen to glide
'Mong shrines and marble cities on each side
Glittering like jewels strung along a chain
Hath now sent forth its waters, and o'er plain
And valley like a giant from his bed
Rising with outstretched limbs hath grandly spread.
While far as sight can reach beneath as clear
And blue a heaven as ever blest our sphere,
Gardens and pillared streets and porphyry domes
And high-built temples fit to be the homes
Of mighty Gods, and pyramids whose hour
Outlasts all time above the waters tower!

Then, too, the scenes of pomp and joy that make
One theatre of this vast, peopled lake,
Where all that Love, Religion, Commerce gives
Of life and motion ever moves and lives.
Here, up the steps of temples from the wave
Ascending in procession slow and grave.
Priests in white garments go, with sacred wands
And silver cymbals gleaming in their hands;
While there, rich barks--fresh from those sunny tracts
Far off beyond the sounding cataracts--
Glide with their precious lading to the sea,
Plumes of bright birds, rhinoceros ivory,
Gems from the Isle of Meroe, and those grains
Of gold washed down by Abyssinian rains.
Here where the waters wind into a bay
Shadowy and cool some pilgrims on their way
To Saïs or Bubastus among beds
Of lotus flowers that close above their heads
Push their light barks, and there as in a bower,
Sing, talk, or sleep away the sultry hour;
Oft dipping in the Nile, when faint with heat,
That leaf from which its waters drink most sweet.--
While haply not far off beneath a bank
Of blossoming acacias many a prank
Is played in the cool current by a train
Of laughing nymphs, lovely as she,[1] whose chain
Around two conquerors of the world was cast,
But, for a third too feeble, broke at last.

For oh! believe not them who dare to brand
As poor in charms the women of this land.
Tho' darkened by that sun whose spirit flows
Thro' every vein and tinges as it goes,
'Tis but the embrowning of the fruit that tells
How rich within the soul of ripeness dwells--
The hue their own dark sanctuaries wear,
Announcing heaven in half-caught glimpses there.
And never yet did tell-tale looks set free
The secret of young hearts more tenderly.
Such eyes!--long, shadowy, with that languid fall
Of the fringed lids which may be seen in all
Who live beneath the sun's too ardent rays--
Lending such looks as on their marriage days
Young maids cast down before a bridegroom's gaze!
Then for their grace--mark but the nymph-like shapes
Of the young village girls, when carrying grapes
From green Anthylla or light urns of flowers--
Not our own Sculpture in her happiest hours
E'er imaged forth even at the touch of him[2]
Whose touch was life, more luxury of limb!
Then, canst thou wonder if mid scenes like these
I should forget all graver mysteries,
All lore but Love's, all secrets but that best
In heaven or earth, the art of being blest!
Yet are there times--tho' brief I own their stay,
Like summer-clouds that shine themselves away--
Moments of gloom, when even these pleasures pall
Upon my saddening heart and I recall
That garden dream--that promise of a power,
Oh, were there such!--to lengthen out life's hour,
On, on, as thro' a vista far away
Opening before us into endless day!
And chiefly o'er my spirit did this thought
Come on that evening--bright as ever brought
Light's golden farewell to the world--when first
The eternal pyramids of Memphis burst
Awfully on my sight-standing sublime
Twixt earth and heaven, the watch-towers of Time,
From whose lone summit when his reign hath past
From earth for ever he will look his last!

There hung a calm and solemn sunshine round
Those mighty monuments, a hushing sound
In the still air that circled them which stole
Like music of past times into my soul.
I thought what myriads of the wise and brave
And beautiful had sunk into the grave,
Since earth first saw these wonders--and I said
"Are things eternal only for the Dead?
"Hath Man no loftier hope than this which dooms
"His only lasting trophies to be tombs?
"But 'tis not so--earth, heaven, all nature shows
"He may become immortal--may unclose
"The wings within him wrapt, and proudly rise
"Redeemed from earth, a creature of the skies!

"And who can say, among the written spells
"From Hermes' hand that in these shrines and cells
"Have from the Flood lay hid there may not be
"Some secret clew to immortality,
"Some amulet whose spell can keep life's fire
"Awake within us never to expire!
"'Tis known that on the Emerald Table, hid
"For ages in yon loftiest pyramid,
"The Thrice-Great[3] did himself engrave of old
"The chymic mystery that gives endless gold.
"And why may not this mightier secret dwell
"Within the same dark chambers? who can tell
"But that those kings who by the written skill
"Of the Emerald Table called forth gold at will
"And quarries upon quarries heapt and hurled,
"To build them domes that might outstand the world--
"Who knows, but that the heavenlier art which shares
"The life of Gods with man was also theirs--
"That they themselves, triumphant o'er the power
"Of fate and death, are living at this hour;
"And these, the giant homes they still possess.
"Not tombs but everlasting palaces
"Within whose depths hid from the world above
"Even now they wander with the few they love,
"Thro' subterranean gardens, by a light
"Unknown on earth which hath nor dawn nor night!
"Else, why those deathless structures? why the grand
"And hidden halls that undermine this land?
"Why else hath none of earth e'er dared to go
"Thro' the dark windings of that realm below,
"Nor aught from heaven itself except the God
"Of Silence thro' those endless labyrinths trod?"
Thus did I dream--wild, wandering dreams, I own,
But such as haunt me ever, if alone,
Or in that pause 'twixt joy and joy I be,
Like a ship husht between two waves at sea.
Then do these spirit whisperings like the sound
Of the Dark Future come appalling round;
Nor can I break the trance that holds me then,
Till high o'er Pleasure's surge I mount again!

Even now for new adventure, new delight,
My heart is on the wing;--this very night,
The Temple on that island halfway o'er
From Memphis' gardens to the eastern shore
Sends up its annual rite[4] to her whose beams
Bring the sweet time of night-flowers and dreams;
The nymph who dips her urn in silent lakes
And turns to silvery dew each drop it takes;--
Oh! not our Dian of the North who chains
In vestal ice the current of young veins,
But she who haunts the gay Bubastian[5] grove
And owns she sees from her bright heaven above,
Nothing on earth to match that heaven but Love.
Think then what bliss will be abroad to-night!--
Besides those sparkling nymphs who meet the sight
Day after day, familiar as the sun,
Coy buds of beauty yet unbreathed upon
And all the hidden loveliness that lies,--
Shut up as are the beams of sleeping eyes
Within these twilight shrines--tonight shall be
Let loose like birds for this festivity!
And mark, 'tis nigh; already the sun bids
His evening farewell to the Pyramids.
As he hath done age after age till they
Alone on earth seem ancient as his ray;
While their great shadows stretching from the light
Look like the first colossal steps of Night
Stretching across the valley to invade
The distant hills of porphyry with their shade.
Around, as signals of the setting beam,
Gay, gilded flags on every housetop gleam:
While, hark!--from all the temples a rich swell
Of music to the Moon--farewell--farewell.