Alciphron: A Fragment. Letter III.

Alciphron: A Fragment. Letter III.

By Thomas Moore



There is some star--or may it be
That moon we saw so near last night--
Which comes athwart my destiny
For ever with misleading light.
If for a moment pure and wise
And calm I feel there quick doth fall
A spark from some disturbing eyes,
That thro' my heart, soul, being flies,
And makes a wildfire of it all.
I've seen--oh, Cleon, that this earth
Should e'er have given such beauty birth!--
That man--but, hold--hear all that past
Since yester-night from first to last.

The rising of the Moon, calm, slow,
And beautiful, as if she came
Fresh from the Elysian bowers below,
Was with a loud and sweet acclaim
Welcomed from every breezy height,
Where crowds stood waiting for her light.
And well might they who viewed the scene
Then lit up all around them, say
That never yet had Nature been
Caught sleeping in a lovelier ray
Or rivalled her own noontide face
With purer show of moonlight grace.

Memphis--still grand, tho' not the same
Unrivalled Memphis that could seize
From ancient Thebes the crown of Fame,
And wear it bright thro' centuries--
Now, in the moonshine, that came down
Like a last smile upon that crown.
Memphis, still grand among her lakes,
Her pyramids and shrines of fire,
Rose like a vision that half breaks
On one who dreaming still awakes
To music from some midnight choir:
While to the west--where gradual sinks
In the red sands from Libya rolled.
Some mighty column or fair sphynx,
That stood in kingly courts of old--
It seemed as, mid the pomps that shone
Thus gayly round him Time looked on,
Waiting till all now bright and blest,
Should sink beneath him like the rest.

No sooner had the setting sun
Proclaimed the festal rite begun,
And mid their idol's fullest beams
The Egyptian world was all afloat,
Than I who live upon these streams
Like a young Nile-bird turned my boat
To the fair island on whose shores
Thro' leafy palms and sycamores
Already shone the moving lights
Of pilgrims hastening to the rites.
While, far around like ruby sparks
Upon the water, lighted barks,
Of every form and kind--from those
That down Syene's cataract shoots,
To the grand, gilded barge that rows
To tambour's beat and breath of flutes,
And wears at night in words of flame
On the rich prow its master's name;--
All were alive and made this sea
Of cities busy as a hill
Of summer ants caught suddenly
In the overflowing of a rill.

Landed upon the isle, I soon
Thro' marble alleys and small groves
Of that mysterious palm she loves,
Reached the fair Temple of the Moon;
And there--as slowly thro' the last
Dim-lighted vestibule I past--
Between the porphyry pillars twined
With palm and ivy, I could see
A band of youthful maidens wind
In measured walk half dancingly,
Round a small shrine on which was placed
That bird[1] whose plumes of black and white
Wear in their hue by Nature traced
A type of the moon's shadowed light.

In drapery like woven snow
These nymphs were clad; and each below
The rounded bosom loosely wore
A dark blue zone or bandelet,
With little silver stars all o'er
As are the skies at midnight set.
While in their tresses, braided thro',
Sparkled that flower of Egypt's lakes,
The silvery lotus in whose hue
As much delight the young Moon takes
As doth the Day-God to behold
The lofty bean-flower's buds of gold.
And, as they gracefully went round
The worshipt bird, some to the beat
Of castanets, some to the sound
Of the shrill sistrum timed their feet;
While others at each step they took
A tinkling chain of silver shook.

They seemed all fair--but there was one
On whom the light had not yet shone,
Or shone but partly--so downcast
She held her brow, as slow she past.
And yet to me there seemed to dwell
A charm about that unseen face--
A something in the shade that fell
Over that brow's imagined grace
Which won me more than all the best
Outshining beauties of the rest.
And her alone my eyes could see
Enchained by this sweet mystery;
And her alone I watched as round
She glided o'er that marble ground,
Stirring not more the unconscious air
Than if a Spirit were moving there.
Till suddenly, wide open flew
The Temple's folding gates and threw
A splendor from within, a flood
Of glory where these maidens stood.
While with that light--as if the same
Rich source gave birth to both--there came
A swell of harmony as grand
As e'er was born of voice and band,
Filling the gorgeous aisles around
With luxury of light and sound.

Then was it, by the flash that blazed
Full o'er her features--oh 'twas then,
As startingly her eyes she raised,
But quick let fall their lids again,
I saw--not Psyche's self when first
Upon the threshold of the skies
She paused, while heaven's glory burst
Newly upon her downcast eyes,
Could look more beautiful or blush
With holier shame than did this maid,
Whom now I saw in all that gush
Of splendor from the aisles, displayed.
Never--tho' well thou know'st how much
I've felt the sway of Beauty's star--
Never did her bright influence touch
My soul into its depths so far;
And had that vision lingered there
One minute more I should have flown,
Forgetful who I was and where.
And at her feet in worship thrown
Proffered my soul thro' life her own.

But scarcely had that burst of light
And music broke on ear and sight,
Than up the aisle the bird took wing
As if on heavenly mission sent,
While after him with graceful spring
Like some unearthly creatures, meant
To live in that mixt element
Of light and song the young maids went;
And she who in my heart had thrown
A spark to burn for life was flown.

In vain I tried to follow;--bands
Of reverend chanters filled the aisle:
Where'er I sought to pass, their wands
Motioned me back, while many a file
Of sacred nymphs--but ah, not they
Whom my eyes looked for thronged the way.
Perplext, impatient, mid this crowd
Of faces, lights--the o'erwhelming cloud
Of incense round me, and my blood
Full of its new-born fire--I stood,
Nor moved, nor breathed, but when I caught
A glimpse of some blue, spangled zone,
Or wreath of lotus, which I thought
Like those she wore at distance shone.

But no, 'twas vain--hour after hour,
Till my heart's throbbing turned to pain,
And my strained eyesight lost its power,
I sought her thus, but all in vain.
At length, hot--wildered--in despair,
I rushed into the cool night-air,
And hurrying (tho' with many a look
Back to the busy Temple) took
My way along the moonlight shore,
And sprung into my boat once more.
There is a Lake that to the north
Of Memphis stretches grandly forth,
Upon whose silent shore the Dead
Have a proud city of their own,[2]
With shrines and pyramids o'erspread--
Where many an ancient kingly head
Slumbers, immortalized in stone;
And where thro' marble grots beneath
The lifeless, ranged like sacred things,
Nor wanting aught of life but breath,
Lie in their painted coverings,
And on each new successive race
That visit their dim haunts below
Look with the same unwithering face
They wore three thousand years ago.

There. Silence, thoughtful God, who loves
The neighborhood of death in groves
Of asphodel lies hid and weaves
His hushing spell among the leaves--
Nor ever noise disturbs the air
Save the low, humming, mournful sound
Of priests within their shrines at prayer
For the fresh Dead entombed around.

'Twas toward this place of death--in mood
Made up of thoughts, half bright, half dark--
I now across the shining flood
Unconscious turned my light-winged bark.
The form of that young maid in all
Its beauty was before me still;
And oft I thought, if thus to call
Her image to my mind at will,
If but the memory of that one
Bright look of hers for ever gone,
Was to my heart worth all the rest
Of woman-kind, beheld, possest--
What would it be if wholly mine,
Within these arms as in a shrine,
Hallowed by Love, I saw her shine--
An idol, worshipt by the light
Of her own beauties, day and night--
If 'twas a blessing but to see
And lose again, what would this be?

In thoughts like these--but often crost
By darker threads--my mind was lost,
Till near that City of the Dead,
Waked from my trance, I saw o'erhead--
As if by some enchanter bid
Suddenly from the wave to rise--
Pyramid over pyramid
Tower in succession to the skies;
While one, aspiring, as if soon,
'Twould touch the heavens, rose over all;
And, on its summit, the white moon
Rested as on a pedestal!

The silence of the lonely tombs
And temples round where naught was heard
But the high palm-tree's tufted plumes,
Shaken at times by breeze or bird,
Formed a deep contrast to the scene
Of revel where I late had been;
To those gay sounds that still came o'er,
Faintly from many a distant shore,
And the unnumbered lights that shone
Far o'er the flood from Memphis on
To the Moon's Isle and Babylon.

My oars were lifted and my boat
Lay rocked upon the rippling stream;
While my vague thoughts alike afloat,
Drifted thro' many an idle dream.
With all of which, wild and unfixt
As was their aim, that vision mixt,
That bright nymph of the Temple--now,
With the same innocence of brow
She wore within the lighted fane--
Now kindling thro' each pulse and vein
With passion of such deep-felt fire
As Gods might glory to inspire;--
And now--oh Darkness of the tomb,
That must eclipse even light like hers!
Cold, dead, and blackening mid the gloom
Of those eternal sepulchres.

Scarce had I turned my eyes away
From that dark death-place, at the thought,
When by the sound of dashing spray
From a light oar my ear was caught,
While past me, thro' the moonlight, sailed.
A little gilded bark that bore
Two female figures closely veiled
And mantled towards that funeral shore.
They landed--and the boat again
Put off across the watery plain.

Shall I confess--to thee I may--
That never yet hath come the chance
Of a new music, a new ray
From woman's voice, from woman's glance,
Which--let it find me how it might,
In joy or grief--I did not bless,
And wander after as a light
Leading to undreamt, happiness.
And chiefly now when hopes so vain
Were stirring in my heart and brain,
When Fancy had allured my soul
Into a chase as vague and far
As would be his who fixt his goal
In the horizon or some star--
Any bewilderment that brought
More near to earth my high-flown thought--
The faintest glimpse of joy, less pure,
Less high and heavenly, but more sure,
Came welcome--and was then to me
What the first flowery isle must be
To vagrant birds blown out to sea.

Quick to the shore I urged my bark,
And by the bursts of moonlight shed
Between the lofty tombs could mark
Those figures as with hasty tread
They glided on--till in the shade
Of a small pyramid, which thro'
Some boughs of palm its peak displayed,
They vanisht instant from my view.

I hurried to the spot--no trace
Of life was in that lonely place;
And had the creed I hold by taught
Of other worlds I might have thought
Some mocking spirits had from thence
Come in this guise to cheat my sense.

At length, exploring darkly round
The Pyramid's smooth sides, I found
An iron portal--opening high
'Twixt peak and base--and, with a prayer
To the bliss-loving Moon whose eye
Alone beheld me sprung in there.
Downward the narrow stairway led
Thro' many a duct obscure and dread,
A labyrinth for mystery made,
With wanderings onward, backward, round,
And gathering still, where'er it wound.
But deeper density of shade.

Scarce had I asked myself, "Can aught
"That man delights in sojourn here?"--
When, suddenly, far off, I caught
A glimpse of light, remote, but clear--
Whose welcome glimmer seemed to pour
From some alcove or cell that ended
The long, steep, marble corridor,
Thro' which I now, all hope, descended.
Never did Spartan to his bride
With warier foot at midnight glide.
It seemed as echo's self were dead
In this dark place, so mute my tread.
Reaching at length that light, I saw--
Oh! listen to the scene now raised
Before my eyes--then guess the awe,
The still, rapt awe with which I gazed.

'Twas a small chapel, lined around
With the fair, spangling marble found
In many a ruined shrine that stands
Half seen above the Libyan sands.
The walls were richly sculptured o'er,
And charactered with that dark lore
Of times before the Flood, whose key
Was lost in the "Universal Sea."--
While on the roof was pictured bright
The Theban beetle as he shines,
When the Nile's mighty flow declines
And forth the creature springs to light,
With life regenerate in his wings:--
Emblem of vain imaginings!
Of a new world, when this is gone,
In which the spirit still lives on!

Direct beneath this type, reclined
On a black granite altar, lay
A female form, in crystal shrined,
And looking fresh as if the ray
Of soul had fled but yesterday,
While in relief of silvery hue
Graved on the altar's front were seen
A branch of lotus, broken in two,
As that fair creature's life had been,
And a small bird that from its spray
Was winging like her soul away.

But brief the glimpse I now could spare
To the wild, mystic wonders round;
For there was yet one wonder there
That held me as by witchery bound.
The lamp that thro' the chamber shed
Its vivid beam was at the head
Of her who on that altar slept;
And near it stood when first I came--
Bending her brow, as if she kept
Sad watch upon its silent flame--
A female form as yet so placed
Between the lamp's strong glow and me,
That I but saw, in outline traced,
The shadow of her symmetry.
Yet did my heart--I scarce knew why--
Even at that shadowed shape beat high.
Nor was it long ere full in sight
The figure turned; and by the light
That touched her features as she bent
Over the crystal monument,
I saw 'twas she--the same--the same--
That lately stood before me, brightening
The holy spot where she but came
And went again like summer lightning!

Upon the crystal o'er the breast
Of her who took that silent rest,
There was a cross of silver lying--
Another type of that blest home,
Which hope and pride and fear of dying
Build for us in a world to come:--
This silver cross the maiden raised
To her pure lips:--then, having gazed
Some minutes on that tranquil face,
Sleeping in all death's mournful grace,
Upward she turned her brow serene,
As if intent on heaven those eyes
Saw them nor roof nor cloud between
Their own pure orbits and the skies,
And, tho' her lips no motion made,
And that fixt look was all her speech,
I saw that the rapt spirit prayed
Deeper within than words could reach.

Strange power of Innocence, to turn
To its own hue whate'er comes near,
And make even vagrant Passion burn
With purer warmth within its sphere!
She who but one short hour before
Had come like sudden wild-fire o'er
My heart and brain--whom gladly even
From that bright Temple in the face
Of those proud ministers of heaven,
I would have borne in wild embrace,
And risked all punishment, divine
And human, but to make her mine;--
She, she was now before me, thrown
By fate itself into my arms--
There standing, beautiful, alone,
With naught to guard her but her charms.
Yet did I, then--did even a breath
From my parched lips, too parched to move,
Disturb a scene where thus, beneath
Earth's silent covering, Youth and Death
Held converse thro' undying love?
No--smile and taunt me as thou wilt--
Tho' but to gaze thus was delight,
Yet seemed it like a wrong, a guilt,
To win by stealth so pure a sight:
And rather than a look profane
Should then have met those thoughtful eyes,
Or voice or whisper broke the chain
That linked her spirit with the skies,
I would have gladly in that place
From which I watched her heavenward face,
Let my heart break, without one beat
That could disturb a prayer so sweet.
Gently, as if on every tread.
My life, my more than life depended,
Back thro' the corridor that led
To this blest scene I now ascended,
And with slow seeking and some pain
And many a winding tried in vain
Emerged to upper earth again.

The sun had freshly risen, and down
The marble hills of Araby,
Scattered as from a conqueror's crown
His beams into that living sea.
There seemed a glory in his light,
Newly put on--as if for pride.
Of the high homage paid this night
To his own Isis, his young bride.,
Now fading feminine away
In her proud Lord's superior ray.

My mind's first impulse was to fly
At once from this entangling net--
New scenes to range, new loves to try,
Or in mirth, wine and luxury
Of every sense that might forget.
But vain the effort--spell-bound still,
I lingered, without power or will
To turn my eyes from that dark door,
Which now enclosed her 'mong the dead;
Oft fancying, thro' the boughs that o'er
The sunny pile their flickering shed.
'Twas her light form again I saw
Starting to earth--still pure and bright,
But wakening, as I hoped, less awe,
Thus seen by morning's natural light,
Than in that strange, dim cell at night.

But no, alas--she ne'er returned:
Nor yet--tho' still I watch--nor yet,
Tho' the red sun for hours hath burned,
And now in his mid course hath met
The peak of that eternal pile
He pauses still at noon to bless,
Standing beneath his downward smile,
Like a great Spirit shadowless!--
Nor yet she comes--while here, alone,
Sauntering thro' this death-peopled place,
Where no heart beats except my own,
Or 'neath a palm-tree's shelter thrown,
By turns I watch and rest and trace
These lines that are to waft to thee
My last night's wondrous history.

Dost thou remember, in that Isle
Of our own Sea where thou and I
Lingered so long, so happy a while,
Till all the summer flowers went by--
How gay it was when sunset brought
To the cool Well our favorite maids--
Some we had won, and some we sought--
To dance within the fragrant shades,
And till the stars went down attune
Their Fountain Hymns[3] to the young moon?

That time, too--oh, 'tis like a dream--
When from Scamander's holy tide
I sprung as Genius of the Stream,
And bore away that blooming bride,
Who thither came, to yield her charms
(As Phrygian maids are wont ere wed)
Into the cold Scamander's arms,
But met and welcomed mine, instead--
Wondering as on my neck she fell,
How river-gods could love so well!
Who would have thought that he who roved
Like the first bees of summer then,
Rifling each sweet nor ever loved
But the free hearts that loved again,
Readily as the reed replies
To the least breath that round it sighs--
Is the same dreamer who last night
Stood awed and breathless at the sight
Of one Egyptian girl; and now
Wanders among these tombs with brow
Pale, watchful, sad, as tho' he just,
Himself, had risen from out their dust!

Yet so it is--and the same thirst
For something high and pure, above
This withering world, which from the first
Made me drink deep of woman's love--
As the one joy, to heaven most near
Of all our hearts can meet with here--
Still burns me up, still keeps awake
A fever naught but death can slake.

Farewell; whatever may befall--
Or bright, or dark--thou'lt know it all.