Walter Savage Landor, from Gebir: A Poem in Seven Books

[Click on image to enlarge] Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864) was an exquisite classicist lyric poet, "master of the spare, elegant, and severely formal utterance of lyric feeling". He was also longwindedly unspare in his principal contribution to Romantic Orientalism, a seven-book epic in blank verse published anonymously in 1798 (the year of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads). The poem tells the story of Gebir, king of the Gades (in Cádiz, southwest Spain), who invades Egypt to establish a city of monuments, falls in love with the Egyptian queen, Charoba, but on their wedding day is killed by a poisoned robe prepared and administered by one of Charoba's attendants. The final book is given here in its entirety.

Landor's main source for this poem was The History of Charoba, Queen of Ægypt, included in Clara Reeve's The Progress of Romance (1785), which his friend Rose Aylmer had borrowed from a circulating library. Comparison with the earlier text corresponding to the material of Landor's Seventh Book, which is also given in this Web site, shows drastic changes by Landor in the characters of both Gebir and Charoba, as well as in thematic focus and the manner in which the events are presented.

The Seventh Book of Gebir

Argument

Against colonization in peopled countries. All nature dissuades from whatever is hostile to equality. The day, according to expectation, of Charoba's marriage with Gebir. The games of the Tartessians, Gadites, Nebrissans, &c. Sensations of Gebir — of Charoba. Description of her bath. Preparations. Ardor of the people. She sets out. Gebir meets her. Observation by one of her handmaids. The procession. They mount their thrones. Dalica appears — throws perfumes over the head and feet of Gebir — draws over his shoulders the deadly garment. Charoba, who observes, but misinterprets, the change in his countenance, with an emotion of tenderness and fear, expects the declaration of his love. He descends from his throne. Astonishment of the Iberians. Horror of Charoba — her grief — her love — repeats his name — embraces him in the agonies of despair — calls earth and heaven to attest her innocence — laments most passionately that wretchedness like hers must seem infinitely too great for any thing but guilt — implores instant death — appeals to Dalica — acquits her of any evil intentions — but accuses the demons of tainting the deadly robe — apostrophe to her parents, particularly to her mother — to Gebir. He recovers to perceive her sorrows, is consoled, and dies.





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275
      What mortal first, by adverse fate assail'd,
Trampled by tyranny, or scoft by scorn,
Stung by remorse, or wrung by poverty,
Bade, with fond sigh, his native land farewel?
Wretched! but tenfold wretched, who resolv'd
Against the waves to plunge th' expatriate keel,
Deep with the richest harvest of his land!

      Driven with that weak blast which Winter leaves,
Closing his palace-gates on Caucasus,
Oft hath a berry risen forth a shade:
From the same parent plant, another lies
Deaf to the daily call of weary hind —
Zephyrs pass by, and laugh at his distress.
By every lake's and every river's side
The Nymphs and Naiads teach Equality:
In voices gently querulous they ask
"Who would with aching head and toiling arms
Bear the full pitcher to the stream far off?
Who would, of power intent on high emprize,
Deem less the praise to fill the vacant gulph
Than raise Charybdis upon Etna's brow?"
Amidst her darkest caverns most retired,
Nature calls forth her filial Elements
To close around and crush that monster Void. —
Fire, springing fierce from his resplendent throne,
And Water, dashing the devoted wretch
Woundless and whole, with iron-colour'd mace,
Or whirling headlong in his war-belt's fold.
Mark well the lesson, man! and spare thy kind.
Go, from their midnight darkness wake the woods,
Woo the lone forest in her last retreat —
Many still bend their beauteous heads unblest
And sigh aloud for elemental man.
Thro' palaces and porches, evil eyes
Light upon ev'n the wretched, who have fled
The house of bondage, or the house of birth:
Suspicions, murmurs, treacheries, taunts, retorts,
Attend the brighter banners that invade;
And the first horn of hunter, pale with want,
Sounds to the chase; the second to the war.

      The long awaited day at last arrived,
When, linkt together by the seven-arm'd Nile,
Egypt with proud Iberia should unite.
Here the Tartessian, there the Gadite tents
Rang with impatient pleasure: here engaged
Woody Nebrissa's quiver-bearing crew,
Contending warm with amicable skill:
While they of Durius raced along the beach,
And scatter'd mud and jeers on those behind.
The strength of Botis, too, removed the helm,
And stript the corslet off, and staunched the foot
Against the mossy maple, while they tore
Their quivering lances from the hissing wound.
Others pushed forth the prows of their compeers;
And the wave, parted by the pouncing beak,
Swells up the sides, and closes far astern:
The silent oars now dip their level wings,
And weary with strong stroke the whitening wave.
Others, afraid of tardiness, return.
Now, entering the still harbour, every surge
Runs with a louder murmur up their keel,
And the slack cordage rattles round the mast.
Sleepless, with pleasure and expiring fears,
Had Gebir risen ere the break of dawn,
And o'er the plains appointed for the feast
Hurried with ardent step: the swains admired
What could so transversely sweep off the dew,
For never long one path had Gebir trod,
Nor long, unheeding man, one pace preserved.
Not thus Charoba. She despair'd the day.
The day was present: true: yet she despair'd.
In the too tender and once tortured heart
Doubts gather strength from habit, like disease;
Fears, like the needle verging to the pole,
Tremble and tremble into certainty.
How often, when her maids with merry voice
Call'd her, and told the sleepless queen 'twas morn,
How often would she feign some fresh delay,
And tell them (tho' they saw) that she arose.
Next to her chamber, closed by cedar doors,
A bath, of purest marble, purest wave,
On its fair surface bore its pavement high.
Arabian gold inclosed the crystal roof,
With fluttering boys adorn'd and girls unrobed,
These, when you touch the quiet water, start
From their aërial sunny arch, and pant
Entangled midst each other's flowery wreaths,
And each pursuing is in turn pursued.

      Here came at last, as ever wont at morn,
Charoba: long she linger'd at the brink,
Often she sighed, and, naked as she was,
Sat down, and leaning on the couch's edge,
On the soft inward pillow of her arm
Rested her burning cheek: she moved her eyes;
She blush'd; and blushing plung'd into the wave.

      Now brazen chariots thunder thro' each street,
And neighing steeds paw proudly from delay.
While o'er the palace breathes the dulcimer,
Lute, and aspiring harp, and lisping reed;
Loud rush the trumpets, bursting thro' the throng,
And urge the high-shoulder'd vulgar; now are heard
Curses and quarrels and constricted blows,
Threats and defiance and suburban war.
Hark! the reiterated clangor sounds!
Now murmurs, like the sea, or like the storm,
Or like the flames on forests, move and mount
From rank to rank, and loud and louder roll,
Till all the people is one vast applause.
Yes, 'tis herself — Charoba — now the strife!
To see again a form so often seen.
Feel they some partial pang, some secret void,
Some doubt of feasting those fond eyes again?
Panting imbibe they that refreshing sight
To reproduce in hour of bitterness?
She goes; the king awaits her from the camp.
Him she descried; and trembled ere he reached
Her car; but shudder'd paler at his voice.
So the pale silver at the festive board
Grows paler fill'd afresh and dew'd with wine;
So seems the tenderest herbage of the spring
To whiten, bending from a balmy gale.
The beauteous queen alighting he received,
And sighed to loose her from his arms; she hung
A little longer on them thro' her fears,
Her maidens followed her: and one that watch'd,
One that had call'd her in the morn, observ'd
How virgin passion with unfuel'd flame
Burns into whiteness; while the blushing cheek
Imagination heats and Shame imbues.

      Between both nations, drawn in ranks, they pass.
The priests, with linen ephods, linen robes,
Attend their steps, some follow, some precede,
Where, cloath'd with purple intertwined with gold,
Two lofty thrones commanded land and main.
Behind and near them, numerous were the tents
As freckled clouds o'erfloat our vernal skies,
Numerous as wander in warm moonlight nights,
Along Meander's or Cäyster's marsh,
Swans, pliant-neckt, and village storks, revered.
Throughout each nation moved the hum confused,
Like that from myriad wings, o'er Scythian cups
Of frothy milk, concreted soon with blood.
Throughout the fields the savory smoke ascends,
And boughs and branches shade the hides unbroached.
Some roll the flowery turf to form a seat,
And others press the helmet — now resounds
The signal! — queen and monarch mount the thrones.
The brazen clarion hoarsens: many leagues
Above them, many to the south, the hern
Rising with hurried croak and throat outstretched,
Plows up the silvering surface of her plain.

      Tottering, with age's zeal, and mischief's haste,
Now was discover'd Dalica: she reached
The throne: she lean'd against the pedestal;
And now ascending stood before the king.
Prayers for his health and safety she prefer'd,
And o'er his head and o'er his feet she threw
Myrrh, nard, and cassia, from three golden urns.
His robe of native woof she next removed,
And round his shoulders drew the garb accurst,
And bow'd her head, and parted: soon the queen
Saw the blood mantle in his manly cheeks,
And fear'd, and fault'ring sought her lost replies,
And blest the silence that she wished were broke.
Alas, unconscious maiden! night shall close,
And love, and sovereignty, and life dissolve,
And Egypt be one desart drench'd in blood.

      When thunder overhangs the fountain's head,
Losing their wonted freshness, every stream
Grows turbid, grows with sickly warmth suffused:
Thus were the brave Iberians, when they saw
The king of nations from his throne descend.
Scarcely, with pace uneven, knees unnerved,
Reach'd he the waters: in his troubled ear
They sounded murmuring drearily; they rose
Wild, in strange colours, to his parching eyes:
They seem'd to rush around him, seem'd to lift
From the receding earth his helpless feet.
He fell — Charoba shriek'd aloud — she ran —
Frantic with fears and fondness, wild with woe,
Nothing but Gebir dying she beheld.
The turban that detray'd its golden charge
Within, the veil that down her shoulders hung,
All fallen at her feet! the furthest wave
Creeping with silent progress up the sand,
Glided thro' all, and rais'd their hollow folds.
In vain they bore him to the sea, in vain
Rubb'd they his temples with the briny warmth.
He struggled from them, strong with agony,
He rose half up; he fell again; he cried
"Charoba! O Charoba!" She embraced
His neck, and raising on her knee one arm,
Sighed when it moved not, when it fell she shrieked,
And clapping loud both hands above her head,
She call'd on Gebir, call'd on earth, on heaven.

      "Who will believe me; what shall I protest;
How innocent, thus wretched? God of Gods,
Strike me — who most offend thee most defy —
Charoba most offends thee — strike me, hurl
From this accursed land, this faithless throne.
O Dalica! see here the royal feast!
See here the gorgeous robe! you little thought
How have the demons dyed that robe with death.
Where are ye, dear fond parents! when ye heard
My feet in childhood pat the palace floor,
Ye started forth, and kist away surprize —
Will ye now meet me! how, and where, and when?
And must I fill your bosom with my tears,
And, what I never have done, with your own!
Why have the Gods thus punish'd me? what harm
Have ever I done them? have I profaned
Their temples, ask'd too little, or too much?
Proud if they granted, griev'd if they withheld?
O mother! stand between your child and them!
Appease them, soothe them, soften their revenge,
Melt them to pity with maternal tears.
Alas, but if you cannot! — they themselves
Will then want pity rather than your child.
O Gebir! best of monarchs, best of men,
What realm hath ever thy firm even hand
Or lost by feebleness, or held by force!
Behold, thy cares and perils how repaid!
Behold the festive day, the nuptial hour!
Me miserable, desolate, undone!"

      Thus raved Charoba: horror, grief, amaze,
Pervaded all the host: all eyes were fixt:
All stricken motionless and mute — the feast
Was like the feast of Cepheus, when the sword
Of Phineus, white with wonder, shook restrain'd,
And the hilt rattled in his marble hand.
She heard not, saw not; every sense was gone;
One passion banish'd all; dominion, praise,
The world itself was nothing — Senseless man —
What would thy fancy figure now from worlds?
There is no world to those that grieve and love.
She hung upon his bosom, prest his lips,
Breath'd, and would feign it his that she resorbed.
She chafed the feathery softness of his veins,
That swell'd out black, like tendrils round their vase
After libation: lo! he moves! he groans!
He seems to struggle from the grasp of death.
Charoba shriek'd, and fell away; her hand
Still clasping his, a sudden blush o'erspread
Her pallid humid cheek, and disappear'd.
'Twas not the blush of shame — what shame has woe? —
'Twas not the genuine ray of hope; it flashed
With shuddering glimmer thro' unscatter'd clouds;
It flash'd from passions rapidly opposed.

      Never so eager, when the world was waves,
Stood the less daughter of the ark, and tried
(Innocent this temptation!) to recall
With folded vest, and casting arm, the dove:
Never so fearful, when amidst the vines
Rattled the hail, and when the light of heaven
Closed, since the wreck of Nature, first eclipsed —
As she was eager for his life's return,
As she was fearful how his groans might end.
They ended: — cold and languid calm succeeds.
His eyes have lost their lustre; but his voice
Is not unheard, tho' short: he spake these words.

      "And weepest thou, Charoba! shedding tears
More precious than the jewels that surround
The neck of kings entomb'd! — then weep, fair queen,
At once thy pity and my pangs assuage.
Ah! what is grandeur — glory — they are past!
When nothing else, nor life itself, remains,
Still the fond mourner may be call'd our own.
Should I complain of Fortune? how she errs,
Scattering her bounty upon barren ground,
Slow to allay the lingering thirst of Toil?
Fortune, 'tis true, may err, may hesitate;
Death follows close, nor hesitates nor errs.
I feel the stroke! I die!" He would extend
His dying arm; it fell upon his breast.
Cold sweat and shivering ran o'er every limb,
His eyes grew stiff; he struggled and expired.

THE END

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