16. Night in Jericho -

by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Look how a pine in luckless land
By fires autumnal overrun,
Abides a black extinguished brand
Gigantic — killed, not overthrown;
And high upon the horny bough
Perches the bandit captain-crow
And caws unto his troop afar
Of foragers: much so, in scar
Of blastment, looms the Crusaders' Tower
On the waste verge of Jericho:
So the dun sheik in lawless power
Kings it aloft in sombre robe,
Lord of the tawny Arab mob
To which, upon the plains in view,
He shouts down his wild hullabaloo.

There on the tower, through eve's delay
The pilgrims tarry, till for boon,
Launched up from Nebo far away,
Balloon-like rose the nibbled moon —
Nibbled, being after full one day.
Intent they watched the planet's rise —
Familiar, tho' in strangest skies.
The ascending orb of furrowed gold,
Contracting, changed, and silvery rolled
In violet heaven. The desert brown,
Dipped in the dream of argent light,
Like iron plated, took a tone
Transmuting it; and Ammon shone
In peaks of Paradise — so bright.
They gazed. Rolfe brake upon the calm:
" O haunted place, O powerful charm!
Were now Elijah's chariot seen
(And yonder, read we writ aright,
He went up — over against this site)
Soaring in that deep heaven serene,
To me 'twould but in beauty rise;
Nor hair-clad John would now surprise —
But Volney!"
" Volney?" Derwent cried:
" Ah, yes; he came to Jordan's side
A pilgrim deist from the Seine."
" Ay, and Chateaubriand, he too,
The Catholic pilgrim, hither drew —
Here formed his purpose to assert
Religion in her just desert
Against the Red Caps of his time.
The book he wrote; it dies away;
But those Septemberists of crime
Enlarge in Vitriolists to-day.
Nor while we dwell upon this scene
Can one forget poor Lamartine —
A latter palmer. Oh, believe
When, his fine social dream to grieve,
Strode Fate, that realist how grim,
Displacing, deriding, hushing him,
Apt comment then might memory weave
In lesson from this waste. — That cry!
And would the jackal testify
From Moab?"
Derwent could but sway:
" Omit ye in citation, pray,
The healthy pilgrims of times old?
Robust they were; and cheery saw
Shrines, chapels, castles without flaw
Now gone. That river convent's fold,
By willows nigh the Pilgrims' Strand
Of Jordan, was a famous hold.
Prince Sigurd from the Norseman land,
Quitting his keel at Joppa, crossed
Hither, with Baldwin for his host,
And Templars for a guard. Perchance
Under these walls the train might prance
By Norman warder eyed."
" Maybe,"
Responded Vine; " but why disown
The Knight of the Leopard — even he,
Since hereabout that fount made moan,
Named Diamond of the Desert?" — " Yes,"
Beamed Rolfe, divining him in clue;
" Such shadows we, one need confess
That Scott's dreamed knight seems all but true
As men which history vouches. She —
Tasso's Armida, by Lot's sea,
Where that enchantress, with sweet look
Of kindliest human sympathy,
Such webs about Rinaldo wove
That all the hero he forsook —
Lost in the perfidies of love —
Armida — starts at fancy's bid
Not less than Rahab, lass which hid
The spies here in this Jericho."

A lull. Their thoughts, mute plunging, strayed
Like Arethusa under ground;
While Clarel marked where slumber-bound
Lay Nehemiah in screening shade.

Erelong, in reappearing tide,
Rolfe, gazing forth on either side:
" How lifeless! But the annual rout
At Easter here shall throng and shout,
Far populate the lonely plain
(Next day a solitude again),
All pressing unto Jordan's dew;
While in the saddle of disdain
Skirr the Turk guards with fierce halloo,
Armed herdsmen of the drove." He ceased;
And fell the silence unreleased
Till yet again did Rolfe round peer
Upon that moonlit land of fear:
" Man sprang from deserts: at the touch
Of grief or trial overmuch
On deserts he falls back at need;
Yes, 'tis the bare abandoned home
Recalleth then. See how the Swede,
Like any rustic crazy Tom,
Bursting through every code and ward
Of civilisation, masque and fraud,
Takes the wild plunge. Who so secure,
Except his clay be sodden loam,
As never to dream the day may come
When he may take it, foul or pure?
What in these turns of mortal tides —
What any fellow-creature bides,
May hap to any."
" Pardon, pray,"
Cried Derwent — " but 'twill quick away:
Yon moon in pearl-cloud: look, her face
Peers like a bride's from webs of lace."
They gazed until it faded there:
When Rolfe with a discouraged air
Sat as rebuked. In winning strain,
As 'twere in penitence urbane,
Here Derwent, " Come, we wait thee now."
" No matter," Rolfe said; " let it go.
My earnestness myself decry;
But as heaven made me, so am I."
" You spake of Mortmain," breathed Vine low.
As embers, not yet cold, will catch
Quick at the touch of smallest match,
Here Rolfe: " In gusts of lonely pain
Beating upon the naked brain — — "
" God help him, ay, poor realist!"
So Derwent, and that theme dismissed.

When Ashtaroth her zenith won,
Sleep drugged them and the winds made moan.





Last updated January 14, 2019