To the Alabaster Sarcophagus

Horace Smith

Deposited in the British Museum

THOU alabaster relic! while I hold   
  My hand upon thy sculptured margin thrown,   
Let me recall the scenes thou couldst unfold,   
  Might’st thou relate the changes thou hast known;   
For thou wert primitive in thy formation,           
Launched from the Almighty’s hand at the creation.   
Yes! thou wert present when the stars and skies   
  And worlds unnumbered rolled into their places;   
When God from chaos bade the spheres arise,   
  And fixed the blazing sun upon its basis,           
And with his finger on the bounds of space   
Marked out each planet’s everlasting race.   
How many thousand ages from thy birth   
  Thou slept’st in darkness it were vain to ask,   
Till Egypt’s sons upheaved thee from the earth,           
  And year by year pursued their patient task,   
Till thou wert carved and decorated thus,   
Worthy to be a king’s sarcophagus!   
What time Elijah to the skies ascended,   
  Or David reigned in holy Palestine,           
Some ancient Theban monarch was extended   
  Beneath the lid of this emblazoned shrine,   
And to that subterraneous palace borne,   
Which toiling ages in the rock had worn.   
Thebes, from her hundred portals, filled the plain,           
  To see the car on which thou wert upheld;   
What funeral pomps extended in thy train,   
  What banners waved, what mighty music swelled,   
As armies, priests, and crowds bewailed in chorus,   
Their king, their god, their Serapis, their Orus!           
Thus to thy second quarry did they trust   
  Thee, and the lord of all the nations round,   
Grim king of silence! monarch of the dust!   
  Embalmed, anointed, jewelled, sceptred, crowned,   
Here did he lie in state, cold, stiff, and stark,           
A leathern Pharaoh grinning in the dark.   
Thus ages rolled; but their dissolving breath   
  Could only blacken that imprisoned thing,   
Which wore a ghastly royalty in death,   
  As if it struggled still to be a king;           
And each dissolving century, like the last,   
Just dropped its dust upon thy lid, and passed.   
The Persian conqueror o’er Egypt poured   
  His devastating host,—a motley crew;   
The steel-clad horseman, the barbarian horde,           
  Music and men of every sound and hue,   
Priests, archers, eunuchs, concubines, and brutes,   
Gongs, trumpets, cymbals, dulcimers, and lutes.   
Then did the fierce Cambyses tear away   
  The ponderous rock that sealed the sacred tomb;           
Then did the slowly penetrating ray   
  Redeem thee from long centuries of gloom,   
And lowered torches flashed against thy side,   
As Asia’s king thy blazoned trophies eyed.   
Plucked from his grave, with sacrilegious taunt,           
  The features of the royal corse they scanned;   
Dashing the diadem from his temple gaunt,   
  They tore the sceptre from his graspless hand;   
And on those fields, where once his will was law,   
Left him for winds to waste and beasts to gnaw.           
Some pious Thebans, when the storm was past,   
  Upclosed the sepulchre with cunning skill,   
And nature, aiding their devotion, cast   
  Over its entrance a concealing rill;   
Then thy third darkness came, and thou didst sleep           
Twenty-three centuries in silence deep.   
But he from whom nor pyramids nor sphinx   
  Can hide its secrecies, Belzoni, came;   
From the tomb’s mouth unlinked the granite links,   
  Gave thee again to light and life and fame,           
And brought thee from the sands and deserts forth,   
To charm the pallid children of the north!   
Thou art in London, which, when thou wert new,   
  Was what Thebes is, a wilderness and waste,   
Where savage beast more savage men pursue;           
  A scene by nature cursed, by man disgraced.   
Now, ’t is the world’s metropolis! The high   
Queen of arms, learning, arts, and luxury!   
Here, where I hold my hand, ’t is strange to think   
  What other hands, perchance, preceded mine;           
Others have also stood beside thy brink,   
  And vainly conned the moralizing line!   
Kings, sages, chiefs, that touched this stone, like me,   
Where are ye now? Where all must shortly be.   
All is mutation; he within this stone           
  Was once the greatest monarch of the hour.   
His bones are dust, his very name unknown!   
  Go, learn from him the vanity of power;   
Seek not the frame’s corruption to control,   
But build a lasting mansion for thy soul.

Horace Smith liked writing poems about Egyptian relics. His most famous effort is On a Stupendous Leg of Granite. It is famous only because it was written in friendly competition with Percy Shelley to write a sonnet about a gigantic statue of Ramasses II. This contest resulted in one of the English language's greatest poems, Shelley's Ozymandias.

Main Location:

The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, UK

The Magnificent Egyptian Rooms in the British Museum, London