471. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [c. late December 1799]

471. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [c. late December 1799] ⁠* 

Thalaba the Destroyer


Book. I.


How beautiful is night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air.
No mist obscures, no little cloud
Breaks the whole serene of heaven,
In full-orbd glory the majestic Moon
Rolls thro its dark-blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray
The Desert spreads around
Sky-girded like the circle of the seas.
How beautiful is night!

Who at this untimely hour
Wanders oer the desert sands?
No station is in view,
No palm-grove islanded amid the waste.
The Mother & her Child,
The Widow & the Orphan at this hour
Wander oer the desert sands.

Alas, the setting Sun
Saw Zeinab in her bliss
Hodeirahs wife belovd.
Night heard Hodeirahs groan of death.
Alas, the wife belovd,
The fruitful mother late,
Whom when the daughters of Arabia nam’d
They wishd their lot like hers,
She wanders oer the desert sands
A wretched widow now, –
The fruitful mother of so fair a race
With one alone preservd
She wanders oer the wilderness.

No tear relievd the burthen of her soul
Her swelling heart; – stunnd with the heavy blow,
The overpowering ill, she felt like one
Half-wakend from a midnight dream of blood.
But sometimes when her boy,
Wetting her hand with tears,
Attempted to console,
She gave a feeble groan.
At length collecting Zeinab turnd her eyes
To Heaven, exclaiming “praised be the Lord,
“He gave – he takes away, –
“The Lord our God is good!”

“Good, is he?” cried the boy,
“Why are my brethren & my sisters slain?
“Why is my father dead?
“Did ever we neglect our prayers,
“Or ever lift a hand unclean to Heaven?
“Did ever stranger from our tent
“Unwelcom’d, turn away?
“Mother! he is not good!”

Then Zeinab beat her breast in agony
“O God! forgive my child
“He knows not what he says!
Thou knowst I did not teach him thoughts like these,
“O Prophet pardon him!”

She had not wept till that relieving prayer,
The fountains of her eyes were opened then
And tears relievd her heart.
She raisd her swimming eyes to Heaven
“Allah thy will be done!
“Beneath the dispensation of thy wrath
“I groan – but murmur not.
“In the tremendous day
“Thou wilt remember my resigned soul
“And I shall understand how profitable
“It is to suffer now!”

Young Thalaba in silence heard reproof,
His brow in manly frowns was knit,
With manly thoughts his heart was full.
“Tell me who slew my father?” he exclaimd.
Zeinab replied & said,
“I knew not that there livd thy fathers foe!
“The blessings of the poor for him
“Went daily up to Heaven, –
“In distant lands the Traveller told his praise.
“I did not think there lived
“Hodeirahs enemy!”

“Who then shall take revenge?”
Young Thalaba exclaimd.
“But I will hunt him thro the earth –
“Already I can bend my fathers bow,
“Soon will my arm have strength
“To dip the arrow-feathers in his heart.”

Zeinab replied, “O Thalaba my child.
“Thou lookest on to distant days,
“And we are in the desert, far from men!”

Not that till that moment her afflicted heart
Had leisure for the thought.
She cast her eyes around, –
Alas! no tents were seen
Beside the bending sands,
No palm-tree rose to spot the wilderness.
The dark blue sky closd round
And nested like a dome
Upon the circling waste.
She cast her eyes around –
Famine & Thirst were there –
Then the Mother bowd her head
And wept upon her child.

Sudden a cry of wonder
From Thalaba arousd her.
She raisd her head & saw,
Amid an ancient grove
Trees of whose giant size
The happy hills of Yemen could not boast,
Where high in air a stately palace rose.
The mighty Pyramids,
That mock the power of Time,
That mock the memory of man,
With that prodigious fabric could not vie.
Here studding azure tablatures,
And rayed with feeble light,
Star-like the ruby & the diamond shone.
Here on the golden towers
The yellower moonbeam lays lies,
Here with white splendour floods the silver wall.
Less wondrous pile & less magnificent
Sennamar built at Hirah, tho his art
Seald with one stone the ample edifice,
And made its colours, like the serpent skin,
Play with a changeful beauty, him, its Lord
Jealous lest after effort might surpass
The now unequalld palace, from its height
Dashd on the pavement down.

They enterd & thro aromatic paths
Wondering they went along.
At length upon a mossy bank,
Beneath a broad Mimosa’s shade
That oer him bent its living canopy,
An aged man they saw.
He slept – but at the sound
Of coming feet, awakening, fixd his eyes
In wonder on the wanderer & her child.
“Forgive us!” Zeinab cried,
“Distress hath made us bold.
“The widow & the fatherless are we!
“Allah to those who succour them
“Hath promised paradise.”

The Old Man heard & lookd to Heaven
And tears ran down his cheeks.
“It is a human voice!
“I thank thee O my God!
“How many an age has past
“Since those sweet sounds have visited my ear!
“I thank thee O my God –
“It is a human voice!”

To Zeinab turning then he cried
“O mortal who art thou
“Whose gifted eyes have pierced
“The veil invisible
“That for so many an age hath hid these bowers
“From eye of mortal man?
“For countless years have past,
“And never foot of man
“The bowers of Irem trod,
“Save only I, – a miserable wretch!
“From Heaven & Earth shut out.”

Fearless & scarce surpriz’d
For grief in Zeinabs soul
All other feebler feelings overpowerd.
She answerd, “yesterday
“I was a wife belovd,
“The envied mother of a numerous race.
“I am a widow now,
“Of all my offspring this alone is left!
“Praise to the Lord our God!
“He gave, he takes away!”

The Old Man answerd, “not by Heaven unseen,
“Nor with unguided feet
“Thy steps have reachd this secret place.
“Nor for light purpose is the veil
“That from the Universe hath long shut out
“These ancient bowers, withdrawn.
“O Mortal hear my words,
“And when amid the world
“Thou shalt emerge again
“Repeat them to the multitude.
“Happy they who timely learn
“From others errors to be wise.

The Paradise of Irem this,
And that the palace pile
That Shedad built, the King.

Alas! in the days of my youth,
The hum of the populous world
Was heard in yon wilderness waste!
Oer all the winding sands
The tents of Ad were pitchd.
Happy Al Ahkaf then!
For many & brave were her sons,
Her daughters were many & fair.

My name was Aswad then –
Alas! alas! how strange
The sound so long unheard!
Of noble race I came,
One of the wealthy of the earth, my sire.
An hundred horses in my fathers stalls
Stood ready for his will,
Numerous his robes of silk,
The number of his camels was not known.
These were my heritance,
Allah! thy gifts were these!
But better had it been for Aswads soul
To have askd alms on earth
And beggd the crumbs that from his table fell,
So he had known thy word!

Boy! who hast reachd this solitude
Fear thy Lord in the days of thy youth!
My knee was never taught
To bend before my God.
My voice was never taught
To shape one holy prayer.
We worshippd idols, wood & stone,
The work of our own foolish hands
We worshippd in our foolishness.
Vainly the Prophets voice
Its frequent warning rais’d
“Repent & be forgiven!”
We mockd the messenger of God –
We mockd the righteous Lord.

A mighty work the pride of Shedad plannd,
Here in the wilderness to form
A garden more surpassing fair
Than that before whose gate,
The lightning of the Cherubs fiery sword
Waves wide to bar across
Since Adam, the transgressor, thence was driven
Here too would Shedad build
A kingly pile sublime,
The Palace of his pride.
For this exhausted mines
Supplied their golden store,
For this the central caverns gave their gems.
For this the woodmans axe
Opend the cedar forest to the Sun;
The silkworm of the East
Spun her sepulchral egg;
The hunter African
Provokd the danger of the Elephants rage;
The Ethiop keen of scent
Detects the ebony,
That deep inearthd, & hating light,
A leafless tree, & barren of all fruit,
With darkness feeds her boughs of raven grain.
Such were the treasures lavishd on yon pile! –
Ages have past away
And never mortal eye
Gazed on their vanity!

The Garden, – Nature had with copious springs
Blest that delightful spot;
Hither all trees were brought
That bend with luscious fruit,
And every flower was planted here
That makes the gale of evening sweet.
Here frequent in the walks
The marble statue stood
Of Heroes & of Kings, –
The trees & flowers remain
By Natures care perpetuate, & self sown;
The marble statues long have lost all trace
Of Heroes & of Kings, –
Huge shapeless stones they lie
Oergrown with many a flower.

The work of pride went on.
Often the Prophets voice
Denouncd impending woe;
We mockd at the words of the Seer,
We mockd at the wrath of the Lord.
A long continued drought first woke our dread;
Three years no cloud had formd,
Three years no rain had falln;
The wholesome herb was dry,
The corn matured not for the food of man,
The wells & fountains faild.
To idols we applied for aid.
Sakia we invokd for rain,
We calld on Razeka for food.
They did not hear our prayers – they could not hear!
No cloud appeard in Heaven,
No nightly dews came down.

Then to the Place of Concourse messengers
Were sent, to Mecca, where the nations came
Round the red hillock kneeling to implore
God in his favourd place.
We sent to call on God,
Ah fools! unthinking that from all the earth
The heart ascends to him!
We sent to call on God,
Ah fools! to think the Lord
Would hear their prayers abroad
Who made no prayers at home;

Meantime the work of pride went on,
And still before our Idols, wood & stone,
We bowd the impious knee.
“Turn men of Ad, & call upon your God!”
The Prophet Houd exclaimd.
“Turn men of Ad, & look to Heaven
“And fly the wrath to come!”
We mockd the Prophets words,
“Now dost thou dream old man?
“Or art thou drunk with wine.
“Future woe & wrath to come
“Still thy prudent voice forebodes
“When it comes will we believe,
“Till it comes we will go on
“In the way our fathers went.
“Now are thy words from God?
“Or dost thou dream old man,
“Or art thou drunk with wine?

So spake the stubborn race,
The unbelieving ones.
I too of stubborn, unbelieving heart
Heard him & heeded not.
It chanced my father went the way of man,
He perishd in his sins.
The funeral rites were duly paid,
We bound a Camel to his grave,
And left it there to die,
So if the Resurrection came
Together they might rise.
I past my fathers grave,
I heard the Camel moan,
It was his favourite beast,
One that carried me in infancy,
The first that, by myself, I learnt to mount.
Her limbs were lean with famine, & her eyes
Lookd ghastlily with want.
She knew me as I past,
She stared me in the face. –
My heart was touchd – had it been human else?
I thought no eye was near, & broke her bonds,
And drove her forth to liberty & life.
The Prophet Houd beheld.
He lifted up his voice,
“Blessed art thou, young man,
“Blessed art thou O Aswad for the deed!
“In the day of visitation,
“In the fearful hour of judgement,
“God will remember thee!”

The day of visitation was at hand –
The fearful hour of judgement hastend on!
Lo! Shedads mighty pile compleat,
The palace of his pride.
And now the Kings command went forth
Among the people, bidding old & young,
Husband & wife, the master & the slave
All the collected multitudes of Ad
Here to repair & hold high festival,
That he might see his people, they behold
Their Kings magnificence & power.
The day of festival arrived,
Hither they came, the old man & the boy,
Husband & wife, the master & the slave,
All the collected multitudes of Ad,
Hither they came. From yonder high tower top,
The loftiest of the palace, Shedad lookd
Down on his people the tribe. their tents on yonder sands
Rose like the countless billows of the sea,
Their tread & voices like the ocean roar
One deep confusion of tumultuous sound.
They saw their Kings magnificence, beheld
His palace sparkling like the Angel domes
Of Paradise, his garden like the bowers
Of early Eden, & they shouted forth
“Great is the King, a God upon the earth!”

Intoxicate with joy & pride
He heard their blasphemies,
And in his wantonness of heart, he bade
The Prophet Houd be brought,
And oer the marble courts,
And oer the gorgeous rooms
Glittering with gems & gold
He led the man of God.
“Is not this a stately pile?”
Cried the Monarch in his pride,
“Hath ever eye beheld.
“Hath ever heart conceived
“Pile more magnificent?
“Houd! they say that Heaven imparted
“To thy lips the words of wisdom, –
“Look at the riches round,
“And value them aright!”

The Prophet heard his vaunts, & with a smile
More awful than a frown of wrath had been,
“Costly the pile,” he cried, “O King!
“But only in the hour of death
“Man learns to value things like these aright.

“Hast thou a fault to find
“In all thine eyes have seen?”
Again the King exclaimd.
“Yes, said the Man of God –
“The walls are weak, the building ill secur’d.
“Azrael can enter in, –
“The Sarsar can pierce thro –
“The icy wind of Death!”

I was beside the Monarch as he spake,
Gentle the Prophet spake,
But in his eye there dwelt
A sorrow that disturbd me while I gazd
The countenance of Shedad fell,
And anger sate upon his paler lips.
He to the high tower top the Prophet led,
And pointed to the multitude,
And as again they shouted forth
“Great is the King, a God upon the earth!
Turnd with a threatful smile to Houd
“Say they aright O Prophet? is the King
“Great upon earth, – a God among mankind
The Prophet answerd not,
His eye rolld round the infinite multitude
And into tears he burst.

Sudden an uproar rose,
A cry of joy below –
“Kail from Mecca comes –
“he brings the boon obtaind

Forth as we went, we saw where overhead
There hung a deep black cloud,
On which the multitude
With joyful eyes lookd up
And blest the coming rain.
The Messenger addrest the King
And told his tale of joy.

“To Mecca I repaird,
“By the red hillock knelt,
“And calld on God for rain.
My prayer ascended & was heard.
“Three clouds appeard in heaven
“One white & like the flying cloud of moon,
“One red as it had drunk the evening beams,
“One black & heavy with its load of rain.
“A voice went forth from heaven
“Chuse, Kaïl of the three!”
“I thankd the gracious Power,
“And chose the black cloud, heavy with its wealth.”
“Right! right!” a thousand tongues exclaimd
And all was merriment & joy.

Then Houd lookd up & cried
“A little while O God.’ suspend thy wrath
“That from this miserable place
“I & the righteous few
“In safety may go forth!”
He said & followed by the righteous few
Hastened from Irem fast.

They went, & darker grew
The deepening cloud above.
At length it opend – & O God! O God!
There were no waters there –
There fell no kindly rain –
The Sarsar from its womb went forth,
The icy wind of Death!

They fell around me – thousands fell around –
The King & all his people fell –
All – all – they perished all –
I – only I – was left!
There came a voice to me & said
“In the day of visitation,
“In the fearful hour of judgement –
“God hath rememberd thee!”

When from an agony of prayer I rose
And from the scene of death
Attempted to go forth,
The way was open, I beheld
No barrier to my steps –
But round these bowers the arm of God
Had drawn a mighty chain,
A barrier that no human force might break.
Twice I essayd to pass,
With that the Voice was heard
“O Aswad be content & bless the Lord!
“One righteous deed hath saved
“Thy soul from utter death.
“O Aswad, sinful man!
“When by long penitence
“Thou feelst thy soul prepard
“Breathe up the wish to die,
“And Azrael comes, obedient to the prayer!”

A miserable man
From earth & heaven shut out
I heard the dreadful voice.
I lookd around my prison place,
The bodies of the dead were there,
Whereer I lookd, they lay,
They moulderd, moulderd here,
Their very bones have crumbled into dust,
So many years hath past.
So many weary ages are gone by, –
And still I linger here!
Still groaning with the burthen of my sins,
Have never dard to breathe
The prayer to be releast.

Oh! who can tell the unspeakable misery
Of solitude like this.
No sound hath ever reachd my ear,
Save of the passing wind;
The fountains everlasting flow –
The forest in the gale,
The pattering of the shower
Sounds dead & mournful all!
No bird hath ever closd her wing
Upon these solitary bowers.
No insect sweetly buzzd amid these groves,
From all things that have life,
Save only one, conceald.
This Tree alone that oer my head
Hangs down its hospitable boughs
And bends its whispering leaves
As tho to welcome me,
Seems to partake of life –
I love it as my friend – my only friend!

I know not for what ages I have draggd
This miserable life,
How often I have seen
These ancient trees renewd,
What countless generations of mankind,
Have risen & falln asleep,
And I remain the same!
My garment hath waxed not old,
The sole of my shoe is not worn.
I dare not breathe the prayer to die,
O merciful Lord God!
But when it is thy will,
But when I have atoned
For mine iniquities,
And sufferings have made pure
My soul with sin defild,
Release me in thine own good time!
I will not cease to praise thee O my God

Silence ensued awhile, then Zeinab cried
“Blessed art thou O Aswad! for the Lord
“Who savd thy soul from Hell
“Will call thee to him in his own good time!
“And would that when my heart
“Breathd up its wish to die,
“Azrael might visit me!
“Then would I follow where my babes are gone,
“And join Hodeirah now!”

She ceasd – & the rushing of wings
Was heard in the stillness of night,
And Azrael, the death Angel, stood before them.
His countenance was dark,
Solemn, but not severe,
It awed, but struck no terror to the heart.
“Zeinab, thy wish is heard.
“Aswad, thy hour is come.”
They fell upon the ground & blest the voice
And Azrael raisd his sword
And dropt the drops of bitterness of death.

“Me too! me too!” young Thalaba exclaim’d
As wild with grief he kist
His mothers livid hand
His mothers quivering lips –
“O Angel, take me too!”

“Son of Hodeirah,” the death Angel cried,
“It is not yet the hour.
“Son of Hodeirah, thou art chosen forth
“To do the will of Heaven,
“To avenge thy fathers death,
“To work the mightiest enterprize
“That mortal man hath wrought.
“Live & remember Destiny
“Hath markd thee from mankind!”

He ceasd, & he was gone.
Young Thalaba lookd round.
The Palace & the Grove were seen no more,
He stood amid the wilderness, alone. [1] 



* MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4819E. AL; 6p.
Dating note: Southey’s letter to Wynn, 16 January 1800 (Letter 478), is a reply to Wynn’s comments on the draft of Book 1 of ‘Thalaba’ contained in this letter. The letter, therefore, was probably sent to Wynn as a Christmas or New Year gift in late December 1799. BACK

[1] How beautiful ... alone: Verse written in double columns. An early version of the first book of Thalaba the Destroyer, published by Longman and Rees in 1801. BACK