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'Petra' (long)
Posted by: IanB (192.168.128.---)
Date: May 31, 2006 07:15PM

In the recent ‘Poetry Anthology’ thread in Homework Assistance, some interesting posts followed a mention I made of the famous line ‘A rose-red city half as old as Time’, in John William Burgon’s poem ‘Petra’, which won Oxford University’s Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1845. No one who contributed to that discussion had the whole poem text, and there appeared to be no copy on the Internet.

I have since found a small book of Burgon’s poetry. He had it published by Macmillan in 1885 when he was Dean of Chichester. It includes ‘Petra’. The poem is presented with its own preface, and an ‘Argument’ (précis of its subject matter) and numerous footnotes. Some of those quote descriptions of Petra by one Dr Robinson who had visited the place (unlike Burgon when he wrote the poem!). Some explain allusions to classical Greek works. Many give Biblical references justifying references in the poem. I assume all these extras were part of the presentation when it was submitted for the Prize. The body of the poem is 371 lines long, which is strange, since the Newdigate founder prescribed 300 as the limit. The sole judge however is always the Professor of Poetry, who sets the subject.

As I ploughed through Burgon’s impressively/tediously sustained effort, with all its antiquated mannerisms, I tried to imagine the state of mind of the Professor reading it. Did his eyes light up when he read the famous line? Was that why he adjudged the poem the winner, as I have heard irreverently alleged? I rather think what impressed him was Biblical learning, and the lofty tone and romantic religiosity throughout, for he was not a poet. He was the venerable James Garbett, Archdeacon of Chichester (small world!), who held the Professorship (which is a part-time, almost honorary position) from 1842 to 1852. Men of clerical bent seem to have had a mortgage on the chair in those days. His predecessor from 1831 to 1841 was John Keble, a founder of the Oxford Movement.

Anyway, to satisfy the curious who have wondered about the full text of the poem known now only for its famous line, and who don’t have access to the Newdigate archives, here it is. I have reproduced the preface; but omitted the Argument - and the footnotes, interesting though they are, except to mention now one, quoted from Dr Robinson, which describes how the ancient theatre at Petra hewn out of the rock was located between cliffs full of tombs in direct view of the audience. That may help explain the poet’s theatre images in one part and his rebuke of the men of Petra whiling “the listless hours away” where “graves on graves innumerable frown’d”. I have reproduced the punctuation in Burgon’s book (even the failure to close the inverted commas in L23), except that the long dash comes out as a doubled hyphen in Emule.


PETRA,––the capital of that portion of Arabia which is thence called Petræa,––occupies a mountain-hollow in the rocky region known to the readers of Scripture by the name of SEIR; a territory which extends from the north-eastern extremity of the Arabian gulph to the south of the Dead Sea, and which the Almighty assigned to the Edomites, or the descendants of Esau. It is twice mentioned in the Bible by the equivalent Hebrew name SELAH, or the rock; and thenceforward (namely, from the seventh or eighth century before our æra), it obtains no further notice for four hundred years. During this interval, the Nabathæans, or descendants of Nebaioth, the eldest son of Ishmael, had expelled the Edomites from their ancient stronghold, and driven them northward, where their territory was recognised for a few centuries under the Hellenised name of Idumæa. Then it was that one portion of the prophecy concerning the descendants of Esau obtained its fulfilment : they faded from the world’s eye, and ceased to be a nation.
   Petræa, henceforth part of the Nabathæan territory, became a Roman province; and PETRA, as some ancient historians relate, and as its astonishing ruins abundantly testify, continued to be its wealthy and flourishing capital. It obtains some slight Ecclesiastical notice so late as the sixth century, but from that time it suddenly disappears from the page of history; and the doom pronounced on the land of the Edomites was entirely accomplished. PETRA had continued wholly unknown for twelve hundred years, when the adventurous Burckhardt discovered its ruins in 1812.
   Some valuable and interesting notices of this wonderful city and the surrounding region are found in the second volume of Dr. Robinson’s Biblical Researches; but the pencil of Roberts has told the story of the present state of Edom better than any pen.


Spirit of Song ! that oft at dewy eve,
When Elfin sprites their frolic dances weave,
Meetest the poet as he walks unseen
The twilight valley, or the dusky green;––
Or by some mountain lake’s romantic brim
Wakest the drowsy echoes, all for him;––
And many a time art well content to stray
Where garden-alleys quench the blaze of day,
And small birds sing, and bubbling fountains play;
Know’st thou the land––a land of giant mould––
By Heav’n assign’d to Edom’s race of old?
Where rocks on rocks––on mountains mountains pil’d––
Have form’d a scene so wondrous and so wild,
That gazing there man seems to gaze upon
The rough rude ocean frozen into stone?
Full well thou know’st ! for sure, when Israel wound
His homeward journey o’er that hallow’d ground,––
Forc’d in the depths of those wild hills to wait,
And kneel, a suppliant, at his brother’s gate,––
While burning anthems rose from many a tongue,
Not coldly mute the harp of Judah hung !
And did not one, in yet remoter time,
Wake there the “birth-notes of the holy chime?
Doth not to Edom’s rugged land belong
The man of Uz––the morning-star of song !

   Yea, and to Fancy’s ear, o’er rock and hill
More solemn harpings there are floating still.
Harps that long since have been attun’d above
To hymns of joy, and seraph-lays of love,
In awful strains from many a trembling wire
Have pour’d o’er Edom words of deepest ire !
Words that yet live and burn––in whose keen ray
The light and life of Edom ebb’d away :
Still fading, star-like, in the blaze of day !
And thou too, Petra, tho’ the Roman came
And fann’d thy dying glories into flame;
Rear’d the tall column––spread the stately dome––
And seem’d the founder of a second Rome,––
How brief the pageant ! On thy fated brow
Men laid a crown––but who shall crown thee now?
A thousand summers o’er thy ruins crept :
A thousand winters o’er thy ruins wept :
A thousand years––and still the very spot
Where once thou wert so glorious, was forgot !

   What joy was his––the wandering man, who first
Dissolv’d the spell !––on whom the Vision burst
Of that enchanted City, as it lay
Bath’d in the splendours of a Syrian day.
O Fancy, thou that must so oft have shed
Dreams of its beauty round his sleeping head;
Woke in his heart the wild-bird’s wish to roam,
And told of marvels in that mountain-home;
Still be it thine with angel-hand to guide
These longing footsteps by that Trav’ller’s side !
Waft o’er mine ear one echo of the strain
Which dark-ey’d Kedar pours along the plain;
Or let one gaze, how brief soe’er, inspire
These falt’ring lips to glow with Eastern fire !

   Sudden,––around me, rocks and cliffs arise;
The earth their footstool, and their crown the skies :
Some, soaring steep,––as if to curtain round
From mortal gaze each nook of holy ground :
Some, prostrate hurl’d,––as if by that fierce storm
Which rent the mountains, when th’ Almighty form
“Rose up from Seir;” and trembling Sinai saw
His thousand Saints dispense His fiery law.
And one there is which, beetling o’er the rest,
Pillows a prophet on its rocky crest :
Uplifted high––where none but stars may keep
Their bright-ey’d vigils round his saintly sleep :
Or rushing winds from Pisgah’s kindred height
Pour a wild requiem through the noon of night.
Fit scene for marvels ! In such land should none
But giants move, and giant deeds be done.
O’er such huge hills might fitly seem to stray
A ransom’d people on their homeward way.
In such wild valleys, round their ark rever’d,
At set of sun their myriad tents be rear’d.
Myriads ! and yet, above them and around,
Such giant features of the landscape frown’d,
They seem’d no more––that people and their guide––
Than Jethro’s flock on Horeb’s hallow’d side !

   Ah say, ere gather’d in their destin’d fold,
While Israel wander’d o’er this waste of old;
As, eve by eve, upon these mountains brown,
Silent as snow the heavenly bread came down:––
From the cleft rock as gush’d the sparkling wave
To cheer their sinking spirits, and to save;––
And the bright pillar, through the livelong night,
Shed o’er their tents its soft celestial light;––
Did none perchance of Judah’s faithful line
Read the high teaching of each heav’n-sent sign?
Say––while around him others pin’d forlorn
For Canaan’s valleys “standing thick with corn”––
Did no fond heart, with nobler instinct fraught,
Sigh for the substance which those shadows taught?
On trembling pinions seek to soar above,
Refin’d by sorrow, and sublim’d by love,––
Till Faith discern’d what Reason dimly scann’d,
And Hope gave promise of that better Land?

   Still on for Petra,––till the desert wide
Shrinks to a valley; and on either side
The rude rock springeth, and a long array
Of tombs, forgotten, sadden all the way.
Then the earth yawns, terrific : and a path,
By Nature fram’d in waywardness or wrath,
Winds where two rocks precipitously frown,––
The giant warders of that wondrous town !
Day comes not here,––or in such spectral guise,
She seems an outcast from yon happy skies.
In silent awe the Arab steals along,
Nor cheers his camels with their wonted song.
Well may the spirit, left alone to brood
On the dim shapes which haunt that solitude,
O’erflow with joy––that dreary pathway past––
When Petra bursts upon the gaze at last.

   O passing beautiful––in this wild spot
Temples, and tombs, and dwellings,––all forgot !
One sea of sunlight far around them spread,
And skies of sapphire mantling overhead.
They seem no work of man’s creative hand,
Where Labour wrought as wayward Fancy plann’d;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal––silent––beautiful––alone !
Not virgin white––like that old Doric shrine
Where once Athena held her rites divine :
Not saintly grey––like many a minster fane
That crowns the hill, or sanctifies the plain :
But rosy-red,––as if the blush of dawn
Which first beheld them were not yet withdrawn :
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which men call’d old two thousand years ago !
Match me such marvel, save in Eastern clime,––
A rose-red city––half as old as Time !

   And this is Petra––this the lofty boast
Of Edom’s once unconquerable coast !
These the gay halls thro' which, in days of old,
The tide of life so rapturously roll’d !
These the proud streets where Wealth, with lavish hand,
Pour’d the rich spoils of ev’ry Orient land;
All that the seaman’s timid barque beguiles,
To Cush and Ophir, “Tarnish and the Isles :”
Afric’s red gold,––Arabia’s spicy store,––
And pearl and plume from India’s farthest shore !
How chang’d––how fallen ! All her glory fled,
The widow’d city mourns her many dead.
Like some fond heart which gaunt Disease hath left
Of all it liv’d for––all it lov’d, bereft;
Mute in its anguish ! struck with pangs too deep
For words to utter, or for tears to weep.

   Yet hearts and eyes there be, well skill’d to trace
The living features in the lifeless face,
For whom that silent desert air seems rife
With tuneful voices and the pulse of life.
For them sweeps by in glitt’ring pomp again
The warlike pageant and the peaceful train :
For them bright shadows fill these vacant halls,
And Beauty wakes where’er their footstep falls.
“Heard ye it not?”––the fervid dreamer cries,––
“Heard ye no shout from yonder seats arise?”
(And his rapt gaze in ecstasy is bent
On what seems Pleasure’s mournful monument.)
“Ye deem the actor and his mimic rage
Gone like a shadow from yon ruin’d stage;
But to mine eye he lives and moves :––’tis we
Are shadows here––the substance only he !
Or do I dream?––they come and fade so fast––
Now here, now there,––now present, and now past.
But no, a stern old King,––whom anguish strong
Had goaded into madness,––stalk’d along,
Sightless and crownless : . . . Now, a Maiden stands
Ev’n where he stood; and in her delicate hands
Enfolds an urn : ineffable the grace,––
The marble sorrow of that classic face !
It fades––’tis fled ! . . . Upon a lofty car
There sits another : like some baleful star
Glares her wild eye;––and from her lips of ire
Streams a full torrent of prophetic fire.
She raves,––she rises,––and with frenzied hand
Dashes to earth her garland and her wand . . .
Sublimely beautiful ! When this is o’er
Let nothing follow.––I will gaze no more !”

   And did ye thus, ye men of Petra,––say,
Thus did ye while the listless hours away?
Tho’ ev’ry cliff, tho’ ev’ry crag around,
With graves on graves innumerable frown’d,––
Thus could ye sit, contented with a toy,
And lapt in dreams of unsubstantial joy?
Light-hearted race ! o’er them it flung no gloom
That Echo answered from a kinsman’s tomb.
Bred in these mountain valleys, those dark eyes,
Fierce as their summer,––cloudless as their skies,––
Belov’d and loving,––blest and blessing,––here
Made friends with Death throughout the livelong year :
And hop’d, perchance, when Life’s gay round was o’er,
And joy and sorrow sway’d their hearts no more,
Their faithful souls, unfetter’d, yet might dwell
Amid the haunts they lov’d in life so well !

   And Petra thus had rear’d another race
In turn to revel in her “pride of place :”
Thus the old eagles of imperial Rome
Seem’d on her hills to find a second home :
And Roman arts with Roman arms arose,
To blot the mem’ry of her former foes.
Tho’ Edom’s line, by Ishmael’s sword opprest,
Had long been exil’d from their rock-built nest,
On Edom’s rugged hills, as loath to set,
The sun of bygone summers linger’d yet :
And men forgot,––or deem’d an idle tale,––
The words of doom that hung o’er Petra’s vale.
It could not be ! That old portentous chime
So long had slumber’d by the sores of Time.
Why heed it now? why talk of gloom today,
When Heav’n is blue, and Earth so green and gay?

   So spake the men of old; and ev’ry heart
To festive revel, or to crowded mart,
Flew for its joy,––not oft’ner sought than found,––
So gaily there the circling hours went round !
And nurs’d were they in luxury––and knew
The spot of earth where ev’ry pleasure grew.
Their fountains flung their waters to the skies :
Their groves lay steep’d in hues of Paradise :
Here rose the gorgeous sepulchre, and there
Some fairy palace hung its roof in air :
While climes remote each costly gift supplied,
(For ships of Petra swam on ev’ry tide; )
And all the East, in conscious splendour, roll’d
At Petra’s feet her jewels and her gold.

   O that her rocks had language ! and might tell
In what wild shape at last the tempest fell.
Swift––sweeping––sudden––whensoe’er it came;
Blighting and blasting, like the breath of flame.
One piercing cry,––one agonizing wail,––
One voice from Edom’s cities told the tale :
One cry of bitterness,––and all was o’er !
But the far echo smote the Red Sea shore;
And peal’d along its waters––till the waves
Made hollow answer from their coral caves !

   How chang’d, O Edom, since that hour, the scene
From what the morning of thy days had been !
When many a valley rich with corn and wine,
When streams of Earth, and dews of Heav’n were thine;
And flocks and herds––a patriarch’s ample store––
Till all thy cup with plenteousness ran o’er.
Then Faith with thee her sacred mansion made;
And holy lips, within thy summer shade,
Of bright Arcturus and Orion told;––
And the sweet sway the wand’ring Pleiads hold;––
And of the matin hymn which burst sublime
From all creation at the birth of Time;
When “Earth self-balanc’d on its centre hung,”
And “all the morning stars” like Seraphs sung . . .
Such were the themes thy children lov’d to hear
When first they dwelt along the vales of Seir :
While youths and maids from each romantic town
Went forth in dances when the sun went down;
And antique tale, and legendary song,
And harp and timbrel made the night less long.

   But who are these that kneel in suppliant state,
And plead for love at Petra’s haughty gate
That urge by each endearing claim their prayer?––
Thy kindred, Edom,––the redeem’d are there !
Scan well that brow,––and dost thou mark no line,
No stamp of feature that resembles thine?
Does nought recall an old ancestral tale :––
Two brothers bred in Hebron’s happy vale;––
Far Mamre’s oak––where blaz’d their altar fires;––
And Mamre’s cave––where sleep your common sires?
Or if such plea, all cruel as thou art !
Can wake no softness in thy savage heart,
Yet feel for these––the youthful and the fair,
The weary mother, and her fainting care !
Yea, feel for all,––the mighty orphan host,
Which GOD, in love, hath guided to thy coast;––
Borne up on eagles’ wings,––and fondly fed
With angels’ food,––and through the desert led
By cloud and flame;––and now, their wand’rings o’er,
Speeds on their way to Canaan’s quiet shore. . . .
But what spake Edom? Taunting words of ill,––
And that sharp knife,––a brother’s threat to kill !
Of all the past no image fill’d his eye
But Jacob’s blessing––Esau’s bitter cry :––
He bar’d his sword !––On that unnatural day
A curse came down when Israel turn’d away.

   Years sped their course : the fierce Chaldean came,
And Salem’s walls were wrapt in robes of flame :
Fair Sion’s height with carnage all o’erspread;
Her temple fallen, and its glory fled :
And thou wert there ! with unrelenting brow
The first to slay––the first to triumph, thou !
Foremost to hurl the blazing brand, and fill
The festive cup on Sion’s holy hill !
Could none be found but thee? Could wrath divine
Be dealt on Judah by no hand but thine?
“Remember, LORD,”––the mournful captives cried,
As sad they wept by Babel’s willowy side,––
“O LORD, remember in that hour of woe,
How taunting Edom prov’d our fiercest foe !” . . .
And that poor plaint, to Heav’n’s high throne upborne,
Tho’ all that heard it curl’d the lip with scorn,
Call’d down the wrath which spake from many a lyre
In strains that blasted like the breath of fire :
And the wild winds the accents swept along,
Till Edom’s cliffs re-echoed to the song.

   On cold high hearts at first that warning fell,
For Edom held his wind-rock’d citadel :
From Petra’s cliff look’d forth in impious pride,
And Sion’s wrath and Sion’s GOD defied.
Then spake a voice––“Altho’ thou build thy nest
High as the stars;––and on the mountain’s breast
Sitt’st brooding like the eagle;––yet my frown
Shall hurl thy glory and thy greatness down :
Yea, when all earth rejoiceth, there shall be
A desolation and a curse on thee !”

…   Go, mark her well––and lies she not forlorn?
The stranger’s wonder, and the heathen’s scorn !
Her royal roofs with nettles all o’ergrown;––
Her many towns a wilderness of stone;––
And save where swims the eagle high in air,
No sound of life––no pulse of motion there !
There springs no verdure in her pathless vales :
The river flows not, and the fountain fails :
She keeps no feature of her ancient face :
There breathes not one of Esau’s royal race :
And while yon stars in tuneful circles roll,––
While Summer cheers, and Winter chills the pole,––
While Night and Day in soft succession shine,––
So long shall Edom own her doom divine :
Attest His Truth, who spake the word of old,
And stand, a sign for ages to behold :
A wreck thrown up on Time’s deserted shore,––
A blight––a blank––a curse for evermore !

   Daughter of Sion––fallen as thou art,
Far other strains address thy sorrowing heart !
Tho’ bare thy mountains, and thy vales forlorn,
Unblest by culture, yield thee briar and thorn,––
Yet shall thy wilderness break forth and sing;
The myrtle smile,––the graceful cedar spring;
Life-giving streams thy barren rock disclose,
And all thy desert “blossom like the rose” !
The scatter’d sons, tho’ now they wander wide,
Shall yet be gather’d to thy longing side;
And all Ezekiel’s solemn vision be
A type of faithful love fulfill’d in thee.
Yea, tho’ rude hands have spoil’d fair Salem’s tow’rs;
Tho’ steps profane have press’d her hallow’d bow’rs;
Tho’ “Siloa’s brook” no longer softly flows
Fast by the hill where once her glory rose;
Yet fear not thou ! the voice of Love divine
Still cries––“Awaken thee !” “Arise, and shine !”
“There is a River” which shall yet make blest
Thy heav’nly home, the City of thy rest.
That holy City, seen by prophet eyes,
Waits but the signal that shall rend the skies,
And thou shalt all the glorious sight behold,––
The walls of jasper, and the streets of gold :
The twelve bright Angels, eager to unfurl
The twelve broad gates,––and ev’ry gate a pearl !
The Tree of Life beside the crystal wave,
With “leaves to heal the nations,” and to save :
And HIM reveal’d whom thou so dimly knew,––
The LAMB,––thy Sacrifice and Temple too;
Whom Seraphs veil their faces when they sing,––
Thine own Thrice-holy Prophet, Priest, and King ! . . .
And there no Sun shall daily need to rise;
And there no Moon shall nightly sail the skies :
What need of sun by day, or moon by night?
The LORD thy glory, and the LAMB thy light !
Thy portion there, where Time itself shall be
One long, long rest––one Sabbath-day to thee !

Edited 6 time(s). Last edit at 05/31/2006 11:50PM by IanB.

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: marian2 (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 03:33AM

What a labour of love, Ian - well done. I'd no idea the short 'poem' I have under the title Petra was only a tiny extract, and it's very interesting to read the whole thing.

Are the other poems all long, and scholarly, or did he write a mix - I've looked at his bio and he seems to have been extremely serious-minded and very keen on 'defending the work of God against the errors of the church' to the detriment of his career, so I should imagine his other poetry is similar, but it would be nice to know.

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: Hugh Clary (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 12:34PM

Yeah, good stuff. How anyone could read 371 lines of rhyming couplets, much less type them all up, is way beyond my understanding, so kudos all the more!

As an aside, I stumbled on a PBS (public broadcasting) program last week, something about 'walking the lands of the Bible', which had a segment on just this city. I may very well have skipped the program were it not for the timely thread here.

Were its colors actually rose-red? Well, close enough, I guess.

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: LOSERH (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 01:01PM

Want to come see you now
Falling flying
Please let me in
Please help me fly
Please see me soon
please make up close
Please be with me
Please be sweet
Please I want you
Please make me sor
Please give me wings
Please be angelic
Please see me through
Please comming
Please meet me there
Please see you there
Please hang out
Please love me true
Please let me in
Please be there soon
Please help me fly
Please dont say good bye
Please saty for good
please be with me
Please we will see

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: LOSERH (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 01:02PM

Want to come see you now
Falling flying
Please let me in
Please help me fly
Please see me soon
please make up close
Please be with me
Please be sweet
Please I want you
Please make me sor
Please give me wings
Please be angelic
Please see me through
Please comming
Please meet me there
Please see you there
Please hang out
Please love me true
Please let me in NWA
Please be there soon
Please help me fly
Please dont say good bye
Please saty for good
please be with me
Please we will see

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: JohnnySansCulo (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 01:09PM

Politeness is the glue that holds society together

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: LOSERH (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 01:12PM

Now we see
Today we are free
It is ours if we see
If we want it to be
Taday we fly
In the night through the sky
I wish I never had to say goodbey
Find the one for me
Dont could we ever see
What we want to be
Where we want to be
Today we want to
must find a way
Around they
Love to be
See to be
peacefulday to be
We just want to see
We just want to be
Inside outside insideout
Here we are
here we stand
Knowing only the truth
of the kings secrets

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: lg (Moderator)
Date: June 01, 2006 02:23PM

Hey, Loser, go to the User Submitted Forum, this forum is for discussion.


Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: PamAdams (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 02:54PM

I've written a term paper or two in my day that seemed to gain points for length. Perhaps the judges were running off the same grading scale.


Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: JohnnySansCulo (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 03:03PM

A "stoic gleeful OK"

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: lg (Moderator)
Date: June 01, 2006 03:04PM

I've written a term paper or two in my day that seemed to gain points for length.

We had a high school history teacher who would bring in a scale from the chemistry lab and tell us that he graded term papers by the ounce. Nobody was ever quite sure what he meant by that, but most of us figured it meant heavier was better.


Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 06/01/2006 03:35PM by lg.

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: JohnnySansCulo (192.168.128.---)
Date: June 01, 2006 03:10PM

Re: 'Petra' (long)
Posted by: lg (Moderator)
Date: June 01, 2006 03:37PM

The "wait" of history, good name for a graduate seminar.


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