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Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892

"Timbuctoo"


For a useful analysis of Tennyson's poem, see "Enjoying 'Timbuctoo'" by Ed Friedlander, chair of the Department of Pathology at Kansas City's University of Health Sciences.


Deep in that lion-haunted inland lies
A mystick city, goal of high emprise.
CHAPMAN

 I stood upon the Mountain which o'erlooks 
 The narrow seas, whose rapid interval 
 Parts Afric from green Europe, when the Sun 
 Had fall'n below th' Atlantick, and above 
 The silent Heavens were blench'd with faery light, 
 Uncertain whether faery light or cloud, 
 Flowing Southward, and the chasms of deep, deep blue 
 Slumber'd unfathomable, and the stars 
 Were flooded over with clear glory and pale. 
 I gaz'd upon the sheeny coast beyond,                        10
 There where the Giant of old Time infixed 
 The limits of his prowess, pillars high 
 Long time eras'd from Earth: even as the Sea 
 When weary of wild inroad buildeth up 
 Huge mounds whereby to stay his yeasty waves. 
 And much I mus'd on legends quaint and old 
 Which whilome won the hearts of all on Earth 
 Toward their brightness, ev'n as flame draws air; 
 But had their being in the heart of Man 
 As air is th' life of flame: and thou wert then              20
 A center'd glory-circled Memory, 
 Divinest Atalantis, whom the waves 
 Have buried deep, and thou of later name 
 Imperial Eldorado roof'd with gold: 
 Shadows to which, despite all shocks of Change, 
 All on-set of capricious Accident, 
 Men clung with yearning Hope which would not die. 
 As when in some great City where the walls 
 Shake, and the streets with ghastly faces throng'd 
 Do utter forth a subterranean voice,                         30
 Among the inner columns far retir'd 
 At midnight, in the lone Acropolis, 
 Before the awful Genius of the place 
 Kneels the pale Priestess in deep faith, the while 
 Above her head the weak lamp dips and winks 
 Unto the fearful summoning without: 
 Nathless she ever clasps the marble knees, 
 Bathes the cold hand with tears, and gazeth on 
 Those eyes which wear no light but that wherewith 
 Her phantasy informs them.                                   40

                    Where are ye 
 Thrones of the Western wave, fair Islands green? 
 Where are your moonlight halls, your cedarn glooms, 
 The blossoming abysses of your hills? 
 Your flowering Capes, and your gold-sanded bays 
 Blown round with happy airs of odorous winds? 
 Where are the infinite ways, which, Seraph-trod, 
 Wound thro' your great Elysian solitudes, 
 Whose lowest deeps were, as with visible love, 
 Fill'd with Divine effulgence, circumfus'd,                  50
 Flowing between the clear and polish'd stems, 
 And ever circling round their emerald cones 
 In coronals and glories, such as gird 
 The unfading foreheads of the Saints in Heaven? 
 For nothing visible, they say, had birth 
 In that blest ground but it was play'd about 
 With its peculiar glory.  Then I rais'd 
 My voice and cried, "Wide Afric, doth thy Sun 
 Lighten, thy hills enfold a City as fair 
 As those which starr'd the night o' the elder World?         60
 Or is the rumour of thy Timbuctoo 
 A dream as frail as those of ancient Time?" 

   A curve of whitening, flashing, ebbing light! 
 A rustling of white wings! the bright descent 
 Of a young Seraph! and he stood beside me 
 There on the ridge, and look'd into my face 
 With his unutterable, shining orbs. 
 So that with hasty motion I did veil 
 My vision with both hands, and saw before me 
 Such colour'd spots as dance athwart the eyes                70
 Of those, that gaze upon the noonday Sun. 
 Girt with a Zone of flashing gold beneath 
 His breast, and compass'd round about his brow 
 With triple arch of everchanging bows, 
 And circled with the glory of living light 
 And alternation of all hues, he stood. 

   "O child of man, why muse you here alone 
 Upon the Mountain, on the dreams of old 
 Which fill'd the Earth with passing loveliness, 
 And odours rapt from remote Paradise?                        80
 Thy sense is clogg'd with dull mortality, 
 Thy spirit fetter'd with the bond of clay: 
 Open thine eyes and see."

                  I look'd, but not 
 Upon his face, for it was wonderful 
 With its exceeding brightness, and the light 
 Of the great Angel Mind which look'd from out 
 The starry glowing of his restless eyes. 
 I felt my soul grow mighty, and my Spirit 
 With supernatural excitation bound                           90
 Within me, and my mental eye grew large 
 With such a vast circumference of thought, 
 That in my vanity I seem'd to stand 
 Upon the outward verge and bound alone 
 Of full beatitude.  Each failing sense 
 As with a momentary flash of light 
 Grew thrillingly distinct and keen.  I saw 
 The smallest grain that dappled the dark Earth, 
 The indistinctest atom in deep air, 
 The Moon's white cities, and the opal width                 100
 Of her small glowing lakes, her silver heights 
 Unvisited with dew of vagrant cloud, 
 And the unsounded, undescended depth 
 Of her black hollows.  The clear Galaxy 
 Shorn of it's hoary lustre, wonderful, 
 Distinct and vivid with sharp points of light, 
 Blaze within blaze, an unimagin'd depth 
 And harmony of planet-girded Suns 
 And moon-encircled planets, wheel in wheel, 
 Arch'd the wan Sapphire.  Nay--the hum of men,              110
 Or other things talking in unknown tongues, 
 And notes of busy life in distant worlds 
 Beat like a far wave on my anxious ear. 

   A maze of piercing, trackless, thrilling thoughts, 
 Involving and embracing each with each, 
 Rapid as fire, inextricably link'd, 
 Expanding momently with every sight 
 And sound which struck the palpitating sense, 
 The issue of strong impulse, hurried through 
 The riv'n rapt brain; as when in some large lake            120
 From pressure of descendant crags, which lapse 
 Disjointed, crumbling from their parent slope 
 At slender interval, the level calm 
 Is ridg'd with restless and increasing spheres 
 Which break upon each other, each th' effect 
 Of separate impulse, but more fleet and strong 
 Than its precursor, till the eye in vain 
 Amid the wild unrest of swimming shade 
 Dappled with hollow and alternate rise 
 Of interpenetrated arc, would scan                          130
 Definite round. 

           I know not if I shape 
 These things with accurate similitude 
 From visible objects, for but dimly now, 
 Less vivid than a half-forgotten dream, 
 The memory of that mental excellence 
 Comes o'er me, and it may be I entwine 
 The indecision of my present mind 
 With its past clearness, yet it seems to me 
 As even then the torrent of quick thought                   140
 Absorbed me from the nature of itself 
 With its own fleetness.  Where is he that borne 
 Adown the sloping of an arrowy stream, 
 Could link his shallop to the fleeting edge, 
 And muse midway with philosophic calm 
 Upon the wondrous laws, which regulate 
 The fierceness of the bounding Element? 

   My thoughts which long had grovell'd in the slime 
 Of this dull world, like dusky worms which house 
 Beneath unshaken waters, but at once                        150
 Upon some Earth-awakening day of Spring 
 Do pass from gloom to glory, and aloft 
 Winnow the purple, bearing on both sides 
 Double display of starlit wings which burn, 
 Fanlike and fibred, with intensest bloom; 
 Ev'n so my thoughts, erewhile so low, now felt 
 Unutterable buoyancy and strength 
 To bear them upward through the trackless fields 
 Of undefin'd existence far and free. 

   Then first within the South methought I saw               160
 A wilderness of spires, and chrystal pile 
 Of rampart upon rampart, dome on dome, 
 Illimitable range of battlement 
 On battlement, and the Imperial height 
 Of Canopy o'ercanopied. 

                          Behind 
 In diamond light upsprung the dazzling cones 
 Of Pyramids as far surpassing Earth's 
 As Heaven than Earth is fairer.  Each aloft 
 Upon his narrow'd Eminence bore globes                      170
 Of wheeling Suns, or Stars, or semblances 
 Of either, showering circular abyss 
 Of radiance.  But the glory of the place 
 Stood out a pillar'd front of burnish'd gold, 
 Interminably high, if gold it were 
 Or metal more etherial, and beneath 
 Two doors of blinding brilliance, where no gaze 
 Might rest, stood open, and the eye could scan, 
 Through length of porch and valve and boundless hall, 
 Part of a throne of fiery flame, wherefrom                  180
 The snowy skirting of a garment hung, 
 And glimpse of multitudes of multitudes 
 That minister'd around it--if I saw 
 These things distinctly, for my human brain 
 Stagger'd beneath the vision, and thick night 
 Came down upon my eyelids, and I fell. 

   With ministering hand he rais'd me up: 
 Then with a mournful and ineffable smile, 
 Which but to look on for a moment fill'd 
 My eyes with irresistible sweet tears,                      190
 In accents of majestic melody, 
 Like a swoln river's gushings in still night 
 Mingled with floating music, thus he spake: 

   "There is no mightier Spirit than I to sway 
 The heart of man: and teach him to attain 
 By shadowing forth the Unattainable; 
 And step by step to scale that mighty stair 
 Whose landing-place is wrapt about with clouds 
 Of glory' of Heaven.*  With earliest light of Spring, 
 And in the glow of sallow Summertide,                       200
 And in red Autumn when the winds are wild 
 With gambols, and when full-voiced Winter roofs 
 The headland with inviolate white snow, 
 I play about his heart a thousand ways, 
 Visit his eyes with visions, and his ears 
 With harmonies of wind and wave and wood, 
 --Of winds which tell of waters, and of waters 
 Betraying the close kisses of the wind-- 
 And win him unto me: and few there be 
 So gross of heart who have not felt and known               210
 A higher than they see: They with dim eyes 
 Behold me darkling.  Lo! I have given thee 
 To understand my presence, and to feel 
 My fullness; I have fill'd thy lips with power. 
 I have rais'd thee nigher to the spheres of Heaven 
 Man's first, last home: and thou with ravish'd sense 
 Listenest the lordly music flowing from 
 Th' illimitable years.  I am the Spirit, 
 The permeating life which courseth through 
 All th' intricate and labyrinthine veins                    220
 Of the great vine of Fable, which, outspread 
 With growth of shadowing leaf and clusters rare, 
 Reacheth to every corner under Heaven, 
 Deep-rooted in the living soil of truth; 
 So that men's hopes and fears take refuge in 
 The fragrance of it's complicated glooms, 
 And cool impleachèd twilights.  Child of Man, 
 See'st thou yon river, whose translucent wave, 
 Forth issuing from the darkness, windeth through 
 The argent streets o' th' City, imaging                     230
 The soft inversion of her tremulous Domes, 
 Her gardens frequent with the stately Palm, 
 Her Pagods hung with music of sweet bells, 
 Her obelisks of rangèd Chrysolite, 
 Minarets and towers?  Lo! how he passeth by, 
 And gulphs himself in sands, as not enduring 
 To carry through the world those waves, which bore 
 The reflex of my City in their depths. 
 Oh City! oh latest Throne! where I was rais'd 
 To be a mystery of loveliness                               240
 Unto all eyes, the time is well-nigh come 
 When I must render up this glorious home 
 To keen Discovery: soon yon brilliant towers 
 Shall darken with the waving of her wand; 
 Darken, and shrink and shiver into huts, 
 Black specks amid a waste of dreary sand, 
 Low-built, mud-wall'd, Barbarian settlements. 
 How chang'd from this fair City!" 

                       Thus far the Spirit: 
 Then parted Heaven-ward on the wing: and I                  250
 Was left alone on Calpe, and the Moon 
 Had fallen from the night, and all was dark! 


* Be ye perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.


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Updated 2 August 1999 by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
Copyright © 1999, the University of South Carolina.
URL: http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/britlit/tenn/timb.html