In "The Burden of Nineveh" Dante Gabriel Rossetti brings the reader along on a visit to the British Museum stating that his intention for visiting it was to see the Greek sculptures. Yet in the very first stanza of the poem, Rossetti moves on to describe his memorable and noteworthy exit from the museum. As he exits the museum and re-enters the busy streets of London, he stops dead in his tracks to contemplate "a winged beast from Nineveh" that is being hoisted into the museum.

From the second stanza to the last stanza of the poem, the reader is lead by Rossetti to follow his eloquent and imaginative train of thought that sparks all from his encounter with the sculpted Nineveh bull. Rossetti's conception of the identity and importance of the bull makes a remarkable transformation as the poem develops. In the second stanza of the poem, Rossetti describes the sculpture as a "mummy of a buried faith" and as "the very corpse of Nineveh." One initially experiences the sculpture as a piece of art that is void of life and spirit. Rossetti separates the sculpture from our world completely by pointing out that the sculpture saw different maidens and priests and also that it heard different vows, rites, prayers and songs. With multiple references to the tremendous passage of time, Rossetti looks back at the triumphal days of Nineveh with eager curiosity towards a fascinating world of another's society and religion.

One follows Rossetti as he thinks deeper about the sculpture and its new role as a relic in the London Museum. Rossetti makes an important realization in the eleventh stanza of the poem where he discusses the bull being placed in a room of artifacts from other ancient societies:

And now, — they and their gods and thou
All relics here together, — now
Whose profit? whether bull or cow,
Isis or Ibis, who or how,
       Whether of Thebes or Nineveh?

In this stanza, he realizes that the distinctions between the great empires of the world, including Rome, Babylon and Nineveh, are unclear and almost insignificant. These pieces take on an importance beyond their respective cultures and empires.

The last three stanzas of the poem finish the transformation of bulls identity. Rosssetti makes the realization that this bull is far from simply a representation of a lost time and a lost religion:

For as that Bull-god once did stand
And watched the burial-clouds of sand,
Till these at last without a hand
Rose o'er his eyes, another land,
       And blinded him with destiny: —

So may he stand again; till now,
In ships of unknown sail and prow,
Some tribe of the Australian plough
Bear him afar, — a relic now
       Of London, not of Nineveh!

Or it may chance indeed that when
Man's age is hoary among men, —
His centuries threescore and ten, —
His furthest childhood shall seem then
       More clear than later times may be:
Who, finding in this desert place
This form, shall hold us for some race
That walked not in Christ's lowly ways,
But bowed its pride and vowed its praise
       Unto the God of Nineveh.

The smile rose first, — anon drew nigh
The thought: . . Those heavy wings spread high
So sure of flight, which do not fly;
That set gaze never on the sky;
       Those scriptured flanks it cannot see;
Its crown, a brow-contracting load;
Its planted feet which trust the sod: . . .
(So grew the image as I trod:)
O Nineveh, was this thy God, —
       Thine also, mighty Nineveh? [1856]

The importance of the sculpture is far beyond the religion, history and culture of the Nineveh Empire. Rossetti predicts that this piece of art could outlive London's society and as preposterous as it may seem, Rossetti foresees that someday the distinction between the religions, histories and societies of lost Nineveh and nineteenth-century London could be completely undistinguishable. Societies and even entire empires can dissolve and disappear yet the very essence of the empire may be preserved and perpetuated in it's art. Rossetti makes a chilling and notable conclusion in the last two lines of the poem that art will outlast any time and any space, making it eternal and Godly.

Questions

Rossetti creates an important relationship between the sun and the shadow of the statue. He mentions the two things in conjuncture with each other throughout the poem. In line 41, he writes, "On London stones our sun shown/ The beast's recovered shadow threw. /(No shade that plague of darkness knew...)." Also in 54 Rossetti states, "This sun, (I said) here present, pour'd / Even thus this shadow that I see. / This shadow has been shed the same/ From sun and moon..." It is noted in Layard's Nineveh that "during the excavations, the Tiyari workmen held their services in the shadow of the great bulls." In addition, in line154, Rosssetti once again evokes the connection between the sun and the shadow of the bull in stating, "The sunshine shivered off the day: / The callous wind, it seemed to me, / Swept up the shadow from the ground: / And pale as whom the Fates astound, / The god forlorn stood winged and crown..." The presence of the sun creates the shadow and it is this shadow that originally and now again gives life and weight to the bull. One might assume that Rossetti and the bull would have great respect for nature but the sky is discredited twice in the poem, first in line 99 when Rossetti writes "(Save that dumb presence of the sky)" and again in line 194 when Rossetti describes that the bull's "set gaze never on the sky." Although the sun and sky have persisted over the great passage of time, these elements of nature are not considered as eternal and godly elements like the bull. Do the lines about the sun and sky reflect Rossetti's personal relationship with nature? If so, is there significance to the role of nature in Rossetti's world?

"The Burden of Nineveh" proceeds as a train of thought as if the reader is let inside Rossetti's head to experience the inner-monologue upon seeing this great statue. Although we follow Rossetti's train of thought, he has written his thoughts out for here in very well thought-out and rhythmically smooth verse. Can the reader actually believe that we are in the moment at the museum's exit with Rossetti? Is it important that the formal lines of poetry create a large distance between the reader's experience and Rossetti's experience of the Nineveh bull?

At the end of the poem, Rossetti makes the serious assertion that the once powerful Nineveh's God and his own God are analogous. One can interpret that Rossetti sees art as their mutual God and that significantly, Rossetti implies a very romantic vision that art outlasts everything else, taking on the role as the official representation of a time and place. If one follows Rossetti's belief that there will be a time far past the existence of London, one might like to think that there would be (like the bull from Nineveh), something left to represent London's culture and religion. What would Rossetti like to see as this eternal and godly art? As a painter and writer, would Rossetti hope that his art would be left to mark the society of London?

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Last modified 15 October 2004