"The Burden of Nineveh," by Dante Rossetti, is a poem of self-reflection, a query into the role of the particular (whether it be man, god, or civilization) in the wider scheme of time and inconstancy. Whether people create values and deities that they themselves will use, or else ascribe such things to nations now long gone, ultimately all their efforts will only become the relics by which future peoples interpret the past and judge their own place in the human narrative. And such interpretations are often faulty. With such ideas in mind, the narrator fantasizes about both the intentions by which the ancients may have constructed their culture, and the histories by which those yet to come will analyze their predecessors. And because he exists in the present moment, the narrator stands as a link between the unknown but definite past, and the unknown indefinite future, uncertain of anything but that his world teems with ghosts whom he himself will someday join.
Deemed they of this, those worshippers,
When, in some mythic chain of verse
Which man shall not again rehearse,
The faces of thy ministers
Yearned pale with bitter ecstasy?
Greece, Egypt, Rome, — did any god
Before whose feet men knelt unshod
Deem that in this unblest abode
Another scarce more unknown god
Should house with him, from Nineveh?
Ah! in what quarries lay the stone
From which this pillared pile has grown,
Unto man's need how long unknown,
Since those thy temples, court and cone,
Rose far in desert history?
Ah! what is here that does not lie
All strange to thine awakened eye?
Ah! what is here can testify
(Save that dumb presence of the sky)
Unto thy day and Nineveh?
Why, of those mummies in the room
Above, there might indeed have come
One out of Egypt to thy home,
An alien. Nay, but were not some
Of these thine own 'antiquity?'
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?
The consecrated metals found,
And ivory tablets, underground,
Winged teraphim and creatures crown'd,
When air and daylight filled the mound,
Fell into dust immediately.
And even as these, the images
Of awe and worship, — even as these, —
So, smitten with the sun's increase,
Her glory mouldered and did cease
From immemorial Nineveh.
The structure of the poem is such that no matter where the narrative takes us, it returns us, at the end of each stanza, to Nineveh. Nineveh, because it existed for its respective stage, seems to exist for all of time — in past, present, and future — though its Bull-god (the relic by which the civilization manifests itself) is as ever-changing in its use and symbolism as the mortal eyes that peer upon it.
1. The narrator describes the Bull-god as a "dead disbowelled mystery: / The mummy of a buried faith," as if the true meaning of its construction were forever hidden from him. Yet in its very ambiguity, the statue comes to adopt a particular symbolism for him — one far, perhaps, from the intention of its builders, but one nonetheless full of meaning. What ultimately is Rossetti's opinion on the role of relics — mere vestiges of the past, or artifacts continually useful generation after generation?
2. The sun, the moon, and the "dumb presence of the sky" appear as the few figures of constancy, or continuity, in a world otherwise ever volatile. Why choose these celestial symbols in place of other forces of permanence, such as ocean or soil?
3. What might Rossetti mean by the setting of the museum, where figures separated by time and geography mingle with figures of the present?
4. What structural or thematic aspects does this poem share with the other Rossetti works we have examined? Based on this small collection can one begin to characterize the intentions and the general aesthetic of his poetry? And further, could one relate these works to any of his visual art we have examined (such as The Wedding of St. George and Princess Sabra or his Tennyson wood engravings) in terms of the themes they consider and the moods they evoke?
5. Of all the relics in the museum it is interesting that the narrator selects the Nineveh statue as the focus of his musings. Is there something in the particular image of this statue (human face, wings, hooves) that attracts him, or is it the conceptions he has about the civilization (Nineveh) that created it?
Last modified 26 January 2009