Potiphar's Wife (A Poem by Sir Edwin Arnold)

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                     POTIPHAR'S WIFE
                                                 A poem written by Sir Edwin Arnold
                                                   (After the versions of the Koran, and the Persian poet Jami.)

In Memphis, underneath the palms of Nile, The Lady Asenath a house did build For love of Hebrew Yusuf; who, erewhile With flame unquenchable her breast had filled: The treasures of Prince Itfir 'stablished it A summer-palace for her fancies fit.


White, in the blue Egyptian sky, it soared With mighty graven stones reared outwardly; This side the gate—enthroned—sate Horus, Lord, Finger to lip; and, on that other, Thmei, Mother of Truth, holding her asp and wand, Glared with great granite face across the land.


Inwardly, by an alley of black shade, The footstep passed on checkered slabs set square, Into a walled court; where a colonnade Framed a glad garden full of odors rare From heavy blooms and fruits. Without was seen Golden Noon naming, here 'twas Evening green!


And all the wall was painted movingly With high-wrought lore, and solemn-storied things: Anubis, herding souls, was there to see, And Thoth the Judge: and proud-apparelled kings Driving to wars, and bringing spoil again, Their chariot-wheels rose-red with blood of slain.


And elsewhere Heaven was shown, with bliss unbroken, Whereto those mild immortal sisters lead, Isis and Nepthys; and, for certain token, Scarabs in holy rows. The limner's reed Had drawn their foreclaws holding emblems three Of Life, and Changelessness, and Sanctity.


And, elsewhere, frowned Amenti — Hell:— but over The silver plumes swayed, teaching how the Dead Should pass beyond dire Typhon, and discover Paths to the happy Light, where Ra's bright head Rebukes all darkness, Regent of the Sun; And Phtah, Kneph, Athor—every Sacred One.


Also, that cloistered walk was compassed in With pillars wonderful for work and hue: This one a palm-stem; that papyrus thin; Yonder, in stone, lotuses pink and blue. And from the garden and the colonnade A roofed way to the inner rooms was laid.


For inner chambers were there seven: — each fashioned With matchless wit to make each goodlier Than that last seen. So, heart and eye, impassioned Unto the inmost passed, devised by her, High Asenath, for love's deep hiding-place, Beautiful, marvelous, all peace and grace.


Through latticed loops Nile's cooling ripple came— Musical, lulling,—to that dim retreat Which had for light one silver lamp's faint flame Burning with fragrant oils before the feet Of Pasht, in speckled stone, Pasht with cat's head, And long arms on her levelled knees outspread.


The forty carven columns round about Showed each some master-piece of subtle craft: A musk-deer here, in river-reeds, breathes out The very musk-scent from him: there, a waft Of bulrush-heads to the quick current bend, And the slow crocodiles to dry land wend


Sunning wet scales. And, next, a gray fox watched— In syenite—doves on a tamarisk-tree Done out of a green rock. Wings and necks were matched In lazulite and moonstone—fair to see! Midway a dais mounted to a bed Of pearl and ebony, with soft cloths spread.


Upon the alcove there, and all around Love tales were pictured: some swart lady wooed A lover still unwilling; lie was bound In dark warm arms, refusing: then 'twas viewed How to her spells he melted: then, again, How what he scorned he sued for—fond and fain.


And those who thus Love's luxuries had won Asenath seemed, and Yusuf. Limb for limb, Lips, eyes, and brows, the Hebrew boy was done Lifelike. The gemmed Egyptian dame with him Shone Asenath herself, Asenath fair, With robes ungirt, no fillet in her hair!


Into this palace 'twas her mind to bring Yusuf the slave, and lead him, room by room, Through all their passages of pleasuring Till eyes' delight should heart's cold doubts consume. But first herself she 'tired, and lovelier made That loveliness, too rich before arrayed!


Her eyebrows' arch with penciled lines she builded, And touched each underlid with jetty dye, Drew the long lashes separate, and gilded Her flesh with palm-flow'r dust, to beautify The ambered satin of her nape and neck; And deftly with red henna did she deck


Her slender finger-tips; and washed with myrrh Her long black tresses, braiding them in strings Which, from the queenly gleaming crown of her Swung to her knees, banded with beads and rings: And, 'thwart her breasts—like lotus-blossoms blown— A purple, spangled, sindon hath she thrown.


Then she bade summon that fair Hebrew boy: Who came, with palms across his faint heart folded, And kissed her feet, and prayed: "What swift employ May thy true servant find?" Of manhood moulded In every part was Yusuf; and her eye O'er-roamed him with a tender tyranny.


Yet more he shunned th" imperious look of love Than if her glance had blaze of wrath displayed: "But," quoth the Princess, "this night will I prove If thou be servant true!" Therewith she bade Follow:—and, entering that first chamber-door, Shot the bronze bolt; and from his brown throat tore—


With swift impatient hand—the leathern thong Marking him thrall; and cried: "My soul's desire I I, thy hid handmaid, do thee daily wrong Playing the mistress. By Ra's morning fire Freed art thou! Make my gift of freedom sweet Lifting this love-sick giver from thy feet!"


With that she poured her black imperial hair In waves upon his sandals. But, he said: "Thou, to whom Egypt's noblest kneel in fear, Mock me not thus, on whom the charge is laid To guard thee for my Lord; or, if set free, Great lady! Grant my soul his liberty!"


Silent she rose:—drew him on inwardly Behind the second door, locking it hard: Took from a chest,—cut of the almond-tree— A cirque, with gods and scarabs set in hard: "See now!" she cried: "I crown thee Prince and Lord, Will not those lips, made royal like mine, afford


"The word I pine for, which shall pay for greatness? Now may'st thou lift thy face, and answer sweet; "We are as one! Quit shame, forsake sedateness! Asenath wooes Lord Yusuf:—that is meet!" "Oh, Itfir's wife!" he said, "meet would it be I were made vulture's food, hearkening to thee!"


Then, through those chambers third and fourth she passed, And to the fifth and sixth she led him on, Bolting each door behind: 'till at the last,— Laden with gifts of jade, and turkis-stone, And robes, and torques—she brought Him to her bower, Where 'twas her thought to put forth Love's last power.


For all four walls with those light pictures burned, Painted to life—lovers at play—and these To that great suppliant, wasting on his hand Woeful caressings: and to mark what pain Filled with clear tears the bright beseeching eyes; Heaved the soft breasts, as sea-tides sink and rise.


For, when she linked the last door's chain, and seized His hands, and, desperate, her last prayer said, He had been stone or snow to view, unpleased, - The lustrous glory of that low-bowed head, The meekness of such majesty forgot, The queenly pleading orbs, whose light was shot


Star-wise, through sparkling rain; which more o'erpowered By grace, than greatness, to the sweet surrender. Like a charmed snake Conscience its cold hood lowered, While, soft as muted lute, in accents tender Her rich lips murmured, " Oh, how long, how long Wilt thou do thee and me this loveless wrong?"


"How long? When I, who may command, implore, Being named Mistress of the Mouths of Nile? Yet, if into the Ocean those did pour Silver and gold all day, for one kind smile From those close-curtained eyes, for one light kiss I would let sea-born Kneph take all of this! XXIX.

"Give, then, mine heart its will, mine eyelids sleep; My head the pillow that can lull its woe. Shall Asenath of Memphis vainly weep? I cry to thee by Him thou honourest so, Thy Hebrew Jah—if He hath any ruth— Show mercy! Put to fruit thy blossomed youth!"


"Yea! By the marks thy God hath set on thee To make thee most desirable,—thy hair Glossed like an ibis' wing,—thy brows which be Black rainbows to thy sunlike eyes,—the fan- Wonderful rounding of thy temples twain, And that flower mouth,—which, when it opens again


"Cannot, and shall not say me ' nay'—by these, And all thy goodly strength, for Love's use given, By my salt tears, and by my soul's disease, Shut me no longer from the wished-for Heaven; Its gate is there! There—in those arms tight-locked— Open them—open! for my heart hath knocked!"


"What gives thee fear, when I am none afeard? Where is thy shame, if I am naught ashamed? What whisper of our comforts shall be heard From these still walls? How should thy blood be blamed Mingling with mine, who come of Pharaoh's race? With mine, that have these brows, this breast, this face?"


"Ah, thou most high and most beguiling one!" Trembling he answered: "Tempt me not to this! Easy it were to do, but ill, being done, If I should sell white virtue for a kiss, And break the bright glass of unstained faith To burn for shame when our Lord Itfir saith


"'Yusuf, my Trusted!' By the living Lord,

Whose lamp the sun is, seeing everywhere, Too sore I pity thee! Too soon the word Of ' yea' would leap, if it were only fear Which locks it in my lips: oh, let me go And on some other day this might be so!"


"Nay, nay !" she cries: "For me is no to-morrow! Who, dying in a desert, puts aside The water-skin? Who, holding cure of sorrow, Bears on with agony? When could betide A better time than now, a surer spot? What's wrought the Gods themselves will witness not!"


"My God will witness!" quoth he, "and make know My Master." "Oh, thy Master!" brake in she, "I have a herb of Nile, and, when cups flow, Crowned at the banquet, there shall some night be A strange new savour in his wine:—and, then Sleep on his eyes, and ceasing from 'midst men."


Backward thereat he drew, as when a snake From coralled jaws bares sudden fatal fangs; But she, distempered, from her belt did take A knife: and, while with one fond hand she hangs Hot on his neck, the other the blade kept So pressed to the skin the scarlet blood outleapt.


And with wild eyes she spake: "My soul hath clung Too close to thine, Unkind! to cling in vain; Mine ears have drank the music of thy tongue Too long for life, except Love heals life's pain! See! The fond dagger for my scorned blood yearns, And drinks its first drop, where the bright point burns!


"Deny me, and I drive this shining death Straight to the heart which thou contemnest so; And when last love-sigh comes with latest breath, And o'er thy cruel hands the red streams flow, My murdered body shall Lord Itfir see, And the dread charge of this will light on thee!"


With eager grasp he clutched her wrist, and cried: "Great Asenath! have pity on us both! From such mad frenzy turn thy steel aside. Too fair—too dear—to die! too—" She, not loath, Deeming the boy relenting, sheathed her blade, And with close-winding arms a warm chain made


About his beating breast, and drew him down Against her mouth, and dragged "Nay! Nay!" away In such a cleaving kiss his sense did swoon, His tongue, shut in with honey, naught could say; His eyes, meeting her eyes, such fierce flame took They dropped their lids not to be lightning-strook.


Then, while he sank back, will-less, on the silk, She rose, of triumph sure, and deftly drew Prom her smooth shoulders,—brown and smooth as milk With palm-wine mixed—that scarf of purple hue Veiling her bosom's splendours; this she bore, Quick-tripping, to the niche beside the door,


Where, on tall pedestal, in pride of place, Sate Pasht the Cat, with orbs of green and gold; And, over those green eyes, and o'er the face That garment hath she draped, so that its fold Hid the House-Goddess to her porphyry chin. "Why doest thou this?" asks Yusuf. "If I sin—"


Answers glad Asenath—" It must not be That Pasht, whom every morn I straitly serve With musk, and flowers, and prayers—great Pasht, should see; That Pasht, with those sharp eyes, should know I swerve From law:—for she would blab to Lords of Hell, But what she doth not spy she will not tell."


Turning, she made to clip him; but he broke, Like the sun bursting through a shattered cloud, Fierce from her arms: and, all alight, he spoke Angrily thus: "Take, too, thy skirt, and shroud Yon stars that gaze upon us from God's sky! Cover, with fine-wove we.bs, the angry eye


"Of dread Jehovah, watching everywhere! Bind His free winds, and bid them whisper naught! Lay hand upon His lightnings, flashing clear, And bribe them not to strike! Let there be brought His thunders, muzzled, to thy bower; and win Their awful voices to forgive our sin!"


"Fear'st thou those stony eyes thou didst enfold, And shall not I my fathers' Lord fear more, Whose glance none may shut out, Whose eyes behold All things in every place? Tempted full sore, Lady of Egypt! Was thy witless slave: Now breaks he from thee, better faith to save!"


With that he darted forth. And Asenath Reached at his waist-cloth, rending it atwain; One portion in her wrathful hand she hath, One the fast-flying Yusuf doth retain; While, in his speed, he flings back bolts and bars Till, 'scaped, he stands under the mindful stars.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.