Poems by Isaac Rosenberg/Moses: A Play


A Play (1916)

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -
An Egyptian Prince
-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -
An Overseer
Two Hebrews
-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -
Abinoah’s Daughter


Scene I.: Outside a college in Thebes. Egyptian students pass by. Moses alone in meditation.

[Enter Messenger.]


[Handing papyrus.] Pharaoh's desires.


[Reads.] To our beloved son, greeting. Add to our thoughts of you, if possible to add, but a little, and you are more than old heroes—not to bemean your genius, who might cry "Was that all!" We pile barriers everywhere: we give you idiots for tools, tree stumps for swords, skin sacks for souls. The sixteenth pyramid remains to be built: we give you the last draft of slaves. Move! Forget not the edict. Pharaoh.


[To Messenger.] What is the edict?


The royal paunch of Pharaoh dangled worriedly,
Not knowing where the wrong: viands once giant-like
Came to him thin and thinner—what rats gnawed?
Honor, the swarm of slaves! The satraps swore
Their wives' bones hurt them when they lay abed,
That before were soft and plump: the people howled
They'd boil the slaves three days to get their fat,
Ending the famine. A haggard council held
Decrees the two hind molars, those two staunchest
Busy labourers in the belly's service, to be drawn
From out each slave's greased mouth, which soon
From incapacity will lose the habit
Of eating.


Well, should their bones stick out to find the air,
I'll make a use of them for pleasantness—
Droll demonstrations of anatomy.


And when you've ended find 'twas one on sharks.

[Moses signs to Messenger to go.
Exit Messenger.]


Fine! Fine!
See, in my brain
What madmen have rushed through
And like a tornado
Torn up the tight roots
Of some dead universe:
The old clay is broken
For a power to soak in and knit
It all into tougher tissues
To hold life;
Pricking my nerves till the brain might crack
It boils to my finger-tips,
Till my hands ache to grip
The hammer—the lone hammer
That breaks lives into a road
Through which my genius drives.
Pharaoh well peruked and oiled,
And your admirable pyramids,
And your interminable procession
Of crowded kings,
You are my little fishing rods
Wherewith I catch the fish
To suit my hungry belly.
I am rough now, and new, and will have no tailor.

As a mountain-side
Wakes aware of its other side
When from a cave a leopard comes,
On its heels the same red sand,
Springing with acquainted air,
Sprang an intelligence
Coloured as a whim of mine,
Showed to my dull outer eyes
The living eyes underneath.
Did I not shrivel up and take the place of air,
Secret as those eyes were,
And those strong eyes call up a giant frame?
And I am that now.

Pharaoh is sleek and deep;
And where his love for me is set—under
The deeps, on their floor, or in the shallow ways,
Though I have been as a diver—never yet
Could I find.... I have a way, a touchstone!
A small misdemeanour, touch of rebelliousness;
To prick the vein of father, monitor, foe,
Will tell which of these his kingship is.
If I shut my eyes to the edict,
And leave the pincers to rust

And the slaves’ teeth as God made them,
Then hide from the summoning tribunal,
Pharaoh will speak; and I'll seize that word to act.
Should the word be a foe's I can use it well
As a poison to soak into Egypt's bowels;
A wraith from old Nile will cry
"For his mercy they break his back"
And I shall have a great following for this,
The rude, touched heart of the mauled, sweaty horde,
Their rough tongues fawn at my hands, their red- streaked eyes
Glitter with sacrifice. Well ! Pharaoh bids me act....
Hah! I’m all a-bristle.... Lord, his eyes would go wide
If he knew the road my rampant dreams would race!
I am too much awake now—restless, so restless.
Behind white mists invisibly
My thoughts stood like a mountain;
But Power, watching as a man,
Saw no mountain there—
Only the mixing mist and sky
And the flat earth.

What shoulder pushed through those mists
Of gay fantastic pastimes
And startled hills of sleep?

[He looks in a mirror.]

Oh, apparition of me,
Ruddy flesh soon hueless,
Fade and show to my eyes
The lasting bare body;
Soul-sack fall away
And show what you hold!
Sing! Let me hear you sing.

A Voice

Upon my lips, like a cloud
To burst on the peaks of light,
Sit cowled impossible things
To tie my hands at their prime and height.
Power, break through their shroud;
Pierce them so thoroughly,
Thoroughly enter me,
Know me for one dead;
Break the shadowy thread,
The cowering spirit's bond
Writ by illusions blond!

Ah! Let the morning pale

Throb with a wilder pulse:
No delicate flame shall quail
With terror at your convulse.
Thin branches whip the white skies
To lips and spaces of song
That chant a mood to my eyes....
Ah! Sleep can be overlong.


Voices thunder, voices of deeds not done:
Lo, on the air are scrawled in abysmal light
Old myths never known and yet already forgone,
And songs more lost, more secret than desert light :
Martyrdoms of uncreated things,
Virgin silences waiting a breaking voice—
As in a womb they cry, in a cage beat vain wings
Under life, over life: is their unbeing my choice ?

Dull wine of torpor—the unsoldered spirit lies limp.
Ah! If she would run into a mould,
Some new idea unwalled
To human by-ways, an apocalyptic camp
Of utterest and ulterior dreaming,
Understood only in its gleaming,
To flash stark naked the whole girth of the world.

I am sick of priests and forms,
This rigid dry-boned refinement:
As ladies’ perfumes are
Obnoxious to stern natures,
This miasma of a rotting god
Is to me.
Who has made of the forest a park?
Who has changed the wolf to a dog?
And put the horse in harness?
And man's mind in a groove?

I heard the one spirit cry in them,
"Break this metamorphosis,
Disenchant my lying body;
Only putrefaction is free,
And I, Freedom, am not.
Moses! Touch us, thou!"

There shall not be a void or calm,
But a fury fill the veins of time—
Whose limbs had begun to rot,
Who had flattered my stupid torpor
With an easy and mimic energy,
And drained my veins with a paltry marvel
More monstrous than battle;
For the soul ached and went out dead in pleasure.

Is not this song still sung in the streets of me?

A naked African
Walked in the sun
Of his wild love.

I slew the tiger
With your young strength
(My tawny panther)
Rolled round my life.

Three sheep, your breasts
And my head between,
Grazing together
On a smooth slope.

Ah! Koelue!

Had you embalmed your beauty, so
It could not backward go
Or change in any way,
What were the use if on my eyes
The embalming spices were not laid
To keep us fixed,
Two amorous sculptures passioned endlessly ?
What were the use if my sight grew
And its far branches were cloud-hung,

You small at the roots like grass;
While the new lips my spirit would kiss
Were not red lips of flesh,
But the huge kiss of power?
Where yesterday soft hair through my fingers fell
A shaggy mane would entwine;
And no slim form work fire to my thighs,
But human Life's inarticulate mass
Throb the pulse of a thing
Whose mountain flanks awry
Beg my mastery—mine !
Ah! I will ride the dizzy beast of the world
My road—my way.

Scene II.: Evening before Thebes. The Pyramids are being built. Swarms of Hebrews labouring. Priests and Taskmasters. Two Hebrews are furtively talking. Koelue passes by singing.


The vague viols of evening
Call all the flower clans
To some abysmal swinging
And tumult of deep trance;
He may hear, flower of my singing,
And come hither winging.

Old Hebrew

[Gazing after her in a muffled frenzy.]

Hateful harlot! Boils cover your small cruel face.
O, fine champion Moses: O, so good to us:
O, grand begetter on her of a whip and a torturer,
Her father, born to us since you kissed her.
Our champion, O so good to us!

Young Hebrew

For shame! Our brothers’ twisted blood-smeared gums
Tell we only have more room for wreck curtailed:
For you, having no teeth to draw, it is no mercy
Perhaps; but they might mangle your gums
Or touch a nerve somewhere. He barred it now;
And that is all his thanks, he, too, in peril.
Be still, old man; wait a little.

Old Hebrew

All day some slow dark quadruped beats
To pulp our springiness:
All day some hoofed animal treads our veins,
Leisurely—leisurely our energies flow out:
All agonies created from the first day
Have wandered hungry searching the world for us,
Or they would perish like disused Behemoth.
Is our Messiah one to unleash these agonies
As Moses does, who gives us an Abinoah?

Young Hebrew

Yesterday as I lay nigh dead with toil
Underneath the hurtling crane oiled with our blood,

Thinking to end all and let the crane crush me,
He came by and bore me into the shade:
O, what a furnace roaring in his blood
Thawed my congealed sinews and tingled my own
Raging through me like a strong cordial.
He spoke! Since yesterday
Am I not larger grown?
I’ve seen men hugely shapen in soul,
Of such unhuman shaggy male turbulence
They tower in foam miles from our neck-strained sight,
And to their shop only heroes come;
But all were cripples to this speed
Constrained to the stables of Mesh.
I say there is a famine in ripe harvest
When hungry giants come as guests:
Come knead the hills and ocean into food,
There is none for him.
The streaming vigours of his blood erupting
From his halt tongue are like an anger thrust
Out of a madman's piteous craving for
A monstrous balked perfection.

Old Hebrew

He is a prince, an animal
Not of our kind; who perhaps has heard

Vague rumours of our world, to his mind
An unpleasant miasma.

Young Hebrew

Is not Miriam his sister, Jochabed his mother?
In the womb he looked round and saw
From furthermost stretches our wrong:
From the palaces and schools
Our pain has pierced dead generations
Back to his blood's thin source.
As we lie chained by Egyptian men
He lay in nets of their women,
And now rejoices he has broken their meshes.
O! His desires are fleets of treasure
He has squandered, in treacherous seas.
Sailing mistrust to find frank ports;
He fears our fear and tampers mildly
For our assent to let him save us.
When he walks amid our toil
With some master-mason
His tense brows, critical
Of the loose enginery,
Hint famed devices flat, his rod
Scratching new schemes on the sand:
But read hard the scrawled lines there—
Limned turrets and darkness, chinks of light,

Half beasts snorting into the light,
A phantasmagoria, wild escapade
To our hearts' clue; just a daring plan
To the honest mason. What swathed meanings peer
From his work-a-day council, washed to and from
Your understanding till you doubt
That a word was said—
But a terror wakes and forces your eyes
Into his covertly, to search his searching;
Startled to life, starved hopes slink out
Cowering, incredulous.

Old Hebrew

[To himself.] His youth is flattered at Moses' kind speech to him.

[To the Young Hebrew.]

I am broken and grey, have seen much in my time,
And all this gay grotesque of childish man
Long passed; half blind, half deaf, I only grumble
I am not blind or deaf enough for peace.
I have seen splendid young fools cheat themselves
Into a prophet's frenzy; I have seen
So many crazed shadows puffed away,
And conscious cheats with such an ache for fame

They'd make a bonfire of themselves to be
Mouthed in the squares, broad in the public eye:
And whose backs break, whose lives are mauled, after
It all falls flat? His tender airs chill me—
As thoughts of sleep to a man tiptoed night-long
Roped round his neck, for sleep means death to him.
Oh, he is kind to us!
Your safe teeth chatter when they hear a step:
He left them yours because his cunning way
Would brag the wrong against his humane act
By Pharaoh; so gain more favour than he lost.

Young Hebrew

Help him not then, and push your safety away:
I for my part will be his backward eye,
His hands when they are shut. Ah! Abinoah!
Like a bad smell from the soul of Moses dipt
In the mire of lust he hangs round him;
And if his slit-like eyes could tear right out
The pleasure Moses on his daughter had,
She'd be as virgin as ere she came nestling
Into that fierce unmanageable blood,
Flying from her loathed father. O, that slave
Has hammered from the anvil of her beauty

A steel to break his manacles: hard for us
Moses has made him overseer. O, his slits
Pry—pry.... For what?... To sell to Imra....

[Abinoah is seen approaching.]

Sh! The thin-lipped abomination!
Zig-zagging haschish tours in a fine style:
It were delightful labour making bricks,
Knowing they would kiss friendly with his head.


[Who has been taking haschish; and who has one obsession, hatred of Jews.]

Dirt-draggled mongrels, circumcised slaves,
You puddle with your lousy gibberish
The holy air, Pharaoh's own tributary:
Filthy manure for Pharaoh's flourishing,
I'll circumcise and make holy your tongues,
And stop one outlet to your profanation.

[To the Old Hebrew.]

I’ve never seen one beg so for a blow;
Too soft am I to resist such entreaty.

[Beats him.]

Your howling holds the earnest energies
You cheat from Pharaoh when you make his bricks.

An Aged Minstrel

[Sings from a distance.]

Taut is the air and tied the trees,
The leaves lie as on a hand;
God's unthinkable imagination
Invents new tortures for nature.

And when the air is soft and the leaves
Feel free and push and tremble,
Will they not remember and say
How wonderful to have lived?

[The Old Hebrew is agitated and murmurs.]

Messiah, Messiah.... That voice ...
O, he has beaten my sight out.... I see
Like a rain about a devouring fire....

[The Minstrel sings.]

Ye who best God awhile, O hear: your wealth
Is but His cunning to see to make death more hard,
Your iron sinews take more pain in breaking;
And he has made the market for your beauty
Too poor to buy although you die to sell.

Old Hebrew

I am crazed with whips.... I hear a Messiah.

Young Hebrew

The venerable man will question this.


[Overhearing.] Ill beat you more, and he'll question
The scratchiness of your whining; or, may be,
Thence may be born deep argument
With reasons from philosophy,
That this blow, taking longer, yet was but one,
Or perhaps two; or that you felt this one—
Arguing from the difference in your whine—
Exactly, or not, like the other.


You labour hard to give pain.


[Still beating.] My pain is... not... to labour so.


What is this greybeard worth to you now,
All his dried-up blood crumbled to dust?

[Motions Abinoah to desist, but not in time to prevent the old man fainting into the hands of the Young Hebrew.]


Harper, are you envious of the old fool?
Go! Hug the rat who stole your last crumbs,
And gnawed the hole in your life which made time wonder
Who it was saved labour for him the next score of years.
We allowed them life for their labour—they haggled.
Food they must have, and (god of laughter!) even ease;
But mud and lice and Jews are very busy
Breeding plagues in ease.

[The Minstrel pulls his beard and robe off.]




You drunken rascal!


A drunken rascal! Isis, hear the Prince!
Drunken with duty, and he calls me rascal.


You may think it your duty to get drunk;
But get yourself bronze claws before
You would be impudent.


When a mans drunk he'll kiss a horse or king,
He's so affectionate. Under your words
There is strong wine to make me drunk; you think,
The lines of all your face say, "Her father, Koelue's father."


This is too droll and extraordinary.
I dreamt I was a prince—a queer droll dream
Where a certain slave of mine, a thing, a toad,
Shifting his belly, showed a diamond
Where he had lain; and a blind dumb messenger
Bore syllabled messages soaked right through with glee:
I paid the toad, the blind man; afterwards
They spread a stench and snarling. O, droll dream!

I think you merely mean to flatter me,
You subtle knave, that, more than prince, I'm man
And worth to listen to your bawdy breath.


Yet my breath was worth your mixing with.


A boy at college flattered so by a girl
Will give her what she asks for.


Osiris! Burning Osiris!
Of thee desirable, for thee, her hair....

[He looks inanely at Moses, saying to himself.]

Prince Imra vowed his honey-hives and vineyards:
Isis, to let a Jew have her for nothing!

[He sings under his breath.]

Night by night in a little house
A man and woman meet;
They look like each other,
They are sister and brother;
And night by night at that same hour
A king calls for his son in vain.


[To himself.] So, sister Miriam, it is known then. Slave, you die.
[Aloud.] O, you ambiguous stench,
You'll be more interesting as a mummy
I have no doubt.


I’m drunk, yes—drenched with the thought
Of a certain thing. [Aside.] I'll sleep sounder to-night
Than all the nights I've followed him about
Worrying each slight clue, each monosyllable
To give the word to Imra: the prince is near,
And Moses' eyes shall blink before next hour
To a hundred javelins. I’ll tease him till they come.
[Aloud.] On Koelue's tears I swam to you, in a mist
Of her sighs I hung round you;
As in some hallucination I've been walking
A white waste world, we two only in it.


Doubtless the instinct balked to bully the girl,
Making large gapings in your haschish dreams,

Led you to me in whom she was thoroughly lost.
Pah, you sicken me!

[He is silent awhile, then turns away.]


Prince Imra is Pharaoh's choice now, and Koelue's.

[Moses turns back menacingly.]


Silence, you beast!

[He changes his tone to a winning softness.]

I hate these family quarrels: it is so
Like fratricide. I am a rebel, well?
Soft! You are not, and we are knit so close
It would be shame for a son to be so honoured
And the father still unknown: come, Koelue's (so my) father,
I'll tell my plans—you'll beg to be rebel then.
Look round on the night—
Old as the first, bleak, even her wish is done;
She has never seen, though dreamt perhaps of the sun,
Yet only dawn divides; could a miracle

Destroy the dawn, night would be mixed with light,
No night or light would be, but a new thing:
So with these slaves, who perhaps have dreamt of freedom,
Egypt was in the way; I'll strike it out
With my ways curious and unusual.
I have a trouble in my mind for largeness,
Rough-hearted, shaggy, which your grave ardours lack:
Here is the quarry quiet for me to hew;
Here are the springs, primeval elements,
The roots’ hid secrecy, old source of race,
Unreasoned reason of the savage instinct.
I'd shape one impulse through the contraries
Of vain ambitious men, selfish and callous,
And frail life-drifters, reticent, delicate—
Litheness thread bulk, a nation's harmony:
These are not lame nor bent awry, but placeless
With the rust and stagnant. All that's low I'll charm,
Barbaric love sweeten to tenderness,
Cunning ran into wisdom, craft turn to skill;
Their meanness, threaded right and sensibly,
Change to a prudence envied and not sneered;
Their hugeness be a driving wedge to a thing

Ineffable and useable, as near
Solidity as human life can be:
So grandly fashion these rude elements
Into some newer nature, a consciousness
Like naked light seizing the all-eyed soul,
Oppressing with its gorgeous tyranny
Until they take it thus—or die.

[While speaking, he places his hand on the unsuspecting Egyptian's head and gently, caressingly, pulls his hair back until his chin is above his forehead, and holds him so till he is suffocated. In the darkness ahead is seen the glimmer of javelins and spears: it is Prince Imra’s cohorts come to arrest Moses.]

The End.