1. Who Art Thou of the Veilëd Countenance
“Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?”—LAMENTATIONSa
Who art thou of the veilёd countenance,
That sittest by the way, alone—alone,
Looking a queenly widow?3
thy drooped hair
Kissed by the dust—thy vest, incarnardined,4
As from the wine-press of the wrath of God—
Thine ancient harp beside thee without string,
In exile from its music? Answer me!
“Who art THOU that constrainest thus my woe
To answer thee? If ever thou hast walked
I’ the caverned past,
to make its echoes speak—
If face to face thou stoodest with the dead
Ages, to mark the features of their ghosts—
Then say what thou hast heard most wonderful—
Then say what thou hast seen most excellent,
In all the earth, and I will answer thee!”
I heard a rushing from the mighty sea,
Which was not of his waters! man and horse,
Woman and child, harper and trumpeter,18
Did send the noise of lip from the old seat
Of silence and the waves: Leviathan20
Quaked at the sound o’ the trumpet—and the tongue
Of all the shrunken deep was chained with dread.
I saw a mountain,23
garmented in clouds
Which ever and anon24
the lightnings rent—
In whose path did the thunders shout, deep-voiced,
As those who rush to battle! There was fear
Below, among the people! On their brows
Swung the tempestuous light, while all their hosts
Murmured and heaved like woods i’ the wind. Our God,
The Lord, whose shadow is the light of worlds,
Dwelt on that cloud-girt31.1
I saw a glorious City.32
At her gates,
The Elders sat rejoicing—in her streets,
The young men touched instruments musical—
The Lord was in her temple! Thou dost know
“Oh woe! Oh woe!
Woe for the pleasant things! Go back to Time—
And find what thou hast seen most desolate,
In all the earth; and I will answer thee!”
I saw the glorious City! she who erst40
Was full of people, sat in solitude:
Her Elders had all ceased from her gate,
Her young men from their music:32
in the streets
Men staggered, as the blind, with blooded vest—
And none did touch them; for there came a cry,
“Touch not! it is unclean—depart: depart!”46
And so, they fled and wandered! Then I knew
That they had crucified their King,48
Therefore the crown had fallen from their brows—
Therefore their mountain waxёd50
Whereon the foxes walk51
—therefore their dance
Turned to mourning—their heart’s joy to woe—
Their organ to the voice of them that weep!
Now answer me.
“I’ the voice of them that weep,
I answer thee! woe for the Holy Place!
She who was great among the multitudes,
She who was Princess among provinces,
She who was called the joy of all the earth,58
Beauty’s perfection, and the throne of God—
How doth she crouch in darkness—the despised—
The hissing of the nations61
—pouring her heart,
Like water, i’ the night watches!62
Her face to thee: her beauty is depart—
Her lovers stand afar off64
—she doth stretch
Her chained hands uncomforted! For thee,
Tell me from whence the light upon thy brow,
And tell from whence the Book67
within thy clasp;
What dost thou find therein?”
He who redeems His people from their sins!—
Comfort to Israel!—Peace!—
“Oh Christian man!
GIVE ME THY BOOK!”—
2. Note on the text
Reprinted in 1914 as a “hitherto unknown poem ... of a profoundly
significant kind” (HUPS 2:71-74), but not included in editions
of EBB’s poetry in her lifetime or thereafter, this work first appeared-- untitled but
signed “E.B.B.”-- in the January 1827 issue of the Jewish Expositor,
and Friend of Israel, the journal of the London Society for Promoting Christianity
Among the Jews. The Society was an interdenominational organization founded in 1809,
dedicated to proselytizing among Jewish people in England and Europe, and to promoting the
study of subjects concerned with Judaism, Jewish affairs, or Hebrew literature.a1
EBB’s interest in the Society’s work was most probably linked to her own and her family’s
response to the charismatic millenarian preacher, Edward Irving (1792-1834), a central
figure in the apocalyptic movement of dispensationalism widespread in the years following
the upheaval of the French Revolution. Dispensationalism interpreted history as a series
of dispensations or eras concluding with the restoration of the Jewish people to their
homeland and the second coming of Christ. Irving, whose interest in apocalyptic prophecy
was shared by many, including his friend, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834),
had close ties to the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. EBB praised
Irving’s eloquence in An Essay on Mind (ll. 914-15); he was also
a frequent subject in her correspondence with the classical scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd
(1781-1848) between 1827 and 1831.a2
By 1831 the outburst of “speaking in tongues” associated with Irving’s increasingly sensationalized
preaching in London (attracting huge crowds of 4,000 or more) had made her much more skeptical.a3
In 1827, however, as “Who Art Thou of the Veilëd Countenance” suggests, she was drawn to
Irving’s prophetic reading of the book of Revelation and the interpretations of Jewish
sacred history associated with it. The poem’s focus on a fallen nation personified as
female is analogous to EBB’s treatment of Greece in her earlier writings, and of Italy in
her later writings, while the interest in biblical prophecy and in the figures and types
of Jewish history subsequently reappears in the conclusion to Aurora Leigh.
In her treatment of Jerusalem’s lamentations, she also anticipates her treatment of Eve’s
laments for a lost Paradise in A Drama of Exile (1844). In style,
the poem is in the vatic manner that EBB was drawn to throughout her career. It is also
an early instance of her interest in poetry involving a dialogical interplay between dramatized voices.
Lamentations 1.12, addressed by the city of Jerusalem, personified as a lamenting woman, to
those who “pass by.” EBB’s poem is permeated by biblical echoes, especially of Lamentations,
which follows the Book of Jeremiah and is traditionally interpreted as Jeremiah’s poetic
laments on the fall of Jerusalem, c. 587-586 B.C. In Lamentations, the voice of Jeremiah
and the female voice of the fallen Jerusalem often intermingle, however, as 1.12 suggests.
Jerusalem. Lamentations opens, “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full
of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations.” As l. 71
below indicates, the speaker addressing the “veiled” figure of Jerusalem is a “Christian man.”
made crimson; associated with the color of blood.
cf. Lamentations 1.15: “the Lord hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress.”
cf. EBB’s poem, “The Past” (1826).
see Revelation 14.1-2, and Acts 2.2.
the Hebrew name for a monster of the deep (e.g., Job 41.1; Psalms 74.14, 104.26), identified in interpretations of the apocalypse with the seven-headed “beast” that rises up from the sea in Revelation 13.2, defeated in the Final Judgment. Isaiah 27.1 is also relevant here, with its prophecy of the “day” when “the Lord ... shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
I saw a mountain
Mount Sinai, surrounded by “thunders and lightnings,” and a “thick cloud” when God descended to give the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites, and the people “trembled” (see Exodus 19.9-25); in its context here, however, it is also associated through the biblical echoes in l. 18, above, and the allusions to Leviathan, with the Last Judgment, when John sees God’s throne surrounded by “lightnings and thunderings” (Revelation 4.5), and the earth is destroyed amidst “thunders, and lightnings” (16.18).
ever and anon
every now and then.
surrounded by clouds.
alludes to God’s giving the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 20.1-17).
in Jerusalem, Zion is the hill upon which the city of David was built, the center of Jewish worship; figuratively, the heavenly Jerusalem, as in Revelation 14.1, where the “Lamb” or Christ stands on “mount Sion.”
earlier, or in the recent past.
Her Elders... music
“The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their music” (Lamentations 5.14), also echoed indirectly in ll. 32-35 above.
Touch ... depart!
The line paraphrases Lamentations 4.15. Jerusalem is frequently represented as unclean in Lamentations. In 1.17 Jerusalem is described as “a menstruous woman.”
crucified their King
The crucifixion of Christ (see Matthew 27.31-28.10; Mark 15; Luke 23.13-24.12; John 19-20), here associated with the fall of Jerusalem.
the mountain of Zion; “waxëd” in this context means “became.”
echo Lamentations 5.16 and 18.
Princess among provinces
an echo of Lamentations 1.1.
joy of all the earth
an echo of Lamentations 2.15, where Jerusalem is mocked with this phrase.
hissing of the nations
In Lamentations 2.16, Jerusalem’s enemies “hiss” and open their mouths against her.
pouring her heart, / Like water, i’ the night watches!
a paraphrase of Lamentations 2.19: “Arise, cry out in the night; in the beginning of the watches pour out thine heart like water before the face of the Lord.”
Her lovers stand afar off
an echo of Lamentations 1.2: “among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her.”
the Bible; one mission of the Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews was the translation of the New Testament into Hebrew to assist in the goal of conversion.
See Hannah Adams, Concise Account of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (Boston: John Eliot, 1816). ↵
EBB found Irving’s writings “highly oratorical & splendid” and said that “[a]s a Preacher,” he had moved her “more than any one” she had heard, despite Boyd’s evident “indignation about Irving’s scholarship” (BC 2:128, 159.; see also 2:30, 39, 121-22, 138, and 193). ↵
Describing some of the young women associated with Irving and their displays of speaking in tongues, EBB reported that they had been “heard talking & laughing very loud just before service, and arranging how they would disobey their husbands, whenever they happened to marry, by speaking in the unknown tongue, whether the aforesaid husbands liked it or not” (BC 2:334; see also 3:1). ↵