Who Art Thou of the Veilëd Countenance

Table of contents

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— 5
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, 10 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 mount—their Lawgiver!31.2
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
Zion!36 Now answer me!
“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 the Christ—
Therefore the crown had fallen from their brows—
Therefore their mountain waxёd50 desolate,
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, 57
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 I unveil
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?”
The Crucified!
He who redeems His people from their sins!—
Comfort to Israel!—Peace!—
“Oh Christian man!

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.

3. Explanatory Notes

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.

queenly widow 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.”

incarnardined made crimson; associated with the color of blood.

the wine-press...God cf. Lamentations 1.15: “the Lord hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress.”

caverned past cf. EBB’s poem, “The Past” (1826).

I heard...trumpeter see Revelation 14.1-2, and Acts 2.2.

Leviathan 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.

cloud-girt surrounded by clouds.

Lawgiver alludes to God’s giving the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 20.1-17).

glorious City Jerusalem.

Zion 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.”

erst 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.

mountain waxёd the mountain of Zion; “waxëd” in this context means “became.”

Lines 49-51 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 Book 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).

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2009-01-20
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