Numa Pompilius

Poem By James Clerk Maxwell

O well is thee! King Numa,
Within thy secret cave,
Where thy bones are ever moistened
By sad Egeria’s wave;
None now have power to pilfer
The treasure of thy tomb,
And reveal the institutions
And secret Rites of Rome.
O blessed be the Senate
That stowed those books away,
Curst be the attempt of Niebuhr
To drag them into day;
Light be the pressure, Numa,
Around thy watery bed,
May no perplexing problems
Infest thy kingly head!
As thus I blessed King Numa
And struggled hard with sleep,
I felt unwonted chillness
O’er all my members creep;
Before mine eyes in fragments
The fireplace seemed to roll,
The chillness left my body
And slid into my soul.
Deep in Egeria's grotto
I saw the darksome well;
I slowly sunk to Numa,
But why I cannot tell.

"What! Livest thou still, old Sabine,
With thy mysterious wife?"
"Yes, here beneath the surface,
We lead a torpid life.
But little think the Critics
Who nullify old Rome,
That in these benumbing waters
I always lived at home.
Never was I a Sabine,
Or lived like men above;
No mortal wight was Numa,
Who quelled the fear of Jove.
Before my day the Romans
Served gods of wood and stone,
But what each man had fashioned
That worshipped he alone;
With care he saved the silver,
With pains the mould designed,
He loved and feared the offspring
Of his pocket and his mind.
To him he went for counsel
And then to Common Sense;
When both of these had failed him
He took to tossing pence;
But I forbade all tossing,
Made men enquire of beasts,
Pulled down all private idols
And set up public priests.
Birds, too,’ said I, ‘are holy,
They show us things to come,
They have more subtle spirits
Than wooden idols dumb.
No longer burn your incense
Before your private shrine,
My Vestals are most careful
To feed the flame divine;
Dismiss all fear of idols,
Of demons, and of gods,
My Augurs will protect you
With their long crooked rods.
(With such the careful shepherd
Drags lambs from ditches deep;
With such he points to heaven
When they are fast asleep.)
O, trust me, those same Augurs
Know more about the stars
Than you whose only business
Is everlasting wars.
How can you be religious,
How can they work for bread?
You sinners must be shriven,
My Augurs must be fed.
You know dividing labour
To nations riches brings,
So let my Augurs shrive you
While you mind earthly things.
Your case I’ve set before you,
You see the thing to do,
If you fork out the needful,
They do your job for you.’
With this and other speeches
I brought the people round,
Till not a single Roman
In Jove’s house can be found.
For well he knows each evening
When bells in steeples toll,
’Tis a sign that well-paid Augurs
Are helping on his soul.
’Twas this that kept ’em quiet
Through all my fabled reign,
Till quarrelsome young Tullus
Brought battles back again.
Thus my cold-blooded doctrines
The fear of Jove could quell,
Wonder not then to find me
Alive here in a well."

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