Valley of the Kings      

A rock wall soars between

The shattered temple-tombs reflected in the Nile

And this moon-mining scene.

The donkeys, bruised, dejected, crop the gravel, while

You stumble round

The boulders towards the broken lean

To entrance, but a ticket for the plunging mile

Of mirror-pictures underground,

And leave the sun to shine.


The slanted subway takes

Your breath away, then slowly gives it back, but cold.

Imagination wakes:

Perhaps you come at last to your entombment.  Old

Fears rise up to flood

Your life’s deep subterranean lakes,

Carved in the stone of childhood, ready to enfold

The late and early terrors. Would

This art withstand earthquakes?


Here docile figures wait

Impassively: the farmer farms, the priest still prays,

The king conserves the state

By adoration, while a god of judgement weighs

In level scales

His heart against the feather – Ma’at –

Of truth.  How lightly drawn that feather is! God’s gaze

Upon the king; for if he fails

This test, his heart falls out.


Yet like a children’s book

These speaking pictures pass you by.  You are too wise

To take a second look.

Death is the subject for a later date. Your eyes

Are on the stars

Above, gold against blue, which took

Three thousand years to bring you light.  But round those skies

The criss-cross Ankh sign, outspread, bars

You back, like a shepherd’s crook.


From what? The false doors lead

In all directions save the one where you should go.

This painted food will feed

Only imperishable people. Stars which glow

Like real stars lose

Their seeming lustre when you need

Them to disclose the way.  From what? I do not know –

Except I know that you may choose

Which hieroglyphs to read.


Silence on silence: room

Upon frescoed room, each filled with figures, turned

In profile towards that tomb

On which these ante-camere give. Their eyes have spurned

Your realm of death -

Desert of no dying where you roam

At random; youth which must last always. Having learned

Otherwise, each holds his breath

In wonder at your gloom.


For if they breathed on you,

Would you not fall into a trance of trust? And would

Not air, if stirred, imbue

A faith compelling hope, compelling love? They could

Reveal a world,

All out of sight, though shining, the true

Atlantis. But not so, not so is a childhood

Like that achieved. Their eyes are pearled,

Are crystal, lapis blue.


Now you have reached the goal

Of all this delving. Now you enter on the last

Grand levee of the soul

After a life led looking towards a tomb. The vast

Stillness shimmers. Light,

Sunlight at the bottom of a hole,

Glazes the ‘Window of Appearances’, and, past

Guardians from Kush, quartzite

Glitters: then the drums roll.


See, there the Pharaoh is!

Double-crowned and sceptered with a shepherd’s crook.

Gold. He is gold. And this

Is real gold too. All gold, as in a story book.

Like that Great Green,

Which you have crossed, turned turquoise,

The faience gleams. Such art is subtler than the Greek.

For no king’s smile has since been seen

As calm, as rapt as his.


Why does this young man smile?

Why are these gold Egyptians gay in death? What word

Turns back for them the Nile

Of lost identity? How, living, have they heard

Music beyond

The desolate funeral flutes? That trial

Of the heart which follows these tomb rites, has it occurred

Never too soon? And who goes bond

For those who cannot smile?


Questions. The air is cold.

The silence of this throne room moves you to recall

Those tapestries that told

You, when a boy, about your being here. Each wall

Displayed a scene

In which Egyptian life unrolled;

That linen faithful to this stone. Your playroom, all

The text you now unfold.


But are you young enough

To die? This theme usurps the lyre again. How will

You meet that moment of

Being forever as you are? See with what skill

This king has kept

A look of unchanged youth, as if

He had not ever died at all, was ruling still.

These Thebans think he has but slept;

Awakes elsewhere to love.


The Field of Reeds, that land

Beyond the west - there water-lilies fringe the lakes,

They say. There tamarisks stand

Along the shores. And there the glowing sun-ship breaks

The light in rays

That ripple on the coral sand

Below the flag-flown water-gates. The king forsakes

The sun-ship, as a trumpet plays,

The Ank sign in his hand.


This happens, they contend,

After the Sethem priests, in leopard skins, withdraw.

The scented oil lamps send

A wavering radiance in their wake. Then, chilled with awe,

The slaves let slip

Those granite blocks on which depend

The ramparts of this harbour underground. They saw

The king’s first smile, they claim. His ship

Was launched at the ebb-tide’s end.


So take a courtly leave

Of one who is and is not here to see you go.

Perhaps a bow? Retrieve

Your self-possession as these painted chambers flow

Back and away,

And, on your faltering forth, achieve

The burning gravelled air of life that donkeys know.

‘One comes to port in Thebes,’ you say,

Smiling so not to grieve.