Wednesday, December 14, 2016

281. Nimrud - Nimrod

Recent news about the city of Nimrud in Iraq was all about vandalism and pillage by ISIS. The destruction of Assyrian antiquities in the region around the ancient city of Nimrud reminded me of the biblical figure Nimrod. Nimrud - Nimrod - that's how the mind works.

A long poem about Nimrod as the architect of the tower of Babel was published by John Leicester Warren, Lord de Tabley, in Poems Dramatic and Lyrical (1893).

Nimrod, wood engraving from Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum (Lyon, Guillaume RouillĂ©, 1553)
In the Bible, Nimrod is associated with some Assyrian cities, including Babel or Babylon. However, he was not actually mentioned in the passages about the building of the Tower of Babel, an etiological myth that was meant to explain the origin of different languages.

De Tabley's poem introduces Nimrod as a mighty king who tries to find an equal enemy in the gods. He decides to build a tower to reach their home in the skies. 

And the tower rose: the masons at its height
Could see the ocean now that we had left
A year behind us: ever at its base
The thousand-throated labour like a sea
Continually murmured: tier on tier
It darkened heaven, a monster in the sand,
And height succeeded height and pause was none:
Until its summits entered in the zones
Of cloud, and these about it clave all day
As on some giant peak untrod of man.

Then, Nimrod leads his men upwards, in battle, trying to conquer heaven, but he falls down:

There as I lay confounded, like a child
That cannot move his limbs; it seemed there grew
Enormous light out up above the cloud

This light then is accompanied by a 'terrible' voice. In the Bible, this is the voice of God who has decided to stop Nimrod, and to confound the speech of men.

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (1893)

Charles Ricketts's illustration for this poem shows a startled Nimrod in front of the exploding tower, with a cloud and a light source to the left of his face, while powerful diagonal lines run to the right of his face down towards the exploding tower, flames coming out of every opening and debris scattered everywhere. At the base of the tower some people on horseback try to escape. At Nimrod's feet lies his crown (to the left), and in the bottom right-hand corner the head of a dying man is visible.

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (details) (1893)

Nimrod in Ricketts's image is not an older bearded general (as in the Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, 1553), but a young man who has closed his eyes to symbolize his loneliness now that the confusion of languages has taken hold of his troops. In the poem Nimrod notices that they can no longer understand him:

I was to these a babbler as the rest.

Gleeson White praised the five illustrations that Ricketts made for De Tabley's Poems Dramatic and Lyrical

Take, for instance, the "Nimrod," and note how the impassivity of the stricken hero, with all the accidents of cloud and flame, is rendered more impressive by the oak-sprig in his girdle, plucked from the tree which has since fallen behind him. The lightning still playing on his crown, upon every metallic surface of his spear, and the decoration of his garments, leaves no doubt of the source of the catastrophe. Nor must one fail to recognise the tact of the artist in closing the eyes of the man, who seems to be the only thing remaining alive when all has crumbled about him. To analyse these more minutely, it is interesting to compare the different treatment of the nerveless hand of the Nimrod who has dropped his shield with the searching hands of the figure that represents Death (in the frontispiece "Death of the Old King").

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (detail) (1893)