Poem of the Week

Biblical Carouse Ends in Murder

Heinrich Heine recreates a scene from the Book of Daniel, without Daniel.

Belshazzar

Heinrich Heine

Midnight came slowly sweeping on;
In silent rest lay Babylon.

But in the royal castle high
Red torches gleam and courtiers cry.

Belshazzar there in kingly hall
Is holding kingly festival.

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The vassals sat in glittering line,
And emptied the goblets with glowing wine.

The goblets rattle, the choruses swell,
And it pleased the stiff-necked monarch well.

In the monarch’s cheeks a wild fire glowed,
And the wine awoke his daring mood.

And, onward still by his madness spurred,
He blasphemes the Lord with a sinful word;

And he brazenly boasts, blaspheming wild,
While the servile courtiers cheered and smiled.

Quick the king spoke, while his proud glance burned,
Quickly the servant went and returned.

He bore on his head the vessels of gold,
Of Jehovah’s temple the plunder bold.

With daring hand, in his frenzy grim,
The king seized a beaker and filled to the brim,

And drained to the dregs the sacred cup,
And foaming he cried, as he drank it up,

“Jehovah, eternal scorn I own
To thee. I am monarch of Babylon.”

Scarce had the terrible blasphemy rolled
From his lips, ere the monarch at heart was cold.

The yelling laughter was hushed, and all
Was still as death in the royal hall.

And see! and see! on the white wall high
The form of a hand went slowly by,

And wrote,—and wrote, on the broad wall white,
Letters of fire, and vanished in night.

Pale as death, with a steady stare,
And with trembling knees, the king sat there;

The horde of slaves sat shuddering chill;
No word they spoke, but were deathlike still.

The Magians came, but of them all,
None could read the flame-script on the wall.

But that same night, in all his pride,
By the hands of his servants Belshazzar died.

Ca. 1815-1821, from Buch der Lieder: Gedichte (1817-1826).Translated from German by Charles Godfrey Leland, in “The Works of Heinrich Heine,”W, Heinemann, London, 1891

Over-the-top parties are nothing new. The bash in this ballad by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is based on Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel, set during the Babylonian exile after Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE, as described in 2 Kings 25. This, along with other catastrophes, is marked by observant Jews on the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av. (This year it will be marked on the 10th – July 26th -- as the 9th falls on the Sabbath.)

Leaving smoldering ruins and the poor people of the land behind, Nebuchadnezzar returned to Babylon with the political and economic elite of Judea and its richest treasures (2 Kings 24: 13-14).

These treasures figure in the extravaganza depicted here. Almost until the end, the poem hews closely to the biblical account: the banquet, the libations, the order to bring the looted Temple vessels and the drinking from them, the appearance of the handwriting on the wall and the futile consultation with the “wise men of Babylon” – here, the “Magians.”

But, surprisingly, the poem omits the peak moments of the biblical story (verses 10-29): At his wife’s suggestion, Belshazzar (Nebuchadnezzar’s son or grandson – accounts of his pedigree differ), summons the “master of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers,” who is none other than Daniel “of the children of the captivity of Judah”. Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall as predicting doom for both the king and his kingdom, which will be divided between the Medes and the Persians.

Yet Heine's poem doesn't mention Daniel at all.

The biblical account ends: “In that night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain,” with no information as to “who dunnit.”

However, the Midrash (Cant. R. iii. 4) – which Heine (who converted to Christianity from Judaism in 1825) might have known – relates that under orders from King Belshazzar himself, anyone who tried to enter the palace that night would be beheaded by the doorkeepers. Befuddled by much alcohol and the prophecy, the king went outside to relieve his churning tummy. At the back door, “his servants” in the poem -- Cyrus and Darius in the Midrash -- refused to let him re-enter and clobbered him to death. Historically, the Persian Cyrus conquered Belshazzar’s kingdom in 539 BCE.

Translator Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) was an American journalist, author and folklorist.

*Musings: Why did Heine ignore Daniel? Can you imagine the “missing” couplets?

*Bonus: Robert Schumann’s setting of the poem, sung by Joshua Fein