Front Page Titles (by Subject) ACT I. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. IX The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Alzire, Orestes, Sémiramis, Catiline, Pandora) and Part II (The Scotch Woman, Nanine, The Prude, The Tatler).
ACT I. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. IX The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Alzire, Orestes, Sémiramis, Catiline, Pandora) and Part II (The Scotch Woman, Nanine, The Prude, The Tatler). 
From The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901), A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming. Vol. IX The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Alzire, Orestes, Sémiramis, Catiline, Pandora) and Part II (The Scotch Woman, Nanine, The Prude, The Tatler).
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The scene represents a large peristyle, at the bottom of which is the palace of Sémiramis. Gardens with fine hanging terraces, raised above the palace: on the right hand the temple of the magi, and on the left a mausoleum adorned with obelisks.
[Two slaves at a distance carrying a coffer.
- Once more, Mitranes, thou beholdest thy friend,
- Who, in obedience to the royal mandate
- In secret sent, revisits Babylon,
- The seat of empire; how Sémiramis
- Imprints the image of her own great soul
- On every object! these stupendous piles,
- These deep enclosures, where Euphrates pours
- His tributary waves; the temple’s pride,
- The hanging gardens, and the splendid tomb
- Of Ninus, wondrous monuments of art!
- And only less to be admired than she
- Who raised them! here, in all her splendid pomp,
- More honored than the monarchs of the East,
- Arsaces shall behold this glorious queen.
- O my Arsaces, credit not the voice
- Of Fame, she is deceitful oft, and vain;
- Perhaps hereafter thou mayest weep with me,
- And admiration on a nearer view
- May turn to pity.
- Sunk in grief,
- Sémiramis hath spread o’er every heart
- The sorrows which she feels; sometimes she raves,
- Filling the air with her distressful cries,
- As if some vengeful God pursued her; sits
- Silent and sad within these lonely vaults,
- Sacred to night, to sorrow, and to death,
- Which mortals dare not enter; where the ashes
- Of Ninus, our late honored sovereign, lie:
- There will she oft fall on her knees and weep:
- With slow and fearful steps she glides along,
- And beats her breast besprinkled with her tears:
- Oft as she treads her solitary round,
- Will she repeat the names of son and husband,
- And call on heaven, which in its anger seems
- To thwart her in the zenith of her glory.
- Whence can her sorrow flow?
- The effect is dreadful:
- The cause unknown.
- How long hath she been thus
- Oppressed, Mitranes?
- From the very time
- When first her orders came to bring Arsaces.
- You, my lord: when Babylon
- Rejoicing met to celebrate thy conquests,
- And saw the banners thy victorious arm
- Had wrested from our vanquished foes; when first
- Euphrates brought to our delighted shore
- The lovely Azema, from Belus sprung,
- Whom thou hadst saved from Scythian ravishers,
- Even in that hour of triumph and success,
- Even in the bosom of prosperity,
- The heart of majesty was pierced with grief,
- And the throne lost its lustre.
- Was not to blame; she could not be the cause
- Of sorrow or distress; one look from her
- Would soothe the wrath of gods: but say, my friend,
- Sémiramis is still a sovereign here,
- Her heart is not forever sunk in grief?
- No: when her noble mind shakes off the burden,
- Resumes its strength, and shines in native lustre,
- Then we behold in her exalted soul
- Powers that excel whatever flattery’s self
- Hath e’er bestowed on kings; but when she sinks
- Beneath this dreadful malady, loose flow
- The reins of empire, dropping from her hand;
- Then the proud satrap, fiery Assur, guides
- The helm and makes the nations groan beneath him:
- The fatal secret never yet hath reached
- The walls of Babylon: abroad we still
- Are envied, but, alas! we mourn at home.
- What lessons of instruction to weak mortals,
- When happiness is mingled thus with woe!
- I, too, am wretched, thus deprived of him
- Whose piercing wisdom best could give me council,
- And lead me through the mazes of a court.
- O I have cause to weep: without a father,
- Left as I am to all the dangerous passions
- Of heedless youth, without a friendly guide,
- What rocks encompass and what shoals affright me!
- I weep with thee the loss of him we loved,
- The good old man; Phradates was my friend;
- Ninus esteemed and gave to him the care
- Of Ninias, his dear son, our country’s hope:
- But O! one fatal day destroyed them both,
- Father and son: to voluntary exile
- Devoted, long he lived: his banishment
- Was fortunate to thee, and made thee great:
- Close by his side, in honor’s glorious field,
- Arsaces fought, and conquered for his country:
- Now, ranked with princes, thy exalted virtue
- Claims its reward by merit all thy own.
- I know not what may be my portion here:
- Perhaps, distinguished on Arbazan’s plains
- With fair success, my name is not unknown:
- On Oxus’ banks to great Sémiramis,
- When vanquished nations paid the homage due,
- From her triumphant cars she dropped a ray
- Of her own glory on Arsaces’ head:
- But oft the soldier, honored in the field,
- In courts neglected lies, and is forgotten.
- My father told me in his dying hour
- The fortune of Arsaces here depended
- Upon the common cause; then gave to me
- These precious relics, which from every eye
- He had preserved: I must deliver them
- To the high priest, for he alone can judge,
- And know their value: I must talk with him
- In secret, touching my own fate, for he
- Can best conduct me to Sémiramis.
- He seldom sees the queen: in solitude
- Obscure he lives: his holy ministry
- Engrosses all his care; without ambition,
- Fearless, and void of art: is always seen
- Within the temple, never at the court:
- Never affects the pride of rank and title,
- Nor his tiara near the diadem
- Immodest wears: the less he seeks for greatness,
- The more is he admired, the more revered:
- I have access to every avenue
- Of his retirement in this sacred place,
- And can this moment talk to him in secret;
- Ere day’s too far advanced I’ll bring him hither.
- Immortal gods! for what am I reserved?
- Make known your will: why did my dying father
- Thus send me to the sanctuary, me
- A soldier, bred amidst the din of arms?
- A lover, too? How can Arsaces serve
- The gods of the Chaldæans?—Ha! what voice
- From yonder tomb in plaintive accents strikes
- My frighted ear, and makes my hair to stand
- On end with horror! Near this place I’ve heard
- The spirit of Ninus dwells—again it shrieks—
- It shocks my soul—Ye dark and dreary caves,
- And thou, the shade of my illustrious master,
- Thou voice of heaven, what wouldst thou with Arsaces?
arsaces, oroes,the high priest, the magi attending him,mitranes.
- [Speaking to Oroes.
- He’s here, my lord, and waits to give you up
- Those precious relics.
- Most revered father,
- Permit a soldier to approach your presence,
- Pleased to fulfil a father’s last command,
- One whom you deigned to love; thus at your feet,
- Obedient to his will, I here resign them.
- Welcome! thou brave and noble youth! that God
- Who governs all, and not a father’s will,
- Guided thee here: Phradates was my friend;
- Dear is his memory to me; thou shalt know
- Perhaps hereafter how I love his son:
- Where are the gifts he sent me?
[The slaves deliver the coffer to two of the magi, who place it on an altar.
[Opening the coffer, bowing reverentially to it, and seeming greatly affected.
- Ye sacred relics! do these eyes at length
- Behold you! O, I weep for joy to press
- These monuments of woe, whilst tears recall
- My solemn oath: Mitranes, let no ear
- Profane disturb our holy mystery:
- We would be private.
- [The magi retire.
- Mark this seal, Arsaces:
- ’Tis that which to the laws of Ninus gave
- Their public force, and kept the world in awe:
- The letter, too, which with his dying hand
- He wrote: Arsaces, view the wreath that crowned
- His royal brows, and his victorious sword:
- The vanquished Medes and Persians felt its power:
- It comes at last to vindicate its master,
- And to revenge him; useless instrument
- Against base treachery, and destructive poison,
- Whose mortal—
- Heaven! what sayest thou?
- The dread secret
- Hath long been hid in darkness from the eyes
- Of men within the sepulchre; the shade
- Of Ninus, and offended heaven, long time
- Have raised their voice in vain, and called for vengeance.
- It must be as thou sayest: for know, but now,
- Even on this spot, I heard most dreadful groans.
- It was the voice of Ninus.
- Twice the noise
- Affrighted me.
- ’Twas he: he calls for vengeance.
- He has a right to ask it: but on whom?
- On the vile murderers, whose detested hands
- Had of the best of sovereigns robbed mankind;
- No tracks are left behind of the base treason,
- But all with him lies buried in the tomb:
- With ease might they deceive the sons of men,
- But not the all-seeing eye of watchful heaven,
- Which pierces the deep night of human falsehood.
- O would to heaven this feeble hand had power
- To punish crimes like these! I know not wherefore,
- But when I cast my eyes towards you tomb,
- New horrors rise: O might I not consult
- That venerable shade, the inhabitant
- Of those dark mansions?
- No; it is forbidden:
- An oracle severe long since denounced
- The wrath of heaven against whoe’er should press
- Into this vale of tears, inhabited
- By death and the avenging gods: await
- With me, Arsaces, for the day of justice:
- Soon will it come, and all shall be accomplished:
- I can no more: sequestered from the world,
- I pray in secret to offended heaven,
- Which, as it wills, commissions me to speak,
- Or close my lips in silence: I have said
- All that I dare, and all I ought: be careful
- Lest in these walls a word, or look, or gesture,
- Betray the secret which the god by me
- Hath trusted with thee; for on that depends
- His glory, Asia’s welfare, and thy life.
- Approach, ye magi, hide these sacred relics
- Beneath the altar.
- [The great gate of the palace opens, Assur appears at a distance, surrounded by attendants and guards on every side.
- Ha! the palace opens:
- The courtiers crowding to the queen: behold
- The haughty Assur with his servile throng
- Of flatterers round him! O almighty power!
- On whom dost thou bestow thy bounties here?
- O monster!
- Fare thee well:
- When night shall cast her sable mantle o’er
- These guilty walls, I’ll have more converse with thee,
- Before the gods: revere them, my Arsaces,
- For know, brave youth, their eyes are fixed on thee.
Arsaces, Mitranes,in the front of the stage,Assur, Cedar,with attendants, on one side.
- His words are dreadful; they affright my soul:
- What horrid crimes! and what a court is here!
- How little known! my royal master poisoned,
- And Assur, but too well I see, suspected!
- Assur is sprung of royal race, and claims
- The deference due to his authority:
- He is the favorite of Sémiramis,
- And thou, without a blush, mayest pay him homage.
- [To Cedar.
- Ha! do my eyes deceive me,
- Or is Arsaces here without my order?
- Amazing insolence!
- Come hither, youth: what new engagements here
- Have brought you from the camp?
- My duty, sir,
- And the queen’s orders.
- Did the queen send for you?
- But, know you not, with her commands
- You should have asked for mine?
- I know not that,
- And should have thought the honor of her crown
- Debased by such a mean submission to thee:
- My lord, you must forgive a soldier’s roughness,
- We are bad courtiers: bred up in the plains
- Of Arbazan and Scythia, I have served
- Your court, but am not much acquainted with it.
- Age, time, and place, perhaps, may teach you, sir.
- What would you with the queen? for know, young man,
- Assur alone can lead you to her presence.
- I come to ask my valor’s best reward,
- The honor still to serve her.
- Thou wantest more,
- Presumptuous boy! I know thy bold pretences
- To Azema, but that thou wouldst conceal.
- Yes: I adore that lovely maid: her heart
- Would I prefer to empire: my respect,
- My tenderest love—
- No more: thou knowest not whom
- Thou art insulting thus: what! join the race
- Of a Sarmatian to the demigods
- Of Tigris and Euphrates! mark me well:
- In pity to thy youth I would advise thee
- Ne’er, on thy peril, to Sémiramis
- Impart thy insolent request; for know,
- Rash boy, if thou shouldst dare to violate
- The rights of Assur, ’twill not pass unpunished.
- I’ll go this instant: thou hast given me courage:
- Thus threatenings always terrify Arsaces:
- Thou hast no right, whate’er thy power may be,
- To affront a soldier who has served his queen,
- The state, and thee: perhaps my warmth offends;
- But thou art rasher than myself, to think
- That I would bend beneath thy servile yoke,
- Or tremble at thy power.
- Perhaps thou mayest;
- I’ll teach thee what a subject may expect
- For insolence like this.
sémiramis,at the farther end of the stage, leaning on her women.
otanes, assur, arsaces, mitranes,in the front.
- My lord, the queen at present would be private:
- You must retire, and give her sorrows way:
- Withdraw, ye gods, the hand of vengeance from her!
- [To one of his attendants.
- Let us begone,
- And study how we best may turn her griefs
- To our advantage.
- [Sémiramis comes forward, and is joined by Otanes.
- My royal mistress, be yourself again,
- And wake once more to joy and happiness.
- O death! when wilt thou come with friendly shade
- To close these eyes that hate the light of day?
- Be shut, ye caves; horrible phantom, hence!
- Strike if thou wilt, but threaten me no more.
- Otanes, is Arsaces come?
- Ere morn
- Rose on the temple, madam, he was there.
- That dreadful voice, from heaven or hell I know not,
- Which in the dead of night so shakes my soul,
- Told me, my sorrows, when Arsaces came,
- Would soon be o’er.
- Rely then on the gods,
- And let the cheerful ray of hope dispel
- This melancholy.
- Is Arsaces here?
- Methinks, when I but hear his name, my soul
- Is less disturbed, and guilt sits lighter on me!
- O! quit, forever quit the sad remembrance:
- Let the bright days of great Sémiramis,
- Replete with glory, blot one moment out
- That broke the chain of thy ill-fated nuptials:
- Had Ninus driven thee from his throne and bed,
- All Babylon with thee had been destroyed;
- But happily for us, and for mankind,
- That wanted such distinguished virtues, you
- Prevented him; and fifteen years of toil,
- Spent in the service of thy country, lands
- Desert and waste made fertile by thy care,
- The savage tamed, and yielding to the laws,
- The useful arts, obedient to thy voice,
- Uprising still, the glorious monuments
- Of wealth and power, the wonder of mankind,
- And the loud plaudit of a grateful people,
- All plead thy cause before the throne of heaven;
- But if impartial justice hold the scale,
- If vengeance is required for Ninus’ death,
- Why thus should Assur brave the angry gods,
- And live in peace? He was more guilty far
- Than thou wert, yet the ruthless hand that poured
- The fatal draught never shakes with fear: he feels
- No stings of conscience, no remorse affrights him.
- Our duties different, different is our fate:
- Where ties are sacred, crimes are heavier far:
- I was his wife, Otanes, and I stand
- Without excuse; my conscience is my judge
- And my accuser: but I hoped the gods,
- Offended at my crimes, had punished me
- Enough, when they deprived me of my child;
- Hoped my successful toils, that made the earth
- Respect my name, had soothed the wrath of heaven:
- But months on months have passed in agony
- Since this dire spectre hath appalled my soul:
- My eyes forever see him, and my ears
- Still hear his cries: I get me to the tomb,
- But dare not enter: trembling I revere
- His ashes, and invoke his honored shade,
- Which only answers me in dismal groans.
- Some dread event is nigh: perhaps the time
- Is come to expiate the offence.
- But thinkest thou
- The spirit of thy lord hath left indeed
- The mansions of the dead, and stalks abroad?
- Ofttimes the soul, by powerful fancy led,
- Starts at a phantom of its own creation;
- Still it beholds the objects it has made,
- And everything we fear is present to us.
- O no! it was not the wild dream of fancy
- By slumber wrought, I saw him but too well:
- The stranger, Sleep, had long withheld from me
- His sweet delusions; watchful as I stood,
- And mused on my unhappy fate, a voice
- Close to my bed, methought, cried out, “Arsaces!”
- The name revived me: well thou knowest, long time
- Assur has pierced this heart with deadly grief:
- I shudder at his presence, and the blushes
- That show my guilt increase my punishment,
- Hate the reproachful witness of my shame,
- And wish I could—but wherefore should I add
- To crimes like mine fresh guilt? I sought Arsaces
- To punish Assur, and the thought of him
- Awhile relieved me! but in the sweet moment
- Of consolation, sudden stood before me
- That minister of death, all bathed in blood,
- And in his hand a falchion: still I see,
- Still hear him: comes he to defend, or punish?
- ’Twas at that very hour Arsaces came.
- This day was fixed by heaven to end my sorrows,
- But peace is yet a stranger to my soul,
- And hope is lost in horror and despair:
- The load of life is grown too heavy for me,
- My throne is hateful, and my glories past
- But add fresh weight to my calamities.
- Long time I’ve hid my sorrows from the world
- And blushed in secret, fearful to consult
- That reverend sage whom Babylon adores:
- I would not thus degrade the majesty
- Of sovereign power, or let Sémiramis
- Betray her fears before a mortal’s eye,
- But I have sent to Libya’s sands in secret
- There to consult the oracle of Jove:
- As if removed from man, the God of truth
- Had hid in desert plains his will divine.
- Alas! Otanes, that dread power which dwells
- Within these lonely walls, hath long received
- My fears and adorations; at his altars
- My gifts were offered, and my incense rose;
- But gifts and incense never can atone
- For crimes like mine: to-day I shall receive
- Answers from Memphis.
sémiramis, otanes, mitranes.
- An Egyptian priest
- Is at the palace gate, and begs admittance.
- Then will my woes be ended, or complete.
- Let us begone, and hide from Babylon
- Her queen’s disgraceful sorrows: let Arsaces
- Be sent to me: soon may his presence calm
- This storm of grief, and soothe my troubled soul!
End of the First Act.