Few icons of nineteenth-century Egyptomania enjoyed such fame as Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Powerful, dangerous, sensual, erotic, and ultimately a victim of her own desires, Cleopatra – or, more properly, her legend, as received and reconstructed by her interpreters in the nineteenth century – was never a simple or straightforward figure. Complex and contradictory, her story varied from century to century, country to country, and person to person – yet it almost always revolved around power, sex, and death. Her famous eroticism, daring power plays, and tragic end gave more than a few writers license to construct elaborate stories around her legend, and thus it is no wonder that a given writer’s version of Cleopatra says more about that writer, their values, and their culture than it does about the historical figure of Cleopatra.
This selection, “The Death of Cleopatra,” is a relatively long dramatic poem from 1853, written in free verse, and is unusual in that, while it is entirely concerned with Cleopatra, it does not feature the Queen herself as a character or speaker. Rather, as its title suggests, it takes place immediately after Cleopatra’s suicide, and consists of a dialogue between two characters: one the maid who recounts the manner and means of her death, the other the man who interprets the meaning of her life. Its author was William Gilmore Simms; Simms was an active novelist and writer from South Carolina who at his height enjoyed a relatively decent measure of success and fame, associating himself with the group of young nationalist writers known as Young America – yet he was equally famous for his extremely vocal role as a proslavery activist, known for his friendships with such infamous southern slaveholding figures as John Henry Hammond as well as for his plantation holdings. Simms’ racist politics are not immediately apparent in this poem, however.
THE DEATH OF CLEOPATRA.
AUGUSTUS CAESAR. DOLABELLA.
AUGUSTUS. Dead ! say'st thou ? Cleopatra ?
DOLABELLA. She sleeps fast
Will answer nothing more—hath no more lusts
For passion to persuade—nor art to breed
Any more combats. I have seen her laid—
As for a bridal in a pomp of charms,
That mock'd the flashing jewels in her crown
With beauty never theirs. Her bridegroom one
Who conquers more than Caesar a grim lord
Now in the full'st possession of his prise,
Who riots on her sweets; seals with cold kiss
The precious caskets of her eyes, that late
Held—baiting fond desire with hope of spoil—
Most glorious gems of life ; and, on her cheek,
Soft still with downy ripeness—not so pale,
As sudden gush of fancy in the heart
Might bring to virgin consciousness—he lays
His icy lip, that fails to cause her shrink
From the unknown soliciting: Her sleep
Dreams nothing of the embrace, the very last
Her eager and luxurious form may know,
Of that dread ravisher.
AUGUSTUS. If it be true,
She still hath baffled me. My conquest sure--