Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Asia: Vols. XXI–XXIII. 1876–79.

Arabia: Desert of Arabia


By Anonymous

ABDEL-HASSAN o’er the desert journeyed with his caravan,—

Many a richly laden camel, many a faithful serving-man.

And before the haughty master bowed alike the man and beast;

For the power of Abdel-Hassan was the wonder of the East.

It was now the twelfth day’s journey, but its closing did not bring

Abdel-Hassan and his servants to the long-expected spring.

From the ancient line of travel they had wandered far away,

And at evening, faint and weary, on a waste of desert lay.

Fainting men and famished camels stretched them round the master’s tent;

For the water-skins were empty, and the dates were nearly spent.

All the night, as Abdel-Hassan on the desert lay apart,

Nothing broke the lifeless silence but the throbbing of his heart;

All the night he heard it beating, while his sleepless, anxious eyes

Watched the shining constellations wheeling onward through the skies.

When the glowing orbs, receding, paled before the coming day,

Abdel-Hassan called his servants, and devoutly knelt to pray.

Then his words were few and solemn to the leader of his train:

“Thirty men and eighty camels, Haroun, in thy care remain.

“Keep the beasts and guard the treasure till the needed aid I bring.

God is great! His name is mighty! I, alone, will seek the spring.”

Mounted on his strongest camel, Abdel-Hassan rode away,

While his faithful followers watched him passing in the blaze of day,

Like a speck upon the desert, like a moving human hand,

Where the fiery skies were sweeping down to meet the burning sand.

Passed he then their far horizon, and beyond it rode alone;

They alone, with Arab patience, lay within its flaming zone.

Day by day the servants waited, but the master never came,—

Day by day, in feebler accents, called on Allah’s holy name.

One by one they killed the camels, loathing still the proffered food,

But in weakness or in frenzy slaked their burning thirst in blood.

On unheeded heaps of treasure rested each unconscious head;

While with pious care the dying struggled to entomb the dead.

So they perished. Gaunt with famine, still did Haroun’s trusty hand

For his latest dead companion scoop sepulture in the sand.

Then he died; and pious Nature, where he lay so gaunt and grim,

Moved by her divine compassion, did the same kind thing for him.

Earth upon her burning bosom held him in his final rest,

While the hot winds of the desert piled the sand above his breast.

Onward in his fiery travel Abdel-Hassan held his way,

Yielding to the camel’s instinct, halting not, by night or day,

Till the faithful beast, exhausted in her fearful journey, fell,

With her eye upon the palm-trees rising o’er the lonely well:

With a faint, convulsive struggle, and a feeble moan, she died,

While her still surviving master lay unconscious by her side.

So he lay until the evening, when a passing caravan

From the dead encumbering camel brought to life the dying man.

Slowly murmured Abdel-Hassan, as they bathed his fainting head,

“All is lost, for all have perished! they are numbered with the dead.

“I, who had such power and treasure but a single moon ago,

Now my life and poor subsistence to a stranger’s bounty owe.

“God is great! His name is mighty! He is victor in the strife!

Stripped of pride and power and substance, he hath left me faith and life.”

Sixty years had Abdel-Hassan, since the stranger’s friendly hand

Saved him from the burning desert, lived and prospered in the land;

And his life of peaceful labor, in its pure and simple ways,

For his loss fourfold returned him, and a mighty length of days.

Sixty years of faith and patience gave him wisdom’s mural crown;

Sons and daughters brought him honor with his riches and renown.

Men beheld his reverend aspect, and revered his blameless name;

And in peace he dwelt with strangers, in the fulness of his fame.

But the heart of Abdel-Hassan yearned, as yearns the heart of man,

Still to die among his kindred, ending life where it began.

So he summoned all his household, and he gave the brief command,—

“Go and gather all our substance; we depart from out the land.”

So they journeyed to the desert with a great and numerous train,

To his old nomadic instinct trusting life and wealth again.

It was now the sixth day’s journey, when they met the moving sand,

On the great wind of the desert, driving o’er that arid land;

And the air was red and fervid with the simoom’s fiery breath;

None could see his nearest fellow in the stifling blast of death.

Blinded men from prostrate camels piled the stores to windward round,

And within the barrier herded, on the hot, unstable ground.

Two whole days the great wind lasted, when the living of the train

From the hot drifts dug the camels and resumed their way again.

But the lines of care grew deeper on the master’s swarthy cheek,

While around the weakest fainted and the strongest waxéd weak;

And the water-skins were empty, and a silent murmur ran

From the faint, bewildered servants through the straggling caravan:—

“Let the land we left be blessed!—that to which we go, accurst!

From our pleasant wells of water came we here to die of thirst?”

But the master stilled the murmur with his steadfast, quiet eye:

“God is great,” he said, devoutly,—“when he wills it, we shall die.”

As he spake, he swept the desert with his vision clear and calm,

And along the far horizon saw the green crest of the palm.

Man and beast, with weak steps quickened, hasted to the lonely well,

And around it, faint and panting, in a grateful tumult fell.

Many days they stayed and rested, and amidst his fervent prayer

Abdel-Hassan pondered deeply that strange bond which held him there.

Then there came an aged stranger, journeying with his caravan;

And when each had each saluted, Abdel-Hassan thus began:—

“Knowest thou this well of water? lies it on the travelled ways?”

And he answered: “From the highway thou art distant many days.

“Where thou seest this well of water, where these thorns and palm-trees stand,

Once the desert swept unbroken in a waste of burning sand;

“There was neither life nor herbage, not a drop of water lay,

All along the arid valley where thou seest this well to-day.

“Sixty years have wrought their changes since a man of wealth and pride,

With his servants and his camels, here, amidst his riches, died.

“As we journeyed o’er the desert, dead beneath the blazing sky,

Here I saw them, beasts and masters, in a common burial lie;

“Thirty men and eighty camels did the shrouding sand enfold;

And we gathered up their treasure, spices, precious stones, and gold;

“Then we heaped the sand above them, and, beneath the burning sun,

With a friendly care we finished what the winds had well begun.

“Still I hold that master’s treasure, and his record, and his name;

Long I waited for his kindred, but no kindred ever came.

“Time, who beareth all things onward, hither bore our steps again,

When around this spot were scattered whitened bones of beasts and men;

“And from out the heaving hillocks of the mingled sand and mould

Lo! the little palms were springing, which to-day are great and old.

“From the shrubs we held the camels; for I felt that life of man,

Breaking to new forms of being, through that tender herbage ran.

“In the graves of men and camels long the dates unheeded lay,

Till their germs of life commanded larger life from that decay;

“And the falling dews, arrested, nourished every tender shoot,

While beneath, the hidden moisture gathered to each wandering root.

“So they grew; and I have watched them, as we journeyed, year by year;

And we digged this well beneath them, where thou seest it, fresh and clear.

“Thus from waste and loss and sorrow still are joy and beauty born,

Like the fruitage of these palm-trees and the blossom of the thorn;

“Life from death, and good from evil!—from that buried caravan

Springs the life to save the living, many a weak, despairing man.”

As he ended, Abdel-Hassan, quivering through his aged frame,

Asked, in accents slow and broken, “Knowest thou that master’s name?”

“He was known as Abdel-Hassan, famed for wealth and power and pride;

But the proud have often fallen, and, as he, the great have died!”

Then, upon the ground before them, prostrate Abdel-Hassan fell,

With his aged hands extended, trembling, to the lonely well,—

And the sacred soil beneath him cast upon his hoary head,—

Named the servants and the camels,—summoned Haroun from the dead,—

Clutched the unconscious palms around him, as if they were living men,—

And before him, in their order, rose his buried train again.

Moved by pity, spake the stranger, bending o’er him in his grief:

“What affects the man of sorrow? Speak,—for speaking is relief.”

Then he answered, rising slowly to that aged stranger’s knee,—

“Thou beholdest Abdel-Hassan! They were mine, and I am he!”

Wondering, stood they all around him, and a reverent silence kept,

While, amidst them, Abdel-Hassan lifted up his voice and wept.

Joy and grief, and faith and triumph, mingled in his flowing tears;

Refluent on his patient spirit rolled the tide of sixty years.

As the past and present blended, lo! his larger vision saw,

In his own life’s compensation, Nature’s universal law.

“God is good, O reverend stranger! He hath taught me of his ways,

By this great and crowning lesson, in the evening of my days.

“Keep the treasure,—I have plenty,—and am richer that I see

Life ascend, through change and evil, to that perfect life to be,—

“In each woe a blessing folded, from all loss a greater gain,

Joy and hope from fear and sorrow, rest and peace from toil and pain.

“God is great! His name is mighty! He is victor in the strife!

For he bringeth Good from Evil, and from Death commandeth Life!”