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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Africa: Vol. XXIV. 1876–79.


The Caravan in the Deserts

By Felicia Hemans (1793–1835)

CALL it not loneliness, to dwell

In woodland shade or hermit dell,

Or the deep forest to explore,

Or wander Alpine regions o’er;

For Nature there all joyous reigns,

And fills with life her wild domains:

A bird’s light wing may break the air,

A wave, a leaf, may murmur there;

A bee the mountain flowers may seek,

A chamois bound from peak to peak;

An eagle, rushing to the sky,

Wake the deep echoes with his cry;

And still some sound, thy heart to cheer,

Some voice, though not of man, is near.

But he whose weary step hath traced

Mysterious Afric’s awful waste,

Whose eye Arabia’s wilds hath viewed,

Can tell thee what is solitude!

It is, to traverse lifeless plains,

Where everlasting stillness reigns,

And billowy sands and dazzling sky

Seem boundless as infinity!

It is, to sink, with speechless dread,

In scenes unmeet for mortal tread,

Severed from earthly being’s trace,

Alone, amidst eternal space!

’T is noon—and fearfully profound,

Silence is on the desert round;

Alone she reigns, above, beneath,

With all the attributes of death!

No bird the blazing heaven may dare,

No insect bide the scorching air;

The ostrich, though of sun-born race,

Seeks a more sheltered dwelling-place;

The lion slumbers in his lair,

The serpent shuns the noontide glare:

But slowly wind the patient train

Of camels o’er the blasted plain,

Where they and man may brave alone

The terrors of the burning zone.

Faint not, O pilgrims! though on high,

As a volcano, flame the sky;

Shrink not, though as a furnace glow

The dark-red seas of sand below;

Though not a shadow, save your own,

Across the dread expanse is thrown;

Mark! where, your feverish lips to lave,

Wide spreads the fresh transparent wave!

Urge your tired camels on, and take

Your rest beside yon glistening lake;

Thence, haply, cooler gales may spring,

And fan your brows with lighter wing.

Lo! nearer now, its glassy tide

Reflects the date-tree on its side—

Speed on! pure draughts and genial air

And verdant shade await you there.

Oh, glimpse of heaven! to him unknown,

That hath not trod the burning zone!

Forward they press, they gaze dismayed,

The waters of the desert fade!

Melting to vapors that elude

The eye, the lip, they vainly wooed.

What meteor comes?—a purple haze

Hath half obscured the noontide rays:

Onward it moves in swift career,

A blush upon the atmosphere;

Haste, haste! avert the impending doom,

Fall prostrate! ’t is the dread Simoom!

Bow down your faces, till the blast

On its red wing of flame hath passed,

Far bearing o’er the sandy wave

The viewless Angel of the grave.

It came, ’t is vanished, but hath left

The wanderers e’en of hope bereft;

The ardent heart, the vigorous frame,

Pride, courage, strength, its power could tame;

Faint with despondence, worn with toil,

They sink upon the burning soil,

Resigned, amidst those realms of gloom,

To find their death-bed and their tomb.

But onward still!—yon distant spot

Of verdure can deceive you not;

Yon palms, which tremulously seemed

Reflected as the waters gleamed,

Along the horizon’s verge displayed,

Still rear their slender colonnade,—

A landmark, guiding o’er the plain

The Caravan’s exhausted train.

Fair is that little Isle of Bliss,

The desert’s emerald oasis!

A rainbow on the torrent’s wave,

A gem embosomed in the grave,

A sunbeam on a stormy day,

Its beauty’s image might convey!

“Beauty, in Horror’s lap that sleeps,”

While Silence round her vigil keeps.

Rest, weary pilgrims! calmly laid

To slumber in the acacia shade:

Rest, where the shrubs your camels bruise,

Their aromatic breath diffuse;

Where softer light the sunbeams pour

Through the tall palm and sycamore;

And the rich date luxuriant spreads

Its pendent clusters o’er your heads.

Nature once more, to seal your eyes,

Murmurs her sweetest lullabies;

Again each heart the music hails

Of rustling leaves and sighing gales,

And oh, to Afric’s child how dear

The voice of fountains gushing near!

Sweet be your slumbers! and your dreams

Of waving groves and rippling streams!

Far be the serpent’s venomed coil

From the brief respite won by toil:

Far be the awful shades of those

Who deep beneath the sands repose,—

The hosts, to whom the desert’s breath

Bore swift and stern the call of death.

Sleep! nor may scorching blast invade

The freshness of the acacia shade,

But gales of heaven your spirits bless,

With life’s best balm,—forgetfulness!

Till night from many an urn diffuse

The treasures of her world of dews.

The day hath closed,—the moon on high

Walks in her cloudless majesty.

A thousand stars to Afric’s heaven

Serene magnificence have given;

Pure beacons of the sky, whose flame

Shines forth eternally the same.

Blest be their beams, whose holy light

Shall guide the camel’s footsteps right,

And lead, as with a track divine,

The pilgrim to his prophet’s shrine!—

Rise! bid your Isle of Palms adieu!

Again your lonely march pursue,

While airs of night are freshly blowing,

And heavens with softer beauty glowing.

’T is silence all; the solemn scene

Wears, at each step, a ruder mien;

For giant-rocks, at distance piled,

Cast their deep shadows o’er the wild.

Darkly they rise,—what eye hath viewed

The caverns of their solitude?

Away! within those awful cells

The savage lord of Afric dwells!

Heard ye his voice?—the lion’s roar

Swells as when billows break on shore.

Well may the camel shake with fear,

And the steed pant—his foe is near;

Haste! light the torch, bid watchfires throw

Far o’er the waste a ruddy glow;

Keep vigil,—guard the bright array

Of flames that scare him from his prey;

Within their magic circle press,

O wanderers of the wilderness!

Heap high the pile, and by its blaze,

Tell the wild tales of elder days.

Arabia’s wondrous lore, that dwells

On warrior deeds, and wizard spells;

Enchanted domes, mid scenes like these,

Rising to vanish with the breeze;

Gardens, whose fruits are gems, that shed

Their light where mortal may not tread,

And spirits, o’er whose pearly halls

The eternal billow heaves and falls.

With charms like these, of mystic power,

Watchers! beguile the midnight hour.

Slowly that hour hath rolled away,

And star by star withdraws its ray.

Dark children of the sun! again

Your own rich orient hails his reign.

He comes, but veiled—with sanguine glare

Tingeing the mists that load the air;

Sounds of dismay, and signs of flame,

The approaching hurricane proclaim

’T is death’s red banner streams on high—

Fly to the rocks for shelter!—fly!

Lo; darkening o’er the fiery skies,

The pillars of the desert rise!

On, in terrific grandeur wheeling,

A giant-host, the heavens concealing,

They move, like mighty genii forms,

Towering immense midst clouds and storms.

Who shall escape?—with awful force

The whirlwind bears them on their course,

They join, they rush resistless on,

The landmarks of the plain are gone;

The steps, the forms, from earth effaced,

Of those who trod the burning waste!

All whelmed, all hushed!—none left to bear

Sad record how they perished there!

No stone their tale of death shall tell,

The desert guards its mysteries well;

And o’er the unfathomed sandy deep,

Where low their nameless relics sleep,

Oft shall the future pilgrim tread,

Nor know his steps are on the dead.