Afar in the Desert

Original Text: 
Thomas Pringle, African Sketches (London: Edward Moxon, 1834): 9-13. 010097.e.63 British Library
3When the sorrows of life the soul o'ercast,
4And, sick of the Present, I cling to the Past;
5When the eye is suffused with regretful tears,
6From the fond recollections of former years;
7And shadows of things that have long since fled
8Flit over the brain, like the ghosts of the dead:
9Bright visions of glory -- that vanish too soon;
10Day-dreams -- that departed ere manhood's noon;
11Attachments -- by fate or by falsehood reft;
12Companions of early days -- lost or left;
13And my Native Land -- whose magical name
14Thrills to the heart like electric flame;
15The home of my childhood; the haunts of my prime;
16All the passions and scenes of that rapturous time
17When the feelings were young and the world was new,
18Like the fresh bowers of Eden unfolding to view;
19All -- all now forsaken -- forgotten -- foregone!
20And I -- a lone exile remembered of none --
21My high aims abandoned, -- my good acts undone, --
22-- Aweary of all that is under the sun, --
23With that sadness of heart which no stranger may scan,
24I fly to the Desert afar from man!
25Afar in the Desert I love to ride,
26With the silent Bush-boy alone by my side:
27When the wild turmoil of this wearisome life,
28With its scenes of oppression, corruption, and strife --
30The scorner's laugh, and the sufferer's tear --
31And malice, and meanness, and falsehood, and folly,
32Dispose me to musing and dark melancholy;
33When my bosom is full, and my thoughts are high,
34And my soul is sick with the bondman's sigh --
35Oh! then there is freedom, and joy, and pride,
36Afar in the Desert alone to ride!
37There is rapture to vault on the champing steed,
38And to bound away with the eagle's speed,
39With the death-fraught firelock in my hand --
40The only law of the Desert Land!
41Afar in the Desert I love to ride,
42With the silent Bush-boy alone by my side:
43Away -- away from the dwellings of men,
44By the wild deer's haunt, by the buffalo's glen;
48By the skirts of grey forests o'erhung with wild-vine;
49Where the elephant browses at peace in his wood,
51And the mighty rhinoceros wallows at will
52In the fen where the wild-ass is drinking his fill.
53Afar in the Desert I love to ride,
54With the silent Bush-boy alone by my side:
58Is heard by the fountain at twilight grey;
59Where the zebra wantonly tosses his mane,
60With wild hoof scouring the desolate plain;
61And the fleet-footed ostrich over the waste
62Speeds like a horseman who travels in haste,
63Hying away to the home of her rest,
64Where she and her mate have scooped their nest,
65Far hid from the pitiless plunderer's view
66In the pathless depths of the parched Karroo.
67Afar in the Desert I love to ride,
68With the silent Bush-boy alone by my side:
70Where the White Man's foot hath never passed,
72Hath rarely crossed with his roving clan:
73A region of emptiness, howling and drear,
74Which Man hath abandoned from famine and fear;
75Which the snake and the lizard inhabit alone,
76With the twilight bat from the yawning stone;
77Where grass, nor herb, nor shrub takes root,
78Save poisonous thorns that pierce the foot;
79And the bitter-melon, for food and drink,
81A region of drought, where no river glides,
83Where sedgy pool, nor bubbling fount,
84Nor tree, nor cloud, nor misty mount,
85Appears, to refresh the aching eye:
86But the barren earth, and the burning sky,
87And the black horizon, round and round,
88Spread -- void of living sight or sound.
89And here, while the night-winds round me sigh,
90And the stars burn bright in the midnight sky,
91As I sit apart by the desert stone,
93'A still small voice' comes through the wild
94(Like a Father consoling his fretful Child),
95Which banishes bitterness, wrath, and fear, --


1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to Pringle on March 20, 1828, that he encountered this poem in Thompson's Travels and "was taken so compleatly possession of [it], that for some days I did little else but read and recite your poem, now to this group and now to that -- and since that time have either written or caused to be written, at least half a dozen copies ... With the omission of about four or at the utmost six lines I do not hesitate to declare it, among the two or three most perfect lyric Poems in our Language" (Earl Leslie Griggs, "Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Pringle," QBSAL 6.1 [Sept. 1951]; quoted in African Poems of Thomas Pringle, ed. Ernest Pereira and Michael Chapman [Durban: University of Natal Press, 1989]: 79-80). For the different versions of this poem, see George W. Robinson, "Bibliography of Thomas Pringle's `Afar in the Desert,'" Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 17.1 (1923). Back to Line
2] Bush-boy: Dutch term for native living in the wilderness. Back to Line
29] Perhaps an allusion to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name. Back to Line
45] oribi: small dark brown antelope (a Hottentot name). Back to Line
46] gnu: wildebeest, an antelope resembling an ox.
gazelle: " ... the Reebok, or any other of the smaller antelopes" (Pringle's note, p. 502).
hartèbeest: an antelope (Alcephalus caama; cf. Pringle's note, p. 502). Back to Line
47] kùdù: "Koodoo, (Antilope Strepsiceros)" (Pringle's note, p. 502).
eland: "(Antilope Oreas), called by the Hottentots Kanna" (Pringle's note, p. 502). Back to Line
50] river-horse: hippopotamus. Back to Line
55] Karroo: "an arid desert, about three hundred miles in length, by from seventy to eighty in breadth; bounded by the Sneeuwberg and Nieuwveld ridges of mountains on the north, and by the Zwartberg, or Black Mountain ridge, on the south" (Pringle's note, p. 501). Back to Line
56] springbok: "A species of antelope, Antilope euchore, abounding in South Africa, characterized by a habit of springingalmost directly upwards when excited or disturbed" (OED). Back to Line
57] quagga: "South African equine quadruped (Equus or Hippotigris Quagga), related to the ass and zebra, but lessfully striped than the latter" (OED), exterminated about 1873."The cry of the Quagga (pronounced quaha, or quacha) is very different from that of either the horse or ass" (Pringle's note, p. 503). Back to Line
69] Wilderness vast: "The Desert of Kalleghanny or Challahenagh, north of the Orange River, and lying between the countries of the Bechuanas and Damards, is said to be for the most part entirely destitute of water, so that the Bechuanas and Corannas in crossing it are forcedto subsist on a species of wild water-melon ... a species of Coloquintida ... bitter and pungent to the taste" (Pringle's note, p. 503). Back to Line
71] Coránna: or Bechuán: "The Corannas, Koras, or Koraquas, are a tribe of independent Hottentots, inhabiting the banks of the Gareep, or Great Orange River" (Pringle, 504); the Bechuana are a peaceful native tribe "people inhabiting the country between the Orange and Zambezi rivers in Southern Africa, speaking Tswana (formerly called Sechuana), a Bantu language" (OED). Back to Line
80] salt-lake: "... the water is exhaled, and the dry crystallized saltremains, white as a frozen lake, in the bosom of the dry parched land" (Pringle's note, p. 503). Back to Line
82] osiered: covered with osiers, a type of willow tree (Salix viminalis). Back to Line
92] Elijah at Horeb's cave: a Biblical story told in 1 Kings 19, especially 11-13. Elijah journeyed forty days and nights in the wilderness to reach Horeb, the mount of God, who came and told him to stand on the mountain top. "And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strongwind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, `What are you doing here, Elijah?'" Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
South African Journal 1.2 (March-April 1824): 105; George Thompson, Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa, ed. Vernon S. Forbes (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1967): II, 17-19. DT 756 .T47 1967. Also London: H. Colburn, 1827. DT 756 .T47 1827A Robarts Library
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2000.