Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
In previous poetry selections, we’ve offered some of the best poems about rivers and some of the finest sea poems. But poetry isn’t all wet; some of it is positively dry, and more than one poet has depicted the dry landscapes of deserts, wastelands, and deserted spaces. Here are ten of the greatest desert poems.
Omar Khayyám, Rubáiyát.
With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne …
Meaning ‘quatrains’, the Rubáiyát is a long poem by an extraordinary figure: Khayyám (1048-1131) was a Persian poet, philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician. The Rubáiyát was translated into English by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald, whose edition is available (with a beautiful cover and lots of scholarly notes) as Rub’aiy’at of Omar Khayy’am (Oxford World’s Classics). The desert features several times in this remarkable poem.
Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity …
This poem earns its place on this list for its memorable reference to ‘deserts of vast eternity’. A seduction poem, and more specifically, a carpe diem poem in which the poet encourages his mistress to ‘seize the day’, this poem sees our lives as all too brief, with an eternity of death and dust lying beyond our narrow span.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed …’
Published in The Examiner on 11 January 1818, ‘Ozymandias’ is one of Shelley’s best-known poems. A sonnet about the remnants of a statue standing alone in a desert – a desert which was once the vast civilisation of Ozymandias, ‘King of Kings’ – the poem is a haunting meditation on the fall of civilisations and the futility of all human endeavour. Shelley wrote the poem as part of a competition with his friend, Horace Smith.
Emily Dickinson, ‘With thee, in the Desert’. This four-line poem, which is short enough to reproduce in full here, uses the image of the desert as a symbol for a romantic wasteland. But the speaker, and her beloved, have found a way to waken the ‘Leopard’ of their love, aided by the soft fruit of the Tamarind tree:
With thee, in the Desert –
With thee in the thirst –
With thee in the Tamarind wood –
Leopard breathes – at last!
Thomas Hardy, ‘Drummer Hodge’.
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound …
Hardy (1840-1928) wrote ‘Drummer Hodge’ shortly after the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899. It focuses on the burial of Hodge, a drummer in the British army fighting in the Boer War. Hodge doesn’t have a conventional burial, such as he might have expected if he’d died at home: there is no coffin, and instead of a tombstone to act as ‘landmark’, he has just a mound of earth or a little hill (a ‘kopje’ is a small hill in South Africa) among the deserted landscape.
Stephen Crane, ‘In the Desert’. This short poem by the author of The Red Badge of Courage begins with a macabre sight:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands, / And ate of it …
Critics have puzzled over the precise meaning of the poem, but it earns its place on this list because a) it’s bloomin’ weird, and b) it’s set in a desert.
Robert Frost, ‘Desert Places’. Like so many of Frost’s poems, ‘Desert Places’ is grounded in the local and earthbound: here, a field during snowfall, which brings home the loneliness of the world to the speaker, in a much more powerful way than the ‘empty spaces / Between stars’. Who needs the cosmic perspective to bring that home to them, when the ‘desert places’ all around us remind us of the emptiness that lies just under everything?
Saint-John Perse, Anabasis. Translated into English by T. S. Eliot in 1930, this long French prose poem of 1924 is a poem about a spiritual and geographical journey, including a march through the desert and references to the ‘depths of the desert-like gulfs’. The full text is available at the link above but you can also buy your own version of this work that resist easy categorisation: Anabasis.
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land. Perhaps no list of the best poems about desert spaces would be complete without the definitive poem about a waste land. When Eliot read The Waste Land to the royal family at Windsor Castle in the 1940s, the wife of King George VI (later the Queen Mother) memorably got the title of Eliot’s poem wrong, telling people afterwards that Eliot had read a poem called ‘The Desert’. In a way, this alternative title works, especially given the dry landscape of ‘stony rubbish’ we encounter early on in the poem, and then the long desert passages in the poem’s final section.
Josephine Miles, ‘Desert’. This 1934 poem from the American poet Josephine Miles (1911-85) is wonderfully enigmatic. Is she using images of drought and deserts as metaphors for other forms of deprivation? And what does it mean when, as in Eliot’s poem above, the water finally begins dripping?
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.