1825 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Desolate Valley.

African Sketches. By Thomas Pringle.

Thomas Pringle


Eight Spenserians describing the ruins of a missionary town in South Africa, published in 1834. Thomas Pringle may be remembering the description of an Indian massacre in Thomas Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming (1809). Pringle's notes do not identify the "Oppressor" or describe the circumstances leading to the destruction of the mission. The "Desolate Valley" is not dated, though it presumably dates from the period Pringle lived in South Africa. A stanza from this poem appears in Friendship's Offering for 1830, perhaps indicating that it had not been previously published.

Author's note: "Sicana, a secondary chief, or captain of a Caffer hamlet, at the Kat River, was one of the converts of the missionary Williams. This remarkable man composed the first Christian hymn, or sacred song, ever composed in his native tongue; and after the decease of his teacher, he continued to instruct his followers in the blessed truths he had learned, until his own death. See Philip's Researches, vol. ii. p. 186" pp. 522-23n.

Leitch Ritchie: "Pringle communicated a portion of his mind to our African colony; and not merely in the printed essays, and moral struggles, of the philanthropist was his advocacy of the eternal principles of nature and religion made manifest, but even the wild strains of his Border muse sent a thrill of generous feeling through many a cold and selfish heart. In his history, in fact, is exhibited the stealthy influence of LITERATURE, unseen in its action, but felt more powerfully in its results than the fiercest war" memoir in Poetical Works (1838) lxxx-lxxxi.

The poems in African Sketches are prefaced with an epigraph from Spenser's prefatory sonnet to Lord Grey of Wilton: "Rude Rymes, the which a rustic Muse did weave | In salvadge soyl, far from Parnasso Mount, | And roughly wrought in an unlearned loome."



Far up among the forest-laden mountains,
Where Winterberg, stern giant old and grey,
Looks down the subject dells, whose gleaming fountains
To wizard Kat their virgin tribute pay,
A valley opens to the noontide ray,
With green savannahs shelving to the brim
Of the swift River, sweeping on his way
To where Umtoka hies to meet with him,
Like a blue serpent gliding through the acacias dim.

Round this secluded region circling rise
A billowy waste of mountains, wild and wide;
Upon whose grassy slopes the pilgrim spies
The gnu and quagga, by the greenwood side,
Tossing their shaggy manes in tameless pride;
Or troop of elands near some sedgy fount;
Or kudu fawns, that from the thicket glide
To seek their dam upon the misty mount;
With harts, gazelles, and roes, more than the eye may count.

And as we journeyed up the pathless glen,
Flanked by romantic hills on either hand,
The boschbok oft would bound away — and then
Beside the willows, backward gazing, stand.
And where old forests darken all the land,
From rocky Katberg to the river's brink,
The buffalo would start upon the strand,
Where, 'mid palmetto flags, he stooped to drink,
And, crashing through the brakes, to the deep jungle shrink.

Then, couched at night in hunter's wattled shieling,
How wildly beautiful it was to hear
The elephant his shrill reveille pealing,
Like some far signal-trumpet on the ear!
While the broad midnight moon was shining clear,
How fearful to look forth upon the woods,
And see those stately forest-kings appear,
Emerging from their shadowy solitudes—
As if that trump had woke Earth's old gigantic broods!

Such the majestic, melancholy scene
Which 'midst that mountain-wilderness we found;
With scarce a trace to tell where man had been,
Save the old Caffer cabins crumbling round.
Yet this lone glen (Sicana's ancient ground,)
To Nature's savage tribes abandoned long,
Had heard, erewhile, the Gospel's joyful sound,
And low of herds mixed with the Sabbath sound.
But all is silent now. The Oppressor's hand was strong.

Now the blithe loxia hangs her pensile nest
From the wild-olive, bending o'er the rock,
Beneath whose shadow, in grave mantle drest,
The Christian Pastor taught his swarthy flock.
A roofless ruin, scathed by flame and smoke,
Tells where the decent Mission-chapel stood;
While the baboon with jabbering cry doth mock
The pilgrim, pausing in his pensive mood
To ask — "Why is it thus? Shall EVIL baffle GOOD?"

Yes — for a season Satan my prevail,
And hold, as if secure, his dark domain;
The prayers of righteous men may seem to fail,
And Heaven's Glad Tidings be proclaimed in vain.
But wait in faith: ere long shall spring again
The seed that seemed to perish in the ground;
And, fertilised by Zion's latter rain,
The long-parched land shall laugh, with harvests crowned,
And through those silent wastes Jehovah's praise resound.

Look round that Vale: behold the unburied bones
Of Ghona's children withering in the blast:
The sobbing wind, that through the forest moans,
Whispers — "The spirit hath for ever passed!"
Thus, in the Vale of Desolation vast,
In moral death dark Afric's myriads lie;
But the Appointed Day shall dawn at last,
When, breathed on by a Spirit from on High,
The dry bones shall awake, and shout — "Our God is nigh!"

[pp. 75-78]