Camel of the Day 13-11-2019

There are times in my life when I wonder, just momentarily, whether camels have led less historical impact than my fascination with them makes me feel. Perhaps there are people, somewhere, whose lives have not been affected in some deep and essential way by these fascinating creatures.

It’s at moments like these that I seem to stumble over the oddest connections.  The one that I’d like to share with you today is perhaps the most unexpected that I’ve discovered so far.  First, however, I’ll give you what you probably came here for – the picture.  It’s a sketch page by Edward Lear (he of the Jabberwocky fame)

8 1/2 AM outside the walls of Suez Jan. 17. 1849

These sketches (Wikimedia Commons) are as close as I’ve found in year to the subject of today’s camel.  This is the camel that inhabits the very first piece of published writing of a certain Friedrich Engels, a poem in which the “bellowing” of the camel sympolises the lost freedom of the bedouin, and of us all, under the rule of the money-system. It appears in Bremisches Conversationsblatt, no.40, September 16, 1838

The Bedouin

Now the bell rings, and suddenly
The silken curtain swift ascends.
And all in hushed expectancy
Wait for the evening to commence.

No Kotzebue commands the scene
To set the merry audience roaring.
No Schiller of the earnest mien
Steps forth, his golden words outpouring.

Sons of the desert, proud and free,
Walk on to greet us, face to face;
But pride is vanished utterly,
And freedom lost without a trace.

They jump at money’s beck and call
(As once that lad from dune to dune
Bounded for joy). They’re silent, all,
Save one who sings a dirge-like tune.

The audience, amazed and awed
By what these acrobats can do,
Applauds them, just as it applauds
The trumperies of Kotzebue.

Fleet nomads of the desert lands,
You’ve braved the sun’s fierce noontide rays
Through harsh Morocco’s burning sands,
Through valleys where the date-palms sway.

And through the garden paradise
Of Bled-el-Djerid once you swept.
You turned your wits to bold forays.
Your steeds to battle proudly stepped.

You sat there, where moon lustres spill
By rare springs in a palm-tree grove,
And lovely lips with gracious skill
A fairy-story garland wove.

Sleeping in narrow tents you lay
In love’s warm arms, with dreams all round,
Till sunrise ushered in the day
And camels made their bellowing sound.

They jump at money’s beck and call,
And not at Nature’s primal urge.
Their eyes are blank, they’re silent, all,
Except for one who sings a dirge.

Apparently though, this isn’t quite the poem Engels actually wrote.  This Afrikaans-language blog draws on Francis Wheen’s work for the missing terminal verse, allegedly suppressed by the original editor because it represented something closer to anger than to sorrow.

Go home again exotic guests!

Your desert robes do not belong

With our Parisian coat and vests

Nor with our literature your song.

I’m really not convinced, to be honest, that this verse is needed.  And it surely introduces an element of racism – literally a “go home” message – that sites uneasily both with the previous verses’ critical attitude to the rule of life by mere money, and with Engels’ later beliefs.  Given the way that people can be determined by their first steps in a field, the Bremische Conversationsblatt editor may have done us all a huge favour. By the omission of that verse, also, the poem is better balanced, avoids redundancy, and foregrounds the way that the absence of the camel from the bedouin’s representation of their culture renders their acrobatic act false and blank and bland.

So that you don’t have that feeling about today’s blog, here’s another one of Lear’s Camel drawings, from his Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets.

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