Alfred Lord Tennyson

I Stood upon the mountain which o’erlooks   
The narrow seas, whose rapid interval   
Parts Afric from green Europe, when the sun   
Had fallen below the Atlantic, and above   
The silent heavens were blenched with faery light,           
Uncertain whether faery light or cloud,   
Flowing southward, and the chasms of deep, deep blue   
Slumbered unfathomable, and the stars   
Were flooded over with clear glory and pale.   
I gazed upon the sheeny coast beyond,           
There where the Giant of old Time infixed   
The limits of his prowess, pillars high   
Long time erased from earth; even as the Sea   
When weary of wild inroad buildeth up   
Huge mounds whereby to stay his yeasty waves.           
And much I mused on legends quaint and old,   
Which whilome won the hearts of all on earth   
Toward their brightness, even as flame draws air;   
But had their being in the heart of man,   
As air is the life of flame: and thou wert then           
A centred glory-circled memory,   
Divinest Atalantis, whom the waves   
Have buried deep, and thou of later name,   
Imperial Eldorado, roofed with gold:   
Shadows to which, despite all shocks of change,           
All onset of capricious accident,   
Men clung with yearning hope which would not die.

*        *        *        *        *
                    Then I raised   
My voice and cried, “Wide Afric, doth thy sun   
Lighten, thy hills enfold a city as fair           
As those which starred the night o’ the elder world?   
Or is the rumor of thy Timbuctoo   
A dream as frail as those of ancient time?”   
  A curve of whitening, flashing, ebbing light!   
A rustling of white wings! the bright descent           
Of a young Seraph! and he stood beside me   
There on the ridge, and looked into my face   
With his unutterable, shining orbs,   
So that with hasty motion I did veil   
My vision with both hands, and saw before me           
Such colored spots as dance athwart the eyes   
Of those that gaze upon the noonday sun.   
Girt with a zone of flashing gold beneath   
His breast, and compassed round about his brow   
With triple arch of everchanging bows,           
And circled with the glory of living light   
And alternation of all hues, he stood.   
  “O child of man, why muse you here alone   
Upon the mountain, on the dreams of old   
Which filled the earth with passing loveliness,           
Which flung strange music on the howling winds,   
And odors rapt from remote Paradise?   
Thy sense is clogged with dull mortality;   
Open thine eyes and see.”

*        *        *        *        *
  Then first within the south methought I saw           
A wilderness of spires, and crystal pile   
Of rampart upon rampart, dome on dome,   
Illimitable range of battlement   
On battlement, and the imperial height   
Of canopy o’ercanopied.
In diamond light upspring the dazzling peaks   
Of pyramids, as far surpassing earth’s   
As heaven than earth is fairer. Each aloft   
Upon his narrowed eminence bore globes   
Of wheeling suns, or stars, or semblances           
Of either, showering circular abyss   
Of radiance. But the glory of the place   
Stood out a pillared front of burnished gold,   
Interminably high, if gold it were   
Or metal more ethereal, and beneath           
Two doors of blinding brilliance, where no gaze   
Might rest, stood open, and the eye could scan,   
Through length of porch and valve and boundless hall,   
Part of a throne of fiery flame, wherefrom   
The snowy skirting of a garment hung,           
And glimpse of multitude of multitudes   
That ministered around it—if I saw   
These things distinctly, for my human brain   
Staggered beneath the vision, and thick night   
Came down upon my eyelids, and I fell.           
  With ministering hand he raised me up:   
Then with a mournful and ineffable smile,   
Which but to look on for a moment filled   
My eyes with irresistible sweet tears,   
In accents of majestic melody,           
Like a swollen river’s gushings in still night   
Mingled with floating music, thus he spake:   
  “There is no mightier spirit than I to sway   
The heart of man; and teach him to attain   
By shadowing forth the Unattainable;           
And step by step to scale that mighty stair   
Whose landing-place is wrapt about with clouds   
Of glory of heaven.

*        *        *        *        *
                    “I am the spirit,   
The permeating life which courseth through           
All the intricate and labyrinthine veins   
Of the great vine of Fable, which, outspread   
With growth of shadowing leaf and clusters rare,   
Reacheth to every corner under heaven,   
Deep-rooted in the living soil of truth;           
So that men’s hopes and fears take refuge in   
The fragrance of its complicated glooms,   
And cool impeachéd twilights. Child of man,   
Seest thou yon river, whose translucent wave,   
Forth issuing from the darkness, windeth through           
The argent streets o’ the city, imaging   
The soft inversion of her tremulous domes,   
Her gardens frequent with the stately palm,   
Her pagods hung with music of sweet bells,   
Her obelisks of rangéd chrysolite,           
Minarets and towers? Lo! how he passeth by,   
And gulfs himself in sands, as not enduring   
To carry through the world those waves, which bore   
The reflex of my city in their depth.   
O city! O latest throne! where I was raised           
To be a mystery of loveliness   
Unto all eyes, the time is wellnigh come   
When I must render up this glorious home   
To keen Discovery; soon yon brilliant towers   
Shall darken with the waving of her wand;           
Darken and shrink and shiver into huts,   
Black specks amid a waste of dreary sand,   
Low-built, mud-walled, barbarian settlements.   
How changed from this fair city!”
                        Thus far the Spirit:   
Then parted heavenward on the wing: and I          
Was left alone on Calpe, and the moon   
Had fallen from the night, and all was dark!

There are quite a few poems about Timbuktu. In the middle ages it was a thriving and powerful trading city on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Its reputation of riches grew over the centuries, but its glory faded.

The Victorians has this idea that the distant, fabled place was a city of immense splendour. In reality it is a "Low-built, mud-walled, barbarian settlement", a dusty, fly-blown little town in northern Mali, huddling between the fertile fields along the River Niger and the harsh sands of the Sahara Desert.

In 1829, Tennyson won the Chancellor's Prize at Cambridge for this poem.

Main Location:

Timbuktu, Tomboctou, Timbuctoo, Mali

Other locations:

Mud mosque in the Sahelian style, Timbuktu, Mali