Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Hurricane in the Desert (The Simoom), for Rogers’s ‘Poems’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and pen on paper
Support: 244 × 305 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 195

Catalogue entry

This vignette, The Simoom, was published in the 1834 edition of Rogers’s Poems, as an illustration to the poem ‘Human Life’.1 It was engraved by Edward Goodall,2 and published below the following verses:
At night, when all, assembling round the fire,
Closer and closer draw till they retire,
A tale is told of India or Japan,
Of merchants from Golcond or Astracan,
What time wild Nature revelled unrestrained,
And Sinbad voyaged and the Caliphs reigned:–
Of Knights renowned from holy Palestine,
And minstrels, such as swept the lyre divine,
Or some great Caravan, from well to well
Winding as darkness on the desert fell,
In their long march, such as the Prophet bids,
To Mecca from the Land of Pyramids,
And in an instant lost – a hollow wave
Of burning sand their everlasting grave!
(Poems, pp.93–4)
Turner highlighted the last couplet with a box drawn in pencil in the margin of his own copy of the 1827 edition of Poems (see Tate D36330; Turner Bequest CCCLXVI p.103). His subsequent design provides an evocative complement to the poet’s description of a desert caravan caught in a deadly sandstorm known as a Simoom. Beneath a sun ringed with a blood-red halo a scene of total destruction unfolds: in the middle distance a rider is about to be thrown from his horse whilst the corpses of men and beasts lie strewn in the about the foreground. The concept of the Simoom, known as the ‘poison wind’, might have been familiar to many of Rogers’s readers; in his Turkish tale, The Giaour (1813), Lord Byron defined it as ‘the blast of the desert, fatal to every living thing, and often alluded to in eastern poetry’.3 It is also memorably portrayed by the Greek historian, Herodotus. Furthermore, as Adele Holcomb has discussed, Turner’s scene recalls the work of another poet he greatly admired, the Scottish writer, James Thomson (1700–48).4 In the section entitled ‘Summer’ Thomson’s pastoral epic The Seasons (1726–30) contains a vivid description of a desert storm:
From all the boundless furnace of the sky,
And the wide glittering waste of burning sand,
A suffocating wind the pilgrim smites
With instant death. Patient of thirst and toil,
Son of the desert! even the camel feels,
Shot through his withered heart, the fiery blast.
Or from the black-red ether, bursting broad,
Sallies the sudden whirlwind. Straight the sands,
Commoved around, in gathering eddies play;
Nearer and nearer till they darkening come;
Till, with the general all-involving storm
Swept up, the whole continuous wilds arise
Beneath descending hills the caravan
Is buried deep.
(‘Summer’ lines 692–73, 976–7)
Samuel Rogers, Poems, London 1834, p.94.
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.385. There are no impressions of this engraving in Tate’s collection.
Quoted in Piggott 1993, p.84.
Quoted in Holcomb 1970, p.25.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.86.
See Andrew Wilton and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s ‘Verse Book’ and his Work of 1804–1812, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.53–61
Ibid., p.25.
Ibid., p.24.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.126
Ibid., no.404; see also Wilton 1975, p.68.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

Revised by Nicola Moorby
July 2008

Read full Catalogue entry


You might like

In the shop