Sunday 26 February 2012

Death and Poetry in the Karoo - Dianne Hofmeyr

I have fallen under the spell of a vista. It has stirred up a deep-seated identity with soil and rock. I’m lost in a world of sepia, ochre and rust where having forgotten to pack my camera, I’m forced to look harder. Through a portal of soaring rocky folds that seem made of ancient paved brick where the road crosses the river 25 times, I come to the Karoo.

Karoo… the name is odd. It comes from a language of clicks - karo, karro - meaning ‘hard’ or ‘dry’. And it is dry and hard, with a gaunt, spectacular grandeur that subdues me. I can’t imagine its impact on the young British soldiers who were first offloaded here in 1899. Names like Outeniqua, Oudtshoorn, Meiringspoort, Weltrevrede and words like kopje and veldt must have faltered on the tongues of men from Harlech and Bristol who came to fight a war against the Boers in the semi-desert of the Karoo. Is this the place that gave name to the soldier Mad Carew in J. Milton Hayes’poem The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God ?
In 1901 when Rudyard Kipling was sent to report on the Anglo-Boer War, he wrote of the soldiers who sat through cold nights guarding the single train line that ran through the Karoo, from ambush by the Boer commandoes. It's a vision of stark loneliness in a very dark world.
Sudden the desert changes,
The raw glare softens and clings,
Till the aching Oudtshoorn ranges
Stand up like the thrones of Kings—

Ramparts of slaughter and peril—
Blazing, amazing, aglow—
’Twixt the sky-line’s belting beryl
And the wine-dark flats below.

Royal the pageant closes,
Lit by the last of the sun—
Opal and ash-of-roses,
Cinnamon, umber, and dun.

The twilight swallows the thicket,
The starlight reveals the ridge.
The whistle shrills to the picket—
We are changing guard on the bridge.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,
Where the empty metals shine—
No, not combatants—only
Details guarding the line.)

We slip through the broken panel
Of fence by the ganger’s shed;
We drop to the waterless channel
And the lean track overhead;

We stumble on refuse of rations,
The beef and the biscuit-tins;
We take our appointed stations,
And the endless night begins.

We hear the Hottentot herders
As the sheep click past to the fold—
And the click of the restless girders
As the steel contracts in the cold—

Voices of jackals calling
And, loud in the hush between,
A morsel of dry earth falling
From the flanks of the scarred ravine.

And the solemn firmament marches,
And the hosts of heaven rise
Framed through the iron arches—
Banded and barred by the ties,

Till we feel the far track humming,
And we see her headlight plain,
And we gather and wait her coming—
The wonderful north-bound train.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,
Where the white car-windows shine—
No, not combatants—only
Details guarding the line.)

Quick, ere the gift escape us!
Out of the darkness we reach
For a handful of week-old papers
And a mouthful of human speech.

And the monstrous heaven rejoices,
And the earth allows again,
Meetings, greetings, and voices
Of women talking with men.

So we return to our places,
As out on the bridge she rolls;
And the darkness covers our faces,
And the darkness re-enters our souls.

More than a little lonely
Where the lessening tail-lights shine.
No—not combatants—only
Details guarding the line!

Thomas Hardy wrote two poems highlighting the blight of the Anglo-Boer War. The first, A Wife in London written in 1899 is about the irony of a wife receiving a letter from her husband on the day after she has received the news of his death. The second Hardy poem, Drummer Hodge, is about a young man ignorant and innocent of what lies ahead who wouldn’t have known the meaning of the strange words that give meaning to the Karoo but whose body would become nourishment for the veldt in years to come.

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.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew -
Fresh from his Wessex home -
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

I wonder if Rupert Brooke had read Hardy’s Drummer Hodge when he wrote these lines in The Soldier in 1914?
IF I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Reams could be written of this war and of the soldiers who never returned to their families in England and of the Australians who gave their support to Britain. And reams could be written of the Boers who suffered and died under Kitchener’s Burnt Earth Policy and the Boer wives and children who were rounded up and put in Concentration Camps and died of cold, starvation and typhoid.
My maternal great grandfather from Yorkshire had his sheep farm in Natal expropriated during the Anglo-Boer War. My paternal grandfather fought on the side of the English. In my husband’s family there were those that fought on the side of the Boers. No wonder I feel a deep sense of identity with this vista of the Karoo.

Some of the History Girls will be putting up books they've recently read (without reviews) at the end of their posts. These are two I've recently read - the first by our own History Girl, Louisa Young, short-listed for the Costa which deals with the ravages of WWI and The Sisters Brothers which is a cowboy story with a difference set in similar terrain to the Karoo which was short-listed for the Booker:


alberridge said...

Thanks for a wonderfully evocative post, Dianne. I've never been to South Africa, but am beginning to fear I really have to.

I've always loved 'Drummer Hodge' - I used to teach it in a pair with Rupert Brooke's 'The Soldier' - but the Kipling 'Bridge Guard' is new to me, and a really stunning piece. He'd always struck me as an 'ideas' poet rather than a 'physical reality' one, but his use of sound here is just beautiful.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Linda B-A said...

What a stunning landscape, and what evocative sepia images. It was good to be reminded, too, of Hardy's Drummer Hodge. The first time I came across it was when I saw Alan Bennett's The History Boys, in that pivotal scene when Posner recites it to Hector and you sense the worth of the man. That last stanza is heartbreaking.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank you both of you and yes the Bridge-Guard was new to me too... I can see that train travelling through the darkness of the Karoo. I did the journey often and know those bleak sidings where you wake at night and the temperature has dropped to below freezing. Utter loneliness! One just imagines the short-lived joy of receiving an old newspaper and hearing women's voices on the train.

Penny Dolan said...

Such an interesting post and pictures Dianne. Kipling may be a man for another time but, for me, there's still something deeply felt in his poems that transcends "Empire" and "Drummer Hodge" is a perfect example of this.

As for poor souls on the railroad detail - one can feel the homesickness, but oh the cold beauty of such star filled skies!

I do enjoy these posts from so far away - with all your detailed description, it's almost the bright train passing but in akind of reverse.

adele said...

Lovely post, Dianne!

H.M. Castor said...

Wonderful & moving post, with fascinating photographs, both the old & the new. Thank you Dianne.