“South Africa”

(1903)

(Notes by Mary Hamer)


the poem
[January 24 2008]


Publication history

Apparently written towards the close of the surge of work which began in the latter part of 1902 and culminated in the 1903 publication of The Five Nations. Collected in I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940, the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.

Kipling wrote two poems with this title: the second later one, beginning ‘The shame of A-Majuba Hill’ received copyright publication in the United States in 1906. (This later poem is a plea for commitment: by that date it was becoming clear that the British government was withdrawing from South African affairs.)

Background

In this poem, with its image of South Africa as a faithless woman and the soldiers who return to make a life there after the war as her lovers, Kipling struggles to convince his readers and perhaps himself. Why should South Africa mean so much, he asks himself, a year after the end of the war, in a poem which sets out to bring powerfully conflicting impressions and feelings into harmony. The refrain, emphasised by italics, communicates a stubborn possessiveness stronger than any rational argument.

The state of mind that is dramatised here contrasts intriguingly with the mood of “The Settler”, the poem which follows it in The Five Nations.


Notes on the text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling" 1914.)


[Stanza 2] Berwick unto Dover ports on the east coast of England. Berwick–upon-Tweed to the extreme north, Dover in the south.

[Stanza 3] Describes conditions in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. In the northern districts there was an intense drought during the war years, while in 1901-1902 there was plague in Cape Town. (See note to ”The Dirge of Dead Sisters”, stanza 9) Pestilence took the form of enteric or typhoid fever which with other diseases caused twice as many deaths as enemy action. As for the locusts, and ‘murrain on the cattle’, these may be poetic licence. It is true that rinderpest was a recurring problem in southern Africa but it seems likely that Kipling is deliberately evoking the ten plagues of Egypt see Exodus, chapters 7-11) Both ‘murrain’, a rather unusual term and locusts occur in that list of plagues.

[Stanza 5] Food forgot on trains derailed Boer sabotage repeatedly interrupted the train of supplies on the march from Bloemfontein to Pretoria. Much had to be abandoned.

Water where the mules had staled where the mules had urinated. See Background note to “Dirge of Dead Sisters”. Long days with little water, often in intense heat, made men who had not been properly trained careless about where they finally got water. Conan Doyle believed it should be a military offence for men to fill their bottles with polluted water.

sackcloth for their raiment some of the troops entering Bloemfontein were left, after their heavy fighting, in such scanty rags that for the sake of decency they were hidden in the centre of the column. By using the Biblical ‘sackcloth’, a term associated with repentance, as in ‘sackcloth and ashes’ Kipling attempts to lend dignity and deliberation to that moment.

[Stanza 6] Till they vowed to leave her it is the case that the hardships of soldiering on the veldt wore down even the keenest volunteers.

[Stanza 7] They forgat their sore duresse both forgat and duresse are deliberate archaisms, part of a strategy by which Kipling attempts to link the Anglo-Boer War with what is long-established in British culture.

returned for orders came back and committed themselves to a life in South Africa. It is not clear that this was a common move, though Kipling was very anxious to see the agricultural development of South Africa. It was his hope that men from the colonies - that is, men who could stand the space and the challenge of the open country - should come down to farm and make their lives in South Africa.

[Stanza 8] I am not sure what the first two lines mean: was perhaps South Africa preferred to the opportunities offered at home among institutions that had been established or founded by the crown? Confused emotions here give rise to a rather over-heated tone. On the one hand, the men are presented, like Mark Anthony in Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, as giving up the world for love; on the other, they are shown almost as sacrificial victims, their burial-place identified with an altar.

[Stanza 9] bought by blood a phrase so often associated with Christ and the redemption of the world that it enhances the gravity of this reference to the blood that was spent in the Anglo-Boer War. The contorted syntax of this stanza appears to mean that the blood South Africa has cost makes her seem the more perfect and desirable. Perhaps unwittingly, this comes close to conceding the possibility of delusion.

[Stanza 10] On your feet and let them know this call for a toast resonates with a slightly bullying tone, consistent perhaps the awareness that the argument is somewhat shaky.


[M.H.

©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved