The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIII. South African Poetry

§ 4. Anthologies

Pringle, then, is historic, and anyone who wishes to know what the colour and circumstances of South African life were at the beginning of the last century will find it nowhere so well as in his book. Some of the pieces in it to which reference has been made may remind us that South Africa is the home of at least two white and many black races, and that in various ways all these appear in its literature. A volume published as long ago as 1884, entitled Klaas Gezwint en Zijn Paert, contains not only specimens of Pringle’s poems, but verses by a number of other verse writers of that and previous generations. The first piece in the volume, The British Settler’s Song, composed by an early settler, A. G. Bain, and sung by him at the Settlers’ Commemoration Dinner at Graham’s Town, bears the stamp of its era upon it, and is very characteristic.

So, too, is the next piece, The Africander’s War Song, an adaptation of A’ the Blue Bonnets are over the Border, beginning:

  • March! March! Cabo and Caledon!
  • Mount your fleet steeds, they are sleek—in good order.
  • March, march, Stellenbosch, Swellendam,
  • Every brave Burgher must off to the Border!
  • Two others, written as companion poems, entitled Cutting Capers and Caper Sauce, comparing, or contrasting the advantage of England and Cape Colony, give a lively picture of some prominent features. The second and most unique portion of the volume, the Volk’s Liederen, or poems in the Taal or Cape Dutch, to which reference has already been made, we must here unwillingly pass by. Many of them are parodies of well-known English and Scottish pieces, especially the latter. The Maid of Athens appears as Sannie Beyers; The Laird of Cockpen as Gert Beyers; Duncan Gray as Daantjie Gouws; The Cotter’s Saturday Night as Die Boer zijn Zaterdag Aand, and Tam o’ Shanter as the piece which gives its title to the volume, Klaas Gezwint.

    The best collection of English South African poetry is The Treasury of South African Poetry and Verse, collected from various sources and arranged by Edward Heath Crouch, of Cambridge, South Africa. The first edition, published in 1907, almost at once sold out, and a second edition followed the next year. It is divided into two sections, the longer secular portion, and a smaller collection at the end of “religious and metaphysical” poems. Several of the authors, Pringle amongst them, appear in both. Fortunately for themselves, but unfortunately for the purpose of this brief survey, the authors of many of the best pieces contained in this collection are still alive, and cannot therefore be treated here.

    Among those who have passed away may be mentioned John Fairbairn, the contemporary and friend of Pringle, whom the latter invited to join him at the Cape. Pringle thought well of his poetry, quoting in his autobiography more than one of Fairbairn’s pieces and ranking them above his own; and expressed a regret that one who had written so well had written so little.

    A poet of some merit, with an eye and voice for the characteristics of South African nature, was E. B. Watermeyer. Some lines of his, happily prefixed to the Dutch collection mentioned above, are well worth remembering:

  • “English are you? or Dutch?
  • Both; neither;” How?
  • The land I dwell in Dutch and English plough.
  • Together they have been in weal and woe;
  • Together they have stood to breast the foe;
  • A name of future days, in Time’s far scope
  • May tell perhaps the nation of “Good Hope”!
  • A sea piece by the same writer, entitled After a Storm, is a sincere and appealing study of nature.

    Another poet of more variety and range is A. Haynes Bell. His Knight of Avelon is a romantic story in the manner of Tennyson, and a skilful and pleasing poem in that style. The poem, To a Sea Conch, is also early, or middle, Victorian, with perhaps some echo of Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. A martial piece, The Last Stand, is interesting as being one of the earlier South African poems of empire:

  • Comrades, wake! ’tis morn!
  • See, the foe draws near!
  • Britons we were born,
  • Britons then appear!
  • Death we laugh to scorn;
  • Shame alone we fear.
  • There are many, true;
  • We are but a score,
  • But, though we are few,
  • Honour makes us more;
  • So we’ll count anew
  • When the fight is o’er.
  • Now for all we love—
  • King, and Empire, friends;
  • Now for God above,
  • Who the right defends.
  • Strike, nor recreant prove
  • To our Country’s ends.
  • Freedom, justice, peace,
  • These we bring to all.
  • ’Tis our faith too; these
  • Are our Empire’s wall.
  • Grow with its increase,
  • Perish with its fall.
  • ’Tis a sacred cause
  • Summons to the fray;
  • Not for vain applause
  • Or the fame we pray.
  • For our Country’s laws
  • Stand we here to-day.
  • Stern will be the strife;
  • Let us do or die.
  • Honour’s more than life,
  • More than victory.
  • More than children, wife;
  • Let us do or die.
  • Each, then, do his part;
  • Fight, lads, with a will.
  • Many a gallant heart
  • Will the tidings thrill;
  • Many a tear will start
  • To our memory still.
  • And should we prevail,
  • As by grace we may,
  • What a shout will hail
  • This triumphant day!
  • How the foe will quail!
  • What will England say?
  • Steady, lads! lie low!
  • See, the foe appears.
  • Let us treat him now
  • To three British cheers;
  • Then the victor’s brow
  • Or a nation’s tears.
  • The influence of Tennyson, as was only natural, may be traced in much of the poetry of South Africa at this period. He had a great vogue there. A friend of the writer of this chapter, who knew South Africa well and who lost his life in the South African war, told of an old Boer farmer who, when his last days came, wandered down to a stream on his farm, and was heard repeating the well-known verses of The Rivulet:

  • No more by thee my steps shall be
  • For ever and for ever.
  • When Cecil Rhodes himself lay dying he quoted, as many will remember, the words of In Memoriam:
  • So little done, so much to do.
  • But perhaps still more striking testimony was that rendered by a divine of the Dutch church, H. S. Bosman, who shortly after the war, preached a remarkable sermon at Johannesburg, in July, 1902, advocating the keeping alive of the Dutch ideals, and who, when called in question, justified himself by quoting a passage from Tennyson’s Cup, beginning:

  • Sir, if a State submit
  • At once, she may be blotted out at once,
  • And swallow’d in the conqueror’s chronicle.
  • Whereas in wars of freedom and defence
  • The glory and grief of battle won and lost
  • Solders a race together.
  • To the influence of Tennyson succeeded naturally that of another poet, who has spent much time in the country, knows it, and is known by it, well. But of Rudyard Kipling and his influence on many, if not most, of the living poets of this part of the empire it is not permissible to take this occasion of speaking.

    Suffice it, therefore, to say that in letters as in action, in poetry as in politics and war, South Africa shows to-day the promise and the potency of achievement worthy of its own growing greatness and of the still vaster empire, and the noble aspirations, for which it has given, and is giving, at this hour, its best blood, and the travail alike of its sword and its soul.