Leipoldt: The Universal Afrikaner
by Roon Lewald
In one of my latest visits to the blog of an American friend, I was intrigued by a sensitive description of her visit to the remote grave of Afrikaans poet C. Louis Leipoldt, sheltered by an overhanging ledge of sandstone at Pakhuis (Storehouse) Pass in the rugged Cedarberg mountains some 200 miles north of Cape Town.
Christian Frederik Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947) is revered by Africa’s only white tribe as one of its finest poets. He was a leading luminary of the “Second Movement”, the generation of language pioneers which produced the first poems of genuine literary value in Afrikaans immediately after the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. His name is hardly known outside an estimated 10 million or so native speakers spread over South Africa and the now rapidly expanding diaspora of Afrikaner emigrants to the USA, Europe, Australasia and elsewhere. But blog hostess Jenny Bennett has such wide interests that I wasn’t too surprised by her tribute to such an exotic poet.In a long exchange of e-mails and phone calls a few years ago, we had compared analogous aspects of the American Civil War and its lasting repercussions with the similarly tragic fraternal conflict between rival white communities in South Africa. She became so fascinated by the “Boer War”, as that forgotten episode of Africa’s colonial history is known to the relatively few Americans who have even heard of it, that she promptly jetted out to South Africa to scour archives, interview knowledgeable sources and visit old scenes of battle. She has since written a well-researched narrative history of the wartime exploits of Deneys Reitz and other Boer guerilla fighters entitled ‘Transvaal Citizen’. Excerpts from that highly readable book and other South African topics now mingle kaleidoscopically with accounts of her mountaineering hobby, literary interests, off-beat aspects of American history and other curiosities in “endless streams and forests”, her aptly named blog.
Having spent my first 28 years in South Africa without visiting some of the remote landscapes Jenny is now describing, I was piqued enough by her description of Leipoldt’s last resting place to take a closer look at his work. As an Afrikaans Lit. student in the 1960s, I favoured the sophisticated appeal of more modern Afrikaner poets like N.P. van Wyk Louw, Breyten Breytenbach and Ingrid Jonker. I tended to brush Leipoldt aside as an outmoded patriot, largely concerned with restoring purpose and dignity to a tiny nation shattered by its exceedingly bloody war against the British global empire and the social, economic and political misery of its inevitable defeat.
A closer look at my old university text books and anthologies showed me how shallow that earlier impression was. Certainly, the bitter personal experience of that hopeless little war and its catastrophic consequences for a thinly spread community of simple, often hardly literate farmers inspired some of Leipoldt’s most heartfelt lines. But he was anything but a super-patriotic diehard, forever mired in the antagonistically frozen resentments and prejudices which fuelled Afrikanerdom’s subsequent rise to power and the racist police-state machinery of its Apartheid regime. Certainly, his earliest, technically unsophisticated rhymes vent the immediate impact of his eyewitness impressions of the war in an accusatory cry of agony. But the finer poems that followed reflect a gradual process of meditative objectification. He is finally able to tell his people: Remember that our “soul’s anchor” – the fortitude inherited from our pioneer ancestors – gives us the strength to overcome this national disaster. Let us set aside our bitter memories and join our former enemies in the challenge of today – building a united South Africa.
For all his sympathy with the two fighting Boer republics in the north, Leipoldt remained a son of the relatively open-minded, better-educated Afrikaner society of the British-ruled Cape colony. He shared its division of loyalties between its civilised English neighbours and rulers and the conflicting summons to help its republican brothers defend their land and rich gold resources against the global power of the expansionist British Empire. As a non-combatant journalist, he reported on the application of martial law by roving government tribunals and saw them summarily jail or execute many Cape Afrikaners for aiding Boer guerrilla fighters. He also witnessed the misery of the overcrowded, unsanitary concentration camps in which thousands of Boer women and children were interned until the pressure of the liberal opposition in England forced the Army High Command to ameliorate camp conditions.
Yet his subsequent life and work show him as a man of versatile abilities and universal horizons. Travelling to England to study medicine immediately after the war in 1902, he graduated with top honours in clinical medicine and surgery from the prestigious college of Guy’s Hospital. He practiced as a school doctor in London before serving as Medical Inspector of Schools, first in Transvaal and later in the Cape. After travelling widely in Europe and Asia, he returned to journalism in Cape Town for a spell and finally settled there as a paediatrician. Leipoldt’s versatile literary production encompassed poetry, plays, scientific papers and books on medicine, dietetics and botany, English and Afrikaans novels and classic guides to South African cookery and Cape wines. He himself was a gifted chef who qualified under the great Auguste Escoffier.
As the son of a rural, German-descended missionary, Leipoldt was equally proficient in English, Afrikaans and German, added Latin and Greek under his father’s tutelage and later acquired French and Italian as well. His great interest in European mediaeval history is demonstrated by a colourful description of 15th century Lisbon in an epic poem about Vasco da Gama’s voyages of discovery beyond the Cape of Good Hope. Frequent botanising expeditions and his passionate love of the rugged Hantam region he grew up in have bequeathed South Africa with some of the most moving verses about its beautiful landscapes. Yet even these joyous celebrations of nature are often enriched by a sense of tragedy that deepens much of his other work too. Nostalgia for the more easy-going relations between whites and the Cape Coloured community in his youth adds similar sadness to his affectionate poems about the Islamic traditions of the Cape Malay community. The full extent of the liberal convictions which set him apart from the isolationist tendencies of many racially and religiously intolerant Afrikaner contemporaries has only recently been revealed by the posthumous publication of “The Valley”, a trilogy of English historical novels. The trilogy – Gallows Gecko, Stormwrack and The Mask – traces the changing relations between rural Cape Afrikaners and Britons before, during and after the Anglo-Boer War.
Dr. Peter Shields, one of two orphaned boys whom he adopted and successfully raised as his own, paid tribute to his humanity, liberal outlook and contrarian spirit in an introduction to Leipoldt’s “Food and Wine”. Shields relates that Leipoldt claimed to be a Buddhist, probably because he wished to break free of his strict Dutch Calvinist upbringing. “’Doc’ wasn’t against organized religion – he just wasn’t interested in it,” wrote Shields.
“And yes, I loved him. He was like a big bear, with a gruff voice.”
Much of Leipoldt’s poetry is so full of onomatopoeic effects and local allusions that it defies transposition into another language. This is especially true of his nature poems, which I must regretfully omit from the following translated excerpts of a chronological sequence of other poems. These are intended to illustrate the wide range of his moods, techniques and topics as well as the steady development of his thinking about the Anglo-Boer War. I have tried to strike a balance between literal translations cluttered with tedious footnotes and somewhat freer renditions which seek to preserve as much as possible of the original sense and metre. They do not strictly follow Leipoldt’s rhyme schemes, but I have invented analogous rhymes wherever they seem necessary to reflect the rhythms and music of his verse.
Excerpt 1: From “Aan ‘n Seepkissie” (To a little soapbox)
These anguished lines have rung down the decades as one of Afrikanerdom’s most hallowed icons of patriotic martyrdom. They reflect the unfiltered impact on a very young man (19-20) of the misery of the Boer women and children interned in British Army concentration camps to deprive their fighting menfolk of support. In simple words and crude, repetitive rhymes that don’t always scan properly, the young Leipoldt directly addresses one of the empty wooden soapboxes in which the camp women were reduced to burying the thousands of children who succumbed to dirt, malnutrition, lack of adequate medical supervision, the resulting epidemics of typhoid, influenza, measles etc. and their own primitive Boer remedies. For all its formal shortcomings, this early poem had a terrific impact on Afrikaners at the time and kept alive anti-British sentiments for many decades to come. Even British jingo imperialists had to admit that it was at the very least a highly effective piece of propaganda – though hardly fine poetry as yet.
…Hulle het jou in Eng’land gemaak, seepkissie,
Om hier vir ons kinders as doodkis te dien;
Hulle het vir jou lykies gevinde, seepkissie,
En ek het jouselwe as doodkis gesien.
…They made you in England, little soapbox,(*)
As a burial box for our children.(*)
Little bodies they found for you, soapbox,
And I saw them coffined in you.
(*) Play of words lost in translation. “Seepkis” means soapbox,
“doodkis” (literally “death-box”) means coffin
Excerpt 2: From “Oom Gert Vertel” (Uncle Gert’s Story)
- “Oom Gertel Vertel”, the most famous of Leipoldt’s war poems, was written later than “Seepkissie”, although they were both published with other verses in the same collection in 1911. It shows how swiftly his poetic stature grew under the influence of English examples – in this case the dramatic monologue format he borrowed from Robert Browning. Leipoldt makes a broken-hearted old Cape farmer tell an enquiring youngster in simple, halting speech how his rural community was torn between the dictates of the British war machine and the call of their own blood. The old man is frequently forced to hide his emotions by pausing to call for a pipe of tobacco or a cup of coffee. His heart-rending tale slowly emergences with none of the blaring, accusatory force of “Seepkissie”: two fine young local lads, including his own godson, conspire to join a band of raiding Boer guerrillas but are betrayed by a paid informer. A British martial law tribunal convicts them of high treason and they are summarily executed by a firing squad. Leipoldt is already offering a more future-oriented message to his fellow-Afrikaners here. It is summed up in the opening lines: faced with “the story of our death”, the old man tells his young listener, “you younger people” can only “hold onto what we have, and stand upright, and do your share for our nation.”
Ja, neef, wat kan ek, oumens, jou vertel?
Jy wil die storie van ons sterfte hoor?
Dis nooit te laat om daarvan nog
Te leer en van gebruik te maak – veral
Vir julle, jongeling-mense. Hou maar vas
aan wat ons het, en staan orent, en neem
Jul aandeel aan ons nasie!…
Yes, nephew, what can I, old person, tell you?
You want to hear the story of our death?
It’s never too late to learn from it
And put it to use – especially
For you, younger people. Just hold on
To what we have, and stand upright, and do
Your share for our nation!…
Excerpt 3: From “Droom en Doen” (Dreaming and Doing)
Published in 1923, this poem marks a further step in Leipoldt’s progress towards steering his traumatized people away from diehard revanchism towards positive, forward-looking action. It boldly singles out one of the most emotively charged of all Afrikaner heroes – Gideon Scheepers, a captured guerrilla fighter who suffered a highly controversial firing-squad execution in the Cape. The very name Scheepers was enough to remind Boers long after the war of perfidious English brutality. This time, however, Leipoldt implicitly urges Afrikaners to join their erstwhile enemies in a new task of building a united South Africa. He effectively tells them: Yes, Scheepers’s bullet-riddled body lies buried at Graaff-Reinet. But why keep harping on it? Look, a new day is dawning – do you want to keep wallowing in bygone hostilities while we others tackle the hope-inspiring challenges of today?
“Scheepers lê begrawe in Graaaff-Reinet se sand!”
Kêrel, droom jy nog van gisternag?
Waar die veld verskroei is deur die woeste najaarsbrand,
Kan jy weeld’rig weiland-gras verwag:
Siele wat gefolter is deur pyn en skimp en smart,
Word gelouter deur hul eie krag.
Wil jy vyand lewe, nooit vergeet en nooit vergewe,
Bitter bly alleen staan as ons groet ‘n nuwe dag?…
“Scheepers lê begrawe in Graaff-Reinet se sand!”
Kêrel, droom jy nog van gisternag?
Speur jy nog geen dagskyn in die ooste oor ons land,
Goue lig wat op ons lag?
Dra jy nog droef’nis, wat die donker duisendmaal
Donkerder sal maak as middernag?
Sit jy nog te temer in eergist’raand se skemer?
Ons het reeds geworstel met die taak van nou vandag…
“Scheepers lies a-buried in the sand at Graaff-Reinet!”
Fellow, dream you still of yesternight?
Where the veldt was scorched by blazing fires in the fall,
Verdant grazing you will find.
Souls whom pain and scorn and grief have tortured
Through their strength will be refined.
Will you stay forever foeman, ne’er forgetting, ne’er forgiving,
Still, as we greet a new day, standing bitterly alone?
“Scheepers lies a-buried in the sand at Graaff-Reinet!”
Fellow, dream you still of yesternight?
See you not the eastern dawn light bright’ning on our land,
Golden light that gaily laughs upon us?
Do you still mourn, would you turn darkness into gloom
A thousand times as dark as midnight?
Are you still a-havering, of bygone nights a-quavering?
WE [my capitals] have already wrestled with our present task this day.
Excerpt 4: From “Sielsanker” (Soul’s Anchor)
By 1932, when this short poem first appeared, Leipoldt had finally tempered subjective experience into the universal statement that inborn fortitude, the strength inherited from one’s ancestors, is the anchor which allows an individual or a nation to survive a major catastrophe and drain “the cup of wine and myrrh” with a jest. The first four and last four lines of the 12-line poem appear below:
Sielsanker as die vloedgolf van vertwyfling oor die strand
Van kennis bruis en alles met hom trek,
’n Houvas in die weemoedsuur, as deur die hele land
Die duisternis van dorre nagte strek;…
…Dis die ingebore sterkte, dis die oorgeërfde krag
Om deur duisternis die sterre te sien blink,
Om die halfgebore klagwoord te ontsenu met ’n lag,
En met ’n skerts die wyn en mirre op te drink.
Soul’s anchor when the floodwave of despair engulfs the strand
Of knowledge and sweeps all away with it,
A comfort in the mournful hour, when over the entire land
The arid nights of darkness stretch…
…It is the inborn fortitude, the heritage of strength
To see how in the gloom the stars still wink,
To disarm a half-born word of grievance with a laugh
And with a jest the cup of wine and myrrh to drink.
Excerpt 5: from “Die ou Slamaaier-winkel” (The old Malayan’s shop)
This is a particularly striking example of Leipoldt’s effective use of onomatopoeia and local expressions and is consequently hard to render in translation. I hope my approximations of his structurally vital, colour-enhancing internal rhymes give English readers an idea of his captivating word music. A few explanations are necessary:
— The words ”Slams” and “Slamaaier” are Cape Dutch corruptions of “(I)slamic” and “(I)slamites” (or “(I)slamayans”), as the Cape Malay descendants of Muslim slaves imported from Southeast Asia in the 17th-18th centuries became known. The Cape Malays regard themselves as aristocrats of the Cape Coloured community and proudly maintain their Muslim culture to this day. Their attractive features and raven hair are often immediately distinguishable from those of Cape Coloureds of mixed white and Khoikhoi (Hottentot) or Khoisan (Bushman) descent.
— The “tameletjies” and “groenvye” mentioned in the 2nd line are traditional Boer sweetmeats – tameletjies are a hard, crackly kind of home-made toffee and little green figs boiled and preserved in a thick, sugary syrup are a another sweet heritage of farmhouse cooking.
— Sad as Leipoldt was to reflect that “there’s no-one left to give me green figs any more”, he would have grieved over the wholesale eviction of Cape Town’s Coloured community from its traditional quarters in District Six – a picturesque ghetto that was razed in the name of Apartheid a few decades after his death. Old Abdul’s people were rehoused in the bleak, segregated townships that mushroomed in the 1970s on the windy Cape Flats, miles away from the Mother City.
Here are the first two lines of the poem in Afrikaans with a rough-and-ready phonetic rendition to give a sense of the delightful word music, followed by longer translated excerpts further down:
Daar’s ‘n ewige rintinkel, in die ou slamaaier-winkel
Dahs a ear-va-khe rin-ting-kil in dee oh sla-mah-yah ving-kle
Waar die tameletjies en groenvye stik…
Vah dee tah-muh-lair-chees en khroon-fay-eh stick…
There’s a constant jingling at the old Malayan’s, mingling
Scents of toffee and green figs
In a fug of garlic bulbs and pungent camphor balls,
And there’s reddish saffron and dry bokkoms [kippered fish] in a tin.
It’s a muddled pile, this presentation for a browser’s delectation
Over which old Abdul at the counter thrones.
My eyes are moist with tears as I recall my childhood years,
And I seem to hear old Abdul once again…
Last verse (No. 4):
Oh, I can hear the wares a-jingle as the heady scents remingle
[in the old Malayan’s store,
And I can almost taste the sweetness of his figs…
…But …old Abdul has passed on, and his children grown and gone –
And there’s no-one left to give me green figs any more.
Excerpt 5: From “Fragmente uit: ‘n Voorspel vir ‘n Afrikaanse heldedig”
(From “Fragments from a prelude to an Afrikaans heroic epic”)
Appearing in 1923, this ambitious, uncompleted work shows Leipoldt’s command of dramatic blank verse in a time-space setting very remote from his native country: the bustling harbour of Lisbon on the eve of Vasco da Gama’s departure for the Cape of Good Hope and the uncharted seas beyond it in July 1497.
Die kloosterkerk van Belem hou sy lyk,
Gekluister in ‘n ouderwetse graf….
Dáár op sy grafsteen lê hy afgebeeld;
En naas hom pryk sy wapen en sy skild,
Sy seemansepter en sy ridderswaard;
En onder septer, swaard en skild, sy naam….
Hier onder Lisbon lê sy ligbruin skip
Klaar vir die lang-oorpeinsde pelgrimreis
Om die nog onbetrapte suiderland….
En op die kaai loop mense; hier ‘n man
Geharnas in grys staal; daar ‘n matroos
Met harige bors en hardgespierde hand;
‘n Koopman uit Coΐmbra met sy stok;
‘n Lisbons kanonier; ‘n swartbruin Moor;
‘n Edelknaap in fyn verweel, ‘n vrou
Met wit mantilla-sluier; en ‘n swerm
Leegloper-seevolk wat uit Lissabon
Om elke skip soos kraaie om ‘n skaap
Byeenkom; en hoog op die voordek een,
‘n Forsgeboude man, fier in sy drag,
Met koperharnas half verhul in sy,
En swart sameet wat oor sy skouers val.
Die skeepslantêrenlig lê oor sy kop
Net soos ‘n gloed en krans van louter goud,
Waarin die ster wat op sy bors hang, blink
Soos egte hemelsterre in die nag,
Wat skitter noor die wolke en van skyn
Verander in die skemer – nou soos goud,
Dan wit soos silwer, en dan rooi soos vuur –
Kaptein en admiraal, Da Gama self!…
…‘n Vroeë môremis, waarby die brood
Gebreek word en die seënende priester groet
…Die toue los!
Die laaste skot gevuur! Die voordek vol
Met almal wat die laaste vaarwelblik
Op Lissabon se lewende straat wil werp!
Dan langsaam die rivier af met die wind,
Voort na die suidpunt – voort, en dwars verby
Die rots van Rocca en Sint-Vincentskaap,
Met al die bloue onbekende see
Nog bakenloos en bibberend in die wes;
En in die ooste al die woesteny
Van Ofirs land, geheim, in nag gehul…
The abbey church of Belem holds his body
Cloistered in an antique grave…
There on his tombstone he lies sculpted
And beside him proudly lie his weapon and his shield,
His naval sceptre and his knightly sword;
And under sceptre, sword and shield, his name…
…Here below Lisbon lies his light-brown ship
Ready for the long-deliberated pilgrim voyage
Around the yet untrodden southern land…
And on the quay stroll people; here a man
Armoured in grey steel; there a sailor,
Hairy-chested, with hard-muscled hand;
A merchant from Coΐmbra with his staff;
A Lisboan gunner; a dark brown Moor;
A court page in sheer velvet, a woman
With a white mantilla veil; and a swarm
of vagrant matelots from Lissabon who
flock about each ship like crows around
a sheep; and high up on the foredeck, one –
a strong-built man, proud of bearing,
with silk half-covering his copper breastplate
and black samite falling on his shoulders.
The ship lantern’s light falls on his head
Just like a glowing circlet of pure gold
That makes the star upon his breast shine
Like those true stars of heaven in the night
That glitter o’er the clouds and change
Their sheen when dusk falls – now like gold,
Now white as silver, and then as red as fire –
Captain and admiral, Da Gama himself!…
…An early morning mist, when the bread
Is broken and the priest in blessing greets
The morning star…
…Cast off the cables!
The last shot fired! The foc’sle packed
With all who wish to cast their final farewell gaze
At Lisbon’s living streets!
Then slowly down the river with the wind
Towards the southern point – on, and slanting
Past the crag of Rocca and St Vincent’s Cape,
With all the azure, unknown sea
Still beaconless and quivering in the west;
And in the east the vast wilderness
Of Ophir’s land, secret, in the shroud of night…