A Student’s Conceit

Windblown grass on one of my favourite hillsides. Filmed 8 November 2017 (late spring in South Africa). (The text shall make its illustrative purpose clear.)

I cannot help but critique the lines of my betters while reading their work. No matter how celebrated (and deservedly so) they may be, the writing of great English and Afrikaans poets often carve a furrow in my brow. It is usually some unnatural or lacklustre use of language—some invention of the period in which the works were composed—that I, a modern reader, find impossible to overcome. I could embark on a diatribe about Wordsworth’s writing—his choice of metre and vocabulary at times so unbearable that I must set the verses aside in sheer despair—but here I want to cite a particular line from a poem by Toon van den Heever (1894–1956), “In die Hoëveld” (In the Highveld), the first of the second stanza:

“Op die Hoëveld, waar dit wyd is, waar jy baie ver kan sien…”

In the Afrikaans aesthetic, this is a line so dull, it defies belief. Describing the vastness of the highveld, it translates: “On the Highveld, where it is wide, where you can see very far”—one reels at its crudeness. Though no line can ever be wholly conveyed in another language, I assure the reader that the wincing effect of the English perfectly replicates that of the Afrikaans—an aberration in an otherwise expertly crafted poem. Granted, the words are conceived as those of a simple miner in a bout of homesickness1, but they are incongruous when one considers the calibre of the lines that precede and follow (amongst others, “Waar kuddes waaigras huppel oor die veld…” (Where herds of grasses skip across the field2))!

Why did he not render it “Op die Hoëveld, waar dit wyd is, waar ver die oog kan sien” (In the Highveld, ever vast, where far the eye can see3)? What led him to favour that particular version of the line above all others? Indeed, why does any artist make the artistic choices he makes? Whenever I recite “In die Hoëveld”, I pause in the interval between the two verses and wonder what unfortunate convergence of inspiration, idiosyncrasy and flair conspired to produce the abomination of a line I must utter at the start of verse two!

Nonetheless, “In die Hoëveld” remains my favourite Afrikaans poem4—its simple imagery is sublime. I own an anthology of selected works of various poets that includes it and have just ordered a later edition of the poet’s own publication in which it first appeared, Eugene en Ander Gedigte (Eugene and Other Poems)—moreover, I am making enquiries about the first edition (1931) which would be a fine addition to my modest but cherished collection. Thus, while my criticism is severe, my devotion to the poet is undiminished.

  1. In the verses, the ailing workman recollects a sweeter time and place “in the highveld”.
  2. Stanza one, line two. Direct translation: Where herds [of] wave-grass skip across the field.
  3. Or more accurately: On the Highveld, where it is wide, where far the eye can see.
  4. My favourite English poem is the untitled free verse stanzas by Richard Adams for Silverweed in the “Silverweed” chapter of Watership Down; my favourite French poem, the lyric and unaffected “Le Brouillard” (The Mist) by Maurice Carême. All of these share a common theme: a fascination with nature expressed in straightforward but evocative (and memorable) language—the great ambition of my poetry.

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