A Literary Remembrance

  • Share
  • Read Later
South African Novelist Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country, died of cancer last week. The book was an early expression of the developing racial anguish in South Africa and has become an international classic. Earlier this year, had asked him to write an essay about South Africa today. Two days after | his death, Paton's widow Anne forwarded the incomplete typescript with a note: "I am very sorry he never finished it, but it was almost done, and during the last few days before he went into the hospital he was just too tired. In any case he could not bring his mind to bear on it because of his illness. He so wanted to give of his best for the article." Paton, it turns out, had written not about South Africa but about more immediate preoccupations: his sense of mortality and his love of words. What follows is Paton's essay, exactly as he left it.

I turned eighty-five in January of this year. What is it like to be eighty- five? One does perhaps feel a little pride -- quite unjustified -- in having reached such a venerable age. Apart from that, there's nothing to make a song about. Another eighty-five years would be the death of me.

Have I reached eighty-five in good shape? In reasonably good shape, yes. My sight and my hearing are not so good as they used to be. What are my complaints, if I can call them that? I think the greatest handicap for me of being eighty-five is that I have lost my surefootedness. (I am surprised that the Shorter Oxford Dictionary does not have this word, but I was reassured to find it in Webster.) I do not now feel happy walking among the coarse hummocks of a grassy hill. I do not like walking in the dark at all. When I was a young student of seventeen or eighteen, I remember crossing the Umsindusi River near Pietermaritzburg on the stepping-stones. I didn't walk, I ran. Today I would fall into the river at the first stone. I have grown very lethargic. I am writing this piece quite easily, but it has taken me a week to bring myself to do it. My creative and literary imagination will never again rise to any great height. I shall never again write such words as these:

The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil will not keep them anymore.

Nor words like these, written to "A Small Boy Who Died at Diepkloof Reformatory."

So do I commit you,

Your frail body to the waiting ground,

Your dust to the dust of the veld.

Fly home-bound soul to the great Judge-President

Who unencumbered by the pressing need

To give society protection, may pass on you

The sentence of the indeterminate compassion.

For my continuing love of the word I am indeed grateful. At my present age I can recapture almost perfectly -- perhaps totally perfectly -- the emotion I felt when I first read certain pieces. I have just read again Whitman's threnody on the death of Abraham Lincoln.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,

And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night,

I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west

And thought of him I love.

This is one of the most memorable tributes paid by any human being to another, and it is matched by the immortal words of General Jan Christian Smuts, at the graveside of his friend, fellow-soldier and Prime Minister, Louis Botha, in 1919. Smuts said:

We came together with a closeness seldom vouchsafed to friends. This entitles me to call him the greatest, cleanest, sweetest soul of all the land -- of all my days.

I would like to have written one of the greatest poems in the English language -- William Blake's "Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright," with that verse that asks in the simplest words the question which has troubled the mind of man -- both believing and nonbelieving man -- for centuries:

When the stars threw down their spears

And watered heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the Lamb make thee?

I would have been proud to have written Yeats' "The Fiddler of Dooney," and Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven. I am profoundly moved by Psalm 139, especially those three verses:

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

If I give a public reading, I often choose Vachel Lindsay's "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," which is a poem of its own kind, and has | no mate in English literature. The first six stanzas are semiserious, semicomical, but I always read the last stanza with caution, in case my voice should break.

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer

He saw his Master through the flag-filled air.

Christ came gently with a robe and crown

For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.

He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,

And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

When I read this poem in public, I always say a private prayer for Vachel Lindsay, who at the age of fifty-two took his life.

I shall trespass on the editor's hospitality with one more quotation. It is a stanza that I would have been proud to have written, and it states a profound truth about the human condition in the simplest of words. It is taken from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam of Naishapur, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat was a flop. Its reception must have been a great disappointment to him, for he no doubt felt that he had written one of the most beautiful poems in the English language. It was Swinburne, poking round in an old bookseller's barrow in London, who discovered the poem and knew at once that this was a work of genius. He bought it for twopence, and took it home to devour it, and it overwhelmed him. He brought it to the notice of Tennyson, who after reading it dedicated his Tiresias to Fitzgerald's memory. The poem then became famous.

Before I leave the topic of the word, of language and of literature, I want to say something about the spoken word. The best speaker I heard in my life was Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian and philosopher. I first heard him at Friends' House, London, in July 1946. He spoke for an hour without notes, and he had us in the hollow of his hand. One of his themes was the potential goodness of individual man, and the potential wickedness of collective man. An individual man could become a saint, but collective man was a tough proposition. He broke the flow of his talk only once, and that was to say to the chairman, "Must I go on speaking under these terrible lights?" Whereupon they were put off.

I had a special soft spot for him because he had said that Cry, the Beloved < Country was the only Christian novel that he was ever able to read. I heard him again in 1955, at the Jubilee of Kent School, Connecticut. He had had a stroke, and delivered his paper sitting down, hiding his powerless left hand under his right. His audience was deeply affected, for they were witnessing a triumph of mind (or soul) over matter. And the mind was as clear as ever.

Most -- perhaps all -- of the addresses at the seminar were remarkable. They evoked a rich diversity of emotions from those who heard them, laughter, joy, sorrow, admiration. But it was Niebuhr who evoked the most tremendous response at one moment of his address, and it happened in this manner. This particular incident is not recorded in Christian Idea of Education (Yale University Press, 1957), which was published as a record of the seminar, for the simple reason that it was spontaneous and unrehearsed, and did not form part of Niebuhr's script.

He had just spoken these words:

But it is significant that the meaning of historical events has frequently been obscured, not by the real historian but by social scientists who sought abortively to bring history into the realms of nature and thus deny the characteristically historical aspects of the human scene. In short, our culture has been intent upon equating history with nature at the precise moment when history revealed the dangerous possibilities of human freedom, which were not at all like nature.

Niebuhr felt that this rather difficult argument needed some kind of elaboration, and he proceeded to drop his script for the moment, and to dwell on the dangerous possibilities of freedom in the United States itself, the fact that the American ideal of freedom meant the liberty to choose good and to choose evil, so that high endeavour lived alongside vice and corruption and decadence. He did this with a kind of sombre gravity that certainly subdued his audience, and then inflicted on them a heavy blow by saying fiercely of American society, "It's a mess." We were all silent, feeling that the world was beyond redemption, when -- after a pause -- he suddenly said to us with equal emphasis, "But I like it." It brought down the house, and we felt that there was hope for the world after all. Niebuhr was for me one of the wisest men of our century, and a man after my own heart.

We had two masters of the spoken word in South Africa, General Smuts and his lieutenant J.H. Hofmeyr, whose life I wrote. Smuts spoke in a high-pitched | voice, not the kind of voice that one would expect from a famous soldier, but he too could hold an audience in the hollow of his hand, partly because he was Smuts, partly because he could say nothing trite or shallow, partly because he knew how to speak to ordinary men and women. In 1923 he unveiled the Mountain Club War Memorial at Maclear's Beacon on the summit of Table Mountain. He said:

The Mountain is not merely something eternally sublime. It has a great historical and spiritual meaning for us . . . From it came the Law, from it came the Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount. We may truly say that the highest religion is the Religion of the Mountain.

His biographer, W.K. Hancock, wrote: "His words touched their hearts."

Hofmeyr was more of an orator than Smuts, and could end his speeches with the most stirring perorations. However he was saved from pomposity by two great gifts; the first was his sense of humour, the second was his sense of the apt quotation. In 1939, when the threat of Hitler and a second World War hung over the world, he spoke to a meeting in Johannesburg on the dangerous times, and quoted to them the words on a tablet in an old English church: "In the year 1652 when throughout England all things sacred were either profaned or neglected, this church was built by Sir Robert Shirley, Bart., Whose special praise it is to have done the best things in the worst times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous."

The fourth, and greatest speaker of my time was Winston Churchill, in the days of the second World War. He was possibly the greatest speaker of English in the history of the language . . .

At the end of the text, the author's son Jonathan, senior lecturer in English at the University of the Witwatersrand, added a few sentences:

These are the last words my father ever wrote. Soon after reaching this point he was admitted to hospital with a malignant tumour in his oesophagus. An unsuccessful operation to alleviate the blockage in his throat was performed. A week later he died at his home in Botha's Hill, near Durban.

I discussed the article with him a few days before he went into hospital. He told me he intended adding some comments made by Churchill towards the end of his life, and then, ironically, he would write something about the end of his own life.