South African Sonnets

Included here are poems from Sonnets of South Africa (1911), edited by E. H. Crouch (his preface follows).


NEARLY all the South African poets have, with varying success, experimented with that exquisite yet severe mode of poetic expression--the Sonnet. To them, as to others, its poetic charm has appealed, and, as I trust this volume will show, the appeal has not been in vain.

The high seriousness, the sustained power, and the constructive ingenuity, all so necessary to the making of a sonnet, have been successfully maintained by them; and when one reflects upon the prescribed limit within which in measured language the writer has to deliver his message and consolidate his thought such success becomes additionally gratifying.

The consciousness that this success is only realized when the material is presented in a collective form (and not disseminated through a number of volumes, some of which are out of print) has led me to make this selection of South African Sonnets, an unpretentious volume, and the first of its kind in our young nationality.

A further inducement, or justification, if such is necessary, for this little volume is that since a true sonnet should in the main express the writer's thoughts and sentiment, we have here a key and medium by which to learn, if but in a small degree, the aspirations and ideas of a people living under conditions so very different from those in northern latitudes where the sonnet has hitherto so vigorously flourished.

The impress of its birth should surely add an interest and charm which otherwise would be unobtainable. Where but in South Africa would you look for a sonnet on Table Mountain, the Victoria Falls, or the Karoo?

The sum total of sonnets from which to make a selection is comparatively a very limited one, the total written in South Africa up to the end of the century being about two hundred. But even this output in a young country's budding literature is encouraging; and when we look across the water to America and see there what another comparatively young country has accomplished during the last century only, our writers should be both encouraged and stimulated to greater efforts.

Startling as it may sound, sonnet-writing was hardly known and certainly not practised, even in the most advanced States of New England, a century and a half ago, so recent a writer as Longfellow being the first American who really seriously experimented with this form of composition.

William Sharp's excellent little collection shows how rapidly sonnet-writing, once having taken root, grew, "till it is now probablythe favourite form with at least two-thirds of the younger poets and versifiers in America." It would appear, then, that a fair start having once been made, it is generally not only maintained but developed at an increased ratio.

Herein, then, lies our hope

"Still climbing trees in the Hesperides."

No special type has so far particularly asserted itself with our South African writers, and specimens of the Petrarchan, Shakespearian, and Miltonic will be found freely in evidence in this collection.

Sonnet-writers, like Keats, Rossetti, Wordsworth, William Sharp, Theodore Watts-Dunton, Edith Thomas, and many others, have sung the praises of the sonnet, none perhaps in such flowery language as Mr. R. W. Gilder, an American. He asks, What is a sonnet? and answering his own question, says:--

               "'Tis a pearly shell
That murmurs of the far-off murmuring sea;
A precious jewel carved most curiously;
It is a little picture painted well.
What is a sonnet? 'Tis the tear that fell
From a great poet's ardent ecstasy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song--ah, me!
Sometimes a heavy tolling funeral bell."

Nor have our own writers been silent in bearing their testimony to the charm of this--to use a South African simile--fourteen facet diamond.

Dr. Kolbe has given us, in verse, a very true and lucid definition of its structure, and Mr. H. C. Mason has likewise told us how sonnets have been his stay and companions in his travels over "drear mountains," "sterile vales," mid scenes of peace, and also "where a hundred camp-fires glow."

That this little volume will be found worthy such constant companionship, I devoutly hope; for our South African writers have already done good and, I trust, enduring work here,--work little known and less appreciated. And it is because of this belief that I have ventured to collect these sonnets as representing the best that has been done in this particular poetic field up to the present time.

It but remains for me to acknowledge with sincere thanks my great obligation to the authors whose names appear over their respective poems for permission so kindly granted to reproduce some of their work here. In like manner I beg to record my indebtedness to The State, African Monthly, and other South African magazines for a few sonnets which originally appeared in their columns.

               E. H. CROUCH.

     LA CROIX, CAMBRIDGE, S. A., 1911.

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Sonnets of South Africa