An Afrikaans Poem and the end of a love: “Ballade van die Nagtelike Ure” by N.P. Van Wyk Louw

N.P. van Wyk Louw. Image from LitNet
N.P. van Wyk Louw. Image from LitNet

The end of the affair and a bottle of wine!

In the throes of a failed love while still at university I came across this wonderful, evocative poem by Afrikaans poet N.P. Van Wyk Louw, called “Ballade van die Nagtelike Ure (Ballad of the Night Hours)” and was instantly turned into a fan.

More than becoming a fan, I felt the power of the words, especially poetry, to express how I was feeling, and I instantly resolved to be a writer. So now you know who to blame for all the stuff of mine you read!

Of course I had read poetry before, usually in English, but, while it had entertained me and I thought it very clever, somehow this poem hit home and I felt, “Wow, poetry can express what I'm feeling in words so directly.”

OK so maybe I'm a slow learner and all! Still this poem opened my eyes in a way that, for some reason, no other poem had before.

In the hours and days of weltschmerz that I felt after the realisation of the ending of a love something new had come into my life – the power of words.

When I realised that the end of the affair had arrived I was at a typical students' party – lots of cheap wine and the odd spliff, lots of loud music and laughter, lots of what students do when they get together. I woke up the following morning with my feet - shoes, socks and all - in a gold-fish pond and my arm draped lovingly around the neck of an almost-empty demijohn of Tassenberg wine! (I know those lonely "hours of the dark thirst"!)

Tassenberg, as my South African friends will tell you, is a cheap, but actually not nasty, red wine which was in my student days the favoured drink, especially at the kind of parties that I have described.

I don't remember exactly when I first read this poem, but is was not long after that party.

Here is the poem in the original Afrikaans, and, for what it's worth, my attempt at a translation. I make no claim of having put the translation into poetic form - it is simply a direct translation of Louw's words, which I hope I have rendered accurately, if not beautifully!

My translation

Our love burst into bloom

in the hours between eleven and quarter past two -

here I sit beneath the dawn

half-sober and confused


Somewhere on cool verandah steps

where I can see a shiny water tap

in the hours of the dark thirst

between midnight and the morning at ten


At eleven your body was

the hunger and thirst in me

while your crooked paper hat

glided far away in the dance-hall


At midnight you were a light bridge,

a high, dangerous link

above my growing wildness

hung between pain and death


At one your hair

was an evil trap for my fingers

and your body like still black water,

your breathing like a sob


And now the morning has spilt itself

over the rim of my glass

on the veranda near the shiny tap

in the hour of the dark thirst


The poem

Ons liefde het uitgeblom

tussen elfuur en kwart oor twee -

hier sit ek onder die dagbreek

half-nugter en verlee


op koel stoeptreetjies êrens

waar ek 'n blink waterkraan sien

in die ure van die donker dors

tussen twaalfuur en smôrens om tien.


Om elfuur was jou liggaam

die honger en dors in my,

as jou skewe papier-kalot

ver deur die danssaal gly.


Om twaalfuur was jy 'n ligte brug,

'n hoë, gevaarlike gang

bo my klein verwildering

tussen pyn en sterwe gehang.


Om eenuur was jou hare

vir my vingers 'n bose strik,

en jou lyf soos swart still water

en jou asem soos 'n snik.


En nou het die môre my

oor die rand van sy glas gemors

op die stoep by die kraan wat blink

in die uur van die donker dors.


The observatory at Sutherland. Image from http://www.sa-meanders.co.za/pubphp/town.php?x_town_id=768
The observatory at Sutherland. Image from http://www.sa-meanders.co.za/pubphp/town.php?x_town_id=768
Johan J. Degenaar. Image from LitNet
Johan J. Degenaar. Image from LitNet

Van Wyk Louw and the power of the word

Now I am aware that this poem is not the epitome of Afrikaans poetry (and my translation even less so!). Indeed, in his wonderful work on the poetry of Van Wyk Louw, Eksistensie en Gestalte (Existence and Form , Simondium, 1962) former Stellenbosch University Professor Johan J. Degenaar does not even mention this poem, though he does several others from the same collection, Gestaltes en Diere (Forms and Animals , Tafelberg, 1942, reprinted 1980).

In this study Degenaar points out the “magical power” of the word in poetry: “Die woord is vir die digter nie net 'n klank-kombinasie nie; nie net die draer van begrip nie; nie net die vorm waardeur hy die strenge tug op sy belewings handhaaf nie. Die woord is 'n magiese middel, 'n wapen waardeur onsuiwerheid uitgesny kan word, 'n tower-formule waarmee dinge besweer word, 'n beitel waardeur planete oopgebreek kan word.” (For the poet the word is not only a sound-combination; not only the carrier of an idea; not only the form in which he maintains strict discipline in the experiences of his life. The word is a magical medium, a weapon with which impurity can be excised, a spell or magic formula by which things are exorcised, a chisel with which planets can be split open.)

I certainly felt the power of the word when I first read this poem, the power of the chisel able to split open planets.

Van Wyk Louw was born in 1906 in the town of Sutherland in the Western Cape, one of the coldest places in South Africa and home of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) which is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.

He became well-known as a member of the so-called “Dertigers” (the “Writers of the Thirties”) group of writers in Afrikaans during the 1930s. This group breathed new life and vitality into Afrikaans literature not long after Afrikaans replaced Dutch as one of the two official languages of the then Union of South Africa.

I have since come to love and enjoy a wide range of other Afrikaans poetry, like that of Breyton Breytenbach and Ingrid Jonker in particular.

Perhaps if my girlfriend at the time had not dumped me I would not have explored and found such pleasure in this poetry!

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010

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Comments 38 comments

LillyGrillzit profile image

LillyGrillzit 6 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

Wow! I really like this Hub. Thank you for bridging the language barrier, and giving us a gift of poetry that we can feel.


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

"The word is a magical medium, a weapon with which impurity can be excised, a spell or magic formula by which things are exorcised, a chisel with which planets can be split open.)" Yes Sir Tony. I love the poem and all your words as usual, especially these in quotes as they define the "word" very well for me. Thank you Tony. I have the need for these words.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Lilly - gload you enjoyed it all!

Micky - dear sir, you are a true friend indeed! And I'm really glad that you too found something useful here.

Thanks for stopping by, good people.

Love and peace

Tony


BeatsMe profile image

BeatsMe 6 years ago

Nice inspiration. Sorry your gf back then dumped you, but I guess you find it a blessing now. :)


alekhouse profile image

alekhouse 6 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

Very nice, Tony...loved the poem.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

BM - yes indeed! I would probably not be writing this now, although who knows, really? It was pretty horrible at the time, but I guess I've moved on!

Alek - thanks for the comment.

Thanks to both of you for stopping by. I appreciate it.

Love and peace

Tony


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

The translation a sparkling reference to the simularity of emotion both male and female have over love's loss;)


crazybeanrider profile image

crazybeanrider 6 years ago from Washington MI

Wow what a lovely poem Tony, thanks for sharing, it is amazing how something can touch us and turn our emotions upsidedown with just a few words arranged so sweetly.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 6 years ago from Southern Illinois

Wow Tony, I loved this poem and your story of a broken love. I,m attempting to visualize you with your arm draped lovengly around the neck of an almost-empty bottle

of wine, it,s gonna take some time!!!!!!!

Love and Peace


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 6 years ago from South Africa

Is Degenaar’s prescription of the word not awesome? I’m quite sad now, and I don’t really know why. But our poems, particularly those written by the Dertigers, always make me sad, as if it stirs some forgotten pain in my soul. My favorite was ‘In die hoëveld waar dit oop is en die hemel wyd daarbo....” Toon vd Heever. Got gold for reciting this one at an art competition when I was 12. Back to Van Wyk: “Hy’s klein en skraal en baie moeg; sy klere vaal en muf van stof....” – another favorite of mine. Thanks for this hub, Tony, and yes, LOL for you in the fish pond!


amillar profile image

amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

Hi Tony, I'm a philistine when it comes to poetry, but I looked this up for you.

I hold it true, whate'er befall;

I feel it, when I sorrow most;

'Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

(Alfred Lord Tennyson)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Mentalist - love's loss is always painful.

CBR - the power of the words!

Ruby - it's quite something for me to remember these days, I feel so far from that time!

Martie - well, I had to do something! Ja, I have read more by the Sestigers than by the Dertigers, but there is some very powerful stuff that has been written over the years by these great writers. And I agree about the sadness, is dit nie 'n soort heimwee nie? Ook die Sestigers laat my so voel - ek dink veral, by voorbeeld, aan Breyton se "Die Hand Vol Vere" uit Kouevuur, wat ek nie sonder trane kan lees nie! Ek moet 'n Hub daaroor skryf, dink ek?

Amillar - a philistine you definitely aren't if you can quote Tennyson! And of course that's a great quote. Thanks for looking it up for me.

Thanks to all of you for kind words and for your visits here.

Love and peace

Tony


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 6 years ago from South Africa

Yes, Tony, you should write a hub about Breyten's 'Die Hand Vol Vere.' I will be the 1st to read it.


ltfawkes profile image

ltfawkes 6 years ago from NE Ohio

Beautiful. Thanks.

L.T.


Tatjana-Mihaela profile image

Tatjana-Mihaela 6 years ago from Zadar, CROATIA

Very special poem Tony. Thanks for translation and sharing part of your life-experience with us.

Words can really be magical tool, Degenaar`s citation is so true.

Peace and light


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Martie - I'm working on it right now!

LTF - thanks for the kind words.

Tatjana - my pleasure and you are welcome.

Thanks all for your visits and comments.

Love and peace

Tony


Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 6 years ago from Great Britain

I rather like the image of you in the goldfish pond.

Excellent article. Thank you.


valeriebelew profile image

valeriebelew 6 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

Love inspires poetry, whether it is good or bad. Perhaps if I had married at 18, had five kids and stayed with the same man until this time, I would never have had need of writing, poetry or fiction. As it is, writing is my therapy, my passion, and at times my best friend. Good hub. The word indeed has the power of expression, and the power to heal. (:v


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

I love how this poem condenses love into one evening; as a temporary love. Too often the waxing and waning of poetic love everlasting falls short; droplets from a waterfall cannot express its breadth and depth. This poem with its hour by hour imagery offers the illusion of control, when there is none. Thanks.


ladyjane1 profile image

ladyjane1 6 years ago from Texas

I love poetry as well and I thought you did wonderful with the translation of course I couldn't understand the original but it couldn't get any prettier than what you presented. Nice job. Cheers.


culturespain 6 years ago

Great stuff - from someone who I had never heard of before. I guess that in the new South Afica, Aficaans will gradually die out and be replaced by English as the completely dominant language?


Moon Dancer 6 years ago

A very nice poem, I love it and a great article, Thank you for sharing it :)


Pearldiver profile image

Pearldiver 6 years ago from Tomorrow - In Words & NZ Time.

Nicely done Tony. It's a great language to swear in as well... and the word... well it eludes so many doesn't it.. as poets we must be thankful for that... and for red wine hangovers... and for our ability to swear in a way that so many deluded others; thank us so elegantly!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Dim - it's quite a thought, isn't it? I guess with the perspective of 40 years I can look at it and laugh!

Valerie - the power of the word is indeed transformative in many ways!

Barbara - the illusion of control - I like that! Love, in the end, as at the beginning, is beyond our control!

LadyJane - your words do me honour!

Nick - English is already pretty pervasive and amounts to the lingua franca here. But as to Afrikaans disappearing, I don't think so. It is still the language spoken by the second-largest number of people in the country, isiZulu being the largest in terms of native speakers. We do have 11 official languages, of which Afrikaans is one.

MoonDancer - you are most welcome to this Hub and to HubPages!

Pearldiver - it is indeed a great language to swear in, but now I'm interested - how do you, a Kiwi, know about that? Been watching too many rugby matches? I was in the SA Navy for my sins and that opened my ears to the wonder of profanity in Afrikaans! A rich and heady brew, much more so than Tassenberg! Though perhaps the hangover was less severe!

Thanks all for your kind words. I really am grateful taht you took the time to read and comment.

Love and peace

Tony


Midtown Girl profile image

Midtown Girl 6 years ago from Right where I want to be!

Degenaar’s comment “For the poet the word is not only a sound-combination; not only the carrier of an idea; not only the form in which he maintains strict discipline in the experiences of his life. The word is a magical medium, a weapon with which impurity can be excised, a spell or magic formula by which things are exorcised, a chisel with which planets can be split open.” is wonderful description of how powerful poetry can be. My mother was a poet, but it is only recently that I have written my first poems. I am gaining a new understanding of this force. Outstanding hub!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

MG - thanks. I really appreciate your words and wich you well with the poetry!

Love and peace

Tony


equealla profile image

equealla 6 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

Yes Np van Wyk Louw was a remarkable man who was a big drive towards the South African poet to express the current human emotion, and did not follow the rules of the rest of the"cultural" world

He believed that everything, and I mean everything that touches the human soul and relate to the joy and sorrow of being human in Africa, must be reflected in the literature of the modern mind.

This third generation poet did indeed left a deep impact on the flow of the growth pattern of Afrikaans.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thank you, Francis. His poetry was so great.

Love and peace

Tony


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

It never ceases to amaze me how words joined together in a particular way can arouse so much feeling in us. There is poetry which cause one to shed tears and it is very embarrassing I can tell you, especially when you are trying to project yourself as a tough guy :-)))

Really sweet hub, Tony :-)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Dimitris - you can't hide that big, generous, soft heart of yours, however hard you might try! Tough guy indeed!?

Thanks for stopping by - it's always6s such a pleasure to hear from you!

Love and peace

Tony


maven101 profile image

maven101 6 years ago from Northern Arizona

Morning Tony...In vino, veritas...Our poison of choice was WPLJ, white port and lemon juice, all shaken up and drunk quickly, chased with a cold beer...Those were the days of love found, lost, and renewed, sometimes all in one night...

I loved this poem by a poet with whom I am unfamiliar...His phrasing, and your wonderful translation reminds me of my favorite poet, Walter Benton...such clarity of expression , a simpatico engendered in the reader...I will seek more of this poets work...

When is South Africa going to start producing a good red wine..? Your whites are quite comparable to Napa vintages, but the reds remain unheralded, consistently receiving points in the low 70's and 80's...the Stellenzicht Syrah ( not the cheaper Shiraz ) is the outstanding exception I was fortunate to taste at your embassy in San Francisco...

Thank you for sharing this most interesting poet with us...Sala Kahle, my friend...Larry


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Larry - did you ever wake up with your feet in a gold fish pond? The WPLJ sounds just the thing to do that to you!

Thanks for your, as always, insightful comment. Glad you enjoyed the poem (and that wine!)

Love and peace, my friend,

Tony


Lee 5 years ago

Just slightly off the point of his (lovely) poetry: the picture you have of the observatory is that in Cape Town, not Sutherland...


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Lee - thanks for that: my mistake! Have rectified.

Thanks also for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


Scarface1300 profile image

Scarface1300 5 years ago

A Lovely and inspired poem and a great hub.


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Thank you for posting this poem in Afrikaans.

Take care tonymac04


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

when one door closes another opens. what an interesting poem. it doesn't seem that anything could have been lost in the translation. thanks tony.


P. N. Louw 4 years ago

I'm his grandson, and it always touches my heart to see his poetry still enjoyed and shared. Thank you!

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