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