In Exile Poem Analysis (Arthur Nortje)
Line By Line
The poem “In Exile” was written by Arthur Nortje in the 1960 – 1970 period. There could be different interpretations to the meaning of the title “In Exile”. Arthur Nortje won a scholarship to study at the Jesus College at Oxford University. Arthur became one of the privileged few “chosen” to further their education outside the borders of South Africa. Can he be seen as truly in exile?
I will argue that the title of the poem is relevant and is a reference to the personal feelings and experiences of Arthur Nortje during his time spent in England and Kanada. This poem was written during the time period 1960 to 1970 – during this time South Africa had a volatile political situation and many a young activists fled the country.
As mentioned, the poet did not flee the country but this title can be seen as an identification with those fellow South Africans in exile as well as a emotional reference to the feelings one experiences when you leave your country of birth and need to settle new roots in the soil of a new country. In Exile” indicates that something or someone is unsettled and not in their place of true origin.
They have moved away – either voluntarily or by force. The title does not indicate whether this exile is a positive or negative experience. It does however refer to an action because exile indicates motion. One other aspect worth considering is the fact that the poet was born from a mixed couple and classified as colored. This could have left him with a feeling of alienation and the social implications could have left him with a feeling of being in “exile”.
The poem could be seen as a lyric description of the poet’s feelings. The poet is writing about 2 things – his country of origin and his feelings of desolation and possibly anger towards his birth country. Secondly, he is painting a picture of a landscape in his new adopted country. Nortje often uses imaginative landscapes to compensate for his personal dislocation and feeling of isolation.
It also refers to South Africa and the political isolation characteristic to certain groups of our population during that period of time in our history. The communicative aim of the poet is to tell the reader more about the feelings of isolation he experienced and how wounded his soul was.
It also refers to South Africa and the political and emotional context of fellow anti-apartheid or rather non-white patriots during that time. He is strongly relying on connotations in the reader’s imagination to bring his story across. A picture is painted of a current landscape but the poet makes you realise that you can’t see the beauty of a new picture without dealing with the hurt of the past.
The poet is relying on the readers understanding of the political and economic situation in South Africa during the time period in which this poem was written.
In the first line “Open skies flare wide enough” – this is the first reference to the power of memory because the word “flare” could be a reference to the noise and action when a grenade explodes during war. The flare is often seen and heard when the grenade explodes. In the second stanza, the poet refers to “boots passing through” – this could be a reference to the unseen soldiers of apartheid South Africa passing through the townships at night to make sure no non-whites were out in the street.
If you have experienced South Africa during that time, the boots passing through will remind you of oppression and fear or on the other side it might remind you of protection and hope. The words “wrong pigment” gives the reader an indication of a situation where people are judged simply because they don’t have the correct appearance – their skin color is unacceptable and thus they are unacceptable.
The poet is referring to storm clouds in his past and also to clouds in the history of South Africa. He was declared “colored” in the time when this ethnical group faced many adversaries and oppression in South Africa.
He is using a picture of a landscape to refer to the political isolation in South Africa during that time. It could also be a reference to the repetitiveness of the storm clouds – they have been there before and they will probably be there again in the future. He has experienced hardship in South Africa and he is probably experiencing hardship again in his new country.
In view of the title and substance of the poem, it seems like the description of the boots passing through is a reference to the South African Armed Forces and specifically soldiers marching.
It could be a reference to the enforcement of the group areas act – people were forcefully moved from their homes by soldiers. The noise of their boots must have left many fearful. Alternatively it could also be referring to the political unrest of that period in South Africa. Non-whites started standing up for their rights and the government tried to squash it by using the military to enforce their apartheid laws.
The poem is primarily about a person in exile remembering certain images from his home country whilst referring to new experiences in his adopted country.
Nature is used to describe certain emotions and feelings. If we look at verse 14, reference is made of paradise. It is poignant as the overall concern of the poem is about negative experiences from both the past and present. However, the speaker uses the word paradise to tell us that we can choose to remember the good things about our past. Our memory and associations can help us remember the good things about our past. South Africa is not all doom and gloom – there are positive experiences as well.
The word benign, indicates that something/growth is not cancerous or negative. Benign indicates that it is good-natured or favorable – doing very little harm. The speaker could be referring to actual hunger or a spiritual hunger for a little sunshine that is hidden behind a cloud. The cloud is not life threatening but it is keeping the speaker from reaching his full potential or target. There is hope that this cloud can be overcome as it is benign. If one looks at the content of the poem, it is clear that the speaker is looking at a beautiful landscape and he is trying to see the positive aspects of both the picture and his life. However, he has a benign cloud covering his picture.
The reader needs to answer the question “if it is possible to see the sun with this benign cloud of the past obscuring it? ”
“In Exile”, by Andrew Nortje speaks to the reader from the first word in the title to the last word in the last stanza. If one looks at the content of the poem, it is clear that the poet is painting a picture of a landscape in front of him. He is making reference of open skies with strands of clouds, winds sweeping through the towers of buildings and his clothes trembling in the wind. He is also thinking about an imaginary picture of the sea.
However, from the first stanza, the reader is reminded of a different landscape in another “exiled country” The poet is painting a somber picture of skies where we get flares making us anxious, soldiers passing through with their boots making noise, wrong pigment leaving you without hope or opportunity and bad memories clotting your vein of memories. At the end, the reader draws the conclusion that one can’t build a new picture of beautiful sunny days and wind still situations without making peace or taking into consideration, the memories of the past. I think the message of this poem is positive.
In the beginning everything reminds the speaker of his horrid past – even blue skies with thin wispy clouds remind him of South Africa and the fear and anger he experienced there. He has definite negative feelings towards his country of origin. However, as time passes one gets the feeling that the speaker is growing into the understanding that one has to deal with the past in order to survive the present. He realises that one’s soul will decay even in exile if you don’t stop the negative memories from the past and start building a new picture with a positive attitude.
One can never leave the past behind but you can turn the malignant memories into benign clouds. The poem is a free verse with no specific rhyming except in the 4th stanza. It is interesting that we only have one incident of rhyming and that is in line 17 and 19. The poet refers to “wrong pigment” that has no future and this gives the reader a strong indication that he was feeling rather negative and angry about the classification of people according to skin color. He uses 5 stanzas with no specific and they differ in length from 4 lines to 6 lines each. I think the effect of this single rhyming verse is very important.
It clearly indicates the importance of the fact that once the poet was judged and classified as colored – it stayed with him and impacted his whole life. The poet used personification to help the reader understand the untold story of his past. In the first stanza the reader is told that the open skies made the poet anxious and that clouds are tracing patterns of the past. The reader gets the first indication that the poet is feeling estranged and sad about his past. He is telling the untold story of war and anxiety, things that happened in his past.
The poet is using alliteration in certain instances to emphasize the stories f the past. “My heart is hollowed with the boots passing through” and “garments gather” are examples of alliteration. If we look at the language used in this poem, there is a change in tone in the poem. In the first 3 stanza’s a description is given of a nature scene or rather that is the first impression. On closer inspection, the reader learns about the fear experienced in “open skies” in Africa, clouds reminding you of the horrible past and wind reminding you about the horrors of the past – of boots of soldiers creating fear, anger and sadness. It seems like we are lost in the picture of the past.
A perfect paradise seems impossible but then in the 4th stanza, the poet states that we to meet certain conditions in order to keep your soul from decay. In order to see your new paradise, you need to realize that you have to stop the vein of bad memories and build a new positive picture of your present life. The writer reaches a turning point in the last stanza. He no longer only seems to remember the ugly pictures of the past. He is building or describing a new nature scene by building a new picture on a sand slope. It is still very vulnerable and the grains slide away easily.
However, his past is now only a benign cloud that obscures the sun. He can choose to look at this new positive landscape or picture of the sea and get hope. His past will always be part of him even in exile; however, the reader is brought to the point where he or she can choose to look at the sun through only a benign cloud. I think the use of the words “the soul decays in exile. But wrong pigment has no scope” are very important when analyzing this poem. It seems to be a turning point. This is the essence of what is hurting the writer and causing him to feel estranged and in exile.
He realizes that he will not move forward as long as he only thinks about him being colored and that his soul will die if he doesn’t move on. I think the writer has succeeded in using imagery to relate the untold story of South Africa and his walk through life. He has told us about his pain and anger and the feelings of abandonment experienced in South Africa. At the end the reader is brought to the realization that in order to make peace with ones past, and see the new beautiful landscape of life, one has to move forward to a point where the hurt and anger merely becomes a dark memory, shaping the way you look at your future.
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