Roy Campbell (1901-1957)
The poem has a four line stanza. The speaker provides us a detail of the plight of the Zulu girl. The observation made by the speaker is minute and influential. It is during the daytime that the sun sheds its hot rays on the ground -“the hot red acres”. The farm seems to be under the powerful heat of the sun. It is so parching that the hot red acres –African landscape-seem to be ready to burst into flames. In the field is the “gang”. The word “gang” as of course frequently used in this connection, suggests that its members have no individuality and identity, are treated rather like prisoners, or are being made to undertake forced labor: certainly they have no personal pride or pleasure in the work they are doing, and are actually under some kind of the compulsion.
Now the observation is focused on the girl who flings down her hoe which can be seen as an act of defiance of authority, which exacts her subjection, a turning from mass production to the responsibilities of reproduction. Then she unslings her child from her shoulder. The child besides being “tormented by flies” is also in need of nourishment, for the girl takes him to a patch of thin shade nearby to feed him at her breast. While the child feeds, the girl passes her hand caressingly through his hair. It is significant perhaps that the mother is referred to as a ‘girl’: this may suggest that she is not a wife and belongs to the vast number of black South Africans who have lost their traditional ways of life and have been caught up in the chaos of the modern world.
In stanza three, four and five the poet goes on to give his impression of the relationship and feeling between mother and the child in more than a merely physical sense. The child is ‘grunting’ as he feeds, that is he is feeding greedily and expressing his simple but deep satisfaction. Not only does he take in physical nourishment, however, for during this process of feeding, her own deep feelings ‘ripple’ and are conveyed little by little into his frail, infantile nerves. The poem admirably suggests the strong intimate mother-and- child relationship developed by breast-feeding (often, of course, lost or destroyed in more ‘advanced’ cultures). The word ‘languours’ is important. It tells us that the girl appears rather weary, unenthusiastic, and hopeless, as though expressing a deep despair and resentment against the whole situation in which she finds herself. Nevertheless, even in her mood of hopelessness, her motherhood and the latent satisfaction she has in feeding her child, seem to arouse in her a kind of pride, ‘the old unquenched, unsmotherable heat’: a feeling perhaps that her life has some value, that she is taking part in an important life process; that she is not alone and abandoned; she belongs to an old enduring tradition of human struggle and survival; her ‘tribes’ though ‘curbed’ and ‘beaten’ for the time being, ‘have a dignity’ in their ‘defeat’; and still retain their self-respect, and are ready to ‘rise again’. As the poem develops, we seem to move gradually closer to the mother, until in the final stanza we are looking up at her, almost as though thorough the eyes of the child himself; and she appears as an impressive, statuesque figure, shielding and protecting her helpless infant. In the two last lines of all, after being compared to a ‘hill’, she is likened to a great storm cloud which “bears the coming harvest in its breast”.
Without appealing to our emotions are directly or blatantly (as a propagandist might have done) the writer arouses our sympathy for the Zulu Girl in the hardships of the existence; this leads on to an admiration for the endurance and for the strength of life that is seen in her. This in its turn, through the concluding simile, leads to a kind of prophetic hint that the scene we have witnessed is not final, and that a different and better state of affairs is bound to come in the future. We notice that this hope is not conveyed by plain, prose statement, as a matter of fact: it is glimpsed imaginatively by the poet’s intuition and conveyed in the form of this indirect suggestion.
The poem begins with a fairly simple observed situation, and as the poet develops and reflects upon it, its references broader out until it is of world-wide significance. The first strong impression we are given in the poem is of the heat which scorches the landscape where the girl is working: the acres, we are told, are red, which we know is the predominant color of the African earth, but ‘hot red’, and obvious pair of adjectives suggest in our mind something similar- ‘red hot’ the epithet usually applied to heated iron. This together with the metaphor of ‘smoulder’ gives the impression that the land is almost too hot to bear. And could almost burst into females. We are given other details that emphasize the unpleasant nature of the ‘gang’s’ work: they are ‘sweating’; the child is ‘tormented by the flies’. At last she flings down her hoe. She does not just ‘drop it’ or throw it down: the word ‘filings’ suggests impatience and exasperation. An interesting point to notice in the first stanza is the way in which the rhythmic and rhyming pattern emphasizes the physical effort made by the girl when she takes the child form her back. “When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder / A girl flings down her hoe, and from her shoulder / Unslings her child, (tormented by the flies).”
In stanza two, we read how the mother, in the meager shade of the thorn trees, is searching the hair of her child for ticks – again a detail which suggest the poverty and insanitary conditions under which these laborers live. We notice that her sharp nails are ‘purpled with the blood” of the parasites. In fact, the phrase ‘purpled with the blood of ticks’ is grammatically out of place; it is intended presumably to relate to its head - word ‘nails’, but the nails are introduced by the conjunction ‘while’ and cannot strictly be governed by a loose phrase which lies outside the clause together. Nevertheless, this slight dislocation of syntax is easily forgiven as our attention is held by the metaphor ‘prowled’, which suggests that her fingers are like a fierce animal searching through the forest for its prey. The sharp electric clicks are produced when she finds a tick and cracks it between her fingernails: this produces a sound like that given by an electric spark (as from a car battery). Not only does the metaphor give this impression but the sounds of the word sequence ‘ticks’, electric, clicks intensify it.
In stanza three, we turn on different matters, but the choice of words in apt again. We see, and hear that the baby’s mouth is ‘plugged’; he tugs at the nipple: grunting as he feeds. The sequence of ugly vowel sounds suggest the greedliness (and hunger) of the bay as he feeds, and this is intensified in the animal simile ‘like a puppy’, in which the same vowel sound appears. Then the poet goes on to describe the deep strong feelings which pass in a steady, inevitable flow from the mother to the child and here the simile of the broad river is very suitable; its effect being further strengthened by the predominance of broad syllables and diphthongs in the line: “Like a broad river sighing through its reeds.” This well suggests the flow of a mighty river.
Stanza four arouses out increased attention with an unexpected switch of thought, almost a paradox. In the physical sense it is obviously the child which is drinking from its mother; in another sense we are now told that her flesh is, in a deeper sense, imbibing something from the drowsy stream. To make the sudden change of thought from the reflective to the aggressive, there is a sudden change in the rhythmic and sound qualities of this stanza, and we come to a vigorous climax on the energetic multi-syllabic word ‘unsmotherable’. “Yet in that drowsy steam her flesh imbibes/ An old unquenched unsmotherable heat…”
The word ‘unsmotherable’ takes on special force in its context with ‘unquenched’, which seem to prepare the way, and the monosyllable ‘heat’ which gives the line its decisive conclusion. The line as a whole is an emphatic statement of the unquenchable vigor and spirit of the African people: nothing can blot out or obliterate their primal energy (heat – one of the basic essentials of life). The feeling of conviction is repeated in a slightly different rhythmic pattern in two following and closely parallel lines: “The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes/ The sullen dignity of tier defeat” when an element of alliteration ‘b’ and ‘d’ also adds to the forceful pattern of speech.
The poem now moves to its prophetic climax and the Zulu Girl, as we have seen, takes on the significance of a symbol. She is no longer just a single, stray, exploited, hardworking individual in some remote part of the veldt: she represents to us the potentiality of her race for suffering, survival, and triumph. Her body is grand and imposing: it ‘looms’ over her child, and its protective power is beautifully shown in the picturesque simile of “… a hill/ Within whose shade a village leis at rest.”
We notice that the shade, unlike that of the thorn trees (a mere ‘pool’) is unbroken and extensive, and in it the village lies in peace and tranquility, ‘at rest. The ‘ looming hill’ leads our thoughts to the second simile of the great thunder cloud, ‘so terrible and still’, which suggest violent storms to come in the near future, but with the prospect of a welcome harvest in the fullness of time.
“Zulu Girl” is thus an effective and meaningful short poem, in which many resources of the poet’s art have been combined to treat one of the urgent problems of the modern world.
(This commentary has been adapted from HLB Moody’s “Literary Appreciation”)