After the publication of Cry, the Beloved Country Paton and his wife moved to Anerley on the Natal south coast. He spent the first weeks of August 1948 reading the works of Walt Whitman. By late October he had written twenty pieces of verse and hoped to publish them soon: "They are not poetry," he wrote to a friend, "but deal with the problems of our country."
Songs of Africa
The twenty poems he refers to are lyrical pieces of South African provenance, and are probably the "songs of Africa" he refers to in his poem, "To Walt Whitman," which begins:
Barefooted boy on Paumanok's shore,The phrases "on Paumanok's shore" and "more sorrowful than yours" come directly from Whitman's "Out of the Cradle," a poem that recalls a childhood summer on the Long Island shore when, as a lonely, barefoot boy, he observed two mocking-birds nesting. (Paumonok is the Native American name for Long Island.) One day when the female fails to return, her mate laments her in a "song of the heart's outpouring." Whitman composes an imaginary version of the song of the bereft bird. Then, in his own voice, he promises "a thousand songs . . . more sorrowful than yours" in return for the childhood wonder the bird's song had reawakened in him. Paton's poem, "To Walt Whitman," also promises a fresh start:
What shall I sing? And this voice said, singA Natural Kinship
It is no wonder Paton invoked Whitman when setting out to write poems that, like his novel Cry, the Beloved Country, would "deal with the problems of our country." He would certainly have appreciated Whitman's emotional intensity and sonorous music, for Whitman was at heart a rhapsodist, and Paton was inclined to be one too. He may also have had a strong sense of kinship with Whitman. They shared a reverent awe before nature. They also shared a great capacity for compassion, and a firm dedication to human freedom.
A Love of Lincoln
Both Whitman and Paton also shared an extraordinary regard for Abraham Lincoln. Paton memorializes Lincoln in Cry, the Beloved Country in the library of the murdered man, Arthur Jarvis, as well as in the dead man's writings that so affect James Jarvis that they cause him not only to read Lincoln's great speeches but to base his future actions on them. Whitman's reverence for Lincoln has its great outpouring in the elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"—a poem that Paton could hardly find words laudatory enough to describe. He spoke of it as: "One of the greatest odes in the language," and he incorporates lines from it into his elegy on the students killed at Kent State University in 1971, "Flowers for the Departed," and into his memorial for his first wife, Kontakion For You Departed.
Published on September 29, 2003