"To anyone & everyone: This is one of the great books! It reads like a lovely poem. Enjoy & reflect." —unknown lawyer from Chicago
This direct, no nonsense opinion, written in a firm hand on a memo card of a noted Chicago legal firm, was left in a copy of Cry, the Beloved Country on the shelves of The Hidden Room bookstore in South Haven, Michigan. The owner of the bookstore sent the memo card to me with the message: "This note from one of my customers was in Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Thought you might enjoy it." Enjoy it! I envied it; for I had written much on Alan Paton's, novel—but never in words so memorable as this.
If the novel, in fact, reads "like a lovely poem," it may be because inside Alan Paton, in whatever role we encounter him—teacher, penal reformer, biographer, novelist, or foe of apartheid—there is always a lyric poet and a passionate orator. Long before he set pen to his now famous novel, Paton was a lover of language and of the spoken word. From early childhood he delighted in words and in melodious verse, as he also delighted in the sights and sounds of nature: "I cannot describe my early response to the beauty of hill and stream and tree as anything less than ecstasy," he says in his autobiography.
What part did poetry play in Paton's life? What other poems captured Alan Paton's imagination? Learn more about the impact of poetry on his life and novels:
Cry's Poetic Journey The Poetry and Drama of Alan Paton Paton and Robert Louis Stevenson Paton and Walt Whitman
Written as it was on a journey to places far distant from the hills of home, Cry, the Beloved Country is pervaded by a longing for home and a longing for peace and reconciliation in Paton's own "beloved country." As he wrote in 1987 in his final preface to this novel: "It is a song of love for one's far distant country, it is informed with longing for that land where they shall not hurt or destroy in all that holy mountain, for that ineffable and unattainable land where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, for the land that cannot be again of hills and grass and bracken, the land where you were born."
A Cry for Home During his years as a teacher in Ixopo and Pietermaritzburg in the period 1925-35, Paton wrote poetry and fiction—little or none of it published. In 1935, he put aside this literary work in order to immerse himself in his work of penal reform at Diepkloof Reformatory, where his task was to turn a harsh prison into a school to rehabilitate delinquent boys. It was in the course of a leave of absence to study penal institutions in Europe and North America that the creative urge again came upon him. In Trondheim, Norway, following a train journey through an unfamiliar landscape of mountains, streams and pine forests, he was powerfully seized by a longing for home and composed the lyric opening of Cry the Beloved Country: "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills."
Plucked from the Bible Beyond the opening lyrical prelude, there are a variety of poetic, dramatic and oratorical elements in the novel. Three quite different styles of oratory are represented in Rev. Msimangu's eloquent sermon at Ezenzeleni; in John Kumalo's political rant; and in the draft of an intended speech found in the study of the murdered man, Arthur Jarvis. Despite these instances of stylistic variation, the style of the novel as a whole has been frequently described as "Biblical"; which may be an appropriate term for some passages that employ the devices of Hebrew poetry—devices that carry over into good Bible translations. (Similar devices are apparent in the oratorical style of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example.)
Zulu Music Aphorism (or "wise saying"), is another characteristic of Hebrew poetry evident in the novel in such instances as Rev. Msimangu's remark: "I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we have turned to hating." Hebrew poetry also employs apostrophe—in which someone or something is directly addressed, as the country of South Africa is addressed in the passage from which the novel takes its title: "Cry, the beloved country for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply." But in seeking Biblical qualities in the novel's style, one ought not overlook how its musicality also derives from Paton's attempt to approximate the music of the Zulu language in the speech of some characters. Ultimately, if the novel reads "like a lovely poem" it is mainly because it was written by someone who had practiced the art of poetry and who had long aspired to be a poet, as well.