All his life Alan Paton was torn between a desire for the creative life as a writer, and the demands of his work as teacher, social reformer, and reluctant, but determined, politician. Paton wrote poetry often throughout his life. The success of Cry the Beloved Country brought him a source of independent income that made it feasible for him to focus on writing for the remainder of his lifetime. Much of what he wrote was poetry.
An Actor at Heart
Paton had an ear for rhythm and for subtle cadence, and a habit of playing with words. Even in old age he relished reciting verse in poetry readings. To put it more accurately, he enjoyed "performing" it at these readings—and he enjoyed the applause. As the South African poet and dramatist, Guy Butler, who often saw Paton's presentations, observed: "Alan was a great actor." Butler drew this conclusion from Paton's 1969 reading at Rhodes University from Kontakion For You Departed—a reading performance Butler described as: "the best one-man show I have ever seen."
The Reluctant Politician
During the era of his work for the Liberal Party in the darkest days of apartheid repression, Paton's creative urge had to be diverted to the writing of pamphlets. At this period, much of his energy also went into the series of political newspaper columns, later collected in The Long View. He also spoke politically— like his address of July 12, 1956, to the annual congress of the Liberal Party: "Stand firm by what you believe; do not tax yourself beyond endurance, yet calculate clearly and coldly how much endurance you have; keep your friendships alive and warm, especially those with people of other races; beware of melancholy and resist it actively if it assails you; and give thanks for the courage of others in this fear-ridden country."
Paton's Unique Swan Song
The last piece of writing of his life confirms Paton's love of the spoken word in poem or oration. Time commissioned him to write an article on the state of affairs in South Africa. Paton composed, instead, an article on the spoken arts. Among "great orators" of his lifetime he names Winston Churchill, Reinhold Niebuhr (the American theologian), and his friend J. H. Hofmeyr, whose oratorical style is reflected in the draft of Arthur Jarvis' speech in Cry, the Beloved Country. He is lavish in his praise of poems he loved, including Yeats' "The Fiddler of Dooney," Blake's "The Tiger," and Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven." He pays special homage to Psalm 139 and to Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd": "one of the most memorable tributes paid by any human being to another."
Published on September 29, 2003