Settler Prosody
submitted by Max Cavitch (University of Pennsylvania) on Mon, 2010-11-08 16:20

Rereading Crouch’s Treasury of South African Poetry and Verse (1909), I’m struck anew by the brilliant, rough, scarily gorgeous fourteeners of John Runcie’s “Crossing the Hex Mountains.”  Largely implicit in this poem is the context of the Second Anglo-Boer War, and one may for that reason be more likely to hear in the phrase “those who guard the line” a reference not only to soldiers—and perhaps also to the newly precarious direction of imperial thought at the turn of the century, to which Duncan Bell refers in The Idea of Greater Britain (Princeton 2007)—but also to an imperial poetic consciousness in a state of alarm.  The complex relation of Runcie and his poem to that imperial poetic consciousness seems as much a subject of “Crossing the Hex Mountains” as is the war or the earlier engineering solution to the problem of the Hex River Pass itself:

CROSSING THE HEX MOUNTAINS

At Tweefontein in the moonlight the little white tents shine,
And a cry comes out of the darkness from those who guard the line;
The panting heart of the engine pulsed through the resting cars,
And beyond are the quiet mountains, and above are the quiet stars.

Sinister rise the mountains, jagged and bleak and bare,
Cloven and rent and fissured by fire and torrent there;
But the moon is a tender lady that loves not sights like these,
And in her spell transfigured, all things must soothe and please.

Far on the veldt behind us shone the steel-drawn parallels,
And beneath was the famished river fed by the famished wells,
And behind the shuttered windows, and beneath the hooded light,
Folk in the train were sleeping through all the wondrous night.

But I was out on the platform waiting the whistle shrill
That would break in a lustre of echoes right on the face of the hill;
Break on the face of the mountain and lose themselves in the pass,
Where the rails are like threads of silver, and the boulders smooth as glass.

Forth with the grinding of couplings, the hissing and snorting of steam,
Till the rails spun out behind her like spider-threads agleam,
Till she roared at the foot of the mountain, and brawled through the echoing glen,
Roaring, rocking, and ringing out her paean of conquering men.

Right to the edge of a boulder, ominous, big, and black;
Plucking our hearts to our parching throats with fear for the open track;
Then forth like a driving piston straight from its iron sheath,
Till the wind stormed down on our faces, and we could not see nor breathe.

Looping, climbing, and falling, panting and swooping she sped,
Like a snake at the foot of the mountain, with her great white lamp ahead;
Shouldering the heavy gradients, heedless of breathing spells,
And racing away like a maddened steed down the sloping parallels.

Then out of De Doorns she thundered, and over the starved Karoo,
Dwindling the hills behind her, farther and farther she flew;
And I know not which to praise the more—these moonshot hills of God,
Or the genius of the men who planned and made the glorious road.