Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Why Write a Poem about Elephants?

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Why Write a Poem about Elephants?

Article excerpt

A close reading of selected Southern African poems about elephants provides a window onto interdisciplinary readings of southern African ecocritical issues generally, involving three interlocking aspects: local ecological realities, especially managerial conservation ethics; the animal-human interface as it emerges in anthropomorphic expression; and a cautious, even self-ironizing, articulation of beauty and mystery.


Tall-topped acacia, you, full of branches, Ebony-tree with the big
spreading leaves.
--Michael Chapman, The New Century of South African Poetry

I doubt there exists anywhere a more compactly metaphoric poem describing an elephant. Although it was translated from a San or Bushman dialect in Cape Town, South Africa, in the 1870s, it may be the most ancient southern African elephant poem we possess. The San--those elusive but hardy autochthons whose artwork, painted and etched on rocks throughout the subcontinent, dates back in some cases 27,000 years--were themselves classified as animal by disparaging colonial gunmen. Elephants, acacia trees, and the San were together consumed by a wave of hunters, commandos, and acquisitive settler-farmers and their stock. Of all the non-human wild creatures whose decimation paralleled that of the San, none is more poignant, ironic, or emotive in its story than the elephant. As Mark Elvin suggests through the title of his environmental history of China, the "Retreat of the Elephants" is world-wide a primary icon of humanity's advance against wilderness.

It will hardly be surprising, then, that more recent poems about elephants are dominated by an elegiac tone. This is especially true of the poems by white Southern African poets on which I focus here: these works exemplify a peculiarly intense confluence of debates around modern ecological managerialism, racially-inflected land-use, postcolonial political identities, animal and landscape aesthetics, and the validity of "anthropomorphic" portrayals of animal subjectivity. Any reading of these poems that ignores these aspects and the intricate relations between them will, I wish to suggest, be incomplete: there can be no adequate understanding of the elephant problem without understanding its textual imaginaries, and vice versa.

At the same time, the poems--quite deliberately--do not make theoretical claims as interventions into these debates: they tend, like some naturalists' writings, to "circumvent the opposition between constructivist and realist epistemologies" (Crist 810). To put this another way, in their very discourse they eschew both Cartesian mechanistic models of animality and, in their rootedness in closely-observed southern African ecological specificities, purely imaginative fantasies. In occupying this middle ground, they "cannot be formalized into a set of precepts" (832), rather fulfilling another vital role in human consciousness, the role of what Jonathan Bate calls "ecopoesis": to "engage imaginatively with the non-human" (199). Hence, in what follows, I offer primarily a close ecologically-oriented reading of some poems rather than a direct engagement with the metaphysical or theoretical debates. I do, however, want to gesture shortly towards one theoretical area that seems under-researched at present: the nexus of animal beauty and the discourses of anthropomorphism. In combination, I think, these two concepts converge in their ethical implications, implications that infuse these suggestive and deliberately non-didactic poems.

The development of both animal- and landscape aesthetics in southern Africa, and in particular those associated with modern European-oriented, conservation-minded literary works, may be pointed up by comparison with two earlier poems: one settler, the other indigenous. The first is by South Africa's first white poet of any consequence, Thomas Pringle.

When Pringle arrived with a rather hapless group of British settlers on the Cape Colony's easternmost frontier in 1820, successive swathes of land had been wrested from the resident Xhosa peoples, and warfare simmered continually. …

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