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Eugene Nielen Marais, poet

15 May 2018

Dark StreamDark Stream by Leon Rousseau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I generally enjoy reading literary biographies, sometimes even more than reading the works of the writer or poet concerned. I enjoy reading “life and times” books because of my interest in history. But Eugene Nielen Marais is an exception to this. I have loved some of his poems since I was a romantically-minded teenager.

As a teenager my favourite poets were the romantic ones, like Keats and Shelley. But now I find that their poems that moved me so much when I was 14 or 15 do not move me so much now. They strike me as rather flat. But Marais’s poems that I loved then still move me today, especially ones like Winternag (English translation here) and Skoppensboer (Jack of Spades). Keats’s Endymion now leaves me cold, perhaps because in my youth I read into it things that weren’t there, whereas the things that I read into Marais’s poetry back then were actually there and are still there now. Keats was writing in England about an imagined Greece. Marais, in Winternag, was writing about the Transvaal highveld, which he knew, and where I lived.

His life and times are interesting too, because much of that history led us to where we are now in southern Africa, but that is as much the art of the biographer, who had to do the hard work of getting the details of his life, and making the times come alive.

There is also a family history reason. Though Marais himself wasn’t a relative, one of his close friends and admirers, Joän Couzyn, who made a sculpture of him, was married to a relative of my wife Val.

Eugene Nielen Marais (1871-1936) was born of a Cape Dutch family in Pretoria, the capital of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR, South African Republic), the youngest of thirteen children, and the only one to be born there. Part of his schooling was with relatives in the Free State and the Cape Colony, where the new Afrikaans language was beginning to emerge from its Dutch cocoon. Eugene, however, was educated mainly in English, though he could write Dutch and speak Afrikaans.

After leaving school he returned to Pretoria and became a journalist, and while still in his teens became the editor of Land en Volk, which was run on a shoestring. Though it was written in Dutch, Marais introduced Afrikaans from time to time, and was keen on promoting Afrikaans as a literary language. He attacked the corruption of the Kruger government, which meant that Land en Volk lost lucrative government advertising, and strugged to survive. He married, but his wife died shortly after the birth of their only child, who was brought up by one of Marais’s sisters.

After a few years, and partly under family pressure, he went to England to study law, that being regarded as a more respectable occupation than journalism. He was not a good student. Leon Rousseau hints, though he does not explicitly say, that Marais was influenced by the writers and artists of fin de siècle London. He also dabbled in medicine.

He was studying in the UK during the second Anglo-Boer War, and narrowly escaped being interned as an enemy alien. After completing his studies he joined an expedition to take supplies to the embattled Boer guerrillas, but before they could be delivered the war had ended.

Highveld — not really a winter’s night, which is difficult to photograph, but rather an autumn day, near Bronkhorstspruit, where Marais lived for a while.

He resumed his journalistic career in what had become the Transvaal Colony, under the restrictions of the British military occupation, and occasionally practised law. He also, like the Bohemian artists and writers in London, became addicted to drugs, first opium, and then morphine.

In 1907 he moved to the Waterberg, about 70 miles north-west of Pretoria, living as a lodger on an isolated farm, where he studied animals and insects, especially baboons and termites. He later lived in what is now Bronkhorstspruit, where he tried, not very successfully, to practise law, but his morphine addiction made this difficult.

He moved to Heidelberg, where sympathetic doctors tried to cure him, but failed. He returned to Pretoria and journalism for a while, living with friends. In 1936, after his friends had moved away, and losing his access to drugs, he committed suicide.

In reading this book, two things stand out:

  1. The similarity of the corruption in the ZAR under Kruger and the RSA under Zuma.
  2. The best poetry seems to have been written by drug addicts under the influence of drugs.

I’ll say a bit more about these, which I did not include in the review on Good Reads.

First, on corruption, and the similarity of the Kruger regime with the Zuma regime 120 years later:

When Eugene Marais was editor of Land en Volk he was a muckraking investigative journalist, and often exposed instances of government corruption. Though the word had not yet been invented yet, there were plenty of tenderpreneurs in Kruger’s ZAR. As Rousseau 1982:89-90 describes it:

… the revelations in connection with the Selati railway concession were the talk of the town. Marais’s information regarding bribery, four years before, had been completely correct. Via B.J. Vorster, members of the Volksraad had not only received American spiders and Cape carts as gifts, but also gold watches, shares in the proposed company, and large cash amounts. The President himself was not involved, but now, after the exposures, he sided with the guilty ones by stating that he saw no evil in taking gifts.

What bothered Marais quite as much as the bribery was the enormous and totally unnecessary loss the Republic had suffered because of stupidity. An engineering firm which had contracted to build the two hundred mile long railway at £9 600 a mile had farmed out the same contract to a sub-contractor two days later for £7 002 a mile, making a profit of almost £500 000 almost overnight — money which the Transvaal Treasury could have saved if the government had approached the matter more circumspectly.

Marais also found it strange that none of these transactions had been brought to light during the two years that Dr Leyds, anything but a fool, had handled the matter for the Government.

Rousseau describes the Bohemian lifestyle of many of the fin de siècle writers and artists of London, and several of their predecessors too. Since the French Revolution, many artists and writers rejected the bourgeois lifestyle and values that became ascendant then. It may have peaked at the end of the 19th century, bur re-appeared in such movements as the Beat Generation and their successors, the hippies.

I knew that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written Kubla Khan in a drug-induced vision, which was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock knocing on the door. That makes me think that no real poetry will ever get written in these days of Twitter notifications.

But Rousseau’s list of such writers and poets is a great deal longer, and I certainly didn’t know this of Francis Thompson (Rousseau 1982:123ff):

Francis Thompson, a consumptive and an opium addict — for whose poetry Eugene Marais was in later years to have the greatest admiration –lived the life of a drop-out in London, becoming the confidant of thieves and prostitutes, sleeping under bridges or in poor-housees like a beggar.

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