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CSEC English B: South by Kamau Brathwaite Poem Analysis

Updated: May 28, 2021




South

Kamau Brathwaite

But today I recapture the islands' bright beaches: blue mist from the ocean rolling into the fishermen's houses. By these shores I was born: sound of the sea came in at my window, life heaved and breathed in me then with the strength of that turbulent soil. Since then I have travelled: moved far from the beaches: sojourned in stoniest cities, walking the lands of the north in sharp slanting sleet and the hail, crossed countless saltless savannas and come to this house in the forest where the shadows oppress me and the only water is rain and the tepid taste of the river. We who are born of the ocean can never seek solace in rivers: their flowing runs on like our longing, reproves us our lack of endeavour and purpose, proves that our striving will founder on that. We resent them this wisdom, this freedom: passing us toiling, waiting and watching their cunning declension down to the sea. But today I would join you, travelling river, borne down the years of your patientest flowing, past pains that would wreck us, sorrows arrest us, hatred that washes us up on the flats; and moving on through the plains that receive us, processioned in tumult, come to the sea. Bright waves splash up from the rocks to refresh us, blue sea-shells shift in their wake and there is the thatch of the fishermen's houses, the path made of pebbles, and look! Small urchins combing the beaches look up from their traps to salute us: they remember us just as we left them. The fisherman, hawking the surf on this side of the reef, stands up in his boat and halloos us: a starfish lies in its pool. And gulls, white sails slanted seaward, fly into the limitless morning before us.





Summary

In the poem, the persona is reflecting on the island home of his childhood. He has travelled to many places, but appears to be constantly homesick. He remarks the stark contrasts between the "stoniest cities" and his own homeland, and seems overcome with happiness once he recounts the wondrous memories of his childhood. The title, 'South' seems to refer to the southern hemisphere, including the Caribbean islands (the likely origin of the persona considering that the poet is Barbadian), the southern US states, South America and the southern states of Africa, all of which are associated with racial tensions involving black people. The persona juxtaposes his southern island home, full of bright beaches and warm people, with the "lands of the north," the northern lands having unfavourable weather conditions, colder people and a lack of the ocean which our persona so desperately longs for. The theme is nature, idealization of childhood and nostalgia. The mood could also be described as nostalgic and longing.


Analysis

"But today I recapture the islands' bright beaches: blue mist from the ocean rolling into the fishermen's houses."

The persona here reminisces about the picturesque scenery of his island home. The use of the words "but today" give the impression that the persona has experienced a change in heart today, or that something has resulted in him having a different opinion. By saying that he recaptures the islands' bright beaches, the persona communicates that he is taking hold of something that belonged to him in the past.


"By these shores I was born: sound of the sea came in at my window, life heaved and breathed in me then with the strength of that turbulent soil."

The persona was born on this island, this idyllic landscape of glimmering ocean and sea breeze- however, the island has faced political turmoil/struggle that pushes people away, as shown by the use of "turbulent soil."


"Since then I have travelled: moved far from the beaches: sojourned in stoniest cities, walking the lands of the north in sharp slanting sleet and the hail,"

Since his childhood, he has travelled far from this tropical home. He uses "stoniest" to describe the cities he's travelled to, and this could be considered to be representative of the people he encountered in these cities, since 'stony' can also mean cold, and unfriendly. This is very different from the very close communal setting he would have grown up in. The sleet, hail and harsh wintry conditions he endured are also a contrast to the 'bright beaches' from his childhood.


"crossed countless saltless savannas and come to this house in the forest where the shadows oppress me and the only water is rain and the tepid taste of the river."

Now, the persona likely refers to Africa when he says 'saltless savannas.' Using saltless here draws attention to the fact that the savannas are devoid of beaches (and the salty ocean) which he misses deeply. He now lives in a house in the forest. This gloomy, dreary, sheltered place makes him feel oppressed. Throughout his worldwide sojourns, he has missed the ocean- and here still lacks its distinctive salty taste. To the persona, the rain water is ordinary and the river water is unappealing. The river doesn't represent the same limitless renewal of the ocean.


"We who are born of the ocean can never seek solace in rivers: their flowing runs on like our longing, reproves us our lack of endeavour and purpose, proves that our striving will founder on that."

The persona now switches personal pronouns from 'I' to 'we,' those who are 'born of the ocean'- people who are likely from the islands like he is. He says that they cannot seek comfort in the rivers. Rivers, like oceans, are bodies of water, but to him, that is where the similarities end. The bland predictability of its unidirectional flow directly contrasts the boundless nature of the ocean and its people. The sea has a characteristic ebb and flow, but the river flows on continuously and endlessly, shown using simile to be similar to how those born of the ocean can never stop longing for their homeland once they've left it- they constantly yearn for the unknown.

The speaker now personifies the river to be almost wise and discerning. The river showcases their lack of ambition and ability to make meaningful change.

The word 'founder' in this case means to fail or break down due a certain shortcoming. The shortcoming of the people is that they cannot truly make meaningful change- therefore their striving is pointless.


"We resent them this wisdom, this freedom: passing us toiling, waiting and watching their cunning declension down to the sea."

The river is disliked because it brings into stark focus the fact that their lives are devoid of purpose. The river passes them by as they attempt to better their situations through all sorts of tasks, toiling constantly. But the river is free and unbound by the existential angst of humanity give their lives meaning. It is completely indifferent to humanity's plight.

Using the phrase 'cunning declension' makes the rivers seem conniving and crafty in its slow and methodical flow to the ocean as it reveals nothing about itself.


"But today I would join you, travelling river,"

The use of the phrase "but today" (line 19) is reflective of the use of the same phrase in the beginning of the poem (line 1) to create a connection in how something has changed in his view. This could be considered the volta (turning point) of the poem. He now states that he would join the river, deviating from what would ordinarily happen.


"borne down the years of your patientest flowing, past pains that would wreck us, sorrows arrest us, hatred that washes us up on the flats; and moving on through the plains that receive us, processioned in tumult, come to the sea."

The river is like a conduit of human history; it carries with it an archive of past events.

Despite all this, the river flows on, through a world where human interaction is full of hurt and pain, eventually reaching the sea. (This could be an allusion to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and a past of colonialism and dislocation of African people). In this way, the persona can join the river in reflecting on the past- even though he may encounter troubles, like hatred, sorrows and past pain.

Here, the 's' sound is also repeated constantly to mimic the sound of a river's flow.


"Bright waves splash up from the rocks to refresh us, blue sea-shells shift in their wake and there is the thatch of the fishermen's houses, the path made of pebbles, and look! Small urchins combing the beaches look up from their traps to salute us: they remember us just as we left them."

The persona's tone takes on a massive change: he now seems incredibly excited as he reminisces about his island home. He is welcomed and reinvigorated by the waves. The river has gone, as both he and it have found their rightful place in the ocean. This entire image is an idealized memory from his childhood- a wonderful, pleasant, picturesque scene that embraces him (and the others who left) as someone who belongs there.


"The fisherman, hawking the surf on this side of the reef, stands up in his boat and halloos us: a starfish lies in its pool. And gulls, white sails slanted seaward, fly into the limitless morning before us."

This is a direct contrast to the "stoniest cities" he visited on his travels. The fisherman amiably greets him, showing a warmth absent in the cities. The use of a starfish specifically here is significant, as it lies in its pool- showing the leisurely lifestyle of the people of the island. The starfish is also a symbol of regeneration and rebirth due to its distinctive ability of limb regeneration. This correlates to the persona's desire to return to his homeland and become rejuvenated by the ocean waves.

The seagull fly on to a limitless morning. This is significant in that the morning is symbolic of a new beginning, infinite and filled with possibilities.





Figurative Devices


Alliteration

"bright beaches, blue mist from the ocean"(line 2)

"By these shores I was born, sound of the sea" (line 4)

"We who are born of the ocean can never seek solace in rivers" (line 13)

"toiling, waiting and watching their cunning declension down to the sea" (line 18)

"past pains that would wreck us, sorrows arrest us," (line 21)

"and gulls, white sails slanted seaward,"


Personification

"sound of the sea came in at my window, life heaved and breathed in me then with the strength of that turbulent soil." (lines 4-6)

"...shadows oppress me" (line 11)

"their flowing... reproves us our lack of endeavour and purpose, proves that our striving will founder on that." (lines 14-16)


Simile

"their flowing runs on like our longing," (line 14)



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