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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Troubadour I Traverse By Dennis Brutus

A troubadour, I traverse all my land
exploring all her wide-flung parts with zest
probing in motion sweeter far than rest
her secret thickets with an amorous hand:
and I have laughed, disdaining those who banned
inquiry and movement, delighting in the test
of will when doomed by Saracened arrest,
choosing, like unarmed thumb, simply to stand.

Thus, quixoting till a cast-off of my land
I sing and fare, person to loved-one pressed
braced for this pressure and the captor’s hand
that snaps off service like a weathered strand:
– no mistress-favor has adorned my breast
only the shadow of an arrow-brand.


Most fancy fairy tales involving princesses and kingdoms have this catch phrase: "My Knight and Shinning Armour". The Knight is usually the saviour of a young princess, maiden or mistress. "A Troubadour I Traverse" is a poem that tells of a Knight who lives to dies for his mistress.

Dennis Brutus, born in 1924, Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) experienced the apartheid era and fought against it through protests and poetry. Just like every anti-apartheid fighter, Dennis was opposed by the government. He was arrested and significantly placed in a cell beside South Africa's late Nelson Mandela, the most revered Champion of Freedom. A Troubadour I Traverse is one of Dennis' poems which proclaims his undying love for his land, South Africa.

A "Troubadour" is a medieval European Knight whose duty is to protect his mistress, defending her from all harm at the expense of his life. A Troubadour often rides along with his mistress; this is an act of Chilvary. In this poem, Dennis is a Troubadour for his mistress whom he lives to die for. The first stanza of this Petrarchan sonnet (Italian sonnet) speaks of the poets romantic traverse of his mistress; his "land". In line 1-4 , Brutus speaks of his romantic and pleasurable travel through his land, South Africa. He explores her "wide-flung parts" which refers to her vast regions with so much "zest". His zeal, enthusiasm in exploring his land is expressed in line three and four. "...Probing in motion sweeter far than rest", he explores "her secret thickets with an amorous hand". The poet surveys his land's rich vegetation with an "amorous hand". Just as a man romances his lover, travelling down her skin with immeasurable ecstasy, caressing her curves with his hand, leaving no skin unloved, so does the poet.

The poet's love and devotion for South Africa can be compared to a sexual and sensual relationship. Clearly drunk in love for his land, he laughs ecstatically in line five, at all those who try, have tried and are trying to come in he way of his love and devotion for his homeland. He disdains "those who banned inquiry and movement". During the apartheid struggle, information was censored by the government and movement was limited through curfews. The land became a free prison for Blacks and Coloured. Dennis, though white skinned, was called coloured because of his mixed descent and he was opposed. Obvious to Brutus, his love for his land would be put to test by "those who banned inquiry and movement" because they delight in "the test".

As a crusader for South Africa and its people  in the name of love – during the apartheid era, he was sure of his doom by "Saracened arrest". Saracen's, though dated, refers to the Muslims – often Arab descents  who were involved in the Crusades during the 11th-13th Century. The Crusaders: Christians, would go to war against the Saracen's to reclaim the Levant from them. By making reference to this, Brutus identifies himself as a Crusader who is in fact doomed to a "Saracened arrest". Coincidentally, the South African armoured police cars were called Saracen's. The poet's reference to the activity of the Crusaders and the Saracen's could serve as a pointer to the poet's religious stand.

In line 8, the brave Troubadour is now an "unarmed thumb". As a thumb, he is the most important and functional finger in the hand but he is unarmed. He has no weapon to fight against the "Saracened arrest" coming his way. Despite his helplessness, he chooses "simply to stand". What a brave and unconditional love!

With a continued protest against apartheid, Brutus becomes as Don Quixote – the protagonist of Cervantes' novel  "quixoting" till he becomes as "cast-off" of his land, the the very land he fights for. Just like Don Quixote, Brutus is somewhat obsessed with the idea of Chivalry and becomes an object of mockery in his land. Brutus is now rejected but he doesn't seem remorseful about it. Instead, he "sing"(s) and "fare"(s), an obvious act of merriment. Although he is pressed by the one he loves, he braces himself for the pressure and the latter doom of captivity. Just as he predicted earlier, the "captors", those who decreed his "Saracened arrest", snap him off service. The poem doesn't exactly reveal what form of punishment he is given, either death or captivity. Either ways, he is rendered incapable. He is now unable to protect his mistress. He is snapped off like a "weathered strand". It's as though he is already weakened by the pressure and opposition, Thus, he is easily snapped off as a strand.

In the last two lines, he expresses his sad fate. Being rendered incapable, he looses his mistress and has no "favour", a gracious honorary evidence of his bravery and chivalry. In place of an emblem of favour for his service, he gets the "shadow of an arrow-brand". The arrow-brand commonly known as the arrowhead is a symbol used traditionally in heraldry, most notably in England and later by the British Government. The symbol was used to mark government properties including convicts. The Troubadour has nothing to show for his service asides the mark of a convict. Brutus could be referring to the scar he sustained from a gunshot in 1960; for it was a mere shadow of death.
Dennis Brutus is an amazing icon to be respected. Defiling all odds, he fought against racial discrimination. For his land, he became a troubadour scorned and a cast-off. His sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Style: It's a petrarchan sonnet otherwise known as an Italian sonnet. An Italian sonnet comprises of an octet and a closing setset with a rhyming scheme of either "abba abba cde cde" or "abba abba cd cd cd" or "abba abba cce dde" or "abba abba cdd cee".

Literary devices

1)Simile; " unarmed thumb"
        " a weathered strand"

2)Metaphor; "unarmed thumb"
           "amorous hand"

3)Allusion; Historical allusion to the Saracen's and the crusades in the 11th tothe 13th century.
Literary allusion to Cervantes' character "Don Quixote".

4)Alliteration; In line 1  the "t" in troubadour" alliterates with that in "traverse"
In line 8, the "s" in "simply" alliterates with that in "stand".
In line 12 the "s" in "snaps" alliterates with that in "service".

5)Assonance; In line 3, "probing" and "motion" assonate.

6)Imagery; the poet implores the use of specific words to create a vivid image in the mind of the readers. In the first stanza, the simplicity of his words creates the image of a lover with his beloved, tangled in a romantic relationship of love. The lover is aware of the danger that threatens his beloved and his relationship with her but he doesn't fret in the second stanza. Instead, he stands to protect her, only to fall.

7)Symbolism; "troubadour" in the poem symbolizes an anti-apartheid activist who is devout to loving his land. "Land" and the use of "her" symbolizes the poets homeland: South Africa. "Saracened arrest" symbolizes the then South African police force which executed the government's apartheid policies. The "arrow-brand symbolizes captivity.

Tone/Mood: the tone of the poem is that of enthusiasm,devout love and protest. Although at the end of the poem the tone of the poem changes as the poet makes known the sadness of having nothing but captivity to show for his service. The mood of the poem is sympathetic as the readers cannot help but feel pity, distress and sorrow for the poet persona who does all he can to protect his land but ends up as a cast-off and is snapped off service.

Diction; the poet makes use of a simple deliberate diction. The poem in itself is coined out of the European medieval ideal of chivalry. Dennis Brutus makes use of the medieval theme on crusades common in the 11th-13th century.


1) The apartheid struggle
3)The relentless fight against discrimination
4)The chronicle of a freedom fighter
5)The savage acts of the apartheid system
6)Love and Romance
8)The act of Chivalry

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1 comment:

  1. This is a refreshing and indepth review of the poem. It's my second time of reading such an analysis on Brutus' excellent sonnet and I must say this one is equally good as the one I read in one old anthology of African poets compiled by Senanu and Vincent. Thanks Alakowe.