John Joubert: South of the Line
(Commissioned by Ex Cathedra with financial support from Florence Bevington and the Edward and Dorothy Cadbury Trust in association with West Midlands Arts)
The five poems which constitute the text of South of the Line were written by Thomas Hardy at the turn of the century in response to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. They reflect the considerable body of opinion in this country which was against the war, and contain some of the most powerful expressions of anti-war sentiment to be found in English literature. Though specifically about the South African conflict they are an indictment of war in general, throwing its inhumanities into high relief with the 'advanced' stage of our civilisation ('this late age of thought') and our two thousand years of Christendom ('bought in by that Man Crucified').
I have cast the work in five 'scenes' as follows:
Embarcation. This is set for the whole ensemble (chorus, two pianos and percussion) and expresses the euphoria of the waving crowds at Southampton docks as the as the troops embark for the Cape. The second section is a vigorous march which ends, not triumphantly, but with the sadness of those left behind.
A Wife in London: This is a dramatic scene for soprano solo and piano, recounting the bitter irony of the receipt of two messages from the front by the young wife of a British soldier in South Africa. The first is an official telegram informing her of her husband's death. The second, which arrives the following day, is a letter from the husband himself, 'page-full of his hoped return'.
Drummer Hodge. The accompaniment is for percussion only, evoking the starkness of the veldt. The simple choral texture attempts to express the poignancy of the young life cut short, his remains resting eternally beneath 'strange-eyed constellations' thousand of miles from home. The distant taps of Hodge's drum, recalling the rhythm of the march in Scene 1, serve as prelude and postlude.
The Man he killed. A song in ballad style for baritone solo and piano expressing the simple, honest puzzlement of the soldier who has killed a man he would have shared a drink with in peace time.
A Christmas Ghost Story. Set for the full ensemble this scene is, like the first, in two sections. The first attempts to evoke the vast expanses of Africa. The bitter reflections of the dead soldier's ghost which follow are cast in the form of a passacaglia, the theme of which once again recalls the march in Scene 1. The phantom's final words, 'But tarries yet the Cause for which He died', brings the work to an emphatic conclusion.
© John Joubert
1. EMBARCATION (Southampton Docks: October 1899)
Here, where Vespasian's legions struck the sands,
And Cerdic with his Saxons entered in,
And Henry's army leapt afloat to win
Convincing triumphs over neighbour lands,
Vaster battalions press for further strands,
To argue in the selfsame bloody mode
Which this late age of thought, and pact, and code,
Still fails to mend. - Now deckward tramp the bands.
Yellow as autumn leaves, alive as spring;
And as each host draws out upon the sea
Beyond which lies the tragical To-be,
None dubious of the cause, none murmuring,
Wives, sisters, parents, wave white hands and smile,
As if they knew not that they weep the while.
2. A WIFE IN LONDON (December 1899)
She sits in the tawny vapour
That the Thames-side lanes have uprolled,
Behind whose webby fold on fold
Like a waning taper
The street-lamp glimmers cold.
A messenger's knock cracks smartly,
Flashed news is in her hand
Of meaning it dazes to understand
Though shaped so shortly:
He has fallen - in the far South Land…
'Tis the morrow; the fog hangs thicker,
The postman nears and goes:
A letter is brought whose lines disclose
By the firelighter flicker
His hand, whom the worm now knows:
Fresh-firm-penned in the highest feather -
Page-full of his hoped return,
And of home-planned jaunts by brake and burn
In the summer weather,
And of new love that they would learn.
3. DRUMMER HODGE
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined - just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew -
Fresh from his Wessex home -
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
4. THE MAN HE KILLED
"Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
"I shot him dead because -
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although
"He thought he'd list, perhaps,
Off-hand like - just as I -
Was out of work - had sold his traps -
No other reason why.
"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown."
5. A CHRISTMAS GHOST STORY
South of the Line, from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies - your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domini' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred liveried thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died."