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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
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DU PLOOY, Heilna. The theme of love in Tristia by NP van Wyk Louw and his "Groot ode" as a love elegy. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.2, pp.483-507. ISSN 2224-7912.

NP van Wyk Louw's Tristia was lauded as an exceptional and significant book of poetry when it was first published in 1962. Over the past more than five decades, the poems in Tristia have steadily gained in stature. The first reviews all agreed that the poems were thematically and technically complex and quite daunting to interpret, but Louw was praised for the ingenious and innovative quality of his writing. Prominent aspects of the poetry included the elegiac tone, the awareness of human fallibility and the juxtaposition of a series of motifs, such as the individual versus the masses, reality versus beauty, life versus death, the solidity of the earth versus living human flesh, intellect versus soul, mind versus body, humanity versus God. The last poem in the book, "Groot ode" ("Great ode"), has been described as the climax and the ultimate culmination of the ideas in the preceding poems. In most cases the poem has been interpreted as the poet's struggle to come to terms with his relationship to God, with human fallibility and with the limits of human existence. PG du Plessis was not only a well-known Afrikaans writer in his own right but also, for many years, a close friend of Louw. From their frequent discussions and conversations Du Plessis gained inside knowledge of Van Wyk Louw's poetry and, more specifically, of his poetical ideas. On one such occasion Louw remarked that "Groot ode" was not a metaphysical poem only, but in actual fact a lament about an imminent parting of two lovers. Du Plessis shared this knowledge with the author of this article. Rereading Tristia and "Groot ode" with this observation in mind and tracing the thematic development of especially the love motif in the poems in the first part of the volume, confirmed the prevalence of the theme of love in the volume as a whole and in "Groot ode" in particular. It seems that there are more love poems in the selection than is apparent at first sight, not only because the theme of lost love is hidden in a variety of metaphorical guises, but also because the arrangement of the poems in the volume as a whole does not foreground the love poems as a distinct category. Louw very specifically chose the title Tristia for his book of poetry and also had a quotation from Ovid's Tristia reproduced on the dust cover of the book. This undoubtedly calls forth a whole series of classical allusions. Though Ovid's Tristia does not contain love poetry but is a lamentation about his exile in Tomis at the Black Sea, he is, along with Gallus, Tibullus and Propertius, considered to be one of the great Roman love elegists. Ovid's reputation as a poet of love elegies is mainly due to his earlier work, the Amores. Apart from the technical structure of elegiac poetry in Roman times (poetry written in couplets consisting of one hexameter and one pentameter - Cupid apparently stole one foot from every second line, turning the hexameter into a pentameter),Roman love poetry is characterised by writing in the first person and addressing a beloved by a specific name or poetic pseudonym. It is mostly about a love affair that is fraught with difficulties and ends badly. Furthermore, these poems are inward-focused and centre on the poet himself, while the poet has the freedom to introduce whichever diverse material he likes into the poem. The Roman love elegy is, moreover, quite a hybrid form and has in fact taken many forms, also in the poems that, following this genre and style, were written in subsequent centuries. Various examples of poetry interacting with the Roman love elegy are referred to in the article. The article then presents a reading of "Groot ode" in which characteristics of the Roman love elegy are used as a point of departure in order to indicate that the dominant theme in the poem is that of the loss of love. The poet knows that he will have to live more soberly and that his quality of life will be sorely diminished, but he willingly carries the burden of guilt resulting from this realisation. He speaks on behalf of himself and his beloved, using the plural pronoun "we", but he still remains the central figure and determines the fields of reference and the variety of ideas in the poem. The words are his. Although all the other juxtapositions associated with Louw's oeuvre appear in "Groot ode", and the wider problematic of humankind's struggle to cope with the limitations of human existence is yet again prominent, it does seem more than likely that it is the trauma of an illicit but overwhelming love that prompts and inspires the philosophical and ethical questions in the poem.

Keywords : NP van Wyk Louw; Tristia en ander verse voorspele en vlugte 1950-1957; Ovid; Tristia; Roman love elegy; reception (of Louw's poetry); Afrikaans poetry; Dertigers"; juxtaposition; love poetry; philosophy; religion and poetry.

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