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The year at its prime

OF all the unfamiliar things I have seen and felt in Africa since our arrival barely a month ago, one of the strangest must concern the seasons. A first impression was of abruptness in the difference between the snowy English winter we had left and the excessive heat and drought of the African summer we found. It now appears to me that such superficial contrasts are pointers to differences in rhythms of life stronger than can be explained by terms like ''north'' or ''south'' of the equator.

In England I had taken for granted a correspondence between human life, the seasons, and the months of the year. I had read Chaucer's description of his young Squire in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, ''He was as fressch as is the moneth of May,'' and savored its aptness without sparing a thought that on the other side of the equator May heralds not a youthful spring but the onset of winter. In more somber mood I had appreciated that the poignancy of Hardy's ''Darkling Thrush'' lay in the courage of the bird's song against a background where the desolation in nature agreed with the end of the year which was also the end of the century. But here in Africa the year's end coincides with midsummer.

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I have looked through several anthologies of South African poetry in English to see what has been the response of poets to such a dilemma. I have been interested to discover that many of these poets either do not write of the seasons in terms of months of the year or just do not write of the seasons at all. Weather, of course, does feature; in Africa rain or drought is a matter of life or death.

It could be argued that the seasons in southern Africa are arbitrary, ill-defined except at the two extremes, providing no meat for a poet hungry for experience. Perhaps it could also be argued that the seasons in northern Europe create an expectation of a rhythm of change and return which we have come to identify with the patterns of our lives and which may limit rather than characterize them.

One result of my confrontation with this absence of the expected seasons has been to make me question their value. All sorts of possibilities are opened up in a country where spring falls in the late middle age of the year and its last days are its prime.

Now there would be a theme for a poem.

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