The poem “South” by Kamau Brathwaite is a nostalgic poem. It focuses on everyday themes such as the longing for home, the idealization of childhood, the dislocation of people due to oppression and social unrest and personal conflict. The speaker is nostalgic, reflective throughout the poem as he speaks with a longing for and pride, joy and enchantment about his birth place. The title of the poem, “South”, refers to the southern hemisphere, which includes the Caribbean islands, South America and the southern states of the United States of America and of Africa, all of which are associated with the racial oppression of black people. In Literature, this is always juxtaposed with the North, where throughout history, slaves have often journeyed to the North in search for freedom. The poet seems to be dealing with a conflict of some sort. The speaker seems to be changing an opinion that is different from the one which he once held, possibly as a young adult.
Through the poem, the speaker reminisces about the islands, its beaches and the lovely scenery – treasures often taken for granted by the island’s inhabitants. In the first stanza the speaker sees “the bright beaches: blue mist” (line 2) …. He looks out at “The fishermen’s houses… shores…” (line 4) and listens to the “sound of the sea…[as] life heaved and breathed.. with the strength of that turbulent soil” (lines 2 – 6). The language creates images of picturesque landscapes, glistening sunlight and blue seas. He personifies the earth with the phrase “life heaved and breathed.. the turbulent soil” (lines 5, 6) bringing it to life under one’s feet. In this place, he seems at one with the sea, as he possessed its energy and vitality, almost as though the island has a beating heart within it. Stanza 2 opens with the speaker’s comments that he has “travelled: moved far from the beaches” (line 7) and has faced many different climates.
He has traveled from the beaches of his land and has resided around the world temporarily in cities with stone foundations and has even settled in a place clustered with trees. The poet describes a place which makes him feel oppressed in its gloomy shadows (line 11) created by its trees where the only water is that of rain and the “tepid taste of the river” (line 12). For him, the river does not have the appeal or strength of the ocean which is usually symbolic of life, renewal and limitless opportunities with its unpredictability. In stanza 3, one notices the speaker’s immediate switch from the pronoun “I” to “we” (line 13) including himself among a people who are “born of the ocean” (line 13).
According to him, these people, no “solace” (line13) can be found in rivers. For the people of the ocean, their boundless nature and longing for the unknown is borne out of the freedom of the ocean with its unpredictable nature, which is in direct contrast with a river. The river symbolizes people’s “lack of endeavour and purpose” (line 15) with its bland predictability as it flows in only one direction. Stanza 4 opens with the words, “But today” (line 19) which implies that there will be some form of change from the natural order of things – a deviation from the norm.
The speaker personifies the river when he refers to its “patientest flowing” (line 20) as one is allowed to hear its steady energy as it flows through his repetition of the ‘s’ sound from lines 20 to 24. In stanzas 5 and 6, the speaker’s mind journeys back to this island and the ocean. In line 25 he states that the ocean refreshes him as the waves “splash up from the rocks” and he paints a picture of a beautiful idyllic landscape among a hive of familiar activity, sea life and sea creatures among the “thatch of the fishermen’s houses”.