On 'North Africa'
by Paula Jansen
In this sonnet, Morgan uses many references to different poets, historical
events, localities in the North African desert. The reading of the sonnet
can be complicated when these references are not explained.
The sonnet is about the Second World War in North Africa and, as can
be seen in line 1, Morgan focuses on the Scottish poets that fought
there. The question can be seen as a rhetorical one, since no clear
answer is given in the rest of the sonnet.
Several references are made to North Africa. Except from the more obvious
ones in the place names (Bizerta is a city in Tunisia, Tobruk is a city
in Libya and El Ballah can be found in Egypt), Morgan also uses the
word "fellahin" (line 3) which is the plural of the Egyptian
Arabic word for a peasant. Also a typical North African weather condition
is named: the khamsin. This is a southerly, hot wind containing much
dust blowing over Egypt along the Mediterranean.
The whole sonnet is obviously a reference to the Second World War ('Kriegsgefangener'
is the German word for a prisoner of war) and by mentioning the Ruweisat
Ridge, Morgan refers to the First Battle of Alamein that was fought
there from 1 to 15 July 1942. This battle is known to be the major turning
point in the Second World War fought in North Africa. The Allies then
succeeded in stopping the Germans from conquering more African ground.
Among these Allied forces, Morgan focuses on the poets. The first is
"MacLean" (line 5), or Sorley MacLean (1911-1996). He was
a Gaelic poet - some say the greatest Gaelic poet - and re-established
Gaelic as a serious literary language during his lifetime. He was also
a fervent anti-fascist, which was one of the reasons for his joining
the army. He was wounded three times and the last one was serious enough
to send him back to Scotland. Also themes that connect with the war
can be found in his work. He drew a parallel between the rise of fascism
and the Highland Clearances in Scotland.
"Henderson" (line 9) is Hamish Henderson (1919-2002), who
wrote a sequence of poems about his experiences in North Africa called
Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948); "Hay" (line
9) is George Campbell Hay (1915 - 1984) who also used his war experiences
in his work, as did Robert Garioch Sutherland (1909- 1981). Garioch
was a prisoner of war for four years during the war and was held in
different camps in Italy and Germany. These years are the subject of
his novel Two Men and a Blanket (1975). The novel mentioned in
the sonnet "Shveik" (line 11) refers to the novel The
Adventures of the Good Soldier Shveik by Jaroslav Haek, which
is about World War One.
One of the remaining two poets is Morgan himself, who joined the Royal
Army Medical Corps in 1940. "[Gangrened] limbs" thus relates
to him being a medic and taking care of the wounded. Lastly, "Fraser"
is named in line 15. George Sutherland Fraser (1915-1980) worked as
a journalist from 1939 and later as a critic. When looking at the last
two lines, Morgan shows him being a journalist, by letting him interview
the king of Egypt "Farouk" (Faruk I) who was king from 1936
By naming so many poets who fought in North Africa, Morgan creates a
small overview of the things that were happening there and then and
it is clear that the experiences they had were used later in poems or
novels. His sonnet sketches the image of the horrible war that was fought.
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