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 Hašek, 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 to 1952.
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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