An investigation of the religious motif in the poetry of D.J. Opperman focuses on the religious poems in his first two collections of poetry, Heilige beeste (1945) and Negester oor Ninevé(1947), an essential component in the overall picture of his religious experience and beliefs. Unpublished poems in the Opperman Collection of the Stellenbosch University and in Die Huisgenoot are also incorporated in so far as they deepen and enrich the interpretation of the published poems. The most important intertexts in Negester oor Ninevé are Genesis, the Bible book behind the collection of poetry, and The nine bright shiners (1943), the collection of poetry by the poet Anne Ridler. Vital for my understanding of Genesis is In the beginning: A new interpretation of Genesis (2011), the study by the religion specialist Karen Armstrong.
The large Biblical field of reference in Opperman’s oeuvre can be ascribed to the prominent role of the Bible in the Calvinism to which his generation belonged. In his essay “Kuns is boos!” (“Art is evil!”), Opperman writes that his grandfather was a strict but humane Calvinist (1959:142). The humanity of his grandfather and his father’s faith in spiritualism were responsible for the fact that the young Opperman did not grow up in a strict, conservative Calvinistic milieu. The Christianity of his father, D.J. Opperman Snr, was closely connected with spiritualism, that is, “the belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, esp. through mediums” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary). Opperman Snr wanted to convince his son of spiritualism, especially regarding life after death.
An understanding of his father’s spiritualism is important for an adequate interpretation of several religious poems in Section 4 of Heilige beeste, especially the introductory elegiac verse, “Nagedagtenis aan my vader” (“Memory of my father”). In this poem, the son’s increasingly concrete and sensory perception of reality is combined with a growing scepticism of his father’s spiritualism. In the concluding two-line stanza the concrete, sensory reality remains the lasting, unbridgeable divide between father and son.
Although Opperman gave up his father's faith in spiritualism, it remained an important impulse in his poetry. He reversed the spiritualist view of humanity as being incarcerated in its body from which it will be liberated only in the “highest heaven”, into the directly opposing view: the “captured spirits” are not the ones who are incarcerated in the body, but those who yearn for earth after they had been separated from it, through death, as in the poem “Gestorwene” (“Deceased”).
In Opperman's consciousness of his connectedness to the earth he chooses discipleship of Jesus, but this discipleship has an unusual nature, as is evident from the title of his poem “Dertiende dissipel” (“Thirteenth disciple”). The “dassie” (hyrax) that “huil onder die daeraad” (“cries under the morning”) in the first line of “Dertiende dissipel” scares Opperman's speaker to such an extent that he leaves the “skuiling by die kruis” (“shelter at the cross”). The abandoning of the cross happens through pain because of the violence in the animal kingdom, described in “Verbond” (“Covenant”), which precedes “Dertiende dissipel”. The covenant between humanity and animals has existed since their creation, and is confirmed by God's covenant with Noah after the Flood. According to Christian dogma, Jesus' crucifixion assures believers of their salvation so that they are safe at the cross. But abandonment of the cross represents, for the “thirteenth disciple”, his paradoxical return to God in his exposure to the pain in creation; an appropriation for himself of the unsafe, painful process of self-consummation of a God wrestling in all the orders of existence.
In Negester oor Ninevé, the idea of the covenant finds its full meaning in association with the story of the Flood. What Karen Armstrong writes about the Flood led me from the interpretation of “Legende van die drenkelinge” (“Legend of the drowning people”) as the great retribution poem to its interpretation as the great destruction poem in the collection of poems. Armstrong writes about the Flood: “When we think about this story, we tend to focus on the harbour of the Ark and forget about the flood itself. Poussin's picture The Deluge is a useful corrective: we scarcely see the Ark. Instead we focus on the despair and terror of the men and women who are about to be drowned” (2011:43).
Opperman provides the same correction in “Legende van die drenkelinge” as the title already indicates. In the third stanza, a “reus uit die verdorwe ras” (“giant from the corrupt race”) (Gen. 6:4), becomes the protagonist in Opperman's dramatic version of the Flood. He and the narrator describe the events that take place as the Flood violently destroys all life (Gen. 2-5), their focus throughout on the animals. After the disastrous night, the giant man as the last survivor realises that he, too, will not survive. He no longer thinks of God as the God of the “uitverkore groepie” (“chosen little group”), but as the God outside of whose “Ark of Mercy” there are only the wasting waters and the senseless actions of humanity. The “big rainbow” that appears in the final two lines of the verse presupposes that the cruel God as the Destroyer of humanity and the animal kingdom has also changed.
“Ballade van die grysland” (“Ballad of the grey land”) is the great poem about guilt. It is the story of the downfall of a young man from the countryside. He escapes from his meaningless urban working conditions by committing fraud. After realising his guilt he, together with his “confused brothers”, longingly stares from behind bars to the city they had not been able to transform into an Eden.
In direct contrast to “Ballade van die grysland”, stands “Negester en stedelig” (“Nine bright shiners and city lights”), in which Opperman consciously gives a male perception of the expecting and the birth of a child. “Negester” is a symbolic constellation that refers to the nine months preceding the birth of a child. The direct stimulus for his “Negester” was the title of the English poet Anne Ridler’s volume of poetry, The nine bright shiners, and especially the poem, “For a christening” in which she refers in the second line to the “Nine Bright Shiners and the Seven Stars”. In this poem the “nine bright shiners” shine above the child in his safe foetal sleep, whereafter he will be safe in God's hand, in his “terrible mercy”. Opperman temporarily decides on the teaching of Christ and the Ten Commandments as guidelines for the child's safe journey through the grey land, but then liberates him from the Christian confession. What he asks for the child is a realisation that his deeds verge upon eternity and, together with that, that the “Suiderkruis en Negesterre witter/ as die stedeligte in [sy] siel bly skitter” (“Southern Cross and Nine Bright Shiners will keep shining whiter in his soul than the city lights”).
For Opperman, the birth of his first-born, a daughter, represents his rebirth as a poet. For this rebirth he finds the Biblical prophet Jonah the ideal objective correlative. Like a Jonah, he has abandoned God's commandment. The metaphors in which Jonah prays in the belly of the fish become the metaphors of the waters from which the poet Opperman is reborn. In the final poem of this volume, “Moederstad” (“Mother City”), the reborn poet finds himself in Cape Town as the “God-erbarmde Ninevé” (“God-mercified Nineveh”).
In my investigation into the religious motif in Opperman's poetry in this article I come to the conclusion that in the most important poems in Opperman’s first two volumes of poetry, the God of the Old Testament is revealed as the Creator and Covenant God. Opperman, as a man and poet, gives his own individual meaning to the covenant. God is at once transcendent as the God of the Old Testament and immanent as the God in the process of his on-going self-consummation in his creation. Through his crucifixion, Jesus was the great “example” of the Saviour of God caught up in his creation (“God in hierdie skepping vasgevang” in “Legende van die drie versoekinge” (“Legend of the three temptations”)). To this, the poet as the “dertiende dissipel” is also called.
Keywords: D.J. Opperman; Heilige beeste; Negester oor Ninevé; covenant
Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: D.J. Opperman se verbond met die skeppende God: ’n Interpretasie van Heilige beeste en Negester oor Ninevé