The Zulu Girl by Roy Campbell- Poem, Meaning, Summary and Analysis

Roy Campbell, alias Ignatius Roy Dunnachie Campbell, was a South African poet who lived from 1901 to 1957 at Setubal, Port. His exuberant poetry contrasted with the anxious self-searching of the more renowned socially aware English writers of the 1930s. Campbell was involved in early attempts to sketch out a canon of South African literature, and his essays lent support to the emerging Afrikaans movement of the 1930s.

Campbell had an exciting life and spent most of it in France, Spain, and Portugal, engaging in a wide range of jobs, including bullfighting. During the Spanish Civil War, he fought for the Nationalists, and during World War II, he served in East and North Africa until he became handicapped. He lived in Portugal for five years before his death in a car accident.

Poem The Zulu Girl

When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder,
Down where the sweating gang its labour plies,
A girl flings down her hoe, and from her shoulder
Unslings her child tormented by the flies.


She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled
By thorn-trees: purpled with the blood of ticks,
While her sharp nails, in slow caresses ruled,
Prowl through his hair with sharp electric clicks,


His sleepy mouth, plugged by the heavy nipple,
Tugs like a puppy, grunting as he feeds:
Through his frail nerves her own deep languors ripple
Like a broad river sighing through its reeds.


Yet in that drowsy stream his flesh imbibes
An old unquenched unsmotherable heat –
The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes,
The sullen dignity of their defeat.


Her body looms above him like a hill
Within whose shade a village lies at rest,
Or the first cloud so terrible and still
That bears the coming harvest in its breast.

Summary of the poem

The setting of the poem is a description of a hot landscape where labourers work. Simply an observation of a Zulu woman feeding her child. A closer look into the poem reveals that the poem speaks about the oppression of women.

In the first stanza, the poet talks about a mother ploughing the land in a hard and brutal environment. The terrain is scorching hot, and the sun beats down relentlessly, creating a great deal of suffering. Individuality and identity are taken away from the labourers.

As she ‘flings down her hoe’ and tends to her infant who is tormented by flies, the girl is stubborn, disregards, and rebels against her labour. The situation is intolerable and harmful to the child’s well-being.

The harshness and misery of the situation are heightened in stanza two. There is little respite from the sun’s rays. There is a strong focus on the mother’s delicate care for her kid and her ruthless love for her child. She squishes the ticks she finds in his hair with her nails as she moves through them. She spreads its blood a purple near the tree.

In the third stanza, even though the child is asleep, the mother is nursing her infant, who enthusiastically consumes her milk. The child’s innocence is reinforced by the analogy to a ‘puppy,’ which also confirms the prior image of the mother ‘prowling’ as a hunter/predator. The mother is gentle with her kid, yet she is fatigued and worn out (physically and mentally exhausted).

These feelings are huge and deep, ‘like a great river,’ and they are transmitted to the child ‘via his weak nerves.’ The mother sighs because of her physical and emotional status, as well as her desire for a better life. The mother’s sigh can potentially be seen as a partial acceptance of her present situation.

The poem’s direction shifts in the fourth stanza. The child’s well-being is not only a matter of physical nourishment, feeding on the pride of the Zulu people as well as the beliefs, feelings, and thoughts of the mother, he absorbs all of it.

As he sucks on his mother’s milk, it’s almost as if he’s inheriting the culture, traditions, values, and practices of his ancestors. For the mother, it is an honour to pass on her family’s history to her son. The Zulu people were vanquished as a country in warfare, and the infant absorbs the energy from the conflict.

The child is a symbol of the Zulu people’s power and vigour. As a group, even after being “beaten,” they preserve their self-respect, merit, and “dignity.” As a ferocious warrior tribe, the Zulu will not be curbed, restricted, or suppressed by their loss.

In the fight stanza, The mother is equated to a hill, while the kid is compared to a village at the foot of the hill. The mother is majestically grand and powerful. This implies that the mother shields and protects her kid. She is also compared to the ‘first cloud’ of a potentially destructive, threatening storm.

The ‘harvest’ that is ‘coming’ is carried by the cloud. The crop denotes success, as the Zulu people will overcome their oppressors and achieve liberation. This uprising is about to happen soon. The Zulu nation is represented by the mother and child. This insurrection might be sparked by the mother. The infant also symbolises the Zulu people’s future generation, who may revolt and reap the benefits of the rebellion.

The theme of the poem

The central theme of the poem is the indomitable strength of a mother who unconditionally loves her child and hopes for a better tomorrow. This poem seems to be a simple observation of a Zulu lady nursing her infant. However, with a deeper examination, it becomes evident that the poem is about oppression, particularly of women and the suppressed sectors of society.

Campbell detested white South African society’s arrogant “superiority” and inherent bigotry. To depict how the Zulu ‘inheritance’ of pride, wrath, and will to resist is handed down from generation to generation, the poet utilises the simple picture of a woman nursing her infant in the fields. He claims that, although their opposition seems to have been broken on the surface, their vehement animosity is still boiling under the surface.

The poem is also a flag-bearer of the Zulu Nation’s elegance and dignity in the face of injustice with undercurrents of a looming rebellion against oppression. The poem is therefore a window into the mind of a defeated but proud country, as well as a warning to those who assumed that black resistance was dead — the ‘harvest’ of violence, he knew, was ‘coming’.

Line by Line interpretation of the poem

When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder, Down where the sweating gang its labour plies,

The first two lines of the poem builds the image of a harsh unforgiving working environment with phrases like ‘Red hot acres smouldering’ and ‘sweating’. The labourers are referred to as ‘Gang’ who have no identity, forced to work and were treated like prisoners.

A girl fiings down her hoe, and from her shoulder Unslings her child tormented by the fiies.

These remarks are about a girl who flings down her hoe to free her child. The word girl denotes she is not wife or a woman who is capable of nurturing a baby. She is fatigued as a result of  the hostile environment, but she has no choice but to carry her tormented child to the field who is attacked by a swarm of flies depicting that the child is malnourished.

She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled

By thorn-trees: purpled with the blood of ticks,

She finds a small area of shade to feed her infant, but the ground is purpled with tick blood, emphasising the brutality of the situation once again. It also shows the care of the mother shown even in poor condition.

While her sharp nails, in slow caresses ruled, Prowl through his hair with sharp electric clicks,

Despite her hardships, the mother runs her fingers through her child’s hair, a gesture symbolising her love and affection towards her child. The words ‘sharp nails’, ‘prowl through his hair’ depict an image of a fiercely protective mother.

His sleepy mouth, plugged by the heavy nipple, Tugs like a puppy, grunting as he feeds:

Though  the  toddler  is sleepy, he feeds at his mother’s breast, but he consumes more than milk and it is the immense hunger therefore tugs her nipple.. He is compared to a puppy, highlighting his innocence and purity and the natural activity of child sucking milk and how oppressed people are views as animals.

Through his frail nerves her own deep languors ripple Like a broad river sighing through its reeds.

The mother’s exhaustion and lack of energy are transferred onto her infant through his frail nerves. This is compared to a river flowing slowly among reeds. The word sighing is used here as a personification for groaning or tired after hard work.

Yet in that drowsy stream his fiesh imbibes An old unquenched unsmotherable heat—

The word yet implies that the child is absorbing more than the mother’s fatigue. The child is accumulating an ancient, unsmotherable fire that hasn’t been quenched. Unquenched and unsmotherable heat is the Metaphor for the unstoppable African spirit. The child is a symbol of the Zulu nation. Also refers to the strength of the Zulu people who are fierce warriors and continue to exist despite oppression.

The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes, The sullen dignity of their defeat.

The struggles of African tribes that were beaten into  submission  by  their oppressors are shown in these lines. Regardless of their current state, the tribes remain ferocious and retain their dignity.

Her body looms above him like a hill Within whose shade a village lies at rest,

The mother is compared to a hill that guards the village because she stands over her child with enormous strength and power.This is a symbolic representation of her promise to defend her child from anyone who would hurt him.This is a symbolic representation of her promise to defend her child from anyone who would hurt him.

Or the first cloud so terrible and still

That bears the coming harvest in its breast.

The cloud that brings the rain that will lead to a harvest. This metaphor shows children of the oppressed will one day reap the harvest of their suffering and they will overcome their oppression with the help of their mothers.

In other words, these lines are about storms and clouds that seem innocuous at first but may produce a lot of rain, which will benefit the land with an abundant harvest. He forecasts a storm in the form of the tribal power headed by the mother. They are gaining strength and will one day unleash a massive storm on their oppressors, blessing their land with a great yields.

Analysis of the poem The Zulu Girl

This poem by Roy Campbell depicts the predicament of Africans who are ruled and exploited by their white counterparts. Campbell sympathizes (rather than identifies) the Zulu woman of the poem; the effect is to isolate the heroic individual from what is essentially a group, perhaps a class identity.

Tony Voss traces the literature that contributes to Campbell’s imagery in this famous short lyric. Voss points out that Campbell’s interest in labour is both personal and historical, both in that his return to South Africa represents a quest for meaningful work, and that his critique of white idleness at the expense of black labour is at the heart of his representation of white South African society in the Wayzgoose.

South Africa’s most powerful tribe was the Zulu. The Zulu are a Nguni-speaking people that live in KwaZulu-Natal province. During the 19th century, European settlers wrested grazing and water supplies from the Zulus, and much of their riches was lost. The modern Zulu rely heavily on wage labour on farms owned by European descendants.

A Zulu woman feeds her infant in this poetry. The perseverance and tenacity of life shown by her inspire admiration. In the conclusion, there is a glimmer of hope that a new and better world awaits. The maternal body of the Zulu woman is shown to nourish the vengeful and punishing future energies of her male child, particularly in the concluding imagery.

The poem consists of five four-line stanzas, and the language employed is simple and powerful, making it a great piece of literature. Metaphors and images have been used to paint a picture of the situation and to explain how the unconditional love of the mother towards her infant, which is the primary focus of the poem.

The girl’s modest display of courage and devotion to her  motherly  duties symbolises that, despite their misfortune, they have not entirely lost everything. They will do all in their power to reclaim their  former pride, which is burning fiercely in their hearts. A smouldering ember of resistance is still blazing fiercely in their hearts, providing them with the strength to continue their struggle.

Despite her exhaustion, the girl’s love and compassion for her child, and her desire to protect him from any form of harm, vividly show the mother-child bond. An indomitable mother’s resolve and power are perfectly balanced with her tenderness and concern for her child in the Zulu girl.

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