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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 94-119

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Modernizing Tradition/Traditionalizing Modernity:
Reflections on the Dhlomo-Vilakazi Dispute

David Attwell


Between June 1938 and July 1939, a dispute took place in the pages of Bantu Studies and The South African Outlook between H. I. E. Dhlomo and B. Wallet Vilakazi, arguably at the time the most eminent figures in the field of Zulu literature. 1 The vituperation produced by the disagreement seems at first to be disproportionate to the subject at hand: the place of rhyme in Zulu poetry. That the argument became overheated was the result of the fact that the two figures involved were rivals, as interpreters of tradition and pathfinders in the development of a modern Zulu literature. But apart from questions of rivalry and temperament, which certainly played a role, the dispute was significant because it touched symptomatically on crucial questions for black writers of the day. 2

The conflict had its origins in the MA thesis Vilakazi submitted to the University of the Witwatersrand on "The Conception and Development of Poetry in Zulu," a portion of which was published in the same university's recently founded journal Bantu Studies. By this time (1938), Vilakazi's poetry was well known, since it had been published in Ilanga Lase Natal and the Native Teacher's Journal, followed by the collection, Inkondlo kaZulu ("Zulu Songs," 1935). In Inkondlo, Vilakazi's most striking project had been to experiment with rhyme, following a range of English models of versification from the eighteenth century onwards--the couplet, rhyming quatrains, etc. For these efforts he earned skeptical notice, as he acknowledges in the article "Conception and Development of Zulu Poetry" three years later: "By trying to adopt this rhyming I have found that there is a feeling among European critics that Zulu can achieve only a limited success with rhyming, since most of the words in Zulu end in [unstressed] vowels, and thus do not permit variety of sound that makes successful rhyming possible" (78). "European critics" meant J. Dexter Taylor, whose review of Inkondlo was entirely complimentary except for this minor disagreeable note ("An Appreciation" 163-165). 3 However, though Vilakazi may have been chastened, he was defensive: he justifies the use of rhyme with reference to the abundance of alliterative derivatives in isiZulu, many of which take similar forms; he draws on examples of existing successful rhymed compositions, notably hymns, and he clarifies his position by saying that it is not only the final syllable that should rhyme, but the penultimate one with its preceding consonant, iphaba with ubaba and ukubaba, vela with fela, amatata with amathatha and amadada, etc. In laying out this theory, he is meticulous in drawing distinctions between successful and unsuccessful rhymes, paying attention to such elements as nasalization, fricatives, and clicks (77-81). 4 [End Page 94]

Herbert Dhlomo found this all too much. He published two responses, "Nature and Variety of Tribal Drama," also in Bantu Studies, and "African Drama and Poetry" in The South African Outlook. In the essay in Bantu Studies he offers a quite different theory, based on the idea--the details of which I shall return to later--that much oral poetry, with the exception of certain izibongo, consists of incomplete records of communal performances; but his scorn for his rival's efforts emerges in the second piece, in which he calls rhyme a "cold tyrant" and Vilakazi's scheme "rigid," "inflexible," and "crippling." Particularly humiliating for Vilakazi, who was eager to preserve his academic reputation (let us not forget the pressures of being the first black appointment to the University of the Witwatersrand), is his citing of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

Those elders of you who have followed certain earlier lectures 'On the Art of Writing' may remember that they set very little store upon metre as a dividing line between poetry and prose, and no store at all upon rhyme. I am tempted today to go further, and to maintain that, the larger, the sublimer, your subject is, the more impertinent rhyme becomes to...


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