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The serf by Roy Campbell

The serf was written by Roy Campbell (1901-1957). Campbell was born in Durban and moved to Europe in his later life. He was a fluent Zulu speaker. Campbell was critical of the white colonial rulers of South Africa because he felt that they were arrogant and would not accept any ideas except their own.

1. Themes

The theme of the poem is power and oppression.
The poet watches a poor farm worker (a serf) ploughing a field. This ploughman is doing harsh work under difficult conditions. He has no power to change his life or job and works patiently and slowly. This man was once the proud warrior of a great tribe that lived on this land. Now he works on land belonging to a rich farmer.
The poet suggests that this worker’s close relationship to the land and his slow patience will mean that one day the land will belong to him again and he will defeat the powerful people who have taken his land.

Fun Fact: 

  • Serf is the lowest farm worker in medieval Europe (5th- 15th century). Serfs were treated like slaves.

the serf

Words to know

Definitions of words from the poem:

Line 1:


very hot, scorching heat

Line 3:


pushes forward like a machine


a person who walks while asleep

Line 4:


refers to the grass


deep purplish red


a line cut in the soil


a long narrow cut into the soil

Line 5:


a field

Line 6:


scraping, scratching

share (also called a ploughshare)

a tool for making furrows or grooves in the soil so that seeds can be planted


abuse, humiliation

Line 7:


a lump of soil, clay or mud

Line 8:


stems of maize or corn

Line 9:


empty, no crops planted

Line 10:


long steps or paces

Line 12:


bad-tempered, rude

2. Type and form

The form of this poem is a Miltonic sonnet (also known as a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet). It has 14 lines made up of:

  • An octave of eight lines (which describes the problem).
  • A sestet (six lines at the end of the poem which give the solution).

The rhyme scheme is abab abab ccdeed.


  • In exam questions  form is sometimes called the style or type of poem. All three terms describe the layout of the poem on the page.

3. Analysis

Octave (lines 1 – 4)

His naked skin clothed in the torrid mist
That puffs in smoke around the patient hooves,
The ploughman drives, a slow somnambulist,
And through the green his crimson furrow grooves.

The octave introduces the problem of the poem as he describes the hard life of the serf. The poet uses a metaphor to describe the ploughman. In line 1, the ploughman is “clothed” in a “torrid mist”. There is so much dust coming from the feet of the animal pulling the plough that it is compared to a “mist” (a cloud) which makes it hard to see the ploughman. The dust is also compared to clothes as it falls onto his skin (line 3).
The poet says that the ploughman is a “slow somnambulist” (line 3). He compares the way the ploughman walks to the way people walk when they are asleep – slowly, as if they are in a dream. This is emphasised by the use of alliteration – the repeated “s” sounds in the words. The “s” sound also appears for emphasis in line 10, “the slow progress of his strides”.
The green grass of the field turns “crimson” (red) as the ploughshare cuts a line, “grooves”, into the earth and turns the red soil to the top of the “furrow” (line 4). The poet’s use of “green” in line 4 is an example of metonomy.


  • Metonomy - A figure of speech in which a thing or a concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something associated with it in meaning. Here, the poet uses the word  green to refer to the grass

Octave (lines 5 – 8)

His heart, more deeply than he wounds the plain,
Long by the rasping share of insult torn,
Red clod, to which the war-cry once was rain
And tribal spears the fatal sheaves of corn,
Lies fallow now.

The problem presented in the first 4 lines of the octave continues as the poet explains that, not only is the ploughman poor and doing hard labour, he is also broken-hearted and sad. “His heart” is hurt (“torn”) “Long by the rasping share of insult” (lines 5-6). These insults would have been all the horrible things done to the ploughman and his people – losing his land, being forced to work like a slave, losing his pride.
In two metaphors (lines 5-6), “His heart, more deeply than he wounds the plain/Long by the rasping share of insult torn”, the action of ploughing through the soil is compared to wounding. It cuts the ground and the red soil which is brought up by the plough is the colour of blood. The ploughman’s heart is compared to the ground that he ploughs – his heart has been hurt and wounded by “insult” (line 6). This metaphor compares the ploughman’s heart to the red soil.
Now that his heart is sad, it is empty, without feeling. In line 9 (the first line of the sestet), his heart is compared to a field which “lies fallow now” (line 9) with no crops planted. The poet also uses a metaphor to explain how the ploughman was once a great warrior – the cries of war that were good for his heart are compared to rain, which is good for the “clod” (soil), in which seeds will be planted, and once, instead of “sheaves” of corn (line 8), this man had spears.
The poet uses an oxymoron, “fatal sheaves” in line 8. The word “sheaves” has connotations of growth and health; while the word “fatal” means resulting in death. This may mean that the planting of crops caused the end of a way of life for the warriors who used to hunt for their food.


  •  Poets use alliteration for two reasons
    • To emphasise certain words
    • To create the actual sound that the thing they are writing about makes
  • Oxymoron - combines 2 words that seem to contradict or oppose each other.

Sestet (lines 9 – 14)

But as the turf divides
I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones, and towers. 

In the octave, the poet has told us the problem: the ploughman is tired, oppressed, working on land he does not own, and no longer a mighty warrior.
In the sestet, he now gives us the solution to this problem. As he watches the grass (“turf”) cut through by the blade of the ploughshare, the poet has a vision of the future. He believes that the slow, steady, patient “strides” (line 10) of the ploughman, who belongs to the land and to nature (the “naked earth”), will defeat his oppressors and break down their symbols of wealth and power: “palaces, and thrones, and towers” (line 14). The serf will one day be free again and own the land he works on.
The poet uses another oxymoron in line 10 – “surly patience”. Surly means bad-tempered or rude; and seems to be the opposite of “patience”, which means to quietly wait and endure what you are experiencing.
Note the alliteration used in line 11: “falling flowers”. The “f” sound emphasises how steadily and certainly the serf walks forward — towards making history turn to favour his people again.

4. Tone and mood

In the octave, the tone is despairing and depressing as it describes the hard labour and losses of the serf. The tone changes to become more urgent and hopeful in the sestet.
The mood of a poem is how it makes the reader feel. How does this poem make you feel? For example, happy, sad, angry, or indifferent.

The serf by Roy Campbell

  1. Theme
    Power and oppression.
  2. Type and form
    milt 222
  3. Tone and mood

    Tone: In the octave: despairing and depressing; in the sestet: urgent and hopeful.
    Mood: How does this poem make you feel? Happy, sad, angry or indifferent? Always give reasons for your answer.

Activity 8

Refer to the poem on page 69 and answer the questions below.

  1. Refer to lines 1-4 (“His naked skin ... crimson furrow grooves”).
    Is the following statement TRUE or FALSE? Write “true” or “false” and quote a SINGLE word to support your answer.
    The serf is forced to work in very hot conditions.                  (2)
  2. In your own words, explain the meaning of line (2)
  3. Refer to lines 5-6 (“His heart, more ... of insult torn”).
    3.1 Identify the figure of speech used (1)
    3.2 Explain why the poet uses this figure of (2)
  4. Choose the correct answer to complete the following In line 6 the words “rasping share of insult” refer to the ...
    1. Ploughshare breaking the earth.
    2. Serf wounding the earth.
    3. Inhuman treatment of the serf.
    4. Serf insulting his master.                                                   (1)
  5. Refer to the last six lines of the poem (“Lies fallow now ... thrones, and towers”).
    Discuss the speaker’s warning in these lines. State TWO points. (2)
  6. Complete the following sentences by using the words provided in the list Write only the words next to the question number (6.1–6.3)
     owner; labourer; ploughs; oppression; harvest; freedom
    This poem is about a farm (6.1) … who (6.2) … the earth. The serf represents patient revolutionaries whose sacrifice is responsible for human (6.3) ...                  (3)
  7. Consider the poem as a whole. Do you feel sorry for the serf? Discuss your (2)
  8. Give TWO reasons why the title “The serf” is a suitable one for this poem.                                                                         (2)
  9. Is this poem a South African poem? Quote two consecutive words from the poem to support your (2)
  10. The word “naked” is used twice in the Complete the sentence below quoting phrases from the poem.
    The word naked has been used negatively to show that the serf is poor because he has only his “naked...(10.1) “ and it has been used positively to show that he belongs to the land and to nature the “naked...(10.2)”                                                 (2) [21]

Answers to Activity 8

  1. True, “torrid”. ✓✓ (2)
  2. The “green” grass is turned over as the ploughshare is pushed through it and the red colour of the soil is turned to the top. ✓✓        (2)
  3. 3.21Metaphor ✓ (1)
    3.2 His heart is being compared to a red clod/ ✓✓
          The poet shows that both his heart and the earth are damaged/ broken. ✓✓
          The poet shows that the field is being damaged and his heart is broken/he has been hurt. ✓✓                                                    (2)
  4. C / inhuman treatment of the ✓ (1)
  5. The speaker is warning the oppressors, the rich people in power at the time, that their wealth and power will be broken down and the serf will slowly defeat the oppressors and be ✓✓
    A revolution is coming because the labourers will revolt. ✓✓
    Danger is coming because the labourers will revolt. ✓✓                   (2)
  6. 6.1 labourer ✓
    6.2 ploughs ✓
    6.3 freedom ✓ (3)
  7. YES, because he is tired (“somnambulist”) and it is hot (“torrid”)/ he is poor (“naked”) and his heart is dry and sad (like a field without ‘rain’). ✓✓
    NO, he is patient (“surly patience”) and freedom will come to him one day and he will overthrow the oppressors (“break down palaces”) and have his land again. ✓✓
    NO, many people earn a living in a hard way. He should be grateful he has a job. ✓✓ (2)
  8. Serfs were poor and this worker has only a “naked skin”/ They were farm workers and he “ploughs” the field. ✓✓
    It is appropriate because “serf” means that you are owned by your master and subjected to hard labour, just as the serf in the poem is subjected to hard labour. ✓✓
    He is not allowed to leave/ seen as a possession/ not paid for his hard work. ✓✓         (2)
  9. “tribal spears” ✓✓ (2)
  10. The word “naked” has been used negatively to show that the serf is poor because he has only his “naked skin” ✓ and it has been used positively to show that he belongs to the land and to nature, the “naked earth” ✓. (2)  [21]
Last modified on Wednesday, 08 September 2021 12:23