An excerpt from “Out of Africa”

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) describes the grave of her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, who was killed in a plane crash at age 44. This is some of the most evocative prose I know (I’ve highlighted it before, I know, but you can’t read stuff like this too often). And remember, English wasn’t her first language. The last four paragraphs, and especially the last two, are ineffably beautiful.

I often drove out to Denys’s grave. In a bee-line, it was not more than five miles from my house, but round by the road it was fifteen. The grave was a thousand feet higher up than my house, the air was different here, as clear as a glass of water; light sweet winds lifted your hair when you took off your hat; over the peaks of the hills, the clouds came wandering from the East, drew their live shadow over the wide undulating land, and were dissolved and disappeared over the Rift Valley.

I bought at the dhuka a yard of the white cloth which the Natives call Americani, and Farah and I raised three tall poles in the ground behind the grave, and nailed the cloth on to them, then from my house I could distinguish the exact spot of the grave, like a little white point in the green hill.

The long rains had been heavy, and I was afraid that the grass would grow up and cover the grave so that its place would be lost. Therefore one day we took up all the whitewashed stones along my drive, the same that Karomenya had had trouble in pulling up and carrying to the front door; we loaded them into my box-body car and drove them up into the hills. We cut down the grass round the grave, and set the stones in a square to mark it; now the place could always be found.

As I went so often to the grave, and took the children of my household with me, it became a familiar place to them; they could show the way out there to the people who came to see it. They built a small bower in the bush of the hill near it. In the course of the summer, Ali bin Salim, whose friend Denys had been, came from Mombasa to go out and lie on the grave and weep, in the Arab way.

One day I found Hugh Martin by the grave, and we sat in the grass and talked for a long time. Hugh Martin had taken Denys’s death much to heart. If any human being at all had held a place in his queer seclusive existence, it would have been Denys. An ideal is a strange thing, you would never have given Hugh credit for harbouring the idea of one, neither would you have thought that the loss of it would have affected him, like, somehow, the loss of a vital organ. But since Denys’s death he had aged and changed much, his face was blotched and drawn. All the same he preserved his placid, smiling likeness to a Chinese Idol, as if he knew of something exceedingly satisfactory, that was hidden to the general. He told me now that he had, in the night, suddenly struck upon the right epitaph for Denys. I think that he had got it from an ancient Greek author, he quoted it to me in Greek, then translated it in order that I should understand it. It went: “Though in death fire be mixed with my dust yet care I not. For with me now all is well.”

Later on, Denys’s brother, Lord Winchilsea, had an obelisk set on his grave, with an inscription out of “The Ancient Mariner,” which was a poem that Denys had much admired. I myself had never heard it until Denys quoted it to me,—the first time was, I remember, as we were going to Bilea’s wedding. I have not seen the obelisk; it was put up after I had left Africa.

In England there is also a monument to Denys. His old schoolfellows, in memory of him, built a stone bridge over a small stream between two fields at Eton. On one of the balustrades is inscribed his name, and the dates of his stay at Eton, and on the other the words: “Famous in these fields and by his many friends much beloved.”

Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of his life; it is an optical illusion that it seemed to wind and swerve,—the surroundings swerved. The bow-string was released on the bridge at Eton, the arrow described its orbit, and hit the obelisk in the Ngong Hills.

After I had left Africa, Gustav Mohr wrote to me of a strange thing that had happened by Denys’ grave, the like of which I have never heard. “The Masai,” he wrote, “have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch-Hatton’s grave in the Hills. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time. Some of the Indians who have passed the place in their lorries on the way to Kajado have also seen them. After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace, I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there they can have a view over the plain, and the cattle and game on it.”

It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys’s grave and make him an African monument. “And renowned be thy grave.” Lord Nelson himself, I have reflected, in Trafalgar Square, has his lions made only out of stone.

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton

Finch Hatton’s grave after obelisk erected

Trafalgar Square

19 Comments

  1. Nicholas K.
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I spent quite a bit of time at Karen (a suburb of Nairobi, where her coffee estate was located and named for her) and in the Rift Valley where she and Denys tracked all during the time when the film “Out of Africa” was shooting on location. The film is rather dull, but I love watching it. It takes me back to that beautiful land.

    • Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      I’m astonished that you find the film dull. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

  2. mikeyc
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the excerpts. Lovely.

    BTW does anyone else think Hitton looks in the photo a bit like Harry Kane?

    • Mike
      Posted June 17, 2017 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Could be his Brother.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Dropped what I was doing, immediately read the quote. Thank you!

    BTW can’t do that with videos – as interesting as they seem, like the western movie one the other day.

    I only watched Out Of Africa because PCC(E) raved about it. The scene at the end pales in comparison to the passage quoted here.

    • Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Yes it does, except that it shows Finch Hatton’s grave as it really was then, and with lions on it, which is quite moving.

      • Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, very moving. Great film making (IMO). Sydney Pollack (RIP).

  4. Mark R.
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful and poignant prose.

  5. Nancy
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I just returned from visiting my Mother (age 86) and my aunt (age 88) at the nursing home in which they both reside. They lost their youngest sister (age 85) last week and are still in deep state of mourning. They both say they are “ready to go”. We talked about the wake and funeral and they looked at each other with tears running down their cheeks. The reminisced a lot. I confess I was a coward and stayed only for one hour. As I left the building, I said to myself, “Not me. Not today.” But, I know that my time will come soon enough. Then I came home and read this. Now, I am calm. Thank you Mr. Coyne. (Coincidentally, my Mother and Aunt’s people are from Ireland. Their last name is Coyne.)

  6. Randy schenck
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    When someone dies before their time, there is always the not knowing, what could have been. My dad’s younger brother died before he graduated from high school in an airplane crash. I’m sure it was tough on dad but much harder on his parents.

  7. Teresa Carson
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. This quotation is one of my favorites, and takes me back to when I lived in Kenya. I remember the first time I saw the movie (I hate to say this, but Robert Redford was awful). In the movie, Denys takes Karen Blixen up in the plane, and they can see Thomson Falls, which was very close to where I lived. My daughters were with me, and I was able to show them where I had lived. It was wonderful.

  8. Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    She wrote beautifully — remarkable, for English was not her first language.

    I loved the book and the movie. We watch the movie regularly.

    (Per the Wiki, that photo is of her and her brother Thomas. I have no idea if that’s true.)

    • Posted June 15, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      I looked at images of each via google, and they look much alike – and it seems that there is also some confusion about who is who on the web.

  9. Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I went home to Scotland one year to visit my mother and we drove around the Highlands together. My mother was all for modern convenience and chose American motel like places to stay overnight. One day I insisted and we ended up in a repurposed red sandstone Vistorian hunting lodge on the shore of a loch. It turned out to be the Von Blixen family estate. I had just been reading her several books and was enchanted. My mum was not all that happy with three flights of stairs and no elevator.

  10. Sher
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Greg Mayer just told me you posted this. I finally watched the movie last weekend (ironically). After reading the book, as well as accounts of Blixen’s life in and after Africa, and accounts of Beryl Markham’s life, my mind filled in the gaps and I loved it, but I won’t recommend it to friends.

    The saddest part for me was the statement at the end–that Blixen never returned to Africa.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    That is a beautiful passage. The first couple paragraphs are almost Hemingwayesque, not just in the description of the African countryside, and the setting up of the picnic area (reminiscent of Nick Adams making camp in Big Two-Hearted River), but in sentence structure, too, with short, independent clauses joined by conjunction rather than subordination.

    Then, once the narrator encounters Hugh Martin by the grave, both the emotions and the sentences grow more complex. As you say, the last two paragraphs are gorgeous. Sometimes it takes a non-native speaker to hear the rhythms and music of the English language clearly. Another who did it, and did it well regarding Africa, was the Pole who wrote under the pen name “Joseph Conrad.”

  12. Posted June 15, 2017 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing. It has been much too long ago that I read “Out of Africa” I’ll have to hunt up my copy again.

  13. philfinn7
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Nelson’s lions are ‘only of stone’. That is brilliant.

  14. Josh
    Posted June 16, 2017 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of the beautiful writing about Africa by Beryl Markham in West With The Night. I lived in Kenya for 6 months and my mother gave me the book. It was one of my favorites.


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