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What was the role of the traditional praise poet as seen in Wole Soyinka's Death and...

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jadewiu319 | eNotes Newbie

Posted September 16, 2011 at 11:24 PM via web

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What was the role of the traditional praise poet as seen in Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted September 17, 2011 at 3:27 AM (Answer #1)

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PRAISE-SINGER: Far be it for me to belittle the dwellers of that place but, a man is either born to his are or he isn't. And I don't know for certain that you'll meet my father, so who is going to sing these deeds in accents that will pierce the deafness of the ancient ones. I have prepared my going - just tell me: 'Olohun-iyo, I need you on this journey' and I shall be behind you.

ELESIN: ... Stay close to me, but only on this side. My fame, my honour are legacies to the living; stay behind and let the world sip its honey from your lips.

PRAISE-SINGER: Your name will be like the sweet berry .... The world will never spit it out.
[...]

PRAISE-SINGER: ... there is only one shell to the soul of man: there is only one world to the spirit of our race. If that world leaves its course and smashes on the boulders of the great void, whose world will give us shelter?

The role of the traditional praise poet--or, more properly stated, praise-singer--is outlined in the opening scene of Wole Soyinka's play Death and the King's Horseman. Both the praise-singer and Elesin describe the role of the praise-singer. As in all traditions of oral story telling, going back to before Homer's Iliad, praise-singers memorize the details of feats of courage, strength, love, or victory performed by the local heroes and champions. These stories, set to rhythm and rhyme and memorized as poetry, are told as poetic epics to villagers and to communities of villages. The objective is to preserve a living history of the events of the passing times and to preserve the biographies of the great local personages.

PRAISE-SINGER: Your name will be like the sweet berry .... The world will never spit it out.

To perform this task, they follow and are in attendance with the heroes and champions as they go into situations that will try and test their worthiness. Soyinka demonstrates this, along with the role already described, in the quoted passage above, in which we see that the praise-singer is following and chanting to Elesin as he makes his first entrance to the market place.

ELESIN: ... Stay close to me, but only on this side. My fame, my honour are legacies to the living; stay behind and let the world sip its honey from your lips.

In addition, the praise-singer ties the deeds and prowess of the individual in with the history, greatness and worthiness of the whole village, community and race, as the Praise-Singer makes clear by inferring that his task is also to provide, through his poetic song, the knowledge of the shell of their souls and world of the spirit of their race:

PRAISE-SINGER: ... there is only one shell to the soul of man: there is only one world to the spirit of our race.

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