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The poem “Western Civilisation,” by Agostinho Neto, presents a grimly ironic depiction of a life lived in crushing poverty and hard work – a depiction that contrasts satirically with the poem’s title. That title suggests lofty cultural development, an achievement of high standards of culture and of social development. The conditions depicted in the poem, however, suggest quite the opposite. The title suggests that western civilization is in some way connected with, and perhaps even responsible for, the conditions the poem describes. The title suggests that the people who live “civilized” lives in the western countries (especially in Europe and North America) benefit materially from the exploitation of the kind of people the poem depicts. Such exploitation contradicts the ideal of civilization.
The poem opens by describing appalling living conditions. The opening presents a “house” that hardly even deserves to be called a shack:
Sheets of tin nailed to posts
driven in the ground
make up the house.
Some rags complete the intimate
The tin, the posts, and the rags all suggest the flimsiness of this structure. The word “intimate” is especially ironic, since intimacy is usually associated with privacy and comfort. The word “house” is carefully postponed until the very end of the third line, so that it comes as a kind of shock to think that people actually live in such conditions and consider this kind of habitation a home. Obviously this kind of “house” can offer little comfort and little protection from the weather. The word “landscape” is a bit surprising; a word such as “abode” might have seemed more appropriate. Perhaps, however, the word “landscape” was chosen to suggest that this shack is just one of many like it and surrounding it.
The next section of the poem presents the return of the house’s inhabitant:
The sun slanting through cracks
welcomes the owner
after twelve hours of slave
Since the sun is shining when the laborer returns, and since he has been laboring for twelve hours, perhaps he works partly in the night. Working in darkness would be symbolically appropriate to his situation. In any case, the reference to the shining sun seems ironic here; normally the bright sun is associated with life and vitality, but here the reference merely implies once more how flimsy this man’s house is.
The next several lines are especially effective poetically:
shifting rock (10-17)
These lines, with their short lengths, strong accents, heavily emphasized verbs, and highly repetitious phrasing, suggest the sheer monotony of the laborer’s life. His breaks rocks, but his own soul and spirit are surely being broken as well. The rhythms of the line mimic the strong physical labor involved.
In the final lines, the speaker once more emphasizes the irony of the man’s life, including the irony of being grateful to die of hunger. The man has grown old in a kind of literal and symbolic darkness. The word “hunger” may also be both literal and metaphorical. He has been hungry for food, but perhaps he has also been hungry for a better kind of life as well. We cannot know of the latter kind of hunger, since the man’s situation is presented objectively, from a distance, so that the poem avoids sentimentality and does not become a piece of overt political propaganda.
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