Christopher Okigbo Analysis
by Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo

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Christopher Okigbo Analysis

(World Poets and Poetry)

A general discussion of African literature during the 1950’s and 1960’s would invariably involve themes of oppression, identity in crisis, and the rejection of native culture in favor of the colonizing culture. Although Christopher Okigbo wrote against colonialism, he also disassociated himself from the negritude movement, choosing to be known for his poetry and not for his skin color. Okigbo’s work is often described as modernist. His influences range from Yoruba oriki (praise poems) to Igbo lamentation songs. In addition, Stéphane Mallarmé, T. S. Eliot, Leopold Senghor, and Vergil and other writers of classic Greek and Latin poetry, whose work Okigbo knew well, also figure into his poetry. Okigbo raises the question of social consciousness in his poems, which were written during a time of social upheaval throughout Africa and much of the world. The Biafran crisis was an especially potent topic for the poet, who devoted much of his later work to Biafra and to freedom movements around the world.

Okigbo’s poems are peppered with references to and anecdotes from his Igbo upbringing. Much of his work is highly lyrical and reflects the oral tradition of the Igbo people. His prose is deeply mystic and reflects an ethereal, sometimes foreboding quality. He often refers to the “Prodigal” and the river goddess Idoto, suggesting a structuralist hero on a quest for a higher connection to his roots—the fertile soil, the nationalism connected to the land, and the ancestors buried in it. Okigbo’s family believed him to be the reincarnation of his grandfather; therefore they expected him to continue the worship of Idoto in the role of priest, as his grandfather had. Okigbo believed that in his poetry, he found a way to fulfil his duties as a priest to Idoto.

Because of the lyrical quality of Okigbo’s work, it is believed that to truly grasp one of his poems, one must listen to it being spoken aloud. Some of Okigbo’s poems were specially written for accompaniment to rhythms played on the drums.


Heavensgate contains five sections that describe the journey of the Prodigal: “The Passage,” “Initiations,” “Watermaid,” “Lustra,” and “Newcomer.” The two most renowned poems from this work are “The Passage” and “Watermaid.” “The Passage” is probably the most often quoted of Okigbo’s poems. In the opening lines, the Prodigal pays homage to Idoto and waits before her to receive recognition and possibly a blessing before beginning his journey.

The Prodigal returns in “Watermaid,” where he waits on an island for a white queen. Since he is sitting by the water, he may be waiting for Idoto, but the watermaid who answers him abandons him in the end. The tone of the poem is like that of a love poem, but it ends listlessly, when the Prodigal fails to attain anything but a reflection from the sea. The poem finishes with the starless sky staring down at the Prodigal, sitting alone on his island, struggling to understand a monody. Here, Okigbo displays his musical sensibilities as well as his understanding of Greek literature, for in Greek tragedies, one character would often lament another’s death in a monody (ode for one actor or voice). The white queen seems to have been an illusion, one that the Prodigal is unable to attain; therefore, he laments not only her death but also the death of the very idea of her. In this sense, Okigbo may be using allegory to represent the death of the ideals of the colonizers at a time when Nigeria was becoming more and more independent. The Prodigal, whose name suggests “one who returns” to one’s roots, may have been mourning, but not necessarily the departure of the British (the white queen) but the ideals for which they claimed to stand—justice, civility, and purity. There is a sense of conflict between the ideals and the white queen who claims to bear them; the Prodigal, who returns to his own roots and sense of self in the following poems, discovers...

(The entire section is 1,043 words.)