Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

One central fact about the poem seems clear enough: It begins as a lesson for someone else and ends as a question about the self. It is “a word to the wise” that turns back on itself. It is a discourse that demystifies but that then undercuts itself to demystify again.

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The advice offered in stanza 1 seems reasonable enough, close as it is to being a set of truisms. Perhaps the obviousness of the direction and its generality are the problem. In any case, what the speaker goes on to advise, in stanzas 2 and 3, offers inadequate means to experience reality. The direct contact of feet on “The dog-nose wetness of earth” translates not into doing and living but into observing the sensuousness and beauty of the earth, its “joys and apprehensions,” from inside an automobile. The windshield becomes a barrier and nature a scene or a painting—a work of art. Art, it would seem, at least this kind of art, is an escape from reality. The death of the cockerel explodes the myth, as another voice, in stanza 4, declares: subjective impressions deceive.

Yet they persist; neither the warning of the smashed cockerel nor the mother’s reasonable advice in stanza 5, in the form of a prayer that hopes futilely to protect, can divert the willful narrator-prophet. In stanza 6, the original voice, turned defiant, abandons art for the more aggressive (perhaps masculine) “marvels” of technology. The second voice returns in the final stanza to suggest the failure of both technology and the ego that glorifies it. Perhaps at this point the two voices merge. The human death may shake the cocksureness of the innocent and wake him out of his dream.

The form of the poem, then, as with the imagery, seems to rely on a conventional narrative device that identifies meaning with discovery, the initiation theme according to which the innocent achieve maturity. The poem seems to be a melange of at least two voices or narrators, one naive, the other skeptical—perhaps two attitudes within one persona playing against one another in point-counterpoint. The reader discovers that the would-be prophet is not reliable, that art is not a sure guide to experience, and that technology and human inventiveness are not immune from repercussions. The other voice can only warn (in stanza 4) that rites may prove futile and, at the end, question its own assumptions, its creativity, and its social and personal identity.

If the poem is about itself as well as about human experience, it warns that it is not a source of truth. It is largely bound by its own language. A Yoruba uses English words (including the concept of “winter”) for a Nigerian setting, a Western concept of art (pointillism), and a product of Western technology (the automobile) to define life and the self. Yet the poem is probably not a condemnation of the West, which is viewed sometimes as having stepped in between the self and the world. It does not finally or necessarily privilege one culture over another, nor, more generally, does it privilege one value over its opposite. It does not blame a culture but tries to name a situation. It suggests the unpredictability of life and the difficulty (or impossibility) of knowing the “dog-nose wetness of earth,” of controlling anything—one’s fate, one’s products, one’s words, or the self.

Yoruba mythology offers its own commentary in the naming: The god Ogun is a blacksmith who creates bridges across the voids of human thought and a warrior who annihilates even his own army. Dual, contradictory roles are not the sacred preserves of Western thought. Ogun, Soyinka’s favorite divinity, is the inventor of the automobile, the symbol of human progress; he is the creator and the destroyer. The poem does not condemn; it faces the riddle of reality. Its final question about the identity of the self is at the same time compassionate, self-effacing, and egocentric.

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