Death in the Dawn

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Soyinka’s lyric poem spans thirty-five lines of variable length in 7 stanzas and can be understood as a lyric meditation on the cost of progress and the fragility of human life. While the poem is addressed by its speaker to an unnamed traveler, the actual subject can be understood as the speaker himself. In this sense, the poem is a dialogue with the speaker’s own self, with the speaker-self addressing the traveler-self as “you.”

The poem begins with an imperative, with the speaker telling the traveler he “must” set out on his journey during the dawn. From the very beginning, the traveler is being compelled or forced on this journey, as if by the forces of destiny. The irony is that the compulsion comes from the traveler’s own self, if one understands the speaker as the traveler’s alter ego or inner voice. This is a comment on the urgency and stress of contemporary life, where people are compelled to take actions to achieve optimal results in minimal time. 

The traveler faces “the dog-nose wetness of earth” as he heads out to travel. The earthy, natural image contrasts with the inorganic compulsion of their act. Since the poem’s epigraph tells the reader that the poem is inspired by Soyinka’s witnessing two accidents on a road on the way to Lagos, it can be concluded that the traveler is heading out to his car. Thus, the image of the wet earth and the mechanical car are juxtaposed against each other, creating a sense of tension. Throughout the poem, the poet uses antithetical ideas and images together to capture the complex interplay between human progress and natural rhythm.

Though the poem is set in modern times and based on a specific incident on a road near Lagos, its tone is deliberately ahistorical and mythical. The driver is addressed as “traveler,” and the car is never directly called a car. The language is formal, even archaic in places. The poet’s purposeful stylistic choices build an atmosphere of irony and foreboding and also gently mock the traveler’s exaggerated sense of self-importance. The traveler may think he is imparting on a great journey, but the truth is that he is just another person on a rushed car ride.

The poem’s ahistorical tone also reflects the contiguous forces of tradition and progress in a burgeoning economy such as Nigeria. In the postcolonial period during which the poem likely takes place, Nigeria saw a boom in road infrastructure, linking cities like Lagos with the countryside. In stanza 2, the binary between human invention and nature (depicted through the contrast between the earth and the car) is repeated in the image of the “cottoned feet” of the farmers, who are moving to “break the early earthworm / on the hoe.”

Farmers, while associated with nature, still challenge it, since they break or kill earthworms with their iron implements. The mood of optimism around the traveler’s control over destiny and nature is mirrored in the dawn-hour shadows, long with “sap,” or life-giving juice. The shadows herald hope but are of course used forebodingly. The idea that being behind the wheel of a car makes the traveler omnipotent is just a notion, soon to be dispelled.

The mood of optimism spills into stanza 3, with verbs like “kindling,” “breeds,” and “racing” creating a heady atmosphere. The traveler’s senses are overwhelmed as he zips through the “naked day,” and tellingly, the landscape recedes into the backdrop. Though the traveler’s euphoria is heady, it is also solipsistic, too removed from the context of nature and tradition.

The first climax of the poem occurs...

(This entire section contains 1166 words.)

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in stanza 4, with the white cockerel, or rooster, smashing against the windshield of the traveler’s car. The fact that it is a cockerel—a bird that crows at dawn—that dies here signifies that all the optimism the traveler held around dawn was arbitrary. Death can strike at any hour.

The death of the cockerel, which is an innocent being, is presented as a bad omen or a warning that the traveler ignores, despite his own growing sense of unease. This unease is revealed in the phrase “the right foot for joy, the left, dread.” Again, antithetical images of joy and dread are yoked together to convey the interplay between the traveler’s ego and nature’s warning.

Though the rooster sacrificed itself to warn the traveler to slow down in a “propitiation”—a placatory rite—the speaker speeds “grimly on.” The contrast between “propitiation” and “grimly” heightens the irony of the lines. In the next image, a mother tells a child to tread carefully, since the road is hungry. The mother, possibly a voice from the speaker and traveler’s past, represents wisdom and tradition, the need to balance progress with humility. The “famished” road could be seen as a reference to Ogun, the god of metalwork, invention, and roads in Yoruba mythology.

The next stanza repeats the opening lines, suggesting the traveler has learned nothing from the cockerel’s death. In fact, the speaker’s initial advice that the traveler must get up and get traveling early is now inverted, turned ironic. The traveler still feels the compulsion to move as fast as he can and at an optimal time, believing he can overpower nature and destiny.

However, in the context of the rooster’s death, the lines are more ironic, a sense heightened by the promise of “marvels of the holy hour.” The holy hour is dawn, and the marvels it promises are actually terrible, such as the impalement of the rooster. Yet the traveler—the speaker himself—does not see this irony.

The image of the dead, floppy wings of the impaled rooster morphs into the “wrathful wings of man’s Progression,” possibly a reference to Icarus from Greek mythology, who flew too close to the sun on invented wings. The traveler now represents humanity drunk on the notion of its technical prowess.

The poet contrasts the “white cock’s flapped / Perverse impalement” with the “wrathful wings of man’s Progression”: one set of wings (the rooster’s) is lifeless and possibly stained with blood, while the wings of humanity are “wrathful,” filled with anger and dominance. The two contrasting images of wings are another example of the poet’s use of antithesis.

The final and fifth stanza brings the traveler up short against another climax, one that clarifies the omen of the dead rooster. This time, the traveler sees “another Wraith,” or ghost, but this is a human already dead in a car accident. It is only when the traveler sees a dead human that he realizes the possibility of his own mortality. While this shows that the traveler has finally seen the error of his ways, it also indicates the selfishness of humans. They are insensible to the deaths of other creatures; it is only when confronted by a “Wraith” of their own kind that they wake up to their errors.