The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

“Death in the Dawn” is a free-verse poem in seven stanzas and thirty-five lines of variable length. While it is in a sense a monologue, an address to the reader as a “traveller,” and a narrative account of life as a journey, its introspective conclusion about the self may best identify it as a lyric. The paradoxical title (death might be expected to take place in the evening) announces the contradictory concepts the poem will explore. Any concept implies its opposite, but in fact two deaths do occur during this dawn.

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Wole Soyinka provides a prose headnote describing the occasion that apparently gave rise to the composition, the actual setting on a road into Lagos, Nigeria, and a summary of the two accidents causing the deaths of a white cockerel and a human being. These accidents provide the two climactic moments in the poem, the first in stanza 4 and the second in stanza 7.

Stanza 1 makes two demands on the reader. All readers are travelers who have no choice but to begin life’s journey at birth, in a state of innocence: “Traveller, you must set out/ At dawn.” They must also experience reality and the fundamental fact of life, a dependence on water and air: “The dog-nose wetness of earth.”

In stanza 2, as the headnote explained, the traveler is the driver of an automobile who can now turn off the headlights because the sun is rising. The natural and human events of morning become slowly visible: the coloring of the sky, farmers heading for fields, the gradually “receding” shadows of trees, market people in “swift, mute/ Processions” making their way to towns. A mist that has not yet lifted partially covers the scene when, in stanza 4, the first accident occurs.

The headnote suggests that the cockerel had some responsibility for its own death, as it “flew out of the dusk and smashed itself against my windscreen.” The cockerel in the poem becomes a sacrifice in a propitiation rite, with no hint of who is performing the ceremony—the driver, the cockerel, or some unknown power. In any case, the poet announces the death as a significant but “futile rite.” The act has suddenly turned the current season into winter: The cockerel’s feathers become snowflakes; the symbol of dawn is dead. The driver does not seem to take the death seriously, despite the obvious signs that he should exercise caution.

The second part of the poem begins in an indented stanza 5, with a voice from the past (“the mother”) warning a child to beware of danger on the road of life.

The narrator then resumes with an interpretation for the traveler of the cockerel’s death. It is one of many “presages” of human achievement. Anyone who gets in the way of “man’s Progression” will experience such a “Perverse impalement.”

Then, in the final stanza, the warning of stanza 4 and the prayer of stanza 5 materialize in the death of a human being in an automobile accident. The narrator sees “another Wraith,” not the cockerel’s this time but a fellow creature’s, a “Brother” killed in and by his own “invention.” Not only does the narrator now question the presumed rightness of human progress in science and technology, but also he indicts and mocks himself as both killer and victim.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

Soyinka is a Nigerian, a Yoruba, writing in English. His anticipated audience thus extends far beyond his own country and his own culture. The imagery he uses in “Death in the Dawn” is easily recognizable to a Western reader in its descriptive function and its significance. It is, at least on the surface, conventional—even, one might be tempted to say, universal. Dawn and spring represent the beginning of life, evening and winter the end of it. Light is life; darkness and shadows are death. Life is a journey. The strangeness and novelty of twilight seem to be privileged over the “naked” day, as is the natural over the artificial. Even the notion of sacrifice has a positive force; one ignores its rites at one’s peril. Such imagery uses language that is accessible to, for example, an American audience as well as, one assumes, a Yoruba audience.

A dominant allusion in the poem is distinctively Western, although not American but French. Stanzas 2 and 3 paint a picture of the dawn the driver sees, a painting in the style and technique of certain French Impressionists: pointillism. The narrator announces nature’s artistry with the “Faint brush pricklings” that color the sky and light the earth below. The resulting scene is a characteristically luminous, subjective impression of nature: the “Cottoned feet” of the farmers, the “soft kindling, soft receding” of the shadows, “the mist,” the “faceless throng,” and the “grey byways.” The narrator then closes the description by calling it a “counterpane,” literally a “pricked” quilt. This making of impressions with points translates in the real world into a “Perverse impalement” of the cockerel in stanza 6. Something significant has happened to this innocent image.

Another characteristically Western feature in the imagery is the habit of pairing off concepts as opposites. Every image, conventional or otherwise, has its stated or implied contrary, beginning with the title’s juxtaposition of dawn and death. The cockerel is both a harbinger of morning and the apocalyptic messenger of death. Dawn as twilight resembles evening, its opposite. The automobile, symbol of human progress, destroys its symbolic inventor. The mother in stanza 5 designates “The right foot for joy, the left, dread.” The farmer in stanza 2 must kill the earthworm to cultivate the soil. Not at all averse to using puns, Soyinka chooses the words “counter” (opposite) and “pane” (pain, pane of glass, point)—in a form commonly used to name a soft cover for a bed—to describe the scene and the instrument (the windshield) that kills the cockerel. Further, the poet uses the Impressionist technique pointillism (“pricklings”) to create a soft painting.

Like its imagery, the form of the poem moves in opposites, from the tranquil, cushioned setting of stanzas 2 and 3 to the grim death of stanza 4 and from the vain optimism of stanza 6 to the shocked doubt of stanza 7. It would seem that Soyinka is consciously using, rather than being used by, these conventional images, these binary oppositions.

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Themes