The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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 entire section is 551 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 492 words.)