Death in the Dawn

by Wole Soyinka

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What was Wole Soyinka's intention in writing "Death in the Dawn"?

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Wole Soyinka wrote "Death in the Dawn" after hitting a bird with his car and then coming across a car accident in which a man died. The poet intends to meditate on the suddenness of death, the connection between human beings, the fragility of life, and the need to appreciate life.

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Wole Soyinka gives us a clue about his intention in writing “Death in the Dawn” in the short prose introduction he includes with the poem. He tells us that one morning he was driving to Lagos when a white cockerel flew directly into his windshield and was killed. He continued to drive, but not much farther down the road, he came across an automobile accident in which one man had died.

These two deaths give rise to a meditation about the fragility of life, the suddenness of death, the need to appreciate life while we have it, and the connections between all people.

Soyinka begins the poem with an address to a traveler (who could be any person journeying through life). This traveler must set out at dawn and pay close attention to the beauty of the world through which he or she travels, observing all the little details that so often get lost through distractions. The day is filled with possibilities, with “sap” that suggests abundant life.

Yet then something happens. The bird flies out, hits the windshield, and disintegrates into a snowstorm of feathers. A grim note of death has entered into the day, a reminder of a stark reality. The poet also used this incident to comment on human progress. If the traveler had not been driving a car, the bird might not have died. Yet it became a victim to the progress of the automobile.

The victim is still just a bird, though. But soon that is no longer the case, for there is another victim. A man, a “brother,” a fellow human being has also been killed in a car crash. He has been silenced, wrapped up in the crumpled wreck of this human invention. Death has come suddenly to this man. He had probably been going on about his daily life when tragedy stuck. The speaker wonders if this dead man could be himself. It isn’t literally so, of course, but he feels a strong connection with this person and implies that he has lost a little of himself through the man’s sudden death.

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