Death in the Dawn

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The poem is preceded by a headnote, or a contextualizing epigraph. In the poem’s epigraph, the poet describes the actual journey that inspired his work. While traveling on a road to Lagos in the morning hours, the poet witnessed two deaths. One was that of a flying cockerel that smashed against his windscreen and died. The other, which the poet saw soon after, was that of a person in a recent car crash.

As the poem begins, the unnamed speaker urges an anonymous traveler to begin his journey at dawn, when the earth is still wet as a dog’s nose from the previous night’s dew. As he drives into the early morning, the sun’s rising light will overpower the light from the traveler’s “lamps,” or the headlights of his vehicle. The traveler can turn off the headlights as they are no longer needed. 

As he journeys, the traveler can see the sunlight begin to paint the sky as if with faint brushstrokes. In this light, he can see the “cottoned,” or sock-shod, feet of farmers walking early to work so that they can begin tilling the soil with their farming implements. In the process, the farmers could kill earthworms as well.

The speaker notes that the shadows around the traveler are still long (as it is early light) but filled with the day’s promise, unlike the long shadows of twilight, which signify a melancholy ending and a hopeless submission. The sunlight and the receding shadows kindle both joy and apprehension in the traveler as he is caught between the morning’s gentle interplay between shadow and light. The speaker describes the day as “naked,” or new and just beginning.

As the traveler speeds on the road, “burdened hulks,” or heavy worries, recede to the side and the landscape disappears in a blur. The burdened hulks could also be the weighted shadows of farmers or crops. In the mist of the early morning, the traveler wakes up the lanes and markets he passes by, which nevertheless appear to him as wordless spectators. All around him is the procession of other cars in the fog. 

On this landscape spread like a “counterpane,” or a sort of quilt, a sudden winter chill descends in the form of death. A flying rooster, the heralder of dawn, smashes itself against the traveler’s car and dies. Its feathers fall like snowflakes, and it is as if it has sacrificed itself to warn the traveler to pause. But the sacrifice proves useless, since the traveler does not stop.

The traveler drives “grimly on,” his right foot signaling happiness and his left foot signaling terror. The traveler ignores his inner warning and surges ahead with determination. In the backdrop, a mother prays her child does not walk on the road when the road is “famished,” or when death is in the air.

The speaker once again urges the traveler to set forth on his journey at dawn. If the traveler keeps speeding ahead, the holy hour of dawn will show him even more marvels and miracles, like the rooster impaled on the car. The speaker wonders if anyone dares to stand in the way of the traveler’s, or humanity’s, relentless progress.

To his shock, the speaker gets an answer to his question soon. The traveler comes across “such another wraith,” or another dead creature like the white rooster. This time it is the body of a human recently killed in a car accident. The speaker refers to the dead person as “brother.” The corpse’s face is in a silent grimace of pain, the body hugged by the wreckage of the car, the invention of human beings.

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