“Death in the Dawn” is a poem by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright, poet, and essayist. The poem invites the reader to set out on a journey at dawn, to embrace the new day with its racing joys and apprehensions. It describes the beauty and softness of dawn, as well as the contrast with the harshness of the world waking up, with people hurrying to the markets and moving along the grey byways.
The poem takes a turn in the last stanza, with a sudden winter snowfall and a reference to a trumpeter’s death. The imagery of cascading white feather-flakes suggests a burial or a covering up, and the “futile rite” implies a sense of hopelessness or desperation. The right foot is associated with joy, and the left foot with dread, while the mother’s prayer expresses a wish for her child to avoid the hardships of the road.
The poem ends with a reference to the “wrathful wings of man’s Progression,” which suggests a critique of modernity and its impact on the natural world. The final lines express a sense of loss and confusion, as the speaker wonders whether he is the mocked grimace or the closed contortion, implying a sense of alienation or disconnection from the world around him.
STANZA BY STANZA ANALYSIS
Stanza 1: “Traveller, you must set out At dawn. And wipe your feet upon The dog-nose wetness of earth. Let sunrise quench your lamps, and watch Faint brush prickling in the sky light Cottoned feet to break the early earthworm On the hoe.”
The first stanza sets the tone for the poem, inviting the reader to embark on a journey at dawn. The traveler is advised to wipe their feet on the wetness of the earth and let the sunrise extinguish their lamps. The imagery of “faint brush prickling in the sky light” and “cottoned feet” suggests a soft and delicate dawn, and the mention of the earthworm on the hoe implies a connection to the natural world.
Stanza 2: “Now shadows stretch with sap Not twilight’s death and sad prostration This soft kindling, soft receding breeds Racing joys and apprehensions for A naked day, burdened hulks retract, Stoop to the mist in faceless throng To wake the silent markets-swift, mute Processions on grey byways. . . .”
The second stanza describes the contrast between the softness of dawn and the harshness of the world waking up. The shadows stretch with sap, indicating growth and vitality, and the day is described as naked, implying a sense of vulnerability. The mention of burdened hulks and faceless throngs suggests a sense of anonymity and conformity, while the description of the silent markets and mute processions implies a lack of individuality.
Stanza 3: “On this Counterpane, it was — Sudden winter at the death Of dawn’s lone trumpeter, cascades Of white feather-flakes, but it proved A futile rite. Propitiation sped Grimly on, before.”
The third stanza takes a sudden turn, with a reference to a winter snowfall at the death of dawn’s lone trumpeter. The imagery of cascading white feather-flakes suggests a burial or a covering up, and the “futile rite” implies a sense of hopelessness or desperation. The mention of propitiation suggests an attempt to appease or pacify, but it proves unsuccessful.
Stanza 4: “The right foot for joy, the left, dread And the mother prayed, Child May you never walk When the road waits, famished.”
The fourth stanza introduces a contrast between the right foot, associated with joy, and the left foot, associated with dread. The mother’s prayer expresses a wish for her child to avoid the hardships of the road and not to walk when the road is famished, implying a sense of danger or scarcity.
Stanza 5: “Traveler you must set forth At dawn I promise marvels of the holy hour Presages as the white cock’s flapped Perverse impalement-as who would dare The wrathful wings of man’s Progression. . . .”
The final stanza invites the traveler to set forth at dawn, promising marvels of the holy hour. The mention of the white cock’s flapped suggests a sense of ritual or tradition, while the reference to the wrathful wings of man’s Progression implies a critique of modernity and its impact on the natural world. The final lines express a sense of loss and confusion, as the speaker wonders whether he is the mocked grimace or the closed contortion, implying a sense of alienation or disconnection from the world around him.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
The poem “Death in the Dawn” by Wole Soyinka is written in free verse, meaning that it does not follow a strict rhyme or meter pattern. The poem is composed of five stanzas of varying lengths, with each stanza containing several lines. The structure of the poem is primarily thematic and imagistic, with each stanza building upon the previous one to create a sense of movement and progression. The use of imagery and metaphor is prominent throughout the poem, helping to convey the speaker’s emotions and ideas.
Overall, the form and structure of the poem are designed to create a sense of journey and exploration, with the reader being invited to join the traveler on a quest through the dawn and into the unknown future.
THEME AND SUBJECT MATTER
The theme of “Death in the Dawn” by Wole Soyinka is the juxtaposition of life and death, hope and despair, and the cyclical nature of existence. The subject matter of the poem centers around the idea of embarking on a journey at dawn, a time of transition between darkness and light, and the uncertain, often conflicting emotions that arise from such an endeavor.
The poem explores the beauty and wonder of the natural world, as well as the harshness and brutality of human progress and innovation. The speaker also contemplates mortality and the fleeting nature of life, acknowledging the inevitability of death even as they celebrate the joy and possibility of the present moment. Ultimately, the poem suggests that life is a journey filled with both joys and sorrows, and that we must embrace both in order to fully appreciate the beauty and complexity of the world around us.
- Imagery: The poem uses vivid and descriptive language to create powerful images in the reader’s mind. For example, “Let sunrise quench your lamps, and watch / Faint brush prickling in the sky light” creates a visual image of the sun rising over the horizon, and “Cottoned feet to break the early earthworm / On the hoe” creates an auditory image of the sound of someone walking on the moist ground.
- Metaphor: The poem employs several metaphors to describe the journey of life. For example, “This soft kindling, soft receding breeds / Racing joys and apprehensions for / A naked day, burdened hulks retract” compares life to a race filled with both joys and fears, and “The right foot for joy, the left, dread” compares the two feet to different emotions that accompany us on our journey.
- Personification: The poem also uses personification to give human qualities to non-human objects. For example, “faint brush prickling in the sky light” personifies the sunrise as if it were a living thing, and “grimly on, before” personifies the concept of death as if it were a being with a will of its own.
- Symbolism: The white cock in the line “Presages as the white cock’s flapped” is a symbol of new beginnings and hope, while the winter snow in the line “Sudden winter at the death / Of dawn’s lone trumpeter, cascades / Of white feather-flakes” is a symbol of death and finality.
- Allusion: The line “To wake the silent markets-swift, mute / Processions on grey byways” alludes to the daily routines and rituals of human life, and how they continue on even in the face of uncertainty and change.