Soyinka's "Live Burial"

Joel Henderson'92 (English 32, Spring 1990)

He dedicates "Prisonettes," a special section of A Shuttle in the Crypt, "to all who participated in the two-year experiement on how to break down the human mind. (Including of course those who gave the orders)" (Wole Soyinka, A Shuttle in the Crypt, p.59) He also explains the diction of the poems from this section: "The form was quite arbitrary, something short enough and as self-containing as possible to remain in the head until, at nighttime or in a slack moment of surveillance I could transfer it to the inside of a cigarette packet or an equally precious scrap of salvage." (Soyinka, Crypt, p.59) These two preface remarks brace us first for stark revelations of the horrors of utter isolation, and also for the almost incomprehensibly foreign elements of daily prison life.

"Live Burial" (Soyinka, Crypt, pp.60-61) opens this "Prisonettes" section, and the title fuctions as a summary of what the Nigerian government tried to impose on Soyinka's mind. Just as Kurtz can summarize his experiences in the Congo exploration in Heart of Darkness, so too can Soyinka -- yet the reader cannot truly comprehend Kurtz's nebulous dying cries of "The horror!", whereas the focused image of live burial, claustrophobic to the extreme, can immediately summon a specific response from the depths of human nightmares. The thought of being buried while still living also necessarily creates the fear of premature death.

The opening line, which describes the diminutive dimensions of Soyinka's prison as "Sixteen paces by twenty-three," takes this fear and presses into an earthly existence: the live burial functions not only as a metaphor, but, for Soyinka, as almost an actuality. The use of "paces" as measuring device also involves two reverberations: the focus on Soyinka's footsteps emphasizes the severe limitations that the walls place on his freedom, and the acknowledgement of pacing, especially with such exact numbers, reveals the poet's restless energy seeking any outlet possible. The remainder of the first stanza echos the dedication, with continuing awareness of the people responsible for his pathetic position; in both passages, most importantly, Soyinka describes captors who know they are committing him not to merely imprisionment, but to torture.

Next, Soyinka invokes classical Greek mythology with his reference to Antigone, who performed funeral rites over her brother in defiance of her uncle (exact wording: Interlex dictionary); the poet, who similarly suffers for an attempt to defy authority, aligns himself with the tragic heroine. The third stanza similarly parallels Soyinka's situation with myth: the word "Stygian," in addtion to its meaning of "gloomy and dark, infernal and hellish" (Interlex), also specifically references the river of Styx, which in Greek mythology surrounds the underworld of Hades and isolates the dead souls from the living. Soyinka lives as a dead soul, isolated by imprisonment from the world of the living. (throughout Crypt, repeated allusions to classical myths, traditionally English works like Ulysses* and Gulliver's Travels, and English-canonized works like Dante's Inferno show that Soyinka, despite his Nigerian origin, can claim a place in traditional English literature.)

The poem's tone and focus shifts abruptly in the fourth stanza; rather than allusions and emotional commentary, we see a simple description by, supposedly, the prison guards. Their words reduce Soyinka's life to "He sleeps well, eats well." "His doctors note / No damage" could indicate the guards have been beating their prisoner, or that Soyinka stands up to the harsh conditions, at least physically. Meanwhile, "plastic surgeons" repair the visible effects of the beatings; metaphorically, these "surgeons" rework and warp the truth, falsifying the poet's hellish conditions, and the unfairness of his imprisionment, for the "public image."

This falsification leads to the fifth stanza's debate about reality and to the relationship between actuality and what the state perceives. In reality, Soyinka "called upon Western nations to cease supplying arms to either side" (Minna Song, "The Effects of the Biafran War on Wole Soyinka's Works", Intermedia) during the war of secession between Biafra and Nigeria. The dominant Nigerian government, however, twisted the truth and accused Soyinka of supporting the rebel cause (Song, "...Bifran War."); the state condemned and imprisioned the poet without a trial (Jonathan Protass, "Soyinka's Battle Against Insanity", Intermedia). Soyinka questions, ironically suggesting the syllogism that because these lies are fiction, and fiction is art, and truth is the essence of art, the lies must be truth.

To show the bitter yet pitying view he holds of the police, Soyinka imagines them saying "Lest it rust / We kindly borrowed his poetic license." These powerful lines can read as irony, bitterness, or a laughing insanity at the situation -- all are valid, for in reinterpreting actuality the state can claim to practice poetry just as did Soyinka before his imprisonment. If this passage had sprung from the lips of an elite in The Rape of the Lock, they could be a funny, satirical way of poking at the pathetic inconsistances of the upper classes; the reality of Soyinka's live burial, though, make these lines appear to describe purely evil, conscious violations of human rights by methods (like fiction) once considered a wellspring of human expression. Soyinka uses Galileo as an example of how a human being can redefine reality for the good: he made numerous astronomical observations, and by experimental evidence proved that gravity affects all falling objects equally. Unfortunately, the established church, which refused to accept challenges to the status quo, rejected the worth of numerous scientists. Rather, the Church suppressed challenges to its authority by blaming individuals, choosing "scapegoats" to punish, while sidestepping the actual issue.

In the final three stanzas, the focus of "Live Burial", which is indicated by the word "guards" in italics, changes again. Soyinka describes the only people -- the only life, save for glimpses -- with which he comes in contact. Each stanza employs single images of a guard, named in each leading line as "The lizard", "The ghoul", and "The voyeur", to show their hippocrisy and evil. He describes a guard as having "A concrete mixer throat," indicating perhaps a hard, constant flow of verbal punishment; the line, in relation to "The cola slime / Flies to blotch the walls in patterned grime" also calls to mind someone using tobacco, mindless of the direction his spit. The "ghoul" guard using snuff in the following stanza supports this tobacco/drug usage reading.

Further, "Sniffles snuff" describes a complex situation: the guard using the snuff played a role in the morning's hangings. The government killed the hanged men -- and Soyinka emphasizes its inhumanity by calling the men nothing more than the "load" of the gallows. The guard turns to snuff to rid himself of the thoughts of these sins, quite possibly because he himself has the inclination to commit similar acts.

The final stanza removes the possibility that the guards merely follow orders mindlessly. Soyinka's deliberate restructuring of actuality, through his fiction, comes through in this stanza as it did when he diminished the hanged men to a "load." Here, however, he uses ornate language and usually exalting words to describe a base human function. The poet tells, surprisingly directly, that the guard specifically "times his sly patrol," or his rounds, so that he sees Soyinka on the toilet, or "throne." "The Muse" makes another classical allusion, to the daugters of Zeus, "each of whom presided over a different art or science" (Interlex dictionary); also, "muse" is synonymous with "poet". Soyinka thus literally means, in the two final lines, that he believes his own "groans of constipation" give great pleasure to the sick and sadistic guard. The power structure "thrills" in the pain of even basic human excretion, and the voyeur guard, conscious of his own actions, debases his own humanity past the point of return. Soyinka suffers not mere imprisionment but the evils of torture.

Poems List

Last Modified: 20 March, 2002