"A Cobweb's Touch in the Dark" Image and Structure

Elizabeth Crocker '93 (English 32, 1989)

A Shuttle in the Crypt, which includes "A Cobweb's Touch in the Dark," derives from Wole Soyinka's experience of twenty-two months of solitarty confinement in a Nigerian jail cell. Soyinka calls these poems "a map of the course trodden by the mind" during the period of his confinement in jail.

"A Cobweb's Touch in the Dark" describes the purely sensual experience of brushing against a cobweb in the dark. The first word, "touching," opens the poem by bringing the reader into contact with the cobweb. The next two images, "moth-eyes on fingers, trailing/ Dark vapours of the earth exhaling," connote both an unnatural and an intense sensation of darkness (from the light-blind eyes of the nocturnal moth and from the darkness of the earth), and of softness (from a moth's soft flutter and from the caress of a breath). Next, Soyinka switches tenses and describes an auditory response. Touching the cobweb makes him hear "voices of our dead." This image flows into another image as the idea of death reminds him of leaves nourished by the dead (an image similiar to Tennyson's idea in In Memoriam of the yew tree growing in the graveyard and feeding upon bodies of the dead).

Next, the sequence of verb followed by image is broken as the visual image of a "skin" opens the third stanza. This section becomes more difficult to interpret than the preceding two because the image is ambiguous: the skin could be a several things from the cobweb to that on Soyinka's own hand. The ambiguous continues in the following lines: what are the "winds that shade"? how can a wind cast a shadow" what or where are the "spaces where dead memories are laid"? Soyinka continues by discussing mortality, a thought connected to the ephemeral nature of a strand of a spider's web, which he calls "a brush of time." The "thread" also connotes memories as well as the attempt to capture the past in poetry: "a rime of things gone by." In the last stanza, the web fades back into the dark; however, the web has a destination or it forms in itself a connection: "It slips/ Against the dark, radial and ebb-/ line to the heart of the ancestral web."

The structure of "A Cobweb's Touch in the Dark" plays an essential role in the poem. The stanzas begin with two syllables followed by two rhymed, unmeassured lines. Each section presents an image of the cobweb, yet each connects to the next so that the poem flows. The short opening lines could be read by themselves "touching . . . heraring. . . a skin. . a thread. . . it slips," thus giving a brief impression of the experience embodied in the entire poem.

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