"Background and Friezes"

Rachel Teisch '94 (English 32, 1990)

Soyinka satirically dedicates "Background and Friezes," part of his "Prisonettes" in A Shuttle in the Crypt, to "all who participated in the two-year experiment on how to break down the human mind" (p. 59, A Shuttle in the Crypt ). Yet, as we see in the poem entitled "Background and Friezes," which Soyinka wrote during his two-year political imprisonment, the "breakdown" of the "human mind" which leads the captive "to be self-destructive (internally)" and "self-destructively quiescent," does not pertain only to the poet's personal experience in solitary confinement. Instead, Soyinka renders such cruelty -- often unjust, as in his own imprisonment in which he entered without charges -- a universal experience, one that has occurred since the beginning of man.

The title "Background and Friezes" suggests the architectural meaning of frieze, a term which denotes the sculptural band in the entablature of a building and often depicts gory battles and sieges. Thus in one aspect frieze suggests the Biafran War and its bloodiness. "Friezes" and "background" also imply the universality of such violence and cruel action, for they have occurred repeatedly throughout the centuries. Soyinka creates this idea by means of the title which includes "frieze," for this architectural element represents the past, particularly the Classical age, in architecture. The "break down" of the "human mind," although occurring in all centuries, can never fully eradicate itself from human nature, for it hovers in the "background" of the history of man and welds itself permanently in the stone of the frieze.

Furthermore, there exists a double meaning in Soyinka's word choice of "frieze," for in addition to its architectural meaning, it also implies "freeze." Thus, the mental and physical anguish which one man imposes on another becomes a universal experience that freezes in time as a background of man's inherent nature. Soyinka renders violence, such as the "lepers' orgies," and death the constants in an ever-changing, fleeting world, unlike the permanent and stable frieze which indefinitely records the events of previous ages.

In the ninth stanza, Soyinka returns to his motifs of time and the ancient nature of captivity. His usage of "cairns," a heap of stones set up as a monument often commemorating battles and serving as tombstones in ancient times, shows how he, physically underground and stifled as if buried alive in his solitary confinement, must hide the "skeleton of hate"which he has for his captors. Yet, his "hate" cannot physically materialize in his present situation, for it exists in the form of a mere "skeleton." The pluralization of "cairns" further suggests death in war or imprisonment as a universal experience, as well as the "hate" that accompanies it. In essence, Soyinka sees himelf as buried alive-- even the "cairns," or monument showing where he lies, is "bleach[ed] (or whitewash[ed];" thus showing the so-called innocence and lack "of blood" that the government uses concerning Soyinka's imprisonment.

Soyinka clearly sees the variation of "Death" in "a thousand ways," for it occurs repeatedly. "They," referring to the universal oppressors including Soyinka own who threw him mercilessly into solitary confinement, have caused an "unnumbered dead"-- so many have died in war or have been political prisoners that Soyinka takes away each dead man's identity by labelling him as "unnumbered." Furthermore, in the second stanza Soyinka mocks the severity of death and murder by calling it a "spree" that "is getting out of hand-- and heads." By tacking on "and heads" in an unconventional manner at the end of the line, and by merely attaching "heads" to "hand" by bodily connections, Soyinka conveys not only the banality of psychological and physical death but also the absurdity of its universality, for too man literal and metaphorical "heads" become wasted by war. However, in contrast to his casual approach to the mentally dead, as he fears he will become, as well as those who have been killed, Soyinka capitalizes "Death," thus showing its importance in a prevalent historical perspective.

By means of a series of religious images, Soyinka conveys a sense of the futility and universality of both intellectual and physical death, in the present and in the past. In the first stanza, he describes how "Virgins bled/ At lepers' orgies," thus communicating a sense of the sickening brutality with which people treated women. However, because "Virgin," since capitalized, also refers to the Virgin Mary, perhaps Soyinka implies a lack of religious faith in times of turmoil by satirically poking fun at Mary's chastity. Similarly, the idea of Soyinka as "God's chosen instrument"-- a Moses or a Joseph -- conveys the idea that he has been chosen to lead the Nigerian people out of political bondage. Yet, ironically he "hear[s]" this "tune" played upon by fat unholy fingers," not a true calling by God. The god of the prison who holds the intense power to decide Soyinka's fate, besides having "unholy fingers" that he rinses in a bowl/ Of blood", cannot alleviate, but only intensify, Soyinka's sense of internal pain. In the eighth stanza, Soyinka proceeds to distance others' view of him-- a blatant sign of mental withdrawal-- by exclaiming "Hands off!" and at the same time perhaps internally speaking to his prison guard. This strong reaction provokes Soyinka to declare that his "affair's internal/ Await my beggars' cup." Thus, we clearly see how the pain which his captors have inflicted upon Soyinka not only exists in an internal state as it stifles his intellectual faculties, but also works to portray the universal experience of suffering. The "beggars' cup," perhaps referring to the cup that Christ carried around to collect alms for the poor, allows Soyinka to carry his personal situation back two thousand years to that of the suffering Christ. Furthermore, at the end of the poem Soyinka portrays a "Mother to child" prayer scene. However, Soyinka renders the prayers beseeched "before the [ironically] festive slayer" futile, useless. We therefore understand how prayer alone simply cannot alleviate Soyinka's or other prisoners' sufferings, unlike in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

At the same time that Soyinka includes Biblical and religious archetypes in order to portray the universality of captivity and the harms that it enacts, he utilizes quite recent historical characters as well. For example, the soldiery react to Soyinka's "humane...code of conduct" in "Cromwellian style," which suggests the unnecessary use of armed force to keep prisoners in order, as Cromwell used upon the citizens in the mid-seventeenth century to keep the English under his control. Furthermore, Soyinka brings the theme of death and cruelty to the present-- the "streets [that] were cobbled with unnumbered dead," for example, may refer to the Civil War in Nigeria. As well, common, every-day "street singers...chant [his] tune," calling out to him for salvation. These scenes, unlike others that Soyinka depicts throughout "Background and Friezes," do not take place in the past. Like an old Roman theater that "cue[s] in the waiting players," the "scene is old," for , as in Soyinka's situation, it remains universal, inherent in man.

In contrast to the ancient "scene," Soyinka compares his experience after "week seventy-five" in solitary confinement to a cheap "conducted tour," thus portraying his mental decadence and demise as a common and banal experience. However, like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Tennyson before him, all who complained about their weakening mental capabilities yet managed to write poetry, Soyinka shows his ability to write despite his stifling imprisonment. And because he does so, we more fully understand the history which Soyinka travels through in "Background and Friezes" to depict man's recurring theme of death and captivity. Despite the forces working against Soyinka, "the rains have fallen twice and earth is deep," thus suggesting eventual renewal and rebirth.

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Last Modified: 20 March, 2002