Wole Soyinka's "To the Madmen Over the Wall"

Mary Jane Ebert '93 (English 32, 1990)

Soyinka ventilates his anger by writing poetry. When he wrote "To the Madmen Over the Wall," Soyinake found himself imprisoned for suggesting that the federal government call a truce with Biafra. His title indicates immense anger and the hatred felt toward an outside force. Beginning the poem, one asks, "Who are the madmen?" They might be the government or the war-torn soldiers. Because they are "over the wall," one assumes that they represent the opposition, though, if the wall is literally Soyinka's prison wall, the "madmen" thus become anyone outside the prison.

The speaker, who represents Soyinka, begins the poem by howling a cry for help or to indicate that something pains him. In this particular work, Soyinka believes he may never be relaesed from prison. The words "fill" and "overripeness" insinuate that he has reached his capacity and that he, as a prisoner, can take no more. He continues by saying, "I may not come with you/ Companions of the broken buoy". The companions represent his family and his fellow Nigerians.

He doesn't blame anyone for the "wise withdrawl," because "Who can blame? Crouched/ Upon your ledge of space, do you witness? Ashes of reality drift strangely past?" The person that the speaker blames represents a soldier fighting in the war against Biafra or the government that encourages the fighting to continue. The idea of a "wise withdrawl" exposes the idea that the soldiers or the government have displaced themselves emotionally from the battle. Soyinka expresses the great anger and hatred that he feels toward the government for continuing to fight. The "ledge of space" represents a narrow vision that the government has of what actually happens during wartime.

When he writes, "I fear/ Your minds have dared the infinite/ And journeyed back/ To speak in foreign tongues," he could be describing the soldiers that have been brainwashed by the government to believe that the continued fighting is a good idea. The government speaks in foreign tongues because he does not understand what it says on the reasoning behind it's thinking. The government speaking in foreign tongues also represents the idea that the government does not use their history from which to learn.

In the last stanza, the speaker says that the walls will rupture. The speaker has gone crazy. Does the speaker change? Possibly, at this point the speaker is no longer Soyinka but represents the nation. The nation can only deal with so much dishevel and fighting.

The speaker says, "set my ears against the tune set forth." Here we see pressure that a major change must be instituted. The speaker continues, "howl/ Upon the hour of sleep, tell these walls/ the human may hold/ Only so much despair." In other words, the speaker uses sleep to avoid the prison or the war. The speaker has reached his limit and can only survive for so long. The poem is about reality vs. vision. The speaker has a conflict between what happens and what he thinks happens. Something must change because the heart and the wall are filled with agony. This poem is a cry for help and a poem filled with anger about the continued fighting.

[For another view]

Poems List