The men Soyinka hears are mad; not only do they howl like animals but Soyinka also imagines them as crouching, with reality being strane to them. "Crouched / Upon your ledge of space, do you witness/ Ashes of reality drift strangely past?"
The activity in this poem occurs in the minds of the madmen and in Soyinka's mind, as he listens to the madmen and decides not to go with them. The madmen's minds have "dared the infinite" and have journeyed back, to howl in a manner that the sane can understand only as madness and "despair." The men and Soyinka are physically separated, but Soyinka in the Preface claims that the loss of human contact on a spiritual and social level was more "corrosive" than the mere physical isolation.
Soyinka "fears" that the men have returned from "daring the infinite," because on their return they will realize where they are. If the minds had stayed completely crazy and unaware of where they were, they would have no pain. They have returned from a state of insanity to realize where they are; the fact of their imprisonment causes pain and they cannot express this pain except by means of their wild howling. If they stayed completely insane, they would not realize their pain; their half-way state is intolerable, so they howl like animals.
In the third stanza, Soyinka writes of the "magic cloak" which they share, and which the walls of separation have cut. The magic cloak, their humanity, they have forgotten, because they have been treated like animals or sub-humans. They are not able to see or enact with one another, so they cannot affirm their own position as people. The loss of contact de-humanizes a person to the point of confusion and insanity. The solitude can only cause doubts, as it does with the madmen who lose their minds.
Soyinka's despair takes its form in a different manner from the madmen's. Soyinka's language we can understand, although his position of sanity might be more painful. Yet he claims that he cannot join them in their insanity, their drifting "harbour," where things might be safer than on the mainland with its sanity. The "broken buoy" of insanity works as an image because it is just that: broken because it is not normal, but safe and floating like a buoy. But Soyinka must fight his imprisonment in a different way, and his fight takes the form of his poetry.
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