Wordsworth, Shelley and Soyinka's Pessimism in "Procession"

Leslie Paik '94 (English 32)

Although satire and social and political commentary have always been a staple of Soyinka's work, even in such lighthearted examples as his early drama The Lion and the Jewel, critics discern an increased anger, pessimism, and devotion to political themes in his work after 1967 (Contemporary Literary Criticism, Yearbook 1986, p. 277).

This pessimism results from Soyinka's attempt to recover from twenty-two months of solitary confinement. After being thrown in prison with no exact charge against him, Soyinka faced the ordeal of the loss of contact with society for almost two years. "Procession" reflects this struggle as Soyinka exposes flaws in Nigerian society. The poem explores the roots of colonialism and its disastrous effects upon Nigerians. Soyinka intends to use this pessimism for a purpose -- to convey fundamental beliefs about the role of an artist in society. He feels a responsibility to the Nigerian people to expose injustice. Like Wordsworth, who educates his sister in "Tintern Abbey," Soyinka regards artists as people who "cannot be withdrawn or isolated -- he is part of his society and may have to try to change it, but never easily, never without a deep and possibly self-protective scepticism" (Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 14, p.508). So although this poem has a pessimistic tone, Soyinka still manages to accomplish his goal of using his literature as a vehicle for social change.

In the first section of the poem, Soyinka suggests colonialism starts with the missionaries who imposed their beliefs upon other cultures believing their teachings and customs were universal. When they encountered the natives, they realized how different the two cultures were and "glances that would sometimes conjure up a drawbridge raised but never lowered between their gathering and my sway" (p 41). The Europeans, who refused to respect different culture, felt super to the Nigerian people, who then became involuntary Chimes of Silence -- the inferior race in their own country.

"A hollow earth echoes footsteps of the grave procession" (p 41) when these Europeans with "eyepatch lushly blue" (p. 41) came to his country. They came to Africa behind the "wall of prayer," deceiving the Africans about their true intentions, and they offered Christianity with sincere intentions of spreading their faith, but they imposed Western culture upon the Nigerians by seizing their government, economy, and standards of living in the process.

Soyinka belittles the missionaries' success in the fifth and sixth stanzas:

What may I tell you? What reveal?...
That I received them? That I
Wheeled above and flew beneath them
and brought them on their way...
What may I tell you of the five
Bell-ringers on the ropes to chimes of silence?
What tell you of rigors of the law?
From watchtowers on stunted walls
Raised to stay a siege of darkness. (p 42)

He clearly disapproves of their supposed welcome entry into Nigeria. His forceful poetry urges all his readers to reanalyze the situation in Nigeria and to realize exactly how they have been victimized by these seemingly innocuous people.

The second stanza accomplishes Soyinka's goal of revealing the disastrous effects of colonialism. His tone becomes even more bitter in the first line: "Earth is rich in rotteness of things" (p.43). In the first stanza, the earth was just hollow and weak to combat the imperialistic goals of Europe. Now, the earth serves as a fertile ground for unjust events to fester with a "sweetness velvety as mead and maggots" (p.43). Europeans come to the foreign lands without any regard to the culture or beauty of the native people. Instead, the "indentations of the carious greed of priesthood"(p. 43) find their place into Nigeria corrupting the country. The Nigerian people offer no powerful resistance to this invasion, and Soyinka compares them to a shuttle, a "unique species of the caged animal, a restless bolt of energy, a trapped weaver-bird...in motion or at rest, it is a secretive seed, shrine, kernel, phallus, and well of creative mysteries" (intro. vii). It is unable to fully fly since it is trapped in this crypt imposed by the Europeans. Instead, it stagnates in its cage and soon "may drop as rain"(p 45) as it loses its will to fight. Soyinka uses this symbol to describe the powerlessness felt by the Nigerian people who have ceased their daily activities:

Ghost fires, loom whispers, indigo lines
On the broad palm of the loom
Web of air-roots falling into silence
Watching the bird that drops as rain
By a hermit's football on the wings" (p. 45)

Another interpretation of the shuttle could involve Soyinka's own feelings about isolation and helplessness when he was imprisoned. In this case, he tries to extrapolate his personal feelings to represent all Nigerians. Wordsworth and Shelley also incorporate this technique in their poetry, trying to inform their readers about their experiences. This method further reflects Soyinka's view about the role of an artist. He believes the author has some responsibility to educate his audience by means of recalling his personal experiences. In regards to "Procession", Soyinka's time in solitary confinement helped him realize the disparity of the present inequal situation in Nigeria. This poem provided a vehicle for Soyinka to explore the causes of these inequalities between the Westerners and Nigerians; he also exposes the extent to which these inequalities have been engrained into modern society.

Poems List