Four stanzas divide the poem. Each one addresses a different aspect of the problems facing Nigeria. The first considers the precedents of the past and their implication for Nigerian society. The second illustrates Soyinka's view of reality in Nigeria. The third describes the image of the Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, the chairman of the federal military government. And the fourth, which speaks through the mind of Gowon, yet it acts as Soyinka's criticism of him.
In the first stanza, Soyinka describes the white aristocracy. "Bread" is the body and soul of the people. The aristocrats "touch the whitefluff only" because they choose to ignore the true people of Nigeria, the blacks. The "crested silver spoon", "coat of arms", and "liveried service" imply elements of royalty and aristocracy.
White men imposed their religion, Christianity, on the Nigerian people, and "bread" therefore also refers to the body of Christ. In order to take Communion, one must be in a state of "grace".
In the last three lines of the first stanza, he criticizes the aristocracy:
Bread is magic, grace. Your grace
Is not the pulse of life,
"The pulse of life" in Nigeria does not exist in white men's customs and religions, according to Soyinka. Instead, it exists in the culture and souls of the Nigerian people. The meaning of "grace" changes throughout these lines. At first, "grace" implies beauty of form and manner, or perhaps mercy. Secondly, "grace" has a theological interpretation. "Grace" can mean the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God. The last time Soyinka uses "grace" in this stanza he refers to an ironic, formal title. These contrasting definitions express his conflicting hopes for the fate of Nigeria.
In the second stanza, Soyinka discusses the true Nigerians, who are represented by a different sort of bread. To him the "mouldy crust" was the better part of the bread, because these dark, coarse, rough, grainy breads symbolize the true people and culture of Nigeria. There were two different types of "victims" who craved the bread -- prisoners, like Soyinka, depended on bread and water for survival and the other victims of the Nigerian Civil War, such as the Biafran population starved into submission.
In the third stanza, Soyinka attacks the policies of Gowon. Soyinka emphasizes the selfish, wasteful qualities of Gowon at the expense of Nigerian lives.
When he had
Dined and wined and -- surely -- wived...
And much human dough there was
Broken round his board and court
Around his state and splendour...
The "human dough" represents the lives of the Nigerians that Gowon's violence destroyed. Soyinka describe Gowonin terms of the frivolities of the white man. "Court", "state", "splendour", "dined", "wined", "wived", and "poised" all imply what white men value as important, the aristocracy of the first stanza.
Soyinka writes the last stanza from the point of view of Gowon. He orders to empty the plane of bread, which is so badly needed for the "relief" of his people. Then, he orders the plane to turn toward "a perfumed wind". "Perfume" symbolizes Gowon's covering up the stench, or problems, of Nigeria. He simlpy ignores reality.
In the last lines, Gowon shows his final attempt at imitating the aristocracy.
Fill the hold with cake and wine
And champagne guests-- It's time
For MY wedding. And--
Shut those hungry mouths!-- I have
The "cake" relates back to the "whitefluff" of the first stanza. Throughout history cake has implied a feudal, aristocratic regime. In the late eighteenth century, Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake!" Her words epitomize the ignorance of rulers concerning the life-threatening problems of their people. The Nigerian Civil War directly relates to many other struggles throughout history: the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution.
Soyinka shows his disgust for rulers like Gowon in "Relief". He links Gowon's behavior to the white man's notions of aristocracy. The military government in Nigeria did anything but provide "relief" for its people. For Soyinka, human rights trascend any conflict or struggle. He laments the fact that since Nigeria was a colony, nothing has changed. Bread provides the central image that drives this poem, for in Gowon's Nigeria, bread, supposedly the staff of life, has become a source of human degradation.
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