"Relief (or Wedding in a Minor Key)"

Carolyn Greely'92 (English 32, 1989)

Wole Soyinka composed most of the poems included in A Shuttle in the Crypt while imprisoned for political protest against the Nigerian government. As such, most of the poems demonstrate his anger and frustration towards the world around him. Soyinka included "Relief" in his section entitled "Poems of bread and earth". Combined with other poems about the staples and crucial elements for life, this poem speaks with a very bitter voice. Soyinka uses the irony of contrasting the trivialities of the sumptuous life with the necessities of those living in poverty to force his readers to reconsider the so-called necessity of luxuries.

Soyinka employs bizarre syntax which makes it unclear to whom he speaks. In the first line, he separates the word "grace" with a comma. However, the word by itself does not constitute a grammatical unit. Later he complicates the issue by capitalizing "grace", so that is appears he is addressing a person, perhaps a king. Although Soyinka does not clarify the subject of the poem, it seems he addresses a king, and in the third stanza switches from speaking to the king to speaking about the king to another audience, since Soyinka begins speaking about "he".

In the first stanza, the poem reads:

Bread is magic, grace.
Some touch the whitefluff only
With crested silver spoon
With coat of arms
And liveried service. Delicately.

It seems as if he has instructed the ignorant king about the importance of bread as an element of sustenance. And he does so with a bitter tone. "Whitefluff" trivializes whatever hoity-toity foodstuffs he takes in. Fluff is so airy and equals nothing, whereas he points out the substance of bread. These lines mock the civilized appearance and delicacy of the well-set dinner table, because it is not "the pulse of life" as bread is.

In the second stanza, the anger that the poet has been suppressing under the cool, sarcastic phrases used previously bubbles to the surface, gains momentum and inevitably explodes in the lines:

Dungbread, blackbread, wholebread, rankbread

He talks about being locked up and craving the bread with hatred.

In the next stanza he returns to his cool, cynical voice to discuss the ridiculous life of the king. "Much human dough there was/ Broken round his board and court/ Around his state and splendour...." This stanza continues to set up the disparity between the lifestyles of the people and the lifestyle of the king. "Dined and wined" sounds so sing-songy that it cannot help but belittle what the king does. Finally, in the last stanza, he evinces the cold-heartedness of the king when quoting the king he shows a disregard and indifference towards the bread. He echoes the Queen of France when she said "Then let them eat cake!" by ordering that his servants empty the plane that is employed in carrying specialized foods for his wedding of all bread. "Fill the hold with cake and wine/ And champagne guests--It's time / For MY wedding." This self-centered man has no regard for others, for it is HIS wedding. But this attitude comes through clearest when he tells them to "Shut those hungry mouths!" How can he have no feeling for them when he is about to eat cake and drink champagne? The champagne and perfume over sustenance and nourishment demonstrates the trivialities of court life. And he sums it up by saying, "I have Good Precedent." He says this as if he is saying, "This is the way it was , this is the way it is, and always will be." This is the attitude toward which Soyinka expresses bitterness.

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