The speaker in Soyinka's poem first states:
When seasons change it seems
An age is passed, and all with it
And this old earth has sucked within it
Souls of all living."(A Shuttle in the Crypt, p. 15)
This is just the way things seem, however. Ages do not really pass with the change of seasons. Today's "cloud weeds in air" which Soyinka's speaker mentions "wander on/ In whispering parade, full of old hints/ Old truths upheld in mirrors of the hour." (p. 15) These "old hints" and "old truths" shape the present and the future.
In stanza three, the poem's speaker continues to examine the intertwined relationship that the past and present share. The speaker describes "an old earth/Stirring to fresh touch of old pretensions"; "old hands and voices","old fences", "Old welcomes" and "old compromises" all touch the present with significant effect (p. 16). The speaker believes the present and future begin with the past with that which is old rather than new.
The theme of the poem seems simple enough; the present is not new but rather a reflection of the past. We can even say that history moves in circles and that what we see in the past, we will also see in the future. The speaker believes that the present, even though it never breaks with the past, brings a progression that " has been a source/ For great truths in spite of stammering" (p. 16). As history moves in circles, "Spires, rooted in the quagmires/ Of the human mind rise to purer lights/ And wing aloft a salvaged essence/ Transcending death, legacy of seasons "(p. 16). Time may move in circles but that does not mean that things fail to develop and grow as time passes.
Despite the speaker's mention of "progression", one cannot ignore the dark and foreboding images in the poem which seem to reflect Soyinka's 22-month imprisonment in Nigeria during the Biafran war. Perhaps the circular movement in time does bring a progression and lifts the "spires" of the human mind to "purer lights".(p. 16) When the individual is trapped and stripped of his freedom, however, this is not the case. The "dead recession of the silent host" in stanza 5 destroys this progression, "Whispering judgements, sucking spires/ Down to dwarf kennels, liming minds/ That took to wing, sighing sinew down to atrophy."(p. 17) It seems that no progression exists during Soyinka's imprisonment. When he begins stanza 5, he alludes to his days in solitary confinement, isolated from contact with the external world:
Ecstasies are brief; it is truth's season
And golden eyelets sink grey hooded
In the ashen hearth of truth.(p. 17)
The poem's theme, thus, is two-fold. First, time moves in circles and the present is inexorably tied to the past. Life and death are also inseparable in a similar manner because anything that has died eventually returns to influence the present and future. This strange circular movement through time does bring some progression. This progression cannot be realized, however, if we are restrained or trapped in some way as Soyinka was during his nearly two-year long solitary confinement. This belief that the "spires" of the human mind cannot be brought to greater heights while we are trapped makes up the second part of this poem's theme.
[For another discussion]