"When Seasons Change", as a Cry Against the Past

Leslie L. Stern '93 (English 32, Spring 1990)

Wole Soyinka's dislike of African writers' concentration on the past appear in his poem, "When Seasons Change". While belittling the importance of Africa's past, Soyinka also warns his people to rechannel their energies to the present and future concerns of Nigeria, which at the time of the poem's creation (1967), was being consumed in civil war. (Lisa Sachs, "Soyinka and the Nigerian Civil War"). "When Seasons Change", as well as other poems appearing in A Shuttle in the Crypt, urge the African writer to " release [himself] from the fascination of the past" (Wole Soyinka, "The Writer in a Modern African State", Art, Dialogue and Outrage,New Horn Press, 1988, p.19.).

His energetic style, which involves imagery and a powerful language, moves back and forth in time to emphasize his opposition to overconcern with the past. In the first stanza, "Time's spectres" are merely "old, silent vapours". The narrator asks these spectres (who possibly represent those African writers still clinging to the past) what they are looking for:"What seek you...of this hermit earth?". He depicts the thoughts of these ghosts as old and covered with dust; the ghosts wander aimlessly, yet "full of old hints / Old truths" that survive as illusions in "mirrors of the hour." This dreary and pessimistic imagery used in describing older elements does not leave the reader with a positive attitude towards the past. The last line of the stanza suddenly jumps ahead towards the future: "A solemn future casts a backward glance / Over drooped shoulders", and conveys the message that the future will not be hopeful if we continue to solely dwell in the past.

The second stanza brings forth the image of a mind posed upon the fruitless flow of new wisdom. This refers possibly to what Soyinka considers the modern African writers' failure:

...the stage at which we find ourselves, is the stage of disillusionment, and it is this which prompts an honest examination of what has been the failure of the African writer...the African writer has done nothing to vindicate his existence... he has been generally without vision. (Soyinka, "The Writer in a Modern African State", p. 17.)

He then envisions the mind soaring in flight "upon a dual lift of planes, shifting in the cross winds". This dual lift of planes or cross of "twin-adherents" possesses "Knowledge of a deep futility in all / Of far ideas and urgent actions". The different wings of the dual lift might signify the past and the present: the past, dragging against the wind, deterring progress; and the present, with a chaotically beating wind and moving forward on "the beam", "Responsive ever to the present call."

According to Lindfors, many Anglophone African writers who appeared toward the end of the colonial era "felt it necessary for Africans to reappraise their past in order to assess for themselves what they had gone through."(Bernth Lindfors, "Negritude and After: Responses to Colonialism, "p.121). Soyinka hails these writers in the third stanza proclaiming, "Shed your hard tears". He also describes them as "Stirring to fresh touch of old pretensions / Throbs of dead passion, chilled rebounds / From sensations of the past". Following this statement Soyinka depicts a series of old images: "Old welcomes", "old hands and voices", "old sacrifices", "old compromises", and concludes that through the little victories and greater losses of the past, a purity of ideals, a clarity of vision, and an end of innocence has emerged. Here the reader finds out that Soyinka does not totally reject the past. "Of course, the past exists," Soyinka writes in an essay, "now, this moment, it is coexistent in present awareness. It clarifies the present and explains the future, but it is not a fleshpot for escapist indulgence" (Soyinka, "The Writer in a Modern African State", p.19).

The fourth stanza optimistically points out that the progression of the past has provided great truths despite the counterproductive forces that go along with it:

...in spite of stammering
Planes for great building in spite
Of crooked sights...
Despite corrosive fumes of treachery
And spirits grow despite the midwifery
Of dwarfs.

Soyinka seems to state that the human mind is able to grow, rise, and transcend death by means of a salvaged (possibly religious) essence.

The tone suddenly changes in the fifth stanza when Soyinka warns the reader, "Ecstasies are brief". The optimistic "golden eyelets" sink and become "grey hooded / In the ashen hearth of truth." The time spectres of the past reappear and now move in "a dead recession". The spectres, as representations of the past, seem to inflict harm and/or death:

Whispering judgements, sucking spires
Down to dwarf kennels, liming minds
That took to wing, sighing sinews down
To atrophy.

Here Soyinka continues to convince the African writers that focusing solely on the past will eventually lead to anti-progression.

The poem ends with powerful imageries of death and solitude: "Shrouds of seasons gone, peeled / From time's corpses, mouse-eaten thoughts...Veils of the altar of unplighted troths / Cobweb hangings on the throne of death / In solitude." Obviously these last lines are influence by Soyinka's twenty-two months of solitary confinement. Perhaps this horrifically morbid ending also serves as a warning to the African writers; in effect saying, 'turn away from past and work on the present conditions of Nigeria because people like me are suffering.'

In "When Seasons Change", Soyinka expresses his disapproval of the modern African writers' obsession with the past. As he states in "The Writer in a Modern African State":

[The African writer] was content to turn his eye backwards in time and prospect in archaic fields for forgotten gems which would dazzle and distract the present. But never inwards, never truly into the present, never into the obvious symptoms of the niggling, warning, predictable present, from which alone lay the salvation of ideals. (Soyinka, p.18.)

Apparently Soyinka, even during the trauma of his imprisonment, wants desparately for Africans, writers especially, to hear his political assertions.

[For another view]

Poems List