Soyinka and Tennyson: How the Dead Live On

Claire W.D. Hughes '94 (English 32 1990)

Both Alfred Lord Tennyson and Wole Soyinka believe the dead live on in nature. The image of the "Old Yew" in Tennyson's In Memoriam, an elegy for Arthur Hallam, parallels the "Voices of our dead in leaves" that Soyinka envisions in "A Cobweb's Touch in the Dark." When Soyinka brushes against a cobweb in his cell he feels the only connection he can to those who have died in the Biafran war. Respresenting threads of life and their intricacies, the web is a "brush of time", a reminder of the past and the ancestors who desired the same freedom that Soyinka does. Tennyson does not find harmony with nature but, instead, a jealousy of the tree's ability to hold Hallam in a way the poet no longer can.

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the underlying dead,
Thy fibers net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapped about the bones. (Norton 858)

For both Tennyson and Soyinka nature fills the "Spaces where dead memories are laid."(Soyinka 14)

[Brian] Crow emphasizes the Romantic's focus on human awareness and the power of the human mind, stating, "the work of art thus takes on a special signifigance as the record of the artist's struggle to transcend his psychic alienation by overcoming the obstacles to imaginative freedom, thereby achieving vision" (Melissa Barton "Soyinka as Romantic" quoting Brian Crow "Soyinka and the Voice of Vision").

In order to overcome the obstacles of death and isolation, Tennyson and Soyinka turn to their imaginations and free their anguish. Left with nothing but the touch of a cobweb, or the vision of a Yew tree in a cemetery, the poets attach themselves, in true Romantic style, to the only connection that exists bewteen the dead and the living: nature.