"Last Turning" by Wole Soyinka

Katherine de Castro '94 (English 32, 1990)

In the preface to A Shuttle in the Crypt, Wole Soyinka says of his twenty-two month experience of imprisonment and solitary confinement in a Nigerian political prison:

I listened to an enactment of death in the home of death, to the pulse of a shuttle slowing to its final moment of rest, towards that complete in-gathering of being which a shuttle in repose so palpably is. It was in this sense, both a horror and consolation.

In one of the poems from this work, "Last Turning", Soyinka describes how the "last among the five" approaches death. This poem represents a culminating point in the "passage of five men to and through that travesty of looms, the gallows." But compared to the dark and pessimistic attitudes inherent in other poems from A Shuttle in the Crypt, Soyinka presents a more uplifting view to the enactment of death, so that it seems more like a "consolation" than a "horror."

"This is the last turning of the road" - the very first line of the poem introduces the recurring theme of the finality of death. Soyinka uses the common technique of representing life as a journey, like Robert Frost does in the famous poem, "The Road Not Taken." The next line, "Around the rockface", indicates that the path of life lies on a mountain, so that the journey is essentially an ascent or climb upwards. Man strives for that "final moment of rest, towards that complete in-gathering of being" when "self/ Encounters self." Thus, life builds up to this final extraordinary moment of self-realization. But Soyinka states that we gather "Puns, fables," and "riddles" along the way to emphasize the problems and confusion that accompany life. Along with the twists and turns, the road is littered with "your companion dead, fallen/ On hillside", a dark and morbid image that dampens the optimistic mood of the progression of life. But "all were steps on the ascent/ Parts to the sum of seekers' questions", so each individual life serves some purpose in the progression of man. This attitude contrasts with Shelley's in "Mont Blanc" in which he totally diminishes the significance of man to the awesome power of Nature.

Soyinka views death as not only a climax of life, but a religious initiation. Although he often derives his god-like figures from the Yoruban dieties of his native African tradition, these gods seem far removed from the world of man and are only subtlely hinted at in various passages. The divine being in this poem seems more closely related to the God of Christian beliefs. Soyinka uses religious motifs in lines such as "turn pilgrim now/ Into souls' kingdom" and "Missals on the heart": "souls' kingdom" representing Heaven and "Missals" referring to prayer books. He suggests the Christian ritual of baptism with passages like "Rain's awakening" and "Waters of insight", which emphasize the idea of water as an enlightening and purifying agent. The last stanza represents the final union with God:

Into this last turning, pilgrim
Turn alone and bid you welcome
Into this last kingdom, king
Priest, and subject.

The setting of man's journey through life takes place in natural surroundings, so Soyinka closely links human beings with Nature. This theme harks back to the Romantic era when poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley tried to reconcile man's relationship to Nature. In this poem, time passes in terms of Nature's time clock as evident in the lines, "Nature's time-passing tales" and "Bronzed in seasons of your journeying." Soyinka correlates man's history to Nature's history, so that Nature ages along with man: "Whose feet wear companion blisters/ To the weathered face of cliffs." Then in stanza four where Soyinka describes a garden scene, elements of Nature take on human qualities with "Fingers of thorn" and "lenten hands." Thus, Soyinka shows a surprising tendency in the modern era: while technology, urbanization, and pollution threaten to destroy the natural environment, he can still see man closely associated with Nature.

Soyinka uses a style in this poem filled with paradoxes and double-meanings. For example, the line, "Guarded by storms, lulled in earthquake", suggests that man can find comfort and security in these violent images of Nature. But Soyinka probably just wants to show that man exists in an unsettled peace. Another paradox can be found in the passage: "Pierce the day's elusive blindfold/ Drink clear-headed of the Night's/ Enlightening potion." In these lines, Soyinka suggests that daylight blinds us rathering than 'shedding light' on a situation and only in the darkness and seclusion of night can truth be found. In addition, Soyinka uses a strange syntax with expressions that give tangible, concrete characteristics to abstract concepts, for example, "wings of silence", "time's unfading imprints", and "night-webbed hands." This strange diction is derived from Yoruban expressions, songs, rhythm, and myth.

Toward the end of the poem, Soyinka describes how the "heirs of sandals" will inherit the shoes used by their predecessors and continue on the path of life. This continuum in man's history shows that there is a natural progression in the world and the next generation will build on the steps of their forefathers. Thus, Soyinka sustains the uplifting mood of the poem. In contrast, the very next poem following "Last Turning", called "Recession", emphasizes the image of descending to death:

communion bells descend to roots
toll for the last dawn, sink spire, sink light
to ancestry of seed, to the dark-in-being

This sharp contrast reveals Soyinka's changing and ambivalent attitude toward death.

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