Wole Soyinka and the Archetype of Ulysses

Christopher Drummond '93 (English 32, 1989)

In A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), Wole Soyinka presents seven thematic groups of poems composed during Soyinka's imprisonment for political protests against the Nigerian government. One of these thematic groups, titled "Four archetypes," comprises four poems--"Joseph," "Hamlet," "Gulliver," and "Ulysses"--each of which draws an analogy between Soyinka and the corresponding character from literature. In particular, the poem "Ulysses" employs allusions to Homer's Odyssey and James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), referring to both works for the archetypical figure of a wandering man who has become separated from his home and his past. Thus, by forming parallels between his life and the stories of Odysseus and Leopold Bloom, Soyinka not only dramatizes his imprisonment by the Nigerian government, but also examines the isolation of all individuals.

In "Ulysses," Soyinka employs a first-person monologue that serves as the personal voice of the poet. In this fashion, Soyinka steps away from the Modernist (and sometimes Victorian) use of dramatic monologue in poetry, a technique which often produces a narrator who cannot be trusted to deliver the poet's meaning in his own words. Rather than using an intermediary such as Robert Browning's Duke of Ferrara or T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, Soyinka speaks for himself, and thus initially "Ulysses" appears to function much like the poetry of Romantic authors such as William Wordsworth and John Keats. However, whereas the Romantic poets tend to write in a relatively straightforward first-person style that extolls the individuality of man, Soyinka uses a more convoluted first-person narrative that seems to emphasize the loneliness which stems from that individuality. Thus, Soyinka uses the first person in poetry much like Joyce uses it in prose, employing a stream-of- consciousness technique that emphasizes the necessarily unique and isolated nature of each individual.

In addition to the use of a first-person stream-of-consciousness monologue, Soyinka's "Ulysses" includes a profusion of impressions that flow together without any clear argumentative structure. By combining unorthodox syntax with images deeply rooted in personal experience, Soyinka presents the reader with a style of verse that is at once lyrical and ambiguous:

It turns on quest cycles, to track a skein
Of self through eyeless veils, stumble on warps
Endure the blinds of spidery distortions, till
Swine-scented folds and caressing tunnels
Come to crossroads at the straits, between
Vaginal rocks.

This use of jumbled imagery parallels other such poems as Dylan Thomas's "After the Funeral" and (to a much lesser degree) Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." Like Thomas and Coleridge, Soyinka juxtaposes images in such a manner that the reader cannot find immediate and rational relationships between them. Thus, to a certain extent, the reader must derive his own meaning from the poem, allowing conscious thought to give way to the subconscious process of association (see "Mental Echoing" under StudentComment in the Coleridge file). At the same time, however, Soyinka did not write "Ulysses" as an exercise in purely subjective interpretation. Rather, by referring to Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses, Soyinka ensures that the reader (or at least the well-read reader) has a framework of symbolism in which to read.

By means of these allusions to the archetype of Ulysses, Soyinka presents isolation as a major theme of the poem. This theme of isolation appears in two different ways, the first of which deals with the immediately obvious subject of Soyinka's imprisonment by the government of Nigeria. Like Odysseus, who became physically separated from his past life, wandering lost for ten years after the fall of Troy, Soyinka spent several years confined in prison, struggling in a metaphorical "swell of dancing seas and pygmy fountains" not to "lose the landmarks of my being". Beyond the comparison with Odysseus, however, the poem goes on to draw a connection with Joyce's Leopold Bloom, as hinted in the full title of the poem: "Ulysses--Notes from here to my Joyce class." Whereas the allusion to Odysseus seems to work more as a comparison to the specific isolation endured by Soyinka in prison, the allusion to Bloom expands the analogy to include the isolation experienced by all individuals within society. Like Bloom, whose wanderings through Dublin symbolize the ironic loneliness of man among his fellow men, Soyinka explains how he has become like "a boulder solitude amidst wine-centered waves" (Soyinka, p. 29). Indeed, the intensely personal nature of Soyinka's imagery echoes this solitude with a stream-of-consciousness technique comparable to that used by Joyce in Ulysses. Thus, by alluding to Homer and Joyce, Soyinka parallels his specific experience of imprisonment with the more general experience of isolation entailed by the unique consciousness of each individual. This use of archteypes may derive from the works of Carl Jung.

Poems List