Shelley, Hopkins and Soyinka's "Wailing Wall"

Frank Huang '94 (English 32, 1990)

Soyinka calls this particular prison wall the Wailing Wall

because it overlooks the yard where a voice cried out in agony all of one night and died at dawn, unattended. It is the yard from which hymns and prayers rise with a constancy matched only by the vigil of crows and vultures. (32)

During his confinement, Soyinka is able to hear outside events through this wall thus providing him some outlet to the external environment. The sounds of religious prayer which pass through the wall inform Soyinka that death will occur in the execution yard. Soyinka feels the juxtaposition of these two events is a travesty:

When a hymn is called he conducts,
Baton beaking their massed discordance:
Invocation to the broken Word
On broken voices

Soyinka imagines the wall leading in the hymn with the chorus coming from the squawking of the vultures, who wear tattered surplices, and the crows that quickly tear the body. The image of Soyinka's vultures and crows is similar to Gerald Manley Hopkins portrayal of carrion birds in "Carrion Comfort". In Soyinka's apostrophe to all carrion birds, he sees the birds as evil beings living off the torment and empty prayers of dying individuals:

Air-tramp, black berger
Descend on dry prayers
To altars of evil
And a charity of victims

In Hopkins's "Carrion Comfort", the behavior of these birds symbolize "the satisfaction of giving in to despair as a kind of comfort" (Norton 1587). Hopkins writes in the opening lines of the poem:

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee
Not untwist--slack they may be--these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more . . . .(Norton 1587)

Both writers relate their feelings that they have encountered perversion to a carrion bird's satisfaction in eating dead flesh.

Throughout the entire poem, Soyinka creates a grim mood, appropriate to death. The wall hears the prayers of the dying and them must witness the inevitable death.

For evil is impenitent, evil feeds
Upon the wounds and tears of piety
O Wall of prayers, preyed upon
By scavenger, undertaker

Yet despite all the deathly sounds that pass through the wailing wall, it can still provide life to one individual, Soyinka. The sound of the different events that occur on the other side of the wall gives Soyinka contact with the outside world. He is able to keep track of the days through the processions occurring in the yard. The wall offers a reprieve from complete isolation thus possibly contributing to Soyinka's continued existence. In a sense, the wailing wall has a role similar to the mountain in Shelley's "Mont Blanc" where "so much of life and joy is lost" (Norton 688). Every time Mont Blanc becomes active, living beings on the mountain are killed by avalanches. Yet, the rivers which result from these avalanches help to sustain life in another area. Every time the wall sounds, death fills the court yard. Yet it is these sounds that help Soyinka to survive in the prison.

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