Soyinka and the Literary Canon

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

Wole Soyinka is a poet who belongs in the literary canon. Not only is his work influenced by those in the canon but his poetry represents, within that influence, a departure from the European norm, encouraging a broader canon definition. Soyinka borrows European forms to express the struggles of his own people against the European colonizers whom his predessors felt forced to imitate. The poet's command of the english language is a result of Nigeria's colonization, but the words he chooses draw attention not to Europe, but to Africa. "In a 1967 paper delivered at a Swedish conference, Soyinka declared the 'artist has always functioned in African society as the record of the mores and experiences of his society and as the voice of vision in his own time.'" (Melissa Barton "Soyinka as Romantic" Wole Soyinka, The Writer in Modern Africa, p.21) Soyinka's incorporation of lore and heritage from his people is a departure similar to Robert Browning's dramatic monologue. But, for Soyinka, a "mask" is unnecessary.

Soyinka has given a voice to a struggling people and, although Shuttle in the Crypt was conceived during his imprisonment, Soyinka was not criticizing his people but a legacy of corrupt government. Just as Jonathan Swift exposed the vulgarity of his society in the satire, Gulliver's Travels, Soyinka, imprisoned for speaking out against human rights violations and the policies of right wing leaders, tries to celebrate the beauty of his people while chastising the dark legacy that colonizers have left in his country.

Soyinka's Four Archetypes: Joseph, Hamlet, Gulliver, and Ulysses are poetic allusions that exemplify the use of canonized works to investigate modern issues. By successfully transmitting the ideas of poets and novelists into issues of martyrdom, heroism, travel and time in Africa, Soyinka exhibits the rare ability to compromise old contexts into new revolutions. He is a modern who writes from an African-centered world view without nostalgia for an idealized past, and his attitude is sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and international in awareness, reference, and relevance...[H]e has tried to overcome fragmented, secularized western thought with an integrated vision of life derived from his own Yoruba culture. (From Wole Soyinka and the Nobel Prize for Literature" Bruce King, Sewanee Review 96 (1988), 339-45.)

Soyinka emulates the desolation of Eliot, the exploration of Tennyson, and the consciousness of Joyce as well as "reacting against Negritude, which he sees as belonging to colonial ideaology because it gives a defensive character to any African ideas. The artist, for him, is a reformer who draws on the past for signifigant lessons and proceeds to what he calls 'the re-appraisal of the whole human phenomenon.'"(Heather Carlberg "Negritude" Intermedia) Silas Obediah, a graduate student at Brown University, is a Nigerian poet who has studied Soyinka extensively. He explains:

Back home there was a critic who accused him of borrowing from the West and Soyinka simply replied that the world is such a small community but such a complicated, intricate place that one has to borrow traditions in order to place comparisons of life in a broader context. (Interview by C. Hughes with S. Obediah 12/11/90)

Soyinka's pessimism about the intricate world is not only a result of oppression, Obediah believes, but a criticism of progress -- a reaction similar to fear of the industrial revolution exemplified in the poetry of Mathew Arnold. It is an unwillingness to completely reject the West and the use of canonical influence to broaden the context and definitions around which the literary tradition exists that earn Soyinka a place in the canon.