Spring 2011
• Born Akinwande Oluwole
Soyinka in Western Nigeria in
• grew up in an Anglican
mission compound in Aké
• Raised in a colonial, Englishspeaking environment, but his
heritage is Yoruba (frequent
trips to his father’s ancestral
home in Isara)
• At age eleven, Soyinka joins
the protest movement that will
later win Nigeria’s
independence from British
colonial rule
Early Years
• Primary and grammar school in
Ake and Abeokuta
• At age twelve, Soyinka leaves Ake
for Ibadan to attend the elite
Government College and at 18
entered the university.
• Graduates from Leeds College in
England with a degree in English
Literature and drama in 1957
• Works for several years in Europe
as a script-reader, actor, and
director for the Royal Court
Theatre in London
• Begins to write early plays (The
Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and
the Jewel)
• At age 26 (1960), Soyinka returns to Nigeria, but new play A Dance
of the Forests puts him in a precarious position with Nigeria’s new
• Presents a pageant of black Africa’s “recurrent cycle of stupidities”
(designed to remind Nigerians of the chronic dishonesty and abuse of
power that colonialism had instilled in generations of native politicians)
• “African Chauvenists” or proponents of the Negritude movement
(Soyinka called them “Neo-Tarzanists”) object to Soyinka’s use of
European techniques
• Politically active and combatant—in 1965 calls for cancellation of
rigged Western Nigerian regional elections by seizing control of the
Western Nigerian Broadcast Service. Arrested and arraigned, but
released on a technicality.
• Political speeches in the 1960s criticize the “cult of personality” and
government corruption in African dictatorships
Return to Nigeria
• In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War he was arrested
and put in solitary confinement for two years for
attempting to act as an intermediary between the warring
Nigerian and Biafran parties.
• Writes poetry on tissue paper which is later published as
Poems from Prison
• Released 22 months after initial detainment after
international attention rises (1967-1969).
• Outspoken critic of many Nigerian military dictators and
of political tyrannies in Africa and abroad.
Political Motives
• Flees Nigeria via motorcycle in 1994 to avoid charges
brought against him.
• In 1997, General Sani Abacha, during his reign in Nigeria,
pronounced a death sentence on Soyinka “in absentia” for
• In 1999, after democratic rule was reestablished in Nigeria,
Soyinka returned home to a hero’s welcome
• Side Note: in 1975, he openly attacks Idi Amin (at the
height of his power) in Transition, a Ghanan magazine
where he serves as editor-in-chief and columnist
Personal Risks
• Soyinka advocates two major ideas regarding art/artistic
• “organic revolution”: “a process of communal renewal reached
in moments of shared cultural self-apprehension -- moments
whose manner and content are particular to each society”
• “organic restoration”: Ogun
• Three stages of Yoruba existence—the world of the ancestors,
the world of the living, and the world of the unborn—Ogun
bridges these relams, living in what Soyinka calls the “fourth
Yoruba Culture and
Soyinka’s art
• Nigeria operated under British
control from mid-1800s until
October 1, 1960, when it
gained independence.
• Nigeria encompasses 250-400
different ethnic groups
• Dominant groups:
• Yoruba in the West
• Hausa-Fulani in north
• Igbo in the east
Colonialism in Nigeria
• British claim entire area of Nigeria as a colony around 1914
and begin to exercise more power in the area (rather than
simply controlling palm oil and palm kernel trade)
• Difficulties in governing so many ethnic groups led to tensions—
different languages, culture, and religions
• Hausa-Fulani=Muslim, strong central government
• Igbo=no central government/stateless society
• Pre-existing rivalries (ex: Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba)
• Indirect rule—need to appoint chiefs where there had not been
chiefs before (difficult in certain areas without strong central
• Resistance occurs from some groups, resulting in rebellion and
struggle for independence (won in 1960)
Colonialism in Nigeria
1967: Head of the Department of Theater Arts, University of Ibadan
1973: Honorary Ph. D., University of Leeds
1986: Nobel Prize for Literature
1990: Benson Medal from Royal Society of Literature
1993: honorary doctorate, Harvard University.
2005: Honorary doctorate degree, Princeton University
2008: Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Franklin Humanities
Institute, Duke University
Honors and Awards
• Combines Yoruba myth with political aims (takes Ogun, the
Yoruba god of metallurgy, as his personal muse and the
• Poems can be roughly divided into poems of experience/life
and poems relating to myth/Yoruba culture
• Themes of war, violence, struggle, hate, family, love
• Seemingly simplistic, direct diction, but with underlying
• Sparse punctuation
• Metaphors, similes, and juxtaposition of ideas are common, as
is larger symbolism
Various Life Experiences:
'Telephone Conversation", (an early light hearted response to racial discrimination),
some of the poems in Idanre and Other Poems (1967),
most of the ones in A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), (his prison notes when he was detained during the
Nigerian Civil War).
They are about births and deaths (the most important being his "Abiku" poem) in which he dwells on the
inscrutable nature of the spirit of death, about strange coincidences as in "A First Death Day", when a
child dies exactly on her first birthday anniversary, about grey seasons as metaphors for rust, ripeness and
decay, and about lone figures and the messianic plight of some of them.
Many of the poems in A Shuttle in the Crypt are even more private in tone because of their genesis. They
are the meditations of a man in confinement whose active mind wandered far and wide, about people in
similar plight in history, about nature, and about the fragility and transience of life.
Ogunnian poems:
poems about death on the road
massacre in north ern Nigerian in 1966.
the epic poems Idanre and Ogun Abibiman (1977).
All these poems are celebrations in a contemporary context: of the mysteries of Ogun, the god of
contraries, who is both destructive and creative and, therefore, whose unlimited resources can be used for
good or for ill. The road and massacre poems showed Ogun in his most negative aspects, that is,
metaphors for man or man's weapons of destruc tion eating up fellow men.
They are Soyinka's way of commenting on the senseless slaughter and wastage of human life in moments
of carelessness, hatred and ethnic intoxication.
In Idanre and Ogun Abibiman, however, Soyinka goes beyond the merely negative features of Ogun. In
the former, he seeks a new order that will further split the Ogun godhead and release the creative flint that
will be used perpetually for man's benefit. In the latter, he enlists the co-operation of Ogun to commit his
unlimited resources to the liberation struggle in South Africa.
Characterizing Poetry
• The Swamp Dwellers
• The Lion and the Jewel
• The Trials of Brother Jero
• A Dance of the Forests
• The Strong Breed
• Before the Blackout
• Kongi's Harvest
• The Road
• The Bacchae of Euripides
• Madmen and Specialists
• Camwood on the Leaves
• Jero's Metamorphosis
• Death and the King's Horseman
• Opera Wonyosi
• Requiem for a Futurologist
• A Play of Giants
• A Scourge of Hyacinths (radio
• The Beatification of the Area Boy
• King Baabu
• Etiki Revu Wetin
• The Interpreters
• Season of Anomie
Telephone Conversation
• Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of
• Art, Dialogue, and Outrage:
• The Man Died: Prison Notes
Essays on Literature and Culture
• Aké: The Years of Childhood
• Myth, Literature and the African
• Isara: A Voyage around Essay
• Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: a • From Drama and the African
memoir 1946-65
World View
• You Must Set Forth at Dawn
• The Burden of Memory - The
Muse of Forgiveness
Poetry collections
• The Credo of Being and
• A Big Airplane Crashed Into The
Earth (original title Poems from
• Idanre and other poems
• Culture in Transition
• Mandela's Earth and other poems • Blues for a Prodigal
• Ogun Abibiman
• Samarkand and Other Markets I
Have Known
• Abiku
• The Ballad of the Landlord
• After the Deluge
• Prisonnettes
• http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/198
• http://www.onlinenigeria.com/nigerianliterature/?blurb=6
• http://marshall.ucsd.edu/wolesoyinka/

Wole Soyinka