Poems by Wole Soyinka

Biography Poems Bibiliography

Wole Soyinka was born on 13 July 1934 at Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria. After preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, he continued at the University of Leeds, where, later, in 1973, he took his doctorate. During the six years spent in England, he was a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London 1958-1959. In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama. At the same time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, where, since 1975, he has been professor of comparative literature. In 1960, he founded the theatre group, "The 1960 Masks" and in 1964, the "Orisun Theatre Company", in which he has produced his own plays and taken part as actor. He has periodically been visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale. 

During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for cease-fire. For this he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for 22 months untill 1969. Soyinka has published about 20 works: drama, novels and poetry. He writes in English and his literary language is marked by great scope and richness of words. 

As dramatist, Soyinka has been influenced by, among others, the Irish writer, J.M. Synge, but links up with the traditional popular African theatre with its combination of dance, music, and action. He bases his writing on the mythology of his own tribe-the Yoruba-with Ogun, the god of iron and war, at the centre. He wrote his first plays during his time in London, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel (a light comedy), which were performed at Ibadan in 1958 and 1959 and were published in 1963. Later, satirical comedies are The Trial of Brother Jero (performed in 1960, publ. 1963) with its sequel, Jero's Metamorphosis (performed 1974, publ. 1973), A Dance of the Forests (performed 1960, publ.1963), Kongi's Harvest (performed 1965, publ. 1967) and Madmen and Specialists (performed 1970, publ. 1971). Among Soyinka's serious philosophic plays are (apart from "The Swamp Dwellers") The Strong Breed (performed 1966, publ. 1963), The Road ( 1965) and Death and the King's Horseman (performed 1976, publ. 1975). In The Bacchae of Euripides (1973), he has rewritten the Bacchae for the African stage and in Opera Wonyosi (performed 1977, publ. 1981), bases himself on John Gay's Beggar's Opera and Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. Soyinka's latest dramatic works are A Play of Giants (1984) and Requiem for a Futurologist (1985). 

Soyinka has written two novels, The Interpreters (1965), narratively, a complicated work which has been compared to Joyce's and Faulkner's, in which six Nigerian intellectuals discuss and interpret their African experiences, and Season of Anomy (1973) which is based on the writer's thoughts during his imprisonment and confronts the Orpheus and Euridice myth with the mythology of the Yoruba. Purely autobiographical are The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972) and the account of his childhood, Aké ( 1981), in which the parents' warmth and interest in their son are prominent. Literary essays are collected in, among others, Myth, Literature and the African World (1975). 

Soyinka's poems, which show a close connection to his plays, are collected in Idanre, and Other Poems (1967), Poems from Prison (1969), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972) the long poem Ogun Abibiman (1976) and Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (1988).

From Les Prix Nobel 1986.


for Moremi, 1963

Earth will not share the rafter's envy; dung floors
Break, not the gecko's slight skin, but its fall
Taste this soil for death and plumb her deep for life

As this yam, wholly earthed, yet a living tuber
To the warmth of waters, earthed as springs
As roots of baobab, as the hearth.

The air will not deny you. Like a top
Spin you on the navel of the storm, for the hoe
That roots the forests plows a path for squirrels.

Be ageless as dark peat, but only that rain's
Fingers, not the feet of men, may wash you over.
Long wear the sun's shadow; run naked to the night.

Peppers green and red—child—your tongue arch
To scorpion tail, spit straight return to danger's threats
Yet coo with the brown pigeon, tendril dew between your lips.

Shield you like the flesh of palms, skyward held
Cuspids in thorn nesting, insealed as the heart of kernel—
A woman's flesh is oil—child, palm oil on your tongue

Is suppleness to life, and wine of this gourd
From self-same timeless run of runnels as refill
Your podlings, child, weaned from yours we embrace

Earth's honeyed milk, wine of the only rib.
Now roll your tongue in honey till your cheeks are
Swarming honeycombs—your world needs sweetening, child.

Camwood round the heart, chalk for flight
Of blemish—see? it dawns!—antimony beneath
Armpits like a goddess, and leave this taste

Long on your lips, of salt, that you may seek
None from tears. This, rain-water, is the gift
Of gods—drink of its purity, bear fruits in season.

Fruits then to your lips: haste to repay
The debt of birth. Yield man-tides like the sea
And ebbing, leave a meaning of the fossilled sands.


Blue diaphane, tobacco smoke
Serpentine on wet film and wood glaze,
Mutes chrome, wreathes velvet drapes,
Dims the cave of mirrors. Ghost fingers
Comb seaweed hair, stroke acquamarine veins
Of marooned mariners, captives
Of Circe's sultry notes. The barman
Dispenses igneous potions ?
Somnabulist, the band plays on.

Cocktail mixer, silvery fish
Dances for limpet clients.
Applause is steeped in lassitude,
Tangled in webs of lovers' whispers
And artful eyelash of the androgynous.
The hovering notes caress the night
Mellowed deep indigo ?still they play.

Departures linger. Absences do not
Deplete the tavern. They hang over the haze
As exhalations from receded shores. Soon,
Night repossesses the silence, but till dawn
The notes hold sway, smoky
Epiphanies, possessive of the hours.

This music's plaint forgives, redeems
The deafness of the world. Night turns
Homewards, sheathed in notes of solace, pleats
The broken silence of the heart.

Civilian and Soldier

My apparition rose from the fall of lead,
Declared, 'I am a civilian.' It only served
To aggravate your fright. For how could I
Have risen, a being of this world, in that hour
Of impartial death! And I thought also: nor is
Your quarrel of this world.

You stood still
For both eternities, and oh I heard the lesson
Of your traing sessions, cautioning -
Scorch earth behind you, do not leave
A dubious neutral to the rear. Reiteration
Of my civilian quandary, burrowing earth
From the lead festival of your more eager friends
Worked the worse on your confusion, and when
You brought the gun to bear on me, and death
Twitched me gently in the eye, your plight
And all of you came clear to me.

I hope some day
Intent upon my trade of living, to be checked
In stride by your apparition in a trench,
Signalling, I am a soldier. No hesitation then
But I shall shoot you clean and fair
With meat and bread, a gourd of wine
A bunch of breasts from either arm, and that
Lone question - do you friend, even now, know
What it is all about?

The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (nonfiction). New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Early Poems (poetry). Oxford University Press, 1997.
The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (nonfiction). Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir (memoir). Spectrum Books (Ibadan), 1994.
Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (poetry). Methuen, 1990.
Isara: A Voyage around "Essay," (biography). Random House, 1989.
Art, Dialogue, and Outrage (nonfiction). New Horn, 1988.
Requiem for a Futurologist (play). Rex Collings, 1985.
Six Plays (plays). Methuen, 1984.
A Play of Giants (play). Methuen, 1984.
Ake: The Years of Childhood (memoir). Random House, 1981.
Opera Wonyosi (light opera). Indiana University Press, 1981.
Myth, Literature and the African World (nonfiction). Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Ogun Abibiman (poetry). Rex Collings, 1976.
(editor) Poems of Black Africa (poetry). Hill & Wang, 1975.
Death and the King's Horseman (play). Norton, 1975.
Camwood on the Leaves and Before the Blackout: Two Short Plays (plays). Third Press, 1974.
Collected Plays Volume 2: The Lion and the Jewel, Kongi's Harvest, The Trials of Brother Jero, Jero's Metamorphosis and Madmen and Specialists (plays). Oxford University Press, 1974.
(adapter) The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite. Methuen, 1973. Norton, 1974.
Collected Plays Volume 1: A Dance of the Forests, The Swamp Dwellers, The Strong Breed, The Road and The Bacchae (plays). Oxford University Press, 1973.
Camwood on the Leaves (play). Methuen, 1973.
The Jero Plays: The Trials of Brother Jero and Jero's Metamorphosis (plays). Methuen, 1973.
Season of Anomy (novel). Rex Collings, 1973.
The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (nonfiction). Harper, 1972. 2nd edition, Rex Collings, 1973.
Poems from Prison (poetry). Rex Collings, 1969. Expanded edition published as A Shuttle in the Crypt. Hill & Wang, 1972.
Madmen and Specialists (play). Methuen, 1971. Hill & Wang, 1972.
(editor) Plays from the Third World: An Anthology. Doubleday, 1971.
Before the Blackout (revue sketches). Orisun Acting Editions, 1971.
The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed: Two Plays (plays). Dramatists Play Service, 1969.
Idanre and Other Poems (poetry). Methuen, 1967. Hill & Wang, 1969.
The Trials of Brother Jero (play). Oxford University Press, 1969.
Three Short Plays (plays). Oxford University Press, 1969.
(translator) D. O. Fagunwa, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter's Saga (novel), Nelson, 1967, Humanities, 1969.
Kongi's Harvest (play). Oxford University Press, 1966.
The Interpreters (novel). Deutsch, 1965.
The Road (play). Oxford University Press, 1965.
Five Plays: A Dance of the Forests, The Lion and the Jewel, The Swamp Dwellers, The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed (plays). Oxford University Press, 1964.
Three Plays: The Trials of Brother Jero, The Strong Breed and The Swamp Dwellers (plays). Mbari Publications, 1962. Northwestern University Press, 1963.
The Lion and the Jewel (play). Oxford University Press, 1962.
A Dance of the Forests (play). Oxford University Press, 1962.