LITERATURE IN A WEEK: Wole Soyinka’s Civilian and Soldier (A Review)

Posted: January 15, 2014 in Critical Review, Literature in a Week
Tags: , , , , , ,

by Chimezie Chika

In this first review I have choosen a classic poem by a man who exemplifies the kind of poetic image that has taken root on the continent. Believe me, it was a hard job trying to choose a particular poem from the cornucopia of African poems available.

One more thing to state before the review: a poem can have different interpretations. I don’t believe in poetry that is prolix and monotonous. Poetry can mean different things at different times and from different angles. Hence, this review is only a single perspective from the myriad interpretations of this poem.

The basic theme of ‘Civilian and Soldier’ is war–a topic that harkens back to the chequered historical trail of many African countries. The poem itself tries and mostly succeeds in capturing a crucial moment in war when a civilian is brutally shot by a soldier.

It explores the dilemma of a soldier trying to shoot a civilian. The civilian, who is the narrator, imagines the soldier’s brutality–his willingness or unwillingness to carry out the order of his superiors and kill the civilian. This conflicting feeling is captured here:

“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.”

-lines 1-6

In this first stanza the surrealistic confrontation between the civilian and the soldier is established with a deft use of language that is both striking in its candences and in its bold theme.

The civilian went on to imagine the instructions the soldier must have gotten, his confusion as to his function as a soldier. This hesitation to shoot can be liberally (and rightly) predicated upon the fact that the soldier may also have civilian relatives. This is the central quarrel of every soldier–a ‘civilian quandary’.

Soyinka employs a unique language in conveying these nebulous feelings. At a point the poem reminds one of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting. One cannot overlook the surrealistic undertones therein, as if the civilian and the soldier are meeting somewhere in Hades.

At the point where the soldier ‘brought the gun to bear’ on the civilian, the civilian reiterates the central dilemma of war–the pointlessness of the senseless killings:

“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?”

-lines 19-27

Here the civilian states a strange thing: he says that if given the same opportunity as the soldier, he would make his life better (‘But I will shoot you clean and fair’), by feeding him and giving him many other good things.

War is a strange business: sometimes civilians helps soldiers, feed them, nurse the wounded ones back to health while the war rages; later on, the same soldiers whom the civilians fed may be the very ones to shoot them in the battlefield.

Now shouldn’t you ask yourself: what is war really about?

For Soyinka, the man dies all who refuse to protest in the face of tyranny. He is known for unabashedly taking on heavy issues without flinching. And this poem is no exception.

Civilian and Soldier by Wole Soyinka

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 training 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?

…………………………………………………………….***………………………………………………………….

Chimezie Chika currently lives in Onitsha, Nigeria. His writings has appeared in a number of places, and has been a finalist for Africa Book Club Competition and the Eriata Oribhabor Poetry prize.

NB: This column is just starting. We will be happy to receive new books for review, among other things. If you are interested, reach the editor (Lyriversity) and it will get to me.-Chimezie Chika

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the written permission of the publishers.

Lyriversity — Liberty of Creativity

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Comments
  1. Olisa says:

    Wonderful review, Chimezie. It’s a good thing- that such poems are written and reviewed and meditated on because sometimes when the issue of war is being discussed some view it as some light topic, as something close to fantasy; and they remain ignorant of the bloodiness of the demon we call WAR.

  2. Chimezie says:

    Yes. War is something cruel and brutal and shouldn’t be hushed up.

  3. Did I enjoy reading this, Am I impressed? YES!

    You chose a fine poem by a hero and you did justice to it…War is everything EVIL.

  4. timnwaobilo says:

    I enjoyed your piece,sir.

    I say, “All war is fair”
    But, “Is innocent blood to be shed,
    “on the altar of egos and interests,
    “and soon forgotten- the souls of the departed?”- Tim

    Is it love for your country or for the guns you use in killing? -Asa(Singer)

    No one is born a soldier. The society bestows on its offspring the knowledge of the path fate has prescribed on them aforehand. Blame no soldier for his war acts.

    Wouldn’t a civilian perpetuate similar acts to a soldier in the future, if the soldier today became a civilian tomorrow? Soyinka thinks so, I too.

    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 civilian will see the dying body(apparition) of the soldier and will “shoot him clean and fair”, without remorse or recourse to his own moral sensibilities. He will do this with much merry and fanfare…meat and bread…wine and breast.

    The soldier is no criminal, I think but a minister of societal whims and polarities.

  5. Chimezie says:

    Thanks, Tim, for your view. Your view is quite interesting.

  6. LegendaryCJN says:

    Nice, nice…
    Succinct review…
    After the Nigeria Civil War, war themes became recurrent motif in Nigeria literature which Soyinka aptly capture in the above poem…

  7. daniel says:

    Good good

  8. LegendaryCJN says:

    A bird-eye review I must confess.
    Soyinka’s works are almost always hard nuts to crack, but see how this one withers in your hand like a dying rose.
    Undergraduates of Literature should find this page educating.

    Thanks
    You
    For
    This.

  9. Mr. Blank says:

    can i use this post for my report?

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