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Ben Okri’s “An African Elegy” is an elegy quite unlike the conventional Graynian elegy. However, it evokes the sense of loss and innocence for the dark continent, Africa. He not only manages to portray his feelings but also convey the message of the Africans in general using a first-person narrative.
About The Poet
Nigerian-born British Ben Okri is critically known for his immersive writing style which he uses to delve deep into themes like reality, spirituality and so on. He emerges in a culturally diverse environment which is greatly reflected in his writing. Political issues in Nigeria like the Biafran War deeply affected Okri, later on becoming a critical viewpoint in his writing. His third novel, “The Famished Road,” in 1991 brought him under the limelight as he won the Booker Prize for that. Throughout his life, he has continued weaving stories with myths and ballads, all the time addressing and challenging issues like poverty, social-inequality and oppression faced by people in Nigeria. One such poem, “An African Elegy,” highlights the beauty of Africa along with the sorrows faced by the natives.
Though the structure of the poem adheres to literary tradition, it is flexible and is in the form of free verse. The poem is made up of 6 distinct stanzas, all portraying a different viewpoint yet working together to enhance the main picture. All the stanzas consist of 5 lines each. An elegy is usually written to pay homage to someone’s death, here Okri bemoans the loss of identity and innocence of the natives. However unlike a conventional elegy, Okri’s elegy evokes hope and induces good faith eventually in the course of the poem.
Analysis and Summary
We are the miracles that God made To taste the bitter fruit of Time. We are precious. And one day our suffering Will turn into the wonders of the earth.
In this stanza the poet uses the word “we” to refer to the African people and claim that they are “miracles that God made.” Okri continues saying that though they are forced to endure hardships and difficulties, it is just a test of time. One day will come when they will be known for their sufferings which have turned into bravery overtime. Their “suffering” will be known far and wide as the “wonders of the earth.” God’s creations are always special and He has stored something wonderful for all which shall be uncovered in a matter of time.
The poet establishes unity in the first stanza. He brings forth the idea of community amongst the African individuals. The poet doesn’t talk about one person suffering, he presents it as the sufferings of mankind for the greater good. By saying “miracles that God made” Okri shows their faith in God and their positive take on the outcome. Good things take time to be made. Though he strongly argues that they don’t deserve the sorrow, he knows that no one can withstand such sufferings as bravely as they are able to do. Okri incites hope by telling that their sufferings will come to an end and the future would marvel at their endurance. The poet conveys the message that no life is trivial and that each and every person’s manifestations will work out. God has in store all wonderful things for all individuals. One needs to have faith and wait for things to work. This serves as a message to the readers to be patient and endure the present by being who they are as good things will eventually unfold.
There are things that burn me now Which turn golden when I am happy. Do you see the mystery of our pain? That we bear poverty And are able to sing and dream sweet things
In the second stanza, the poet turns towards the readers and poses a question. He asks them to empathize and understand the pain they undergo. He claims that they are “things that burn,” things that hurt. However in spite of their poverty the African individuals shoulder all difficulty and burst into a beautiful symphony of dance and music.
The poet continues the theme of hope, now intertwined with the idea of identity. He says that their scars are a symbol of their struggle which they proudly wear. “Things that burn” can have a positive mindset as claimed by Okri in the poem. This implies that the natives are able to find hope and happiness even in the darkest of times. Their source of happiness is not material but emotional and spiritual. They seek solace through music and dance. They serve as a source of comfort and joy to one another and are able to endure their suffering. Okri highlights the strength of his people as it is truly cumbersome to “sing and dream sweet things” when one is racked with poverty and hardships. The poet’s rhetorical question to the readers does leave them pondering about their true self. The nature of mankind is to whine for more, but they forget to remain grateful. Everyone is blessed with something or the other, which one should always remember even in struggling times.
And that we never curse the air when it is warm Or the fruit when it tastes so good Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters? We bless things even in our pain. We bless them in silence.
In this stanza the poet praises the beauty of Africa and how blessed the individuals are to experience that. He says that no matter how difficult it becomes for them, they never blame the air for being too warm. Neither do they curse the fruits for tasting “so good” nor do they curse “the lights that bounce gently on the waters.” They accept everything happening to them and around them. Okri says that they may be silent but can never forget to express gratitude for what they have. It is through silence that they endure “in pain” and as well as “bless them.”
This stanza highlights the persona of the African individuals more strongly. They are humble and gracious for the life given to them, irrespective of the sufferings. The poet shows how accepting they are and that they never grumble or whine. The natives accept things for what they are. They don’t curse the weather just because it’s warm. Quite similarly they don’t lament about their sorrows, but strive to work harder and overcome the misfortune. They hope for better things all the while being appreciative for what they already have. Readers should try to be more like the individuals the poet has drawn in the poem. They should be resilient and humble yet continue to have faith and be a source of support for each other. The community life will continue to strive towards perfection only if people accept things as they are in their truest form.
That is why our music is so sweet. It makes the air remember. There are secret miracles at work That only Time will bring forth. I too have heard the dead singing.
As a reflection to the previous stanza the poet says that it is because of their gratitude that their music is so melodious. It is so harmonious that even the air around them “remembers.” The poet points out that their hardships and toils won’t last forever. That it was just a matter of time that all the “secret miracles” that the universe has in store for them will come to light. The poet knows that good things are on the way for he has indeed “heard the dead singing.” The poet evokes the idea of encouragement through the dead ancestors, saying they too lived a life of hardships and endured and eventually found peace and happiness.
This stanza serves as an explanation of the previous stanza. Okri explains why their music sounds so heavenly and it is only because of the people’s gratitude. The air has been personified by saying how it buzzes and hums to the sweet melody of the natives. The air provides an opinion by remembering the gratitude. The idea of destiny is raised here as the poet implies “secret miracles at work” for the individuals. Having a strong faith in the universe and God and manifesting positive things will surely result in a better life. The last line of this stanza reflects upon the idea of an elegy where the poet hears the dead’s voices all in the form of a song. The poem strongly reflects on the idea of faith. One should remember the blessings of the proceeding ancestors and try to follow their footsteps of waiting patiently for miracles to unfold and take place as they will eventually.
And they tell me that This life is good They tell me to live it gently With fire, and always with hope. There is wonder here
The poet continues by saying that those dead voices actually urge him to “live it gently.” He says that the only reason he’s not losing hope is because there is always hope everywhere, even in the dark. The poet also believes in “wonder” left on Earth, even if it is an excruciatingly long wait. The art of waiting patiently might be painful but it will bear great fruits in the future. By being gentle and keeping hope one can overcome any long standing struggle.
Reinforcement of faith and hope is evoked in this stanza. The ancestors of the people trod them with encouragement saying their future is approaching them with better things. “To live it gently” is a way of reminding them not to lose themselves and remain brave and humble even in the direst circumstances. The African community will persevere with “hope” and alone with passion which is symbolized through “fire.” Though the contrast has been made between being passionate and going gently, both contain hope and optimism to survive. The dead ancestors signal a reason for their survival for so long, and it’s only because they are yet to see the wonders of the Earth. By using irony in this stanza the poet has highlighted the basic elements in life which are hope and optimism. Without that one shall fail to be either passionate or gentle. Life will render meaningless.
And there is surprise In everything the unseen moves. The ocean is full of songs. The sky is not an enemy. Destiny is our friend.
In the final stanza, Okri mirrors the beauty there is to life. He claims that all the great mysteries in the universe are unknown to mankind. He points out that everything occurs when they are meant to. The ocean, he shows, is “full of songs.” The sky, with its endless stretch, is not the enemy. Similarly one’s destiny awaits them, no matter what, and that one shouldn’t think of them as an enemy either.
The poem’s final stanza brings all the intertwined themes of identity, destiny and faith together. The poet portrays the fact that no one knows what God’s will. He says that what’s meant to happen will happen, and that one needs to accept things as they are and move on with life. The poet says that one mustn’t fear the sky because it’s endless. Similarly one mustn’t fear one’s destiny just because it’s unknown. Hope is what makes a man survive the test of time. Believing in oneself and in God will live to see better lives. Sufferings will only lead to a more beautiful future for the individuals which they truly deserve. The sky further stands as an image for heaven and heavenly bodies including God. The poet urges to believe in God even if one cannot see or perceive Him. He is there, working on the miracles to happen.