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Soyinka’s early romance with England 1954-1959: A cold chapter for an anti-form rebel – Part 2


(July has come to be known as Wole Soyinka’s month in celebration of his birthday. This two-part essay explores a significant moment in Soyinka’s life. Read on)

Wole’s greatest point of admiration for Knight had to do with the revered Thespian’s contribution to the critical reinvention of Shakespeare in the first half of the twentieth century, and the authoritatively refreshing texture of Knight’s re-reading of an oeuvre of four centuries. Irretrievably devoted to the charming spirituality of Shakespeare’s poetic drama, Knight’s attempt to articulate parameters which sought to impose avant garde attitudes – “such as impressionistic, often overwrought ‘poetic’ writing and a constant Romantic search for the transcendental” – on the study of Shakespearean drama stoked considerable controversy. But neither this nor the other perceived excesses of his scholarly passions could undermine his influence as one of the most brilliant, independent-minded interpreters of Shakespeare. Michael Taylor, in his contribution to Adrian Poole’s (Ed) Great Shakespeareans, writes about the G. Wilson Knight legacy: “Not everyone will agree that Knight is an undoubted ‘Great Shakespearean,’ but if striking originality and widespread influence on the construction of Shakespeare for the critic’s contemporaries and subsequent generations count importantly in our criteria for evaluating greatness, there is little doubt that Knight is a great Shakespearean by those standards.”

Knight’s Shakespearean legacies did more for Soyinka: it provided him with an early empowering vision with which to return to his own backgrounds in quest for a ‘home-grown’ theoretical foundation for the construction of what the Nobel Committee would refer to as Soyinka’s evocation of the drama of existence. It was therefore a fitting tribute to Knight that the essayistic treatise which emerged from Wole’s vigorous inward search for an original dramatic model, “The Fourth Stage,” would be his contribution to an anthology celebrating Knight, published in 1969. Gerald Moore would, in reviewing the implication of Wole’s essay submission to the book, The Morality of Art: Essays Presented to G. Wilson Knight by His Colleagues and Friends as a solemn acknowledgement of intellectual, cultural and artistic debt, contend: “To trace the precise lines of influence from one creative imagination to another always carries the dangers of literalism and pedantry, but it is noteworthy that in an important essay contributed to a volume recently presented to Wilson Knight, Soyinka has sought the meaning of tragedy for the Yoruba in terms of dramatic symbolism and ‘the poetry of actions,’ terms with which Knight himself has shown a life-long preoccupation. Knight’s insistence in his criticism upon penetrating always to the structure of symbolism underlying dramatic ritual, whether in Shakespeare or in Ibsen, can safely be named as one of the strongest influences bearing upon Soyinka during these important years at Leeds, years during which his own swiftness and originality of mind seem to have impressed several of his teachers.”


Like Wole’s other teachers at Leeds, Knight simply had to take note of this young Nigerian with an infectious quaintness. Gratefully, this had to be about academic potential as it was any other of Wole’s many capabilities. In the preface to The Golden Labyrinth: A Study of British Drama (1962), Knight acknowledged that “…Whilst I was planning out my new Shakespeare essay, Mr Wole Soyinka wrote an examination answer that touched and clarified my plans, both in that essay and elsewhere.” The real nature of this impact by Wole on Knight would be ratified by James Gibbs after Knight’s retirement. What seemed to have “touched and clarified” Knight’s plan would be Wole’s contention that “Lear was ‘most royal’ when on the heath.” According to Knight, “what I liked was just the use of the word ‘royal’ for Lear on the heath, and then I thought it so good that I felt it had probably, in a vague way, helped me.” Apart from his satisfactory evaluation of Wole’s deep critical insights, Knight had been impressed with him as an individual. He once had cause to provide the following glowing assessment: “[Soyinka was] an excellent bridge diplomatically. He understood things from a European viewpoint. He was also committed to his own people, culture, etc.” Knight had, in this one statement, probably summarized the entire essence of Wole’s ‘double heritage,’ intellectual orientation which his sojourn at Leeds validated.

The core of the orientation to which Wole and his mates were exposed at Leeds, much like Ibadan and elsewhere, consisted of an intense combination of curricular discipline and a guided range of extra-curricular dissipation. For those in the English Department, parading what Wole himself has described as “a formidable team” of lecturers, they could afford to match the extensive appreciation of the humanistic ideals ground out of varied literatures of centuries-past with the social and political impositions of a modern world at its expressive best. They were not just expected to absorb and reflect on the bequests of societies writers of many generations have tried to convey in eye-catching, enduring imaginative patterns. The demand on them not just to discover the artistic and cultural flavours of their own lives, but to contribute to the construction of the social aesthetics and identity for the epoch remained strong, if not overwhelming. At Wole’s Leeds, the academics was top-draw with the production of competent, enviable professionals in mind. But it was also conscious of the responsibility to allow and assist students pursue passions and philosophies that would stimulate and consolidate the necessary variety of social composition.

Wole’s English honours’ class work involved lectures and assessment on English drama, poetry and prose of various periods, dominated by Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Ibsen, etc. With his relative maturity (compared to his Ibadan days), the challenge to prove an academic point in a very stirring environment, a world apart from home, and of course, the inspiration of magisterial teachers like Dobree, Kettle and Knight, Wole rose stoically to the occasion. He read widely and demonstrated intellectual alertness which impressed even his legendary teacher-mentors. For one who had come in with an unshakable mindset to train as a writer, he also opened himself up to creative influences. For instance, Wole’s sensitivity to dramatic apprenticeship in particular consigned him to close reading of Shakespeare and Ibsen, and a number of Irish and Italian models. Though he would wonder about the scope and character of its constitution, Wole also came in contact with ‘World Drama’ largely made up of European and American names – Ben Johnson, J.M. Synge, Gerhart Hauptmann, Frank Wedekind, Jean Girodoux, Eugene O’ Neil, etc, and would always exhibit a cerebral constructiveness in any conversations around them.

Barring certain elements of overzealous linguistic flavouring (a controlled, mature version of which would become one of the hallmarks of the Soyinka tradition) Wole’s essays bore the promise of a rather absurdist creativity and deep-thinking versatility. His arguments were always insightful, even if sometimes more of the product of a mind that ran at uncommon wavelengths. His English, already impeccable in speech and writing for a second language speaker, could only get better, what with his habit of experimentation, which introduced imaginative improvisations that, even when provoking outrage, would always worm their way to acceptability, and adoration. As his intellectual and artistic capabilities developed with passionate contact with an avalanche of globalist philosophies, the idiom of literary transaction took on a necessary exoticism, and as half his readers would complain, a worrying complicatedness.

One of Wole’s early scholarly assignments was to pore through layers of the established traditions of Western literature in search of reassuring symmetrical ingredients for the African literary potential. A large chunk of his work, particularly of the early period, bears sufficient evidence of his accomplishment on this score. Of course, the location of the theoretical base of his dramaturgy – complete with a Yoruba cosmological reinvention – at the Nietzschean principles which fascinated his mentor, G. Wilson Knight is one other confirmation that he was not at Leeds principally in search of grades. Straddling between cultures – especially the Western and the African – and for such a fulminating intellect, Wole surely generated perspectives that enlightened even his illustrious lecturers.

Wole’s endeavours were enough to earn him an upper Second Class degree. But there was not, and has not been, a shortage of sentiments about how easily it could have been a First Class, had he not been so distracted. Just like Ibadan, the Leeds story for Wole revolves around the effortless genius who once again proves incapable of the rigorous discipline to summon the full complement of his endowments to make one decisive certificated statement. Wole, not unexpectedly, had been short-changed on this score by the pull of his rampant artistic energies, which, bursting at the seams, hardly waited for him to draw the curtains tidily on his undergraduate work to begin to suggest irresistible alternatives to him. Increasingly, distance was put between Wole and study, until his enthusiasm for class work was completely dissolved. James Gibbs has encountered statements about the grave consequences of Wole’s distraction, one of which lamented: “He was running up and down to London (probably to the Royal Court Theatre or to the BBC) when he should have been revising.”

It may not be very charitable to link Wole’s supposed academic underperformance with the force and excitement of Leeds’ campus life, but, of course, Wole can be trusted to illuminate the social aspects of any community of (young) people anywhere in the world. His fiery antecedent at Ibadan, where he had his hands on virtually everything that is human activity – from the noble to the downright frivolous and mischievous – definitely comes in handy here. Wole’s Leeds, like his Ibadan, choked with glamorous motivation, which would place a demand on the physical and psychological resources on a young man with fully-developed social adrenalin. “Undergraduate life offered variety and creativity; student elections were hard fought, the Theatre Group pioneered productions of adventurous continental work, during Rags Week the carnivalesque annually erupted into the streets of the post-war city, and the debating society ensured that every idea was dissected before being voted on.” This was the kind of setting which Wole’s relevance sparked.

Having sorted out the question of the basic limits of British social expectation from him, he then proceeded to gradually weave himself into the cultural fabric of both the wider English society and the Leeds campus community. Wole’s social interests would always be trusted for its expansive reach, just as it was at Ibadan. James Gibbs, who has researched extensively into Wole’s day at Leeds, offers the following description: “By way of introduction to the diversity of these pursuits, it is worth pointing out that he impressed some of his contemporaries by his ability to move from group to group. He mixed with many; he was not entirely committed to any single clique.” The multi-plumaged nature of Wole’s extra-curricular concerns meant that a keen researcher like Gibbs had to cover a vast area, even transcending the shores of the United Kingdom to properly assemble a truly effervescent social image of the young Nigerian.

Just as in Ibadan, Wole’s extra-curricular life at Leeds can be roughly categorized based on the aspects of his tastes that each tributary satisfies. There were of course his charged artistic sensibilities which inevitably drew him close to music, drama and theatre, poetry and even film. There was his fascination with social intellectualism which manifested in his energetic engagement with debating, journalism, and ideological fraternizing. Then, there was his politics which inspired him towards student’s unionism, and vigorous socio-political activism. Wole was, of course, also intrigued by the discovery of other lands, as he would often cherish every opportunity to savour the offerings of, especially, Britain’s close neighbours.

Apart from his involvement with the University Theatre Company, which took some time to gain solidity, Wole’s profile as a singer and guitarist remains one of his more memorable artistic contributions to campus life. His musical instincts had come almost fully-made – as his most important motivation towards Christianity even as a child was his delight as having to sing in the choir. Again, his deep allegiance to the Yoruba space of cosmological festivities which also began very early in his life, is rooted in the spiritual rhythm of the song. When Wole, who, by the way, comes from a dynasty of distinguished songsters, along with his bosom friend, Olumuyiwa Awe, paid for guitar lessons in Lagos during the UI vacation of 1953, he may not have reckoned with the possibility that he could go to semi-professional extents in the musical venture. But at Leeds, just as in Ibadan a little earlier where he performed with such campus maestros as the redoubtable Christopher Okigbo, he would construct an unforgettably delightful image, according to his rigorous Marxist teacher, Arnold Kettle, “sitting on the floor of our crowded sitting-room, singing and playing.” Wole, perhaps doubly inspired by the recognition in the Leeds of the 1950s of the role of jazz in the promotion of black artistic creativity, would go on to produce modest performances both within and outside the university. Although his first reaction to theatre life at Leeds had been that of an “assiduous playgoer” who appeared reluctant to make full commitments to the Theatre Group, because of some personal disaffection over how it was run, it could be stated that the pleasant credibility which he would later gain on the wider English stage must be traced to the early exposure granted him by the students’ outfit. He may not have “sought major, time-consuming roles,” as James Gibbs observes, but whenever he had the opportunity of an appearance, he always brought in the unmistakable flavour of the audacity of his gifting.

Wole was also an active promoter of poetry, and was “part of the community that produced a modest, weekly magazine, Poetry and Audience.” With his literary and journalistic experience as contributor to and editor of The Eagle at the University College, Ibadan, Wole alongside the likes of Martin Banham (who was a graduate student at Leeds then, but who would come over to Ibadan to fundamentally affect the literary complexion in the 1960s) took Poetry and Audience to an enviable ranking as “perhaps the most well-known student literary periodical to have been published at the University of Leeds.” One of Wole’s creative contributions to Poetry and Audience was “By Little Loving,” which, as Gibbs submits, was a poetic response to the work of British poet, Thomas Blackburn, who held the prestigious University of Leeds Gregory Fellowship in poetry from 1956 to 1958. Poetry and Audience was to later become the model for Ibadan’s famous The Horn which would serve pretty much the same purpose of motivating young enthusiastic poets to the rudiments of early publication, with both Banham and Wole playing leading roles in the latter project.

•Ezenwa-Ohaeto, formerly Professor of English at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka; Ezechi Onyerionwu, Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London; Ngozi Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Department of English, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka


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Wole Soyinka
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