Discuss the religious-cum-metaphysical Experience in any two of Christopher Okigbo’s poems in Heavensgate.
African poetry is basically a search for indigenous African philosophies, art, cultural identity, theological and religious beliefs, roots of nature, and thoughts distinct from the world as a whole. These African writers focuses on real and crucial issues arising from the banks of Africa like the freedom struggle, corruption, oppression of women by men, leadership, famine, diseases, migrations and many more. They also focus and emphasize on the beauty of an African woman and the importance of an African religious belief. Initially, African poetry was meant to be performed orally and not to be read. Because of this, oral literature has always been limited to time, it is live and involves audience participation and therefore, publicly owned. Christopher Okigbo was an African poet who was basically brought up by an African family which practiced the African tradition. He was born in 1932 in Ojoto Village in the eastern part of Nigeria. He came from a family with strong religious and cultural beliefs. His family was Roman Catholic Church (Christians) by denomination. His father was a leader at a catholic school but his grandfather had been saving as a shrine priest of the river goddess known as Idoto. The experience of these two family members raised a number conundrums regarding his identity and cultural heritage. Okigbo’s religious and spiritual experience is vivid through out his poems in Heavensgate. This paper attempts to discuss the religious-cum-metaphysical experience in ‘Overture’ and ‘sacrifice’, Christopher Okigbo’s poems in Heavensgate. Definitions of key terms will be highlighted with respect to the question.
According to Cross (1983:1171) ‘Religious is a technical term for a member of a religious order or congregation’. He further stressed in general terms that religious is a theological concept dealing with beliefs and sacred matters like the study of gods and the questions about the nature of divine. “Metaphysics is the study of existence or being in general” Isaac and Allan(1989:805). Traditionally, metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that attempts to understand the fundamental nature of all realities whether visible or invisible. Aristotle used this term to refer to some of his works which was in form of theological philosophy but today it is used to mean the same as ‘spiritual’ though ‘spiritual’ refers to a realm of spirits while ‘metaphysical’ is a general term which includes the spirits or something highly abstract, over theoretical. On the other hand, metaphysical poets are generally described as those poets who do not follow the conventions of Elizabethan period but instead they use metaphysical conceit as a tool for enriching their poems breaking rules of rhyming, iambic pentameter, rhythm and general rules raised during Elizabethan period.
The publication of heavensgate by Christopher Okigbo marked his initiation return to the African cultural heritage and the deeply-felt personal rebirth with the goddess of his tradition called Idoto. As used in ‘Overture poem’ Idoto is a mother goddess of the village stream in the poet’s hometown known as Ojoto, in eastern Nigeria. The oilbean is part of the mangrove ecology in this river town which was one of the emblems being worshiped by the river goddess Idoto. The poet discloses his religious and metaphysical experience by bringing out family beliefs into the poems. His vision for the spiritual quest led the poet to classical myths and the writing of melodic modes.
Focusing our discussion on these two poems ‘overture’ and ‘sacrifice’ It is clear that the genre or the form of these poems are lyrical panegyrics. Lyrical, because the persona is basically trying to express his feelings and attitudes towards his religious and metaphysical experience in his life. On the other hand, it is Panegyrics because the persona is trying to appease the gods and the metaphysical or spiritual emotions of his African tradition. Much as we belong to the society, we cannot run away from certain facts in Okigbo’s poems in Heavensgate. There is much tenderness in evocation of the poet’s physical environment, family relations and the religious denomination. These three factors dominate in Okigbo’s Heavensgate. The poems read;
Before you, mother Idoto, Thundering drums and cannons
naked I stand, in palm grove:
before your watery presence, the spirit is in ascent.
I have visited,
Leaning on an oilbean, on palm beam imprinted
lost in your legend…… my pentagon-
under your power wait I I have visited the prodigal….
on bear foot,
watchman for the watchword
at heavens gate; In palm grove
Long drums and cannons:
out of the depths my cry the spirit in the ascent.
give ear and hearken.
In these two poems, the persona is an adult who uses compact language not for the masses. The setting is within the structure of ritual experience in which various influences were brought into a mantic (belief) confrontation with one another within the mystical experience.
Christopher Okigbo’s poems in Heavensgate reflects his autobiographical experience in religious and spiritual realms. The persona in ‘Sacrifice’ poem, abandoned his ancestral spirits and was just on the crossroad between modern and traditional beliefs. His reaching to sacrifice point shows that he was carrying a religious culture of doubtful morality. The persona was passing through a literally journey of self discovery. This is similar to what was happening in the forty to sixties when many Africans were raising questions about who they were and to which domains they belonged to in Africa. Many artists during that time including the persona in sacrifice poem found their answers in cultural lines which had opened up amongst the African communities in the years of black renaissance thereby, shedding the yolk of colonialism. The prodigal’s pursuit of his identity especially the symbolic terrain is defined by the Christian cosmology or Christian ethics and moral theology. Sacrifice poem is clearly a religious-cum-metaphysical experience of the persona as he respects the spiritual realms of existence. He realized that one becomes a person only by virtue of proper fit between the pre-natal vowel and the over-arching destiny uniting the succession of ancestors that constitutes the family tree. We can see that the persona is in an act of submission as he begins his ritual cleansing and self-dedication to the guiding spirits of his tradition.
Thundering drums and Cannons
in palm grove:
the spirit is in ascent.
De-de Vries (1974) explained the symbols in this poem in the following way;
“Thunder is the voice of the supreme deity (god like) expressing
his anger, assent(agreement to proposal) or proclamation. page 466”
“Drum is a sacrificing altar, mediator between heaven and earth.
It also symbolizes the dispenser of evil spirits. Also symbolizes
ecstasy for religious and fertility purposes page 149”
“Palm (tree) can symbolize gods, victory and elevation. Palm may
also be referring to the hand touching the shrines, page 356”
“Grove is associated with religious, primitive worship of vegetative
nature and also associated with nymphs or goddesses, page 229”
“Cannon symbolizes heavy voice from the high authority beyond
“Thundering drums and cannons”(Sacrifice: verse one) suggests that the Guiding spirits are angry with the persona who is at the drum or sacrificing altar before these spirits. The use of palm grove in verse two is meant to demonstrate that the gods being talked about here are nymphs associated with religious primitive of worshiping vegetative nature. Nevertheless, from the title of the poem ‘sacrifice’ itself, it is noted that the persona is in an act of submission or self-dedication to the guiding spirits of his tradition and that, this sacrifice is being done on the sacrificing alter or to the mediator between the earth and heaven. The persona is uttering these words while his five fingers (“my pentagon” verse 6 sacrifice) of the hand are touching (imprinted line 5) the guiding spirits on the alter where the sacrifice is being done. The ‘palm beam’ is referring to the religious shrines of primitive worship of vegetative nature as he say
I have visited,
on palm beam imprinted
In stanza three which says “I have visited, the prodigal…….” suggests that the persona never followed his tradition actively in the sense of offering sacrifices and the poet’s anagnorisis came in a little bit late and we see the intimations of the poet’s new consciousness by realizing that he cannot do without them. And therefore, he decided to confess and offer the sacrifices as demanded by the tradition. Because of this negligence, the guiding spirits are angry with him and we see this from the first line in the poem “thundering drums and cannons”. But because the persona has been restored by the effort made to revisit the shrines, the grove (nymphs) have elevated him or her to the original state. This is shown in the first and last stanza as the verse say ‘the spirit is in ascent’ reflecting that he is subsequently transformed into an initiatory essences and charged to begin a new life. The restoration of this prodigal persona in ‘sacrifice poem’ can be backed up by the initial words of the author in his daily life experience. In 1967, the year Okigbo was to die in the Nigerian civil war, Okigbo told Whitelaw in an interview that:
I do not feel that as a Christian I have been uprooted from my own
village gods. We have a goddess and a god in our family, our ancestral
gods. And though I do not worship these actively, in the sense of offering
them periodic sacrifices, I still feel that they are the people protecting me
(quoted by maja-peace in Okigbo’s ‘collected poems’ published in 1989)
This interview can be regarded as confessional statement to the tutelary spirits of the African homeland from which his experience is based. He remains conscious of the subliminal element in his being that protects and saves his prodigal life. Now in this poem he is only asking the spirits (“Mother Idoto”) to pardon and restore him. The interview itself reflects the religious-cum-metaphysical experience of the poet Identity in relation to “overture” and “Sacrifice”.
In ‘overture’ the Persona is more like reciting or chanting from the rituals of Idoto, a river goddess of the author’s village. This incantation is intruding readers of this poem into the persona’s cultural and religious experience. From the first two stanzas, readers can tell that the persona is in complete submission at a sacred place as he says ‘naked I stand, before your watery presence’ and that a secrete culture is being practiced because the images used tells us that; this poem is a translation from the oral praises of mother Idoto and its occasion composition was during the worship of mother Idoto. In1989, an edition book of Christopher Okigbo was published by Paul Theroux and Adewale Maja-peace entitled ‘Collected Poems’. The images in heavensgate from this book reflected that; ‘Idoto is the goddess of the village stream in the poet’s hometown Ojoto, in eastern Nigeria; the oilbean is part of the mangrove ecology in this riverine town and it is one of the emblems of Idoto’s worship.
“Before you, Mother Idoto” (overture: Verse one) suggests that the persona is addressing a female figure that is superior in nature. Line two affirms the compliance or the complete submission of the persona to the omniscient spiritual figure.
The images in ‘Overture’ clearly show that the poem is a reflection of religious and metaphysical experience of the persona. In addition, the persona chose ‘water’ as an image because that’s where the river goddess Idoto is found. The oilbean in the fifth line of ‘overture’ justifies the mangrove ecology of Idoto’s emblem worship. These images are not found in the Elizabethan period and therefore, the author Christopher Okigbo can be regarded as a metaphysical poet. In Overture, Okigbo begins by finding himself before the watery presence of Idoto. He is naked, a supplicate offering himself as a sacrifice to his own poetic impulse. From these explanations, Dathone wrote in ‘black Orpheus’: “Okigbo’s poetry in Heavensgate is about the evolution of a personal religion and his spiritual experience”.
In the last stanza of ‘overture’, Watchman suggests that the persona is a man and Heavensgate is an experience to his life. The persona is in complete submission to the guiding spirits as he say “under your power wait I on bare foot” and basically pleading for acceptance as the last verse says ‘give ear and hearken’ to mean please listen to me. ‘Overture’ is closely related to ‘sacrifice’ in the sense that the persona in both poems intends to construct a spiritual sanctuary to accommodate the most cherished affinities, his most deep-seated instincts and sensibilities. The essence of all this is that as the persona takes the literally journey of self-discovery through a wide range of people and tongues, he will have attained a sense of his complex personality by means of a guiding beacon which he can fairly claim to be his own. The persona in these poems wrestles with residual images of religious aspects as they learn to transcend the endeavors to find themselves.
In conclusion, “Overture” and “Sacrifice” in Heavensgate initially expressed the poets complete abandonment to the goddess Idoto. It is a rite of passage in which the poet is completely enthroned by the goddess and gives himself passionately, humbly and completely to her as a prodigal son who has repented and finally decide to come home. The persona is naked before Idoto. He is lost in her legend and this verse is found in both overture and sacrifice showing how repentant and submissive the persona is in the heart before the guiding spirits. These poems review the Christianity and the traditional religions in the persona’s life and these are the religious-cum-metaphysical experiences obtained in these two poems. The ideas raised in these poems are similar to those happening in the Catholic Church like Praising Mary who is believed to be the mother of God. The persona also brings the theme of destruction of African religions by the European Christian missionaries. The persona employs what Eliot called the mythical method which involves abandoning logical metaphysical composition and using myth and indirect references to relate traditional religions and modern Christianity. Although Okigbo’s poems in Heavensgate ‘Overture’ and ‘Sacrifice’ are complex and dense, containing references of his traditional culture and metaphysical experience, they remind Africans on the importance of their religious faith in ritual and spiritual realms. Okigbo would be criticized internationally in ‘Overture’ and ‘sacrifice’ for using some symbols which are not internationally recognized. There are some symbols specific to his tradition and knowing them would require someone to visit his world. In “overture” and “sacrifice” the persona is requesting for pardon from the guiding spirits. By so doing, they have disclosed their cultural beliefs and the various misadventures of the prodigal life. By ideology, these two poems attempt to explore the configuration of religious and metaphysical experience of Africans urging the spirits of their ancestors to continue to proclaim themselves even within the language that seek mantic cadenza (brilliant prophetic passage) of an African sensibility and ancestral outlook as both poems touch the theme of religiosity and metaphysical experiences of the persona.
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