Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”


Keats might well be termed a “poet’s poet” like his model Spenser [1] because of his lavish and expert use of the specific materials of poetry: rhetorical figures, concrete images, and foregrounded emotion. Keats’ sensibility doubtless generated this sort of poetic practice, but his philosophic tendencies led him also to exploit the specific resources of poetry by his embrace of contradiction, ambivalences, ambiguities, and mysteries. Poetry provides a more accurate and effective verbal technology than non-aesthetic discourses in treating the apparently paradoxical, irrational, or inscrutable, and Keats’ unsystematic skepticism was in this sense most appropriate to his poetic practice.

Subjectively I have always preferred the concrete and sensual Keats to the abstract idealizing Shelley, the discursive mystic Wordsworth, and the knotty intellectual Coleridge. Keats enjoyed a vogue in the nineteenth century; scenes from his narrative in Spenserian stanzas “The Eve of St. Agnes” were painted repeatedly including works by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Arthur Hughes. Yet the poem today has a mixed reputation and, indeed, Keats did not speak highly of it. To some readers “The Eve of St. Agnes” is confusing, its themes unstable and ill-expressed. One critic has catalogued fifty-nine different readings. He went on to propose a sixtieth. [2]

Until recent years the story’s popularity derived from regarding it as a glorification of both heightened romantic love coupled with otherwise purely aesthetic values . Hazlitt says, “the reading of Mr Keat's Eve of Saint Agnes lately made me regret that I was not young again.” [3] Rossetti and the Apostles made Keats their poetic model and his influence through them extends to other pre-Raphaelites and the later Aesthetics and Decadents. The sensual strength of Keats’ work could strike readers as excessive. Hazlitt, for instance, qualifies his admiration for the poet by noting that “the fault of Mr. Keats's poems was a deficiency in masculine energy of style.” [4]

Still, despite differing value judgments, both admirers and critics agreed on the poem’s character. A late nineteenth century article provides an adequate statement of the prevailing view. “The Eve of St. Agnes is pure and passionate, surprising by its fine excess in color and melody, sensuous in every line, yet free from the slightest taint of sensuality, is unforgettable and unsurpassable as a dream of first love.” [5]

Only recently have critics noted the highly ambiguous character of Porphyro and the dubious qualities of his admittedly passionate love. [6] Yet nearly every figure of the poem displays the most problematic value. In the very first stanza the reader encounters the beadsman, praying and doing penance for the wicked baron’s family. This man is so weak that he shows the mark of death and in fact soon expires.

Angela, Madeline’s maid, in spite of her heavenly name, is also tottering on the edge of death. She is in danger morally and spiritually as well as rendering very dubious service to her mistress. When Porphyro asks her aid in gaining access to Madeline’s room, she is unqualified in her disapproval, calling him “cruel,” “impious,” and “wicked.” (XVI) She is, however, “weak in body and soul,” (X) and and suffers “agues in her brain.” (XXI) Porphyro distresses her by threatening to rouse the vicious baronial “foemen” while promising, falsely, that he will not touch the lady. (XVII) Feeling “feeble” and anxious, she gives in. She, like the beadsman praying on behalf of the vicious and violent nobles, has been praying for Porphyro, who now seems a Peeping Tom, a potential rapist, importunate and thoughtless at best. (XVIII)

The associations of his name might have prepared the reader for his problematic moral status. In the sense of “purple,” the name would simply connote aristocratic origins, but is carries allusive associations as well. Porphyry (or Porphyrius) of Tyre was a neo-Platonist of the third century C.E. who wrote anti-Christian polemics as well as a popular logic textbook, the Isagoge. Keats’ skepticism with regard to religion might links the poet and the ancient philosopher. A more likely association, however is Porphyrion, leader of the rebellious Titans according to Pindar, who was killed during the Gigantomachy. As a subversive figure who challenged Zeus he would be a natural Romantic anti-hero, paralleling the role Porphyro plays in defying the tyrannical lords and pursuing his lady as an eloping outlaw. [7]

Porphyro’s actions are difficult to defend; to idealize him would seem altogether misguided. It is clear that he acts contrary to the expressed wishes of both Madeline and Angela, thinking only of satisfying his desire. His voyeuristic ambition turns to rape, and Madeline’s flight might be thought her only option once she has had sex with him. He sings a song of “la belle dame sans mercy,” presumably imagining himself in thrall as the persona of his own ballad had been to a supernatural feminine figure, though in fact he is in control in this poem’s narrative. (XXXIII)

Madeline’s name is a form of Magdalene, and her gospel namesake has, of course, varied associations. Apart from her beauty and eventual piety, according to Luke (8:2) and Mark (13:9), she had had devils cast out of her. Most notoriously, she used to be identified with the “sinner” who washed Christ’s feet (Luke 7:37). and was considered a saved prostitute during the Middle Ages . Unlike Mary Magdalene’s reputation, however, Madeline’s virtue is closely identified with her maidenhood. Her room is “chaste” (XXI) and she is “so pure.” (XXV)

Whether these associations are relevant to the poem is questionable, but Madeline’s actions are clearly as ambiguous as Porphyro’s. She is, like him, seized by an irresistible passion, though in her case it leads her to focus only on the opportunity to have a vision of her beloved, and thus a sort of heavenly warranty on their relation, on St. Agnes Eve. She is so distracted as to be unable to deal with others and retires to bed where her abstraction remains strong enough for her to fail to notice until Porphyro has joined her. She lives in dream, vision, and fantasy until she realizes what has occurred, at which point she comes to, cries out, “woe is mine” and denounces him as “cruel,” a “traitor,” who has “deceived” her, leaving her “a dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.” (XXXVII)

Apart from the names, Keats’ literary allusions are likewise fraught with contradiction. Far from being merely ornamental, they are, in fact, disturbing and reinforce the highly ambiguous value of love. Keats compares the encounter of Porphyro and Madeline to that of Merlin and “his Demon.” (XIX) [8] This is surely a reference to Merlin’s infatuation with Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, the ruler of Avalon, a profoundly ambivalent figure who extracts Merlin’s magical knowledge for her own use and then imprisons him. Sometimes identified or associated with Morgan Le Fay, she nonetheless appears in a heroic light in several episodes, presenting Arthur with Excalibur and serving him in other ways, ultimately assisting in carrying him off to Avalon. Her appearances in the Arthurian narrative occur at significant moments and are often highly conflicted. For instance, she raises Lancelot who cuckolds Arthur. She thickens the plot, as Madeline does in spite of her pronounced passivity.

Should this cautionary story seem insufficient or thin, Keats a few stanzas later identifies Madeline with Philomel whose story concerns rape, assault, cannibalism. Madeline is described as silent, “As though a tongueless nightingale should swell/ Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.” (XXIII) Earlier Madeline had been so distracted by her amorous obsession as to be insensible to company. Here the image not only compares Madeline to the mythic victim of rape and mutilation, but also suggests that her very silence and inaction could result in her demise.
Keats so conflates Christian and love imagery that it is unclear whether the characters are deceiving themselves about the propriety of their passions or their love is indeed in some sense holy or they cynically claim holy warrant for their actions to cover guilt. For example, Porphyro addresses Madeline as an “angel,” as “paradise,” (XXVIII) she is “paradise” and as “heaven,” calling himself an “eremite,” but then immediately threatens to climb in bed with her. (XXXI)
This unstable oscillation of values and character does not arise from carelessness, nor solely from the psychological reality of ambivalence; it is based in Keats’ skepticism. “Negative capability” is doubtless the most celebrated consequence of Keats’ philosophic attitude which entertained “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” particularly in poetic texts. [9] Keats spoke in a similar vein on numerous other occasions. For instance he admitted “I have not one idea of the truth of any of my speculations – I shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right, when retired from bickering and in a proper philosophical temper.” [10] For him, that is, a “philosophic” temper is one in which he, with the ancient skeptics, must withhold judgment on all issues. Art took on the obligations of religion, proving its authenticity not as revelation confirmed at times by its compelling beauty. “I am sometimes so very skeptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthen [sic] to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance.” [11] Strong emotion could have the same authenticating power. “As Byron says, ‘Knowledge is Sorrow’; and I go on to say that ‘Sorrow is Wisdom’ -- and further for aught we can know for certainty ‘Wisdom is Folly!’ –“ [q] He declared to Fanny Brawne “Love is my Religion.” [12]

The Keats one’s reality is mental and subjective and thus an expression of imagination. To him "The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth." [13] He criticizes Wordsworth for restricting himself to the "wordsworthian or egotistical sublime" and failing to embrace contradiction. In Keats’ view the poet should be nothing himself and thus be all things, changing like a "camelion" and thus "continually . . . filling some other Body." [14] This is reflected in “The Eve of St. Agnes” by the constant confounding of lived reality with dream, vision, drunkenness, and what Keats called “faery fantasy.” The doubt about what is real within the narrative is reflected in practically every stanza.

Keats is true to the ancient Pyrrhonians in being skeptical about even his skepticism. He is thus, unlike the atheist Shelley, agnostic in religion. In spite of the unequivocal title of his sonnet “Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition,” he does not after all condemn Christianity outright. Though the sermon be “horrid,” binding men in “some black spell,” leading them to neglect the joys of life, still all “should” properly “feel a damp, because of the “chill” of mortality (“ as from a tomb”). The procession of the doomed are “sighing” and “wailing,” though in the end oblivion will be redeemed by beauty, the “many glories of immortal stamp.” Here, though Christianity be mistaken, it is symbolically apt, since it conforms to the needs of people seeking an accessible route to eternity.

In the end the reader, like Porphyro and Madeline, must flee “into the storm” (XLII)of the world, the storm of suffering and uncertainty, where they and everyone else is motivated by ego and by selflessness and by the two so bound together that the opposites can scarcely be distinguished. The steely sky above may seem beneficent, hostile, and indifferent by turns. Though one may count on neither truth or virtue, one always has art. The enumeration of concrete signs of the cold and dark at the outset (the owl, the hare, the huddled flock in stanza I) or the magnificent table Porphyro sets provide fetishes of beauty, compelling in their appeal yet always about to vanish before one’s eyes. Only the written reality persists, but who could resist it?

“candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, inct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez, and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarkand to cedar’d Lebanon.
(XXX)

Here indeed we have plenty. Porphyro wins his beloved and succeeds after all in the conjurer’s trick of holding “water in a witch’s sieve.” (XIV) Their egos may disqualify them as ideal romantic lovers, he through his impetuosity, she through passivity, but the sort of mental fancies, the poetry, they each weave to construct their flawed love is likely their best strategy in a fallen world that cannot be understood or controlled.



1. The term, describing Spenser, is attributed to Lamb by Leigh Hunt in Imagination and Fancy.
2. For the list of fifty-nine readings, see Chapter 3 of Jack Stillinger, Reading the Eve of St. Agnes: The Multiples of Complex Literary Transaction ( New York: Oxford UP, 1999). The same critic’s “The Hoodwinking of Madeline: Scepticism in “The Eve of St. Agnes” in Studies in Philology (vol. 58, No. 3, Jul., 1961) provides the newer interpretation in which the poem’s arch-Romantic aura is demolished, imagination is skeptically interrogated, and Porphyro appears as little short of a villain. Stillinger is excellent in providing textual evidence, particularly tracing image groups, but in the end, I choose to propose a sixty-first thematic analysis.
3. In “On Reading Old Books.” Hazlitt elaborates identifying “young” love and the aesthetic sense. “The beautiful and tender images [in “The Eve of St. Agnes”] conjured up, ‘come like shadows -- so depart.’ The ‘tiger-moth's wings,’ which he has spread over his rich poetic blazonry, just flit across my fancy; the gorgeous twilight window which he has painted over again in his verse, to me ‘blushes’ almost in vain ‘with blood of queens and kings.’ I know how I should have felt at one time in reading such passages; and that is all. The sharp luscious flavour, the fine aroma is fled, and nothing but the stalk, the bran, the husk of literature is left.”
4. In "On Effeminacy of Character."
5. “The Influence of Keats” in The Century (October 1895, vol. L, no. 6) by Henry Van Dyke. Among the many contemporary examples of the same reductive analysis is the Cliffnotes site which says in part, “Porphyro is an idealized knight who will face any danger whatsoever to see his lady love, and Madeline is reduced to an exquisitely lovely and loving young lady. Keats is interested in celebrating romantic love; romantic love is literally a heavenly experience.” See http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/k/keats-poems/summary-and-analysis/the-eve-of-st-agnes.
6. See in particular Jack Stillinger’s work noted above.
7. Marcia Gilbreath in “The Etymology of Porphyro’s Name in Keats’ ‘Eve of St. Agnes” (Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 37, 1988) argues convincingly for Porphyrion.
8. The possessive suggests either a psychomachia (the demon inside his head) or an aggressive sort of love which seeks to dominate the beloved.
9. Letter to George and Thomas Keats, on 21 December 1817.
10. Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 13 March, 1818.
11. Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818.
12. Letter to Fanny Brawne, 13 October 1819
13. Letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817.
14. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818.

Documents of the Fifth Surreal Cabaret

1. press release (in fact acts numbered 2 and 8-11 did not appear due to snowfall the day of the event)


Surreal Cabaret in Sugar Loaf – One Night Only!

The fifth Surreal Cabaret will be presented at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 3 at the Seligmann Studio, 23 White Oak Drive in Sugar Loaf. Admission is free. The event will feature a series of short performances by local artists produced by Steve Roe with the assistance of William Seaton.

Acts may cross genres, mixing poetry, drama, dance, and music, while featuring conceptual play, experimentation, and improvisation. Several projection screens will provide a variety of visual stimulation in an environment of new word patterns, sounds never heard before, and suggestive theatrical gestures.

The event is part of an ongoing series of exhibits, readings, lectures, and workshops presented by the Seligmann Center for the Arts. Kurt Seligmann was a Surrealist artist who lived in Sugar Loaf, and the Center offers a rare Hudson Valley venue for avant-garde painters, writers, and performers.

This particular show, titled “On Thin Ice,” will memorialize Seligmann’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, deemed to be accidental, on January 2, 1962. The extraordinary program, involving a wide circle of performance artists in the region, is detailed below.

For further information contact William Seaton at seaton@frontiernet.net or Steve Roe at sroe33@optonline.net . See www.kurtseligmann.org for details on other programs.

1. The program opens with a benediction from Surrealist chaplain Lama Swine Toil.
2. The Surreal Cabaret house band Mr. Sexy and the Hot Chicks warms up the audience.
3. “Lamp,” inspired by 1964 lamp subculture and other new wave consumerism is staged.
4. Spreaders offers “SoftError\\\drenched electronics::: damaged cassette loop junk media disruptions.”
5. “Dada Frolic” features Dan & Detta Andreana- speaking in their native tongue (Jibberish) and making sound art on the Bow Box and The Micasonic String Board.
6. William Seaton and the voice of Patricia Seaton alert the audience to “The Metaphysics of Everyday Life.”
7. Steve Roe performs “I Am Strange,” a work inspired by the work of Sun Ra.
8. The New York Pop Conceptualists, featuring Julie Mejia on bass, synthesizer, and vocals and Matt Luczak on drums, create “a response to the event itself.”
9. “Caution Horses,” from Jeffery Justin Van Dunk, is an experimental audio visual performance.
10. Jonas Bers offers an “abstract audiovisual improvisation using handmade electronics and modified consumer equipment to produce projected images and corresponding sound.”
11. The “23rd Toad Psalm” by the Orchestra de Fou, a long standing noise orchestra led by Dr. George Omara, with the assistance of members of Ohms of Resistance and Council of (Poetic) Experimentation will close out the evening.
For further information contact Steve Roe at sroe33@optonline.net or William Seaton at seaton@frontiernet.net. See www.kurtseligmann.org for details on other programs.


2. posters by Steve Roe



3. The Lineage of the Lama Swine Toil

I am the Lama Swine Toil and, like each of you, though singular, I am not alone.

I knew the divine madman Gundam Raul who played with Vishnu in the temple babbling and sticking his fingers in the statue’s mouth: “he’ll bite, he won’t bite, he’ll laugh, no he won’t, he’ll talk, but be silent”

And my neighbor next door is that Christ of the Gospel of Thomas who warned that buyers and merchants could not enter the kingdom and said to dance naked and unashamed, trampling on one’s clothes once and for all.

I am descended from Shi de, whose janitor’s broom swept his own mind clean, wiser than all the learned monks at the Guoqing Temple

And the illiterate Huineng who was delivering firewood when enlightened and who stole away in the night to avoid the envious when he was named Sixth Patriarch

I am at one with Muhammed who cut the sleeve of his robe to avoid disturbing his dear cat Muezza who slept and later the cat bowed to him in thanks as my own latter day cats have been known to do.

I revere the memory of the great Ji Gong who crazy and drunk was expelled from his monastery and thereafter practiced compassion in wine shops and low dives up and down the dusty streets crowded with suffering souls.

And in France my brother, the tumbler of Our Lady outshone the learned monks when he leaped and danced in love before the altar and heaven’s queen found his offering most sweet.

Not a hair’s breadth separates me from Johannes Tauler who knew Mechthild’s Flowing Light and knew as prophets and physicists alike will say that all without exception returns in the end to the source.

I am cousin, so I think, to Zhuang Zi who preferred his “filthy ditch” to the sovereign’s court and said, “I have determined never to take office, but prefer the enjoyment of my own free will."

I would scratch Diogenes that dog upon his hoary head, Diogenes who when he saw the shepherd boy drink from his own hand, then tossed away his begging bowl and said, “Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time.”

I strain my ears to hear the strain that came one night to that most annoying lady Margery Kempe as she lay with her husband in bed and “herd a sownd of melodye so swet and delectable, hir thowt, as sche had ben in paradyse.”

I think of dear Ikkyu who was brilliant with his flute entered brothels in his monastic robes and insisted his time with pavilion girls deepened his enlightenment.

I am as one with Hakuin Ekaku who, when asked about the afterlife, said, “Why should I know?” and when the questioner cried out, “You are a great teacher!” replied, “Yes, but not a dead one.”

Xuefeng Yicun tells all we need to know: “The Buddha is a bull-headed jail-keeper and the Patriarchs are horse-faced old maids!”



4. a further fit of "The Metaphysics of Everyday Life"

And a birth releases widening waves rolling fugue-like in four dimensions or more throughout fields known and fields awaiting a viewer and further yet where sight is unnecessary altogether;

For a death as well makes waves of an inverse character but no less graceful and potent, and were some gifted eyes to view from time’s back end they would see the end as the start spelled backwards, though the symmetry escapes us now,

And just as the truth of a birth is concealed behind jubilation that, in spite of mortality, we are keeping abreast of the game through efforts strenuous and strongly felt through the entire human race,

So the truth of a death is folded in self-pity and vain attempt to grasp at the straws that felt the summer sun so many years ago and, though we knew this moment was coming, we were nonetheless hard hit.

And we wept not for the departed but for ourselves, and not for our loss and raw loneliness torn open but as well for our own death lurking in a distant hallway awaiting most patiently our approach ever closer past the dusty doors of abandoned offices until we come upon it all at once.

For to be immortal would be like being of infinite height and would surely prove an inconvenience and hardly a thing to be wished for though it is true that one’s finiteness does not always seem to fit even after squirming and stretching!

And great flares of transformation arise and stars pass out of existence in the blooms of supernovae and think quiet afterthoughts of cosmic rays, world without end,

For there is always a further readjustment to be sought whether in the passing of stormy galactic clouds or some sac of eggs suspended in swampy water, restless and wriggling, or patterns of pencil marks on paper, and things never come wholly to rest.

And what Socrates called wind-eggs may not be without value in the end, for the church and the film industry and indeed all the advertisers likewise trade in images, and enjoy good custom indeed, though poets may go begging.

For liberation as well as manacles must be mind-forged, though the meadow breeze in one’s hair is none the less palpable for that, nor the dizzying sight from the peak, and we must be glad of our bargains and catch them where we may.

And the sum of all things is precisely nothing at all, when positive charges meet negative and matter meets antimatter and finds annihilation perfect and sweet and a most elegant end,

For we can only think that the primary concerns of the kosmos are aesthetic in spite of baryon asymmetry and other pebbles of ignorance that cramp our walk and give us blisters;

And Kurt Seligmann has gone off to join the many, for a single slip on a January morning may overpower a legion of intentions and halt the burgeoning of a host of futures each full of fresh promise,

For like him it is all we can do to pursue the vermin that annoy and the nightmares that trouble our sleep and the furtive darting threats that circle about seeking to gain advantage in this imperfect light.

And we can only breathe together and think of him and gaze each other in the eye and know we walk also a path that can only end in drama and alarm.

For the pot will continue to boil and sometimes to boil over and sometimes to simmer and in it the currents are drifting describing lovely patterns that never repeat and the dance cannot come to rest and in this it is like feet when the music plays.

Onitsha Market Literature

Numbers in parentheses refer to page number in the University of Kansas pdf, not page numbers in the original text. I have followed this practice to more clearly refer to introductory, unnumbered pages in Umunnah’s booklet. Numbers in brackets refer to endnotes. This essay is meant only to provide a descriptive overview of Onitsha market literature. Non-standard spelling and usage in Nigerian texts is all in the original.


Onitsha is a Nigerian city of Igbo-speaking people in Anambra State. The city had been a center of commerce before Europeans arrived and, in the mid-nineteenth century, was a major trading port of the Royal Niger Company . More recently, the city has been celebrated for one of the grandest traditional markets in West Africa. The Igbos were the target of considerable missionary activity, particularly by the Roman Catholic Church and, as a result, a high percentage of the Nigerians who early acquired a Western education were Igbo. Chinua Achebe is perhaps the most widely-known Igbo intellectual and his Things Fall Apart is an exposition of Igbo culture and its collision with European influence. After the discovery of oil, the Igbo were the dominant ethnic group in the attempted secession that resulted in the Nigerian Civil War.

Doubtless because of the unusually high level of Igbo literacy, during the 1950s and 60s a vigorous local industry in Onitsha produced books, many little longer than pamphlets, written in a vigorous vernacular, neither standard English nor pidgin. These works have come to be known as Onitsha market literature. I searched for examples when I visited Onitsha in 1979 but they seem to have vanished by that time.

Fortunately, a selection of texts is available online from the University of Kansas. [1] Of the twenty-one examples in their collection twelve concern romantic and sexual relations with titles such as Nathan O. Njoku’s Why boys don’t trust their girlfriends and Felix N. Stephen’s Beautiful Maria in the act of true love. Five engage social themes, including Marius U. E. Nkwoh’s Bribery and corruption: (bane of our society), a play on Lumumba (Thomas Orlando Iguh’s The Last days of Lumumba [the late lion of the Congo]) and one on the Biafran War (Nonye Eneanya’s In our time). Two are practical letter-writing guides (Wilfred Onwuka’s How to study and write good letters, applications, compositions, telegrams, agreements, better sentences, important letters, speaking in public and teach yourself good English and J.C.Abiakam’s How to write and reply letters for marriage, engagement letters, love letters, and how to know a girl to marry.)

The origins of the genre in a generation of Nigerians in the process of partially assimilating to Western culture is implied by two of the texts which present African traditional lore which had earlier always been transmitted orally: “Strong Man of the Pen” Sunday Okenwa Olisah’s Ibo native law and custom and C. N. Eze’s Learn to speak 360 interesting proverbs and know your true brother.

The introduction to Motulumanya J. Okafo’s Struggle for money, says it was written for “the reading pleasure of the simple-minded.” The author ridicules the obsession with love and with what an American might call Horatio Alger success stories in “the numerous pamphlets which over flood our markets,” saying, “Struggle for money is tired of love making and left it out entirely.” (2) The text should, perhaps be counted as a social tract since it attacks both tribalism on the one hand and the single-minded pursuit of wealth associated with modernity.

Like other works of popular (and traditional) literature, these books privilege received ideas. Their values are sentimental and patriotic and pious. Like the audience for the old broadside ballads in Britain, the audience for Onitsha market literature appreciated a lurid story that concluded with a satisfying moral allowing the reader vicarious transgression while maintaining behavior untainted. These works capture in particular a moment in post-colonial consciousness. Most are oriented toward mission-school values in culture as well as in ethics even to the extent of using white people in illustrations.

Onitsha market books were written in a unique sort of English that must surely compound elements of Igbo, British English, and Nigerian pidgin. The standard English component is likely to include highly formal conventions: a boy writes his father “Yours of the 10th ultimo was got with delightfulness.” (Ummunah, 35). The British usage is mixed with lively colloquialisms and heightened by showy figures of speech. [2] The very first Anglophone African author to achieve popularity, Amos Tutuola, who had attended school only through the primary grades, won his audience with a similar mixture of learned and oral usage. After Dylan Thomas praised The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town and it became a great success though Nigerian intellectuals were chagrined at having a semi-literate writer thought their greatest literary artist. Tutuola’s career was made as he continued producing work in the same vein though never surpassing his first effort.[3]

A survey of one of the texts in the Kansas collection Cyril Umunnah’s They died in the game of love [4] (which is called on the University of Kansas site a “quintessential” exemplar of Onitsha Market Literature) will indicate the thematic and stylistic characteristics of the genre. The cover depicts a European couple, he in a suit, she in pearls. He has apparently just presented her with roses, and she modestly turns her head away. The caption reads “Thony and his mother, Cathe and Agnes died for the sake of Love making” (1)making it clear that this image is meant to represent the characters of the story though their names and circumstances mark them clearly as African. In the “FORWARD” and then in the conclusion, Tennyson is quoted in another gesture toward English education. (6 and 41)

The preface (attributed to Robinson Dibua, identified also as “Daddy Robisco” and as SENIOR TUTOR in Salesmanship at the Collins Institutional Centre) identifies the novel as a “lesson” for “some of our boys and girls who feel that there is another heaven in the game of love.” (5) The plot involves romantic attachments between promising youth which result not simply in unwanted pregnancy but in four deaths.

Dibua’s remarks conclude with the line “HERE IS THE NEWSREEL,” (6) but, instead of the main narration, the didactic point is reinforced by a “SHORT POEM ON CORNER CORNER LOVE.” (One might suspect that one motive in the next features is padding. Perhaps the thirty page “novel” proved too short to stand alone and a certain number of extra pages of material had been concocted to make up the standard sixty-four. The generous spaces between sections might support this hypothesis.) St any rate the “poem” seems to make a distinction between sexual (“corner corner”) love and “natural love.” The reader is warned : “Boys and Girls bear in mind that sweet things burn lifes easily. So where there is good there must be bad. Nothing comes from nothing and Nothing goes for nothing. A WORD IS ENOUGH FOR THE WISE.” (7)

The reader is pointedly addressed: “Dearly Boys and Girls of nowadays Do you play zig-zag with your lovers?” and politely advised “IF SO KINDLY CHANGE FROM NOW.” (8) The point is illustrated by an advice column-style letter and response under the title The STORY READS. A Miss Comfort Ochonwa finds herself “in a family way,” but unsure as to which of her three lovers is the father. Oddly, she asks what she might do to “get one of them to confirm that he is really the father of the child” (8) as though the father might know what she does not. In response, the author calls her “a fool at fourty,” (9) suggesting that, once born, the issue of paternity might be clarified by the child’s appearance. Morality is unmentioned; the implication is that this young woman has foolishly wasted her potential by ignoring what must have been the guidance of her elders and community.
This is followed by a series of “QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FOR BOYS AND GIRLS” describing the qualities of good and bad children and the fates (prison or prostitution) of those who disregard their elders’ advice. (9) A rather lengthy section, the last before the main narrative provides “ADVICE FOR BOYS AND GIRLS ON LOVE MAKING.”

This begins with a provocative mention of the differing kinds of love. The first is more-or-less normative, even universal, love between the sexes, “to unite two together to benefit themselves,” here called “natural love.” The second definition, though, gives one pause: “to snatch food from one’s mouth.” The third sort of love in this reckoning is “to betray one for evil or killing” and the fourth is “to get something otherwise from one’s way.” We are told that there are many other kinds of love as well, and might feel relieved to learn that the present work will deal with the first variety “which unties [sic] two people together for something very beneficial.” (10-11)

There follows a wandering miscellany of observations on love, many to the effect that true love is not based wholly on physical qualities. Among the other likely factors Umunnah mentions as appealing are excellence as a dancer, or as a boxer, and a neat, well-kept appearance. Observing that even young students will sometimes pursue “love” attachments, Ummanah adds some puzzling comments. According to him, such children “have note the idea, which induced them to such order of nature’s principle. You should note,” he goes on, “that nature knows no law.”

Off-balance perhaps already, the reader then encounters the following fascinating cul de sac:

“A reverend (priest) or a highly developed occultist claimed to denied completely this particular law of nature, mark him, he has a private and complete and secret method (application) through which he fulfils this order. It is really true I say, he fulfils it thought what is known imagination. Anyway I am not here to discuss that matter. No one can deny the fact, except through something-otherways-otherwise.” (13)

From that (to me) inscrutable pronouncement Umunnah goes to a shocking story of a boy brought to a convent who “within 20 minutes” dies due to “overusuage of the power within” when he, as “sugar baby” feels obliged to sexually satisfy the entire school of girls. In the wake of this tragedy, the reader learns, “some of the girls adopt the use of candle sticks.” (14)
The main story of Thony finally follows (15-45) working out its melodramatic pattern of retributive justice. From a youth “full of educational desire and out doors games” (15) whose parents advise him to “finish up his carrear successfully,”(25) his lack of sexual control beings him to suicide (for which a physician readily provides him the poison). An Author’s Advice underlines the theme should it have escaped anyone. [5]

I was reminded of the principal of Unity School, Agbarho, who would, wearing a woolen three-piece suit under the broiling tropical sun and speaking in a thunderous voice, warn the students that, if they violated school rules by eating Geisha (a brand of canned sardines)they would inevitably “end up before the firing squad.” This dismal end made it difficult for him to depict even direr consequences for anyone even more profoundly wicked such as those who might venture to smoke “Indian hemp.” Daily canings were conducted before school began for the day while in the society at large public executions in sports stadia attracted large crowds and were televised for those unable to attend.

From the few preceding quotations, the reader may already have a sense of the unique eloquence of Onitsha market literature. Sometimes these expressions are similar to English ones, though often somewhat altered such as when Cathe is called “apple of my life” (23)or “the queen-moon that shone upon his heart.” (24) They seem at times wholly original such as when the author notes that the love of Thony and Cathe was “like the ‘iced-blocks,’ which they thought should not be melted.” (28-29) Elaborate rhetorical structures are sometimes constructed as when Dibua in his “FORWARD” says, “I offer no apology either for the style or the style of word which will not alter fact that night is the day without the sun just as a crime is discovered wrong.” (6) This figure identifies the day with the “discovered wrong” and night with a hidden crime, implying all moral order through which all things come out in the end.

Though I would hardly argue for the greatness of any one of the works of Onitsha market literature, as a body of work, they capture an era in Nigerian post-colonial history. The work produced by local authors during the brief efflorescence of the genre provides as well a good representation of the prudential morality of the country’s small middle class and exemplifies the character of popular literature as a whole. The particular charm of these works is their level of verbal inventiveness, replacing the strong reliance of convention which most often extends from theme to style as well. For a contemporary American their home-made quality, unpredictable in locutions, but highly determined in themes and values, has considerable charm.


1. The site is http://onitsha.diglib.ku.edu/tdc/.

2. The booklet by Nnamdi Azikiwe Nigeria’s last Governor General under the British and first President of Nigeria, titled Respect for human dignity, is a stylistic exception, written in standard English.

3. I recall Tutuola in Iowa City as a participant in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program as a thoroughly amiable man who found himself quite at a loss when placed on a panel discussing post-colonial literature.

4. See http://onitsha.diglib.ku.edu/pdf/ksrl.c3264.pdf.

5. Unfortunately, this page is reproduced imperfectly rendering it in part illegible.