A Plea For Mercy – Kwesi Brew [For Ghana Lit Week]

Posted: November 15, 2011 in GHANAIAN POETRY
Tags: , , , , , ,




This year’s Ghanaian Literature Week began yesterday and will run to the 20th of this month. Started by Kinna Reads, it is in its second year and plans to highlight Ghanaian works of literature. It is a hugely laudable project and I have decided to review a few Ghanaian poems that I can, through the period. The poem on review today, A Plea for Mercy, was written by Kwesi Brew. He was born in 1928, at Cape Coast, Ghana and grew up in the eye of the independence struggle. Some of his poems have reflected that sense of strife. A Plea for Mercy is a classic example. He was educated in Ghana and then he travelled widely in the service of the nation. He was orphaned early in life and was raised by a guardian. He remains one of Ghana’s foremost poets and his passing away in 2007 still ranks as a low for the Ghanaian literary landscape. He was a true gem.

We have come to your shrine to worship
We the sons of the land
The naked cowherd has brought
The cows safely home,
And stands silent with his bamboo flute
Wiping the rain from his brow;
As the birds brood in their nests
Awaiting the dawn with unsung melodies
The shadows crowd on the shore
Pressing their lips against the bosom of the sea;
The peasants home from their labours
Sit by their log-fires
Telling tales of long-ago.
Why should we the sons of the land
Plead unheeded before your shrine?
When our hearts are full of song
And our lips tremble with sadness?
The little firefly vies with the star,
The log-fire with the sun
The water in the calabash
With the mighty Volta,
But we have come in tattered penury
Begging at the door of a Master.

Even though this is one of Kwesi Brew’s more popular poems, the literature that exists to try and clarify its meaning is divergent. That is okay though, since the beauty of understanding poetry lies in the reader’s response to it. Everyone’s review is correct, subjectively.

The poem opens with a line that invokes the presence of a deity at whose shrine ‘the sons of the land’ (line 2) have come ‘to worship’ (line 1). After the first two lines, Brew masterfully weaves the poem through a series of melancholic lines, evoking sadness and pity. He describes the scene, a typical village setting where he talks about ‘the naked cowherd’ (line 3) who has brought the cows home safely and now stands ‘silent with his bamboo flute’ (line 5). In Ghana, a bamboo flute is used to play accompaniment for dirges, in times of sorrow. The use of the flute here carries this image strongly even though Brew tells us that the boy is not playing it. He stands silent!

The imagery of ill-boding continues in the poem because he says now that the birds stay brooding in their nests with ‘unsung melodies’ ( line 8 ) while they await the dawn. This is the first time we know that the poem is being written at night, in a period of darkness. That in itself also signifies misery. But after that, Brew tells us of many more things that happen in this night. ‘The shadows crowd on the shores’ (line 9), and when the peasants have finally come home from their day’s toil, they ‘sit by their log-fires’ (line 12). What could it mean now when you compare line 6, which says that the cowherd wipes ‘the rain from his brow’? It is raining outside and so the peasants must stay in to keep warm by the fires? The use of both the rain and the fire gives us images of dejection. Somebody is left cold in the rain and those who seek comfort find it in no one but by the log-fires. More melancholy.

We haven’t forgotten that this poem is speaking to a deity and Brew quickly reminds us by using for the second time, ‘We the sons of the land’ in line 14. His case is defined when he says that they have come pleading ‘unheeded’ (line 15) at the shrine. For what? That is the title of the poem. They are pleading for mercy. He summarises their state, saying that their ‘hearts are full of song’ (line 16) but they cannot muster the heart to sing those songs, since their lips ‘tremble with sadness’ (line 17).

The last six lines of this poem should have given us a clue as to whose shrine the sons of the land had come to but that is where reviewers are most confused. Different reviewers have acclaimed different ‘deities’ to whom Brew talks. Some have said he was talking to the earth, for reason that he uses ‘sons of the land’. Others have said he was talking to the white man because in colonial times, the locals called him ‘Master’ as in line 23. Again, reading through the poem, you could say he was talking to a sea deity because in lines 9 and 10, he makes it clear that ‘the shadows crowd on the shores/Pressing their lips against the bosom of the sea’. These same lips that tremble in line 17. If the shadows gather at the shore and Brew starts the poem by saying ‘We have come to your shrine’, then he would definitely have been talking to the sea.

But Brew was a Christian even though he believed in traditional values as well. In the larger Christian sphere, his speech would then have been to God. And this is what I want to agree with because in those last six lines, he compares ‘the little firefly…with the star’ (line 18), ‘The log-fire with the sun’ (line 19) and ‘The water in the calabash/With the mighty Volta’ (lines 20-21). The Volta is a huge river that courses through much of Ghana. His comparisons are of like with like. What he compares are two things, one smaller in size and power than the other. This is what drives my conviction that if he was calling God ‘Master’ (line 23) at whose door they have come begging ‘in tattered penury’ (line 22), he was only showing the greater Christian picture that man was created ‘in God’s image and likeness’ (cf. Genesis 1:26, Bible). This idea will agree with the earlier comparisons he made and make all other religious images used in the poem concur with the idea of one supreme being.

I love this poem by Kwesi Brew. He takes our emotions hostage, rides them through a series of gloomy pictures of nothingness and brings them begging at the door of a Master. This is a masterpiece and a worthy review for Ghanaian Literature Week.



  2. […] A Plea for Mercy by Kwesi Brew (at African Soulja) […]


  3. I really appreciate your line by line thoughts on the poem even if they are, as you say, one reader’s interpretation. As someone who is far more comfortable reading prose, this additional commentary is always of interest to me.


  4. Kinna says:

    First, thank you for participating in the Ghanaian Literature Week. Second, I love this poem. The cadence, the emotion, the comparison, the fear and the supplication. I’m inclined to believe your interpretation that Brew’s people are seeking mercy from the Christian God. Mercy from or for what is the question. Keep the poems coming :)


    • Dela says:

      Thank you Kinna, for initiating the Ghanaian Literature Week and also for stopping by to read. I have been thinking about that question too and good of you to point it out. What exactly were Brew’s people pleading for? Maybe, a release from their poor, sorry state? The poem is not exactly clear on that. I hope some reviewer will find and help us see it :)


  5. amymckie says:

    Lovely poem, and love your review of it. It does seem like he’s likely talking about the Christian God yes. Interesting how broadly it could be interpreted. Thanks for including the poem itself in your post too so that I could read it.


  6. […] A Plea for Mercy by Kwesi Brew (at African Soulja) […]


  7. Bette says:

    Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate! She always kept chatting about this. I will forward this write-up to her. Fairly certain she will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing


  8. Andy Yoder says:

    I was suggested this website by my cousin. You’re amazing! Thanks for your article about A PLEA FOR MERCY.


  9. Gobresantana says:

    I definitely love this piece. It’s a special one.


    • Oloyi Kehinde says:

      Stumbled on this website today, I have not regretted the hours of time spent. Great work brother. Africa is blessed with beautiful minds.


  10. Molahanor says:

    That love transcends the corporeal and has not left with the people through which I originally felt this love and support.


  11. Humphrey says:

    Yeah d poem depicts verses of societal ills of Ghanains at a point but 2 God b d glory 2day its been categorize as history one luv 2 ma fellow Africans God luv’s us.


  12. osei seth yeboah says:

    i really admire this poem of kwesi brew “A Plea for Mercy”
    i have therefore taken it upon myself to conduct a thorough into this poem. i would plead with my friends out there to help me analyze it well and how we can use this poem to enhance students appreciation of poetry. your can send your suggestions to my e-mail oseiyeboahseth@yahoo.com. thank you.


  13. imoro sherif says:

    Infact the poem is very interesting, base how i understood.


  14. edward carr says:

    Dela, can you review the poem ” don’t give me too much of your love”, Appreciate .




  16. […] Michael Dei-Annang, W.E.B du Bois (Ghanaian for a few months before his death), Kofi Awoonor, Kwesi Brew and the host of former-generation writers, Ghana has not produced another bigger band of writers of […]


  17. Bra Max says:

    That is a very great work.


  18. lakeville says:

    Excellent article.


  19. abdulai oluwa says:

    excellent review, couldn’t do it any better.


  20. Haredas Centsil says:

    This is indeed excellent , I learnt this long time in secondary school and I can’t do away with it because its too deep and I’ve using this article since and am to recite a poem now so I came for it thank you Dela for your commentary


  21. […] in the eye of the independence struggle and some of his poems have reflected that sense of strife. A Plea for Mercy is a classic example. He was educated in Ghana and then he travelled widely in the service of the […]


  22. abp says:

    you do a great work ..u are a memory of time


    • Arthur Albert says:

      Please someone should help me solve this
      Using example discuss the theme of colonization and religion in a plea for mercy


  23. TAWIAH TETTEH says:

    Please I want someone to help me with the figure of speech in the poem


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