A PLEA FOR MERCY
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.