WHEN HOMER CAME TO AFRICA: A REVIEW OF IKEOGU OKE’s HERESIAD. By Martin Ezimano, Esq.

Poetry is easily the most concise form of the three recognized genres of literature. It is perhaps for this reason that most practitioners of the literary art opt to express their creativity through the vehicle of verse. It is contended, in this connection, that the virtue and time invested in a dramatic piece or work of prose may, in comparison, have yielded several outputs of poetry.

This argument may well have its merit…that is until one encounters the form of grand poetry known as epic.

An epic is definable as a long narrative poetry in an elevated style with a grand theme. This form of poetry gained its pride of belonging with the works of the blind Greek griot, Homer whose classics, The Iliad and The Odyssey remain the reference points of the art form. To the two, one can add Virgil’s Aeneid, Alexander Pope’s Dunciad, John Milton Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson’s Agonistes. One consistent feature of all the mentioned works, apart from their lofty thematic concerns is their grandeur of diction, their mellifluity and felicity of expression.

Consider the following lines:

“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story

of that man skilled in all ways of contending,

the wanderer, harried for years on end,

after he plundered the stronghold

on the proud height of Troy” (THE ODYSSEY: BOOK ONE)

Or these other lines:

“Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the

Fruit

Of the Forbidden Tree, whose mortal

Taste

Brought Death into the World, and all

Our woe

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful

Seat,

Sing Heavenly Muse….” (PARADISE LOST: BOOK ONE)

It is to this elite corpus of works that Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad sought admission.

Consider its own opening:

“You tend the bloom of peace, The Heresiad,

Floral tokens from a Muse unheard

For all in whom the East has met the West

That thought and faith may live without unrest,

And for all who stand up for life,

And up against the scourge of mortal strife

           *   *    *

You whose guidance I adjudge supreme

Bring aid to my peace-engendering scheme

To explore a moral posture deemed perverse

And resolve a conflict in the bounds of verse” (THE HERESIAD: CANTO 1)

The Heresiad is the story of an author,, Zumba, whose writing sorely offended a certain king who upon this provocation dispatched his henchmen, the Five Faithfuls, to go and execute the offender-writer. The moment Zumba learns of the sentence, he immediately goes into hiding whilst at the same time sending supplications, on the one hand, to the offended sovereign for clemency and, on another hand, to another king, Reason, for help. Reason, on his own part sends out his own men, the Five Stalwarts, to go and foil the mission of the Faithfuls and thereby save Zumba with the words: “Now descend and thwart the rising five/Who go as one to take our friend alive…”(CANTO 2: line 29-30).

It now happened that after the departure of the Faithfuls, the miffed monarch upon hearing the contrite pleas of Zumba had a softening of heart and sent another of his servants to the Faithfuls with a message of revocation of the death decree. Also, Reason, having considered that his men had been sent unarmed into the fray dispatched another aide to recall them: he had opted to deploy dialogue with the angered monarch instead of confrontation.

In between these narrations, in the tradition of epics, the author’s Muse is repeatedly invoked to provide more details of the unfolding story:

“You who guide my vision, steer my tale,

Lead me on to labour and prevail;

You whose kind desire nudged my heart

To give a lifebuoy to a drowning art” (CANTO 2: line 287-290)

Also:

“Homer thrilled your pinion with delights,

Virgil warmed your wings upon the heights;

You may yet rely upon my pen,

And ‘fly victorious on the lips of men”(CANTO 3:189-192)

Forming part of the narration are the exchanges amongst the respective messengers of the two monarchs.

It is obvious that the central theme of this work is the question of liberty of thought and expression, the place of religion/dogma in contradistinction to the position of intellectual liberty. This is demonstrated in the imperilled circumstances of Zumba, the author: his free expression of his ideas made him condemned as a heretic.

Finally, Zumba, the heretic is spared. This is upon the intervention of Reason, and also as a result of the cooling of the wrath of the wronged king.

One thing that must be remarked about The Heresiad is its rigour in execution: the rhyming verse, pentametrical throughout the entire work is evidence not only of prodigious talent but also meticulous attention.

An arresting example of this richness of language is in the concluding lines of the work:

“And you, whose sole delight is verse or truth,

Whose ways I learnt, untutored, as a youth,

To you let come the glory of our toil,

While the seas beneath the sun may boil,

Having dared to plead the cause of sense,

And win full pardon for our friend’s offence.

It’s of you I speak, my Muse, of you,

Ever calm as night and soft as dew,

You who gave my heart its vocal chords,

And tuned my ears to the music of words;

Humble was my task, humbly I depart,

And leave you with a warm and grateful heart” (CANTO 4: line 537-548).

In THE HERESIAD, Homer and the Masters arrived in Africa.

It is a profound tragedy that Ikeogu Oke, the vehicle of this arrival and winner of the 2017 NLNG PRIZE had to so inopportunely depart.