The nexus between Yeats, Achebe and Ngugi

Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ inspired the title of Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ as well as Ngugi’s essays

In Summary

• Despite peaking decades apart in their careers, the literary influence cuts across

Books in a library
Books in a library

On this day, exactly 84 years ago, one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century ceased to exist. Granted, he still exists in the rich literary heritage he helped foster that is defined today as the Irish Renaissance.

William Butler Yeats, known far and wide as WB Yeats, was born on Irish soil in 1865. This bespectacled politician and patriotic poet offered robust artistic stamina and active patronage to the Irish struggles for cultural nationalism and self-determination in early 20th Century Western Europe.

He used his Irish heritage and its co-existence with the dominant English one to articulate the importance of memory, mother tongues and natal identities of his people. By the turn of the 20th Century, he had risen to become an icon of 20th Century literature.

To many African school-goers, his haunting poem titled “The Second Coming” is a famous anthem. In the old varsities of West Africa, be it at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone or at the famous Ibadan in Nigeria, he became a staple diet in English lectures of 1950s and 1960s.

Writers who were embroiled then in our African nationalism and cultural struggles found motivation in his poetical oeuvre for their literary imagination. A special case in point is Albert Chinualumogu Achebe of Nigeria.

In 1958, he published what has become a pillar of modern African literature: the novel known to all and sundry as Things Fall Apart.

TFA is a well-told historicised account of a changing Africa in the early 20th Century, whose inhabitants conform and deviate in reaction to transition to modernity courtesy of forces beyond their control. The main hero of the book dies in a final act of resistance to the incoming new world order.

The book has been translated into more than 58 languages to date. The novel exists in Kiswahili as a translation published exactly half a century ago under the title Shujaa Okonkwo [Okonkwo the Hero].

The translation was done by Clement Ndulute from Tanzania, though the book was published under the title Shujaa Okonkwo by the Nairobi-based East African Publishing House.

Prof Ndulute is a renowned translation scholar who teaches English and comparative literature at the Alabama State University in the US. In 1994, he edited and published serious translations into English of the oeuvre of Shaaban Roberts, the Yeats of Swahili poetry.


The title of Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart is drawn from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. This lyrical poem was written in 1919 but published it was in the winter of 1921. The first stanza goes like this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.

The third line is where Achebe drew his title from. This poem offers the epigraph of the famous African novel. An epigraph is a quote from another literary text used as a harbinger of the ideas in the book where it appears. Normally it appears between the title of a book and its story.

The concerns raised by Yeats in his poem on tradition and transition, as well as the chaos inhabiting the caesura between the two, is replicated in the narrative account of Achebe’s text. Both writers hold central positions in the literary tradition of post-colonialism.

This year marks a full decade since Achebe transition to the world of our ancestors. There will be many celebrations in honour of the iconic author. He died in March 2013.

It is important to remember that many other authors of Achebe’s generation would borrow a leaf from the form and content in Things Fall Apart to animate their own works.

Think here of the interesting case of our maestro of literary nationalism, Ngugi wa Thiong’o of California and Limuru. It is on record how he got initial support from Achebe in the 1960s.

They met at Makerere when Ngugi a sophomore was. Achebe published Ngugi’s early fiction under the African Writers Series of Heinemann, a major publisher of 20th Century African literature back then. His early novels resonate with themes common in Achebe’s.

But more interestingly, there exists a Yeatsian angle to the Kenyan author, too. Ngugi’s anthology of postcolonial essays on culture, language and identity published 30 years ago bear the title: Moving the Centre: Struggle for Cultural Freedoms.

The title is drawn from the same poem by Yeats above. Reference is made to “the centre that cannot hold” when “things fall apart” in line three of the first stanza of the poem.

This book was published by East African Education Publishers in 1993. EAEP started as a local chapter of the same Heinemann publishers that introduced Ngugi to the world under the stewardship of Achebe in the 1960s.

These entanglements within the literary traditions and histories of post-colonialism underscore the gravity of cross-cutting themes related to language, cultural nationalism and self-determination.

These are themes that unite the oeuvre of Yeats, Achebe and Ngugi into a body of important commentary on the world of the long 20th Century. They remind us never to forget where and when the rain started to beat us. Let us keep imbibing Yeats, Achebe and Ngugi.

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