“The Cathedral” by Kofi Awoonor is a concise nine-line poem that symbolises the gradual displacement of African religion by the emergence of Christianity.
In the poem, Awoonor begins by describing a once-beneficial tree that stood on a particular plot of land. This tree provided protection and blessings to the community, its branches stretching across the sky, safeguarding the village from external threats.
However, tragedy strikes when surveyors and builders arrive without regard for the tree’s significance to the people. The tree is callously cut down, and in its place, a senseless cathedral of doom is constructed. Awoonor does not explicitly reveal who sent the surveyors and builders, leaving it open to interpretation.
Symbolism is heavily employed in “The Cathedral.” The “dirty patch” represents the African tradition, which was once a source of shelter, protection, guidance, unity, and identity for Africans. The cathedral symbolizes the church or Christianity that was introduced by missionaries.
The poem highlights the themes of the destruction of traditional religions and the establishment of a new religion. Missionaries arrived, condemning the existing African religion that had been integral to the communities. They replaced it with the “senseless cathedral of doom,” ultimately causing the African religion to fade away in some societies.
The language used by the poet-speaker is simple yet impactful. The terms “surveyors and builders” represent the missionaries, while the word “cathedral” symbolises the church.
The tone and mood of the poem are characterized by the poet-speaker’s intense anger. Awoonor conveys his fury through poetic language, using phrases like “senseless cathedral of doom.” He expresses his dismay at the destruction of the tree, which once held deep significance and is replaced by something meaningless.
Line by Line Summary
Line 1: The poet draws attention to a dirty patch, symbolizing Africa. It represents African religion, considered “dirty” by Western standards.
Line 2: Referring to African religion, the poet mentions a tree that no longer exists.
Line 3: The tree symbolises African religion and its blessings. “Shedding incense on the infant corn” signifies religious growth and unity.
Line 4: The African religion is embraced by the community, providing protection and cultural identity.
Line 5: The tree brightens the spirit of unity and influences African traditions.
Line 6: Surveyors and builders, representing missionaries, arrive in Africa.
Line 7: The missionaries condemn African religion and successfully turn Africans to Christianity.
Line 8: The African religion is replaced by Christianity.
Line 9: The poet criticizes the cathedral as senseless, as it alienates Africans from their traditions and culture.
Figures of Speech
“The Cathedral” by Kofi Awoonor incorporates several figures of speech to enhance its meaning and imagery. These figures of speech contribute to the overall impact of the poem by creating vivid imagery, emphasizing contrasts, and enhancing the themes of loss, destruction, and cultural displacement.
- Metaphor: The poem opens with the metaphorical description of the plot of land as a “dirty patch.” This metaphor suggests a negative and neglected state, symbolizing the loss and degradation of African tradition.
- Personification: The tree is personified as it is described as “shedding incense on the infant corn.” This personification attributes human qualities to the tree, emphasizing its nurturing and protective role in the community.
- Hyperbole: The boughs of the tree are portrayed as “stretched across a heaven,” employing hyperbole to exaggerate the tree’s vastness and its connection to the divine.
- Imagery: The phrase “brightened by the last fires of a tribe” evokes vivid imagery of a tribal community gathered around a fire, emphasizing their cultural and ancestral significance.
- Metonymy: The terms “surveyors and builders” represent the missionaries who arrived to introduce Christianity. This metonymy refers to the individuals who were responsible for the destruction of the tree and the establishment of the cathedral.
- Irony: The description of the cathedral as a “huge senseless cathedral of doom” employs irony. It highlights the poet’s negative view of the cathedral, contrasting its grandeur and religious significance with the perceived loss and destruction it represents.