As a poet, I was keenly interested in how Adichie made use of poetry to drive the plot. The first poem that she references and writes into the story is poem number XL by Alfred E. Housman that alludes to “the blue remembered hills” (97). The second excerpt of poetry is from Robert Browning’s extensive poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” (106). Thirdly, we have “Were you Silent When we Died?” on page 470 and finally, a small reference to Okeoma’s poem “If the Sun Refuses to Rise” on page 513. All these maintain a thematic thread throughout Half of a Yellow Sun — they produce feelings of loss, longing, apprehension and confusion in the reader that directly parallel the sensation precipitated by the global and local ignorance of the realities of the Biafran War. The poems, in their original context, also carry similar messages.
“The blue remembered hills” appeared in Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad. Noteworthy, is the fact that Housman was not a native of Shropshire but came from Worcestershire. However, Shropshire became an imaginary landscape for him. This particular poem is lyrical and nostalgic for English country life and stationed in a deep sense of foreboding. Just like the residents of Igbo-land become Biafran, and Richard is displaced by his parents, the poem hints at a longing for “home” and an acceptance “that cannot come again” (97). Auden said of Housman that he “kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer.”
“The Pied Piper” is a staple of youth worldwide and the connotations of the word “pied piper” have become relatively consistent across the globe. The Miriam Webster dictionary describes a “pied piper” as one who – is a charismatic person who attracts followers, offers strong but delusive enticement and makes irresponsible promises. Browning’s poem does find its origin in the folktale of a German who charmed the rats of Hameln, Germany, into a river and to their death. Many marvel at the fact that Browning was still able to maintain the Pied Piper’s image as a hero even though his powers of persuasion were eventually used to lure the townspeople’s children away from home, just as the propaganda of Radio Biafra and His Excellency offered the Biafran’s a false sense of security that resulted in their loss of land and nation. It is not surprising that when Master asks Ugwu “what does it mean? Or, what do you think” this tale of happy rats following a man “was really saying” that Ugwu thought it “incomprehensible” and some “sort of senseless joke” (106). Olanna, and Biafran’s to a larger extent, are guilty of the same sin: “loving blindly…without ever criticizing” (486).
“Were You Silent When We Died?” doesn’t hint but paints a clear picture of the inevitable that we come to suspect through the foreboding of the earlier poems. Here, the Piper has wrought havoc and “then leave[s], alone” just as His Excellency abandons Biafra on a dubious quest to “secure peace and security” (509). However, Olanna’s desperate scrambling to remember Okeoma’s poem seems newly laced with hope; she recalls the line “clay pots fired in zeal, they will cool our feet as we climb” (503). In the essay “African “Authenticity” and the Biafran Experience” Adichie admits that Okeoma’s character was based on that of Christopher Okigbo, a poet and thinker who died in the Biafran War that he planned on “stay[ing] with until the end” (50). Adichie considers him “this wonderfully complex man who had dared to believe, and who consumed life so fiercely” (51).
Is that the image and view of the Biafran’s that we leave our reading of Half of a Yellow Sun with?