Vultures , Chinua Achebe – an Analysis


Vultures, something vindictive and preying upon those who are weak?

Gut Reaction
It’s a bit…wordy, isn’t it?

What does it all mean?
In the greyness
and drizzle of one despondent
dawn unstirred by harbingers
of sunbreak a vulture
perching high on broken
bones of a dead tree
nestled close to his
mate his smooth
bashed-in head, a pebble
on a stem rooted in
a dump of gross
feathers, inclined affectionately
to hers. Yesterday they picked
the eyes of a swollen
corpse in a water-logged
trench and ate the
things in its bowel. Full
gorged they chose their roost
keeping the hollowed remnant
in easy range of cold
telescopic eyes…

The layout for this poem is odd to break up so I will just comment between each stanza.
A dawn that starts grey and despondent can only be a pessimistic, hopeless one, no? There is no relenting, no signal that a brighter day is coming as there is no sunrise.
A vulture awaits, a bird of prey, ready to swoop down on a victim, and again this somewhat apocalyptic scene is added to with the vulture being perched in a dead tree. There is a little softness in it being ‘snuggled’ with its mate, but then that is striking against the ‘bashed-in head’ – is this ‘vulture’ dead? It seems an odd juxtaposition here – a pebble, which is lifeless, on a stem and rooted within feathers – all living features. I know it is representative of how a vulture looks but still I can’t help see this contrast. It is like a stone cold mind intent on finding its prey within a living, breathing body. It’s an odd comparison for me.

The vulture is made of stone in its heart – it has no feeling since yesterday they picked a corpse clean and then sat purveying the surroundings awaiting the next kill in the trenches – let’s face it, there will be fresh meat soon if they are on a battlefield.

indeed how love in other
ways so particular
will pick a corner
in that charnel-house
tidy it and coil up there, perhaps
even fall asleep – her face
turned to the wall!

Yes, it is strange, a moment of love between these two ‘vulture’s if that is what they really are, in the charnel-house – we’re talking about the way we see the description here that is very, very cold. Since a charnel-house is place for human skeletal remains to be left, these trenches must hold many a skeleton. Have they unearthed them for food? Probably not – vultures are powerful but not enough to dig up bodies. So then their ‘feast’ has been laid out for them on perhaps a battleground. They’ve tidied it – they’ve picked the flesh from the corpses clean.

I like the balance here where love can even exist in death, but I wonder if it’s more than that, that even in darkness love exists.

…Thus the Commandant at Belsen
Camp going home for
the day with fumes of
human roast clinging
rebelliously to his hairy
nostrils will stop
at the wayside sweet-shop
and pick up a chocolate
for his tender offspring
waiting at home for Daddy’s

Ah. And now it becomes a little clearer. This is no battlefield at all, no opposing sides, just predator and prey. Belsen appears to be the Belsen-Bergen Concentration Camp, which makes the vultures the Nazis overseeing the deaths of the prisoners. They have picked them clean – as history tells us – of their gold teeth, hair, belongings, tossed them out as nothing more than dead animals and strewn them across the ground, a jumble of bodies of nothingness. The parent vultures perhaps bringing trinkets home for their children, all the while smelling of death. Despicable image. It’s like a regular nine to five for them and at night they hang up their work jacket and head home with treats for the children and love for their spouses, as though they are mere pen-pushers instead of killers.

Praise bounteous
providence if you will
that grants even an ogre
a tiny glow-worm
tenderness encapsulated
in icy caverns of a cruel
heart or else despair
for in the very germ
of that kindred love is
lodged the perpetuity
of evil.

It is so hard to reconcile that these people were actually people – husbands, wives, parents – and that they could murder so many other husbands, wives, parents – children – in the name of wiping out people they just didn’t see as people any longer. So yes, it is a miracle that there is any humanity in them – any care for anyone at all. How could they return home to look their loved ones in the eye when the deaths of so many were on their hands? What paints an even more disturbing image is that the vultures in the beginning are the ‘loved-up’ couple, so it is husband and wife ‘teams’ who are somehow able to commit such abhorrent crimes and then return to their ‘nurturing’ parental role. Can you imagine the upbringing these children would have had – perhaps kept away from the more gruesome facts but nonetheless exposed to the idealised racism and hatred that the parents believed?

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
Four stanzas of free verse that set up a scene with unusual imagery before revealing the truth of the story.

It feels like we’re going in as though viewing a nature documentary, then it is a study of familial life and then the realisation of what this loving family actually does for a ‘living’.

Suggested rhyme scheme
Free verse!

Similes and metaphors
Vultures – nazis. The corpses – they aren’t really metaphoric but the Jews held prisoner in the camps.

Author’s relationship with their subject
Observer only. It feels very much like the author wants to distance themselves as much as possible from what has happened and shows their surprise for how these vultures can go about a regular life of parenting whilst committing the atrocities that they did.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
Since the author was born in Nigeria so the imagery of vultures preying on the landscape must seem an ideal metaphor for the subject.

The poem has been heavily analysed for AQA GCSE English Literature presented by AQA and there is a wealth of resources, powerpoints, blogs and images supporting the poem.

Signing off
This is an incredible poem. I didn’t used to be so much a fan of reading free verse (although I do enjoy a break from rhyming schemes) because I guess traditionally I have found rhymed poetry to be more ‘proper’. This idea has been challenged a lot since starting this blog because there is a whole world out there of literature that is poetic without rhyme, with consonance and assonance within the lines creating a beautifully rhythmic picture, and the power with which spoken word poetry is delivering is nothing short of poetic.

My cousin brought this particular poem to my attention and as is the way of things, it seems quite coincidental since I have recently been reading up a lot on the Holocaust. So I am both thankful for the opportunity to reach such a piece of work and also horrified by it – as we should be. Steven Spielberg has put together an archive that is a perfect blend of history, education and memorial, and since my uncle told me about it I often find myself dipping in, surprised and yes not about human nature.

In this turbulent world of ours where all we seem to do is suppress difference and lord over those we feel more worthy than, it is terrifying to think how close we are in terms of history and action to repeating these mistakes again.




Get Revising

Universal Teacher

When I read this I think of the song… This Train Revised


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