October 03, (THEWILL) – Byron. Fitzgerald. Marechera. Okigbo. Plath. Shelley. They were all great writers who died young, some in their twenties, thirties, only one making it past forty. They were all dreamers, idealistic, adventurous and most often geniuses but sometimes unmindful of their private lives. What is it with these writers who seemed to have been destined to die young? Michael Jimoh writes on some of the world’s famous writers who died prematurely.
In August 1967, a 34-year-old Nigerian poet in battle fatigues and armed with his regulation rifle went to the warfront hoping to realise his compatriot’s dream of a free Republic of Biafra.
Three months before, on May 30 in the same year, Lt Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu had carved out Igbo-dominated Eastern Region from the Federal Republic of Nigeria leading to the 30-months civil war.
Christopher Okigbo is Igbo by birth, born on August 16, 1932 at Ojoto in modern day Anambra state. At the start of the hostilities, he was teaching at Ibadan, capital of Western Region and an outstanding poet in the continent. With war drums sounding ever louder, Okigbo promptly relocated to the East and volunteered to fight in the Biafra Army.
Only days short of his 35th birthday, he was shot and killed in the battlefront by federal troops at Nsukka.
Of course, the federal soldiers didn’t know who he was or, perhaps, if they knew they didn’t care. To them, he was just one of the rebel enemy soldiers fighting as a secessionist in the newly declared Republic of Biafra.
Thus was the life of an otherwise brilliant career of one of Nigeria’s most promising poets cut short.
What might have been if the clarinet-playing, pipe-smoking, accomplished poet had lived much longer, up to sixty, say, seventy or even eighty? Those of his generation who did, Achebe, Clark and Soyinka were richly rewarded – a Booker, a Nobel and other highly regarded international and national prizes – for their works.
Okigbo himself had set the pace by becoming the first poet laureate in Africa after he was awarded first prize in the 1966 Festival of the Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. He turned it down, insisting that writers should not be classified according to race or ethnicity. Writing, he famously said then, “must be judged as good or bad, not as a product of a specific ethnic group or race.”
If he had lived longer, it is doubtful if Okigbo would have been counted out of the bigger and more prestigious prizes. Indeed, literary theorists and historians have proposed that Okigbo would certainly have been one of the early candidates for the Nobel in Literature – and with good reasons.
Okigbo already had a well-fostered reputation as one of the leading poets of his time. His productive output was going swimmingly, like the Idoto River flowing steadily in his birthplace. He would have added some more publications to the already existing ones considering his creative output in his brief existence: Heavensgate (1962,) Limits two years later and Silences the following year.
Starting off as a librarian at University College, Ibadan, where he sated his voracious appetite for reading, he contributed poems to Black Orpheus and was West Africa editor of Transition, a literary magazine. His star as a literary heavyweight was clearly ascending.
But the call to patriotic duty put an end to all that. Okigbo was only 34 when he died.
Another writer who also died prematurely, though not in the course of fighting a war except battling his own demons, was the Zimbabwean, Charles William Dambudzo Marechera, born on June 4, 1952 in Vengere township of Zimbabwe then known as Rhodesia.
Dambudzo had a hardscrabble early life but was a gifted child, a special endowment that will take him to privileged institutions such as the only Catholic school for students like him and then New College, Oxford England.
Spotting short dreadlocks long before it became faddish among young men and women all over the world today, Marechera was as gifted as they come but was also reckless and without restraint in his personal life.
Departing Africa for Europe on a scholarship, Marechera tried to remember what he left behind at home, recalling that “I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind…I was on my own, sipping whisky and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness…I think that I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons.”
A confirmed non-conformist weighed under the burden of colonial rule with all its segregationist laws, Marechera never really outgrew his disenchantment with the Western world and all that it represented. His “Dambudzo Performance” wherein he suddenly snapped at an award night in his honour at The Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979 is the stuff of legend.
The year before, he had written and published House of Hunger, considered the Bible of visceral literature, an unvarnished creative piece straight out of his guts aptly dubbed “gut-rut.”
Like Okigbo did in Dakar eleven years before, Marechera became the first African writer ever to win The Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979. Publishers in Europe (England and Germany) breathlessly anticipated future masterpieces from him. They never came. Parceled off from London, Marechera found his way to Cardiff, Wales, where many more whiskies followed.
It was while in Wales that a vicar in Cardiff who witnessed, firsthand, Marechera’s constant inebriety wrote to his publisher James Curry of his concern about the Zimbabwean writer. “I would doubt if Mr. Marechera will be alive for very much longer – he hardly eats and only drinks.”
It turned out to be quite prophetic. On his return to his natal country, Marechera pub-crawled shebeens there, wrote there, slept there and became destitute before dying of complications from AIDS in 1987 at 35.
Writers dying prematurely isn’t quite a novelty. Why it is so is not exactly clear. Could it be a date with destiny? Or just plain carelessness on the writer’s part?
No one exemplifies this more than Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was a month shy of his 30th birthday when he drowned in his own sailing boat, Don Juan, in the Gulf of Spezia Italy.
Could the boat accident have been prevented or was it a death foretold? The answer to both questions is yes.
In the late afternoon of July 8, 1822 Italian port authorities had warned the poet and two companions of a possible foggy weather when he set sail from Lerici to Livornio. Apparently, the poet’s wanderlust got the better of him.
As for the second question, Shelley himself had foreseen his possible demise upon the waters of Italy. In his celebrated poem, “Adonais,” Shelley writes that “The breath whose might I have invoked in song/ Descends upon me; my spirit’s bark is driven,/ From the shore, far from the trembling throng/ Whose sails were never to be Tempest given;/ The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!/ I am borne darkly, fearfully afar…”
In a publication by The Guardian of London of January 23, 2004, Richard Holmes looked into the circumstances surrounding the death of Shelley and concluded that the “sudden tragedy set a kind of sacred (or profane) seal upon his reputation as a youthful, sacrificial genius.”
Also considered “a youthful, sacrificial genius” was the untimely death of Shelley’s contemporary, rival, friend and compatriot, Lord George Gordon Byron, an unrepentant, unapologetic sybarite. He was born privileged, a lord, in January 22, 1788 in London. Gifted beyond measure, Byron’s personality and poetry would capture the imagination of Europe for years, culminating in his teaming up with the Greek nationalist fighters where he died of fever.
In March 1812, Byron’s first canto – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – was published to wide acclaim and reception, prompting one critic to comment that the poet “woke to find himself famous.”
Published in 1819, Don Juan, for which Shelley’s skiff was named, even had more public reception and appeal. Byron’s popularity rose correspondingly all over Europe. His scandalous relationships with men and women rose almost in equal degrees, famously fathering a child with his half-sister.
At this stage in his career and personal life, Byron was having the time of his life despite being hobbled by a clubfoot. It didn’t stop him from traipsing or boating across Europe, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and then Greece where, in his bid to aid the Greeks gain independence from Turkish rule, Byron died of fever in Missolonghi on April 19, 1824. He was just thirty-six.
Across the Atlantic from England, the United States of America has had its own share of gifted writers biting the dust early. The most famous instance is none other than Francis Scott Fitzgerald himself, famous for The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, This Side of Paradise, etc.
If there was one gifted writer who had the greatest potential to become great among his contemporaries, Fitzgerald was it. He counted among his close friends Earnest Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos. Born September 24, 1896 in Saint Paul Minnesota, Fitzgerald showed early promise in school before proceeding to Princeton where he became a prominent member of literary and dramatic societies.
Not unlike much gifted individuals without much focus on academic life, he soon left Princeton, joined the army and then started penning short stories. Initially, success as a writer eluded him until he published the immortal The Great Gatsby in 1925. Fitzgerald worked for some time as a script/ screen writer in Hollywood, mainly for cash. He was always broke and part of the reason was his extravagant lifestyle, a lifestyle he shared ostentatiously with his wife, Zelda Sayre. They were also great imbibers, with Fitzgerald depending on the bottle more and more as his creative output declined/ waned. He himself would later claim in an interview of the “crack up” he suffered because of his needless indulgence.
Fitzgerald died four days before Christmas in 1940 at 44.
The lone, famous woman among the sacrificial geniuses of literature remains Sylvia Plath, tortured poet, short story writer, novelist and spouse of Ted Hughes, a much senior colleague and fellow poet. They were married briefly for six years, a union that was mostly tempestuous with Plath complaining of abuse by Hughes.
Despite that, Plath produced enough literary works to have been awarded the Pulitzer posthumously for The Collected Poems. She also wrote her most famous work, The Bell Jar. A gifted poet, Plath is credited with beginning a new genre of poetry called the confessional poem. She was born a Bostonian on October 27, 1932 and went to prestige schools like Smith College in her natal city and then Newnham College, Cambridge in England.
Though an American, Plath lived with Hughes in England for some time. She died there on February 11, 1963. She was a mere 30.
It must be said that Plath herself suffered bouts of depression through much of her adult life, occasioned sometimes by the loss of a loved one like her father after he died, and her disappointment at failing to meet and speak with Dylan Thomas, a celebrated poet, at a literary soiree once.
What did Plath do to herself afterwards? She “slashed her legs to see if she had the courage to kill herself.” After several unsuccessful attempts at suicide, Plath finally did take her life by gassing in her kitchen oven.
So, propelled by self-destructive forces, the environment in which they lived or circumstances surrounding them, nearly all of the writers above presented themselves as sacrificial geniuses on the altar of literary creativity.
Besides, a Nigerian novelist, poet, dramatist and senior journalist, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, has a word or two on the possible reasons for their abridged lives.
“Highly talented people,” Uzoatu began by telling THEWILL, “who achieved fame early enjoyed something of a blessing in disguise in dying early because most of their latter works becomes a parody of their earlier ones. A typical example is William Wordsworth. He lived so long that critics said he had the longest decline in English literature. Back home, someone like Okigbo, because he died early people like to remember him as a genius. But if he had lived longer people would not like to see him as a plagiarist because he plagiarized so much. Because he is dead, people will just remember the ideal.”
Continuing, Uzoatu gave the example of Johnny Rotten of the rock band The Sex Pistols who said: “Live fast, die young and have a fine corpse.”