Culture, tradition and faith, ‘The Night of the Scorpion’ by Nissim Ezekiel and ‘Sacrifice’ by Taufiq Rafat are two poems that revolve around these themes. The poets question and criticise these values and provoke the reader to think; should culture and tradition have any value in today’s society? Is faith still a legitimate factor in the 21st century? Both poets debate this highly controversial issue through their personal recollection and feelings towards them now that they look back on them.
Both titles have a magnetism to them which draws us in, curious and hungry for more. Rafat’s title ‘Sacrifice’ is short and snappy where he effectively uses the negative connotation of the word ‘Sacrifice’, and uses the utter horror that people feel when they come to know that such a concept is still alive somewhere and not yet banished to the past.
Ezekiel also employs the effective use of negative connotation of the words ‘Night’ and ‘Scorpion’, as well as drawing the reader in with curiosity, but he does so in a different manner. Ezekiel uses the simplicity of the words to give the reader a taste of his work and plays upon the emotions that words such as ‘Night’ and ‘Scorpion’ arouse in people.
Scorpions are considered very deadly and unlucky creatures throughout the world and when the reader sees this word immediately visualises a dangerous creature and so using only the title of the poem the poet has already started to evoke imagery and has started to use the reader’s defencelessness. The kinglike qualities we assume the scorpion has after reading the title are the way the poet plays on our curiosity and vulnerability.
Ezekiel uses the simple words: ‘The Night of the Scorpion’ to catch the reader’s eye, even the words ‘of the’ signify the scorpion and give us such a sense of power that we are left amazed. Some people may also believe that Ezekiel has used this title only to inform us of the time of the event and to set the scene for us; however, I believe the title has greater significance and regard it as almost a window into the poem.
I believe that both poets have used many devices such as imagery, connotations of words, repetition, metaphors, similes and much more to trigger a debate. ‘Night of the Scorpion’ is a poem full of techniques and views that touch very sensitive issues, criticising people’s culture and beliefs. Ezekiel and Rafat both criticise the traditions that are sustained by the people of the community by using disparaging words. In ‘Night of the Scorpion’ Ezekiel looks down upon the people of the community – the same community to which many lines show he belongs- and calls them ‘swarms of flies’, also he dislikes their incantations and whilst ignoring them, rather than specifying what the people are doing says they ‘buzzed’ as if to show that their holy rites are meaningless to him.
Rafat also does the same by using words such as ‘butchering’ for the holy act.
As much as getting the reader on the poet’s side is important, it’s also important that the reader has an opinion on the poet’s views. In my opinion I think that both poets realize that not only should the poem provide their view but it should spark discussions and a strong feedback from the reader, which is exactly what the poem is doing.
Another similarity between the poems is that when one reads the title, the poem is thought to be from primitive and quite exotic areas. The reason for this may be because scorpions are found in exotic countries and even in those, developed areas are not home to them, which tells us it’s set in a primitive area. ‘Sacrifice’ also has the same effect; it suddenly makes us think that such rituals are only alive in primitive areas- which is clarified later on in the poem. Although there are these similarities we see but Ezekiel uses different principals to create the same effect as Rafat does.
Just as the titles are generally different so is the layout of the poems; where Nissim Ezekiel has laid out his poem in chronological order and has provided a story like recollection, Rafat has portrayed his point of view by moving back and forth in time. In the first stanza he gives us an overview of what is happening only to move back in time later to give us a more intricate description and to justify the event. In the first stanza the poet is giving us a visual description of a sacrifice:
‘As he moves the knife across the neck of the goat’
However later on we have moved back in time and he explains to us the ritual and its significance in that culture:
‘ we stand in a tight circle
Around the animal to be sacrificed;’
Here the animal is not yet sacrificed but the preparations are taking place and moving further on he describes who is to sacrifice the animal. Personally I believe this technique was used to interest the reader into the poem, this unusual way of portraying a memory is very captivating; the way Rafat shifts perspectives and sometimes is found justifying the ritual while at other times criticising can be interpreted as him and his mind quarrelling, however, another interpretation is also made, it is believed that it is set out rather like a newspaper, at first like the headlines summarising the event and grabbing the readers interest, only to go to describe it. I find this explanation very interesting but for my part I find the idea of his mind quarrelling with his heart more capturing. Even though Rafat is against the ways of the people, he belongs in that particular community, which explains the use of ‘we’ throughout the poem, as opposed to the use of ‘they’ by Ezekiel. Also in the second last stanza Ezekiel says:
‘I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites’
The significant words here are ‘I watched’ once again creating the impression of him not being part of that community and also this line shows us that he is a bystander which can hint to us once again of his age. To me the feeling this line portrays is of helplessness and maybe of shock, he does not go on to describe the event or tell the reader how he feels about the occurrence but as if he is numb, he says it all in a line. In our childhood emotions are at their strongest and if, like I assume he is recollecting a childhood memory, it seems odd that he does not tell us what he is feeling.
The assumption of him being quite young is drawn from the start of the poem with ‘I remember’, this helpless creature watching his mothers potential last moments can only be of a child’s. For if he was older he would, like his father, do something about it but as he is so young he is ignored and like every child is told to just watch.
I believe the use of ‘we’ by Rafat makes him more human to us as naturally everyone does feel a need to protect their background and community. So, I think that sometimes in defence of his culture he starts to explain to us the sacrifice and its purpose:
‘We are laying the foundations of a friend’s house.’
However, then he realizes that though he is part of that community he doesn’t have to agree with their ways and so sometimes he starts to use derogatory terms to describe the people’s beliefs:
‘ this is his first butchering.’
Here he is using negative connotation upon the word ‘butchering’ and uses imagery, a word like ‘butchering’ immediately creates an image of blood and cruelty, this can quickly make the reader disagree with the ritual, making the reader automatically on Rafat’s side.
Even though Rafat shifts perspectives, moves in time, and changes views, Ezekiel doesn’t do any of that. He stays adamant upon his view and presents his poem in a sequence. In my view his reason for this is to create fluidity in his poem and for it to run through without any hesitations. This helps the reader to feel that it is a personal account not just a poem. At the start, the poet portrays the scorpion as a harmless creature and runs through the whole poem with the same view up to the end where he is still a cynic towards their beliefs:
‘After twenty hours
It lost its sting.’
Here it is clearly shown that the poet doesn’t believe that anything that the ‘peasants’ did helped in any way and shows us that in his opinion time healed the sting. We interpret this line like this because ‘After twenty hours’ has been put on its own to prove its significance to the readers. As if that alone is what matters; also normally this wouldn’t be mentioned but because the poet is expressing his belief he mentions it.
Set in societies where science is either unheard of or completely disregarded, these poems give us a view of what many people will do in the name of religion and superstitious beliefs which leaves us somewhat horrified and living in an advanced society quite startled.
Both of the poets don’t only have dissimilar layouts but also the way they have set the scene is unlike. Nissim Ezekiel starts to set the scene with his title by informing us that this event happened at ‘Night’. He goes further on to summarise the event and using line 1 and 2 immediately reveals to us the event this poem is based upon:
‘I remember the night my mother
was stung by a scorpion.’
Here Nissim Ezekiel summarises the event in one sentence, quickly telling us what his poem is based upon, and swiftly gives us a setting in line 2:
of steady rain had driven him’
Ezekiel drops many ‘red herrings’ on the way to give us an idea of where the poem is set; at the start of the poem he tells us about the weather which can give us an idea about which part of the world the poem is set in. As we know the poem is about a scorpion, we can guess that the event happened in a tropical country, maybe indicating toward parts of Africa or India. Later on we are told about the weather and the ‘ten hours of steady rain’, this again situates the poem in a tropical country which is more likely to be India as so much rain in a hot tropical country can only be the effects of monsoon. Further on in line 4 he tells us about the ‘sack of rice’; we also know that rice is part of the staple diet in India and they harvest it before monsoon as we are also told that the people are ‘peasants’ it all fits together. These small hints point towards the setting of the poem.
We can also make an educated assumption about the setting of ‘Sacrifice’; I believe it originates from places around Pakistan as that is where Rafat belongs from; I believe it to be so because we are told about the hot weather in his poem and the atmosphere of the poem hints towards such countries. I also think that is where the similarities between the poems come from, as both countries are developing countries- so in many places old values and beliefs are still upheld- and are also neighbouring countries. Evidence for old values and beliefs that are still being practiced is present in ‘Night of the scorpion’ using the example of the peasants:
‘May the poison purify your flesh’
This phrase would seem very silly to someone with the knowledge of modern day science but it shows that regardless of the scientific knowledge they continue to practice their old way of life.
The climate is shown to be similar as even though Ezekiel does not mention it, insects such as Scorpions aren’t seen much in the winter, also in both countries, as they are developing the new generation is beginning to question beliefs and traditions – which have been carried on from eons without being criticised. As education is becoming a part of people’s lifestyle the educated generation is more critical. I think that’s where the debate sparks and still remains unfinished.
Even though some people may argue that ‘Sacrifice’ is also used to set the scene, I disagree. The argument is that the word ‘Sacrifice’ in itself gives us a vision of the past as these things aren’t common anymore; so the word helps the reader visualise the time set. On the contrary later on in the poem in line 22 the time is shown to be quite recent:
‘ the cameras click.’
In my opinion this phrase has been used to clear away any misconceptions of the period of time. I think the poet has particularly given this sentence in the end to shock the reader and to show the reader that such beliefs are still common ,which I believe is the concept he is trying to convey, in order to make the reader aware of rituals and to create a feeling of horror in readers.
Rafat isn’t so quick in setting the scene instead he immediately tells us what is going on without giving us a reason or telling us the situation he is in. He starts to justify the sacrifice in the second stanza and in the end tells us about the setting and atmosphere:
‘The glare of the sun,
The heat and the smell of blood’
This helps the reader visualise the circumstances the poet is in.
In many ways the concept of the poems are different but both poets set their poems in order to give us a view of their culture and religion. We guess using the poet’s names that they themselves belong to the culture that they are criticising in the poem; this similarity is very prominent throughout both the poems. Both poets create a setting in which they are onlookers. We are shown that Rafat is more involved in the ceremony because of the use of ‘we’ instead of ‘they’ as Ezekiel used and also because in line 7 he tells us;
‘ we stand in tight circle.’
Despite all of his critical opinions he is part of that ritual, still he gives the reader the impression that he doesn’t have a say in that matter. Both poets are shown to be spectators of the event which is ironic in Rafat’s case as he says he is standing in the circle which undoubtedly symbolises the unity in between the group but when he tells us his real views they are absolutely the opposite of what he is participating in.
In contrast Ezekiel never shows us that he is part of the ceremony in any way and is always depicted as an observer. He use the word ‘they’ or refers to the peasants as ‘swarms of flies’ in line 8 also in line 41 as well as line 42 he tell us that he ‘watched’. Using all these references we can sum up that Ezekiel shows no wish to be part of the customs taking place in front of him. He doesn’t regard any of the incantations by suggesting the peasants ‘buzzed the name of God’. This links with the simile he used earlier calling the people ‘swarms of flies’ which tells us that the poet doesn’t see them as individuals but as one. Also, flies are looked upon as noisy and intrusive and possibly even dirty, he shows us that he doesn’t consider their help to be of any use.
Some people may say that Ezekiel only uses the word ‘peasants’ to show a way of looking down upon the people, however, I believe that it’s just a part of setting the scene as in line 4 he tells us about ‘a sack of rice’ which is what is eaten by the poor. Also, in line 15 he says ‘They clicked their tongues.’ This is done by shepherds in places like India, all of these quotations refer to these people being poor and so I believe that the poet doesn’t use this word to disrespect the people but to tell the reader more about the background of the event and the people who believe it.
Both the rituals consist of an animal – whether it’s a scorpion – or a goat and in both poems the poets look upon the creatures in sorrow whereas the view of the people is different. In ‘Sacrifice’ we know that the people don’t share the same feeling as Rafat because of line 17:
‘The children are fascinated by the tableau,’
This may come as a shock to the reader because if the children are taught that such an act is not wrong and is routine thing for them , then the reader can only assume what the adults view is. It’s not quite the same in ‘Night of the Scorpion’ as the scorpion is looked upon as agent of the devil shown using the words ‘diabolic tail’ however, in ‘Sacrifice’ the animal is not looked upon as evil. However, in both cases the animal isn’t shown mercy but both poets feel different towards the animal. Ezekiel shows us that he does not consider the scorpion to be dangerous as he uses words such as ‘crawl’ and ‘driven to’ to describe him. This tells us that the poet sees the scorpion as an insect and nothing more.
The religions also have many similarities , this supports my earlier argument that the poems belong from Pakistan and India ; history tells us that both countries were once one and even today many rituals and traditions that had been adapted from the Indian culture are alive in Pakistan. Such protected values are unsurprisingly questioned by the new generation.
Also, a similarity between religions is that in both poems there is mention of either ‘the holy man’ or a ‘white bearded man’ both if which refer to a religious person; also similarly both poets completely disagree with the beliefs of theses people and pay no heed to them. Ezekiel only uses these two words to describe this ‘holy man’ and his attitude towards him is the same as it is towards the people of the community.
‘After twenty hours
It lost its sting.’
This line not only tells us that Ezekiel believed that his fathers methods and the people’s prayers were useless but also that the ‘holy man’ and his ‘rites’ made no difference. Rafat also has he same view of the ‘white bearded man’, he doesn’t call him holy or significant but a mere ‘man’. He makes him irrelevant with his words, as if one line is enough to describe him. The stereotypical view of holy men with white beards is considered to be wise and noble because of their age (the white beard) and noble because they are holy.
Alternatively, Rafat doesn’t see him that way at all, and even though that is not said in the poem directly, the way he says ‘a white bearded man’ rather than ‘the holy man’ like Ezekiel. This shows that where Rafat considers him the same as any other man, Ezekiel has more respect. I think that even though Ezekiel doesn’t say so he is also, like his father, desperate,-like any child would be for his mother- and because of that inside does have a light of hope which is the cause for that inkling of respect he shows for ‘the holy man’, so rather than making him equal to al of the others and rather than making him part of the ‘swarm’ he feels the need to individualise him and the word ‘the’ is also of reasonable importance.
In both poems the community have the same views regarding the present event; in ‘Night of the Scorpion’ the people aren’t surprised by the incident:
‘the peace of understanding on each face.’
Also in ‘Sacrifice’ we are told in line 17 the children watch in fascination which gives us an idea about the reaction of the people around the poet to the event happening. However, Rafat’s friend also appears to be scared like Ezekiel’s father. But both of these characters are forced to do what they’re doing whether it’s because of the pressure of the community around them or sheer desperation and love. I believe Rafat’s friend is helpless because of the use of the word ‘necessary’ in the first line of the third stanza, to me this means that he is being pressurised to do so, his fear and reluctance is shown in line 15:
‘The movement is a little unsteady’.
Ezekiel’s father’s reluctance is shown in the second last stanza where we are told that his father is ‘sceptic, rationalist’ but he is still performing the rites; it is obvious that anyone who doesn’t believe in something would be hesitant to try it. This shows us the extent of the love between Ezekiel’s parents, I think that maybe this is a hint towards the previous of his life; it shows that he has lived with loving parents, but this sudden turn of events has turned him helpless and an ‘onlooker’.
There are many similarities but one of the prominent ones is that both poets use a lot of irony especially Taufiq Rafat. Lines 8 and 9 of ‘sacrifice’ are prime examples of the use of this technique:
‘Around the animal to be sacrificed; it has
A civilized and patient look.’
This tells us that in the poet’s view the goat is the one with the civilized and patient look in comparison to the people around them. In ‘Night of the Scorpion’ the irony is used in line 38:
‘My father, sceptic, rationalist
trying every curse and blessing,’
Here it is ironic that even though the father is critical of all this, desperation and love can drive him to ‘trying every curse and blessing’.
In my opinion the most drawing and interesting part of ‘Night of the Scorpion’ is from line 16 until the end of the second stanza. It’s what shows us the opinion of the people around Ezekiel, the only part of ‘Sacrifice’ that shows the peoples opinion towards the event is in line 18 and 19 where he says ‘The children are fascinated’. Ezekiel does a lot in his poem to get the reader to see the ceremony through his view point such as showing the event from only his perspective and not anyone who does believe in the ways of the ‘holy man’, I believe that by telling us about the people involved in the event, and by showing us what he thinks of them helps the reader see the event the way the poet wants him to.
In the third stanza the word ‘May’ is used to begin most of the lines. I think the poet has done this so that these lines sound the same and almost monotonous, he does this so the reader understands the way he feels about this as he is showing how much he finds this irrelevant and how all of it sounds the same to him. Also, some people think that he has done this to give it a prayer- like quality; this could be a valid point because it shows how religious and superstitious the people are, as even though there is someone ‘groaning on a mat’ with agony these people continue to pray rather than do something practical.
In the second stanza there is a line which tells the reader about the religion:
‘May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
The misfortunes of your next birth, they said.’
There are two things that draw our attention here, one is the phrase about the previous and next birth which tells us that either they are Buddhists or Hindus, and it is widely believed that they are Hindus as the poem is probably situated in India where the mainstream faith is Hinduism. Besides that we see the use of ‘they said’ twice in the 4 lines and it is continued throughout the stanza. In my opinion it is used to separate the poet from the group of people by using ‘they’ also it is assumed that it’s used as irony because later on we are told that it was time that healed the sting. However, at the start of the poem these people believe that prayers will heal her, the community is believed to belong from either the Buddhist or the Hindu community, it is interesting to see their attitude to the likely outcome of the event: her death. The people of the community belief that her dying will mean her becoming a better person; the concept of reincarnation is that once you die you will move on to another life which will be determined by your past lie. In this case they believe it is a good thing for her to die and to move on to a better place; which is not the case at all, at least that what the poet believes . It is to separate the truth from the fairytales: his opinion from theirs.
Both poems are very closely linked to religion and faith and in ‘Sacrifice’ we are quickly hinted toward the faith the people belong to. In line 1 he mentions:
‘As he moves the knife across the neck of the goat’
Here the main hint is the goat as only Muslims sacrifice goats. Also, we are again given a hint in line 5 at the start of the second stanza:
‘We are laying the foundations of a friend’s house.’
This is another ritual performed by the followers of Islam. Like Ezekiel Rafat is highly against this and tells us what he thinks of the ritual at the end. Both poets save their conclusion till the end as in ‘Sacrifice’ the poet says:
‘We are not laying the foundations of a house,
But another Dachau.’
This is a very strong and horrific comparison to one of the most terrifying concentration camps made by Hitler, the first concentration camp to be built in the time of the Nazis; this line surely tells us how much Rafat is against the ritual. Rafat is comparing the foundations of a home to a camp where 25,613 prisoners are believed to have died, I think the reason he has done this is because he believes that if something’s foundations is laid with blood then its future can only hold more bloodshed. I find it to be a very strong and challenging conclusion to his poem but it does provoke the reader to see the event from Rafat’s point of view. Ezekiel also concludes the third stanza with his opinion of what happened:
‘After twenty hours
It lost its sting.’
Even though this poet isn’t too harsh with his sentences we are shown that all the prayers and incantations meant nothing to him, similar to Rafat’s conclusion.
Both poets end their poems leaving the reader with a strong feeling about the poem, some enraged by the way they have criticised the religions and most horrified by realizing what is going on in the world. Both poets have kept their last stanzas small, I think it’s to show the reader the significance of the lines as these are the lines that summarise and conclude the whole poem. Ezekiel uses the role of a mother to end his poem:
‘My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my children.’
This shows that the poet isn’t the only one critical of the people’s beliefs but so is his mother as she does not believe that it was meant to be a punishment by an agent of the devil but it ‘picked’ on her as if it was going to pick on somebody it was just by chance that it was her. Rafat concludes his poem with a very strong metaphor that sums up how much he disagrees with the ritual:
‘We are not laying the foundations of a house,
But another Dachau.’
Both poems have a very strong theme of cultural beliefs and both poets are very critical of it. I personally favoured the ‘Night of the Scorpion’ because of the many effective devices used and the story like layout. I thought ‘Sacrifice’ was good as well especially the shifting of perspectives and I believe that it penalises the reader to put themselves in Rafat’s position and see the occurrence through his outlook ;but overall I found Ezekiel’s poem to have a greater impact on my opinion towards cultural and superstitious beliefs. He also challenged the beliefs and faiths but I feel he did it more subtly, where Rafat used comparisons to the ‘Dachau’, Ezekiel ingeniously does the same but without overwhelming the reader.