This study examines the use of symbols and images as poetic techniques in South African poetic writing. The poems seek to address the issues of socio-political injustice, apartheid, oppression and man’s inhumanity to man in the society, a kind of counter – attacking the apartheid system of the South African society, which allows for inequalities and abject poverty of a section of the society while the other section thrives in affluence. At the end we discover how Dennis Brutus and Oswald Mtshali expose the terrible state of affairs in South Africa through their revolutionary implantation of symbols and images.



Table of Contents


1.1 Background of the Study

1.2 Biography of Dennis Brutus and Oswald Mtshali

1.3 Purpose of the Study

1.4 Justification of the Study

1.5 Scope and Limitation of the Study

1.6 Methodology

End notes


2.1 Poetry as a Societal Outlook

2.2 The Sociological Approach

2.3 Apartheid in South African

End Notes


(A) Symbols and Images as Poetic Techniques in the

Poem of Dennis Brutus “a Troubadour I Traverse”

End Notes

(B) Symbols and Images as Poetic Techniques in the Poems of Oswald Mtshali

End Notes


4.1 Summary

4.2 Conclusion





Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas, this literary device is used by poets to create a mental picture in the mind of readers, it is also used to widen their reasoning faculties see Northrop Frye “Anatomy of criticism” (1957) describes four types of symbol i.e Symbol as an image, a metaphor, a sign and it representation of an idea, this work is based on the symbolic image on Frye (1957) with reference to the sociological archetypes used by the selected poets.

An image is a mental representation of anything not actually presented to the senses but which appeal to our senses through words. Thus we often speak of “seeing” something in the “minds” “eye” some times we may run over a tune in our mind.

Writers of poetry always write with cryptic expressions to coach their themes, poetry is one of the most difficult genres of literature because of its use of symbols and other literary devices. The use of symbol makes poetry not easily accessible by readers, according to Sam Adewoye (1988):

Poetry constute a bazzar of fear confusion

for its reader especially students of poetry

Culler however believes that poetry has a complex effect which are very difficult to explain” (1981:37). Culler believes poetry has some elements in it which makes it difficult and not easily accessible.

According to him, poetry is one of the most difficult genres of literature because of the use symbols images, the diction, and other literary devices. Charles Bodunde (1999).

Poetry is a highly orderly artistic creations, a

cumulative verbal entity through which a poet

express a vision of life, hidden to the less imaginative

The statement above by Bodunde expresses the fact that a poet talks about things happening in life, in his environment and things happening in the globe hidden to the less imaginative, according to him a poet uses his poetry to express his own view of what is happening in the society. Furthermore, the high artistic creation in the verbal entity is a pointer at symbolism in poetry.

Poetry is the spring that stirs the mind. It uses

the language that is highly imaginative which

explains the reason why it is not always

understood by everyone.

Jones meant in the above statement that the use of diction, some literary devices and phonological elements makes use of highly imaginative languages, literary devices such as simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, allusion, symbolism among others in the poem and this literary elements make poetry a difficult course for students especially students of poetry and practical criticism. It is for this reason that our T.S. Eliot is of the view that:

“Poetry is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality in their poems but they write from experience which they have had earlier in life, they visualize societal ills using symbols through their poems they profound solutions to the ills poets therefore do not write their poems to express their personality but poetry is on escape from personality with references to Eliot once again:

Poetry has not a personality to express, but a

particular medium, which is only a medium

and not a personality, in which impressions and

expressions combine on peculiar and unexpected

ways, impressions and expressions which quite a

negligible part in the man, the personality. (1981:144)

As explained earlier that poets do not express their personality in the poems but they write on visible things in the human society, happenings, either positive or negative and trying to profound solutions to the negative ones.

This research work tends to see how two South African writers Dennis Brutus and Oswald oppression, corruptions and apartheid through the use of literary devices like symbolism and imagery in their poems. Dennis Brutus is a patriotic poet, he is a poet that has the masses in mind, through his poems he teaches and continues his campaign against racism and racial discrimination in South Africa using majorly the media of symbol and images Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali also writes about a people, a life and a hostile society. He knows very well and has experienced. He writes subtly about survival and the sufferings of his people. These poets have something in common and that is the fact that they both make use of local materials in their poems to portray their cultural background and to arrive at sociological theory of literature. This theory will fully be discussed in our chapter two.



Dennis Brutus was born in Salisbury Rhodesia in 1924 of mixed parents while Brutus was a child he migrated to South Africa and lived in port Elizabeth, his early education was irregular but his mother introduced him to English poetry reading from early writers like Tennyson and William words worth.

He eventually entered into fort Hare University as an adult and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree, subsequently he taught English and Afrikaans for fourteen years I South African High Schools but his active par nation led him to his dismissal in 1962 and his arrest in Johannesburg. Dennis Brutus is a poet that has the masses at heart and who is in solidarity with the oppressed corresponding faith in their aspiration for revolutionary change. He uses poetry to make the people see the anomalies in the society. This is the art in service of man. Is functions is to act as an irritant a catalyst. By so doing, this art can provoke man to change the world he lives and through this he changes himself.

A writer plays an important role in the society that is embraces the human condition in its totality and this exposes same to man to effect a change. This Brutus has done in his poetry as he put experiences of the masses together in verse form. Truly, one can say that Brutus is that of commitment to the aspirations of the disposal masses. His collection of poems include: A troubadour I traverse…, the sum on this rubble, after exile (four selections) Nightsong: city, A common hate enriched our love and us. It is the constant image of your face.

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

Oswald Mbuyiseni is one of the most talented black South African poets writing today. He was born in 1940 in Vryheid. Natal where he had his early education, like most young people of his age he left for Johannesburg after matriculation. He was not merely drawn there by the bright lights, he was not merely drawn there by the brought lights, he had a serious purpose. He wanted to gain admission into the University of Witwaterstrand. But the long arm of apartheid caught up with him. He could not be admitted and he had to content himself with earning a living.

Mitshali writes about a people, a life and a hostile society he knows very well and has experienced. Few poets have so shrewdly and subtly hammered on the theme of survival. The great quality of Mtshali’s poetry is if colloquial tone and control; the emotions are never indulged and allowed to run away with the poet when he is writing about the sufferings of this people. Rather, his theme is conveyed through distilled lyrical verse and ironic rumour. And this is what gives poetry its credibility, an engaging simplicity that enables if to make its point through cutting irony and cynicism this collection of poems include sounds of a cowhide Drum (1971), fire flames, Amagoduka at Glencoe station, An abandoned bundle etc.


Writers do not just set out to write, they write in reaction to their daily encounter or societal events, either to condemn, Satire, Disapprove or approve. This present research work intends to see how these poets have been able to use these poems to react to the societal events.

This present study intends to expose the symbols and images as a literary devices used by the poets to explain as a literary devices used by the poets to explain hidden meaning of their poems. Dennis Brutus and Oswald Mtshali both adopts the sociological approach of the literary analysis in analyzing their poems. In so doing the work will:

Investigate how the poets have been able to potary the beauty of Africa and how they have been able to show their patriotism to their mother land through the use of symbols and images as their major literary devices.
Examine the common ground in terms of thematic coverage, stylistics, phonological devices and literary elements in their selected work.
How they use symbols and images to enshrine African culture and world view, and also how they use these literary devices to attain the overall message of their work.
Lastly, we will look at the relevance of the use of symbols and images in their poems to the readers.


This research work would establish the efficacy of the sociological approach as a relevant theory of literature.

There has been some research works on the poems of Dennis Brutus and Oswald Mbuyisen Mtshali but this present study will look into their use of symbols and images as a poetic technique and also the way these poetic techniques have been able to expose the hidden meaning of their poems and arrive at a reasonable thematic preoccupation.

The quality of Mtshali’s poetry is its colloquial tone and control; the emotions are never indulged and allowed to run away with the poet when he is writing about the suffering of his people also Mtshali use symbols and images to expantiate more and give the readers a clearer meaning of his poetry. Also Dennis Brutus has a great quality as his style belongs to the main tradition of English poetry, he also has a subtle art and controlled passion and this account for the positive impact he is able to make through his poetry.

The above things are what this present study will look into.


Although Dennis Brutus and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali both South African writers have written several poems their poem have different thematic preoccupation but this research work will focus on poems having Racial discrimination themes, theme of survival, theme of suffering, and theme of oppression. Our focus in this project will be the study of the following poems:

Dennis Brutus: “A troubadour I traverse”

Oswald Mbuyisen “An abandoned bundle”

“The birth of Shaka”.


This research work aims at examining the use of symbols and images as poetic techniques in the works of South African writers example of Dennis Brutus and Oswald Mtshali.

The sociological approach to literary analysis to Bayo Ogunjimi (1968) is visioned as follows:

Sociological approach has more relevance

because the inevitability of social mobilization

in the sociological approach suggest dialectic

of history in literature. Race, class and historical

moments are the parameters for evaluating the

society through literature by the scholar in this

type of school. They believe its inappropriate to

separate dietetics from traditionalism. (2000:191)

The sociological approach remains a relevant approach in the analysis of Dennis and Mtshali’s work because that has helped in the exposure of the setting, themes, character types etc.

The writers use of socio cultural credentials of South African blunt but subtly and in a simple direct sentence. We are going to be focusing on the themantic, preoccupation of the selected poems: Brutus’s A troubadour I traverse’ and Mtshali poems.

symbols and images as poetic techniques in south african poetry, the example of dennis brutus and oswald mbuyiseni mtshali

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