Chinua Achebe

‘Dereliction’ by Chinua Achebe is an ambiguous poem in which three speakers elaborate on the action of, a probable consequence of, and probable pardon for, failing to fulfil one’s duties.

Chinua Achebe

Nationality: African

Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian novelist and poet.

His masterpiece is the novel Things Fall Apart.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Actions have consequences

Speaker: There are three speakers in the poem: a child, a religious authority and a spiritual being

Emotions Evoked: Confusion, Frustration, Relief, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 21st Century

'Dereliction' by Chinua Achebe is an open-ended poem simultaneously asking about the consequences of and a possible absolution for not fulfilling one's duty. Though an answer is given in the poem, it is vague and therefore triggers discussion.

Dereliction’ by Chinua Achebe is a short poem pondering on the consequences of and possible pardon for people who fail to fulfill their duties. Three speakers are present in this poem: a child, a religious authority and a spiritual being. ‘Dereliction’ was published in the Epilogue section in the poetry collection Collected Poems (2005).


‘Dereliction’ by Chinua Achebe is an ambiguous poem that questions the repercussions and absolution of failing to fulfill one’s duties.

Dereliction’ begins with the first speaker’s point of view. This speaker is notably a child who demonstrates dereliction in the most simple form. They quit sitting on a stool because of a termite infestation. The poem quickly introduces the second speaker, the religious authority, who is most likely a priest. This authority then begins to question the actions of the child from a religious perspective. They ask seemingly no one if there are repercussions for not fulfilling one’s duty, for dereliction.

Finally, ‘Dereliction’ introduces the spiritual being who, as typical of a spirit being, renders a vague response to the previous speaker’s questions. The poem ends on an ambiguous note, with the being’s answer reading in part as a consequence and in part as an absolution for dereliction.


Dereliction’ by Chinua Achebe is a short free verse comprising three stanzas. The first stanza is composed of five lines, the second of eight lines and the last of four lines. The last stanza repeats the first two lines to make up four lines.

The poet uses punctuations, or the lack thereof, to emphasize the characters of the speakers. While the absence of ending punctuations in stanza one highlights the first speaker’s immaturity, the question marks in stanza two reveal the religious authority’s hunger for knowledge. The last period in the third stanza captures finality in the tone of the spiritual being. One can tell the third speaker is used to having the final word. Enjambment, as is common in free verse, runs throughout the poem.

Literary Devices

  • Imagery: Stanza one is notable for its imagery. This is, in part, a by-product of the speaker’s diction which captures a mental image clear enough for one to know the persona behind the words is a child. The metaphor in line 5 (“white-bellied stalagmite”) also contributes to the imagery in this stanza. It paints the perfect picture of wood that has been eaten through.
  • Symbolism: Symbolism appears in stanza two and stanza three. In stanza two, lines 1-4 describe a “hard, merciless race” in which “the faithful one” hands down the baton. This image of a race symbolizes the Christian faith. The followers of Christianity compare the practice of their faith to running a race. This symbolism is the first hint at the stanza’s religious perspective. Stanza three, meanwhile, literally describes a beach. On one hand, this symbolizes rest; on another, the tendency to wander with no permanent refuge.
  • Apostrophe: Apostrophe appears in stanza two. Though the questions the second speaker asks are answered in the third stanza, there is no precedent showing that speaker two and three conversed. Therefore, the second speaker asked questions in the absence of any physical being.
  • Rhetorical Question: The kind of questions asked in stanza two are rhetorical questions. One can tell that the speaker only asks such questions to point out their need for absolution. Their asking in the absence of physical beings emphasizes the fact that they do not expect an answer.
  • Repetition: Stanza three repeats the first two lines to emphasize the answer to speaker two’s questions.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

I quit the carved stool
in my father’s hut to the swelling
chant of saber-tooth termites
raising in the pith of its wood
a white-bellied stalagmite

The opening stanza of ‘Dereliction’ creates imagery enough to hook readers. The narrator “says” the word “quit” with an annoyance that reveals they are a child. The phrase “my father’s” and the imagery conjured by the “carved stool” further confirm this. Traditionally, in Nigeria, children usually sit on stools or stand while their elders address them.

The imagery rendered in this poem tells us this child was initially sitting. Most likely, an elder was addressing them, and the poem began where the child, in annoyance, abandoned that stool without being told to and therefore stopped listening to the elder. In the most simple form, this stanza demonstrates that act of dereliction.

Stanza Two

Where does a runner go
of his people?

The second stanza introduces a new speaker. This is indicated by the change in tone and topic. The words “the faithful one,” “priestly elder” and “holy staff” reveal that this speaker is a religious authority, most likely a priest who refers to himself (and his faults) in the third person. Furthermore, the description of a “merciless race” between lines 1-4 symbolizes a specific religion: Christianity. This is because the Scriptures countlessly compare the practice of this faith to running a race. The priest’s torment, however, is revealed in the stanza specifically where he calls the race “merciless.”

While another act of dereliction is described between lines 5-8, the second speaker also asks what the repercussions of his action would be. The fear in the speaker’s tone and his use of the word “merciless” tell readers he seems to already know he would be punished. Following a typical religious perspective, the expected answer to the speaker’s question should be hell. However, the fact that he still questions where he would go reveals he, like any human, hopes for absolution.

Stanza Three

Let them try the land
where the sea retreats.

The third stanza of ‘Dereliction’ switches its tone again, indicating the presence of a new speaker. This speaker answers the priest’s question from the previous stanza. The sage tone, the ambiguous speech, an almost eerie repetition, and the finality in this speaker’s words strongly suggest this persona is a spiritual being (most likely God). Their vague response gives room for two interpretations: one issuing punishment and another issuing absolution.

“The land where the sea retreats” describes a beach and this beach symbolizes, firstly, a place of rest. Following this interpretation, one deduces the spiritual being will absolve the people guilty of dereliction. Even more, the being invites them into a place of rest. On the other hand, a beach has no strong refuge. On a sandy shore, heavy tides can easily tear down any refuge and even take people with it.

Eventually, this person guilty of dereliction is condemned to wander this beach with no refuge and every sense of comfort taken from them. Following this interpretation, one deduces the spirit being issued a punishment after all. These different interpretations end ‘Dereliction’ on different notes. Depending on which interpretation is chosen, readers are either relieved or sad. Overall, however, ‘Dereliction’ remains a sober poem.


What are the themes of the poem?

The theme emphasized in ‘Dereliction’ is failure. The entire poem is based on people’s failure to carry out their obligations for whatever reason. The next dominant theme is spirituality given by the presence of the spirit being and the second narrator’s perspective. One can also trace frustration in the first speaker’s actions and fear in the second speaker’s tone. Above all, the poem highlights the theme of consequences. The second speaker asks rhetorical questions, already knowing people’s actions have consequences.

What inspired ‘Dereliction?’

It is hard to say what inspired ‘Dereliction’ given its ambiguous nature. This poem was written in Achebe’s later years after the Biafran War about which he wrote many poems. Therefore, it is safe to say the war had little to do with the poem. Though it is not known when exactly the poem was written, Achebe’s permanent relocation to America in 1990 may have inspired ‘Dereliction.’ It would make sense to attribute the source of Achebe’s inspiration to his new environment.

What is the tone and mood of the poem?

Different narrators speak with different tones. The first speaker’s tone borders on annoyed, the second’s is introspective and the third’s is sage. The overall mood is sober. One can tell the message ‘Dereliction’ conveys is a serious one.

Is there a figurative meaning in ‘Dereliction?’

Beyond the child’s tantrums and the priest’s questions, ‘Dereliction’ has a figurative meaning. The figurative meaning is, in fact, the message of the poem depending on one’s interpretation: actions have consequences. Another interpretation tells readers that one’s mistakes should not torment them for life. This is still a figurative meaning derived from the poem.

Similar Poetry

If you enjoyed reading ‘Dereliction’ by Chinua Achebe, you should check out these other poems:

Poetry+ Review Corner


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Chinua Achebe (poems)

Chinua Achebe

This is not very famous among Achebe's poems. It is understandably overshadowed by other poems which Achebe wrote heavily influenced by the Biafran war. It was also written in Achebe's later years when he had become a literary legend, mostly for his prose, not poetry.
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21st Century

This poem did not contribute to any famous political or social movement in the twenty-first century. In the period in which it was written, it does not hold much significance except for its message, which transcends time.
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Even after Achebe's relocation to the United States and eventual death, many Nigerians and Africans alike were still interested in his work. As a result, 'Dereliction' is fairly known in the African literary society. However, this poem has not received as many noteworthy reviews in the face of more popularly known poems like 'Beware, Soul Brother.'
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The entire poem focuses on one's failure to fulfill their duties. In fact, the very title of the poem means this theme. Starting from stanza two, readers see how traumatized the second speaker is by their failures, and the last stanza, depending on interpretation, seeks to heal this trauma.
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The Christian faith is the highlight of stanza two. Christianity is alluded to using words like "priestly elder" and symbolized using a "merciless race" by "the faithful one." In this stanza, one deduces the second speaker is traumatized by his failures and fears the repercussions of his action. However, this is not the central theme of the poem.
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Spirituality is most evident in the last stanza, majorly because the voice of the last narrator is that of a spirit being. This being provides the answer to the previous stanza. However, as typical of a spirit being, the answer is ambiguous and, therefore, open to interpretation.
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The last stanza stirs confusion in the hearts of readers. This is because of the third narrator's atypical response. The idea of going to a "land where the sea retreats" is so ambiguous it's almost bizarre as a response.
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Frustration is only evident in the first stanza. The first narrator is so annoyed by the termite infestation in the stool that they "quit." Most likely, they quit sitting on the stool from which their parent addressed them.
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Relief is only stirred in the hearts of readers depending on their interpretation of the poem's last stanza. On one hand, the image of a beach symbolizes rest and therefore forgiveness for the guilty party. Interpreting the ending this way relieves both the guilty party and the readers.
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Based on interpretation, sadness is stirred in the hearts of readers at the end of 'Dereliction.' If the image of a beach is taken to mean miles and miles of sand with no permanent refuge, only wandering, one deduces the spirit being has punished the guilty party. This ends the poem on a sad note.
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Though not a prevalent topic, symbolism for Christianity appears in stanza two of the poem. This is seen in the description of a race. The second speaker calls this race "merciless."
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Although indirectly, and even though they do not expect it, the second narrator asks for forgiveness in stanza two. In stanza three, depending on interpretation, the spirit-being responds with unexpected forgiveness.
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Giving Up

Giving up is the core of the poem, though not in the normal sense. The entire poem focuses on the act of, the possible consequence of, and possible pardon fo,r giving up on handling a task, especially one that was entrusted to the person in question.
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Punishment in the religious sense is inferred in stanza two. Through the priest's questions, readers sense his fear of this punishment. One may even suspect hell, following the religious theme. However, in stanza three, the punishment (depending on interpretation) is most unexpected. The guilty party is condemned to wander the land.
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Free Verse

This poem is a simple free verse poem like many others. It follows the "conventional" structure of this form of poetry if there is one. As regards its form, at least, this poem does nothing in particular to stand out.
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Anastasia Ifinedo Poetry Expert
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.

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