Critical Analysis of Idoto/ Heavensgate/ The Passage by Christopher Okigbo

Christopher Okigbo is apparently one of the Nigeria’s greatest poets. Born in 1932 in Ojoto, Eastern Nigeria, Okigbo studied Classics at the University College. He had written several poems including The Star Have Departed, Newcormer, Watermaid, Love Apart and For He Was a Shrub Among The Poplars.

We have decided to title this piece as analysis of Idoto/ HeavenGate/ The Passage for the following reasons: In WEST AFRICAN VERSE, annotated by Donatus I. Nwoga, Okigbo’s poem appears as Idoto, but in POEMS OF BLACK AFRICA edited by Wole Soyinka, the same poem appears as Heavensgate whist in A SELECTION OF AFRICAN POETRY, it is entitled The Passage. We shall however, consider and analyze it as “IDOTO.”

Idoto by Christopher Okigbo is a poem that chiefly centres on a supplication rendered to a water goddess called Idoto. It is popularly known among the Eastern Nigeria. It is this water goddess that the poet humbly and politely proffers his supplication to. This is strongly evidenced in stanza one of the poem:

Before you, mother Idoto,
Naked I Stand,
Before your watery presence,
A Prodigal,

The poet addresses “Idoto” as a mother. This is to directly signify two notable things, which are; to showcase the gender of personality he is standing before and to further accord dignity to the water goddess. In line two of the poem, the poet reveals that “Naked I Stand.” By this, we are made to understand the unmeasurable height of humbleness which the poet undergoes in his supplication. The words “Naked I Stand” are biblically symbolic. Job says in the Bible: “Naked came I forth from my mother’s womb, naked shall I return”. Acknowledge three words in the first sentence which are “naked, I, and Mother.” We see these three words in line 1 and 2 of the poems. Job’s “naked shall I return” is greatly emphasized in the line three and four of the poem respectively. “Naked shall I return” by Job undoubtedly refers to going to his Maker, specifically through death. But to the poet, he is going back to Idoto, in fact, to African tradition and culture as a prodigal- another word associated with the Bible.

Before your watery presence

a prodigal

The poet sees himself as one who is powerfully whisked away by Western Culture. Having studied in the University College, the western religion was introduced to him, and this had made him a dual personality. Therefore, upon his return to his ancestral home, he sees himself as “a prodigal” who has forsaken his traditional way of worship, hence the need for supplication as he stands naked at the bank of the river, of course before the watery presence of mother Idoto.

In stanza two of the poem, the poet stresses he is “leaning on an oilbean” as he continues with his invocation and supplication. An oilbean is a highly nutritious seed mostly found in west Africa. It is popularly called ukpaka or ugba in Igbo. It is this sacred oilbean tree that the poet leans himself on. Furthermore, trees are particularly known in African traditional society as abodes of deities such as gods and goddesses, and spiritual beings. A typical of this instance is baobab tree in J.P Clark’s Abiku. In the next line of the poem, the poet says he is equally “lost” in the legend of the water goddess. The poet is referring to his loss of African tradition, swept away by the Western culture.

Forging ahead with his supplication, the poet pointedly reveals to Idoto that he is presently standing on his barefoot with great expectation:

Under your power wait I on barefoot,
Watchman for the Watchword at

The above expression, “watchman for the watchword”, meaningfully mirrors the longing and expecting period of the poet. His African traditional belief (Watchword) is that his desire will be accomplished at the bank of the river which is symbolically referred to as Heavengate. The poet, in the last stanza of the poem, implores Idoto to “give ear and hearken” to “my cry”.

Out of the depths my cry
Give ear and hearken

It can be factually noticed in the above lines that the poet ends his supplication by beseeching the water goddess not to ignore his supplication. Throughout the poem, it is the poet that speaks. We do not hear the voice of Idoto.


There are some poetic devices which Christopher Okigbo employed in bringing out the aesthetic readability of the poems.

Supplication: The theme of supplication is prominently noted throughout the poem. Initially, we notice the poet who stands before the watery presence of mother Idoto, totally naked. A first- time reader may likely misconstrue this as the poet’s biological mother. But the theme of supplication in the poem becomes vividly and obviously understandable as the poet- persona uses words such as “prodigal,” a clear indication he has gone astray and therefore seeks religious forgiveness and acceptability, “Under your power wait I on barefoot”, and the last that brings everything conclusively that the poet – persona is rendering supplication to the water goddess is “Out the depth my cry / give ear and hearken.”

Humility is another essential theme which grossly focused on the request made by the poet. He demonstrates his humility through diverse ways: we see, at first, in line two of the poem how he strips himself completely naked. His nakedness is thus an apparent act which religiously point to the fact that he presents himself equally pure, innocent and no more conflicting choice of religion. Moreover, seeing himself as a prodigal who has wrong Idoto in the past and coming to seek forgiveness is an additionally act of the poet’s humility. The choice of word which he uses to render supplication is hitherto devoid of command and abuse. He only implores the water goddess to “give ear and hearken”.

The use of images is designated through usual sense. The poem presents categorically words such as “naked I stand, watery presences, learning on oilbean barefoot” et cetera. All these words invent graphic images in the mind of the reader. A typically and seemingly example of this is “naked I stand” which conjures a pictorial insight of a man who is completely nude, not siting or bending, but standing, stripped of what concealed his nudity. “Watery presence ” used in line 2 of the poem also unveils of the surrounding of the poet. It is of course, an indication that the poet- persona is apparently at the bank of a river.

There is a use of biblical allusion in the poem. This occurs in line 4 where the poet describes himself as a prodigal – the biblical story of a son who, after acquiring his own share of his father’s properties, spend it extravagantly on trivial things and return to his father, seeking for forgiveness. Biblical allusion can also be found in the last stanza of the poem where the poet remark;

Out of the depth my cry
Give ear end hearken

The above poetic expression is culled from psalm 130:1-2

The choice of word which the poet expressly uses in the poem is distinctly simple, easy and understandable.

Some of the lines repeated to established emphasis are:
” Before”- line 1 and 3.
” Your” – line 3, 6 and 7.
“1” – lines 2 and 7.

The use of alliteration is noted in line below
” Lost…legend ” -[ l ] – line 6.
” Watchman… watchword” – [ w ] – line 8.

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