“An African Elegy” is one of the most controversial poems that Duncan ever wrote. Editor John Crowe Ransom accepted the poem for publication in The Kenyon Review in 1942 calling it “very brilliant.” However, after Duncan published his essay “The Homosexual in Society” in Dwight MacDonald’s radical monthly Politics, “outing” himself and arguing (in part) that gay culture needed to see itself as more fully a part of mainstream society, Ransom changed his mind and decided not to publish the poem. Ransom wrote: “We are not in the market for literature of this type.” By literature of this type, Ransom meant poetry that, in his view, was an “obvious homosexual advertisement.” The curious thing about Ransom’s rejection of the poem is that he did not read any homosexual content in it when he accepted it, but only after reading Duncan’s essay. Ransom, though he praised the essay, disagreed with it and considered homosexuality an “abnormality.” In response to Ransom’s new reading of “An African Elegy,” Duncan wrote, “The theme of the poem is not homosexuality; nor does the darkness stand for homosexuality. The dark continent in the poem is not what one hides, but what is hidden from one. . . . It would be rather astounding in an overt homosexual that what was held back, imprisoned in the unconscious, was the homosexual desire.” Duncan wanted Ransom to publish their correspondence about the poem in The Kenyon Review, but Ransom refused. The poem was eventually published in 1959.
The poem itself is difficult. Written in eight free-verse stanzas, it is full of symbols and allusions to both Africa and Western literature. The central symbolic metaphor is how the dark jungles of Africa are like the dark and unknown places of the human mind and heart. Duncan loads the poem with African animal imagery and references to famous women (both real women and literary characters), such as Virginia Woolf, Ophelia, and Desdemona, who either committed suicide or were murdered. Death, personified as a “dog-headed man,” appears everywhere in the poem, eliciting varying responses from the speaker.
Duncan said that the poem was, in part, inspired by Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca’s poem “El Rey de Harlem” (The King of Harlem). Lorca was a heavily persecuted gay writer whom Duncan admired. Even practiced readers of modern poetry, however, would be hard-pressed to find any evidence of a homosexual theme or imagery in the poem.
Elegies are poems written to lament someone’s death. In “An African Elegy” death isn’t literal but figurative. The speaker is lamenting the death of a part of himself. The opening stanza creates a symbolic landscape full of exotic African creatures such as wildebeests, zebras, elephants, and okapi, a giraffe-like animal found in the Congo. Swahili are part of the Bantu peoples of eastern and central Africa. Duncan makes an explicit connection between the “marvelous” jungle in which the animals live and the “mind’s / natural jungle.” “Marvelous” primarily has a positive meaning here, but it picks up less benign associations as the poem develops. The preparation and hunting rituals engaged in by the Congolese men and women create a strange and ominous atmosphere in which death is omnipresent.
Developing the image of death with which he ends the first stanza, Duncan personifies death here as “the dog-headed man zebra striped / and surrounded by silence who walks like a lion, / who is black.” This image might also be a literal description of one of the hunters. Duncan uses dog imagery throughout the poem, often to suggest contradictory ideas. Like dogs, death variously appears as a loyal companion, a guide, and a frightening presence. The speaker associates this image of death with British writer Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in the River Ouse. Death calls Woolf back to the river to drown herself. Woolf suffered from depression and battled emotional demons throughout her life. The images the speaker uses to describe Woolf’s journey toward death are dream-like, spectral, and enigmatic. The speaker empathizes with Woolf’s emotional torment. Toward the end of the stanza, he compares her to Ophelia, a character from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, who, emotionally unbalanced, commits suicide by drowning. These two figures become symbolic representations for all of humanity, whose “tortures” the speaker sees “absolved in the fog, / dispersed in Death’s forests, forgotten.” Here death is seen as a rescuer, a primal and natural part of the world into which all must eventually journey. Note that Woolf is a variant of wolf, an animal closely associated with the dog.
In the previous stanzas, the speaker describes what he sees and hears. In this stanza, he announces his desire: “I am waiting this winter for the more complete black-out.” This image and the ones that follow are symbolic, that is images that arise from the speaker’s subconscious. Symbolic imagery does not have a one-to-one correlation to things or ideas outside of itself; rather symbols open up a realm of association, which can either be private (known only to the poet) or public (familiar to the common reader). “Negro armies in the eucalyptus” is an obscure image but one which suggests the idea of waiting. Who, though, is the “us” to whom the speaker refers? If the poem is read as a statement on homosexuality, as at least one reader has interpreted it, it might refer to the gay community itself, which has been persecuted and ostracized. Another possibility for the “us” is all the people who have suffered like the speaker himself, people of similar sensibilities, for example, Virginia Woolf. The third possibility is that the “us” is universal as in all humanity. Again the image of dogs, figured as...
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