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...
(The entire section is 1392 words.)
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