Study Guide

An African Elegy

by Robert Duncan

An African Elegy Themes


“An African Elegy” presents death as a subconscious force that is not fully present to the speaker except in symbolic terms. Duncan charts his relation to death through introspection, likening his own mind to Africa’s jungles. His descriptions of those jungles are replete with images of suffering and death: “Death is the dog-headed man zebra striped /and surrounded by silence who walks like a lion, / who is black.” For Duncan, Death is both an ominous seducer, who beckons Virginia Woolf to “come back” to the river to complete her suicide, and a welcome presence, who can rescue people from torment: in death “all our tortures [are] absolved in the fog, / dispersed in Death’s forests, forgotten.” The death drive, popularized in the philosophical idea of Thanatos, is alternately welcomed and rebuffed in Duncan’s poem. As an elegy, this poem mourns not physical death, per se, but the fact that death must be a necessary part of the exotic and the beautiful, the zone of the “marvelous.”

Race and Racism
Any poem titled “An African Elegy” and written by a white American will necessarily touch on the idea of race. Duncan’s poem, written in 1942, though using Africa and the Congo in symbolic terms, nonetheless presents Africans in stereotypical ways. His representations of Africa as a dark and unknowable place and of Africans as an inscrutable and exotic people who engage in barbaric rituals play...

(The entire section is 500 words.)