Léopold Senghor Essay - Critical Essays


Léopold Senghor was at once a politician and a poet, a combination that he regarded as a logical marriage because, as he stated in an interview with Armand Guibert, culture—of which poetry is the highest expression—is the foundation and at the same time the ultimate goal of politics. When he was a student in the 1930’s, Senghor, unlike his West Indies friends, believed that a cultural revolution should precede a political one. He wanted to be the dyali (Sengalese troubadour) of his country. In Senghor’s experience, however, other dichotomies were not as easy to resolve. These dichotomies are expressed in his poems; indeed, they are the heart of many of them. During his years in France, Senghor was torn between his love for his native land (his “sister,” as he sometimes calls it in his verses) and his love for his adopted country (his “foster sister”). He was caught between two very dissimilar civilizations, each with its own merits and faults. Repelled by French colonialism and by the racial prejudice that he encountered at first hand, he nevertheless admired French culture and the French language. When he was in Paris, he missed Senegal, and when he was back in Serer country, he missed “la douce France.” He was a black man in a white world, and while many of his poems reflect his sensuous admiration of the black woman, who for him symbolizes Africa, several other poems express his love of a white woman (his first wife was black; his second, white). Finally, Senghor’s poetry, especially his first volume, Chants d’ombre, is marked by nostalgia for the magic kingdom of his childhood, associated with a mythical, primeval Africa.

One of the major influences on Senghor’s poetry was the Serer poet Maronne, whose songs introduced Senghor to the traditional literature of his native area. Even earlier, as a child, he had listened to the gymnique poets, whose songs accompany the wrestling matches so popular in Senegal and serve as work songs and lullabies as well. Senghor was also familiar with the poetry of the griots, professional and learned oral poets. Music was another major influence on Senghor’s poetry. Under the titles of most of his poems, Senghor indicated the African musical instruments that should be used to provide accompaniment. In an interview with Guibert, Senghor stated that there is a double reason for this: Musical accompaniment both enhances the effect of the poetry and revives the African oral tradition, in which poetry was song. Images of music abound in Senghor’s poetry. He referred, for example, to the rhythm of the world, and a beloved is described as a flute. Senghor’s French education was inevitably an influence also. From poets such as Baudelaire and his successors Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé, Senghor learned to use Symbolism “to express complex sensations,” as Abiola Irele observes in her introduction to Selected Poems of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Paul Claudel’s influence is evident in Senghor’s religious poems extolling the mysteries of the Catholic faith. Irele believes that Senghor took up Claudel’s distinctive verse form, the verset, and infused it with elements of African oral tradition. There are also affinities between Senghor and Saint-John Perse, but Senghor said that he first read Perse only after his own style was formed; thus, the similarities between them reflect a convergence rather than the influence of one on the other.

When Senghor started writing poetry, Surrealism was in full bloom. The 1930’s were marked by a renaissance of black awareness in Europe while the Surrealist revolt against Cartesian rationalism glorified the so-called primitive civilizations; thus, Senghor’s proclamation of the purity of the black race—a purity that the white race had lost—was perfectly in accord with Surrealist dogma. What André Breton sought in the subconscious, Senghor sought by going back to his African roots. The European Surrealist had to delve deep into his subconscious to find his instincts and natural desires, but the black African had only to be himself. While Surrealist poets such as Paul Éluard tried to merge the real and the fantastic to avoid paranoia, Senghor saw no need for this synthesis. It already characterized the bushman, who knew neither insanity nor psychosis and in whom the body and the mind were one. Even in methods of composition, Senghor and the Surrealists followed the same path: The poetry of the Senegalese griots was spoken thought, a practice stemming from an oral tradition, a sort of psychic automatism. Describing the process he followed to write his poetry, Senghor said that he begins with an expression that is whispered in his ear like a leitmotif; when he began to write, he did not know what form the poem would take.

This new view of the black African corresponded to Senghor’s definition of the term negritude, meaning the entire cultural heritage of the black civilizations of Africa. In Senghor’s view, the black man, as a result of his heritage, enjoys a greater capacity for feeling and a closer relationship with the natural world than that bequeathed to the white man by European civilization. In general, Anglophone African writers have rejected the concept of negritude; the Nigerian poet, playwright, and novelist Soyinka has observed that a tiger does not speak of its tigritude. Indeed, in recent decades, during which Africa has achieved independence from the colonial powers, the notion of negritude has lost much of its appeal in Francophone regions as well.

Chants d’ombre

More than any other African poet, Senghor was classical in his poetic style. The first poem of Chants d’ombre has a Latin title, and many of his poems contain classical allusions; for this he was criticized by other African writers. On the other hand, French critics have objected to African elements in his verse, ranging from his frequent use of repetition (a legacy of the oral tradition) to his sentence structure and his diction. Senghor liked to use words drawn from the two major languages of Senegal, Wolof and Serer. In an interview with Guibert, Senghor defended this practice, saying that he did not indulge in exoticism but had merely drawn on the vocabulary used by the French-speaking Senegalese and even by the French living in Senegal.

According to Senghor, rhythm is the key element of African art. He quoted American jazz great Duke Ellington to describe his own poetry: “popular Negro music.” Senghor used several devices to achieve rhythm, including alternation of accented and atonal syllables instead of long and short, as well as more conventional devices, such as alliteration and assonance. Another quality of Senghor’s poetry which marked him as an African poet is his imagery. He has been called the Poet of the Night because of his many references to night and darkness as symbols of good. Like many other black writers, especially the black American poets, Senghor reversed the solar hierarchy of white poets, who glorify the sun and the color white as good and depict night and black as evil.

Chants d’ombre, a collection of poems written during Senghor’s early years in Paris, reflects the poet’s nostalgia for his African home and his childhood, as well as his growing awareness of his own alienation in a country whose duplicity as a colonizer he could not ignore. The first poem in the collection, “In memoriam,” is written in the form of a prayer. Despite the poet’s religious fervor, however, his alienation is obvious. He feels set apart from the people with whom he goes to church in Paris; his prayer is to the dead, to his ancestors, as is the custom in his native land. He is further distinguished from the other churchgoers by his color. They, whom he calls his brothers, have blue eyes and “hard hands,” a term that, in Africa, is a metaphor for hate, meanness, and inhospitality. “In memoriam” sets the tone of the entire collection. What follows is reminiscence. In “Tout le long du jour” (all day long), as the poet travels on the European train, he remembers his native land, the little uniform railroad stations, and the chatty, nubile young black girls. In these reminiscences, he seeks to forget Europe, and in so doing he idealizes his homeland. “Joal” reflects the same theme. Eight times, the words “I remember” are used, and what the poet remembers is an innocent Africa whose rhythm of life...

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