The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Return to My Native Land is an extended lyric meditation (1,055 lines in the original French). Aimé Césaire wrote the first version in the late 1930’s, having completed his studies in France, upon his return to his native Martinique (revised versions appeared in 1947 and 1956). Although the general mode of the poem is lyric, it mixes modes frequently. It has some epic qualities, especially evidenced by the narrator who, as an epic hero should, is trying to embody in himself the best qualities of his race. Further, about half the poem is written in prose.

The poem can be generally broken down into three parts. The first part is an examination of the poet’s native Martinique, and particularly its capital, Fort-de-France. In the second part, he reacts, often negatively, to the people and history of this land. In the third, he learns not only to accept but also to embrace the people and spirit of his native land.

Césaire is often associated with the French Surrealist poets, and even a brief glance at the poem reveals why. In the first full paragraph, he tells a cop to “Beat it”; then, in a quick rush of images, he turns toward paradises that are lost to such people as the cop, nourishes the wind while rocked by a thought, and unlaces monsters—among other things. Such images have the impossible, dreamlike quality characteristic of Surrealism, and this quality keeps up throughout the poem. Overall, the poem does have a narrative shape, which is not characteristic of Surrealism, and as these images in the beginning suggest, the overall thrust of the poem involves the speaker’s attempt to unleash the spirit of his native land which has been hidden, and imprisoned, and made to look monstrous by the subjugation of imperialism.

The key phrase in the first section of the poem (most of which is written in prose) is the phrase that begins many paragraphs, and indeed, the poem itself: “At the end of the wee hours.” Literally, this phrase refers to the time immediately before sunrise and suggests someone who has been up most of the night, throughout the wee hours. Figuratively, the phrase suggests someone on the edge of an insight that is slowly dawning. Indeed, what the reader finds in this first section is an exploration of the city which focuses on observations of how the land’s history of rule by France has twisted and distorted it.

The reference to “Josephine, Empress of the French, dreaming way up there above the nigger scum,” is a good example of the type of image to be found in this section. It refers to a statue of Josephine, robed in the manner of the Napoleonic empire, which does in fact stand in the center of the public square of Fort-de-France. The statue seems to pay no attention to the “desolate throng under the sun,” meaning the people of African descent who populate Martinique, and the populace feels no connection to her. She is a symbol of the French empire, and a reminder to the people that their culture and ethnicity is considered second class in this city.

Other recurring phrases also provide a clue to what holds the various images...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)

Return to My Native Land Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One use of form in this poem that a reader cannot help but notice is the way the poem mixes prose and free-verse passages. In the first section, when the narrator is providing a general overview, the dominant mode is prose; in the second, when he is wrestling with his own sensibility, prose and verse are mixed; and in the last section, when he is trying to achieve a new sensibility, the dominant mode is verse.

A closer look at this movement in the poem provides some insight into what the poet is doing. Many of the verse passages, especially early in the poem, are actually lists of images or people. The prose passages also contain such lists, but putting these lists into verse seems to be a way of focusing on each individual item in the list, as if the narrator is trying to clarify his thoughts by examining them closely. As the poem continues, free verse becomes the dominant mode of discourse, as if to call attention not only to what is being talked about, but the language itself. The implication seems to be that this new creative spirit of negritude the narrator is trying to achieve is an inherently poetic spirit, one that will take strength from the rhythms and sounds of language.

A dominant metaphor holding the poem together is the image of an awakening. As already mentioned, the phrase “At the end of the wee hours” implies not only a town that is about to awake but also an artistic sensibility that is on the verge of awakening to the...

(The entire section is 513 words.)