Aimé Césaire Césaire, Aimé (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Aimé Césaire 1913–

(Full name Aimé Fernand Césaire) West Indian poet, dramatist, and essayist.

Césaire is recognized as a major Caribbean poet and dramatist. Best known for his surrealist poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, he is also acknowledged as "The Father of Negritude." Defining negritude as "the affirmation that one is black and proud of it," Césaire urged blacks to reject assimilation into white culture and honor instead their racial heritage, a belief that permeates his poetry and essays.

Biographical Information

Césaire was born in 1913 to a poor family on the island of Martinique in the French West Indies. Under the tutelage of his grandmother, he learned to read and write by age four. When he was eleven, he enrolled at Lycée Schoelcher, a leading school in Martinique's capital, Fort-de-France. Upon graduating in 1931, Césaire received a scholarship to study in Paris. While enrolled at the École Normale Supérieure, he, along with Léopold Sedar Senghor and Léon-Goutran Damas, founded L'étudiant noir, a student magazine dedicated to uniting blacks and promoting pride in black culture. Although they produced only five or six issues, his involvement with the magazine was vital to the development of negritude. After the publication of Return to My Native Land in 1939, he returned to Martinique and immersed himself in politics, serving as mayor of Fort-de-France and as a member of the French National Assembly. Césaire has continued to compose poetry as well as drama and essays, but has written less frequently in recent years due to an increasingly busy political career.

Major Works

Although each of his works has received favorable reviews, none has matched the success of Césaire's first poem, Return to My Native Land. Consisting of three movements and covering sixty-six pages, the poem is considered the original statement on negritude, moreover, it evinces the basic tenets of the acceptance of one's blackness and the rejection of white assimilation. The first movement surveys the demoralizing effects of colonialism on Martinique, the second chronicles Césaire's struggle to

free himself from white culture, and the third celebrates negritude.

Critical Reception

As observed by commentators, Césaire's poetic language strongly shows the influence of French surrealists of the 1930s. Like the surrealists, he endeavored to free his writing from the conventions of French literature. Unlike them, however, he infused his poetry with angry images and bitter invectives against Western culture. Some critics see his poetic language as a form of literary violence marked by jarring images and forceful rhythms that assault the reader. Some commentators, in addition to admiring its literary finesse, also praise Return to My Native Land for its universal appeal. The poem speaks to people of all color and nationality, they contend, because Césaire's struggle for self-acceptance is a struggle shared by all people. Today, his concept of negritude forms the foundation for black movements across the world. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many black leaders have adopted Césaire's negritude as their rallying cry.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Les armes miraculeuses 1946

Cahier d'un retour au pays natal [Return to My Native Land] 1947

Soleil cou coupé 1948

Corps perdu 1949

Ferrements 1960

Cadastre 1961

State of the Union 1966

Noria 1976

moi, laminaire … 1982

The Collected Poetry 1983

Non-Vicious Circle 1985

La poésie [Poems] 1994

Other Major Works

Discours sur le colonialisme [Discourse on Colonialism] (essay) 1950

Et les chiens se taisaient (drama) 1956

Lettre à Maurice Thorex [Letter to Maurice Thorex] (letter) 1956

La Tragédie du roi Christophe [The Tragedy of King Christophe] (drama) 1963

Une saison au Congo [A Season in the Congo] (drama) 1966

Une tempête: d'après "La tempête" de Shakespeare, Adaptation pour un thèâtre nègre [A Tempest: After "The Tempest" by Shakespeare, Adaptation for the Negro Theatre] (adaptation) 1969

Edward A. Jones (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aimé Césaire," in Voices of négritude: The Expression of Black Experience in the Poetry of Senghor, Césaire & Damas, Judson Press, 1970, pp. 53-62.

[in the following essay, Jones discusses the defining characteristics of Césaire's work.]

In her excellent book on Aimé Césaire and his works, in the Poètes d'Aujourd'hui series, Lilyan Kesteloot appraises the extraordinary talent of this Afro-French, West Indian poet as follows:

Je ne vois pas dans I'histoire de la littérature française une personnalité qui ait à ce point intégré des éléments aussi divers que la conscience raciale, la creátion artistique et l'action politique. Je ne vois pas de personnalité aussi puissamment unifiée et à la fois aussi complexe que celle de Césaire. Et c'est là, sans doute, que réside le secret de l'exceptionnelle densité d'une poésie qui s'est, à un degré extrême, chargée de toute la cohérence d'une vie d'homme.1

I do not see in the history of French literature a personality who has so highly integrated such diverse elements as racial consciousness, artistic creation, and political action. I do not see any personality so powerfully unified and at the same time so complex as that of Césaire. And, without doubt, therein resides the secret of the exceptional density of a poetry which has, to an extreme degree, taken on itself all the coherence of a man's life.

Paying eloquent tribute to Césaire's rare poetic gifts in his Préface to Césaire's first major collection, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, the "high priest" of French surrealistic poetry, André Breton, who discovered Césaire during a visit to Martinique, has this to say in that Preface, titled "Un grand poète noir" [To a Great Black Poet]:

Et c'est un noir qui manie la langue française comme il n'est pas aujourd'hui un blanc pour la manier. Et c'est un noir celui qui nous guide aujourd'hui dans l'inexploré, établissant au fur et à mesure, comme en se jouant, les contacts qui nous font avancer sur des étincelles. Et c'est un noir qui est non seulement un noir mais tout l'homme, qui en exprime toutes les interrogations, toutes les angoisses, tous les espoirs et toutes les extases et qui s'imposera de plus en plus à moi comme le prototype de la dignité.

A black man it is who masters the French language as no white man can today. A black man it is who guides us today through unexplored lands building as he goes the contacts that will make us progress on sparks. A black man it is who embodies not simply the black race but all mankind, its queries and anxieties, its hopes and ecstasies and who will remain for me the symbol of dignity.2

Just who is this black poet who has elicited such flattering appraisals from persons best equipped to appreciate his genius? To understand Césaire's complexities and the magnitude of his anger, we are reminded by his biographer that one must understand the island which gave birth to him: Martinique, in the French West Indies, where dazzling luxury and wealth on the part of the few (whites) are in sharp contrast with the abject poverty of the masses (blacks)—where hunger, disease, and ignorance stalk the land—where former slavery and present-day exploitation have combined to crush the black masses of the population. This is especially true of Martinique, where Aimé Césaire was born in 1913, "… a miniature house which lodges in its guts of rotten wood dozens of rats, as well as the turbulence of my six brothers and sisters, a tiny cruel house whose intransigence infuriates the last days of the month …"… une maison minuscule qui abrite en ses entrailles de bois pourri des dizaines de rats et la turbulence de mes six frères et soeurs, une petite maison cruelle dont l'intransigeance affole nos fins de mois …").3 His family was, however, in the "middle" (moyen) on the scale of local wretchedness, his father being, for a time at least, an "employee of the lower-echelon government" (petit fonctionnaire) in the town of Basse-Pointe.

Even worse than the material poverty afflicting the island was the spiritual and moral bankruptcy resulting from years of domination and exploitation: the complete resignation, loss of the will to resist, and the despair and constant fear of hunger, unemployment, and the like. Moreover, a color elite had developed among non-whites, which further aggravated the real blacks.

Thanks to native intelligence, industry, and promise, Césaire was to be sent to France to pursue his secondary and higher education. The former was acquired at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in Paris, where he met and began his lifelong friendship with Léopold Senghor. He then attended the Sorbonne and the École normale supérieure, the teacher-training school where to be admitted is an enviable distinction. Like Senghor, he graduated from both and was agrégé in literature. It was while Césaire was at the École normale supérieure, in 1935-1936, that this writer met him and introduced him to Sterling Brown via his poetic collection, Southern Road. Some years later, Césaire was to become mayor of Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique. After entering politics, he was elected delegate (délégué) to the Assemblée nationale in Paris; and in 1946, like Senghor, he was a member of the Assemblée constituante which framed the Constitution for the Fourth Republic in France (1946-1958).

Césaire's bitterness attracted him to the Communist party, a recognized political party in France's multi-party set-up, which he later abandoned. Ultimately, his ardent Communist activities made him somewhat unpopular among literary circles in France, where he still lives with his wife and daughter and continues to write.

A co-founder of L'Étudiant Noir in Paris, Césaire was also one of a group of Communist and surrealist West Indian students who founded in 1932 a magazine known as Légitime Défense.

Thus this black poet who, in the eyes of another great poet, possesses qualities of soul and genius which brought the two men together in a deep and abiding friendship also possesses a universality of interest and appeal which makes him the voice not only of his native Martinique but of all mankind. Indeed, Césaire's song is a social lament which elicits a ready response from all those who suffer from social, economic, and political injustices.

First of all, Césaire is a poet: he is essentially a singer of songs. His native sense of rhythm and his power to transform into poetry the commonest and even the ugliest aspects of life make of him a truly great poet. To quote André Breton again:

… la poésie de Césaire, comme toute grande poésie et tout grand art, vaut au plus haut point par le pouvoir de transmutation, qu'elle met en oeuvre et qui consiste, à partir des matériaux les plus déconsidérés, parmi lesquels il faut compter les laideurs et les servitudes mêmes, à produire on sait assez que ce n'est plus l'or la pierre philosophale mais bien la liberte.

Césaire's poetry, like any great poetry or art, draws its supreme value from its power of transmutation which consists in taking the most discredited materials, among which daily squalor and constraints, and ultimately producing neither gold nor the philosopher's stone any longer but freedom itself.4

Césaire's poetry, whose rhythm is suggestive of the weird and mysterious beat of the tom-tom, is replete with the exotic and luxuriant beauty inspired by the flora and fauna of the tropics. It excels in colorful and vivid imagery.

Behind the exquisite beauty of Césaire's verse there is a profound and prophetic meditation on the social injustices of which his people, especially in Martinique, are victims. The bard of Martinique sings of the wretchedness of colonial peoples and bemoans their exploitation by a handful of European parasites, who, frequently in defiance of the law, set themselves up as cruel, inhuman masters of an unhappy people forced to resign themselves to a status of virtual slavery. He sings of the evils of this system of colonization as they manifest themselves in the daily life and activities of his native island—in poverty, miserable housing, poor health, ignorance, superstition, and prejudice. He sings of "… the hungry West Indies, pitted with smallpox, dynamited with alcohol, stranded in the mud of this bay, in the dirt of this city sinisterly stranded" ("… les Antilles qui ont faim, les Antilles grêlées de petite vérole, les Antilles dynamitèes d'alcool, èchouès dans...

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Hilary Okram (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aspects of Imagery and Symbolism in the Poetry of Aimé Césaire," in Yale French Studies, No. 53, 1976, pp. 175-96.

[In the following essay, Okram examines the relationship between Césaire 's imagery and his West Indian heritage.]

If Aimé Césaire's poetry is difficult to understand, as every student of his works is well aware, it appears to me that the difficulty comes principally from three basic factors. Briefly, these are Césaire's use of highly sophisticated vocabulary that bears witness to his solid literary education, his fixation for tortuous parataxic sentence structure and, what on the surface would appear to be, his cavalier penchant for...

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Emile Snyder (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aimé Césaire: The Reclaiming of the Land," in Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature, edited by Rowland Smith, Longman & Dalhousie University Press, 1976, pp. 31-43.

[In the following essay, Snyder offers an overview of the major themes of Césaire 's verse.]

Take a cruise to the French-speaking Caribbean, a cruise skilfully organised by your local travel agency so that what you will see there will match the expectations of the travel folders. You will stay at a Hilton-type hotel and be entertained at night by local musicians; you will go on a guided tour in the interior and drive so fast that the memories you retain of the...

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Ronnie Leah Scharfman (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Subject and the Intimate Other: Woman as Tu," in "Engagement" and the Language of the Subject in the Poetry of Aimé Césaire, University of Florida Press, 1980, pp. 65-73.

[In the following essay, Scharfman provides a semantic analysis of the role of women in Césaire 's poetry.]

… là où les femmes rayonnent de langage….
Aimé Césaire, "Prophétie"

[In Cahier] the textual intervention of woman as "tu" can have major consequences for the subject's definition of itself. Woman is an essential figure in Césaire's poetry, and there are certain lyrical texts that...

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Maxine G. Cutler (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aimé Césaire's 'Barbare': Title, Key Word, and Source of the Text," in Teaching Language Through Literature, Vol. XXI, No. 1, December, 1981, pp. 3-13.

[In the following essay, Cutler contends that "a study of the extraordinary power of Césaire 's language will serve as a key to the poem 's meaning as well as an introduction to the emotionally charged themes of black poets writing in French."]

Black poetry from Africa and the Caribbean has become the focus of interest in courses ranging from "Black Studies" to studies of Francophone literature in general. Black poets are as varied as the countries from which they come but they all share common concerns with...

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Janis L. Pallister (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry Collections," in Aimé Césaire, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 29-41.

[In the following essay, Pallister offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Césaire 's verse.]

Les Armes miraculeuses

In 1944 Aimé Césaire published another collection of poetry, Les Armes miraculeuses, comprised of poems even more hermetic and more revolutionary than Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. Bertrand Visage asserts that with this collection Césaire's poetry becomes more complex, the poet now having found in surrealism—and in his friendship with André Breton—a stimulus to take more risks in associating of...

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E. Anthony Hurley (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Link and Lance: Aspects of Poetic Function in Césaire's Cadastre—An Analysis of Five Poems," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 54-68.

[In the following essay. Hurley examines Césaire's search for identity as a black poet within the French literary tradition.]

It would be difficult to examine the notion of poetic function in relation to Aimé Césaire without taking into consideration the tension and ambivalence of Césaire's situation as a black intellectual and as a poet, functioning within a profoundly alienating white French socio-cultural context. On the one hand, as a black man, and particularly as a black...

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(Poetry Criticism)

The title of this opening poem of the collection anticipates the magical metamorphosis which occurs at the end of the poem: the repositioning of "un dieu noir." This metamorphosis takes place against a background of natural phenomena, an overcast sky in which only a thin slice of blue is visible ("une lèche de ciel"), and high winds ("vous bêtes qui sifflez"), which are characteristic of the destructive "tornade." The island, "ce quignon de terre," is represented as virtually dead, "cette morte," threatened by and at the mercy of the "bêtes" and the "fougères" that are shown to be already "libres." The metaphors signify a geopolitical context of conflict, between "vous bêtes" and "cette morte"; between "vous...

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Couteaux midi

(Poetry Criticism)

In the first part of this poem, the subjective presence of the poet appears in the possessive and object pronouns of "ma foi," "mes paroles," "mes cris," "mes crocs de poivre," "mes lèvres," and "m'absente." The poet is evoked as a disembodied voice and mouth, involved in a dialogue, as the questions "Ils tirent à blanc?" and "Midi?" (posed five times) indicate. The poetic replies to the questions are always an affirmative "oui," which suggests the validity of the propositions advanced.

These propositions relate to the activities of blacks, and specifically to what the poet suggests occurs "quand les Nègres font la Révolution." He intimates, with evident irony, playing on common connotations of...

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(Poetry Criticism)

The poetic voice makes itself heard from the first line of the poem, in "C'est le mot qui me soutient," immediately suggesting the nature of the relationship between the poet and "le mot," which functions as a source of needed support for the poet. The poet is represented metonymically as "ma carcasse," on whom "le mot," as voice, strikes to produce sound and, by extension, life. In the second and third stanzas, the voice of the poet becomes identified and fused with the voices of others, sharing with them "nos faces belles" and "nos oreilles," within the context of the word that introduces and dominates even visually those two stanzas—"Barbare." In the final stanza, the poet fully assumes the identity of "barbare"...

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(Poetry Criticism)

The poet refers to himself directly only in the first two shorter sections of this poem. At the beginning of the poem, the poet's "moi" serves as the point of departure for the poem, as the context, as source or sender, and as receiver of this word: "Parmi moi/de moi-même/à moi-même/ [ … ] en mes mains." At the beginning of the second section, the poet becomes a voice of hope: "j'aurai chance hors du labyrinthe." Soon afterwards, however, the poet becomes the object to be acted upon, at the mercy of, increasingly possessed by, the word ("me prendre," "me pendre," "que me clouent"). After this point, the poet virtually disappears from the poem as a self-referential voice. No further explicit references to a "moi"...

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Dit d'errance12

(Poetry Criticism)

This poem, the poem with which Cadastre ends, illus trates the use of the poem as a means of both clarifying the poet's own identity and providing a catalyst, the poem itself, for other blacks, universally, to explore and validate their own identity as black people in a white-dominated society.

For the poet, there is a fusion between inner exploration and outward political commitment to his island and his people. At the beginning of the poem, he assumes the microcosmic mantle of all suffering humanity and of all alienation from self:

Tout ce qui jamais fut déchiré
en moi s'est déchiré
tout ce qui jamais fut mutilé
en moi...

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Clarisse Zimra (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Ancestral Ground: Heroic Figuring in Aimé Césaire," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 16-30.

[In the following essay, Zimra explores Césaire 's treatment of the past in his work, in particular his use of the Ancestor figure.]

Qui et quels nous sommes?

Admirable question.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that contemporary Caribbean writers are obsessed with the past, an obsession made manifest by a recurring textual figure, that of the Ancestor. Both proponents and opponents of the tenets of Negritude, from Senghor to Soyinka, have tended to see the figure as...

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Mireille Rosello (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "One More Sea to Cross: Exile and Intertextuality in Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal," in Yale French Studies, No. 83, 1993, pp. 176-95.

[In the following essay, Rosello compares the theme of exile in Maryse Condé 's "Notes on a Return to the Native Land" and Césaire's early poem.]

l'exil s'en va ainsi dans la mangeoire des astres portant de malhabiles
grains aux oiseaux nés du temps
"Birds" in Ferrements

The people of Martinique and Guadeloupe will perhaps never recover from their exile, will perhaps never even succeed in...

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Hedy Kalikoff (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gender, Genre and Geography in Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal" in Callaloo, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1995, pp. 492-505.

[In the following essay, Kalikoff delineates the gender construction of the poem and challenges its reputation as "epic " and "heroic."]

Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal is one of the acknowledged master-pieces of francophone Caribbean literature. A great work seems to require a great man, a hero who can act and speak for an entire people, and indeed the period Cahier inhabits in Caribbean literary history has been referred to as an era of "Heroic Negritude" (Arnold). There is scarcely any...

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Aimé Césaire with Annick Thebia Melsan (interview date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Liberating Power of Words," in The Unesco Courier, May, 1997, pp. 4-7.

[In the following interview, Césaire discusses his political and poetic ideology.]

MELSAN: The usual way of trying to place you is by reference to various things such as time and place, writing, poetry and its different categories, political action and so on, but how would you place yourself?

CÉSAIRE: That's a terribly difficult question to answer but, well, I'm a man, a man from Martinique, a coloured man, a black, someone from a particular country, from a particular geographical background, someone with a history who has fought for a specific cause. It's not...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Pallister, Janis L. Aimé Césaire. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991, 149 p.

Critical and biographical study of Césaire.


Arnold, A. James. Modernism and negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981, 318 p.

Discusses Césaire and his poetry, focusing on social, political, historical, and literary contexts.

Davis, Gregson. Introduction to Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems of Aimé Césaire, by Aimé Césaire, translated by Gregson Davis,...

(The entire section is 342 words.)