Léopold Sédar Senghor Senghor, Léopold Sédar (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Léopold Sédar Senghor 1906–

(Has also written under pseudonyms of Silmang Diamano and Patrice Maguilene Kaymor) Senegalese poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, critic, and editor.

An influential statesman who served as President of the Republic of Senegal for twenty years following its independence from France in 1960, Senghor is also considered an important poet and essayist whose work affirms the rich traditions of his African heritage. He is perhaps best known as one of the most outspoken proponents of négritude, a literary ideology that urges black people worldwide to resist the cultural manifestations of European colonialism and to reclaim and embellish their African past. A recipient of many honors and literary prizes, Senghor became the first black member of the Académie Française upon his election in 1983.

Biographical Information

Senghor was born in the predominantly Islamic province of Joal, French West Africa. Raised as a Roman Catholic, he attended French missionary schools in preparation for the priesthood but abandoned his religious studies in favor of the classics and modern literature. Upon graduation from the Lycée of Dakar in 1928, Senghor earned a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, he met the West Indian writers Aimé Césaire and Léon Gontran Damas, who introduced him to the works of such Harlem Renaissance authors as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. In 1934, with Césaire and Damas, Senghor founded the literary and cultural journal L'etudiant noir, which helped delineate the principles of négritude and published the works of other francophone writers.

After serving in the French Colonial Army during World War II, Senghor became active in politics. In 1946 he began serving his first term as Senegale député in the French National Assembly in Paris, and in 1948, he formed the socialist party Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais in his own country. During the early 1950s, Senghor served as French delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. He was elected the first president of the new republic of Senegal on September 5, 1960. During his long rule, he continued to publish poetry and political essays, and won several international awards for his work. He resigned from the presidency in 1979 and four years later, he was the first black African elected to the Académie Française.

Major Works

The poems in Senghor's first major collection, Chants d' ombre, were written during the 1930s. Although largely

traditional in structure and meter, these pieces also evoke the intricate rhythmic patterns of compositions by musicians in Senghor's native village. Published in 1948, Hosties noires reflects Senghor's growing interest in Pan-Africanism and contains some of his strongest attacks on French colonialism. The majority of the poems in this collection relate his experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war while serving in the French Colonial Army during World War II. Nocturnes contains a series of elegies discussing the nature of poetry and the role of the poet in contemporary society. During the 1970s, Senghor published Elégie des eaux and Lettres d'hivernage, which expanded on his earlier themes. In recent years, he has revised several early volumes of verse, including Poèmes, which features a cycle of elegies dedicated to his deceased son as well as other meditations on life and death.

Critical Reception

Many commentators have noted elements of both European and African culture in Senghor's poetry, attributing this synthesis to his French education and his long service in the French government. He is often praised for his deft imagery, symbolism, and the rhythm of his language, which is often compared to the sounds of African drums. While some critics notice a lack of tension in his work, some appreciate its lush sensuality and positive message that attempts to celebrate African heritage and culture. In fact, critics agree that Senghor's poetry often serves to bridge the chasm between African and European literature.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Chants d' ombre [Songs of Shadow] 1945

Hosties noires [Black Sacrifices] 1948

Chants pour Naeett [Songs for Naeeti] 1949

Ethiopiques 1956

Nocturnes 1961

Lettres d'hivernage 1973

Paroles 1975

Jonathan Peters (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "L. S. Senghor: The Mask Poems of Chants d'Ombre," in African Literature Today, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, Africana Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 76-92.

[In the following essay, Peters explores the way in which African aesthetic sensibility influences Senghor's work]

Critical judgement of Leopold Senghor's poetry is fraught with a number of problems, not all of them literary. As the poet-President of Senegal there is a distinct temptation for admirers of his versatility to be overwhelming in their praise by eulogising the politician instead of judg ing the poet. In addition, as the most eloquent champion of Négritude there is the tendency for novitiates as well as loyal adherents of long standing to extol the leader's poetry because he is a good and faithful leader rather than because he is a good poet.

On the other hand, those who criticise Négritude as a strait-jacket in so far as it tries to impose a form and style of Negro-African writing instead of allowing the artist's imagination free rein are apt to see in Senghor's poetry nothing but propaganda and racism, or what Sartre in his celebrated essay, Orphée noir, written as a preface to Senghor's black poetry Anthologie of 1948 [referred] to as 'racisme anti-raciste'.

These two kinds of problems—adulation and scorn—cast a shadow over assessments of the real value of Senghor's poetry but our major concern here is with the question of vehicle and tradition. Senghor writes in an adopted language, French, and has the French literary heritage as a frame of reference and as an influence on his work—witness the echoes and correspondences of other writers that critics have detected.1 He has also studied the language and poetry of traditional African languages (notably those of Senegal) and claims these as his models as well as the work of Negro-American poets of the Negro Renaissance of the '20s. Questions of judgement thus arise, in view of these differing if not conflicting allegiances. For example, when Senghor—and Césaire, too—is criticised for being monotonous by French critics, is it because these critics have failed to appreciate the African rhythm of the poem which is monotonous only to the untrained ear that cannot distinguish subtle variations and that is denied the benefit of the percussion instruments which should accompany the chanting of the poem?2 When English-speaking Africans reject his poetry and his philosophy is it because they cannot read and speak French fluently and have to rely on imperfect translations?3 And when Senghor sings the praise of black woman or black culture is it racism, racial pride or simply an imitation of the troubadour of his native Joal? No systematic answer to these broad questions is attempted in this limited study; rather, it is hoped that a close examination of the mask-poems of Chants d'Ombre—'Femrae noire', 'Masque nègre', 'Prière aux Masques', and 'Totem'—will point up the ambivalence in Senghor's aesthetic sensibility as a basis for judging his strengths and weaknesses.

The first of these—'Black Woman'—addresses an unnamed woman, passive and gentle, with whom the speaker in the poem is in communion. Unlike the woman in an earlier poem, 'Nuit de Sine', the portrait of this woman fills the whole canvas as first her classic attributes followed by her particular features and finally her enduring universal traits are etched out. The poem opens into a sunbaked noon in summer, and the sight of this classic black woman whose form is remembered from childhood prompts the praise song that Senghor chants:

The first detail about this woman is that she is naked. In all Western poetry, even in the most sensual, it is unusual to find a poem praising a woman's beauty that introduces her simple nakedness as her first attribute.5 This detail is followed by the revelation of her black colour which indicates her race and the reader realises that he is not reading a conventional poem written in the Western tradition. This realisation is quickly confirmed by the line following which celebrates her 'colour which is life', her 'form which is beauty'. Thus, without trepidation or fanfare, but rather with a quiet assurance, the first two lines of 'Black Woman' have asserted that the subject is nude and black, black the colour of life, and her figure the form of beauty. These critical standards established, less striking and more specific details follow. Always responsive to the tender, soothing hands on his brow, Senghor uses the recall of such a moment to introduce the sudden impact of the beauty of the black woman.

With the exception of the change from 'black' to 'dark' in the two middle sections, the first line of the poem becomes the opening refrain in all subsequent verse paragraphs. The surrealist imagery is sensual and daring in turn. From 'firm-fleshed ripe fruit', 'somebre raptures of black wine' and 'mouth making lyrical my mouth', the associations dilate into the 'savannah shuddering beneath the East Wind's eager caresses' and then contract to the 'carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom' muttering in a 'solemn contralto voice'. In the third verse paragraph the descrip tive images are less bold. The woman is

Naked woman, dark woman
Oil that no breath ruffles, calm oil on the athlete's flanks, on the flanks of the Princes of Mali
Gazelle limbed in Paradise,

as Senghor prepares, at the end, to

… sing your beauty that passes, the form that I fix in the Eternal,
Before jealous Fate turn you to ashes to feed the roots of life.

As a rule, Senghor's most successful poems thrive on correspondences and contradictions, on ambiguity and paradox. 'Black Woman' is no exception to this rule. The provocative refrain would seem to indicate that the emotion is mere eroticism, with the celebrant poised, in Eliot's phrase, 'between the desire and the spasm'; yet in its development, even allowing for the apparent flights of fancy and fortuitousness of surrealist imagery, very little (if any) physical passion for the woman is manifested. In the second section of the poem where the images are the most sensual, no attempt is made to exploit the woman's nudity, for, excepting the reference to her mouth in 'mouth making lyrical my mouth' and 'Your solemn contralto voice' her beauty is not in any way inventoried. In the third section, only her skin, hair and eyes are mentioned, and with these, the promise of a sensually stimulating experience has been abrogated, as the poem reverts to generalities.

Does Senghor therefore fail in his attempt to sing the beauty of his black woman? If his aim is to celebrate the alluring charms of a beloved black woman, then, perhaps, he would do well to follow the example of the West Indian poet, Guy Tirolien, who utilises a similar order of imagery in 'Black Beauty' to achieve a far more erotic effect:

your breast of black satin
trembling to the gallop of your blood
your arms supple and long rippling in their sleekness
that white smile
set in a night-sky face
waken in me
this night


dark-skinned twilights heavy with passion


in the sweep of restless strength along your loins …6

Or else he must wait till Chants pour Naëtt (Songs for Naëtt, 1949) and the twin lyrics 'For two horns and a balafong':

She flies through the white flat lands, and patiently I take my aim
Giddy with desire. She takes her chances to the bush
Passion of thorns and thickets. Then I will bring her to bay in the chain of hours
Snuffing the soft panting of her flanks, mottled with shadow
And under the foolish Great Noon, I will twist her arms of glass.
The antelope's jubilant death rattle will intoxicate me, new palm wine
And I will drink long long the wild blood that rises to her heart
The milk blood that flows to her mouth, odours of damp earth.

Am I not the son of Dyogoye? Dyogoye the famished Lion

And again,

I will go leaping over the hills, defying the fear of the winds of the steppes
Defying the rivers, where virgin bodies drown in the lowest depths of their grief.
I will climb the sweet belly of the dunes and the ruddy thighs of day
To the shadowy gorges where with a sharp blow I will slay the dappled fawn of my dream.

The central hunting metaphor exploited in these lines to represent the high-voltage charge of desire in the lover is far removed from the unimpassioned worship of the figure in 'Black Woman'.

It would however be premature to dismiss 'Black Woman' as uninspired without ascertaining what Senghor's purpose is, especially as the rejection of European standards of beauty and the life-source in favour of African models evinced in the opening lines of the poem is not accidental. Since he has deliberately chosen an African ideal of beauty, an African aesthetic is no doubt a valid frame of reference in judging the aim and, to a large extent, the achievement of the poem.

Comparing the function of imagery in European and African art in his essay 'L'esprit de la civilisation ou les lois de la culture' which was read at the First International Conference of Black Writers and Artists Senghor wrote:

The African image is … not image-equation, but image-analogy—a surrealist image.… The object does not mean what it represents, but what it suggests, what it creates.… Every representation is an image, and the image, I repeat, is not an equation but a symbol, an ideogramme. Not only the image-figuration but also the substance—stone, earth, copper, gold, fibre—and even its line and colour.… I spoke of the surrealist image. But, as you no doubt suppose, African surrealism is different from European surrealism. European surrealism is empiric whilst African surrealism is mystical and metaphysical. Negro analogy presupposes and manifests the universe as a hierarchy of life-forces.8

This basis of interpretation renders the evocation of the African woman in 'Black Woman' an 'image-analogy' which is not simply the equivalent of an individual African woman but rather a symbol of whatever the figure suggests or creates in the mind of both artist and audience. The line and colour of the descriptive portrait are an ideogrammatic figuration of a mystical and metaphysical being which is projected but not named. But the question remains. What being is behind this projection that, in identifying with 'Negro analogy presupposes and manifests the universe as a hierarchy of life-forces'?

In 'Black Woman' Senghor invokes the universal black woman who has many guises in black poetry. She has been featured as a beautiful virgin of royal stock in pastoral poetry, as a suffering but steadfast Mother Africa in typically anti-slavery and anti-oppression poetry, as a voluptuous woman linked to the fertility principle in some modern poetry (including poetry of Négritude) that utilises traditional African concepts. Sometimes two or more roles are combined in a single poem. In this regard, the poet who readily comes to mind is David Diop who, in two poems—'Afrique, à ma mere' and 'A une danseuse noire'—depicts the black woman as having many of these functions. In Senghor's poem, the images are subtly suggestive of a variety of roles, but ultimately it is the portrait of the universal woman that stands out, invested with the many attributes of various manifestations. The origin of these mythical conceptions of African woman Senghor ascribes to the transformation of a fait économico-social in the essay 'Elements constitutifs d'une civilisation d'inspiration négro-africaine' presented at the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers:

In Black Africa, woman holds, or rather used to hold, first place, since Arabo-Berber and European influence and the influence of nomadic civilisations have continually reduced her role. This role is explained by the agrarian character of the black world. The explanation is correct but it goes beyond that. As always, consciousness has translated socio-economic fact into myth. Because the woman is 'permanent' in the family and life-giver (donneuse de vie) she has been elevated as source of the life-force (source de force vitale) and guardian of the home, that is, repository of the past and guarantor of the clan's future.9

The idealisation of the black woman in traditional Africa is seen by Senghor as a parallel to that by the Negro American poets of the 'New Negro' movement. The philosophy of these poets who precede and influence poets of Négritude is outlined in another essay, 'La poésie négroafricaine'. Senghor cites Claude Mackay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Bennett among the contemporary poets (1950) who embrace this concept which he summarises as follows:

These [poets] are convinced that they contribute, with the new values, a fresh sap which will make American Civilisation blossom once again. And they possess their own special cult consisting of respect and love, of desire and adoration for Black Woman as symbol of Négritude. This is because Woman is, more so than Man, sensitive to the mysterious currents of life and of the cosmos and more susceptible to joy and sorrow.… Woman is indeed symbol, as in Africa the aim is, beyond her plastic beauty (none of whose features escapes the poet) to express her spiritual wealth.10

Whatever spiritual wealth the woman of Senghor's poem has is expressed in images relating to the world of nature and thus to the life principle, since, in African ontology, the physical and spiritual unite in a common hierarchy. Consequently, the elemental imagery in the two middle verse paragraphs of 'Black Woman' is full of suggestions of ripeness and maturity, desire and embrace amid drumming and spiritual song, and of cosmic forces at work:

Naked woman, dark woman
Firm-fleshed ripe fruit, sombre raptures of black wine, mouth making lyrical my mouth
Savannah stretching to clear horizons, savannah shuddering beneath the East Wind's eager caresses
Carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom, muttering under the Conqueror's fingers
Your solemn contralto voice is the spiritual song of the Beloved.

Naked woman, dark woman
Oil that no breath ruffles, calm oil on the athlete's flanks, on the flanks of the Princes of Mali
Gazelle limbed in Paradise, pearls are stars on the night of your skin
Under the shadow of your hair, my care is lightened by the neighbouring suns of your eyes.

At the beginning of Orphée noir (Black Orpheus) Sartre makes the following remark about Senghor's 'Black Woman':

A black poet—unconcerned with us—whispers to the woman he loves:

Naked woman, black woman
Dressed in your color which is life …

Naked woman, dark woman,
Firm fleshed ripe fruit, somber ecstasies of black wine.

and our whiteness seems to us to be a strange livid varnish that keeps
our skin from breathing—white tights, worn out at the elbows and
knees, under which we would find real human flesh the color of black
wine if we could remove them.11

A recent critic, S. O. Mezu, in his penetrating study on Senghor entitled Leopold Senghor et la defense et illustration de la civilisation noire has remarked that the poem is 'too often quoted and as badly commented upon since the majority of critics see nothing in this poem but the "special cult consisting of respect and love, of desire and adoration for Black Woman" '.12 Mezu adds that Sartre's interpretation goes beyond the meaning of the superficial lines of the poem in which elements of...

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John Reed (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Leopold Sédar Senghor's Poetry," in A Celebration of Black and African Writing, edited by Bruce King and Kolawole Ogungbesan, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 102-11.

[In the following essay, Reed offers a positive assessment of Lettres d'Hivernage and suggests a literary context for Senghor's poetry.]

Towards the end of a long essay which is still the best introduction to Senghor's poetry, Armand Guibert reflects that Senghor, who had recently become the President of his country, was perhaps already at the end of his career as a poet.

As this problem of the coexistence of political leader with poet has been posed...

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Vladimir Klima (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Politics and Poetry—The Subjects of Senghor," in African Culture and Integration, Oriental Institute in Academia, 1976, pp. 46-81.

[In the following excerpt, Klima examines how Senghor's poetry is informed by his politics and the political situation in West Africa]

Léopold Sédar Senghor's activities have been examined from various points of view. For the last thirty years he has kept his reputation of one of the major poets in Black Africa. As a leading representative of Négritude, whose evaluation has not yet been completed he has affected the political and ideological life of West Africa. Outside Africa, he has been widely recognized as a champion of...

(The entire section is 6545 words.)

Charles O'Keefe (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Recall in Léopold Sédar Senghor's 'Joal'," in The French Review, Vol. LVII, No. 5, April, 1984, pp. 625-33.

[In the following essay, O'Keefe discusses the influence of Senghor's early environment on his work, maintaining that "if the eponymous subject of this poem lies at the heart of Senghor's artistic material, what is true for 'Joal' will be informative about all his poetry."]

As both thinker and doer, Léopold Sédar Senghor has been an influential presence globally. The prominent roles that he has played include theoretician of négritude, member of the French Assemblée Constituante (in 1945) and Chambre des Députés, a delegate...

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Janice Spleth (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Language of Flowers in Senghor's Lettres d'Hivernage," in French Studies in Honor of Philip A. Wadsworth, edited by Donald W. Tappan and William A. Mould, Summa Publications, 1985, pp. 29-39.

[In the following essay, Spleth delineates the function of the flower imagery found in Senghor's poetry collection.]

Published in 1973, Lettres d'Hivernage constituted a new phase in Senghor's poetic career which had hitherto been dominated by works that, on some level at least, carried a strong political or cultural message. Every previous collection illustrated various facets of the writer's theory of Negritude or recounted one of the stages in...

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Marin Sorescu with Léopold Sédar Senghor (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thoughts about Poetry," in Romanian Review, No. 6, 1986, pp. 72-6.

[In the following interview, Senghor discusses his creative process, stylistic aspects of his poetry, and the role of politics in his life.]

Léopold Sédar Senghor. Before writing them, I live my poems. This lasts for a couple of days or weeks and sometimes even for whole years. There are poems I have lived for a long time now but which I have not written yet. When I experience a strong emotion, I am sure I'll write something …

Marin Sorescu: And you begin courting that emotion, that experience.

Yes, that's right. I seek to preserve it...

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Janice Spleth (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Political Context of Senghor's 'Elégie pour Georges Pompidou'," in Critical Perspectives on Léopold Sédar Senghor, edited by Janice Spleth, Three Continents Press, 1993, pp. 217-28.

[In the following essay, Spleth contends that Senghor's poem denotes his expanding political horizons.]

Senghor's early poems are united in their political vision by the challenges and dreams characteristic of the end of the colonial period. They focus on the injustices of a specific political system and look forward to the creation of a new egalitarian society. With the coming of independence to Senegal in 1960 and the restructuring of the global political reality, many of...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Pappageorge, Julia Di Stefano. "Senghor Re-evaluated." In African Literature Today, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, pp. 54-67. New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1973.

Lists the weaknesses of English translations of Senghor's verse.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. "Poetic Inspiration, Its Sources and Caprices." Hermathena, No. CXXXVI (Summer 1984): 8-20.

Discusses various sources—historical, literary, and autobiographical—of poetic inspiration.

Additional coverage of Senghor's life and career is contained...

(The entire section is 94 words.)