Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886
The poem begins with an "apostrophe," an address to an object or spirit. Here, as the title indicates, this address is a prayer to the masks, which appear in the poem both as works of African art and as more general spirits of African culture, society, and history. The poet lists the colors of the masks as black, red, black-and-white, thus also suggesting the reference of the masks as symbols of race and skin color. In the third line, Senghor suggests that these masks are also spirits of nature, linked to the winds that blow from the four directions of north, south, east, and west. As spirits that blow, they also imply that the masks are related to the poet's breath and poetic inspiration. As the fourth line indicates, he greets them with silence, as if listening to what the mask-spirits will whisper to him on the wind.
The poet introduces his family's guardian animal, the lion, symbol of aristocratic virtue and courage. Traditionally these animals were thought to be the first ancestor and the protector of the family line. In mentioning his lion-headed ancestor, Senghor refers to the name of his father, Diogoye, which in his native Serer language means lion. In ceremonies where masks would be used, the family might be represented by a lion mask. In lines 6 and 7, Senghor further reinforces the implications of long tradition and patriarchal power. The lion guards the ground that is forbidden to women and to passing things, in favor of values, memories, and customs that stretch back into mythic antiquity.
These lines develop a complex relation between the faces of the ancestors, the poet's face, and the masks. Line 8 speaks of the masks as idealized representations of previously living faces. The masks eliminate the mobile features and signs of age in the faces of the living ancestors, but in doing so outlive their death. In turn, they are able to give shape to the face of the poet bent over the page and writing his prayer to the masks. He appeals to them to listen to him, for he is the living image of those masks to whom he is writing a prayer.
These lines contrast the glorious past of Africa, when vast black-ruled empires spanned the continent, and the present, in which the peoples of Africa have been subjugated by the imperial conquests of European nations. The "pitiable princess" symbolizes the nobility of traditional Africa, and her death represents both the general suffering and decline of traditional African culture and the loss of political power of blacks to rule themselves. Yet the relation to Europe is not presented solely in a negative way. The image of the umbilical cord suggests that the European conquest has nourished a new Africa soon to be born, but one that will eventually have to sever its ties with its European "mother" if it is to live and grow.
The masks are called to witness the sad history of modern Africa, and they look on, god-like with their changeless faces. Yet Senghor also suggests that the traditional customs and values have apparently not been able to respond to the great changes that history has brought about. The poem implicitly comes to a question and a turning point: do the masks represent a valuable longview from which the present can be seen in its proper perspective, or are they merely relics of a past that have nothing to say to those who are exploited and suffering in the present?
The poet prays to the magic spirits of the masks to help speed the rebirth suggested by the image of the umbilical cord connecting Africa to Europe in line 12. Implicitly, reviving the ancestral spirits of the masks will help sever the ties of dependence. In turn, a reborn African creativity can help Europe to a more life-affirming use of its material and scientific wealth, just as the brown yeast is necessary for making bread from white flour.
These lines further develop the idea that Africa will provide the life-impulse to a Europe that is oriented toward mechanical values, materialist gain, and war. It is the rhythm of African music and dance that can change the thud of machines into something better. A reborn Africa will lend its youthful energy to a senile Europe, bringing joy and hope where there has been isolation, exhaustion, despair, and death.
In the imagery of "men of cotton, of coffee, of oil," Senghor refers to the exploitation of Africa for its raw materials and to European conceptions of black Africans as merely a source of cheap labor and economic profit. Looking back to the figures of death and rebirth in the previous lines, he ironically notes how "they," the Europeans, view the black African as a fearful image of death, "the waking dead."
But rather than allowing their humanity to be reduced to the economic value of the agricultural goods listed in line 20, the African of the future will have a different, creative relation to the soil and the natural world. Like the participants in a traditional ceremony in which masks are used, these new Africans absorb the powers of the natural spirits through the rhythm of dance, music, and poetry.
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