William Oxley: LEOPOLD SEDAR SENGHOR -- An African Whitman

It is perhaps symptomatic of the relative neglect in Britain of this great African poet that this translator first encountered his work in a Scottish little magazine; and then only in a somewhat propagandist context where the author of the article was searching for parallels to the perceived `colonial predicament' of Scots and Gaelic, finding such in `the intellectuals of the négritude movement [who] have seen the non-scientific negro with his passionate and emotional institutions - making a uniquely necessary contribution to a world threatened by Western scientific materialism. (1) The article spoke of the French colonial policy of assimilation whereby `the use of vernaculars was strictly forbidden even in primary schools': as it also informed of the fact that Senghor, a poet, was now President of Senegal; and, most importantly, quoted from his poem `Prayer to the Masks':

`Masks! Masks!
Black masks, red masks, you masks black and white -
Masks at all four points from whence the spirit breathes -
In silence I salute you!
And not least of all you, my lion-headed ancestor,
You keeper of holy places forbidden...
You who have painted this picture of my face over an altar of white
In your own image...hear me!
Here dies the Africa of Empires - it is the agony of a ruined
And of Europe to whose navel we are bound. (2)

Subsequent research and the translation of more and more poems soon showed the present translator that in L.S.Senghor the Twentieth Century African experience had produced an indisputably major poet of the order of Whitman.

Indeed, both in style and rhythmic strength, there are affinities between this poet of négritude, and the author of Leaves of Grass. Between:

`You my rich blood! your milky stream pale strippings of my life!
Breast that presses against other breasts it shall be you!
My brain it shall be your occult convolutions!
Root of washed sweet-flag! timorous pond-snipe! nest of
      guarded duplicate eggs! it shall be you!...
Sun so generous it shall be you!
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you!'

from `Song of Myself', and the above-quoted `Prayer to the Masks', of these lines from `Gone, Gone':

`Listen to your blood drumming to the rhythm of the spear,
O Listen, you are already far across the wine-dark dunes.
Hear the game tremble as your blood leopard strikes
And hear the deep-throated hands, the waves breaking upon the
Does not the love in my eyes hold you stronger than siren's song?
More than the song of the Hunter? Is it not a brushwood fire,
      the voice of the lover?

Gone, gone, O doubly gone - your face that now shadows far

there is the same ecstatic tone, the same rhythm finding expression in like lines of freed verse: of what D.H.Lawrence called `poetry of the immediate present', a poetry of spontaneous form.

The American critic, Leslie A.Fiedler, said of `Song of Myself': `Though it stands at the center of Whitman's epic attempt and can be read as a heroic poem intended to define the ethos of a nation, [it] is also a love-poem...' (3) While many other critics have viewed all of the poems in Leaves of Grass as constituting an extended hymn to the birth of the world's greatest democracy. In the same way, it is impossible not to see Senghor's work, as well as his life, as reflecting the increasing opening up and democritization of Black Africa: a similar post-colonial experience of an underdeveloped country to that through which Whitman lived. Equally, in both poets there is to be found a strongly sensuous love element:

`You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you!
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you!
Broad muscular fields, branches of live oak, loving lounger
      in my winding paths, it shall be you!
Hands I have taken, face I have kissed, mortal I have ever touched,
      it shall be you'


`Have you not felt the force of my loins, the power of my muscular
I know winter will be illuminated by a long soring day:
That the smell of Earth will intoxicate more than the perfume of
And she will offer firm breasts to tremble under the Conqueror's


Similarly, but perhaps of less equally orthodox significance, because Senghor has always been a devout Roman Catholic, the divine presence is in both poets. God is there in Whitman, and the prophet's mantle is worn; but nowhere more explicitly than in Senghor who says: `I will bound like the Prophet manifesting'.

But enough of comparisons, which are both invidious as well as revealing. Though it is worth just saying before leaving Whitman behind and concentrating on Senghor, that though they both employ a long line of vibrant sinuosity, Whitman's is both more personal and much more rhetorically contrived than Senghor's. I say `more personal' to emphasise that, in truth, Senghor's rhythm, though as with any poet it is `individual' on one level, it is also distinctly tribal-derived and imitative of the especial communal ethos that pervades much negro writing. This is increasingly demonstrated and emphasised by the frequency with which Senghor, especially in his later poetry, ties his work to various African tribal instruments. As Senghor explained in an essay:

`Music is not a self-sufficient art in African society...originally it accompanied ritual songs and dances. In the profane sphere, it does not become independent; it takes its natural place in the collective activities of the theatre, agricultural work and athletic competitions. Even in the daily evening drumming, it is not a purely aesthetic manifestation, for it brings its followers into a more intimate communion with the rhythm of the dancing world. A great deal of this has remained with the Westernised and Americanised negroes. Instinctively they dance their music and their life...African music, like sculpture, is rooted in the nourishing earth, it is laden with rhythm, sounds and noises of the earth...' (4)

Elsewhere, discussing the matter of the image in poetry, a subject so central to any consideration of modern Twentieth Century poetic ideas, Senghor said: `The image has no effect on the African unless it is rhythmical. Rhythm is consubstantial with the image. It completes it by unifying it into a single and whole sign and sense, flesh and spirit.' (5)

Given such views, there are two important points to be made. Firstly, as has been suggested, Senghor's poetry reflects clearly the integrated tribal and communal situation of the African experience; and, secondly, it offers a corrective to much of modern Anglo-American poetry in which rhythm has been suppressed in favour of the centralizing of the image in the poetic process. `The bare image and the image as symbol are the contrast', said Wallace Stevens in Opus Posthumus; and, more fully, Michael Roberts in his Critique of Poetry in the 1930s wrote: `The poet is not looking for signs, he is trying to find symbols which will adequately arouse the whole or a chosen portion of..."Consciousness, beliefs, emotions and usages".' While, at the other extreme from the matter of imagery, Basil Bunting has asserted: `Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound...Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music.' (6) To Senghor, however, given the consubstantiality of rhythm and image, a more whole poetry than has generally been the case with much of Twentieth Century English language poetry becomes possible; and the actuality of his own work is one rich in both rhythm and imagery, as the following poem `I have been with you' (`Je t'ai accompagnee') demonstrates:

`I have been with you to that corn village and as far as
      the gates of night;
And I was speechless before the golden enigma of your smile
When a brief twilight crossed your face like a divine mood.
From the hill's height where dwells the light
      I viewed the fading splendour of your garb
And your crest like a sun that plunged to the shade of rice fields.
When they attack me such agonies, those ancestral fears
      as treacherous as leopards,
The spirit cannot drive them back to distant boundaries of day.
Is it, therefore, night forever and the parting with no goodbye?
I will weep in the shadows, in the maternal hollows of earth,
And will sleep in the silence of my tears
Till I feel again on my forehead the milky dawn of your kiss.'

It is very important to understand that though Leopold Sédar Senghor is a highly sophisticated and `westernized' African, his powers of perception are cleaner, more primitive, or, as I prefer, `more pristine', and, therfore, more directly intuitive than those of most white men. For the African, as he has said `Il suffit de nommer la chose pour qu'apparaisse le sens sous le signe' (7) or `It is enough to name a thing to bring forth the meaning from beneath the sign'. This because, as he has also said, `Classical European reason is analytical and makes use of the object. African reason is intuitive and participates in the object'. (8) Of course, it was not always so. Even Marx observed that `reason' in the West was not always the slave of `the rational'. But it remains importantly true that the negro consciousness more directly participates in the life of things, of nature, in the fuller Wordsworthian sense, than modern Western Man does. With the result that a poet of négritude, such as Senghor or Césaire, can bring us back into direct meaningful communion via their poetry with whole lost areas of experience. And that has got to be of the greatest possible value: is one of the principal reasons why Senghor's poetry should be widely known in the West. Without it, our perception of reality will continue anaemic; as will our poetry.

Despite such strongly intuitive powers of seeing and understanding, very much fostered in a free-ranging childhood spent in West Africa, in his `Royaume d'enfance' or `Kingdom of Childhood', Senghor is also a highly intellectual being, a philosopher-poet who has written cogently on everything from music to metaphysics, from politics to religion. He is a Roman Catholic convert, educated by missionaries, who has found no contradiction between the animistic African religious view of the world and that propounded in the Christian creed. As he has written: `I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. The opening of the Creed has never surprised any African. The African is a monotheist wherever he is found and as far back as we can go into his history...The African has established a strict hierarchy of forces. At the top the one God, the uncreated Creator...etc.' (9) This may well be true; or it may be something of a synthetic reconciliation performed by Senghor, consciously or otherwise, between the individual tribal deity of the Serer people of Senegal (from which he derives) and the Christian God. The matter cannot be pursued here; but, undoubtedly, his childhood experiences - recreated and re-animated through many poems - bear definite witness to a single unificatory principle running through all things: Man participates in all things; all things are a part of God. And this gives rise to a passionate awareness of religious reality in and through words which partake of the Word of God. So that in metaphysical terms, as well as sensual and social, Senghor's poetry bears witness to a profounder reality than much modern Anglo-American poetry. Which, again, is another reason why his poetry is so valuable. It provides the fullest possible witness of life and reality.

In attempting a definition of poetry, I once described it as `the myth-making activity of post-tribal man'. Equally Mallarmé spoke of poetry as `purifying the dialect of the tribe'. In either of which statements is hint of `the tribe'; and, perhaps, implicit the notion of the modern poet as a creature of cultures that have moved some way beyond the real tribal state. But however rootless the poet - and modern man in general - may be, there does lie behind all his thought a wide and deep tribal consciousness that gives, in an almost Platonic or Jungian sense, an innate communal shape to his work. What, however, makes the work of Leopold Senghor so fascinating, apart from its purely poetic qualities, is that it forms a living bridge between a real tribal situation and the archetypal tribe of the modern poet. Similarly, whilst poets everywhere continue, largely in isolation it must be admitted, their `myth-making activity', Senghor makes his myth out of a living tribal context in Senegalese Africa: one where the myths of the poet and his people are still equally resonant.

In reading Senghor's poetry, what drew me to it in the first place, one discerns this fact that it is existential myth as opposed to literary or private myth. Senghor makes myth not just as means of expressing himself and the inner mythological world of the imagination, as all true poets do, but he is also communicating directly with a living past and echoing a people, the Senegalese, for whom the past is, unlike for the European, every bit as living as the present. As Senghor says in one poem: `Laissez moi penser a mes morts!', `Let me think about my dead!', and he is speaking as he feels, and as his people feel; because, for the African, the dead coalesce with the living - their spirits being everywhere in the waking world. Where the dead for the European are often little more than names scratched on tombstones - as Senghor so sadly expresses it in Paris: `Et nul souvenir dans aucun cimetière' - or, at most, are relegated to dreams, for the African the spirits of the dead are everywhere present and must be propitiated. So, again, for Senghor poetry is in part a means of propitiating the `Dead who have always refused to die, who have resisted finality.'

But this `existential myth' that Senghor has both inherited and given present expression to, is also in a degree personal. Personal in the sense that discoverable in it is that intimate dialogue, found in all true poets' poetry as Robert Graves would say, with the Muse. It was in translating the poem from Senghor's volume Nocturnes entitled `Elle me force sans jamais répit'; or, rather, from the untitled poem beginning with that line, that I became convinced Senghor had a vision of the African Muse. A vision that haunts many of his poems, the clue to which in this poem resides in the ambiguous reference to the `blue eyes of a blonde negress'. For, surely, here we have grafted onto the black poet's conception of the shadowy divine anima and mythical African woman, the Western classical, probably universal idea of the Muse. Indeed, one might be so presumptuous as to proffer the title `African Muse' for this strictly untitled poem:

`She chases me relentlessly through time's undergrowth.
She hounds me my black blood through crowds
      to the clearing where the white night sleeps.

I turn sometimes in the street and see
      a palmtree smiling in the tradewind.
Her voice comes close like a gentle wing-tap and I say:
`Yes, it is Signare!' I have seen the sun set
      in the blue eyes of a blonde negress.
At Sèvres-Babylone or Balanger her perfumes
      of amber and `gongo' have whispered to me.
Yesterday in church at Angelus-time
      her eyes shone bright, burnishing
Her flesh with bronze. My God, my God - why
Tear my pagan senses shrieking from me?
I cannot sing your plainsong that has no swing, nor dance to it.
Sometimes it is a cloud, a butterfly, raindrops on my pane of boredom.

She chases me relentlessly through time's wide spaces.
She hounds me my black blood to the lonely heart of night.' (10)

Here not only are detectable such clues of pastiche or oxymoronic description as a blue-eyed blonde negress; plus the further deliberate ambiguous suggestiveness of: `her eyes shone bright, burnishing/ Her flesh with bronze' (thus, by a daring stroke, universalising her `black' skin); but it is difficult, if impossible, not to see in this poem a testament to the very source itself of the poet's poetic compulsion. In fact, the poem is all about poetic creation and its divine source; as it is also precisely about the tension between cultures, Christian Europe and Pagan Africa: `My God, my God - why tear my pagan senses shrieking from me?'; and, finally, moving into the very specific of poetic form itself: `I cannot sing your plainsong that has no swing, no dance to it.'

But before passing from the myth - communal or personal - to the man, something must be said about négritude: for this is the term that was coined to express or name the myth of African consciousness; the struggle to articulate which has been such an important part of Senghor's life. When Senghor was a student in Paris he naturally came into the company of other black students from the various French colonies, and, in 1934, with Aimé Césaire and Leon Damas he founded the periodical L'Etudient Noir to develop and give voice to black cultural and political concerns. Thus, in literary terms, was black consciousness, or way of seeing and feeling about things, in a poem called `Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal' (`Notebook of a Journey to One's Country of Birth'), when he wrote protestingly:

`ma négritude n'est pas une pierre, sa surdite ruée contre
le clameur du jour
ma négritude n'est pas une taie d'eau morte sur l'oeil mort
de la terre. (11)

`my blackness is not stone, its deafness thrown against
the clamour of day
my blackness is not a drop of dead water on the world's
dead eye.'

But it was Senghor who gave it its most precise definition: `Négritude...is not the defence of a skin or colour...it is not even attachment to a particular race...although such attachment is quite legitimate. Négritude is the awareness, defence and development of African cultural values. Négritude...as a true myth...is the awareness by a particular social group or people of its own situation in the world...' (12)

These particular writers and intellectuals, like the people they may be said to represent, were also - as is the title of one of Senghor's books of poetry - `hosties noires', black victims of colonialism. Consequently they were all floating, or being carried swiftly along, on rising currents of nationalism; so that, in part, their articulation of black consciousness or négritude was political. But only in the case of Senghor, for whom négritude was always so embracingly cultural, so abidingly cultural, did the politics give birth to the statesman. In fact, unique in our century among men-of-letters who were also politicians, neither interest - the poetical or the political - was sacrificed to the other. For Senghor rose to eminence as both a wise politician and a great poet. As to how this came about it is probably impossible to wholly rationalise: as difficult, in fact, to explain as that Senghor, a Senegalese African, happens also to be one of the greatest Twentieth Century French poets.

Sengor was born in the small village of Joal to a well-off family of the Serer tribe. For the first few years of his life he roamed his locality free and without schooling; then, at seven years of age, he was put in the Catholic Mission School in the village. At seventeen he went on to the Catholic Seminary at Dakar, having already had a grounding in French, Latin, Science and the Humanities. The intention was that he should become a priest but, instead, he went to Paris to become a professor. He studied first at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and then at the Sorbonne, at which latter he became the first African to receive the Agrége Degree. After this he taught French at various schools, fought in the French army against the German invaders, was imprisoned by them, then released after a couple of years because of illness, and joined the Resistance. When the War ended he became involved in French politics and served as a member of the Constitutional Committee of the Fourth Republic and as an elected Senegalese delegate to the National Assembly. Though a staunch supporter of the movement for the emancipation of black consciousness, and a spokesman for Black nationalism in West Africa, he hoped for some kind of federation among the states of Africa and a continuation of the close tie with metropolitan France. His dream was a United States of Africa with a special relationship to France. Had his dream been fulfilled he would more truly still have been an African Whitman. As a man of culture as well as politics and, therefore, possessed of the unifying imagination and ability to see all points of view, he hoped for something better than a series of petty independent kingdoms in Africa; as, also, he wished all to benefit from the European cultural connection to the degree that he had. But, save in himself and his work, the political dream was not to be realised. Istead, Senegal, along with many other French colonies, elected for full independence as a small and, as he saw it, inconsequential unit on the world stage; though he had the consolation of being elected first president of his homeland.

As to Senghor's particular brand of politics, he was a socialist and democrat. Well-versed in the Left-Wing theories which have dominated French intellectual life over the past fifty or so years, in particular Marxism, Senghor was, nevertheless, never a communist. For him, politics meant `not exactly a religion, not even a philosophy...nor a science. It is an art, the art of governing the City'. He believed it to be `the art of making use of a method which by constant correction by trial and error, enables the greatest number to lead a life more completely happy because more in conformity with the human condition. Politics is an active humanism.' (13) He espoused a kind of ideal socialism, yet one that was adaptable to the peculiar ethnic and tribal conditions of the West African situation.

Senghor's multifarious cultural and political activities throughout his life have been well summed up by the Irish writer Pearse Hutchinson who wrote:

`Since he was a Sorbonne student in the late Twenties, Senghor's overriding public task, not just self-imposed but imposed by history as well, has been to recover and keep that living African tradition, to make it manifest, firstly to himself and to other Francophone Africans (always in danger of being "assimilated" out of spiritual recognition), and then to the French of "the Hexagon" - and through them, or at least through their language, to the rest of the world.

`The parallels with Yeats are obvious. But once acknowledged, need not be pressed. Senghor as publicist has been at once much more persistent, in some ways more committed, and yet in tone much more suave. His energy has been phenomenal, his activities varied, even contrasting. His most influential single act may prove to have been the great "Anthologie de la nouvelle Poesie nègre et malgache de langue francaise" (Paris 1949; re-issued 1969).This was truly epoch-making, for not only did it reverberate throughout the Black intellectual world (including North America but especially the Caribbean) but it led Sartre, then at an early pinnacle of prestige and prowess, to write his famous and stirring essay "Orphée Noir". And that in turn forced the European doubting Thomases to listen to Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and the other compelling Black voices.' (14)

An excellent summing up, followed by a number of other pregnant observations, none more telling than Hutchinson's description of Senghor as `not only a defender but a bridge-builder'. Important because Senghor might so easily, like most nationalists in the post-War world, have been merely an aggressive defender of local rights. But that he should have been by inclination also a bridge-builder testifies not only to his greater vision, but to the fact that, `we are all cultural half-castes' - an inescapable fact, though many would wish to escape it, even deny it. Senghor was perhaps only applying the statement to those Afro-Francophones like himself but, if one really thinks about it, it applies to most of the world's population now, or at some time in history.

An `hostie noire' he may have been; a victim of the French colonial policy he certainly was; yet Senghor was also a master of two cultures, two languages, and he came to love them both. Of French he said, `It is a language of the Gods'; and from Corneille to Claudel he loved its poets. `The French language is a mighty organ capable of all tones and effects,' he observed. And there is no doubt at all that the modern French diction which Charles Baudelaire above all others `prepared', proved a more than adequate instrument to absorb and re-express the white colonial experience in a poet like St.Jean Perse, and the black in Leopold Senghor. Indeed, Senghor wrote his university thesis for the Diplôme d'Études Supérieures (His M.A.) on the very subject of `Exoticism in Baudelaire'. While it was Paul Claudel, as far as Senghor was concerned, `perhaps the greatest poet in this tradition of free verse writing which makes use of the long copious line or verset, is fond of elementary imagery, unafraid of rhetoric, repetition and direct effects with heavily evocative words.' (15), who provided him with his best model as to form. All of which returns us to where we began with the matter of the poetry and the question of its translation.

Throughout my translations of Senghor I have tried to remember that the originals are resonant with living myth and that they are, in part, directed to a people with, in David Jones' famous phrase, `a shared background'. But, at the same time, neither have I forgotten, nor can one forget, that these poems are the work of a highly cultivated and literate ex-colonial. Nevertheless, the prime quality of the poems is one of the tribal `esprit', the sense of which is conveyed in a rich, necessarily exotic, lyrical verse. To do justice to the pieces I chose to translate I decided to follow approximately the long sinewy lines of the originals, but trying always to remember that they ought to be at least as toughly rhythmic in the English as they are in the French. It may well be that some will feel a shorter, more formal line structure would have better served the lyricism of the originals, especially as lines much above the iambic pentameter in English tend to flag. But, somehow, I just could not see a major transformation of the form as really viable.

Finally, there arises the dichotomy posed by those Dioscuri of translation, that of the problems of fidelity and function. I will confess it is this dichotomy I most feel when translating. I like to be faithful to the original but, at the same time, I want the translation to function as a literary entity of equivalent status in the new tongue. I strongly abhor the lifeless conversion of a living poem into a new language; I hate the abortion however `accurate'. But apart from a few academics looking for a crib, I do not regard it - nor do I feel do most readers - as a just or an accurate translation, if the translated poem is given no real life or equivalent status in the new tongue. Consequently, one must balance the demands of fidelity to the original with function in the new language. Even though, and inevitably, this may mean adopting a certain licence in places. But as long as one does not abandon to any great extent the discipline imposed by the original, I think it justified if the end product lives as comfortably as possible in its new home. Possibly translation is one of the few areas of human endeavour where the end justifies the means, though perhaps this is because the succesful piece is so rare an event as to seem almost miraculous: which, to echo Coleridge's sentiments, leaves our critical faculties somewhat in a state of suspended awe.


1. `Like a Trained and Performing Tortoise', D.Glen, Akros, Vol.3, No. 9, Jan.1969.
2. This, and all translations following, are by myself.
3. Introduction to Selected Poems of Whitman, Laurel Poetry Series, Dell 1959.
4. `Ce que l'homme noir apporte' 1939, Librairie Plon.
5. `L'Esprit de la Civilisation ou les Lois de la Culture Negro-Africaine 1956' Presence Africaine.
6. Agenda, Vol.16, No.1, Spring 1978.
7. Senghor, Poemes, Editions du Seuil, 1964. p. 159
8. De la Negritude. Psycholgie du Negro-Africaine, Diogene, 1932.
9. `Ce que l'homme noir apporte,' 1939, Librarie Plon.
10. `She Chases Me Relentlessly', Mencard 97, Oct. 1986, trans. W.O.
11. Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal, rev. edn. Paris, 1956.
12. `Discourse devant le Parlement du Ghana', February 1961. (unpublished)
13. La Methode et la Doctrine du Bloc Democratique Senegalese, 1954.
14. Cyphers, No. 16. (Ireland), Winter 1981.
15. Introduction to Senghor Prose and Potry, edited and translated by John Reed and Clive Wake. Heinemann, London 1976.

Books for Further Reading

Ulli Beir: `L.S.Senghor: The Theme of the Ancestors in Senghor's Poetry' in Introduction to African Literature, University of Chicago Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1937.
Gerald Moore: Seven African Writers, Oxford University Press, London, 1962.
J.D.Oliver, Roland & Fage: A Short History of Africa, Penguin Books, London, 1962.
Leopold Sédar Senghor: Poèmes (Collected Poems), Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1964.
Leopold Sédar Senghor: Liberte 1: Négritude et Humanism, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1964.
Leopold Sédar Senghor (editor): Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poesie Negre et Malgache de Langue Francaise, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1948.
Leopold Sédar Senghor: Prose and Poetry, Selected and translated by John Reed and Clive Wake (with extensive bibliography), Heinemann Educational Limited, London, 1976.
Leopold Sédar Senghor: Selected Poems (Bilingual edition), selected and translated by Craig Williamson, Rex Collings, London, 1976.
Jean-Paul Sartre: Orphée Noir, Paris, 1948. An English translation appeared in Stand, Vols. 5/4 and 6/1, 1962.
Richard Thompson, Virginia G Adloff: French West Africa, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1958.


A short version of this essay first appeared in Celtic Dawn 4, 1989.