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Subject: Literature In English
Topic: Summary Analysis of the poem “Vanity” by Birago Diop.
Lesson Objectives: This lesson is aimed at helping learners understand the poem “Vanity”. So by the end of the lesson, the learners should be able to:
- In few sentences describe the Poet;
- Recite the poem;
- Identify and write about setting of the poem;
- Identify the poetic devices used in the poem;
- Identify and discuss the themes in the poem;
- Point out the characters I’m the poem.
Learning Aids: See Reference Resources below lesson content.
Lesson Summary / Discussion
Who is Birago Diop?
Birago Diop (11 December 1906 – 25 November 1989) was a Senegalese poet and storyteller whose work restored general interest in African folktales and promoted him to one of the most outstanding African francophone writers. A renowned veterinarian, diplomat and leading voice of the Négritude literary movement, Diop exemplified the “African renaissance man”.
Diop received his education in Dakar and Saint-Louis, Senegal, and then studied veterinary medicine at the University of Toulouse until 1933. This was followed by a series of tours as government veterinary surgeon in the French Sudan (now Mali), Côte d’Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and Mauritania. From 1961 to 1965 he served as newly independent Senegal’s ambassador to Tunisia.
He is known for his small but beautifully composed output of lyric poetry. With his compatriot Léopold Sédar Senghor, Diop was active in the Negritude movement in the 1930s, which sought a return to African cultural values. Diop explored the mystique of African life in Leurres et lueurs (“Lures and Glimmerings”), a selection of his verse written between 1925 and 1960.
Diop received literary awards in 1964 for Les Contes d’Amadou Koumba (1947; Tales of Amadou Koumba) and Les Nouveaux Contes d’Amadou Koumba(1958), both reprinted in the 1960s, and for Contes et lavanes (1963; Tales and Commentaries). These books contained tales that were first told him by his family’s griot (a storyteller whose role is to preserve the oral traditions of his tribe). Diop’s skill in rendering the nuances of dialogue and gesture furthered the popularity of his books, selections from which were reprinted in a school-text edition in 1967. Les Contes d’Awa (“Tales of Awa”) appeared in 1978.
The complete Poem:
If we tell, gently, gently
All that we shall one day have to tell,
Who then will hear our voices without laughter,
Sad complaining voices of beggars
Who indeed will hear them without laughter?
If we cry roughly of our torments
Ever increasing from the start of things
What eyes will watch our large mouths
Shaped by the laughter of big children
What eyes will watch our large mouth?
What hearts will listen to our clamoring?
What ear to our pitiful anger
Which grows in us like a tumor
In the black depth of our plaintive throats?
When our Dead comes with their Dead
When they have spoken to us in their clumsy voices;
Just as our ears were deaf
To their cries, to their wild appeals
Just as our ears were deaf
They have left on the earth their cries,
In the air, on the water,
where they have traced their signs for us blind deaf and unworthy Sons
Who see nothing of what they have made
In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs
And since we did not understand the dead
Since we have never listened to their cries
If we weep, gently, gently
If we cry roughly to our torments
What heart will listen to our clamoring,
What ear to our sobbing hearts?
A Concise Summary of the Poem
In the poem “vanity” Birago Diop is verily worried and highly troubled about the
execrable status quo of the African society. African is evidently living in obvious
underdevelopment, grinding poverty and backwardness or retrogression. Similarly, the poet, through the poem, exposes the idiocy of the living or the current generation (particularly, African denizens) who in spite of having been bestowed with many “creature comforts” have conceitedly and boorishly failed to reverence their progenitors.
Consequently, toeing in line with the African belief, as the poem buttresses, the ancestors have the power to discipline people who have done wrong and caution that if they are not honoured as expected, they would not render the anticipated and supposed help they are
supposed to render to the living when they are in trouble. Thus the poet argues that the solution to Africa’s numerous problems lie within us.
Credibly speaking, much of the problems surrounding and bedeviling the African society emerges from our disregard, neglect and rejection of African tradition and over-dependence on the Western culture. As a result, Africa will continue to pine, suffer and languish amidst backwardness or retrogression while the developed countries turn Africa to an element of disdain and amusement (laughter).
Stanza by Stanza Summary
In the first stanza line 1-5, the poet ventilates that the complaints about poverty in Africa didn’t produce any rewarding outcome, as no country is willing to heed them not to talk of rendering help to them. So, as contained in line 4, sad complaining voices of beggars seem unnecessary, for no one will listen to them without laughter (line 5). Thus, “If we tell, gently, gently / All that we shall one day have to tell, / Who then will hear our voices without laughter/Sad complaining voices of beggars / Who indeed will hear them without laughter?”
In the second and third stanza (lines 6-10 and 11-14 respectively) the poet expresses that no developed country will heed the complaints of African even if the situation deteriorates. Thus
the poet carries on his lamentation by adding that not a single powerful country will rescue Africa out of their predicament, though Africa is supplicating for their aids. Thus; “If we cry
roughly of our torments / Ever increasing from the start of things / What eyes will watch our large mouths / Shaped by the laughter of big children / What eyes will watch our large mouth?” and “What hearts will listen to our clamoring? / What ear to our pitiful anger / Which grows in us like a tumor / In the black depth of our plaintive throats?”
In the fourth and fifth stanza of the poem (lines 15 -19 and 20 -24) the poet dwells on the reasons backing the poverty, backwardness and under-development in Africa. The reason
according to the poet is the refusal of the current Africans, especially the leaders, to follow the footsteps and admonitions of their ancestors who were experienced. Hence, the current African leaders refused to follow the principles of their ancestors. The poet adds that Africans hope got lost since the demise of their fore-fathers who could help check poverty. Thus; “When our Dead
comes with their Dead / When they have spoken to us in their clumsy voices; / Just as our ears were deaf / To their cries, to their wild appeals / Just as our ears were deaf” and “ They have left
on the earth their cries, / In the air, on the water, / where they have traced their signs for us blind deaf and unworthy Sons / Who see nothing of what they have made / In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs.”
In the last stanza of the poem (lines 25-30) the poet affirms and asserts that poverty, under-development and backwardness or retrogression will live in perpetuity in Africa since the current leaders are unwilling to heed to their fore-fathers pieces of advice. Thus the poem ends;
“And since we did not understand the dead / Since we have never listened to their cries / If we weep, gently, gently / If we cry roughly to our torments / What heart will listen to our clamoring, / What ear to our sobbing hearts?”
Theme of Ancestral Wisdom
The peom presents ancestors as a reservoir of sound teaching and wisdom which are sufficient to guide their offspring through the challenges of life these teaching and wisdom are describe as “cries” and “wild appeals”. with such descriptions the poet suggests that the ancestors are not only in earnest, they are not interested in listening to their voices . The ancestors also leave behind them signs in the natural elements as guides to the living. The poem, therefore, suggests that the only thing that can prevent the living from becoming object of scorn and enjoy the patronage of the ancestors is to heed their words and signs.
Abandonment of African Tradition
The poem comments on the tendency of African educated elites and other westernized Africans to abandon African wisdom, values and general traditional ways of life. Because many of these people have been led into believing that African ways of life are primitive and barbaric, they embrace foreign values and become uninterested in their own people’s values. The poet condemns this in strong terms, dismissing those culpable in this regard as worthless offspring. While arguing that it is unwise to abandon the traditional ways, the poet also suggests that foreign values will not help. Because the abandonment is intentional, the poet notes that unpleasant experiences may attend it
The Theme of Warning To Renegades
In spite of the dominance or presence of other themes in the poem, the entire poem an be summarized a warming stern to the to renegades. The poem is preoccupied with a warning to those who have chosen not to include the voice of elders, voice of wisdom and voice of the ancestors. of the poet’s warning fact that continued will earn nothing Parts of but and reticule. thus when grappling with our self-inflicted wounds, people will simply laugh at us.
The Theme of Pain and Misery
Another important theme of the poem is that of Questions on the poem Vanity and pain. this theme is linked to the vanity of those who consider foreign ways. superior and more desirable than africa’s. Their action is certain to bring. about some adverse consequence, which include sadness, mockery should and pain. The poet observe that we would become sad complainers, attracting noting but others mockery should we fail to promptly address the renegade tendencies of our fellow westernized Africans. The same thing would happen if we merely lament over our pains and challenges instead of taking the right steps to get round them, which is to heed the wisdom of our forebears. The pain and misery referred to are however not physical ones, but psychological ones. Some words which easily draw attention to the issues of pain and misery in the poem include “tumour”, “pitiful anger”, “plaintive throats”, “complaining”, “cry roughly”, “weep”, “clamouring” and sobbing hearts”
Other Themes in the poem Vanity include
Theme of death
Theme of poverty
Theme of Retrogression in Africa
Structure of the Poem
The poem is made up of five stanzas, highly embellished with imagery and rhetorical questions. The mood of the poet is that of Worry or Anxiety and the tone is that of Concern. The poem is written in free verse poem as it does not have a consistent meter pattern. Plausibly, the poem in general is a poem of lamentation.
Imagery in the Poem
The poem contains powerful imagery. For instance, the title “Vanity” refers to the living’s folly over their disregard for the good works of dead ancestors which according to the poet are seen on land, in the water and in the air. Words like “voices of beggars” , “our large mouths”, “our ears were deaf” and “our plaintive throat” are employed as a form of rebuke or ridicule.
The poet also repeats some phrases and images to show how serious he is about the subject-matter of the poem. Examples- “Just as our ears were deaf”, “What eyes”, What ears” “What heart”.
The use of Rhetorical question
presenting his points, the poet extensively makes use of rhetorical question. As a question which does not anticipate any answer from the listener, the poet actually makes a number of statements with Except the each of the as making up the poem is either one long rhetorical
features one or two examples. The first stanza, which one long rhetorical, indirectly states fact if the much needed talk is not openly and promptly done, complaining in the future will not be a sad expedience but a laugh.one. Similarly, Stanza two, another long rhetorical quest that if we merely cry, the result would be the same. Apparently for emphasis, the third stanza features two of such questions without any conditional ‘if They will suffice appropriate examples:
What heart will listen to our clamouring?
What ear to our pitiful anger
Which grows in us like a tumour
In the black depth of our plaintive throats?without the conditional clause, as we have in the previous stanzas, these questions unpretentiously reel the consequences of the current reality, which is that of the voice and sign of our forbare The last stanza returns us to the use of rhetorical question with the conditional clause. n addition to the two conditional clauses employed in the stanza, two reasons are also advanced The use the fact that neglecting the ways of the ancestors will neither bring us any good nor this device clearly shows that the poet-speaker is challenging the renegades and trying prick the conscience of other westernized Africans. It also hints at his frustration, especially in the lat
stanza, over prospect of making his target turn over a new leaf.
The use of repetition in the poem is also quite extensive. The following are good examples:
If we tell gently, gently
If we weep gently, gently
What eyes will watch our large mouths?
Lines 8 and 10
Just as our ears were deaf
Lines 17 and 19
In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs
Lines 21 and 24
If we cry roughly of our torments
Lines 6 and 28
What heart will listen to our clamouring
Lines 11 and 29
Separately and collectively, these examples have their significance. The idea al “tell in Line 1 suggests a kind of speech that lacks confidence and assertiveness It sugest fear or even inferiority complex in the speaker In the second example, “gently element of oppressive condition. Weeping must have been engendered by an unpleasant If the victim therefore finds it hard to give a full expression to his feelings of pain or discomfort by weeping with restraint, then complaining much later is certain to invite a mocking laughter repetition of “what eyes will watch our large mouths?” is meant to underscore the fact that people not pay attention to complaints made
at a wrong and belated time. Similarly, “Just as our hear were deaf emphasizes the neglect of the voices of the ancestors as well the signs they leave behind 21 and 24 where we have “in the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs
the present their signs in the natural elements is not only emphasized, the expression itself tries to show can be no pretension about not knowing how to learn of the wisdom or get the necessary from the ancestors by anybody. With this expression, and its repetition, the ubiquity offense. Consequently, finding oneself in trouble as a result of not following them is a self inflicted injury other two examples from Lines 6 and 28 and Line 1 and 29, on the other hand, are significant emphatic purposes. In the collective senses, these repetitions engender lyricism, a typical facture poetry in Africa. In spite of lack of rhyme in the poem, there is much musicality about the poem which is made possible by the repetitions. These repetitions are also spaced in such a way that they become monotonous. By driving the message very well and simultaneously providing enterings.
Another literary device used in the poem is synecdoche, which involves the substitution of a part of something for the whole thing. In the poem, different parts of the human body are variously used to represent persons. Such parts include “ear”, “ears”, “eyes”, “heart” and “hearts”. These parts of the body are important for their sensory roles. As they belong to those who are supposed to but would not sympathize with us, using them seems deliberate in order to underscore the insensitivity to “our plight.
This is direct comparison using the words “like” or “as”. Example: “What ear to our pitiful anger which grows in us like a tumor”.
This figure of speech involves the attribution of human nature or character to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions. In Vanity, the poet gives life to dead ancestors through the use of personification. Examples: “When our Dead comes with their Dead, when they have spoken to us in their clumsy voices”.
Use of Synonyms
The poet deploys synonyms in the presentation of his ideas. This, in a way, appears intended to minimize repetition. However, it may be a strategy to express different shades of the same idea. Some of the examples are: complaining and clamouring; cries and appeals, cry and weep, heart and ear. These pairs of words are used in similar or related contexts to convey the same notion. Contextually, one is a synonym of the other.
There was an unusual capitalization of two different words in the poem. These words are “Dead” (ine 15) and “Sons” (l. 22). The “Dead” under reference applies to the ancestors. Indeed, the aocestors are dead. To qualify as an ancestor in African belief system, a noble death and some other conditions must be met. These ancestors are also conceived as spirits of the dead and are sometimes worshipped. The poet’s reference to them with a capital letter therefore meant to venerate them and place them in the divine realm. The implication of this is that their voices signs cannot be or inferior, as many Africans believe. Certainly, this reasoning
these similarly the initial capitalization of the word “Sons”. In fact, the poet already describes apply to sons as “blind, deaf and unworthy” 22). The graphological significance of letter s’ in-sons, perhaps, lies in the fact that the African sons and daughters who have abandoned the ancestral ways in favour of western ways are those ordinary people look up to as leaders or for guidance. They are the
powerful, the elite and the privileged.
There is a certain humour or sarcastic tone to the poet’s reference to “our large mouths’ 8 and l. 10) as well as the description of the complaining voices as “sad” and belonging to “beggars” (l. 4). While these expressions, especially the second one, highlight the misery of those who have neglected the ancestral ways, it also evokes a wry laughter.
Mood and Tone
The mood of the poet is that of worry and pity and the tone of the poem is lamentation,condemnation and pity.
Different tones overlap in the poem. As noted above, there is a sarcastic tone, which engenders humour in the second stanza of the poem. Generally, the poet also employs a tone of lament and warning. Through the rhetorical questions used in the poem, the poet-speaker’s lamentation over the unhealthy development among his people filters across. In fact, the poem ends on a note that sounds more of frustration for the speaker. Through the rhetorical questions, which suffuse the poem, the poet speaks to his imaginary colleagues as if warning them to be mindful of the consequences of their action.
The setting of the poem is the pastoral land of Ouakkam, a suburd of Darkar in Senegal here in Africa. Though it could be narrowed down to French West Africa or Senegal, the capital of French colonies specifically, where a lot of false citizens had in the sub-region, been made out The temporal setting is clearly the colonial era or pre-Independence period.
It was a period when most of the new African educated elites, especially in French Africa, were eager to become French citizens and enjoy the perceived privileges which went with it. It was an era of craze for white values and civilization, as well as conscious attempts to denigrate African or look down on the few who treasured it among the new educated elites. Psychologically, it was a time when many of the new educated elites grappled with cultural complex, an inferiority for that matter.
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