Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 51-59
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Poet of Night
The Elegies, launched "like leopard over a snare" in Senghor's last major volume, Nocturnes (1961), 1 form a discrete group of poems united by their energy, impetuous movement, and choice of imagery. These qualities set them apart as the last important addition to his poetic output.They are also among his most intimate poems, layig bare his disquiet at the very moment when his major ambitions were fulfilled. He had established himself as the leading African poet of the day; Senegal was free of French rule and he was its first, undiputed President, combining political with intellectual authority in a unique manner. His only rival on the continent in these respects might have been Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.
The opening poem, "Élégie de Minuit" (Elegy to Midnight) is swept along by its initial impulse and its sumptuous imagery, giving the reader scarcely a pause for breath during its initial assault:
Eté splendide Eté, qui nourris le Poète du lait de ta lumière
Moi qui poussais comme blé de Printemps, qui m'enivrais de la verdeur de l'eau, du ruissellement vert dans l'or du TempsAh ! Plus ne peux supporter ta lumière, ta lumière des lampes, ta lumière atomique qui désintègre tout mon être
Plus ne peux supporter la lumière de minuit. La splendeur des honneurs est comme un Sahara
Un vide immense, sans erg ni hamada sans herde, sans un battement de cils, sans un battement de coeur.
Summer splendid Summer, who suckles the poet with the milk of your light
I who thrust like the young wheat in Spring, who intoxicate myself with the greenness of waters, with the green rustling in the gold of Time
Ah! I can no longer stand your light, the light of lamps, your atomic light which shatters all my being
Can no longer stand the light of midnight. The splendor of honors is like a Sahara
A huge void without dune or stony plateau without grasses, without flutter of eyelid, without thump of the heart.
The poet moves effortlessly from the brilliant light of summer to the light of lamps to the light of midnight, then, by implication, to the harsh pitiless light of the Sahara in which he has been plunged by his Presidential honors. The paradoxes that juxtapose all these different lights in a few lines are an attempt to explore every image through its apparent reversal. And to the sleepless poet-President, the light of midnight is as intolerable as the glare of summer or of lamps. The next lines of the elegy move us to the heart of that insomnia: [End Page 51]
Donc vingt-quatre heures sur vingt-quatre, et les yeux grands ouverts comme le Père Cloarec
Crucifié sur la pierre par les païens de Joal adorateurs des Serpents.
Dans mes yeux le phare portugais qui tourne, oui vingt-quatre heures sur vingt-quatre
Une mécanique précise et sans répit, jusqu'a la fin des temps.
Thus twenty-four hours on twenty-four, and the eyes wide open like those of Father Cloarec
Crucified on the stones by the pagans of Joal worshippers of Snakes.
In my eyes the Portuguese lighthouse which turns, yes twenty-four hours on twenty-four
A precise and ceaseless mechanism, until the end of time.
Now it is the upright poet himself who is rotating in the midst of his books with their hundred eyes; and now the "light of midnight" acquires a less paradoxical meaning. The sleepless eye resents every trace of light, and in particular the ever-returning beam of the lighthouse. Senghor now elaborates the lighthouse image with extraordinary rapidity; suddenly it is he who, instead of emitting light like the lighthouse, is receiving it from those shelves that hold the instruments of his fame and of his torment:
Je bondis de mon lit, un léopard sur le garrot, coup de Simoun soudain qui ensable...