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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 60-75

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The Arabic Constituents of Africanité:
Senghor and the Queen of Sheba

Janice Spleth

Léopold Sédar Senghor's "Elégie pour la Reine de Saba" (Elegy for the Queen of Sheba) first appeared in 1976, and in 1978, it was placed at the end of an edition of previously uncollected works entitled Elégies majeures (Major Elegies), Senghor's last book of poetry. In 1973, the Senegalese poet had published a cycle of love poems entitled Lettres d'hivernage (Letters in the Season of Hivernage) and between 1973 and 1978, some of the elegies had come out separately, but the 1978 volume stands as his first major collection of new poems since Nocturnes (1961) to be written on themes that were more public than personal. The period between the two collections spans almost all of Senghor's presidency (1960-81), and as one might expect, the new elegies reflect important developments in the writer's thinking. Several of the elegies also have obvious political implications and deal with such topical subjects as the deaths of a French coopérant, Georges Pompidou, and Martin Luther King, and the achievements of Senegal's francophone neighbor Tunisia. "Elégie pour la Reine de Saba," describing the narrator's wooing and winning of a black princess, recalls the earlier Negritude poetry in many respects and carries the imprint of the more lyrical inspiration characteristic of Chants d'ombre, published in 1945, or the other romantic poems to be found throughout Senghor's opus, but in its way, this elegy too bears a political message, one that reflects the increasing importance of the Arab world in international affairs. It represents as well a significant evolution in Senghor's use of the Negritude concept, broadened under the impact of political reality to include Arab-Berber Africa within the concept of Africanité. This paper proposes to examine two literary sources on which Senghor has drawn in the composition of the poem and to show how these intertextual references might be construed to reflect the new political and philosophical elements. As the last piece architecturally in what the poet calls the definitive version of his work, the elegy was designated by him to stand as the ultimate expression of his poetic, political, and personal ideals, and whatever messages it conveys must be considered in the light of the additional value accorded to it by virtue of its privileged position.

The elegy is divided into five sections, beginning with an invocation of the Kingdom of Childhood, that period in the poet's life when he had yet to be exposed to Western ideas and when he lived his Negritude without mediation: "C'était au temps du jardin de l'enfance / Quand les puits étaient purs, et si transparentes les aubes nimbées de rosée" (CP 565), "This was during the time / Of the childhood garden when the wells were pure / And the haloed dawns of dew were so transparent" (CP 228). 1 It is to that mythic time and space that he returns to find the elusive Black Woman who is the inspiration for his song. In the second part, the poet, taking on the persona of King Solomon and using first-person narration, [End Page 60] begins to tell the familiar story. He describes how word comes to him of a beautiful woman from a distant country, the Queen of the South and the Morning, known for her wisdom and her provocative riddles. He goes on to sketch out the overtures that result eventually in their meeting. Part 3 portrays the arrival of the queen with an enormous procession and rich gifts. The king offers his guest of honor a feast where she joins in the dancing. In the next section of the poem, the narrator and the princess dance erotically together as a couple, before celebrating the consummation of their marriage and the creation of the poem in the final verses: "Lors je crée le poème: le monde nouveau dans...


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