October 19, 2022

Leopold Sedar Senghor (Senegal) 1906-2001

Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal)



Born in Joal, a tiny coastal village of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor grew up a member of Serers tribe, a minority tribe among the Wolofs. In this Islamic and animist environment, the Senghors were Catholic. After receiving his early education in Senegal, Senghor moved to Paris, where he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, meeting fellow classmates Aimé Cesaire, Birago Diop, and Leon-Gontran Damas, with whom he formulated the principles of négritude.

     Raised in Catholicism, Senghor was highly influenced by the mysticism of Paul Claudel and the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But after reading Maurice Barrès novel, Les Déracinés (The Uprooted)—a work written to raise French opposition to the Prussian occupation of the Lorraine—Senghor developed an understanding of a need to preserved and develop his own cultural identity. The publication of André Gide's Voyage au Congo (Journey to the Congo) in 1927 and La Retour dae Tchad (Return to Chad) a year later—the year Senghor arrived in Paris—further stimulated his interest in his homeland. The Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931 aroused still more interest in African and Caribbean culture, making it a propitious moment for the young poets who would later gather around Senghor's newspaper, L'Etudiant Noir (The Black Student), founded in 1934.

     Senghor received his licence ès lettres from the University of Paris in 1931, and his diplôme d'études supérieures the following year. In 1935 he became the first African to receive the agrége de grammaire, and upon his graduation, was received with full military honors in Dakar.


     After assignment to schools in Tours and Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, Senghor joined the Colonial Infantry in 1939, and was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940. He was interred in various prison camps, but was released in 1941 for reasons of health. Throughout the rest of the war he participated in Resistance efforts. In 1942 he resumed his teaching, and two years later taught African languages and civilizations at the Ecole Nationale de la France d'Outre-mer. He published Chants d'ombre in 1945, and the following year was elected Deputy from Senegal to the National Assembly on the Socialist ticket.

     Over the next two years, he served as Deputy, publishing several important books and essays. In 1948 he founded the Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais in opposition to the Socialist faction leader Lamine Gueye. He also wrote poems such as Chants pour Naët.

     Senghor continued in politics for the next several years, serving as the French delegate to the United Nations from 1950-1951, as a member of the French National Assembly (1951), and Secretary for Scientific Research in the cabinet of Edgar Faure (1955). In 1956 he was elected the mayor of Thiès, and in 1958 served in the Constitutional Assembly of Charles de Gaulle. Senghor was elected President of Senegal in 1960 and was reelected in 1963, retiring in 1981. During these same years he published Noctures and Elégies des Alizés, the first volume winning the International Grand Prize for Poetry from the Poets and Artists of France.

     Beyond his considerable body of poetry, Senghor has written prose works on négritude and politics, as well as editing an important anthology of new black and Malagasy poetry.





Chants d'ombre (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1945); Hosties noires (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1948); Chants pour Naët (Paris: Éditions Pierre Seghers, 1949); Ethiopiques (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1956); Noctures (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1961); Elégies des Alizés (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969); Lettres d'hivernage (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973); Elégies majeures (Génève: Éditions Regard, 1978) [reprinted with "Dialogue sur la poésie francophone" by Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1979]; Poèmes (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1964, 1973, 1984, with additional works and editoral changes in each successive volume)




Léopold Sédar Senghor: Selected Poems, trans. by John Reed and Clive Wake (New York: Atheneum, 1964); Prose and Poetry, trans. by John Reed and Clive Wake (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965); Nocturnes, trans. by John Reed and Clive Wake (New York: The Third Press, 1971); in The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor, trans. by Sylvia Washington Bâ (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973); in The Negritude Poets, Edited with an Introduction by Ellen Conroy Kennedy (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1975); Léopold Sédar Senghor: The Collected Poetry, trans. by Melvin Dixon (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991)



Letter to a Poet

to Aimé Césaire


To the beloved brother and the friend, my bluff brotherly greeting!

The black sea gulls, the fishermen of the high seas, gave me to taste of your tidings

Mingled with spices, with fragrant sounds of the Rivers of the South, and of the Isles.

They told me of your worth, of the eminence of your brow and the flower of your subtle lips.

Told me that your disciples, a hive of silence, are your peacock's tail

That until the moon rises, you keep their zeal thirsting and panting.

Is it your fragrance of fabulous fruits or your wake of light in the full light of day?

Oh! the many women with sapodilla skin in the harem of your mind!


It charms me beyond the years, under the ash of your eyelids

The burning embers, your music toward which we stretched our hands and hearts of yesteryear.

Have you forgotten your nobility, which is to sing

The Ancestors the Princes and the Gods, who are neither flowers nor dew drops?

You were to give the Spirits the white fruits of your garden

—You ate only the flower of the fine millet grain, gathered the same year

And not steal a singer petal to sweeten your mouth.

In the depths of the well of my memory, I touch

Your face whence I draw the water that cools my long longing.

Regally you recline, leaning against the cushion of a cloudless hill,

Your couch presses the earth that gently bears its weight

The tom-tons, in the flooded plains, beat out the rhythm of your song,

and your poem is the breathing of the night and the distant sea.

You used to sing the Ancestors and the rightful princes

You used to pluck a star from the firmament for rhyme

In off-beat rhythm; and the poor would thrown at your bare feet the mats

made from a year's work

And the women their heart of amber and the dance of the rended souls.


My friend my friend—oh! you will return you will return!

I shall wait for you—that was the message entrusted to the cutter-boss—

under the cailcedra.

You will return for the feast of the first fruits. When the softness of the evening

in the sloping sun smolders on the roofs

And the athletes parade their youth, adorned like fiancés, it is fitting that you come.


Translated from the French by Sylva Washington Bâ


(from Chants d'ombre, 1945)



Black Mask

to Pablo Picasso


She sleeps and reclines on the whitest of sand.

Koumba Tam sleeps. A green palm leaf veils the fever

Of her hear, copper the curved brow

Eyelids closed, double basins, sealed springs,

The delicate crescent of lips, one darker and slightly heavy

—where is the smile of the knowing woman?

The paten of cheeks, the line of chin

Sing in silent harmony.

Facelike Mask closed to the ephemeral, without eyes,

Without substance,

Perfect head of bronze with its patina of time,

Unsullied by rouge or blushing or wrinkles

No traces of tears or kisses

O face such as God created you before even the memory of time

Face of the world's dawn, do not open like a tender mountain pass

To stir my flesh,

O Beauty, I adore you with my one-stringed eye.


Translated from the French by Melvin Dixon


(from Chants d'ombre, 1945)




Beyond Eros


I shall recite them, these hands shielding my heart's gaze,

The slow gesture of your hands, the sweet curve of your still caress

Egyptian Woman! How could she not be my guide, your long breath,

Your scent of sun brushfires! You came down from this wall

Where the Ancients' ruse had perched you.

Received in the circle closed to every weakness

You are the fruit hanging from the tree of my desire—

The eternal thirst of my blood in its desert of desires!


I know, my Fathers, you have tossed this net over my vigilant absence

To catch the Prodigal Son, this lion's den.

I know that the arrogance of these hills calls to my pride.

Standing on the jagged summits crowned with fragrant gum trees,

I seize the navel's echo beating the rhythm of their song

—A lake of deep waters sleeps in its watchful crater.

I know that only this rich black-skinned plain

Is worthy of the plowshare and the deep flow of my virility.


But what use is the body without ahead? Or arms without a soul?

The poem's song fully dominates the passion of talmbatts,

Mbalakhs, and tamas.

At least let my fingers dance on the strings of koras.

But this body in my hands, like a fine ship of steel!...

Don't be jealous of the gods, my Fathers

Let thunderous Zeus roar, let Jehovah set fire to the best

White cities. Don't dissipate my youth in household games

My panther claws on my sisters' inviting pages.


My soul wants to conquer the infinite world and spread its wings,

Black and red, black and red, the colors of your flags!

My duty is to reconquer distant lands bordering the Empire of Blood

Where night never stifles life with its embers, its song of silence,

My duty is to reconquer the farthest-flung drops of your blood

From the depths of icy oceans and of souls.

Hear the song of her soul under its roof of Saracen eyelids.

Eyes as innocent as the koba antelope's, open in wonder

At the world's beauty. Ah! let me tear out her soul

In an embrace as destructive as the East Wind

To lay it at your feet,

With the great riches of the spirit and of new lands.


Translated from the French by Melvin Dixon


(from Chants d'ombre, 1945)



New York

for a jazz orchestra; trumpet solo



New York! At first I was staggered by your beauty, those tall golden

[long-legged girls.

So shy at first before your blue metal eyes, your frosty smile

So shy. And the despair in the depths of the skyscraper streets

Lifting owl-like eyes in the eclipse of the sun.

Your sulphurous light and the livid shafts whose heads strike

[lightning into the sky

The skyscrapers defying cyclones on their muscles of steel and their

[weatherworn skin of stone

But two weeks on the bald sidewalks of Manhattan

—It's at the end of the third week that the fever strikes with

[a jaguar leap

Two weeks with no well no pasture-land, all the birds of the air

Falling suddenly dead under the high cinders of the flat rooftops.

Not one bloom of child's laughter, his hand in my cool hand

Not one mother's breast, only nylon legs. Legs and breasts

[with neither sweat nor smell.

Not one tender word, there are no lips, only artificial hearts paid for in hard cash

And not one book where wisdom can be read. The painter's palette

[blooms with coral crystals.

Insomnious night oh nights of Manhattan! bursting with

[will-o'-the-wisps, while the horns howl the empty hours

And the murky waters float down hygienic loves, like rivers flooded

[with infant cadavers.





Now is the time of signs and reckonings

New York! Now is the time of manna and hyssop.

You have only to listen to God's trombones, to your heart beating to

[the rhythm of the blood your blood.

I saw in Harlem humming with sounds and ceremonial colors and

[[flamboyant smells

—It is tea-time at the house of the fellow who delivers pharmaceutical supplies

I saw the night festival being prepared at the day's end.

[I proclaim Night more truthful than day.

It is the pure hour when God makes like immemorial spring up in the streets

All the amphibious elements shining like suns.

Harlem Harlem! Now I have seen Harlem Harlem! A green breeze of corn

[rising from the pavements plowed by the bare feet of the Dan dancers

Hips like waves of silk and spearhead breasts, ballets of water

[lilies and of fabulous masks

The mangoes of love rolling from the low houses to the police horses' feet.

And along the sidewalks I saw streams of white rum streams of black

[milk in the blue mist of cigars

At night I saw flowers of cotton snowing down from the sky and seraphim's

[wings and sorcerer's plumes.

Listen New York! oh listen to your male brass voice your vibrant oboe voice,

[the muted anguish of your tears falling like great clots of blood

Listen to your night heart beating in the distance, beat and blood of the

[toom-tom, tom-tom blood and tom-tom.





New York! I say New York, let the black blood flow into your blood

Let it wash the rust from your steel joints, like an oil of life

Let it give your bridges the curves of hips and the pliancy of vines.

Now the ancient age returns, unity is restored and the reconciliation

[of the Lion the Bull and the Tree

The idea is likened to the act, the ear to the heart, the sign to meaning.

See your rivers rustling with musk-alligators and manatees with mirage-like

[eyes. And there is no need to invent the Sirens.

But just open your eyes to the April rainbow

And your ears, especially your ears to God who created heaven and earth

[in six days in a burst of saxophone laughter.

And the seventh day he slept in a long black slumber.


Translated from the French by Sylva Washington Bâ


(from Éthoipiques, 1956)



Elegy of Midnight


Summer, splendid Summer, nourishing the Poet on the milk of your light

I who grew up like the wheat of spring, which made me drunk

From green water, from the green steaming in the gold of Time

Ah! no longer can I tolerate the midnight light.

The splendor of such honors resembles a Sahara,

An immense void, with neither erg nor rocky plateau,

With no grass, no twinkling eye, no beating heart.

Twenty-four hours a day like this, and my eyes are wide open

Like Father Cloarec's, crucified on a boulder by the Joal pagans

Who worshipped snakes. In my eyes the Portuguese lighthouse

Turns round and round, twenty-four hours a day,

A precise and restless mechanism, until the end of time.


I jumped out of bed, a leopard about to be snared,

A sudden gust of Simoom filling my throat with sand.

Ah! if I could just collapse in the dung and blood, in the void.

I turn around among my books watching me with their deep eyes

Six thousand lamps burning twenty-four hours a day.

I stand up lucid, strangely lucid. And I am handsome,

Like the one-hundred-runner, like the rutting black stallion

From Mauritania. I carry in my blood a river of seeds

That can fertilize all the plains of Byzantium

And the hills, the austere hills.

I am the Lover and the locomotive with a well-oiled piston.


Her sweet strawberry lips, her thick stone body,

Her secret softness ripe for the catch, her body

A deep field open to the black sower.

The Spirit germinates under the groin, in the matrix of desire

The sex is one antenna among many where flashing messages are exchanged.

Love music no longer can cool me down, nor the holy rhythm of poetry.

Against this despair, Lord, I need all my strength

—A soft dagger in the heart as deep as remorse.

I am not sure of dying. If that was Hell: the lack of sleep

This desert of the Poet, this pain of living, this dying

From not being able to die, the agony of shadows, this passion

For death and light like moths on hurricane lamps at night,

In the horrible rotting of virgin forests.


Lord of light and shadows,

You, Lord of the Cosmos, let me rest in Joal-of-the-Shades,

Let me be born again in the Childhood Kingdom full of dreams,

Let me be the shepherd of my shepherdess on the Dyilôr tanns

Where dead men flower, let me burst out applauding

When Téning-Ndyaré and Tyagoum-Ndyaré enter the circle

And let me dance like the Athlete to the drum of this year's Dead.

This is only a prayer. You know my peasant's patience.

Peace will come, the Angel of dawn will come, the singing of birds

Never heard before will come, the light of dawn will come.

I will sleep at dawn, my pink doll in my arms,

My green- and gold-eyed doll with a voice so marvelous,

It is the very tongue of poetry.


Translated from the French by Melvin Dixon


(from Nocturnes, 1961)






"Letter to a Poet" and "New York"

Reprinted from The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor, with translations by Sylvia Washington Bâ (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973). Copyright ©1973 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.


"Black Mask," "Beyond Eros," and "Elegy of Midnight,"

Reprinted from The Collected Poetry, Léopold Sédar Senghor, trans. by Melvin Dixon (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia). Copyright ©1991 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Reprinted by permission of the University Press of Virginia.

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