The Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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
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?

Background the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

With the colonization of Africa and the subsequent introduction of Western values and ways of life, many Africans, especially those educated in the Western way, consciously distanced themselves from the traditional beliefs, practices and general ways of life oftheir people. They saw them in the light their white masters would have them do. They saw them as primitive, retrogressive and even barbaric. In the French West Africa from where the poet comes, the Assimilation Policy introduced as a system of administration by the imperial France actually set out to achieve this in the name of making Frenchmen out of the natives and granting them equality, liberty and fostering fraternity among all. The discovery of the contrary by Africans who later visited or went to school in France and the consequent realization that African values and ways of life are not inherently inferior provided the background to the poem.

Summary the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The poem addresses the need for Africans not to neglect their past or roots, obviously, the poet-persona is concerned about the abandonment of ancestral ways and the teachings of the ancestors, as obtainable in the traditional African society, by the westernised generations of Africans. In addition, there is a preoccupation with the need to look inward in the efforts to solve the challenges faced by the continent. There are suggestions to the effect that turning eyes or ears in other directions will not do much, if any, good. The poet, therefore, warns that if this trend is not promptly reversed, Africans stand the risk of becoming the laughing stock of others.

Line to line Analysis of the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

Stanza 1 (Lines 1- 5)

In this stanza, the poet wonderingly comments on the reluctance of Africans to address a certain issue of serious concern. According to him, this issue, which he is yet to disclose, is being talked about in ushed tones or not given enough attention. It is, however, an issue which should not only be discussed openly but loudly too. Because of this, any delay will make us object of others’ laughter. In addition, any complaint resulting from our current a.would make us not any than “sad complaining voices of beggars.” Here, the poet uses a paradox to subtly mock our situation for beggars are not tod to complain.

Stanza 2 (Lines 6-10)

This stanza carries the poet’s wonder further. He wonders who will pay us attention if we complain about our pains, which have been there for ages. This wonder is predicated on the fact that we have not done the right thing by ourselves. It is still linked to the fact that we have not addressed our challenges in the right way. By describing our mouths as large ones, the poet further shows the pointlessness of complaining while abandoning the right course of action.

Stanza (Lines 11-14)

style repeating what we have in the first and second stanzas, the poet rhetorically asks again whether there is anyone who will pay attention to our complaints and anger, which he seems to consider unjustifiable. In fact, he likens such kind of anger to a growing tumour, which is a self-inflicted and self nurtured pain.

Stanza 3 (Lines 11-14)

in a style repeating what we have in the first and second stanzas, the poet rhetorically asks again whether there is anyone who will pay attention to our complaints and anger, which he seems to conside unjustifiable. In fact, he likens such kind of anger to a growing tumour, which is a self-inflicted
self-nurtured pain.

Stanza 4 (Lines 15-24)

This stanza, the longest in the poem, provides the details of why the poet wonders if there is anyone who will listen to our complaints or if we do not deserve to be mocked. We are informed that when our ancestors come, the way they normally give us advice and direct us, we turn deaf do ears to them. Even when they cry and plead with us on certain courses of action, we still remain deaf to their entreaties. This is further compared to the way we have equally abandoned their teachings, as left behind in cultural artefacts and natural elements around us. We have refused to see, as much as we have refused to listen to the teachings of our progenitors. For these reasons, the poet declares us “blind, deaf and unworthy Sons”.

Stanza 5 (Lines 25-30)

This stanza recaps that has been said in the previous It also clearly states the reason why complaining about our plight deserves no sympathetic understanding. We do not deserve being given attention if we now cry or complain because we have also refused to listen to the voices of wisdom.

Analysis of the Themes of the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The theme of wisdom of the ancestors is invaluable in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The peom presents ancestors as a weservoir 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.

The theme of Abandonment of traditional ways or values in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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 tems, 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 the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

In spite of the dominance or presence of other themes in the poem, the entire poem an be summarized a warming sten 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. th us when grappling with our self-inflicted wounds, people will’simply laugh at us.

The Theme of pain and misery in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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 cetayn 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 aficans. 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” 

Mood and Tone of the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The mood is that of worry with a corresponding tone of concern, condemnation, sarcasm and ridicule. He expresses his worry through a number of rhetorical questions.

Poetic Devices of the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The use of Rhetorical question in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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 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. in
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 norcof 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.

2. Repetitionin in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The use of repetition in the poem is also quite extensive. The following are good examples:
If we tell gently, gently

Line 1

If we weep gently, gently

Line 27

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, the 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 offbese 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 fcature poetry in Africa. In spite of lack ofrhyme 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 enteriins

Use of synonyms in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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.

5 Capitalization in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The unusual capitalization of two different words in the poem is another s
stic device. 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.

6. Humour sarcasm in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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.

Imagery in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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”. 

8. Synecdoche in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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.

Simile in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

This is direct comparison using the words “like” or “as”. Example: “What ear to our pitiful anger which grows in us like a tumor”.

Personification in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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”.

The Tone the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

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.

Setting the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

The setting of the poem 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 af era of craze for white values and civilization, as well as conscious attempts to denigrate African es or look down on the few who treasured it among the new educated elites. Psychologic it was a time when many of the new educated elites grappled with cultural complex, an inferiority co for that matter.

Structure of the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop

Though written in stanzas and with some rhythm, the poem Vanity is a free verse poem as it does not have a consistent meter pattern. The poem is written in 30 lines with unequal stanzas. There is an elaborate use of rhetorical questions which are being repeated for emphasis sake. These rhetorical questions are mockery of the precarious situation the French Africans would face due to the rejection of their culture.

Poet’s Biography “Birago Diop”

Birago Diop was a Senegalese poet of African folktales and folklores who lived between 11 December 1906 and 25 November 1989. Till this day, his name has never been undermined when mentioning the pioneer figures of the Négritude literary movement.

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.

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