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03-03-2016 06:56:00 +0000
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
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
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?
With all seriousness of purpose, Birago Diop
expresses concern over the living’s lack of
regard for dead ancestors which he holds in
very high esteem.
Like the popular myth in many African societies
about dead ancestors, Diop believes that they
are immortal and at death, they take up
another important role of watching over the
living and saving them from unseen forces.
The title “vanity” portrays the folly of the living
who in spite of having been bequeathed with
many legacies have arrogantly and ignorantly
failed to honour their dead ancestors. He
laments as follows: “ 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, in
the water where they have traced their
signs”. In the poet’s view, much of the
problems bedeviling the African society stem
from our disregard for African tradition and
over-dependence on the Western culture. He
laments further: “ If we cry roughly of our
torments ever increasing from the start of
things” . Birago Diop argues that the solution to
Africa’s many problems lie within us.
He further expresses the African belief that
dead ancestors have the ability to punish erring
individuals and warns that if they are not
respected or honoured, they would also not
help the living in time of trouble- “ And since
we did not understand our dead, since we
have never listened to their cries, if we weep
gently, gently, if we cry roughly of our
torments, what heart will listen to our
clamouring, what ear to our sobbing
Vanity is a poem of lamentation.
The poem has as its theme the celebration of
dead ancestors as well as African cultural
values and tradition.
Mood and Tone
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.
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 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”.
Poetic Devices/Figures of Speech
Rhetorical Question : This runs throughout
the poem. It expresses the poet’s worry and
emphasises his seriousness over the subject
matter of the poem. Examples: “Who then will
hear our voices without laughter?” “Who then
will hear us without laughter?” “What eyes will
watch our large mouth?” “What heart will listen
to our clamouring?” “What ear to our sobbing
Sarcasm : This is mocking humour.
Examples: sad complaining voices of beggars;
large mouth; plaintive throats
Repetition : This is seen throughout the
poem. Example: What eyes will watch our
large mouth? is repeated in the second stanza.
Simile : This is direct comparison using the
words “like” or “as”. Example: “What ear to our
pitiful anger which grows in us like a tumor”.
Synedoche : A figure of speech that entails
using a part to represent a whole or a whole
for a part. Example: “What hearts will listen to
Personification : 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”.