AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Leopold Sedar Senghor's "Elegie 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 Elegies 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 cooperant, Georges Pompidou, and Martin Luther King, and the achievements of Senegal's francophone neighbor Tunisia. "Elegie 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 Africanite. 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 rive 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'etait au temps du jardin de l'enfance / Quand les puits etaient purs, et si transparentes les aubes nimbees de rosee" (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, 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 cree le poeme: le monde nouveau dans la joie pascale. / Oui! Elle m'a baise du baiser de sa bouche / La noire et belle, parmi les filles de Jerusalem" (566), "Then I create the poem: the new world in the paschal joy! / Yes! She has kissed me a kiss from her mouth, / My black and comely one among the daughters of Jerusalem" (234). Unlike the account in the Book of Kings, Senghor's poem transforms the meeting of Solomon and Sheba into a sexual encounter, with seasonal and vegetal imagery suggesting a fertility rite.
Beyond the imaginative retelling of the historical event or the richly illustrated version of the archetypal love story--meeting, courtship, and mating--Senghor admits to having imbedded various signature themes within the text, and critics have sought to interpret the elegy from many different perspectives. One of the most comprehensive readings is that by Jean-Luc Steinmetz who follows the symbolism of the Queen of Sheba in Senghor's poetry from "A l'appel de la race de Saba," a poem that has its origins in the invasion of Ethiopia during World War Two, through "L'absente," a work inspired by Senghor's political campaign in Senegal, to her appearance in Elegies majeures. He terms the Queen an allegorical presence who plays various roles. She is "la puissance de la Muse, cette force inspiratrice, ce souffle, cette anima qui, sous les traits d'une femme, apportait jadis aux poetes l'essentiel de leurs paroles" `the power of the Muse, that inspirational force, that breath, that anima that, under the guise of a woman, formerely brought to poets the essential spirit of their words' (212). Steinmetz demonstrates the maternal attributes of the Queen and her association with the Kingdom of Childhood. She is as well the African soul with which the poet, by virtue of his contact with West, must be reunited: "Il realise par une fiction poetique ce que lui-meme tout au long de sa vie chercha comme signe d'union et de coalescence" `He achieves through a poetic fiction what he has sought his whole life as a sign of union and coalescence' (219). On another level, the Queen, bears religious significance for Senghor, the Catholic: "Sa Reine de Saba attendue, esperee, puis sucitee, annonce a sa maniere, avec la force d'un corps qui est aussi une allegorie, le monde nouveau assimile a `la joie pascale'" `His Queen of Sheba, awaited, hoped for, then aroused, announces in her way, with the force of a body that is also an allegory, the new world assimilated to the "joy of Easter'" (237). Like Steinmetz, Josiane Nespoulous-Neuville considers the Queen as an incarnation of Africa: "La reine de Saba est, dans les Poemes, la personnification de l'ame negre" `The queen of Sheba is, in the Poems, the personification of the black soul' (182). She further considers the elegy an affirmation of "l'amour metisse," a tribute to Colette Hubert, the poet's French wife to whom he had dedicated his previous collection Lettres d'hivernage, and more important for our purposes, a celebration of the biological and cultural cross-breeding or metissage that had come to embellish the original essentialism of Senghor's philosophy of Negritude. She also emphasizes the creative power of the Word as another theme that links this poem to Senghor's previous poetry. In the introduction to his masterful translation of Senghor's poetry, Melvin Dixon signals the depth and complexity of the poem, and notes as well the multicultural nature of the poet's sources. Without elaborating, he tells us that "attention must be paid to the last elegy, `Elegy for the Queen of Sheba,' for the poem culminates the various themes and subjects from the poet's entire oeuvre and brings together references from Arabic, …