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 deaf 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?
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 clamourings, what ear to our sobbing hearts?”
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 hearts?”.
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 our clamouring?”
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”.