Aimé Césaire and the Digital Cahier

Our objective is two-fold: philological/textual and exegetical. We plan to produce digitized editions of:

    (1) Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal


    (2) the selection of short poems in the volume: Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems of Aimé Césaire (Stanford University Press, 1984).

“Variorum” editions of these works that will register all the changes that Césaire made to the texts in successive published versions as well as handwritten unpublished mss. Our editions will include English translations and scholarly annotations. We will commence with the publication of Non-Vicious Circle.

  • Bibliothèque de l'Assemblée Nationale, Facsimile ms.: Cover
  • Bibliothèque de l'Assemblée Nationale, Facsimile ms.: page 37
  • Facsimile ms.: Page 39 by v8.6

Non-Vicious Circle

Preface the the second edition

The first phase of the Cesaire project consists in a digitized second edition of the volume, Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems of Aimé Césaire by Gregson Davis (originally published: Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1984). The text of the annotations and translations in this second edition (copywright: Gregson Davis) has been minimally revised, and the number of Picasso illustrations has been reduced to three.

Permission to publish a selection of the black and white illustrations of Corps Perdu for the first edition of NVC came from two sources: Visual Artists and Galleries Association (VAGA) and the Boston Public Library (see p. viii of the Acknowledgements section of NVC).

The dust jacket blurb of the first edition is herewith reproduced in full:

The black Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, whose first major work was hailed by André Breton as "the greatest lyric monument of our time," has long been regarded in France as one of the great poets of the twentieth century. Moreover, the philosophy of negritude evolved by Césaire and his friend Leopold Senghor is an important bridge between modernism and contemporary Third World nationalistic movements.

They twenty poems in this book, presented in French with facing English translations, have been chosen to illustrate fundamental aspects of Césaire's thought, imagery, and style as these crystallized into a single, coherent system in the late 1940's and the 1950's. The work aims to assist both nonspecialist reader and scholar to a deeper comprehension of the poems and their formidable linguistic difficulties. The translator's skillful commentary steers a reader around the pitfalls in Cesaire's complex and idiosyncratic use of language (notably the absence of conventional punctuation, deformations of syntax, and verbal inventiveness), and he emphasizes the larger themes and patterns of imagery that link these poems both among themselves and to the rest of Césaire' work. A substantial introduction discusses Césaire, his intellectual context, and the major critical issues in his work.

The book is illustrated with a selection from the etchings done by Picasso for Césaire's collection Corps perdu.

Poem Translations

Poems and commentary extracted from the digitized second edition of the volume, Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems of Aimé Césaire

  1. with a sliver of sky on a hunk of earth
  2. you brutes sniffling on this dead woman's face
  3. you free ferns among the cutthroat rocks
  4. at the margin of an island among conchs too large for their lot
  5. when noontide glues its worthless stamps to the storming ripples of the she-wolf
  6. beyond the pale of null science
  7. and blocks her at the walls of the nest suffete of islands engulfed like small coin
  8. with a sliver of sky on a hunk of earth
  9. prophet of islands overlooked like small coin
  10. without sleeping or waking without fingers or tackle
  11. when the hurricane comes gnawing the bread of the hovels
  12. you brutes sniffling on this dead woman's face
  13. chic leopard of lust and operculate shell
  14. soft gliding of summer berries we once were
  15. sleek flesh to be pierced by the beak of the macaw
  16. when the five-branched chieftain stars
  17. clovers in the sky like drops of fallen milk
  18. restore a black god misbegotten of his thunder


This poem opened the collection Soleil cou coupé, originally published in 1948 and later republished, along with the collection Corps perdu, under the title Cadastre in 1961 (Hale 48/105). Its later version, unlike those of several other poems in the revised edition, Cadastre, is free from textual excisions.

The gory image that Césaire chose as the title for for his earlier collection is an emblematic tag, the final line of Apollinaire's Zone (Zone), the first poem of Alcools (Apollinaire 1956, pp. 39-44; for analyses of its transformations in successive versions of the poem, see Décaudin 1965, p. 89; Apollinaire 1965, pp. 213-14). Apollinaire's dawn sun splashing its bloodred colors across the sky shares features of Césaire's many images of violent death and resurrection. An earlier version of Apollinaire's lines (Décaudin 1965, p. 81) provides a further connection with Césaire's themes by linking the sun to violence directed agains the poor and outcast: "Le soleil est là c'est un cou tranché / Comme l'auront peut-être un jour quelques-uns des pauvres que j'ai rencontrés / Le soleil me fait peur, il répand son sang sur Paris" (The sun is there it's a sliced throat / As perhaps one day will suffer some of the poor whom I have met / The sun frightens me, it spills its blood all over Paris). Whether or not Césaire knew this version, his commitment to the blacks of colonial Martinique would have led him to identify Apollinaire's assassinated sun of the modern metropolis with oppressed classes and races.

Thus the image is more than an assertion of Césaire's place in the surrealist tradition, of which "Zone" is an early landmark: it is central to his poetic project. The black poet takes up precisely where his French predecessor leaves off:

Tu marches vers Auteuil tu veux aller chez toi à pied
Dormir parmi tes fétiches d'Océanie et de Guinée
Ils sont des Christ d'une autre forme et d'une autre croyance

Adieu Adieu

Soleil cou coupé

You walk towards Auteuil you want to go home on foot
Sleep among your fetishes from Oceania and Guinea
They are Christs of another form and another faith
They are inferior Christs of obscure hopes

Farewell Farewell

Sun cut throat

For the French poet, the significance of the "inferior Christs of obscure hopes" is ambiguous: are they merely proof of the universality of aspiration, or are they a source of regeneration? Although Apollinaire was one of the earliest European modernists to appreciate african and "primitive" art (later a major point of convergence between European avant-garde aesthetics and antiassimilationist Third World students in Paris during the 1930's and 1940's), his deliberate exoticism is a far cry from Césaire's passionate yet complex welcome of Guinea and the murdered sun as sources of identity and cultural restoration.

Instead of regarding the assassinated sun merely as an image of death, Césaire takes his place at the opposite point on the Osirian cycle of death and rebirth by beginning his collection with a programmatic incantation to revive the Martinican island-corpse. The incantatory effect is achieved by a gamut of rhythmic devices, such as the repetition of whole lines and single words in successive lines. The poems magical transformation is orchestrated syntactically by three centrally positioned temporal clauses (introduced by lorsque, line 5; quand, line 11; and lorsque, line 16), which climax each of the three "strophic" devisions. In its imagistic movement from prostration to restitution, the poem recalls the overall structure of the Cahier. (For an earlier variation by Césaire on the bloody sun, see "Tam-tam I" [Tam-tam I; OC, p. 120], dedicated to the surrealist writer Benjamin Péret: "à même le sang de soleil brisé" [even the blood of sun shattered].)

1 - 3. The prostate female corpse personifies Martinique in the grip of spiritual and socioeconomic inertia (cf. Cahier, pp. 42-43). The images of death and violence in lines 2-3 are consonant with the overall title of the earlier collection.

6. Magic and science, nonrational and rational modalities of knowledge and control, are conceived as antithetical in the mytho-poeic ssytem of negritude (see Cahier, pp. 53-54). In his epistemological essay "Poésie et connaissance" (Poetry and knowledge), Césaire has stated that the natural sciences offer a superficial and impoverished view of the world: "Physics classifies and explains, but the essence of things eludes it. The natural sciences classify, but the quid proprium of things eludes them. As for mathematics, what eludes its abstract and logical activity is the real. In sum, scientific knowledge numbers, measures, classifies, and kills." (Césaire 1945a, p. 157.) In contrast, poetic knowledge is intrinsically rich and furnishes an antidote to the reductionism of science: "Man, unsatisfied, next looked elsewhere for salvation, which exists here in abundance. And man, little by little, became aware that besides this scientific and undernourished knowledge there existed another sort of knowledge. A knowledge that satiates." (Ibid, p. 158.) In this polarization, magic is aligned with poetry.

7. Though the syntax of this line admits of two different constructions, with bouche as either noun or verb, the latter is probable (see Davis 1977, pp. 138-39). For a close parallel to the construction with the verb, see 9.6-7, below: "lorsque la vague déroule son paquet de lianes…et toutes les lance" (italics added). The rare word suffète (Latin suffetes) is a transliteration of the title for an ancient Carthaginian magistrate; compare the cognate Hebrew shopet, "judge." The facts that Carthaginian power was sea-based and that it was eventually overwhelmed by its Roman rival add to the appropriateness and poignancy of Césaire's lines. Moreover, the Punic milieu is a link with Césaire's modernist predecessors, since Flaubert's historical novel Salammbô is set in ancient Carthage in the third century B.C. Salammbô, the novel's heroine, attracted Mallarmé—a poet Césaire studied with great interest. (See Fowlie 1953, p. 126.) On the metaphor in îles englouties, see the statement on cultural submersion in Césaire 1959a, p. 67: "If 'the empire' is depersonalization, a gradual engulfment [engloutissement] in anonymity, the passage to nation status can only be for a community the leap of individualization."

9. The noun phrases in lines 7 and 9 are rhythmically and grammatically parallel. the prophet, like the suffete, is to be identified with the poetic persona, who often assumes a mantic role in Césaire's poems. The idea of the poet's prophetic function has, of course, deep roots in both African and European traditions.

10. The Cadastre version of this line reads doigt, whereas OC carries the plural doigts.

13. Most of the animals in Césaire's voluminous symbolic bestiary are tropical; however, the provenance of "once de la luxure" is apparently the first canto of Dante's Inferno, a poem that Césaire knew in the original (see the commentary to "Spirales," poem 3 below). Dante's spotted leopard (Inferno 1.33) stands for worldly pleasure and the city of Florence, among other things. Césaire's once (Felix uncia) is grayish white with black spots: in addition to sensual pleasure, it may denote the parlous condition of Martinique. The she-wolf of line 5 may be part of this quasi-allegorical complex, since in the same passage (Inferno 1.49) Dante encounters a wolf. Dante's beasts derive ultimately from Jeremiah 5:6, "Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces." This source in prophecy s congruent with the tone and stance of Césaire's poem as a whole. On coquille operculée, see "Tombeau de Paul Eluard" (The tomb of Paul Eluard; OC, p. 188): "selon la bouche operculée de ton silence / et l'amnistie haute des coquillages" (congruent with the operculated mouth of your silence / and the elevated amnesty of shells).

15. The ara is a tropical parrot or macaw—brightly colored and having an enormous, hooked beak—native to the rain forests of South America and the Caribbean. (For an illustration, see GLE under ara.)

16. As at the conclusion of the Cahier, stars figure prominently in the vision of redemption for the black man (see also 3.20 below). "Etoiles chancelières de cinq branches" may be a conscious or unconscious alteration of Apollinaire's "étoile à six branches" (star of six branches) in "Zone" (Apollinaire 1959, p. 40), which refers to Christ as an example of a resurrected god. Thanks to an elasticity in grammar, chancelières functions as an adjective modifying étoiles rather than as a noun, but Césaire may also intend a play on the verb chanceler (totter, be unsteady), with the idea of uncertain, flickering starlight. "Chieftain" in my translation is also a noun made to work as an epithet; it retains the courtly connotation of "chancellor" but transfers it to an African setting appropriate to the restoration of a black god.

17. "Gouttes de lait chu" combines reference to the Milky Way with the image of a lost, nurturing mother figure. Césaire sometimes presents his myth of a culture detached from its African matrix in the image of a deprived suckling infant; see, for example, "La Loi est nue" (The law is naked; OC, p. 219), "de qui ai-je jamais soutiré autre femme / qu'un long cri et sous ma traction de lait / qu'une terre s'enfuyant blessée" (from whom I have taken away other spouse than / a long cry and while drawing my milk / than a refugee land wounded), and 16.9, below.

18. Un dieu noir should be understood in a generic sense: instead of pinpointing a particular sky god associated with thunder (such as the Yoruba deity Ogun), the phrase evokes the entire Afro-Caribbean socioreligious experience. In the context of procreating thunder, mal né serves as an ironic reversal of the opposite idiom, bien né (well born). Césaire discusses the implications of reclaiming genealogical rights in a passage dealing with Sekou Touré's proud proclamation of his descent (Césaire 1965; p. 121).

  1. Aguacero
  2. great blues player
  3. at the foot of a denuded tree
  4. amidst lost harmonies
  5. close to our defeated memories
  6. amidst our hands of defeat
  7. and peoples of alien power
  8. we let our eyes hang down
  9. and loosening the rein
  10. of our travail
  11. we wept.


In this compact lyric, Psalm 137:1-4 functions as a paradigm for black enslavement and cultural deprivation: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" As during the Babylonian captivity the Jews were forced by their captors to sing, so the uprooted blacks of the diaspora must perform their blues in a context of grief and cultural alienation. Several West Indian poets have since explored the suggestive analogy between the Jewish and black diasporas (see Brathwaite 1967). Black popular culture in the New World has long drawn on the Bible and biblical stories to portray the experience of subjugation; a contemporary Jamaican reggae song, "By the Rivers of Babylon," paraphrases this very passage in a Rastafarian idiom.

1 - 2. Aguacero is Spanish for a heavy downpour. The apposition of aguacero and beau musicien underlines the link between blues and rain expressed in the poem's title.

3. Arbre dévêtu alludes to the words of the psalm—"We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof"—and to Césaire's recurrent metaphor of the tree as signifying ancestral stock. Compare "bel arbre nu" in "Chevelure" (Locks; OC, p. 232). Harmonies perdues nostalgically recalls the African musical heritage.

5 - 6. Compare Psalm 137:5, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." The succession of participl terminating consecutive lines (dévêtu, perdues, "défaites, défaite), with their heavy reiteration of the sound , evokes a blues sonority.

8. The oxymoron pendre nos yeux is not only the kind of striking image dear to surrealist poetics but also an ironic transposition of the scriptural phrase "hanged our harps."

9 - 10. The adjective natale is difficult to construe because normal word order has been violated, making it unclear which noun the adjective is intended to modify. In this bending of the language, Césaire brings to the fore two complementary connotations of natale. First, the word's exposed position at the end of a line emphasizes its meaning "native," in antithesis to étrange two lines up. Second, these lines boldly invert the commonplace douleurnatale (birth pangs). The situation is further complicated (and enriched) by the intervening longe, a competing candidate for the noun natale modifies: Caribbean blacks inherit their "native reins" by being born into the historical context of slavery and its aftermath. (For Césaire's pervasive image of the enslaved black as a horse, see the commentary to 6.8, below). For more on this passage, see Davis 1977, pp. 136-37. Since the play on natale seems impossible to capture in English, I have not attempted to reproduce it in my translation.

11. Césaire has converted a cliché of neoromantic poetry (cf. Paul Verlaine's "il pleure dans mon cœr / comme il pleut sur la ville" [it cries in my heart / as it rains on the town]) into a powerful metaphor of the blues as the cultural expression of a subjugated people. The tone of the poem's ending diverges in one crucial respect from the final modulation of the psalm. Whereas the psalmist ends on a note of anger and vengeful imprecation ("O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones"), Césaire sustains instead the mood of grief that is the very signature of the blues.

  1. we ascend
  2. locks of the hanged of cassias
  3. (the executioner having forgotten to perform their last toilette)
  4. we ascend
  5. elegant hands hanging ferns and waving farewells inaudible to all
  6. we ascend
  7. cannas tear their hearts out precisely at the point where the phoenix is reborn from the peak of its consuming flame
  8. we ascend
  9. we descend
  10. imbaubas conceal their faces
  11. and their dreams in their skeletal phosphorescent hands
  12. the circles of the funnel narrow more and more rapidly
  13. we are at the bottom of hell
  14. we crawl we float
  15. we coil more and more crowded in the gulfs of the earth
  16. in human hate
  17. in racial hatred
  18. and the undertows of the abyss lead us back
  19. within a bundle of lianas
  20. of stars and shivers


Dante's Inferno constitutes a point of departure (in metaphysical as well as literary terms) for the movement of thought and feeling in this short masterpiece. Césaire's knowledge of Dante in the original is attested in Senghor's reminiscences, quoted in Nathan 1967, p. 5: "He would have been able to undertake the examination [agrégation]in literature, naturally, but also in philosophy, history, geography, English, or Italian. As I recall, he used to read Dante in the original." Spirales, like the circles of Dante's hell, suggest cycles of regress without the overall progress of the pilgrim. Spiral revolutions thus encompass polarities in ways amenable to surrealist and Marxist thought, both philosophical systems based on the interplay of opposites and their eventual reconciliation of synthesis. The poet's journey (imagined as representing the fate of his ethnic community) mediates between the spiritual antitheses of up and down, depression and elation, hell and redemption. In this respect, "Spirales" presents in miniature the complex upward movement of the Cahier. In discussion the Algerian writer Jean Amrouche, Cés;saire has stated his belief that a poet must synthesize opposing modes of being (1963, p.188): " 'Upstream,' 'downstream,' we are dealing with two posts of time that the poet must maintain if he is to remain faithful to the mission of poetry."

1 - 8. The upward trajectory of the poem takes the voyagers through a montane landscape (fougères, canéfices, balisiers). Césaire has given us his own explication of some of the plant names: "the canéfice mentioned in Spirales is a tree; it is also known as the cassier. It has large yellow leaves, of a sun-colored yellow, and its fruit is a huge, purplish black pod, used for medicinal purposes. The balisier resembles the banana tree, but it has a red heart in its center that truly has the sape of a heart. (Césaire 1960, p. 23) The balisier also carries political significance for Césaire, since it was adopted as the official emblem of his party.

2 - 3. Hanged cassias (along with the underlying association of hair and foliage) also appear in "Elégie" (Elegy, OC, p. 272): "les belles boucles noires des canéfices qui sont des / mûlâtresses / très fières dont le cou tremble un peu sous la guillotine" (the lovely black curls of cassias which are / mulatto women / haughty women whose necks tremble a little under guillotine).

8 - 11. The ascending loop of the spiral takes place on land and reaches its apex in fire; the downward turn is a precipitous plunge into the watery depths, signifying, among other things, the unconscious. For Césaire, the plunge is not merely into his own psyche, but also into that of his race (see pp. 17-18). The poet appears as deep diver in an affiliated infernal context in "Marais nocturne" (Night swamp; OC, p. 245): "Ce sont les scaphandriers de la réclusion qui reviennent à la surface remiser leur tête de plomb et de verre, leur tendresse" (There are the deep-sea divers of solitude who return to the surface to put by their heads of lead and glass, their devotion).

10. The botanical reference to Cecropia peltata (also known as the imbauba), which has a variety of local names in the anglophone world (e.g., snakewood and trumpet, see Wijk 1911). To quote Césaire (1960, p. 23): "The cecropias have the form of silvery hands, yes, like the palm of a black person."

12 - 13. The circles of hell contract as the bottom approaches. In Dante, the last circlet of Cocytus is occupied by Satan and by persons who are guilty of betraying their masters and benefactors (Inferno 34).

18. Thanks to the "undertow" (a redemptive symbol in Césaire), the poet escapes from the infernal abyss. At this juncture, the spiral begins to reascend. Compare the role of sillage (wake, wash) in "La parole aux oricous" (The oricous' turn to speak; OC, p. 218): "don le sillage rare est un lac à se mettre debout sur les chemins de déchant des nixes orageuses" (whose precious wake is a lake to be set up on the descant pathways of supporting hurricanes). For the meaning of nixe, see p. 22, above.

19. An upward motion returns, so does the montane flora of the poem's beginning. Lianas are tropical vines that typically grow on the tree-covered slopes containing the last vestiges of rain fores in the Antilles. Césaire (1945b) includes them in the sequence of symbols spelled out in his remarks on Wilfredo Lam: "forest, marsh, monster, night, flying pollen grains, rain, liana, epiphyte, serpent, fear, leap, life."

20. In the last line of Dante's Inferno he poet and his guide Virgil, on leaving hell, immediately gain a vision of the stars in the opposing hemisphere: "e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle" (and thence we emerged, again to see the stars; 34-139). As in "Magique" (1.16-18>), stars figure in Césaire's vision of a transfigured world free from human rancor. In combination with the poet's conception of himself as a shamanistic mediator between high and low, they also appear in the paradoxical closing line of "Ode à la Guinée," (12.17)—a symbolic nexus comparable to the overall mythos of "Spirales."


When revising this poem for Cadastre, Césaire made two textual excisions (for details, see below on lines 5-7 and 8-9). One, the deletion of a line between present lines 6 and 7, modified the stricter symmetry of the first version, which consisted of three four-line strophes (Soleil, p. 116). Despite his prunings, the poem remains exceptional for its balanced form (quatrain, tercet, quatrain) and for its comparatively orthodox rhythm, which sometimes approaches the alexandrine (see, e.g., lines 5 and 7). Among Césaire's other poems, only "Le griffon" (below, 18) approaches the relatively even pulse of "Mort à l'aube."

The poem celebrates the spirit of a revolutionary fighter who has died for the cause liberation. Throughout Césaire's poetry, dawn is emblematic of the liminal period between past oppression and future liberation (see Cahier and two early poems form Armes, "Poème pour l'aube" [Poem for the dawn] and "Conquête d'une aube" [Conquest of a dawn]; OC, pp. 97 and 111).

1. Repetitions of the metaphor tison (ember) are the vertebrae of the poem's symbolic structure. The word appears prominently in each of the three strophic sections, with increasingly complex connotations. In the opening quatrain, the embers are presented as separate from the fighter who blows upon them; as the poem progresses, however, embers and man fuse into one.

3. Snakes are numinous beings in West African religion and in the related Vodun cults of the Antilles; for Césaire, they represent the chthonic African being (see also 7.6, below). For the serpent's other connotations in Césaire (e.g. violence and sexuality), see Kesteloot 1962, pp. 46-47. Trompe seems to connote both the curve of the lips and the sound that they "trumpet." By its similarity to tromper, it may also evoke the notion of deceit, which, despite the traditional attribute of the snake in Judeo-Christian mythology, is not pejorative in this context.

4. One of the rhetorical functions of this eulogy is to rescue the anonymous hero from oblivion (oubli). Césaire does not conceive of oblivion in absolute terms, however: for him it is a storehouse of hidden reserves that the poet can summon to his aid (see 11.20-21, below).

5 - 7. Between lines 6 and 7, the following line occurs in the Soleil version: "quand ses pieds diminuent ses orteils en troncons de vers nus" (when his feet peter out his toes become stumps of naked worms). The excised line makes brutally explicit the process of putrefaction that overtakes the corpse of the fighter. By omitting it, the poet has retained undiminished the impression of vital transformation in death. The evolution of the ember image substantiates the idea of life in death; in the middle tercet the fire is relocated within the man, reflecting his burning will.

8 - 9. The transfiguration of the ember here reaches its apogee as the fire coalesces with the sap in the trunk of the tree that represents the ancestral spirit. (On the relation of fut, "shaft," to Césaire's key image of the ancestral tree trunk, see Davis 1977, pp. 142-43.) The first version of line 8 conveyed more explicitly some further ramifications of the conceit. "mince tison il est celui qui par toutes les veines du sang" (A small ember he is one who through all the veins of the blood), creating the equation fire=will=blood=sap, all from "Des crocs" (Hooks; OC, p. 159), "sang qui monte dans l'arbre de chair" (blood that rises in the tree of flesh), and 12.3, below.

10. Many tropical and subtropical soils are plagued by leaching, a washing away of essential nutrients that render them virtually useless for agriculture. Here, lateritic soils (characteristically red in color) stand for the general devastation wrought by colonialist regimes. By miraculously shooting upward in such degraded soil, the tree, which symbolizes the African heritage, carries (porte) the hope of cultural revival.

11. The epithet clair (bright, open) continues the metaphor of the luminous internal fire of the spirit.


In the title of this poem, the phrase carte voyageuse recalls the radical dislocation of African peoples via the Middle Passage, the sailing route by which slaves were brought to the New World. The underlying implication of a blanc à remplir, however, is that the voyage, in a figurative sense, is not yet complete. In the poet's imagination exists an uncharted terrain (blanc) beyond colonialism that remains to be explored. In defiance, then, of the desert, which betokens past despair, the poet reaches for and rediscovers oases of hope. The poem, though terse, contains several major Césairean images that establish the poet's role in nurturing the aspirations (rêve) of his uprooted people (e.g. pollen, graine volante).

1. Désert similarly appears as a metaphor for spiritual desolation and defeatism in "Grand sang sans merci" (Great merciless blood; OC, p. 154), especially line 11: "Défaite Défaite désert grand" (Defeat, Defeat, great desert).

2 - 4. The dream of revolution is enough to sustain the poet in the desert. The polar terms bas and haut, terminating their respective lines, embrace a totality; that is, they have the rhetorical effect of universalizing the conditions expressed in the subjunctives. A single drop of water and a winged spore; conceived as potentially united, suffice to preserve the embryonic dream of a fructifying future.

4 - 5. In the Seuil edition of Ferrements, there are commas after haut and assez.

6 - 7. Désert gains a more concrete meaning in apposition to the images in line 6. Césaire's apparent renunciation of an aggressive posture is not a defeatist stance, since his persona has found the strength to endure the desert's challenge. For vrac as a symbol of a confused, meaningless existence, see 7.23-25, below.

8. Pollen, like the related image graine volante (flying seed; c. 1.14, above), encapsulates both the black diaspora and the poet's hope that in the future his people will regain their roots. On the importance of plants (especially trees) in his symbolic system, Césaire (1960) has said: "This image [uprooting] obsesses me; it is fundamental. This tearing up, the Martinicans want to forget about it. . . . My poetry is that of an uprooted person, and of a man who wants to take root again. And the tree that recurs with all its different names in all my poems is the symbol of that which has roots. The state of a balanced man is that of a 'rooted' man. Poetry is an act of taking root, in the sense in which Simone Weil, a Jewish woman and a victim of the Diaspora, understood this word." For other variations on the pollen image, see 10.39 and 15.42-43, below.

  1. The voyage constricts takes away all passage
  2. only the mist keeps its hands free to lead the town back to port in a litter of rigging
  3. and you it is a wave that brings you before my feet
  4. that very same boat without fail in the half-light of a half-slumber
  5. I knew it always
  6. hold me tight round my shoulders round my loins
  7.                            slaves
  8. hear their whinnying lukewarm foam
  9. muddy creekwater this grief then nothing
  10. where you and I in the thighs of night sticky now as ever
  11. slaves stashed away with heavy hearts
  12. all the same my love all the same we press on
  13. slightly less heartsick in our pitching vessel


The poem that gives its name to the the 1960 collection Ferrements appears there in initial, programmatic position (see Hale 60/280). Accordingly, it conveys an ethos that is at the core Césaire's rhetorical stance, a profound empathy between the persona of the lyricist and his intended audience, the black ex-slaves of Martinique. The title plays on the near-homonym ferments (fermentations), also the title of a poem within the collection (see Hale 60/280). Although the idea of "fermentation" is subtly developed in the erotic imagery of the second half of the poem, "fetters" is clearly appropriate for a group of poems dealing with the psychosocial effects of slavery and colonialism.

1. The rare word périple (periplus) is a French transliteration of the Greek for "circumnavigation." Here it alludes to the expedition of Hanno, a Carthaginian admiral who explored the West African coast ca. 500 B.C. His voyage recorded in The Periplus of Hanno, a Greek paraphrase of an original Punic text (on its historical significance, see Cary and Warmington 1929, pp. 47-52; Carpenter 1973, pp. 81-100). In "Ferrements," the ancient and somewhat fabulous periplus fuses with the historically more recent Middle Passage.

2. On the mist, see 10.1-8, below, which describes a mist composed of emblems of enslavement, including ferrements. Here it is ironic that the mist "keeps its hands free," because its very persistence implies continued subjugation. Palanquin has two main connotations: (1) rear tackle (nautical; diminutive of palan) and (2) palanquin (Oriental litter). The predominant nautical metaphors that structure the remainder of the poem argue in favor of (1); my English rendition attempts to include both.

4. The apparition of a slave ship on a voyage provides the setting for the poem's imagery and movement of ideas. Apostrophized in the previous line (et toi), the vessel becomes by metonymy its contents, the slaves whom the poet-lover seeks to embrace. The dim ambience of "dans le demi jou d'un demi-sommeil" recalls a refrain from the Cahier, "au bout du petit matin" (at the end of the early dawn), which refers to the liminal existence of the assimilated colonial. On the symbolism of the wave, see the commentary on 10.90-92, below.

8. Hennissement (whinnying) is an excellent example of Césaire's use of the horse as a metaphor for the supposed vigor of the black experience. The entire poem "Cheval" (Horse, OC, p. 252) elaborates this emblem, which is so copiously represented elsewhere in Césaire's poems, for example: "Je frappe, je brise, toute porte je brise et hennissant, absolu, cervelle, justice, enfance je me brise" (I knock, I break, through every door I break and whinnying, pure, brain, justice, childhood, I break through myself; "Intimité marine" [Marine intimacy], OC, p. 167). The origin of the horse metaphor may be the Haitian Vodun conception of the possessed person as a horse that the god mounts (see Métraux 1959, pp. 120-21).

9 - 13. The sexual imagery in these lines reinforces the notion of a close bond between poet and people—a major theme of the collection as a whole. The figurative assimilation of the lovers to slaves in line 11 climaxes a progression initiated in line 6. By a typical rhetorical stratagem, Césaire presents the slaves as first separate from, then identical to, the lovers, whose symbolic intercourse gives them the heart to endure the voyage. (The phonic echo in de cœurs lourds and ecœurés creates a play on the adjective: "sea-sick" = "disheartened.") The nautical imagery in the final two lines is reminiscent of Mallarmé's diction in the celebrated short poem "Salut" (Toast):"Nous naviguons, ô mes divers / Amis . . . Une ivresse belle m'engage / Sans craindre même son tangage" (We sail, o my various / Friends . . . a fine tipsiness urges me / without fear even of the pitching). The heroism of Mallarmé's persona, on a voyage of poetic endeavor with a small group of followers, diverges from that of Césaire, who is represented as amorously bound to his ex-slave community (see above, p. 15).

  1. It's this thin film on the sea's
  2. unsettled backwash of wine
  3. it's this high rearing up of earth's horses
  4. halted at the very last second from leaping across the abyss
  5. it's this black sand churned up when the gulf hiccups
  6. it's this obstinate snake crawling out of the wreck
  7. this gulp of stars thrown up as firefly cake
  8. this stone on the ocean dislodging from its foam
  9. a trembling hand for birds of passage
  10. here Sun and Moon
  11. form the two cogwheels cunningly engaged
  12. of a fierce Time to grind us
  13. it's this ill-being
  14.                                this excrement
  15.                                this sobbing of coral
  16. it's pouncing from the memorable sky
  17. right onto the lure of our hearts red at dawn
  18. this predatory beak rending the unfriendly breast
  19.                                                          mire
  20.                                                          and
  21.                                                           quagmire
  22. It's this hawk emblazoning the noonday sky of our black hearts, hovering over
  23.                              this ransack
  24.                              this sack
  25.                              this farago
  26.                             this land


The title of this poem designates a type of children's rhyme used to select, by a process of elimination, a particular member of a group as "it" in an ensuing game. The child who recites the comptine typically points to each player (including himself) in turn as he sings or recites the ditty. An example in English (from which I have derived my title) is "One potato, two potato, three potato, fou / five potato, six potato, seven potato more!" (for a French example, consult GLE under comptine.

The poem's title provides a key to its formal organization. With the exception of lines 10-12, which bifurcate it, the poem consists of a series of predications, each introduced by the demonstrative ce. The demonstrative corresponds, mimetically, to the pointing finger of the player who performs the ditty in the children's ritual. The climax of the predications is the isolation of a single player, cette terre. The poem thereby reduces itself to one item set apart from the rest of the array, a segregation reflected in the visual spacing of the final lines (23-26). The preceding items are not simply canceled out, however, for as a taxonomic sequence of metaphors describing life in colonial Martinique they both compete with and complement each other, forming a comprehensive background for the final, selected term. Césaire often uses such catalogues (e.g., in "Barbare" [Barbarian, OC, p. 255]. "Cheval," [OC, p. 252], and 9.1-4, below). As a focusing device, the comptine and related forms that employ the catalogue device are similar, at a deep level, to the priamel (from the Latin praeambulum; fc. English "preamble"). For an insightful analysis of the device in Greek literature, see Bundy 1962, pp. 4-6.

1 - 2. Césaire's poetry contains many synonyms for the "eddy" or "undertow," expressed here in remous. Such words designate the aftermath of slavery and transplantation in ambiguous terms: contrast the negative connotations of the image in this context with its positive meaning in 3.18, above. The metaphor of the sea as wine may be an echo of the Homeric formula "wine-dark sea."

3. For the image of the horse, see the commentary to 6.8, above.

4. Gouffre, like abîme in the following line, is a conventional infernal metaphor in European poetry from Dante to Baudelaire (see Auerback 1959). The horses' halt at the edge of the gulf may suggest the inhibition of the colonized when confronted with the necessity of a leap into freedom (cf. 10.61-64, below).

5. Large stretches of the beaches in Martinique and many other islands in the Lesser Antilles are made up of black volcanic sand. The racial color symbolism applied to the sand ramifies the connections between displaced blacks and the sea made throughout Césaire's poetry (see also Cahier, p. 48). On the rare reflexive use of sabouler, see Littré (3), which gives the connotation "to be in a state of disarray or disturbance." In addition, one cannot rule out a subtle acoustic play on sabre and sabouler.

6. Shipwreck (naufrage) is a recurrent emblem of the forcible transplantation of blacks to the New World (see hte commentary to poem 15, below). Césaire (1960) has said of the overall significance of the image: "There is an idea to which I am very attached. It's the idea of continuity. Martinique is a land of shipwreck in the Odyssey of History." From the cultural shipwreck emerges the persistent serpent—a powerful portrayal of black survival.

7. See 9.1 and commentary, below. Since there the fireflies seem to represent subdued energies, here the regurgitation of the stars as fireflies may highlight the process of spiritual decline.

8. Elochant comes from the archaic verb élocher (dislodge, dislocate); see Littré.

10 - 12. Although these three lines interrupt the count of players, the gnomic reference to Time (note the capitalization of Soleil, Lune, and Temps) expresses the circularity inherent in the game: the cunningly joined wheels of the sun and moon roll together in a seemingly endless process. This image of a machine that is also a ferocious beast contains as well a topical reference to spiritually pulverizing aspects of Antillean life, such as the exploitation of factory workers in the sugar industry. The verb engrener, which I have rendered as "engaged," bears a second meaning that cannot be reproduced in English: "to put corn in the mill-hopper." "Grind" (moudre) in the following line is congruent with this interpretation.

17 - 18. Césaire often uses a bird of prey to present figuratively the imperialist stance.

22. The predatory bird, depicted by synecdoche above, now is elaborated more fully as an icon of the relation between colonizer and colonized.

23 - 26. As in the children's comptine, once "it" has been chosen the items previously denominated are not discarded but remain as participants in the ensuing game—here a brutal sociopolitical game in which the country will continue to be a co-player, if only as privileged scapegoat. With four monosyllabic nouns the poet brings the poem to a crescendo and halts the ever-narrowing circle on the rhyme-elected player, cette terre. In retrospect, therefore, "Comptine" may be read as a series of attempts to characterize, by the technique of counting; the existential terrain of the contemporary ill-being of the island. In my translation, "sack" and "ransack" attempt to preserve the momentum of reduction, as well as the auditory qualities of the original, by duplicating Césaire's use of a similar jingle in "cage / et / marécage" a few lines earlier. His playfulness with sound echoes and endemic feature of children's rhymes.

  1. Surely it is absurd to salute this upsurge in mid-ocean
  2. standing bolt upright in the claws of the wind
  3. whose heart with every systole pumps out
  4. a true delirium of lianas. Mighty utterance of the carnal earth reduced to such a stutter on our slopes! "Who cares, who cares" I heard an earnest voice cry out "who cares to have his fill
  5. of Human Soul? Of Fighting Spirit?
  6. Of Inner Essence by whose grace the faller falls only to rise again? Of Leader of Souls? Of Breaker
  7. of Hell's Bonds?" Right then and there my auger sight broke through
  8. to hatch its eyes in vision unremitting:

  9. Yé climbed up the palm-tree
  10. Nanie-Rosette sat on a rock and ate
  11. the devil flew around
  12. anointed with snake oil
  13. oil of dead souls
  14. in the town danced a god with the head of an ox
  15. ruddy rums ran from gullet to gullet
  16. in the huts the anise interfused with the orgeat
  17. at streetcorners men crouched over dice and dispatched
  18. dreams through their fingers
  19. men the color of tobacco
  20. slept in the shade with its long razor pockets
  21. ruddy rums ran from gullet to gullet
  22. but no one of stature replied
  23. and the mucus let force to the bite of the bugs
  24. O strange inquirer
  25.                 I tender you my redundant jug
  26.                     as I recite the black vocable
  27.                         Me me me
  28. for in you I recognized a patience that was molded
  29. in the pilot cabin of a privateer dismasted by hurricane and licked by orchids


This poem was considerably amplified between the time of its original publication in 1955 (see Hale 55/209) and its inclusion in Ferrements. (For details, see below on lines 4-7, 21-27, and 28.) It pays tribute to the achievement of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a journalist and man of letters who wrote several books about the land people Martinique. Hearn's quasi-ethnography of the West Indies, like his better-known writings on Japan, is basically impressionistic, as befits his journalistic métier (see Hearn 1891). Though prone to exoticism and romanticization, Hearn made a valuable contribution to Caribbean folklore studies, particularly in his descriptions of French Creole culture. He was passionately curious about Creole society and recorded a fair sampling of Martinican oral literature, including folklore, songs, and proverbs. Despite the inherent deficiencies of his makeshift transcription methods, not to mention an unwittingly patronizing attitude, Hearn compiled a precious source of information about vanishing customs and beliefs in the French Antilles. For fuller accounts of his biography, see Kennard 1912, Stevenson 1961, and Yu 1964.

The reference to a monument in the title connects the poem generically with a long tradition of encomium that derives, in Europe at least, from classical epitaph and continues unabated into modern poetry (e.g. Mallarmé's "Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire" [The tomb of Charles Baudelaire]; Césaire's "Tombeau de Paul Eluard," OC, p. 186; and poem 10, below). Here Césaire's poem itself constitutes the public monument that is its proclaimed subject.

1. Césaire causes the images of statue and island to converge ("poussée en plein océan"). In adition to his primary reference to Martinique, Césaire may also obliquely allude to Hearn's origin on the Greek island Leucadia (Santa Maura), whose name is reflected in the pen name Lafcadio.

2. Assault by the elements is one aspect of the topos of the poem as a perennial monument; compare Horace, Odes 3.30: "Exegi monumentum aere perennius . . . quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens / possit diruere" (I have set up a monument more lasting than bronze . . . which neither the greedy rainshower nor the uncontrolled east wind / can destroy).

3 - 4. For the liana as a general symbol, see the commentary to 3.19, above, and 9.6, below. The specific bond between lianas and blood has a basis in Martinican ethnobotany; the so-called "blood-liana," which secretes a reddish substance, was popularly believed to incarnate the the heart of a zombie. A passage in Hearn's novel Youma (Hearn 1890, pp. 132-33) dramatizes this folk belief:

The child had plucked a sombre leaf, and was afraid,–something so strange had trickled upon her fingers.

—"It is only the blood-liana," said Youma: "they dye with it." . . .

—"But it is warm," said the child–still full of fear . . . Then both became afraid because of a heavy pulsing sound, dull as the last flappings of a cannon-echo among the mornes. And the light began to fail,–dimmed into a red gloom, as when the sun dies.

—"It is the tree!" gasped Mayotte,–"the heart of a tree!"

But they could not go: a weird numbness weighed their feet to the ground.

And suddenly the roots of the tree bestirred with frightful life, and reached out writhing to wrap about them;–and the end of the roots and the ends of the limbs had eyes . . . And through the ever-deepening darkness came the voice of Gabriel, crying,–"It is a Zombi!–I cannot cut it!"

By causing the heart of Hearn to converge, metaphorically, with the heart of the tree, Césaire pays the ultimate homage to an ethnographer: subject and object merge as one. He also incorporates Hearn figuratively into the African spiritual cosmos, foreshadowing the conclusion of the poem. The exclamation in line 4 may refer to the complex linguistic situation of the French Antilles, in which, an African element ("grande phrase de terre sensuelle") interacts with a French-based creole ("si bégayée aux mornes"). In a broader sense, it suggests the contrast between the grandeur of the West African heritage and its impoverishment in Martinique.

4 - 7. The first published version of the poem did not contain the series of questions ("Et . . . l'Enfer?"). The increment introduces a more complex rhetorical perspective, for the voice of the interlocutor mimics the English words of a character in Hearn's Youma. In the novel, set in Martinique during a slave rebellion, a sorcerer (quimboiseur) exhorts the insurgent blacks to partake of his magic potion (p. 152): "Who will drink it, the Soul of a Man?–the spirit of Combat?–the Essence of Falling to Rise?–the Heart-Mover?–the Hell-breaker? . . . Andy they clamored for it, swallowed it–wasps and the gunpowder and the alcohol,–drinking themselves into madness." By his quote, Césaire endows Hearn's work with a new significance: the African witch doctor's art, though reduced to the bizarre utterances of a West Indian sorcerer, still retain a surreal potency. (I have supplied missing quotation marks before en boire, line 4.)

7 - 8. In a moment of insight, the eulogist sees his own cultural heritage through the eyes of the sympathetic foreign observer, thus bearing witness to Hearn's enduring contribution. There is a special poignancy in the choice of imagery because of Hearn's abnormal eyes: "In his life . . . Hearn had felt himself to be marked off from the rest of mankind by his small stature, his strange appearance and especially by his uneven eyes, one blind, marbled, and sunken in his skull, the other myopic and protruding, so that it looked like the single eye of an octopus." (Cowley 1949, p. 6)

9 - 20. The scenes sketched in this segment are typical of Martinican legend, belief, and daily life. Yé, for instance, is a prominent figure in the folklore of the island; his escapades are analagous to those of tricksters, such as Anansi the spider or Compé Lapin, in African and West Indian folktales (see Condé 19778; Laurent and Césaire 1976). For Hearn's record of a tale about this figure, see "Yé and the Devil," Hearn 1891, pp. 400-401. An encapsulated folktale involving Nanie Rosette appears in Youma (Hearn 1890, p 46): "the story of Nanie Rosette, the greedy child, who sat down upon the Devil's Rock and could not get up again, so that her mother had to hire fifty carpenters to build a house over her before midnight." Ajoupa, in line 16, is creole "hut."

21 - 27. These lines were added in the later version of the poem. Lines 21-23 reflect a concern for the inadequate local reception of Hearn's work; an important aim of Césaire's encomium is to counteract that neglect.

24 - 27. The apostrophe is fundamentally ambiguous: it refers both to Hearn, as an avid foreign investigator, and to his creation, the sorcerer who cries out the questions quoted in lines 4-7. As the sorcerer had extended his cask to the eager slaves, so the poet empathetically offers his "redundant jug" to his addressee. With this symbolic gesture, Césaire generously pays deference to Hearn's contribution to negritude ("le noir verbe mémorant / Moi moi moi), for in recognizing Hearn's work as an authentic transcription, he recognizes his own identity and rediscovers his blackness. The verb mémorant probably carries an etymological play on its Latin root (from memorare, "tell, relate"): hence my translation "reciting."

28. In the earlier version, this clause was written in the third person: "de lui on connut que sa patience fut faite" (one recognized that his patience was molded"). As Hale points out (p. 355), a major consequence of the grammatical alteration is "to reduce the distance between the poet and the past, between the poet and Lafcadio Hearn." One might add that the poet's affinity with the statue is grounded in this shared virtue of patience. The signification of the term in Césaire's moral system embraces the connotation, derived from the Latin root (patior), of "suffering" and "endurance" ; see "Patience des signes" (Patience of signs; OC, p. 164).

29. Although Hearn is figuratively placed in the colonizer's position—the ship's cabin—the shipwreck caused by the storm (and implied in démâté) is compensated by the maternal nurture of léché d'orchidées. Thus the stranger Hearn is initiated into the spiritual landscape of the Antilles—an initiation preceded by a naufrage.


This poem has a tripartite movement whose segments are defined by syntax and theme. To open, lines 1-4 comprise four noun phrases all introduced by the adjective quelconque. The central position (lines 5-8) constitutes the fulcrum of the poem, which , as in "Magique," is demarcated by the repeated temporal conjunction lorsque (lines 6 and 8). The closing section (lines 9-10), is controlled by imperatives (plane, danse, piétine, crie), which express the poem's rousing admonition. The figurative connotations of earthquakes in Césaire's poetry as a whole (see poem 11, below) establish that the exhortation climaxing in the final line is to political and spiritual revolution. The stasis of the poem's first portion is transformed into the dynamic upheaval of the third through a transition effected by the symbolic revolutionary agents of lianas, horses, and bay.

1 - 4. Quelconque denotes a general category: the banal, the ordinary, the commonplace. The repetition of this word at the beginning of each of the first four lines is part of a taxonomic strategy typical in Césaire: the unvarying inverted predicated introduces members of a thematic set. The absence of verbs and the presence, in most cases, of principal phrases underscore the items' shared identity, in contrast to the discrete integrity of the diverse subjects (gateau, rangée, plat, main). As superimposed metaphors for colonial relationships, the items may be said to function as signs within an overall grammar of Césaire's lyric.

1. Fireflies, in this context, represent a subdued state with sporadic, minor outbursts (note that they are associated with petites bougies). For a contrasting conception, see 10.21, below.

2. "Palmiers à éventer" may be deliberately ambiguous: since some palms have fanlike leaves, the image is appropriate for cooling fans in a tropical heat, but éventer may also express the opposite effect of "fanning" a flame. As in line 1, contained power is represented, here in "pensées les mieux tues." For violent thoughts that are latent or suppressed, see also 19.15 and 20.1-2, below.

3. The creole "dressing" of the quotidian sky-dish served by the magi (who read the stars, according to the Christmas legend) is manifest in its hot seasoning—a marvelous metaphor for local assimilation of colonial institutions.

4. In addition to the color contrast of green and a red like spilt blood, Césaire may be thinking of the fact that the poinsettia is named after a nineteenth-century American diplomat, as another plant, the poinciana, is named after the seventeenth-century French West Indian governor De Poinci. Gloves were standard items of ceremonial dress for colonial governors and their entourages, even in hot climates. I have chosen "pogrom gloves' to convey the "banality of evil," in Hannah Arendt's famous phrase (Arendt 1963).

5. Personified Hope also appears in Tragédie, p. 42, a passage on the emotional vagaries of a people's revolution.

8. The anse (bay) becomes transported, as in the vigorous overture to "Samba" (Samba, OC, p. 236): "Tout ce qui d'anse s'est aglutiné pour former tes seins" (All that from the bay congealed to form your breasts). On the locally preserved archaic denotation of this word and its occurrence as a toponymic, see Davis 1977, pp. 139-40. Césaire's choice of imagery in "crinière de sel godronnée" has proved prophetic, for the dreadlocks of contemporary Rastafarians and their imitators are now a common pan-Caribbean (and even pan-American) fad among disenfranchised black youth.

9. To the positive emblem of a majestic bird of Hope embodying black aspirations, contrast the negative winged predator, also hovering (planer occurs in both poems), that represents the patrolling colonialist at the end of "Comptine." Ornithological symbols of this kind form a network of correspondences throughout Césaire's poetry (see Walker 1979, pp. 103-8).

10. According to legend, shark-suckers can stop or slow down ships—thus their name "remora," from Latin remorari (delay). (See GLE, under remora.) If Césaire is consciously or unconsciously thinking of slave ships, then the remora may function as an aggressive image within the general purview of decolonization. Charmantes may also mask an etymological play, since the verb charmer originally signified "to cast a spell on" (from Latin carmen, "incantation, song"). The caiman (a name derived from the Carib acayouman) is a South American and Antillean reptile, akin to the crocodile, which inhabits rivers and lakes (see GLE under caïman for an illustration). In this context, its noise is a premonition of the upheaval signified by the closing image. During the Haitian revolution, an important historical prototype for Césaire (see Cahier, p. 51), one of the meeting places of the conspiring slaves was known as "Bois Caïman" (Caiman Wood, see Métraux 1959, p. 42). On the basis of rhythm and a very odd line break after le, the last three lines of the OC version have been run in as one. OC reads cri, which obviously a typographical error. I have restored the imperative crie (required for the parallel), as it appeared in the Seuil edition of Cadastre.

    Delgrès, Louis

    The last defender of black freedom in Guadeloupe, born at St. Pierre (Martinique) in 1772, killed in the capture of Matouba (Guadeloupe) on May 28, 1802.

    Fully aware of the certain outcome of a struggle that he had accepted, though not provoked, he distinguished himself by his courageous acts of chivalry. He was to be seen seated in a gun emplacement, violin in hand, braving the cannonballs of General Richepanse, the commander of the notorious expedition, and, like a latter-day Tyrtaeus, playing his instrument to bolster the spirits of his soldiers.

    "Guadeloupe devastated and destroyed, its ruins still smoldering with the blood of its children, its women, and its old men put to the sword; Pélage himself victim of their guile after having betrayed in cowardly fashion his country and his brothers; the brave, immortal Delgrès thrown into the air along with the debris of his redoubt rather than submit to chains. Magnanimous warrior!"

  1. a mist arose
  2. the same that has obsessed me always
  3. tissue of noises of fetters of chains lacking keys
  4. of scrapings of tongs
  5. of a splashing of spittle

  6. the mist solidifies and a fist goes up
  7. to shatter the mist
  8. the fist that has obsessed me always

  9. and there appeared over a sea of pride
  10. a sun beyond compare
  11. advancing its majestic crests
  12. like a herd of bulls in jade
  13. toward the beaches, obsequious pastures
  14. and there appeared liberated mountaintops
  15. directing toward the sky their thunderous artillery
  16. and there appeared valleys in whose depths
  17. Hope waved fragile plumes of sugarcane in January
  18. Louis Delgrès I pronounce your name
  19. and raising up from oblivion the pedestal of this name
  20. I counter the precise thickness of night
  21. with a swarm of transported fireflies
  22. Delgrès: there can be no spring
  23. like the long-awaited chlorophyll of a nascent hum of bites and stings
  24. on this headstrong May day
  25. three days you saw against the piers of your season
  26. the fire terrifying their hounds
  27. three days saw Delgrès contain, with a hand that spelled berries or roots
  28. Gobert and Pélage the colonialist dogs
  29. in the precise juncture of their impotent rage
  30. All around the wind slaps in the thistles
  31. from on high the sky drizzles with pure blood
  32. Fort St. Charles: I sing the lithe leap of Ignatius over
  33. the viscous grip to unstring the breathless
  34. colonialist pack through canefield and bush
  35. and I sing of Delgrès on the ramparts esconced
  36. for three days surveying the blue heights of a dream
  37. projected beyond the sleep of the people
  38. for three days sustaining sustaining with the frail woof of his hands
  39. our squashed sky of pollen
  40. and what is it then what is it one hears
  41. the herd of blue seaweed seeks in the islands' labyrinth
  42. a dark coving as listening-post
  43. unique site from which to scent a new birth
  44. Haiti deliverance of the loa
  45. narrow track of surge in the confluence of tales . . .
  46.                      But when at Bainbridge Ignatius was killed
  47.                          when the vulture the colonialist hurrah
  48.                              had hovered in its triumph over the shuddering islands
  49. then History hoisted on its highest flagpole
  50. the drop of blood of which I speak
  51. wherein was mirrored as in deepest degree
  52. that unwonted breach of fate
  53. Mount Matouba
  54. Abrupt place. Abrupt name. All gloom. Below
  55. in Constantine pass where the two rivers
  56. peel off their hiccoughing snakeskins
  57. there lay Richepanse in ambush
  58. (Richepanse the colonialist bear with violent gums
  59. fond of the sun's honey gathered from logwood)
  60.                      and this bordered on the exode of the drama
  61. O Death: for one's self the formidable leap

  62. all exploded on black Matouba
  63. this air's thick filament hauled toward the summits
  64. first the giant horses of noise rearing against the sky
  65. then slackly the great octopus flaccid with smoke
  66. mocking, spitting, in the night that it injects
  67. with impudent perfume, a tuft of citronella
  68.                      and on the islands a wind beat down
  69. riddled with the suspect violence of crickets . . .
  70. Delgrès: there have not sounded in your procession
  71.                          triumphal
  72. flutes, nor have the dry cisterns caused your shade to sulk
  73. nor has the voracious insect grazed on your site
  74. O Breacher of Fate, Violent Disturber of the Peace
  75.              I sing the hand that scorned to skim
  76.              with the days' long spoon
  77.              the boiling cane juice in the vast vat of time
  78. and I sing
  79.              but with the trumpet of heaven full blast and without pity
  80.              bellowed the stubborn ember precocious
  81.              stirred from afar by the rash vigor of dawn
  82. I long to hear a song where the rainbow is breached
  83. where the curlew stands on forgotten shores
  84. I long for the liana that grows on the palm
  85. (on the trunk of the present our headstrong future)
  86. I long to see a conquistador with armor unloosened
  87. lying on a deathbed of perfumed flowers
  88. and the foam-censed steel rusting
  89. in the pure blue-tinted bevy of slow haggard cacti
  90. I long to see at the crest of waves suborning the midday thunder
  91. the black girl's head dislodging from the foam
  92. the supple multitude of the imperishable body
  93. I long that in the purified truth of our summers
  94. there revive and grow the crushed bagasse
  95. the light-blood fallen where the cane-stalks fall
  96. and behold in this sap and this blood in this epiphany
  97. Delgrès meandering through our islands' four corners
  98. incumbent Icarus who in the marrow of ashes
  99. opened the phosphorescent wound of an unfathomable source
  100.                                  Now
  101. demiurge of soul in the mangroves' soft flesh
  102. today Delgrès
  103.          in the interstice of crossing paths
  104. gathering your name outside of the marshes
  105.          I trumpet you and to all future wind
  106. you proud herald of a distant vintage.


This encomium was first published in the journals PA and Le Progressiste in 1959 (for details, see Hale 58/257).

"The day will come," wrote Bangou (1962, p. 284), "when Guadeloupe will rediscover its soul by honoring the memory of its heroes. On that day, there will not be hatred, but a cold lucidity in search of a warm and genuine brotherhood." Martinique, no less than Guadeloupe, can claim Louis Delgrès as a national hero, for he was born in the former island. Like Toussaint L'Ouverture the world-renowned champion of Haitian freedom to whom Césaire devoted an entire historical monograph (Césaire 1962), Delgrès took up arms on behalf of black slaves against Napoleon's expeditionary forces sent to re-establish slavery in the French West Indies. The two quotations juxtaposed in the epigraph are intended to highlight the historical affinities between the successful Haitian revolution and the rebellion crushed in Guadeloupe. The Haitian revolution—the only successful slave revolt in recorded history—is, of course, an important paradigm of negritude for Césaire, and he explores its aftermath in La Tragédie du roi Christophe. By placing Delgrès in the company of the Haitian general Dessalines, Césaire authenticates his chosen hero as a true exemplum to be remembered and honored. On Dessalines, see James 1963 and Leyburn 1966; on Delgrès, see Saint-Ruf 1965.

Since it is partly as a result of Césaire's "Memorial" that the name of Delgrès is now generally well known to his compatriots, the poem has fulfilled its encomiastic purpose, to erect a memorial to a previously obscure hero of black resistance. In addition, many of its major motifs are expressed in Césaire's pervasive imagistic code.

Epigraph. Tyrtaeus was an archaic Greek poet of the seventh century B.C.; he is chiefly famous for his martial verse exhorting the Spartans to deeds of courage. His work is extant only in fragments.

1 -17. Prelude. Before naming the subject of his encomium in line 18, in a crescendo reminiscent of Pindar, Césaire deploys and exordial vignette, which sets forth, in striking metaphors, the struggle between colonialist oppression (un brouillard and black resistance (le poing). The antimony of mist and fist gives way, in the following section, to the opposition between mist and sun. Thus the first eight lines create a dark background against which the achievement of Delgrès can stand out in luminous relief (lines 9-17).

15. Delgrès first occupied a bastion overlooking the town of Basseterre (the present administrative capital of Guadeloupe), from which his artillery bombarded the French forces (see Bangou 1962, pp. 276-82).

17. See 9.5 and commentary, above, for a parallel personification of revolutionary aspiration.

18. To use Bundy's terminology (1962), the laudator (the person praising) directly addresses the laudandus (the person to be praised) in a "name-cap," a formal naming of the laudandus early in the poem. The postponement of the name Louis Delgrès, coupled with the isolation of the line in the printed text, supports the effect of a rhetorical climax.

19. The metaphor of a statue ("le socle de ce nom") amplifies the concept of the poem as a monument (see poem 8, above). For the topos of praise as antithetical to silence and existing in a dialectical relationship with it, see Davis 1983.

20 - 21. The thickness of night breached by the poet's verbal fireflies parallels the mist that is pierced and dissipated by the heroic action. For a comparable image, see 18.12, below. In surrealist terms, "precise" is opposed to "transported" (précise to extasié) as reason is to the irrational.

22 - 23. There is irony in the comparison with spring, for the Mediterranean seasons do not exist in the tropical climate of the Antilles. Chlorophyll similarly appears as a kind of Dionysian life-force in the concluding line of "Cheval": "la mie chlorophyllienne des vastes corbeaux de l'avenir" (the chlorophyll pith of the enormous crows to come; OC, p. 252).

24. Prairial, the ninth month in the calendar of the First Republic, corresponds to May-June; Matouba was taken on May 28. There is more than historical color in Césaire's reference, for Napoleon's attempt to reinstitute slavery blatanly opposed the ideals of the French Revolution as well as the rhetoric of its illustrious successors. At the same time, the sound of prairial establishes an interplay with prairies (line 13)—an acoustic link that contrasts the two associated stances of obsequiousness (prairies obéissantes) and persistence (prairial têtu).

27. Delgrès is described in emblematic terms that presage the Osirian imagery of the poem's epilogue (lines 96-97): he is conceived as a chthonic deity embodying quasi-religious vegetal symbols (such as graines and racines). The allusion to the three days links the Christian and Osirian resurrection myths. Epeleuse emphasizes the magic power of the word in the trope of "spelling."

28 - 29. Gobert and Pélage were mulatto generals who fought on the side of the French forces agains their own people‐hence Césaire's derogatory "les chiens colonialistes." I have not tried to imitate in English the wordplay of maintenir and main (line 27). For syntactical clarity, in my translation I have inverted lines 28 and 29.

31. In the first published version of the poem, the phrase sang ingénu was plural. The singular accords with the sacrificial symbolism of lines 96-99, in which the martyr's blood flows through the islands in a manner reminiscent of ancient Near Eastern resurrection gods. For other minor changes, see Hale 58/257.

32 - 34. After a siege, Delgrès's forces abandoned Fort St. Charles, the position dominating the town of Basseterre, and transferred to the inland site of Matouba. Meanwhile, the rebel general Ignatius executed a brilliant diversionary expedition to the other side of the island, near to Pointe-à-Pitre, in Grande Terre (Saint-Ruf 1965, pp. 121-25).

35. Pertinacity (s'entête) is a leitmotif of this eulogy. (cf. lines 24 and 85). It also characterizes the black will to survival in 7.6, above. In the formula "je chante" (lines 32, 35, 75, and 78), Césaire employs the "choral I" (das chorlyrische Ich, on which see Dornseiff 1921, p. 81), thus evoking the style of the Greek chorus. See further comment on line 60, below.

38 - 39. Delgrès is presented as a black Atlas (note the repetition of soutenant, which was capitalized in the original version). Grêle is a deliberate paradox, as in 4.9, above.

43. In flaireuse Césaire uses a favorite device of creating epithets whose role is performative ("flaireuse d'une nouvelle naissance"). For another example in this poem, see line 27, "main épeleuse de graines."

44. In Haiti, where Vodun is a vital religion, mystère designates a spirit capable of possessing a devotee (see Rigaud 1969, pp. 44-45). The plural "loa," which I have used in my translation, is a Haitian synonym, of Dahomean origin, for the Vodun pantheon (see Métraux 1959, pp. 100-119). Note the echo of naissance and aisance in lines 43-44.

46. Bainbridge was the old name of the fort near Pointe-è-Pitre, where Ignatius made his last stand with a troop of over six hundred blacks. The event presaged the sacrifice at Matouba and in a sense determined it, because a successful repulsion of the French here would have enabled Ignatius to rejoin Delgrès at the main fortification. (See Saint-Ruf 1965, pp. 122-25; Bangou 1962, pp. 266-84.)

55. Constantine Pass is located near the confluence of the Noire and St. Louis rivers. Césaire respects geographical precision as an essential part of his memorializing of heroic action. To pronounce the place names is to rescue them from oblivion.

57. Richepanse was the general in charge of the French expeditionary forces; his conduct in Guadeloupe was marked by unusual cruelty and duplicity. Not the least of his atrocities was the massacre of the black women who had aided the rebels. (Saint-Ruf 1965, pp. 131-38).

60. "Exode" is the formal term in Greek drama for the ode that accompanies the final departure of the chorus (exodion, symmetrical with the opening parodos). Césaire thus consciously draws attention to the analogy between his lyric eulogy and the Greek choral ode. In terms of the poem's structure, the mention of the exode prepares the reader for the coming narration of the catastrophe. Césaire has also alluded to the conventions of Greek tragedy in his poetic dramas La Tragédie du roi Christophe and Et les chiens se taisaient.

63 - 65. On the symbolism of "l'épais filet de l'air," see the comment on line 20, above. The allegorical bestiary that follows contrasts the insurgent black troops (the rearing horses) with the white French Army of Richepanse (the gigantic octopus). The chevaux cabrés have a parallel in 7.3, above.

70 - 73. The inverted word order in these lines is a prime example of the bending of French syntax of which Césaire is fond. Part of his purpose is to impart to his word order some of the mobility of a more highly inflected language. Ombre here may retain its eschatological meaning "shade of the dead" (Latin umbra); the devouring insect is a tropical variant of the conventional metaphor of "devouring Time" (see Shakespeare's Sonnet 19).

75 - 77. The revolt against slavery, admirably expressed in the gesture of refusing to work in the infernal boiling-house of a sugar estate, assumes a metaphysical aspect when it is extended to time ("la grande cuve de temps"). The expansion of the hero into a titanic figure who opposes fate is implicit in the capitalized titles in line 74 (cf. 8.5-7, above).

80. The trope of the revolutionary warrior as an ember (see poem 4, above) is here attached to an exemplary historical personage.

82 - 95. The sequence of wishes introduced by je veux (lines 82, 84, 86, 90, and, elliptically, 93) imparts a modulation of prayer to this penultimate section. The irruption of a verse that is no longer metrically free at this point emphasizes the liturgical quality and sets the stage for the epiphany of the new numen in lines 96-101.

86. In the French Antilles an armed conquistador is a favorite subject of memorial statues in public squares, such as the famous savane (large square) of Fort-de-France. The reversal of the conquistador and the world he represents is symbolically important in a poem that strives to erect a new monument. Compare Césaire's comment about Wilfredo Lam (1945b)—"he halts the gesture of the conquistador"—and Cahier, p. 43.

90 - 92. On the imagery of this passage, Césaire has commented: "The waves roll in from the edge of the horizon, upon the island. The children, the little black children, with a plank take advantage of the billow, take over the obstacle. They surf, and the wave brings them to land. You see the little heads that emerge, as they arrive at the crest of the wave. For me, this constitutes a symbol of the vitality of a people, always at the crest of a wave." (Césaire 1960, p. 23.) A transcendence of cultural shipwreck is, therefore, the fundamental meaning of the wish expressed here. Désenlisant is apparently a coinage designed to convey the reverse of sinking into a morass.

93 - 95. Borrowing once again from the domain of sugar production, the poet imagines the bagasse (crushed cane stalks) as mysteriously resurrected, like the Egyptian vegetation deity Osiris. The neologism fripure probably derives from the verb friper (crush). Coulure, which is cognate with couler (flow), has an agricultural connotation of "failure" (e.g. when flowers or fruit fall through lack of fertilization). We are not, however, men to visualize coulure in too precise a sense, since sugarcane is normally planted from cuttings.

96 - 99. With voici, the martyr begins to be transfigured into a resurrection god. Césaire fuses mythological figures from ancient Egypt (Osiris) and Greece (Dionysos, who is immanent in the lifeblood of man, flowing water, and the sap in plants). The explicit allusion to Icarus, son of Daedalus, whose attempt to fly was unsuccessful, seems to hint at the historical failure of the rebellion—a military failure compensated by a spiritual triumph.

101. Delgrès now appears in a cosmic role as a kind of Promethean demiurge. Mangrove swamps (mangliers) are an appropriate location for such a re-creation of man because ecologically they emerge at the interface where land is being slowly reconstituted from seashore.

104. Like Isis rescuing the limbs of the murdered Osiris from the marshes of the Nile Delta, the poet gathers up the name of the lost hero. Compare the extensive use of the Isis-Osiris legend in poem 13, below.

Reading Césaire

Gregson Davis discussing Aimé Césaire and reading selected poems from the book Non-Vicious Circle.