Cultural differences: the theme of identity as explored in the poem Jardin de France

Calme jardin

Grave jardin

Jardin aux yeux baissés au soir

Pour la nuit

Peines et rumeurs

Toutes les angoisses, bruissantes de la Ville

Arrivent jusqu’à moi, glissant sur les toits lisses

Arrivent à la fenêtre

Penchée tamisées par feuilles menues et tendres et pensives

 

Mains blanches

Gestes delicats

Gestes apaisants

 

Mais l’appel du tam-tam

          bondissant,

                   par monts

                             et

                             continents

 

Qui l’apaisera, mon cœur

A l’appel du tam-tam

         bondissant

                  vehément,

                                lancinant?

                                                                                                Léopold Sédar Senghor

 

Translation:

 

Calm garden

Serious garden

Garden with eyes lowered to the evening

For the night

Pain and murmurs

All the anguish, murmuring in the Town

Almost coming to me, sliding on smooth roofs

They arrive at the window

Leaning over, filtered through minute and tender and thoughtful leaves

White hands

Delicate gestures

Appeasing gestures

But the call of the tam-tam

leaping

over mountains

and

continents

Who will appease my heart,

Who has the call of the tam-tam

jumping

          vehemently,

                   throbbing?
I’ve never really been into poetry and it’s extremely rare that I will find a poem interesting, let alone inspiring. However, when I read the poem Jardin de France in Grade 12 French class, it completely changed my take on poetry. It had a very profound effect on me and has since become one of my favourite pieces of writing.

Written by prolific Senegalese writer, poet and politician, the late Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), Jardin de France is a simple yet engaging poem about identity. To avoid this sounding like a lecture, I won’t go into an in-depth analysis of the poem but rather just discuss why it spoke to me so much.

First, a little bit of background on the man behind Jardin de France. Senegal’s first President lived a long and fascinating life.  Born and raised in Joal near Dakar, Senegal, Senghor was a bright and curious scholar who excelled at the study of language and literature. He won a scholarship to study in Paris, France where he completed his tertiary education in French grammar and literature. It was in Paris where he met his close friend and fellow student, Aimé Césaire. Together they developed and asserted the notion of “négritude” (the idea that black culture needs no validation from any other cultural group. It exists and is valid in its own right). This is essentially what Jardin de France and many of his other literary works are about.  Learn more about Senghor’s remarkable life story and political career at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/leopold-sedar-senghor.

As I mentioned, Jardin de France is about identity and more specifically about the poet’s newly-acquired double identity. The garden imagery in the first half of the poem gives the reader a sense of the tranquility – albeit marred by anguish and struggle at times – of the poet’s life in France. This is in direct contrast with the second half of the poem which has a decidedly different tone. The metaphor of the “tam-tam” drum introduced in verse 13 represents the poet’s country of origin and is used to demonstrate the restlessness of his heart as well as his ‘Africanness’ bubbling beneath the surface. The last two stanzas are also deliberately structured in such a way as to illustrate the space and freedom of Africa while changing the rhythm of the poem to that of a drum beat. Senghor had been instructed in the ways of the European and had, to some degree, become assimilated into French society, but his heart would always beat African and he longed for the freedom and vibrancy of his continent. The poem is essentially a juxtaposition of the calm image the poet projects to the world as that of a refined gentleman against the tumult he feels within at being away from the motherland.

Jardin de France explores the theme of identity in a simple yet beautifully poignant manner. The poet, though calm on the surface, felt confined and constricted perhaps because he felt he could not truly be himself amongst the Europeans.  His two personalities were at odds with each other which caused him to experience this identity crisis of sorts. This really resonated with me because there are times when I often feel as if I don’t really fit within any cultural grouping. I was born in the United Kingdom to Zambian parents but I didn’t grow up in either place. I am proud of my heritage as it will always be a big part of who I am and I feel a deep spiritual connection to both my country of origin and country of birth. Nevertheless, I also feel it is somewhat unfortunate that I cannot say I have experienced any kind of longing for a place I could call home. I believe this why I was so taken by this poem which is a powerful expression of patriotism and nostalgia.

There is no doubt that having a strong sense of identity means a lot to us as human beings and plays a significant role in shaping many of our desires and goals for the future. Moreover, feeling as if we have lost our sense of self can have some devastating effects on the psyche as this poem so amazingly illustrates. Reading up on Senghor’s background and the notion of négritude also made me appreciate it that much more. I found it to be an insightful  literary work with a simple yet profound message about identity.

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