Skip to content

Aimé Césaire and the revolutionary power of language

Au bout du petit matin…

At the brink of dawn…

So begins Aimé Césaire’s wonderful 1939 Cahier d’un retour au pays natal/Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, described by Andre Breton as ‘nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of this time’. Césaire, writer and politician, was born in 1913 in Martinique and died in 2008. He was one of the founders of Negritude, the international black consciousness movement that challenged colonialism and racial inferiority. Césaire served as mayor of the Martinique capital and was a deputy in France’s National Assembly almost continuously for five decades.  Césaire has been described as ‘perhaps the greatest poet of the anti-colonial movement’.

For those like me whose school French is now diabolical there is a Mireille Rosello and Annie Pritchard’s inspired translation in Bloodaxe publishers’ French-English bilingual edition.

Long summer days are the best for reading Césaire’s Notebook. But Césaire’s poem is no soft, complacent, honeyed read, for all its evocative lyricism:

Au bout du petit matin…
Va-t-en, lui disais-je, gueule de flic….

At the brink of dawn…
Get lost I said you cop face….

Césaire’s poem demands we shake off our lethargy and confront the disaster of European colonialism:

Au bout du petit matin bourgeonnant d’anêses freles les Antilles qui on faim, les Antilles grêlées de petite vérole…

At the brink of dawn budding with frail creeks, the hungry West Indies, the West Indies pockpitted with smallpox…

Césaire, as one of the leaders of the Negritude movement, seeks to awaken the revolutionary power of language. Words matter to Césaire:

Des mots? Quand nous manions des quartiers de monde, quand nour épousons des continents en délire, quand nous forçons de fumantes portes, des mots, ah oui, des mots! Mais des mots de sang frais, des mots qui sont des raz-de-marée et des érésipèles et des paludismes et et des laves et des feux de brousse…

Words? As we handle quarters of the world, as we marry delirious continents, as we break down steaming doors, words, oh yes, words! But words of fresh blood, words which are tidal waves and erysipelas and malarias and lavas and bush-fires…

Poetic experimentation – fusing the idioms of Césaire’s birthplace and literary French, coining new words, conjuring surrealist images, and reversing traditional metaphors – envisages new ways of speaking and being. White becomes the colour of evil, of death, of the white snow that imprisons Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the 1790s’ Haitian slave revolt against the French colonial power where ‘negritude stood up for the first time and said it believed  in its humanity’:

Au bout du petit matin, cette ville plate – étalée…
Elle rampe sur les main sans jamais aucune envie de vriller
le ciel d’une stature de protestation…

At the brink of dawn, this flat town – staked out,
It crawls on its hands with never any impulse to pierce the sky
with a posture of protest…

Césaire’s poem was heralded by Breton as renewing the French language and renewing the exhausted war-torn European culture against ‘the general abdication of the spirit’. As such Cesaire was not only the poet of the anti-colonial movement, but a poet offering humanity an inspired vision after the barbarity of world war.

For while the poem is entitled a Notebook of a Return, Césaire’s poem is no celebration of return to the past, but a humanist aspiration for the future:

car il n’est point vrai que l’œuvre de l’homme est finie
que nous n’avons rien á faire au monde
qu’il suffit que nous nous mettions au pas du monde
mais l’œuvre de l’homme vient seulement de commencer…

for it is not true that man’s work is completed
that we have nothing to do in the world
that we parasite the world
that all we need is to walk in step with the world
but man’s work has only begun…

Césaire’s Notebook has attracted detailed commentaries. But it is best simply to immerse oneself in the poem. So swim this summer in Césaire’s purging words and ‘rediscover the secret of great communications’.

Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance, which includes a discussion of Césaire on Negritude and anti-colonial ideas.

Published inBallots & Books


  1. I and my pals have already been examining the excellent recommendations located
    on the blog and all of the sudden I had a terrible suspicion
    I never expressed respect to the web site owner for those strategies.

    All of the women had been as a result joyful to read through them and now have quite simply been
    loving those things. Thank you for simply being well kind and for finding some
    superb things most people are really desperate to be aware
    of. My very own sincere apologies for not saying thanks to you earlier.

  2. Remarkable difficulties in this article. I am very content to peer your post. Many thanks using this program . looking to touch people. Can you be sure to decline me a e-mail?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.