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THE CONGO by Vachel Lindsay

An Analysis of the Poem

Anna-Lena Steiner

on 19 December 2013

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Transcript of THE CONGO by Vachel Lindsay

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,

*A deep rolling bass.*

Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.

*More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.*


Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song

*A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket.*

And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
And “BLOOD” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
“BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
“Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”

With a philosophic pause*

A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,

*Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.*

Torch-eyed and horrible,
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,

*Like the wind in the chimney.*

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
Blown past the white-ants’ hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: -
“Be careful what you do,

*All the o sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.*

Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”


*Rather shrill and high*

Wild crap-shooters with a whoop and a call
Danced the juba in their gambling-hall
And laughed fit to kill, and shook the town,
And guyed the policemen and laughed them down
With a boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

*Exactly as in the first section.*


*Lay emphasis on the delicate ideas. Keep as light-footed as possible.*

A negro fairyland swung into view,
A minstrel river
Where dreams come true.
The ebony palace soared on high
Through the blossoming trees to the evening sky.
The inlaid porches and casements shone
With gold and ivory and elephant-bone.
And the black crowd laughed till their sides were sore
At the baboon butler in the agate door,
And the well-known tunes of the parrot band
That trilled on the bushes of that magic land.

First word of each part represents a theme for the part, in this case “Fat” representing “Body”, which the style and syntax of the first part reflects.
Represents a shift in both setting and attitude, perhaps view of the speaker. He “cannot turn from their revel in derision,” perhaps as other colonists do, because he sees them through the lens of the congo.
First Stanza of every part is viewed in a city, or some colonist civilization.
”Silk umbrellas and the handle of a broom”, symbolizing wealth and trade, however the manner in which they use them are not the way colonists think such wealth should be used, perhaps an analogy for how colonists view the wealth in their country.

“Black bucks” = alliteration brings attention to the phrasing saying how they could be "less than human" to the colonists
'Golden track' could be the colonists coming up the river. Phrasing the river as "golden" can mean either the wealth seen my colonists or as the home it is to the tribes.
Trade and tools being used for a gong instead of a cooking utensil.

Repeated throughout poem (adds to drumlike rhythm and separates the various sections)
"The boom of the blood lust song" in a different setting, like the pounding on a table, which becomes a “thigh bone beating on a tin-pan gong.”

*With pomposity.*

A troupe of skull-faced witch-men came
Through the agate doorway in suits of flame,
Yea, long-tailed coats with a gold-leaf crust
And hats that were covered with diamond-dust.
And the crowd in the court gave a whoop and a call
And danced the juba from wall to wall.

*With great deliberation and ghostliness.*

But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throng
With a stern cold glare, and a stern old song: —
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.” ...

*With overwhelming assurance, good cheer, and pomp.*

Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,
Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,
Canes with a brilliant lacquer shine,
And tall silk hats that were red as wine.

*With growing speed and sharply marked dance-rhythm.*

And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,
Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair,
Knee-skirts trimmed with the jassamine sweet,
And bells on their ankles and little black-feet.
And the couples railed at the chant and the frown
Of the witch-men lean, and laughed them down.
(O rare was the revel, and well worth while
That made those glowering witch-men smile.)
The cake-walk royalty then began
To walk for a cake that was tall as a man
To the tune of “Boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”

*With a touch of negro dialect, and as rapidly as possible toward the end.*

While the witch-men laughed, with a sinister air,
And sang with the scalawags prancing there: —
“Walk with care, walk with care,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Beware, beware, walk with care,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay,

*Slow philosophic calm.*

Oh rare was the revel, and well worth while
That made those glowering witch-men smile.


*Heavy bass. With a literal imitation of camp-meeting racket, and trance.*

A good old negro in the slums of the town
Preached at a sister for her velvet gown.
Howled at a brother for his low-down ways,
His prowling, guzzling, sneak-thief days.
Beat on the Bible till he wore it out
Starting the jubilee revival shout.
And some had visions, as they stood on chairs,
And sang of Jacob, and the golden stairs,
And they all repented, a thousand strong
From their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong
And slammed with their hymn books till they shook the room
With “glory, glory, glory,”
And “Boom, boom, BOOM.”

*Exactly as in the first section. Begin with terror and power, end with joy.*


And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the apostles with their coats of mail.
In bright white steel they were seated round
And their fire-eyes watched where the Congo wound.
And the twelve Apostles, from their thrones on high
Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry: —

*Sang to the tune of “Hark, ten thousand harps and voices”.*

“Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you.”

*With growing deliberation and joy.*

Then along that river, a thousand miles
The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
Pioneer angels cleared the way
For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.

*In a rather high key -- as delicately as possible.*

There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
A million boats of the angels sailed
With oars of silver, and prows of blue
And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
’Twas a land transfigured, ’twas a new creation.
Oh, a singing wind swept the negro nation
And on through the backwoods clearing flew: --

*To the tune of “Hark, ten thousand harps and voices”.*

“Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.

Redeemed were the forests, the beasts and the men,
And only the vulture dared again
By the far, lone mountains of the moon
To cry, in the silence, the Congo tune:--

*Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper.*

“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Mumbo ... Jumbo ... will ... hoo-doo ... you.”
"BLOOD" repeated with the same rhythm and emphasis as “BOOM”, a rhythmic chant.

The “Elephant” of death tramples through their lands, “Torch eyed and terrible,” killing all those who reside in their territory.
Elephants in the
room? Elephants mourn their dead, even
burying them.
These people could have been the investors and owners associated with the successful diamond mines being operated in this area.
Parallelism to add emphasis and highlight an important idea.
Whole stanza rhymes in couplets, until “All of the other/Gods of the congo.” to show situational shift.
'Fairyland ... where dreams come true.' A
happy, beautiful place
'Mouth of the Congo to the Mountains of the moon' is what their territory encompasses.
'Rag-time tune' rag-time was popular just before the first world war, a high point in american culture, this is their high point
‘Harry the uplands, Steal all the cattle’ describing how they will harass the colonists
who are on their land
What they will do to anyone who encroaches on their territory
King Leopold II of Belgium was the sole “owner” of the congo free state from 1885 to 1908. Tasked with improving the lives of the inhabitants he instead exploited
the area for his own personal gain. He was known for cutting off the hands of those who failed to meet production quotas.

Points out that the white men see the tribes men as thinking they themselves are gods when in reality they, like the christians, see themselves as acting for a god, not as a god.
It is estimated that 50% of the population of The Congo Free state died during his rule.

Again, The first Stanza is set in a city or some colonist settlement, which is once more shifted with the viewpoint , through “THEN I SAW…”

The first word, “Wild” represents the spirit, which is a theme for the rest of the part.
Elephant imagery (ivory/ elephant-bone) could be seen as a throwback to previous times and to illustrate the change of situation
Another section of rhyming couplets. a simple rhyme scheme can be seen in many chants showing the possibility that they have not entirely lost their roots
The Congo
Vachel Lindsay
A note on the reading comments- Lindsay thought the most important part of poetry was performance, and so wrote instructions on how each part of his work should be read.
Repetition of the ancient rhythms, reinforcing the witch-men as being of the older culture native to the congo.
Suddenly we are once again in The Congo, after the view of the people is changed in the mind of the speaker, seeing their behaviour, strange to a colonist, perfectly natural in their own lands and culture. The situation changes our perception of the word "golden"
'Ebony... Gold... ivory and elephant-bone...agate' Their land is

The juba is a traditional African form of dancing, at this point their culture is still present to some degree
Aristocracy and blunt social classes
Some of them are diamond miners
Even though they are labourers they don’t
care and party
Walking for a cake as tall as a man is
thoroughly ridiculous showing that they don’t
care about reality
Tying the old rhythms to the new senseless
The witch-men try to remind the people of
their old traditions and culture
More rhyming couplets bringing us back to the original rhythm of the poem. Aww yis, dat shift.
The witchmen are amused at the “Scalawags’” idea that they can ignore their culture and no bad will come of it.
The Cake-walk princes walk in and provide joy and revel, presenting a new way to exist, to ignore the rules of their culture, the ancient rules that kept them
in line
“Cakewalk princes” get everything handed to them, did not work for wealth, just walked in and took it.
The witch-men are going along with it but
know everyone is doing the wrong thing.
The witch-men are not in the best interests of the people; they find joy thinking that something bad is going to happen to them
Here, once more the first word, “Good”, represents how religion is viewed, and the tone for the rest of the 3rd part. Again, the first Stanza is set in a city or colonist establishment.
Starting to adopt Christianity as their religion, and now convinced that their old way of life was “wrong”, “... they all repented, a thousand strong/from their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong”
Jacob and the golden stairs is a biblical reference
Jacob is walking on a journey when God appears from the heavens atop a golden set of stairs, and says " the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants"
- Gen 28:12
Now christianity is tied to the old rhythms
The 'apostles,' uncapitalized, are not the real Apostles, they are colonists
Once again, for the last time, there is a shift from setting and viewpoint, however that change now is different because the degree of difference has gotten smaller. Now they fit in colonist society, and with the jungle falling, so disappears the place where their old culture and spirit and religion was natural and at home.
Here, “Apostles” is capitalized as the Apostles in christianity, bringing what they claim to be endless and infallible “Good” (note the first word once more) to the people of the congo with the colonist society.

Affirms religion/culture WILL die to Christianity
Cutting down jungle in order for there to be immigration, and the fallen trees become a symbol for fallen culture.
The “Congo paradise” is a paradise as viewed by a new culture, unlike the “Congo Paradise” depicted earlier, this is different and unnatural.
’Capitals’ as in money
More rhyming couplets
The people are so convinced this is going to be a good thing for them
“Hark, Ten Thousand Harps and Voices” is a Christian hymn that speaks of Jesus sitting on “yonder throne” as the one ruler and mentions that the Earth will pass away for the “golden harps” to play rejoicing the “new found king”. Although in the context of the hymn it refers to Jesus being the Christian ruler of both heaven and Earth, in the context of this poem one could say that Leopold is thinking of himself as noble being the “ new found king” in this situation.
Affirms religion/culture IS dead to Christianity
More rhyming couplets
The Vulture, in African culture is a symbol of nurturing and love, however in Western and European culture it is a symbol of death and opportunistic plundering.

’Mountains of the moon’ was the far limit of
their territory
A point possibly being made about the lack of scientific understanding of the tribe.
Vulture represents what remains of their culture (also the vulture is commonly portrayed as being closely associated with death/graveyards/etc.)
This is the "The Hope of Their Religion" from the title
Full transcript