I. THEIR BASIC SAVAGERY

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
A deep rolling bass.
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.
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
A rapidly piling climax of speed & racket.
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,
Bing.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
With a philosophic pause.
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
Torch-eyed and horrible,
Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
HOO, HOO, HOO.
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Like the wind in the chimney.
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,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
All the “O” sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.
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.”

II. THEIR IRREPRESSIBLE HIGH SPIRITS

Wild crap-shooters with a whoop and a call
Rather shrill and high.
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.
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
Read exactly as in first section.
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
A negro fairyland swung into view,
Lay emphasis on the delicate ideas. Keep as light-footed as possible.
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.

A troupe of skull-faced witch-men came
With pomposity.
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.
But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throng
With a great deliberation & ghostliness.
With a stern cold glare, and a stern old song: —
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.” …
Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,
With overwhelming assurance, good cheer, and pomp.
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.
And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,
With growing speed and sharply marked dance-rhythm
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,”
While the witch-men laughed, with a sinister air,
With a touch of negro dialect, and as rapidly as possible toward the end.
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,
BOOM.”
Oh rare was the revel, and well worth while
Slow philosophic calm.
That made those glowering witch-men smile.

III. THE HOPE OF THEIR RELIGION

A good old negro in the slums of the town
Heavy bass. With a literal imitation of camp-meeting racket, and trance.
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.”
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
Exactly as in the first section. Begin with terror and power, end with joy.
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
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: —
“Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
Sung to the tune of “Hark, ten thousand harps and voices.”
Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you.”

Then along that river, a thousand miles
With growing deliberation and joy.
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.
There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
In a rather high key — as delicately as possible.
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: —
“Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
To the tune of “Hark, ten thousand harps and voices.”
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: —
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper.
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Mumbo … Jumbo … will … hoo-doo … you.”

Analysis, meaning and summary of Vachel Lindsay's poem The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race

18 Comments

  1. nate says:

    this is offesive

  2. Otto says:

    “Years later I managed to get an LP of Linday reciting his poems, from Caedmon Records, which is out of business, I think.”

    Caedmon is still in business (a HarperCollins imprint), but they have not reissued TC 1041, which is unfortunate. Nicholas Cave Lindsay *also* recorded “The Congo” for Caedmon, TC 1216. I have not heard the latter, but it would likely be an interesting comparison.

  3. Laurist says:

    i do really need to understand it please analyze it part by part for me coz im a third year high school and i don’t that much good in english so far specially in this kind of poem please help me to understand it… kindly please send me e-mail

  4. Vilma Lagdameo says:

    I read the comments and I am struck by the diversity of the understanding of “The Congo”. I find this poem so very beautiful, that it hurts to think of some people reading racism and such into it. It will always be my favorite no matter what negative ideas some people might read into it. Vilma

  5. Amy Hoffman says:

    I made an embarassing typo. It was not a photograph record, it was a PHONOGRAPH record!! of Lindsay reading his poetry…

  6. Amy Hoffman says:

    My mother, who was born in 1924, was of a generation that had to memorize poetry in school. Ma often recited “The Congo”, usually while washing dishes. She said when she went to high school, the school had photograph records of Lindsay reciting this poem and many kids were very taken with it! Years later I managed to get an LP of Linday reciting his poems, from Caedmon Records, which is out of business, I think. One does need to HEAR how Lindsay recited, in order to do it right. We kids all learned The Congo too. I wish I still had that recording but at times I wound up homeless and losing everything, including the record, but at least I have The Congo in memory.

  7. Kayla says:

    Hello I’m doing a speech on peotry and I have to read something. When I came across Vacheal Lindsey’s poem, The Congo- It in inspired me so much. It touched me, by the way eery detail is explained. I really love this peome

  8. Hailey says:

    hello! i am doing a poetry ringo assignment in my language class and you are one of the authors who’s poems we have to find!! i love poetry and write it whenever i can!

  9. ED says:

    No doubt a curious coincidence, but in places the meter of the poem sounds a great deal like modern hip-hop or rap…

  10. gladstone wadsworth says:

    It might be unwitting on the part of Lindsay, but his poem is racially offensive. It stereotypes ‘Congo, King of the Jungle’ and ‘mumbo jumbo’ as scary and incomprehensible African stuff. That’s why http://www.the-latest.com has taken the case up with Finland’s Ombudsman for Minorities, Mikko Puumalainen, after a senior Finnish minister Antti Kalliomaki quoted the poem in parliament and caused offence. Mr Puumalainen wrote to Finance Minister Kalliomaki and got an assurance from him that he did not intend to insult Black people and he would not use the same words again.

  11. Linda says:

    What a very small world this is, full of coincidences. I was checking out aerial views of my family’s houses and I have a sister who is an English professor who lives in Springfield. I noticed that they named the streets after authors at the U of Illinois, so I looked up Vachel Linsdsey, not remembering what he was famous for and there it was : The Congo! I read that poem to my sister when she was maybe 4 years old and she learned it (probably one of her reasons for becoming an English professor). We lived in the East Village in New York in an apartment four flights up. Who would have thought she’d end up in Springfield! Guess we come full circle. Still a memorable piece.

  12. Jack says:

    Blacks and Africans can’t claim this one as their own. Lindsay mightn’t have intended it to be so, but he’s captured the human race and human history in his words. We’ve all butchered, tortured and enslaved one another all the way down our long trail of blood.

    It’s a human thing.

    Jack

  13. S.P. says:

    What do people think about the social racism of this piece? The popularization of Europeans spotlighting African People or People of Colour at this time period? Is there anything to learn? Or is it redeemable in light of the time period? An incredible poetic piece, but difficult in the narrative position of authoriship. And Jerry, are you really from the Congo?

  14. Regina says:

    My father introduced me to this poem 50+ years ago. He was a lover of jazz and people of all colors. I can still recite portions from memory. Perceptions change and remain the same over the years. A recent reading of The Poisinwood Bible sent me in search of this poem and cultural thought once more. Lots to ponder and learn. Regina

  15. Megan says:

    it would probably be a good idea to put parenthesis around the “actions” or possible italics. that is an excellent poem, but there’s nothing to differentiate the actual poem from the “directions”.

  16. jerry says:

    i love vachel, and blacks

  17. David says:

    I like the poem, but it’s not what it seems. You have to really understand American popular culture of the day and American history from 1865 to 1915 to get a grasp of what Lindsay is saying.

  18. stephanie says:

    it may not be politically correct, but I read this poem in high school (30+ years ago) – and can recite pieces of it to this day. A veritable tour de force in my opinion

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