Vanity Analyzed – Subject Matter, Themes & Poetic Devices

Reading Time: 7 minutes

So you want Birago Diop’s poem Vanity analyzed for your easy understanding, right?

Then you have done well to visit this site. Because you will not be disappointed.

This tutorial is all about a detailed analysis of Vanity, a poem by the Senegalese poet, Birago Diop.

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Please click here to view the full text of the poem Vanity.

A Summary of the Poem Vanity

Let’s start with the gist of the subject matter of Vanity.

In Birago Diop’s poem Vanity, the persona laments bitterly over the failure of his compatriots to honour the ancestors.

To him,this stubborn attitude of the living is regrettable. He asserts that this is what has brought about the unfortunate situation where Africans are left without the much needed spiritual support from their ancestors.

Thus, the many problems that continue to bedevil the continent of Africa and its people are traceable to this grievous error on the part of the living.

To the poet, therefore, the living deserve all the difficulties they suffer. They are rightfully reaping the fruits of the contemptuous treatment they continue to mete out to the dead.

The Subject Matter of Vanity

I am now going to show you the meanings of each of the six stanzas of the poem Vanity by Birago Diop.

Stanza One

Since Africans have decided to ignore the wisdom and values of their ancestors , they deserve the rejection they get in return.

Stanza Two

Not even cries of pain nor the pleas for attention will attract any form of sympathy from the dead whom the living have wronged.

Stanza Three

The living may go further to turn their cries and their pleas into anger but this will have not effect on the resolve of the ancestors to reject them.

Stanza Four

Once, the Dead too cried out, appealing to the living to listen to their voice. But the living ignored them. Therefore, the dead are justified to turn their deaf ears to the clamouring of the living.

Stanza Five

The ancestors have bequeathed the living with many valuable legacies. These can be seen everywhere in the African environment.

Unfortunately, their persistent calls on the living to appreciate these and honour them have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, the living have paid them back with ingratitude and disrespect.

Stanza Six

The sixth and last stanza of the poem Vanity makes a concluding statement on all that the persona has been saying through the preceding five stanzas:

In brief, there is no way the aggrieved ancestors are going to listen to the cries for mercy coming from the living.

In essence, therefore, cries or words alone, without concrete action will never stop the dead from abandoning the living.

Themes of the Poem Vanity

There are many ways to state the themes of Birago Diop’s poem Vanity. I have chosen to draw your attention to the most important ones.

  • The theme of the consequences of irreverence towards the ancestors (or of the consequences of the African’s abandonment of his culture)

It is clear from the persona’s argument that the main cause of the problems facing Africa is the people’s failure to revere their ancestors and honour their culture.

For that matter, the vain attempts being made by the living to win the sympathy of the ancestors amount to nothing other than scratching the surface of a deep-rooted problem.

The poet is suggesting that only a return to Africa’s cultural roots will save the continent from its troubles.

But as things stand now, the living have lost the much needed spiritual support from the Dead. In fact, the Dead, disappointed by the behaviour of the living, have chosen not only to ignore their pleas but also to treat such with utmost contempt.

In the persona’s tone is a lingering concern for the future of his people. He blames their uncooperative attitude toward the ancestors for the woes of the continent.

The persona is sounding a serious note of warning to the living: the power to change the destiny of this continent or to destroy it is in your own hands. Do right by your time-honoured traditions and everything will turn out just fine.

On the other hand, keep on disrespecting the ancestors and desecrating the symbols of your culture and you will continue to suffer the dire consequences.

This clearly attests to the fact that Birago Diop, as a poet, is a product of the negritude movement of his day.

Other Themes in the Poem

I am happy to give you this list of possible ways of stating the theme of Vanity.

Do not forget that the folks at WAEC enjoy twisting the same repeated questions in different forms just to trick you the candidate.

I want you to be able to confidently write your essay on the poem Vanity, whichever way the question is put.

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The theme of …

  • The hollowness or emptiness (the vanity) of the cries and pleas of an ungrateful people. The folly in words without action.
  • The collapse (or relegation to the background) of African traditional norms and values caused by the onslaught of western European civilization.  
  • The omnipresence and permanence of the ancestors.
  • The belief in the power of the ancestors to shape the destiny of the living.

The above also relates to the theme of superstition – whatever problems the continent of Africa may be facing are believed to be a direct punishment coming from the aggrieved ancestors.

Therefore, the solution to these problems can be found in honouring the spirits of the dead.

  • A call for a return to the old ways. In order to overcome their current difficulties, Africans must go back to their roots.
  • Pain and misery brought about by the blatant disregard for the central role the ancestors play in the affairs of the living.
  • The ancestors’ neglect or rejection of the living due to the latter’s stubbornness.
  • The precedence of action over mere rhetoric. Put differently, actions speak louder than words.
  • The theme of reciprocity – you get back what you do to others.

What goes around comes around. The ancestors are just paying the living in their own coins.

They were the ones that first cried out unsuccessfully to the living to heed their voice. Now is the turn of the living to taste the pain of rejection.

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The Poet’s Mood/Tone/Attitude

The persona is in a reflective mood. He is deeply worried about the plight of his people.

Also, his feeling of nostalgia – a longing for a past where the living revered the dead and got their support in return – dominates the whole poem.

His tone or attitude is critical, filled with scorn and regret toward the people who, by their own making, have brought suffering upon themselves.

These are depicted in the repetitive rhetorical questions that run through the entire length of the poem.

Who then will hear our voices without laughter

Sad complaining voices of beggars

Who indeed will hear them without laughter?

Poetic Devices

We are now going to turn our attention to how the poet employs various poetic devices to convey his thoughts to his audience.

Birago Diop’s Vanity is a poem that successfully makes use of many well-known poetic devices to develop the themes that matter to the poet.

I am about to help you to figure out how to write about any one of these literary techniques in the poem.

Let’s begin with the use of diction and imagery in the poem Vanity.

1. Diction and Imagery

Generally, the poet’s diction is quite simple and easy to understand. The sentences and other constructions are normal mainstream ones. These make the poem quite enjoyable.

If we tell, gently, gently,
All that we shall one day have to tell,
Who then will hear our voices without laughter,
Sad, complaining voices of beggars,
Who indeed will hear them without laughter?

Furthermore, the images that the poet evokes in Vanity help in our easy appreciation of the themes they convey to us.

Appropriate words and expressions as well as other literary devices are the vehicle through which the poet places these images before our mind’s eye.

Let us take a quick look at examples of diction (the poet’s choice of words) in Vanity.

Images of helplessness, pain, discomfort and misery

Specific words and expressions that effectively paint these images include the following.









Sobbing hearts

Tumor (in the simile “… our pitiful anger/Which grows in us like a tumor”)

Images of the stubborn, irreverent attitude of the living toward the Dead



Unworthy sons

Images of the immense power and omnipresence of the ancestors



Traced their signs

Images of contempt.

These convey to us the poet’s critical tone and attitude toward his people.

Again, the poet reveals his sarcastic tone, any time he refers to the living, by making use of these words and expressions, sometimes more than once.  



Large mouths

Laughter of big children

Pitiful anger

Unworthy sons

2. Repetition

Like everywhere else in poetry, repetition is used here to emphasize the seriousness the persona attaches to the issues he raises.

In Vanity, however, the use of repetition is quite extensive.

Look at these examples:




Large mouths





Gently, gently

Just as our ears were deaf

In the air, on the water

3. Parallelism

The poet’s repetitive use of parallel grammatical structures succeeds in helping us enjoy the flow of his thoughts. It also makes it possible for us to follow his line of argument with relative ease.

Significantly, parallelism in Vanity reinforces the deep sense of urgency the poet attaches to the African situation.

Examples of parallelism in the poem Vanity:

To their cries, to their wild appeals

In the air, on the water

4. Synecdoche

What eyes will watch our large mouths?

What hearts will listen to our clamouring?

What ear to our sobbing hearts?

In the above lines, the poet refers to people by mentioning only parts of the human body – eyes, hearts, ear.

5. Apostrophe and Monologue

The persona appears to be addressing an audience that is not directly in his presence. This is what the literary device known as apostrophe is all about.

And since his audience is only imaginary, the whole poem becomes a monologue – a one-person conversation.

The poet’s use of such personal pronouns as we, our, their portrays the poem as both an apostrophe and a monologue.

These are effective in making the tone of the poem interactive.

6. Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question is used when a speaker poses a question without expecting any response from the audience.

The poet makes copious use of the rhetorical question in the poem Vanity. They largely go to underline the persona’s reflective mood and his concerned attitude or tone.

Examples of the use of rhetorical question in Vanity are:

Who then will hear our voices without laughter

Sad complaining voices of beggars

Who indeed will hear them without laughter?

What eyes will watch our large mouths?

What hearts will listen to our clamouring?

What ear to our sobbing hearts?

Appropriateness of the Title, Vanity

The title of the poem Vanity by Birago Diop is, to a very large extent, very appropriate.

Looking at the meaning of the word vanity, we can rightly say that it is the best choice for a title of this poem.

We must not forget that the poem Vanity’s central theme is the futility of the cries of a stubborn and irreverent people to the same ancestors they have wronged so badly.

Likely Examination Questions on the Poem Vanity

  • Comment on the poet’s use of repetition in Birago Diop’s Vanity
  • Discuss the theme of the belief in ancestors in the poem Vanity
  • Examine the appropriateness of the title of the poem Vanity by Birago Diop
  • Consider Birago Diop’s use of diction and imagery in his poem Vanity
  • Discuss the theme of futility in the poem Vanity
  • Discuss the theme of stubbornness in Vanity
  • What is the poet’s attitude to the dead in the poem Vanity?
  • What is Birago Diop’s poem Vanity all about?
  • Describe the poet’s concerns in Vanity.
  • Would you consider Vanity as negritude literature?

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Ralph is a professional blogger. He spends his day working as an online entrepreneur and e-learning strategist. As a digital publishing trainer/consultant, he has developed exceptional skills in SEO-content writing. He writes extensively on lifelong learning and personal development issues. Ralph is the CEO of RN Digital Media Ent - a digital publishing & content marketing services platform he founded in 2017.

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