Available on JSTOR at: doi.org/10.2307/3334290


Based on the hypothesis that poetry is a social as well as a human need, this essay of “literary ethnology” demonstrates the development of poetic genres in the Ruanda society, in correlation with the establishment of absolute monarchy at the beginning of the 17th century. The author studies the three main poetic genres–dynastic, heroic, and pastoral–which are the works of the dominant group in the society, the Tutsi, and which underline the caste structure of the society. The first genre, specifically related to the royal power, encompasses the “army of dynastic poets,” professional troubadours devoted to the task of recording the history of the monarchy. The second genre, heroic poetry, partakes essentially of the art of oratory. The young warrior, not a professional poet, sings his own feats, encouraged by his friends and chiefs. The pieces generally disappear with their composer, which accounts for the small number of examples which we possess. The pastoral genre, the third type, indicates the importance of cattle in the feudal Ruanda society. In the heroic style, it is poetry which eloquently honors the “Cattle Army,” a herd bred for its beauty and among which is chosen a queen. All three genres, Mr. Gassel argues, contribute to the process of cultural integration, the constitution of culture being an original and coherent entity related to the behavior of the people. Non-Tutsi, the Hutu for instance, do write poetry but they are not considered by the society to be poets and their works do not fall among the three genres, although they may imitate certain Tutsi poetic styles. Their rarely quoted poems contest Tutsi dominance and confirm that poetry has always been closely related to the problems of society. They also reveal the process of cultural change in the Ruanda society, which has been accelerated by Christianity and egalitarian ideologies.