Walcott, Derek 1930–
Derek Walcott 1930-
(Full name Derek Alton Walcott) St. Lucian poet, essayist, playwright, critic, and journalist.
For additional information on Walcott's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.
A Nobel laureate and preeminent West Indian literary figure, Walcott is included among the leading contemporary English-language writers of poetry and drama. Born of mixed European and African heritage, Walcott uses literature to explore themes of ethnicity, cultural prejudice, and political inequality. Moreover, critics note that he examines these subjects in a manner that leads to psychological and moral insights pertinent not only to the clash between Western and Caribbean culture, but to the universal human condition. Having learned English as a second language, and acutely aware of its status as the language of colonial power, Walcott has assimilated the bulk of the Western literary canon—from Greek epics to modernism—skillfully employing its techniques and traditions in his works, while never losing sight of his Caribbean identity. Reviewers celebrate Walcott's poetry for its dazzling use of sophisticated poetic forms, heartfelt self-examination, and evocative descriptions of Caribbean life.
Walcott was born in 1930 in Castries, the capital city of the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, a former British colony in the Lesser Antilles. Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick, were raised by their mother, Alix, a schoolteacher; their father, a civil servant and amateur artist and writer, died a year after their birth. Walcott's mother instilled a love of literature in her sons and encouraged their involvement in a local theater group. Walcott displayed an early talent for poetry and had work published by the time he was fourteen. Four years later, he self-published his first book, 25 Poems (1948), and sold it on the streets of Castries. At the age of twenty, he wrote and staged Henri Christophe (1950), a play based on the life of the Haitian leader, and cofounded with his brother the Santa Lucia Arts Guild. The guild gave Walcott a means of producing and directing his own plays, such as Robin and Andrea (1950), Three Assassins (1951), and The Price of Mercy (1951). In 1953 he earned a bachelor's degree in English, French, and Latin at the University College of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, which he attended on a British government scholarship. In 1954 Walcott staged The Sea at Dauphin, one of his most acclaimed early works, and began teaching in West Indian schools. Over the next four years, he wrote several plays, including The Charlatan (1954), The Wine of the Country (1956), and The Golden Lions (1956). Walcott temporarily suspended his teaching career in 1958 when he accepted a Rockefeller fellowship to study drama in New York City. His next two plays, Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1957) and Drums and Colours (1958), focus on episodes from Caribbean myth and history.
In 1959 Walcott moved to Trinidad, where he started the Little Carib Theatre Workshop, which later became the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. For several years, he trained amateur actors and wrote poetry, as well as fea- tures and criticism for several Trinidadian newspapers. After writing and staging Malcauchon (1959), Walcott shifted his focus to poetry. He published four volumes of poems in 1962, including In a Green Night, which attracted overwhelmingly positive reviews throughout the English-speaking world. In 1967, a year after being named a fellow in the Royal Society of Literature, Walcott staged Dream on Monkey Mountain in the United States. The play won an Obie award in 1971 and became Walcott's first acknowledged masterpiece. After the success of Another Life in 1973, Walcott accepted a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Academy to rewrite the 1634 classic El burlador de Sevilla, by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina, which resulted in the play The Joker of Seville (1974). In 1976 Walcott ended his tenure at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, citing both professional and personal reasons. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977, and in 1979 was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the early 1980s, Walcott served as a visiting professor at several universities in the United States, including Columbia, Harvard, and Boston University, where he continued to teach through the 1990s. He began to divide his time between residences in the Caribbean and the United States, a practice that influenced his poetry collection The Fortunate Traveller (1981), which received the Heinemann Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. In 1992 Walcott received the Nobel Prize for literature.
The central theme of Walcott's oeuvre is the dichotomy of the black and white races, the subject and ruler, and the Caribbean and the Western civilizations. His writing deals with the lasting scars—personal, cultural, and political—of British colonialism in his native land and the opposing African and European influences that characterize his West Indian heritage. Integrating the formal structure of English verse with the colorful dialect of St. Lucia, Walcott denounces colonial exploitation and suppression of Caribbean culture, while attempting to reconcile the disparate cultural legacies that inform his works and Caribbean history in general. Walcott's first major collection of poetry, In a Green Night, contains several early poems, such as "A City's Death by Fire" and "Epitaph for the Young," that reveal the considerable influence of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce, respectively. The volume also features Walcott's first mature poems, such as "Ruins of a Great House," in which he examined the decline of colonialism, and "A Far Cry from Africa," in which he explored his own mixed racial heritage. The Gulf and Other Poems (1969) is a stylistically diverse collection that is thematically unified by repeated examinations of separation and loss, featuring the autobiographical poem "Hic Jacet," in which Walcott contrasted his fascination with European poetry with his Caribbean roots. The book-length work Another Life, (1973) is autobiographical. The poem's first three sections detail Walcott's youth, adolescence, and first love, while the last section portrays his painful effort to come to terms with not only his own past but the whole of Caribbean history.
The bulk of Walcott's poetic output is found in the five volumes he published between 1976 and 1987: Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller, Midsummer (1984), and The Arkansas Testament (1987). The first two collections contain lyrical poems largely centered on the Caribbean—particularly its history and culture—though Sea Grapes also includes several poems set in other locales. Walcott divided The Fortunate Traveller between poems inspired by his experiences in the United States and in the Caribbean. Though the dichotomy of settings is clear, the poems in both sections are an eclectic mix of barbed social criticism and personal confession. Midsummer is a lyrical and introspective collection; in many of the fifty-four poems, Walcott used his own life as a lens through which to view the intertwining of European and Caribbean cultures. The Arkansas Testament again emphasizes the theme of contrasting, yet related, cultures by organizing the poetry into two sections—"Here" and "Elsewhere." Omeros (1989), like Another Life, is a single book-length poem. In this work—whose title is the Greek word for "Homer"—Walcott paid homage to the ancient poet in an epic poem that substitutes the Antilles for the Homeric Cyclades. Two of the main characters, the West Indian fisherman Achille and Philoctete, set out on a journey to the land of their ancestors on the West African coast. The characters are concerned not with the events of the Trojan War, but rather with an array of civilizations, from African antiquity to frontier America and present-day Boston and London. The Bounty (1997) is a meditation on the passing of the author's mother. Tiepolo's Hound (2000) is another book-length poem, illustrated with the author's paintings, in which he examined the theme of exile while comparing his own life to that of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. In The Prodigal (2004), Walcott celebrated his return to St. Lucia after years of wandering. The book-length poem also reflects on the death of his twin brother, Roderick, in 2000.
Like his poetry, Walcott's plays are stylistically varied, but are united by themes of cross-cultural interaction. For instance, in Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott used highly stylized staging and characterization to evoke a dream world in which an escaped prisoner becomes the leader of an ill-fated religious movement. Many of Walcott's plays, often called folk-dramas, are firmly rooted in the common life and language of the West Indies and frequently incorporate Caribbean dialects and legends. They are also noteworthy for their advanced dramatic techniques, lyrical language, and the psychological depth of their characters. In The Joker of Seville, Walcott employed the refined wit and relaxed pacing of the seventeenth-century classic El burlador de Sevilla to examine the Dionysian aspects of social revolution. O Babylon! (1976) is primarily a musical—many of Walcott's plays include instrumental accompaniment—set in Jamaica in 1966, during the weeks surrounding Emperor Haile Selassie's visit to the island. In Remembrance (1977), Walcott focused on a single character, Albert Jordan, a teacher in colonial Trinidad, and used his story to examine the role of individual integrity and conviction in changing societies. In Pantomime (1978), which features only two actors, Walcott offered a revision of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, presented through the eyes of a hotel manager and his assistant. Beef, No Chicken (1982) is a tragicomedy about a small town facing the encroachment of a six-lane highway. Walcott worked on a much broader canvas—both dramatically and thematically—in A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986). The play opens with a group of West Indian actors rehearsing a scene from William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which Walcott used as a framework on which to hang several interior monologues concerning the relationship between life and fiction, religion, and a host of other topics. Walcott took on an even larger project in his next play, The Odyssey (1993), a stage version of the classic Greek epic poem. His production stays meticulously true to the original poem, but with small comic and socially relevant touches, such as Greek servants who speak in Caribbean dialect. Walcott has also collaborated with singer-songwriter Paul Simon to produce the unsuccessful Broadway musical The Capeman (1997). In addition to his poetry and plays, Walcott has also published a significant volume of essays with What the Twilight Says (1998). This collection brings together a number of Walcott's definitive statements on his aesthetic principles and historical perspective—which are found in his 1992 Nobel lecture, Antilles (1993)—as well as critical pieces on a variety of authors.
Walcott has been widely praised as a virtuoso poet and a deeply committed postcolonial artist whose explorations of racial, cultural, and historical consciousness in the contemporary Caribbean are considered moving, erudite, and technically masterful. While Walcott's dramatic works have been highly regarded, his reputation rests more solidly on his poetry, which is generally considered to have reached a level of excellence that exceeds that of his plays. Among his volumes of poetry, In a Green Night, Another Life, and Omeros have been particularly acclaimed as his most important and successful works. However, Walcott's poetry and drama have not gone without marked criticism. One of the major complaints leveled against Walcott's poetry has been that his language is too refined. Critics have agreed that he is a highly accomplished wordsmith, but some feel that Walcott's wordplay can obscure his intended meaning, making his verse appear to be a mere exercise in technique. Criticism of this type has appeared fairly consistently throughout Walcott's career. Similar claims of intellectual excess have been aimed at his plays. Criticism of his dramatic works has focused not only on his use of language, but also on his practice of weighing his plays down with expository passages. While this technique has allowed him to explore socially relevant topics, that comes at the expense of plot and character development, a number of reviewers have argued. Reviewers have also sometimes judged his plays as incoherent, tedious, and glib. Walcott has also garnered criticism for his tendency to use European forms to express Caribbean concerns; he is considered too Caribbean by some Eurocentric critics, and too European by some Afrocentric critics. Indeed, Walcott's deft use of complex rhyme and meter has been decried by some commentators as a coy affectation and by others as an act of "selling out." While this type of criticism has abated as Walcott's reputation has grown, his continued insistence on the interdependence of colonials and the colonized has remained a somewhat controversial position.
25 Poems (poetry) 1948
Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (poetry) 1949
Cry for a Leader (play) 1950
Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (play) 1950
Robin and Andrea (play) 1950
Senza Alcum Sospetto [also produced as Paolo and Francesca] (radio play) 1950
Poems (poetry) 1951
The Price of Mercy (play) 1951
Three Assassins (play) 1951
Harry Dernier: A Play for Radio Production (radio play) 1952
The Charlatan (play) 1954
Crossroads (play) 1954
The Sea at Dauphin: A Play in One Act (play) 1954
The Golden Lions (play) 1956
The Wine of the Country (play) 1956
Ione: A Play with Music (play) 1957
Ti-Jean and His Brothers (play) 1957
Drums and Colours: An Epic Drama (play) 1958
Jourmard; or, A Comedy till the Last Minute (play) 1959
Malcauchon; or, The Six in the Rain (play) 1959
In a Green Night: Poems, 1948-1960 (poetry) 1962
Selected Poems (poetry) 1964
Batai (play) 1965
The Castaway and Other Poems (poetry) 1965
Dream on Monkey Mountain (play) 1967
Franklin: A Tale of the Islands (play) 1969
The Gulf and Other Poems (poetry) 1969
*Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (plays and essay) 1970
In a Fine Castle (play) 1970
Another Life (poetry) 1973
The Joker of Seville [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1974
O Babylon! [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1976
Sea Grapes (poetry) 1976
Selected Verse (poetry) 1976
Remembrance (play) 1977
Pantomime (play) 1978
Marie Laveau [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1979
The Star-Apple Kingdom (poetry) 1979
The Fortunate Traveller (poetry) 1981
Beef, No Chicken (play) 1982
The Isle Is Full of Noises (play) 1982
The Haitian Earth (play) 1984
Midsummer (poetry) 1984
A Branch of the Blue Nile (play) 1986
Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (poetry) 1986
†Three Plays (plays) 1986
The Arkansas Testament (poetry) 1987
Omeros (poetry) 1989
Steel [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1991
Poems, 1965-1980 (poetry) 1992
‡Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory: The Nobel Lecture (lecture) 1993
Derek Walcott: Selected Poems (poetry) 1993
The Bounty (poetry) 1997
The Capeman: A Musical [with Paul Simon] (play) 1997
What the Twilight Says: Essays (essays) 1998
Tiepolo's Hound (poetry) 2000
║The Haitian Trilogy (plays) 2001
Walker and Ghost Dance (plays) 2002
The Prodigal (poetry) 2004
Selected Poems (poetry) 2007
*Includes Dream on Monkey Mountain, The Sea at Dauphin, Malcauchon, Ti-Jean and His Brothers, and the essay "What the Twilight Says: An Overture."
†Includes The Last Carnival; Beef, No Chicken; and A Branch of the Blue Nile.
‡Antilles was originally delivered on December 7, 1992.
§This work is based on Homer's The Odyssey.
║Includes Henri Christophe, Drums and Colours, and The Haitian Earth.
Edward Baugh (essay date winter 2005)
SOURCE: Baugh, Edward. "Of Men and Heroes: Walcott and the Haitian Revolution." Callaloo 28, no. 1 (winter 2005): 45-54.
[In the following essay, Baugh examines Walcott's dramatic portrayal of the Haitian revolution in three of his major plays: Henri Christophe, Drums and Colours, and The Haitian Earth.]
The Haitian Revolution has exercised the Caribbean literary imagination to significant effect. It has spawned major works by some of the region's most distinguished writers. Outside of Haiti itself, there is the Cuban Alejo Carpentier's El reino de este mundo (1949), and, from the French Caribbean, two plays: Edouard Glissant's Monsieur Toussaint (1961) and Aimé Césaire's La Tragédie du roi Christophe (1970). Walcott has returned to the subject again and again, over a period of nearly forty years. His Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (1950), first produced in 1949, was his first substantial play. The Revolution provided one of the four major segments of his historical pageant Drums and Colours (1961), first produced in 1958. His major work on the Revolution, The Haitian Earth, was first produced in 1984. These works reward comparison, which, in a limited way, is the project of this paper. They constitute a fertile microcosm in which to explore Caribbean imagination, its continuities and variations. We must also put alongside these fictive works C. L. R. James's famous historical account, Black Jacobins. What is more, his little-known play of the same title was first produced even earlier, in 1936.
Walcott's The Haitian Trilogy conveniently collects all three of his dramatic engagements with the Revolution: Henri Christophe, Drums and Colours and The Haitian Earth. To compare his treatment of the Revolution in the three is to enhance understanding of his evolution as a dramatist, a Caribbean dramatist, both in content or world view and in style, as well as to enhance understanding of the hold of the Haitian Revolution on Caribbean imagination. The development reflects his foundational contribution to a Caribbean theater rooted in the experience of the common people, drawing on their arts of performance, including their language, and in the context of the colonial experience of the region. A central motive in this endeavor was to address the apparent or supposed absence or dearth of home-grown heroes.
In chapter 12 of Another Life, Walcott recalls how, still a teenager, he was fired by the dream and difficulty of making a new world of art in his island(s). It was to be an art made out of native materials, like the "plain wood" (Collected Poems 216) with which the carpenter, Dominic, worked, giving off "the smell of our own speech" (Collected Poems 217), and taking the Caribbean artist beyond a hankering after "the marble [of] Greece" ("Ruins of a Great House," Collected Poems 19) and all that it stood for, the hankering after "heroic palaces / netted in sea-green vines" ("Royal Palms" 16). The train of thought in chapter 12 of Another Life reaches a crucial point when the poet exclaims:
Christ, to shake off the cerecloths,
to stride from the magnetic sphere of legends.
To change the marble sweat which pebbled
the wave-blow of stone brows
for the sweat-drop on the cedar plank,
for a future without heroes,
to make out of these foresters and fishermen
(Collected Poems 217)
The "gigantic myth" and "the stone brows" of Classical sculpture connote the heroics that attach to the "great tradition" of Classical art and literature.
It was in his plays that Walcott was most directly and definitively to take the "stride," a shaping movement in his effort to make a Caribbean drama. "To make of these foresters and fishermen / heraldic men," instead of "heroes," is "a succinct statement of what [Walcott] aimed to do in plays like The Sea at Dauphin, Malcochon, Ti-Jean and His Brothers and Dream on Monkey Mountain " (Baugh 43).1 The stride may be traced in the movement from Henri Christophe and Drums and Colours to the four plays in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970), as well as The Haitian Earth, even if the movement is not neatly chronological. Further, whatever meaning Walcott may be understanding from the term heraldic man will retain perhaps more than a trace of "hero." In other words, in resorting to the former term, Walcott retains some of the connotations of the latter, while eschewing others. Also, in heraldic man the word man in the sense of general, ordinary man, is no doubt almost as crucial as heraldic, as an aspect of the distinction between heraldic man and hero.
The passage quoted from Another Life is a rewrite of a passage from the unpublished manuscript of "Another Life," part prose, part verse, from which the published poem evolved. On October 17, 1965, Walcott wrote:
The powerful truth is that no shadows haunt us now. We have moved away from the magnetic sphere of legends, giant stone statues and gesturing myths. We have a past without heroes. We can look back on servitude as natural and human without any desire for revenge.2
Whereas in chapter 12 of Another Life Walcott records how he had been haunted by the gigantic shadows of European art and literature, by 1965 he could say confidently that he had laid those ghosts. This does not mean that he had simply rejected them, but that he could now live easily with them, in a productive working relationship that might still involve a creative tension.
The quotation from the manuscript "Another Life" also helps to suggest how Walcott's desire to replace "heroes" with "heraldic men" connects with his quarrel with history. If heroes are towering men, larger than life, then the idea of history he counters is that of history as the deeds and impact of heroes. By contrast, heraldic men would be simple, ordinary persons ("foresters and fishermen"), close to the earth, the elements, who, by their experience and integrity, become icons representative of the generality, the common people, just as figures in heraldry, as on coats of arms, are symbolic, representative of a group, in some cases a nation. The heraldic figure calls attention not to itself but to what it stands for. As regards the genre of drama, the traditional hero connotes grandeur, size, expansiveness, grandiloquence, and in tragedy the will to power and the Aristotelian hubris.
Also pertinent here is Walcott's "confession" in his 1970 essay "Meanings," an essay that explains his ambition as a West Indian dramatist as it had evolved up to Dream on Monkey Mountain :
I am a kind of split writer. I have one tradition inside me going one way, and another tradition going another. The mimetic, the Narrative and dance element is strong on one side, and the literary, the classical tradition is strong on the other. In Dream on Monkey Mountain I tried to fuse them, but I am still after a kind of play that is essential and spare the same way woodcuts are clean, that dances are clean, and that Japanese cinema is so compressed that gesture does the same thing as speech.
We may read in this statement rough equations between the heroic, the literary, the classical, and the grandiloquent on the one hand, and the heraldic, the indigenous, and the essential on the other. The dualism acknowledged in this passage is cognate with that between Walcott's yearning for a plain style in his poetry, and his instinct for metaphorical richness and elaboration. Whereas in this passage the expansive style is identified with the literary, and the spare style with gesture and physical presence, the polarities are also played out within the field of oral expression. Walcott's plays as a whole move between these two styles, or seek to make them work together. He never altogether eschews the literary and classical. One must also note that volubility and rhetoric as such are not alien to Caribbean oral tradition, where they have a different "color" from that which they have in the English literary and oratorical traditions, sometimes acting as parodic subversions of them.
Henri Christophe and Drums and Colours both invest (the latter in a pointedly qualified way) in the idea of the hero, the hero as great man. Christophe chronicles the Haitian Revolution from after the death of Toussaint L'Ouverture to the death of Christophe. The account centers on the two dominant men of that period: first on Dessalines, and then, after he has been assassinated at the behest of Christophe, on Christophe. As the title suggests, it is very much Christophe's play. The focus on the outstanding individual, the heroic hero, so to speak, is set in the epigraph to Part 1, a quotation from Shakespeare's Hamlet (act 3, scene 3):
The cease of majesty
Dies not alone but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it; it is a massy wheel
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis'd and adjoined, which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist'rous ruin.
We are on familiar Aristotelian-Shakespearean ground, where the time-honored action is the ascendancy and fall of the great individual, the tragic hero, who towers above ordinary men, and whose fall, by reason of his greatness, brings the whole world crashing down with him.
The young Walcott, in his reaching after a theater that would speak to and for the West Indies, was excited to see in Christophe a Caribbean hero in the Classical-Elizabethan mould: "Full of precocious rage, I was drawn … to the Manichean conflicts of Haiti's history. The parallels were there in my own island, but not the heroes…." (Dream on 11). He speaks of "their tragic bulk … massive as a citadel at twilight." "Their anguish was tragic …;" "such heroes … had size, mania, the fire of great heretics" (Dream on 13). Nothing would have seemed amiss if Walcott had called this play a tragedy rather than a chronicle.
"Those first heroes of the Haitian Revolution," he writes, "to me, their tragedy lay in their blackness" (Dream on 12). He emphasizes that this is the central theme of Henri Christophe, and the play does advert to the race theme often enough, and it is imaged in the relationship between the black revolutionary leaders and the white Archbishop Brelle, who has a major part in the play. However, by and large, the race/color issue is treated as a given and invoked conveniently to explain motivation. It begins to take on a life of its own, a prickly vibrancy, only in the final confrontation between Brelle and Christophe.
The engine of the play's action is rather the sheer will to greatness of the "heroes," and, as a consequence, the passion of each, Dessalines and Christophe, to be absolute ruler, and the machinations they practice to attain their ends. Christophe boasts, "I am proud, I have worked and grown / This country to its stature. …" (Trilogy 91); "I shall build chateaux" (Trilogy 74); "I will be a king, a king flows in me" (Trilogy 68). We are told that Christophe is a more complex person than Dessalines, that he has a conscience, and he professes, however fleetingly, a concern for the country. However, the energy of the portraiture is focused on, for example, his obsession with being made king, rather than president, and on his overweening desire to build monuments to his greatness, his Citadel and chateau. In this play, history is a mighty force, a great impersonal personality, a kind of metahero, with whom one can be on even terms if one is of like stature. For Christophe, history is his peer, his towering twin. His hubris is partly in his idea of his relationship to history: "I will make history, richer than all kings" (Trilogy 62); "It is I, who, history, gave them this vice to shout anarchy / Against the King" (Trilogy 101). The ambiguity afforded by the placing of the word history in this sentence underscores the nature of the presumed relationship. History may be read as either vocative (Christophe is addressing history) or in apposition to I (Christophe is history).
The fascination with heroes will also mean a fascination with the grand style, in language, verse form, and movement. As Walcott admitted, his "first poems and plays expressed [a] yearning to be adopted, as the bastard longs for his father's household. I saw myself legitimately prolonging the mighty line of Marlowe, of Milton. …" (Dream on 31). The appeal to Walcott of the heroes of the Haitian Revolution also lay in the fact that they afforded him a Caribbean story that would lend itself to the mighty line. The grand style of Christophe satisfies this project, but with a difference. Although it will recall the blank verse of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton, it is not blank verse, but free verse, with a recurring suggestion of iambic pentameter within a general dissolution of the iambic beat, and often a line that is longer than pentameter. The language, for all its grandeur, is appropriately modern, the heightening due partly to Walcott's characteristic metaphorical energy, which owes something to Shakespeare.
The play resonates with echoes of Shakespeare and Marlowe, whether in language or situation. For instance, Vastey's fatal and evil trapping of Brelle and infecting of Christophe's mind with the notion of Brelle's treachery through the business of the planted letters recalls Iago's manipulation of Othello and Desdemona. The speech in which Christophe expatiates on the lofty, wind-swept location of his Citadel (Trilogy 73) recalls the speech in King Lear in which Edgar evokes for the blind Gloucester the dangerously magnetic view from the cliff overlooking the beach. The Messenger's speech reporting the assassination of Dessalines is infused with the bloody excesses of Tamburlaine. Creole, a mild form, and in prose, is used only in the scene with the murderers in ambush preparing to kill Dessalines, and that is just as Shakespeare would have done, dialect prose for "low" characters. Again, the Africanness of Dessalines and Christophe, over and above the mere fact that they are blacks, is hardly considered, and that only ironically, when Christophe, dying, is attended by a witch doctor. Even so, Christophe has no faith in gods of any kind, whether Christ or Damballa, but he asks that the witch doctor "try again … / The old herbs, the antique magic …" (Trilogy 97).
Whereas Christophe begins with the news of Toussaint's death in exile, the Haitian segment of Drums ends with Dessalines and Christophe conspiring to betray Toussaint to Leclerc, the commander of the French forces. By shifting the focus from Dessalines and Christophe to Toussaint, Walcott goes beyond a youthful zest for the histrionic display of overweening egotistical ambition to consider a more complex, more humane, more reflective, and reasoning kind of leader. By using the Haitian Revolution as one of the four segments of his pageant-play, which was written and produced to mark the inauguration of the short-lived Federation of the West Indies, Walcott enhances the suggestion, incipient in Christophe, of the relevance of the Haitian experience to the idea and possibility of nationhood in the Caribbean.
Spanning the history of the West Indies since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, Drums was another ready-made vehicle to accommodate "heroes." It tells the story of "four heroes" (Trilogy 123): Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh, Toussaint, and George William Gordon, each representing a different period in the history. The first two stand for imperialism and colonialism, the last two for resistance and revolt. But there is comparatively little heroics in Drums. For instance, in the Columbus segment, such heroics as emerge are no more than a nimbus of nostalgia exhaled by Columbus, now no longer "Admiral of ocean, and a tamer of tides" (Trilogy 145).
Although Toussaint is identified in the prologue as one of the play's four heroes, once again classical grand heroic is eschewed in what is shown. He is presented as a good man who had the courage to do what necessity and his conscience demanded, and who, in doing so, proved himself a great leader. His compassion and evenhandedness are made much of. We first see him overcome by dismay on discovering the body of Anton, mulatto son of Calixte-Breda, on whose estate he, Toussaint, had been a coachman-slave. Outstanding in warcraft, Toussaint is nonetheless the man of peace, concerned not with his own power, but with the well-being of the people after the revolution. Against Dessalines' vengeful bloodlust, he counsels: "Revenge is nothing. / Peace, the restoration of the burnt estates, the ultimate / Rebuilding of these towns war has destroyed, peace is harder" (Trilogy 241).
The first scene of the Haitian segment shows us the privileged whites, the slave-owning class. They behave in such a way as unwittingly to evoke our sympathy for the revolutionary cause of the blacks even before we meet them, by showing what they (the blacks) are up against. The issue of race and color thus becomes, more immediately than in Christophe, part of the dynamic of the action.
The setting is the mansion of Leclerc, the French General who has been sent by Napoleon to put down the rebellion. Present are Leclerc, General de Rouvray, whom he is replacing, Madame de Rouvray, Armand Calixte-Breda, the planter on whose estate Toussaint is slave and coachman, and Anton, Calixte-Breda's illegitimate son, whom he passes off as his nephew. Leclerc's wife, Pauline, Napoleon's sister, will join the group later. Liveried black slaves, voiceless and as if invisible, stand in the background and wait on the whites. The latter's casual dehumanizing of the blacks is nicely introduced. Calixte-Breda dismisses Anton's caution that he should "never underrate the authority of the people" with "Slaves are not people, they are intelligent animals" (218). Leclerc sneers amusedly at "Generals who were slaves. … / You know, Napoleon calls them ‘gilded Africans’" (218); and Pauline intends to be witty and sophisticated when, having just been touring the slave compounds, she asks to be excused if she "reek[s] a little of the parfum d'Afrique" (221).
In this group, Anton, neither quite insider nor outsider, functions as a voice that can speak for the oppressed blacks. He has just returned from Paris, full of the spirit and ideals of the French Revolution. This idealism is in turn given a dimension of passionate, embattled personal interest, being an early manifestation of that mulatto angst which was to become a Walcott topos. When Anton tells Pauline that his mother was one of Calixte-Breda's house slaves, and that "He [Calixte-Breda] recognized her in darkness, in that republic / And that act in which complexions do not matter" (227), we hear the germ-sound of the idea that will develop, years later, into Shabine's brilliant formulation which begins, "I met History once, but he ain't recognise me. …" (Collected Poems 350). The recurrence of recognize deepens the resonance of the double meaning in each instance.
Anton functions as a link between the presentation of the whites and the presentation of the blacks, biologically (by virtue of his mixed blood) and in terms of plot, and metaphor. Empathizing with the slaves, he describes for Pauline the horrible acts of cruelty that are done to them in public spectacle. At the same time, foreshadowing Makak's bewitchment by the white moon-woman, he is smitten by Pauline, "White and lovely as the moon, and equally remote …" (229). Angry, bitter, confused, Anton exits, insisting on returning alone to the Calixte-Breda estate. The next, brief scene shows him walking through the cane fields, drunk. He is set upon by a group of rebellious slaves, and murdered for having the blood of his father in him.
The representation of the spirit of violent, bloody revolt in this scene is developed at the beginning of the next scene, with a ritualistic celebration of revolt, led by Boukmann, who breaks the Christian cross as he invokes "serpent Damballa" (234) and exhorts his followers, "Kill everything white in Haiti today!" (235). Anticipation of Makak in his African dream scene! Boukmann and his followers then exit, leaving Anton's corpse. Toussaint, at this time still Calixte-Breda's coachman, enters and sees the corpse. He is overcome with anguish and the consciousness of his dilemma ("This poor boy hated nothing, nothing" ), but he also knows now that things have changed irrevocably and that his life must take on a new responsibility. Here, established in one quick stroke, is the dilemma of humanity that will distinguish Toussaint.
The next scene takes place some time later, when the revolutionary forces of Toussaint, Christophe and Dessalines are gaining ascendancy, with Toussaint primus inter pares. When the scene opens, Dessalines is looking down on Les Cayes, as that city is being sacked by Toussaint's troops. Dessalines gloats over the carnage, and at the fact that Toussaint has "scattered the forces of the mulatto Rigaud" (227). Christophe joins Dessalines, and later Toussaint. The very fact that we see them tired from battle, rain soaked and splattered with mud and gore, removes from them the ceremonial gloss they wore in Christophe. Although Christophe is not so elated as Dessalines by the bloodbath, and can say that "Revenge is tiring" (241), he is ready to begin plotting with Dessalines to betray Toussaint, whom Dessalines describes as "most power drunk" and having "monarchic aims" (240). This description fits Dessalines himself, and also Christophe, but does not accord with the Toussaint whom we hear in this scene—responsible and level headed, a man of action, but also a man of conscience and compassion.
The scene builds to a climax when soldiers bring before Toussaint his former master, Calixte-Breda, whom they have found "hiding in the ruins" (243). This confrontation opens up a volatile range of emotions, deep historical wounds, and prejudice. It is a confrontation that will recur and be artistically refashioned in subsequent Walcott works, notably Pantomime. Dessalines, impatient of the long, private audience that Toussaint is allowing to this enemy, seizes his pistol to shoot Calixte-Breda. Toussaint takes the pistol from him, as if to take responsibility for killing Calixte-Breda himself. But he cannot bring himself to do it. When, on his command, in which he takes no pleasure, a sergeant takes Calixte-Breda outside to shoot him, Toussaint is weeping. To Dessalines, this is only a sign of weakness, and encourages him to resume his effort to persuade Christophe that they should deliver Toussaint into the hands of Leclerc.
So the emphasis shifts from overweening personal ambition and boastful display of iron will. Toussaint's stature is measured by the width and depth of his humanity. In this regard, the fact of his weeping, his painful understanding of the necessity demanded by "the times" (249), is to his credit. In Ti-Jean and His Brothers (written at much the same time as Drums ), when, at the climax, Ti-Jean seems about to defeat the Devil, the latter pulls one of his devilish tricks and shows Ti-Jean a vision of his mother dying. Ti-Jean weakens, but the animals encourage him to stand firm, to sing in praise of life: "Sing, Ti-Jean, sing! / Show him you could win! / Show him what a man is!" (Dream on 162). Ti-Jean sings a song of thanksgiving to God, and as he sings he weeps. By his tears, as much as by his courage in adversity, he shows "what a man is." To the extent that he embodies the fullness and complexity of "what a man is," Toussaint proves himself a hero.
The de-emphasizing of heroics in Drums is enhanced by the Caribbean tone that Walcott gives to the play by framing it in a popular Caribbean performance mode. The prologue is given over to a Carnival band, led by Mano (a popular Trinidadian male nickname, but also a name suggesting "man," quintessential and unadorned man), and including Pompey, a calypsonian, who, by virtue of his name, is a kind of parody of the Classical heroic tradition. The band sets about to ambush, playfully, a road march coming down the street, and to change the theme of the march to "War and Rebellion" (119). The idea is of conscious role playing: the episodes from history, from the stories of heroes, are to be reenacted by the common people of the Carnival. The performance strategy implies the appropriation of the grand historical narrative by the grassroots tradition. The Carnival figures return at the end to bring the play to a close. Curiously though, they hardly engage in any direct winding up of the preceding action and, indeed, make hardly any reference to it. The Carnival group virtually takes over the play for the last two scenes and the epilogue. The play ends in a style quite different from that in which the four heroes were represented. Pompey is an anti-hero, but when he "dies," Mano's prayer over the body refers to him as "one significant fragment of this earth, no hero / But Pompey … Corporal Pompey, the hotheaded shoemaker. / But Pompey was as good as any hero that pass in history" (187).
The foregrounding of the common people is complete in The Haitian Earth. This play is Walcott's most comprehensive theatrical account of the Revolution, and the primary point of view is that of the people. The chronicle begins even earlier than it had begun in Drums, showing some of the events leading up to the Revolution. These include the torture and execution of Ogé and Chavannes, the mulattos who had dared to seek "rights for the mulattos" (309) from the French Assembly, and scenes showing the different local milieux out of which the three warrior-heroes of the Revolution—Dessalines, Christophe, and Toussaint—emerged, and the bursting of the seed of revolution in them. Anton's role changes somewhat in this account. He joins Rigaud's mulatto army to fight the blacks, thereby representing the fact that the blacks were up against the mulattos as well as the whites. Documentary material also becomes part of the action. Leclerc reads to the captured Toussaint a letter of instructions from Napoleon. Later, an aide reads to Napoleon a letter sent to him by the imprisoned Toussaint.
Various features of the composition of the play indicate a cinematic intention. The many brief scenes, some of which convey information by purely visual means, the quick cuts, time and space leaps, montage effects, stage directions that are really camera directions—these are all appropriate to a fluid representation of the varied, wide-ranging sweep of action. Space does not allow here for appreciation of how there is also a change in the style of the language to help convey the more stripped-down, earthy, unadorned quality of this play in comparison to Drums and even more so to Christophe. The point would be conveniently illustrated by comparing the two versions of the one scene from Drums that is repeated in Earth, the scene in which General Toussaint confronts his former owner, Calixte-Breda. We may also note in passing that the African factor in the blacks is more evident in Earth than it was in Drums, and that this is not unrelated to the relative prominence of the folk factor in Earth, as in the chorus of peasant women and the singing by which they express themselves.
The Haitian Earth is perhaps even less about the fortunes of the great men than it is about the common people, who do not appear as individual persons in the historical record. Pompey and Yette, fictional characters, are carried over (at least the names) from Drums and are now the true protagonists, perhaps even more so than Toussaint. Yette is now a mulatress of low social station, and Pompey a slave driver on the Calixte-Breda estate. The story of the vicissitudes of their romantic relationship, which represents the idea of harmony between blacks and mulattos, is interwoven with the chronicle of the historical figures, whose actions impact severely on the lives of the ordinary folk. The three "heroes" of the Revolution—Dessalines, Christophe, and Toussaint—still have their major roles, but they are now even more flesh and blood, more humanized than before, generally to their discredit in the case of Dessalines and Christophe, because what is represented, even more sharply than earlier, is their human weaknesses and maleficence, and to his credit in the case of Toussaint. The other two are granted their moments of grand self-assertion and heroism, as in Christophe's eloquent, lyrical recollection of Dessalines in battle at D'Ennery: "Across the ridges, the soldiers saw your body / Half-welded to its horse, like a black centaur" (423). But Walcott's presentation confirms the view that the first and greatest tragedy of the Revolution was the betrayal, banishment, and death of Toussaint, and his heroic stature is here configured in the extent to which he is a man with whom we can identify, and to which he meets his responsibilities as a man, especially those which require him to make hard, painful, even seemingly cruel decisions, in the interests of the discipline of his forces and the best interests, not of himself, but of Haiti.
The tragedy is not of the individual great man, but of Haiti itself, "the Haitian earth." Dessalines boasts, "I am the beginning, / And I am the end. Haiti is me" (426). The play persuades us of the common people's prior claim, whispered by Pompey to Yette in a moment when the future seems bleak: "But you and I, we is Haiti, Yette" (386). Christophe's final exit now is not that of the grand death speech, to a crescendo of drums, which concludes Christophe, but of his pathetic request to be helped into bed. In a final act of egotistic ill will, he had just ordered the execution of Yette, who had sought to place a curse on him for corrupting the Revolution. Right after Christophe's order, the play ends on a countervailing note, with Pompey, simple but strong, burying Yette's body and pronouncing his uplifting benediction on her.
Pompey's final entrance, carrying Yette's body, is to a single, stark drumbeat. The general paring down of things, of the reaching after heroics and grandiloquence, is reflected in the relatively down-to-earth style of the play. Against Christophe's dying boast to Pompey—"When men like you / Are tired, they will look up into the clouds / And see it [his Citadel], and take strength; the clouds themselves / Will have to look up to see it" (430)—Pompey replies:
It had one talk then, I remember, under the old coachman [Toussaint], and that talk was not who was king but who would make each man a man, each man a king himself; but all that change. We see them turn and climb and burn and fall down like stars that tired, and cut my hand, my head, my tongue out if you want, Your Majesty, but my life is one long night. My country and your kingdom, Majesty. One long, long night. Is kings who do that.
In that statement, which affirms Pompey's manhood, is the gravamen of the play and the culmination of the graph of its action. "My life is one long night"—Pompey speaks for Haiti. He articulates the bleak wisdom toward which Walcott's long artistic engagement with the Haitian Revolution has worked. This wisdom already existed in Vastey's epigrammatic reflection in Christophe, "We were a tragedy of success" (103), but now it is fully earned.
It is also a mark of Walcott's widened vision that The Haitian Earth ends holding up to our commendation, not a man, not Toussaint or Pompey, but a woman. The final speech is Pompey's tribute to Yette as he digs her grave: "You will be a country woman with a basket / Walking down a red road in the high mountains" (454). As Makak lives in the dream of his people, as Ti-Jean is the man in the moon. An icon. Heraldic woman.
1. This idea became a center-piece of Patrick Anthony's Ph.D. thesis "Symbol, Myth, and Ritual in Selected Plays of Derek Walcott."
2. The manuscript is housed in the West Indies Collection of the Library, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.
Baugh, Edward. Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision: "Another Life." London: Longman, 1978.
Carpentier, Alejo. El reino de este mundo. 1949.
Césaire, Aimé. La Tragédie du roi Christophe. 1970.
Glissant, Edouard. Monsieur Toussaint. 1961.
Hamner, Robert. Ed. Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott. Boulder & London: Lynne Rienner, 1997.
James. C. L. R. Black Jacobins. 1938.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.
Walcott, Derek. "Another Life." Collected Poems 1948-1984. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986.
———. Collected Poems 1948-1984. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986.
———. Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.
———. Drums and Colours. 1961.
———. The Haitian Earth.
———. The Haitian Trilogy. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002.
———. Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes. 1950.
———. "The Royal Palms." Negro Verse. Ed. Anselm Hollo. London: Vista Books, 1964.
Fred D'Aguiar (essay date winter 2005)
SOURCE: D'Aguiar, Fred. "‘In God We Troust’: Derek Walcott and God." Callaloo 28, no. 1 (winter 2005): 216-23.
[In the essay below, D'Aguiar investigates the role of religion in Walcott's verse.]
"Do you believe in God?" I remember the interviewer in the company of another poet and me, asking Derek Walcott in the summer of 1986 at a BBC 2 Arena Caribbean Nights recording on the culture and arts of the Caribbean.1 Derek Walcott paused for a moment and replied, "Only if God gets me another poem." Laughter erupted and with it a nod of recognition toward the contract with productivity every poet is sworn to at almost Mephistolian cost; laughter and a comic end to a serious subject. The idea of a poet selling a loved one for the price of a poem is not new. What is new or sounds like a new spin on an old thread is Derek Walcott's idea that the poem itself, namely poetics and poetry as a process, may contain God, indemnify spirituality, and enshrine faith in the middle of an absence of any obvious belief system, by investing in a formal procedure called the composed poem. If this is the case then the evidence should reside in the body of work. Nuggets of wisdom to do with a religious subject should be extractable from the work where the work functions as a surrogate cathedral for a missing conventional God worshipped in a conventional way.
As early as 1948 in "A City's Death by Fire" a poem preserved in his Collected Poems, Derek Walcott expresses a reverence for the trappings of the church that borders on religious conversion.
A City's Death by Fire
After that hot gospeller had leveled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city's death by fire;
Under a candle's eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire.
(Collected Poems 6)
A religious vocabulary deployed at landscape, presented here as a cathedral, provides the poem's momentum. The poet ministers through song in a priestly way but without sermonizing. Philosophical enquiry works as gospel, rather than any declaration of faith or conventional belief. The presiding spirit is more Dylan Thomas than Christ. As a result, the benediction (a favorite word in the poet's lexicon) privileges art more than the life the art dramatizes God is present in what people do, in their patterns of behavior but God is absent in the behavior of the poet: there isn't a God as a given entity or assumed presence in the poet's procedure of writing the poem, although the language of God provides a vocabulary for the poet. This steers the reader toward the poetry as art and artifice, especially in the poem's meta- phorical transformation of the ravaged city. The material reality of the city while reduced to ashes by the fire gives rise to the Phoenix of spiritual awakening. What the art achieves in the early poem is a sort of spiritual elation, and a peace in lieu of understanding but without the religious conversion of being saved, more like a drowning for the poet. The poem as a procedure carries with it a religiosity of a kind easily mistaken for faith in a conventional God. But it is more akin to the poet's identification with a literary tradition with Christianity as one of its cornerstones than any alignment with faith. A desecrated landscape becomes a shared terrain between this Christian frame and the formal devices of the poem engaged in a joint effort that utilizes the trappings of Christian iconography to shake off its influence. The poem's success is gauged by the tone of the address. A poem's tone is a property of the poet buried in the poet's architecture. Tone is tantamount to a point of view and an opinion held by the poet2 and not necessary for the poem's success but which forms part of the poem's overall impact on the reader. Tone, as it stands in this early poem, expresses a need for a deeper meaning in existence beyond the physical and material facts of life. If progress could be measured in this lyric moment, outside of narrative time in its instantaneous marshalling of impulses, then it would move from a religious starting point and head toward the secular, not in a straight narrative line, but in its circuitous tonal progression (rather like this sentence!), its sense of shaking off religious influence for some quality to do with the formal rewards of the sonnet. The sonnet rebuilds the city destroyed by fire with a poetic structure that owes much of its form to an infusion of spiritual thought. Here Walcott functions as spiritual architect. His tone includes an expression of grief over the destruction of the city. The poem's double procedure is that it grieves for the perished city, while, simultaneously, it builds an alternate and imperishable edifice in the substitute form of a sonnet. This formal device shadows a religious experience and can easily be mistaken for one.
Both poem and religion promise knowledge beyond the known world. The religious promise is life after death. For the poem the buried meanings resonate far beyond the surface meanings of the words. Both arts (if I may so address religious belief) invest in a faith in the process: for religion it is worship, for poetry it is poetic practice. Doubt appears to govern both processes. A central tenet of religion—faith—circles the idea of doubt where doubt stars as the brink of faith before faith reasserts itself and casts off doubt. In the crucifixion, even if treated minimally as a parable, there is Christ in his supreme sacrifice on the cross wondering if God has forsaken him. In poetry doubt is necessary for poetic production. The poet doubts she or he is any good until the next poem and then doubts the worth of the thing and then writes another poem just to be sure, just because there is nothing else to be done and out of a compulsion for utterance and in service to the process infected with doubt but resplendent in its routine of faithful repetition and life-affirming practice.
Landscape replaces the church and becomes for Derek Walcott a character, not a holy spirit, but flesh invested with spirituality, and that is how it earns his devotion. History relays story for the poet and as such history (with a degree of myth thrown into the mix) replaces the religious fable. Not a bad start for a young poet on an intuitive quest of understanding of his art and craft.
Derek Walcott's Methodist upbringing in St. Lucia placed him in a religious minority in a Catholic majority nation.3 His Catholic schooling and veneration of his Irish Jesuit schoolmasters imbued him with an intuitive logic governed by religious praxis. But so did his use of English in a French Creole nation and his mixed-race background in a black majority country. Doubles typify his life and his search for a distance from each of them as he took what he could use from all of them. The experience made distancing into an art form for Derek Walcott at an early age. This formative experience planted a dichotomy in outlook that would constitute a challenge for the poet, namely, how to break out of a predictable binary dynamic way of thinking into more fruitful imaginative terrain.
In addition to his poetry Derek Walcott paints and tries to address painting as another expression of this spiritual quest. What seems to be behind both painting and poetry is a sensory frame at least as a starting off point, largely invested in narrative but not wholly so, which then spirals out into thoughts suggested by images and phrases as a method of moving from one line to another. This formal rigor resembles the trials of the Stations of the Cross, but only in its requirement of formalized difficulty as a necessary impediment before transcendence.
This formal rigor makes 1987 seem like a long way from 1948, but not really, if a reader subscribes to the notion of the poet as born not made ("born big so" as the Creole parlance would have it). Not just a struggle with craft but a struggle with place traps the poet in the poem, "The Light of the World." Strategically placed two thirds of the way into the "Here," first section of The Arkansas Testament, both a struggle with notions of craft and a wrestle with the idea of belonging to a place preoccupy the poet. The poem is a bus journey with the ordinary folk and the isolated poet ruminating on his place among them and what his art can offer them. Bob Marley, an artist like the poet, but one who has made it among the populous, frames the contemplative act by the poet. Marley is accepted among them, so why not the poet, the poem appears to ask the reader and the answer is an odd give and take of rejection and quiet acceptance, studied distance and guarded familiarity. The poet's desire for a woman provides an engine of sorts for the poet in his body. Art, in other words, if it is worth anything believes in the sensory as a gate- way to the spiritual. In similar terms the woman the poet admires in the poem for her ordinary ripe flesh condition (as the ready-to-eat fruit analogy would have it) becomes transformed by that process of seeing, that particular metaphorical and transmogrifying lens, into a goddess. The poet sings her a hymn of his lust and in exchange her humble standing, plain but young, elevates to heraldic status. This transformative aspect of Derek Walcott's poetry with lust or desire as a springboard, Marley's "got to have kaya now" (an epigraph for the poem), serves as sex subordinated, desire deferred to the higher calling of poetry, and takes the poet into the realm of a process of thought and conjecture that easily trumps desire and grows to be an act of sublimated desire. The title of the poem4 confers onto the people a humble gift—the transmutation of biography into art—that transforms their lives and opens a contemplative space that their busy routines appear not to make an allowance for. This twofold artistic benefit—a chronicling art and a transformative one—is bequeathed by the poet to the community that made him, or at least nurtured him, but one he is now distanced from to the point of silence and a near-voyeur's distance at that. It should be said that the poet is moved to tears by his yearning and his isolation, his love of the people and his loss of familial contact with them.
There is a cost to the poet for his artistic privilege and practice of artistic license. Life appears to be busily unfolding around him and he is seconded to it as a chronicler of events to do with it and as its philosopher. While he extracts pithy insights extrapolated from the situation of his body plunged into the environment, he remains mentally apart from it. The transport turns out to be wholly the poet's, his elevation of his surroundings from the quotidian to the heraldic plane. There is a concomitant teleportation of sorts involved whereby the ordinary and mundane give rise to the poetic and regal. That lust is transformed to desire and then metamorphosed once again into love results in a triple-layered unfolding of the poet's consciousness.
Another concern of the poem is framed by a woman vendor who wishes to board the bus and asks the driver in St. Lucian patois "Pas quittez moi à terre." Walcott, in an almost DJ-inspired riff of verbal twists and turns by association of sound and meaning, runs with this for a few lines (in an artistic alignment of his prodigious gifts with Marley's):
"which is, in her patios: "Don't leave me stranded,"
which is, in her history and that of her people:
"Don't leave me on earth," or, by a shift of stress:
"Don't leave me the earth" [for an inheritance];
"Pas quittez moi à terre, Heavenly transport,
Don't leave me on earth, I've had enough of it."
The bus filled in the dark with heavy shadows
that would not be left on earth; no, that would be left
on the earth, and would have to make out.
Abandonment was something they had grown used to."
("Arkansas Testament," 49-50)
His lines hanker toward alexandrines but fall into a loose, because conversational, iambic hiatus typical of blank verse in general but idiosyncratic to Derek Walcott in particular in his mix of Standard English and French patwa5 (with some English Creole) registers. That last line is at least double edged: a religious abandonment coupled to that of politics, nothing new about that twin configuration, but with a second betrayal on the part of the poet who is clearly concerned with the ways his calling as a poet leaves these people behind (those ordinary folk who are not passengers on his form of transport, so to speak) even as he seeks to sustain his vital creative links with them. Ironically, this is a success for the poet. He succeeds in devoting a poem about sex and desire to the ordinary subject, the common folk, who represent a yearning in him for acceptance among them. Their oblivious sense of getting on with life contrasts with his immobility in the face of overwhelming sensation. They occupy the poem just when the poem feels least in communion with them, as if to testify against his fears by invading his art. A potential religious frame is blown away for its profane alternative, not the Holy Spirit but common flesh takes care of this light, not the scripture of an all-powerful consciousness but the poetry generated by humble and vulnerable and culpable flesh and blood.
The senior Walcott resembles the young poetic novice and the middle-aged seer in terms of this toying with a Christian tradition in an effort to reach beyond it to poetry's secular, formal, and gravityless space. That space resides in the formal range of Derek Walcott's poems rather than as a statement of intent. God is not jettisoned so much as seen to have a built-in obsolescence as far as the craft of the art is concerned. At some point in the poem, once it progresses away from its originating impulses (say, in Tiepolo's Hound, which has many starts and stops into the Caribbean and Parisian life of Pissarro but then quickly settles into a contemplation about the rewards of artistic endeavor6). The delight resides in the local surprises to do with Derek Walcott's demonstration of a formal dexterity in and of itself rather than its being pressed into the service of any creed. He reconciles two art forms, painting and poetry. He examines his lifelong and double devotion as painter and poet to the two art forms as an artistic figure made in the Caribbean but mired in a Western Christian literary tradition by latching onto a precursor from the nineteenth century, the painter Pissarro.
The Bounty is not God but the manifestations of life on earth and the art of poetry, which seeks to articulate the character of that bounty, what Derek Walcott calls "the awe in the ordinary" (The Bounty, p.7 iii).7 Derek Walcott as bounty hunter uses the bounty of his art and craft to understand nature's bounty. From one bounty, poetry, to another bounty, nature, Walcott devises the procedure that it takes a bounty to know a bounty. This declaration aligns him with the romantic tradition that saw reasons for religious belief in the obvious evidence of nature, or at least a redress between humanity's belief in its own superiority over nature and nature's self-evident magnificence.8 But rather than the romance of Wordsworth to guide him, Walcott opts for a riskier spiritual precursor, in the person of John Clare. Mad John Clare throws into relief Walcott's own measured grief-ridden tones. Where Clare is mad, Walcott is sad. Walcott mourns his dead mother, "the rose of my life" (The Bounty 15), as though nature's reclamation of her body imbued all of nature with the love once associated with her body while she lived. But loss itself takes center stage rather than the character of his mother, which says more about the disparity between Clare and Walcott as Walcott positions himself in the poetic tradition than about a requiem for his mother; or put another way, both qualities, grief and loss, belong to the poem but in unequal measures that favor the mood of grief over the loss of the mother.
John Clare cuts a pitiful figure in the world of poetry not least because he died relatively young, incredibly poor, and in relative obscurity. The cost of a poetic consciousness out of sync with nature or driven mad by nature's bounty when it should have been in league with that largesse, qualifies Walcott's engagement with nature. Walcott's poetic consciousness is at least historical, whereas Clare's was most palpably not. Walcott understands Clare's sacrifice for the greater calling of art as too much of a cost to pay or cross to bear, and he qualifies his engagement as grief not rage, a mourning elegiac stance rather than any combative outlook. Nature is not out to defeat the poet, but must be a resource. Clare's recognition of a peace in death, after the fact of a life dedicated to poetry and the study of nature "the grass below—above the vaulted sky"9 comes far too late for Walcott and it is swapped by Walcott for a communion between nature and the art of poetry. Whereas Clare went mad in his quest, Derek Walcott calls for repose in nature, a version, if ever there was one, of that line from Clare. But God is nowhere to be found, though, as in the earliest of Derek Walcott's poetry, the poetics is replete with the vocabulary of the church and therefore coterminous with a spiritual quest. Spirituality is supplied not by worship in a church but by poetic practice devoted to the study of nature. This places Walcott firmly in a romantic tradition with the obvious proviso of his historical consciousness as a necessary qualification of his engagement with Europe.
In God We Troust, the name and motto on the new boat or craft of Achille in Omeros, says much about the quality of this historical consciousness as it rubs up against notions of religious belief. The transfigured Greek hero in his commonplace Caribbean island backdrop is part of this elegy to the ordinary or the ordinary as imbued with the heroic. Myth is in cahoots with history—Greek myth meets an African and New World history. The misspelling, which Achille insists on keeping in obedience to his twin language loyalties (to French and English, patios and Creole), subverts the passive noun, trust, from the vessel in which the faithful place their faith to the much more troublesome verb equivalent and suggests a sort of quest or enquiry, or the continuous action of "throstle," and implies some as yet to be resolved relationship and search in the coalition between the divine spirit and human culpability. As Achille says to the priest who smiles at the name when he blesses the fishing boat, "Leave it! Is God's spelling and mine" (p 8).
The altered terms of engagement of high religion when embraced by the commoner equals the misspelling and required adjustment religion makes to survive as faith in a new setting. A similar adjustment is made to the spiritual quest retooled by the poetry kit: for God read poem.
I do not wish to argue that Derek Walcott is bigger than God but more to mean that poetry creates a secular space that replaces God. Poetry as a lifelong devotion takes the place of worship, and, at the expense of religion, poetry becomes the vessel for spiritual quest and fulfillment. More to the point, the formal devices of a poem carry with it inherent spiritual rewards, a deep confirmation of the sensuous life, and metaphorical contemplation as an end rather than a means. Reading Derek Walcott's lush rendition of this conjured spiritual space—its sheer metaphorical breadth and depth of tone—leaves me entirely convinced about the alternative religious truth in the claims made on his imagination by the Caribbean visual, or should that be victual. Probably both.
All this may be academic because the I-speaker in a Walcott poem may sound like the poet distributing the cornucopia of his tone when in fact the I-presence could easily be an assumed identity for the benefit of the poem's outcome and not the great man at all. Poets are commendably notorious for fronting their utterances, their poems as discourses, with a first-person speaker who has nothing to do with the actual lives of the poets and everything to do with the internal logic and dynamic of the independently spirited poem. I say this because Omeros is peppered with declarations of faith in God by the many dramatic players in the poem, from Philoctete, nursing his wise wound, to Helen in her haughty headdress, to the inebriated bit parts by the cast of outcast Europeans roasting in the Colonies as ex-pats. The tone of the I-speaker, cognizant as it is of the nuanced language of religion hankering after a hard-won spirituality in the middle of vapid materialism, borrows heavily on this religious diction and syntax, and conveys it into the libertarian territory of a venera- tion of nature. This borrowing from the church of God for the preferred altar of nature results in something lost in the translation. A reader may think Derek Walcott is mounting a sophisticated claim on nature as a part of the overall scheme of an inviolable church, all-encompassing even to the point of domesticating the poetic imagination.
Perhaps the safety valve against this sophist claim is the continuous energy of the bawdy calypsonian always rearing his head during the most pious of tones. Characters swear like troopers in Omeros and their bodies, their composed bodies, appear on the verge of spilling into pornographic revelation, stripping away decorum (helped by rum) for the common and sexually explicit, stripped down and bare, though not reduced body, invested in the sensuous. The senses, in at least one sense, do not take prisoners, appear classless and without gender bias, and in this sense alone stands for the libertarian ideal of a freed-up imagination, unmoored from the conventions of time and place through the very contraptions supplied by the poet's time and location. This contradiction of the senses as a gateway to some other place, using the constraints of time and place to gain ground beyond it, typifies the mission of writing invested in nature and the senses, but with a spiritual goal over and above the pleasures of the senses. And it is this creative impulse that takes Derek Walcott's poetry beyond the convention of God ("past faith" as he says in his most recent book-length poem, The Prodigal ) and into the unusual sensuous realm of discovery, surprise and wonder.
1. During the break in a roundtable discussion with Derek Walcott, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and me, moderated by Darcus Howe.
2. The poet's limited understanding expressed in the poem's tone is delimited by the formal procedures of the poem (the poem's language, metrics, lines, imagery, stanzas, phrasing, voice, and so on).
3. See the early chapters in Bruce King's biography for more on Derek Walcott's childhood.
4. Find its religious basis in John 9:5, John 8:12, and John 12:46 among others.
5. There are more updated terms for this move away from the standard vernacular or received, official code of a language for its street or popular equivalent mixed as it is with West African grammar and diction and descended from the slaves as is the case for former British colonies in the Caribbean. Kamau Brathwaite in his monograph on the beginnings of Jamaica Creole Society introduced the idea of a "nation language" in an attempt to frame the majority use of this officially unwelcome mode of communication. In Trinidad and Guyana, for example, the contribution of South Asian languages to this English instigated by mid-nineteenth-century indentureship from India is another case in point (and subject for a different essay). Walcott's Nobel acceptance speech acknowledges this Indian influence on his imaginative. See too the enormous scholarship of the two editors of this Walcott Special, both of whom have made lasting contributions to these debates.
6.Omeros engages with myth even as the lives of its characters are circumscribed by religion. Tiepolo's Hound dispenses with this religious frame and opts for art instead.
7. The awesome list of nature aligns nature's behavior with poetic modes of enquiry; nature and poetry become synonymous. Walcott repeats the phrase with a slight variance "my awe of the ordinary" on page 8 of Tiepolo's Hound as emblematic of his epiphany and the premise for the booklength poem.
8. See Wordsworth's ‘Lines: Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey …’ where he argues for nature as a force in the poet's life and a prime mover which shapes poetic thought—"… sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; / And passing even into my purer mind," (lines 27-9).
9. Clare (1793-1864), "The grass below—above the vaulted sky" (from his poem, "I Am")—a contemplative moment in poetry, if ever there was one, largely invested in stillness, it decrees a study of nature as the subject for the poet. The image also implies a posture of death in nature—the poet laid low but not yet buried.
Arena Caribbean Nights. BBC 2. Mod. Darcus Howe, prod. by Julien Henriques. June 1986.
Clare, John. (1793-1864). "I Am."
King, Bruce. Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life. London: Oxford UP, 2000.
Walcott, Derek. The Arkansas Testament. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. American edition published in 1987 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
———. The Bounty. London: Faber and Faber, 1997. American edition published in 1997 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
———. Collected Poems 1948-1984. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992.
———. Omeros. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. American edition published in 1990 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
———. Tiepolo's Hound. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000.
Wordsworth, William. (1770-1850). "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour." July 13, 1798
Erik Martiny (essay date December 2006)
SOURCE: Martiny, Erik. "Multiplying Footprints: Alienation and Integration in Derek Walcott's Reworkings of the Robinson Crusoe Myth." English Studies 87, no. 6 (December 2006): 669-78.
[In the essay that follows, Martiny traces the development of the Robinson Crusoe and Friday figures in Walcott's Crusoe trilogy—"The Castaway," "Crusoe's Island," and "Crusoe's Journal."]
Unsurprisingly for a writer who is also a playwright, Derek Walcott's poetry is remarkably theatrical—the personae employed in his poems are so numerous and diverse that they form a complete cast of characters. I wish to examine the members of this populous troupe of speakers, in order to dwell on two recurrent personae: the avatars of Robinson Crusoe and his foil, Friday.
In fiction, Defoe's novel has spawned a multitude of imitations, creating the genre known as the Robinsonade. While eighteenth- and nineteenth-century versions tend to remain optimistic, twentieth-century revisions generally lay emphasis on the more sombre possibilities of the genre, its potential to explore the ravages of solitude or colonisation. Like most poets (pace the Francophone poet, St. John Perse), Walcott's poetic reworkings of the genre have echoed this trend. The purpose of the present essay is to examine Walcott's protean representation of Defoe's characters and to redress the fact that no full-length study has been carried out on the evolution of the Crusoe and Friday figures in his three-piece sequence. It has a corrective agenda also, in that it seeks to clear up some of the misunderstandings surrounding Walcott's rather elusive personae. I will show that these misconceptions stem in part from the gap separating Walcott's theoretical statements from his poetic practice.
As well as offering closer exegesis of Derek Walcott's Crusoe trilogy and reassessing "The Castaway" and "Crusoe's Island" as mid-life crisis lyrics, this study reads the Crusoe poems in the light of the Existentialist cultural landscape of the post-war period by relating Walcott to Samuel Beckett. I propose that one of the conflicts rehearsed in Walcott's Crusoe poems works through the debate between individualism and nationalism that set Beckett and the Celtic Revivalists at loggerheads. I read the Crusoe poems as a sequence which charts the development of Walcott's outlook from Beckettian alienation to a more communal integration. The poems' strong religious strain is also dwelt upon in order to show Walcott's theological oscillation between the poles of Existentialist atheism and paganised Christianity.
The term "postcolonial" has been the subject of some controversy in both academic and literary circles. J. M. Coetzee has condemned the catchall phrase for its implicitly "Western-centred" outlook.1 While the term does reveal a European bias, I would argue that it is still an appellation of some critical viability and particularly appropriate where the Crusoe poems are concerned. Employed as a qualifier of varying intensity, postcolonialism is useful in defining a particular culture's "pre-occupations". If a nation's literature is dominated by reliance on such themes as history, marginality, hybridity, the reworking of the European canon and generally engaged in "writing back to the centre" through the colonial past, then it is still suffering from the imperial aftermath. According to this definition, it might be argued that Caribbean letters are, generally speaking, considerably more postcolonial than, for example, recent Irish literature, taken as a whole. In this sense, the fact that Coetzee's own novels are highly involved with the whole process of addressing the metropolitan (literary) centre (Coetzee's own novel, Foe, is itself a well-known reworking of Robinson Crusoe) frames them within the parameters of postcolonialism. A literature's "postcoloniality" is thus in direct proportion to the after-effects which the imperial disease has wreaked upon the national psyche. However, while I would argue that postcolonialism is currently still an appropriate term, it may not be a perennial one and should eventually fall into abeyance as a descriptive label for Caribbean literature. The enfranchised text will signal its Adamic liberation from colonial legacy and the term "postcolonial" will be used when periodising Antillean literary history.
Walcott's poetic is in fact a dialogic battleground for contending notions of identity. His personae never reveal Walcott's hard-and-fast positions. Rather, they embody respective donnings of a particular West Indian attitude: an exploration, rather than a ready-made expression of esprit de corps. Unlike Louise Bennett's Votin' Liz and her other female personae "of firm and militant convictions",2 Walcott's personae are tentative dramatisations of potential areas of identity. It is therefore an error of interpretation to infer that the difference between the Negritudinist stance exuded in "A Far Cry from Africa" and Walcott's later condemnations of Africanism constitutes a contradiction.3 Such a reading implies that poets operate in a temporal vacuum removed from change and that Walcott's statements are immutable utterances of adherence. It is important to note that even "A Far Cry" is set largely in the interrogative mode.
Despite Walcott's ultimate rejection of the African Aesthetic, much of his poetry also courts another historical idyll—the Cockaigne of the pre-colonial Carib, Friday before the arrival of Robinson Crusoe. Ultimately, however, these distinctions collapse when confronted by the more fundamental opposition between individualism and a sense of community. While the Crusoe-Friday poems deal with and do expurgate some of the more existentially disturbing aspects of the question, the conflict is never entirely resolved in Walcott's poetry. Shabine, the persona of "The Schooner Flight", can thus be read as an avatar of the castaway figure in Walcott's first collections. The male character of "The Star-Apple Kingdom", on the other hand, represents an attempt to become a unified nation-self. The psychic strain experienced by these personae is occasioned by an overambitious attempt to fill all communal deficiencies and, by the same token, cure all personal disorders, for this is their claim: "either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation" (346). Selfhood seems to be unattainable without a sense of nationhood. However, if identification with such a larger structure is self-aggrandising, it also involves the strain of a nation bearing down on the claims of the self. Spiritual nationalism entails both the glories of confraternity and the gargantuan sum of collective complexes. The greater one's sense of belonging, the more one is prone to assailments on the (national) ego. "Nobody" therefore characterises the under-identification of not knowing who one is through lack of nationality, while "nation" stresses the over-identification with nationhood that Beckett felt could not lead to adequate self-appraisal. The travel narrative of "The Schooner Flight" thus attempts to navigate between the twin poles of the almost autistic self-absorbtion the Castaway figure displays and the representative Author-of-the-nation that the Barbadian poet, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, exemplifies. These are the psychological stakes of "The Castaway" : the dichotomy between personal introspection and cultural extroversion.
Walcott's predicament can thus be formulated in the same terms as the clash between Samuel Beckett and the authors of the Celtic Revival in Ireland. Beckett's indictment of the Revivalist aesthetic centred on the premise that fusion with nationalist concerns prevented artists from apprehending their own individuated experiences. For Beckett, the glories of the Celtic Twilight were nothing more than an escape to a specious dignity. Perhaps the only major difference between Beckett and Walcott is that Beckett's starting and ending point is the given of individual estrangement whereas Walcott ceaselessly strives to depart from isolation. Characteristically, his is the half-way house between Beckett and the Celtic Revival.
Reiterating Yeats's well-known dictum according to which a man who is given a mask will talk the truth, Walcott has remarked that "one cannot avoid describing oneself in terms of masks".4 While this theoretical absolute may be regarded as paradigmatic of his reliance on a theatrical mode of self-examination, it is by no means unproblematically so. The prototypal Robinson Crusoe-cum-Adam mask of the early poems sits somewhat uncomfortably on the young poet's face. If it at first appears to be grafted onto his features, it exfoliates upon examination and is eventually shed entirely. The mask therefore retains both the primary falseness one associates it with, as well as the apparently paradoxical necessity of revealing the self through emblematic disguise.
To trouble matters further, Walcott's programmatic reference to the persona in his critical essays does not always tally with the problematically composite "Adam/Crusoe" figure dramatised in the poems. This rift is one which critics have left largely unexamined. The Adamic vision Walcott yearns for in his theoretical works is fulfilled, if sporadically, only before and after this particular persona is invoked. As often, abstract edicts run at loggerheads with their praxis: Walcott's poetic practice strains to regain his limpid prescriptions. In his essay entitled "What the Twilight Says", he takes a nostalgic look at a youthful dream which led him to imagine a nation walking "like new Adams, in a nourishing ignorance which would name plants and people with a child's belief that the world is its own age".5 Elsewhere, he describes the inherently Adamic nature of his juvenilia: "It was exhilarating to know that I was privileged to be the first one to put down the name of a certain town, or fisherman, or road."6 The Crusoe poems themselves mark a strong qualification in this ideal. If Walcott's comments in the Hirsch interview do proceed to dichotomise Crusoe's condition in terms of fervent "creative possession" coupled to lonely despair,7 the poems confront these dualities much more directly.
As the title of Walcott's 1965 collection suggests, his first Crusoe is a dispossessed castaway, cast out of the Eden of linguistic dominion. His disaffiliation has been effected by a deepening awareness of the disjunction between language, the socio-cultural reality it designates and its impotent desire to transmute the outside world through artistic production. This Sisyphus-like task is further troubled by the discomfiture of also having to borrow the oppressor's language. So much for Adamic naming. Instead of merely tasting the apple of experience, Walcott's Adam has, as it were, chewed off his own tongue. Much of Walcott's subsequent work may be seen as an attempt to breach the "gulf" (the title of his next collection) between the signifier and the signified.
The figure in "The Castaway" has little to define him. His linguistic depletion is such that he is even disinherited of his own name. This New World Adam cuts a poor figure as a broken old man marooned in the dustbin of his mind. Estranged from his own body and feelings, ipso facto, the speaker of this poem excludes the reader from emotive participation. Pathos, undermined by Beckettian bathos, remains the greatest absence of all in this poem. His is not a moving loneliness because the reader is debarred from anything other than intellectualised response. Self-pity is, if not ridiculed, then remorselessly suppressed. This stands in opposition to the Crusoe figure in Elizabeth Bishop's "Crusoe in England", who reflects that "‘Pity should begin at home.’ So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home" (121-2). Walcott's Castaway also stands as the antithesis of Defoe's proto-industrialist and Marx's vision of Crusoe as homo economicus. His affinities lie with his other contemporary incarnation as the idle animalistic islander in Coetzee's Foe: "pac[ing] about in his apeskin clothes, scanning the horizon for a sail" (18).8
This regression is accentuated by the distinctly faecal obsession evidenced in the poem. The Castaway is a West Indian Molloy speaking for the fundamental nature of the fundament: "Pleasures of an old man: / Morning: contemplative evacuation, considering / The dried leaf, nature's plan" (13-15). On the other side of the digestive tube, the food imagery suggests that his intake of nourishment is thwarted: "the morsel of a sail" (1-2) and "A net inches across nothing" (11) are his sole nutritional allowances.
In the poem, the defecatory act can be taken to represent a nihilistic view of artistic production ("contemplative evacuation", placed near "the dog's feces" (16) emphasises the link between thought and the excretory function). Nevertheless, while writerly endeavours seem doomed to faeces, there is an attempt, if not to transcend, then to revalue experience through the cyclical, alchemical processes whereby the "feces" are transmogrified to coral and rhymed with "genesis". The rhythm at this juncture becomes weightier as the tone heightens to biblical revelation: "In our own entrails, genesis" (19).
The poem might have ended at this point, but relentlessly pursues its course to reveal a full-length portrait of the estranged artist who is, in the double-edged words of the Irish writer Patrick Kavanagh's Alexander Selkirk figure, "king / Of banks and stones and every blooming thing".9 If the first section of "The Castaway" stages the artist's inability to catch anything in his net "inches across nothing", or perceive meaning, the second part thickens his feeling of inadequacy. The artistic message he might have sent off lies, ineffectual, in a bottle "choked with sand" (29). The deromanticised, Beckettian natural world mocks his endeavours and provides no abiding solace: his rotting brain hatches nothing but a cacophony of insects. Similarly, the last line of the poem effects to sever the artist from his (writing) hand. One can almost picture a writing utensil instead of the nail in his Christ-like hand: "Clenched sea-wood nailed and white as a man's hand" (31).
It is therefore a moot point whether this last iconographic image is one of redemption or even renewal. The reader is witness to a disempowered, ship/shitwrecked Christ whose resurrection remains suspended in this passionless Passion. Suffering does not bear the comforting means of uplifting artistic insight: it is a dead end in itself. The epiphanic genesis of the first section ends in the disappearance of hope. Clinched at this point, the poem appears to represent a bleak midlife crisis lyric (Walcott was also roughly the age of Christ crucified when he wrote it). This being said, the circumstances of its composition10 do inform the view, expounded by Walcott, according to which complete annulment and depletion are sometimes necessary as creative rejuvenators. As he puts it, "If there was nothing, there was everything to be made".11
As one is about to conclude on the dubiousness of Adamic renewal, a single word in the last line qualifies the reader's previous perceptions (in a manner characteristic of the body of the Crusoe poems), and one is forced to reconsider the whole poem from the very specifically socio-cultural perspective of the Antillean world. The normative, Eurocentric universal implied in the use of "white as a man's hand" points to the racially exclusive quality of the statement. It is only at this point in the poem that it becomes clear that this crucified Crusoe is more than a general portrait of the artist as a future old man. Walcott's assertion that Crusoe is a specifically Caribbean writerly doppelgänger comes into focus. Robinson Crusoe, that central "colonial utopia", has, as Peter Hulme puts it, less to do with the historic world of the seventeenth-century Caribbean than with the "primary stuff of colonial ideology—the European hero's lonely first steps into the void of savagery".12
"Crusoe's Island", the second panel of the Crusoe triptych, refashions many of the same themes and motifs, marking a progression. The opening lines resurrect God after his annihilation in "The Castaway" only to announce His death some nineteen lines later. Nevertheless, Beckett's atheistic deicidal attitudes expressed in the Castaway's "Godlike, annihilating godhead" (23) give way in this poem to a kind of oscillatory agnosticism where artistic production depends on a sense of sacred communion but is ultimately denied such heightening by the absence of any divine prevention of human suffering. In the second part of the poem, we learn that the poet's compassion for others has gnawed away at his belief in God's solicitude. While the opening lines do image the Supreme Being steadfastly crafting his New World at the anvil, it is nonetheless a postlapsarian creation designed to exclude: "Hammers ocean to a blinding shield" (3). The image is later further qualified by the mention of "crippled Vulcan" (97), the artist's patron god, who was also excluded, cast over the side of Olympus for his ugliness, like Adam out of Eden.
Likewise, the "kiln" that Crusoe might have used to create his clay vessels is made (recurrently in the oeuvre) to connote Auschwitzian furnaces, in a characteristically anachronistic shock device. In Walcott's poetry, the apparently innocuous often assumes Plathian grimness. In this way, the poem seems to dramatise a contradictory wish to depose and reinstate God as the Prime Mover. Its confused theomachy is partially resolved through the deus ex machina-like bell that rings throughout the poem as a summons to communion. It resounds like John Donne's bell tolling and telling the poet-castaway that "no man is an island, entire of itself". It brings the poet to the realisation that despite his desire for the Transcendentalist self-reliance of the artist and his longing for a release from the stultifying tensions of domestic life, communion with the Other and with God lies at the heart of salvation. Walcott's Methodist upbringing, or one might say, more correctly, the longing for deist belief (to avoid the pitfalls of an over-insistent biographical reading as there is nothing "methodical" about the erratic religious impulses evidenced here) seems to reassert itself fitfully in the Crusoe sequence as it vies with paganism in an attempt to overthrow the atheistic nihilism of "The Castaway". The original Crusoe's Puritan ethos is sapped from the outset of Walcott's trilateral sequence.
Like "The Castaway", "Crusoe's Island" is clearly a mid-life crisis lyric which compounds existential angst with more theological doubt. The speaker of the second poem mentions his age twice: "Past thirty now" (20, "I stand at my life's noon" (91). The fact that these poems were written at the age at which Christ was crucified contributes to account for the references to crucifixion. Moreover, it might be pointed out that Walcott composed the Crusoe poems at the age at which not only Christ but also the poet's father, Warwick Walcott, died. It can be argued that these two deaths combine to generate much of the anguish evidenced in the sequence.
The final poem of the triptych, "Crusoe's Journal", is tonally different to the first two poems of the sequence, displaying the poet's new-found ability to identify with his native Fridays through his use of the collective pronoun "we". This grammatical piece of wish-fulfilment seems to stem from a desire for a unitary national culture based ultimately not on racial or cultural homogeneity but on a sense of social cohesion. The poem's tone, diction and lineation all express a self-confident attitude to the role and place of Friday's nation. The regular, alternating length of the lines invites comparison to the beams of a staunch construction, especially in view of the irregular,13 erratic morphology and rhythm of "The Castaway" 's lines, surrounded by the blank void of the aporias in between the spoliated stanzas. There has been some critical confusion concerning the speaker of this poem. Rita Dove, for instance, misreads the addresser as Crusoe.14 Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Crusoe has been debunked and is no longer the spokesman of the Caribbean Islands: his words have been appropriated by Walcott's spiritual ancestors, the Arawak Caribs. So, while the title and epigraph structurally provide an introduction to Crusoe's private meditations, it is a group of Fridays who, as it were, snatch the microphone from his hands and seize on the means of production. Walcott's sequence thus stages a gradual distancing of the Crusoe figure in favour of the ever more powerful presence of Friday. If in "The Castaway", Friday is little more than a footprint, "Friday's progeny", alluded to in "Crusoe's Island", takes over the final part of the sequence. In theoretical terms, the hegemonic medium through which canonical conceptions of order, truth and reality are established is thus submitted to an aboriginal "abrogation" of "the categories of imperial culture [and] its assumption of the fixed meaning ‘inscribed’ in words".15 Like the coloniser, the reader's expectations are thwarted into attention by this pronominal subversion of the "authorised" text. Adam Crusoe is now pictured as a merely fictional character in the natives' first recreational book: their "profane Genesis" (92). Walcott's dismantling of the colonial apparatus takes place most fully in this final part of the sequence in the speakers' counter-discursive utterances.
As the tourist-guide confidence of the opening lines suggest, these autochthones are not castaways; they reside on the terra ferma of home. Theirs is not the Castaway's rotting brain, but an "intellect [which] appraises / objects surely" (4-5). Walcott's vision and collective purpose are now clear as he launches into a swinging New Historicist indictment of Eurocentric religious, literary and racial hegemonic models. The guiding persona of the poem is a collective Friday writing back to the metropolitan centre and subverting its language through ironic punning and the use of modified repetition. He makes the colonial apparatus crawl with unmaking. The pun on "good Fridays" (21), for instance, raises Friday from apparent submission to deicidal poise, which reiterates the two other poems' references to Nietzsche-like deicide in another form: the anxiety-ridden loss of God in the first two poems is countered here by a gleeful subversion of Christianity. Similarly, the irony of anthropophagously eating Christ (in host form) contrives to foil the missionaries' attempts at evangelisation.16 As in many contemporary renderings, Friday's ways confound his master's and ultimately prevail. Walcott himself has commented on this inversion: "People who come to the Caribbean from the cities and the continents go through a process of being recultured."17 The subtle irony infused in an apparently innocuous line such as "we learn to shape from them [Crusoe's journals]" (56) is achieved through a previous echo of the deeply ironic "converted cannibals / we learn with him to eat the flesh of Christ" (24-5). Lack of attention to Walcott's sardonic strategies can lead to such reductive readings as Mervyn Morris's comment that "the persona identifies with Crusoe".18 The potential irony inherent in "nothing was / the language of a race" has not been commented on. Of course, it is difficult to determine to what degree the collective Fridays' pro- nouncements are satirical denouncements of Defoe's hypotext, but their initially ironic debunking of Christianity should alert the reader to the possibility that anything they utter should be read with caution.
Ultimately, what makes the tone of this poem so confusing and difficult to apprehend is Walcott's own ambivalence to his material. His mixed feelings about Robinson Crusoe surface in Friday's approach to the coloniser's text. The journal novel is depicted as both destructive and creative. Its aesthetic value is extolled as being "odorous as raw wood to the adze" (9) and Walcott seems to envy Defoe's figurative minimalism, his novel's virtual eschewal of metaphor. Politically, however, the novel is presented as a legitimisation of European hegemony. In the final analysis therefore, I would argue that this poem has been partly misconstrued because Walcott's ambiguous hypertextual reworking of Robinson Crusoe is ultimately a satire laced with admiration for Defoe's innovatory masterpiece.
In the end, what makes this sequence so complex, and at times confusing, is its mixture of personal existential and aesthetic anxiety (at its height in, but never entirely defused by the opening poem) and a larger preoccupation with the dismantling of the colonial apparatus. The poems chart the search for the possible sources of this alienation in the fact of colonisation. The poet's sense of isolation in "The Castaway" is however only partially averted by his dive into the sea of history: individual loneliness is thus bartered for a warmer collective loneliness. The Beckettian sense of the artist's self-reliance as a guarantor of authenticity is finally worked through and relinquished in favour of a national cohesive definition of identity.
After these Crusoe and Friday-centred poems, Walcott largely forsakes the use of poetic masks in his next three collections, allowing only very thinly disguised autobiographical and biographical figures to people his poems. His cast of poetic personae resurfaces to receive its fullest development in "The Star-Apple Kingdom" and "The Fortunate Traveller". In this dramatic heyday, spanning from 1979 to 1981, the avatars of Friday and Crusoe attempt to disencumber themselves from the trappings of a colonial legacy and struggle to merge into a single composite body.
1. Begam, 429.
2. Richards, 1207.
3. All line references are to be found in Derek Walcott, Collected Poems 1948-1984, London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
4. Walcott, "Walcott on Walcott," 82.
5. Walcott, "What the Twilight Says," 6.
6. Interview with Hirsch, 283.
7. Ibid., 292.
8. Most twentieth-century reworkings of the Robinson Crusoe theme have emphasised the physically degrading and morally disaffiliating aspects of the insular myth.
9. Muldoon, ed., 21. Robinson Crusoe is universally employed as a portrait-of-the-artist figure, and is of particular pertinence to West Indian artists since Defoe's desert isle has been situated on the Caribbean island of Tobago or its whereabouts.
10. "I stayed in a beachhouse by myself and I wrote them there. … The beaches around here are generally very empty—just you, the sea, and the vegetation around you, and you're very much by yourself" (Walcott, "The Art of Poetry XXXVII," 213).
11. Wyke, 66.
12. Hulme, 186.
13. Wayne Brown, 103, remarks that "a defining characteristic of The Castaway … is Walcott's struggle against his own predisposition towards the iambic pentameter, a struggle evident in the fact that many lines which were obviously composed as pentameters to begin with, are broken up or run on in the final version".
14. Dove, 70.
15. Ashcroft, 38.
16. In his history of colonial intervention in the West Indies, J. A. Froude, 115, relates the humorous anecdote according to which African slaves were willing to be baptised any number of times for a glass of brandy.
17. Walcott, "The Art of Poetry XXXVII," 214.
18. Morris, 149.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Triffin, eds. The Empire Writes Back. London: Routledge, 1989.
Begam, Richard. "An Interview with J. M. Coetzee." Contemporary Literature 33, no. 3 (1992): 419-31.
Bishop, Elizabeth. Complete Poems. London: Chatto and Windus, 1983.
Brown, Lloyd W. West Indian Poetry. Berkeley: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
Coetzee, J. M. Foe. London: Everyman, 1994.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Rev. ed. London: Everyman, 1994.
Dove, Rita. "‘Either I'm Nobody or I'm a Nation’. Review of Collected Poems: 1948-1984." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14, no. 1 (1987): 49-76.
Froude, J. A. The English in the West Indies: The Bow of Ulysses. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1888.
Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. London: Methuen, 1986.
Morris, Mervyn. "Derek Walcott." In West Indian Literature, edited by Bruce King. London: Macmillan, 1979.
Muldoon, Paul, ed. The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry. London: Faber and Faber, 1986.
Richards, David. "West Indian Literature." In Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism. London: Routledge, 1991.
Walcott, Derek. Interview with Edward Hirsch. "The Art of Poetry XXXVII." Paris Review 101 (1986): 196-230.
———. Collected Poems 1948-1984. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
———. "An Interview with Derek Walcott." Contemporary Literature 20 (1979): 279-92.
———. Interview with Dennis Scott. Caribbean Quarterly 14, nos. 1-2 (1968): 77-82.
———. "What the Twilight Says: An Overture." In Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays. New York: Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, 1970.
Wyke, Clement H. "‘Divided to the Vein’: Patterns of Tormented Ambivalence in Walcott's The Fortunate Traveller." Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 203 (1989): 55-71.
Baer, William, ed. Conversations with Derek Walcott. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996, 211 p.
Collects a number of interviews conducted by individuals including Dennis Scott, Carl Jacobs, Leif Sjöberg, Rebekah Presson, and David Montenegro.
Jay, Paul. "Fated to Unoriginality: The Politics of Mimicry in Derek Walcott's Omeros." Callaloo 29, no. 2 (spring 2006): 545-59.
Argues that Walcott designed Omeros specifically to address the array of critical debate about his work as a whole—especially disputes about his status within Caribbean literature.
MacDonald, Joyce Green. "Bodies, Race, and Performance in Derek Walcott's A Branch of the Blue Nile." Theatre Journal 57, no. 2 (May 2005): 191-203.
Contends that "in many ways A Branch of the Blue Nile—and the Shakespearean original behind it, Antony and Cleopatra—fulfills both Walcott's commitment to exposition and his acceptance of the Caribbean's status as a crucible of languages, races, and cultures, and his enduring belief that theatre can have the capacity to show a people to itself."
Additional coverage of Walcott's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:3; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 89-92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26, 47, 75, 80, 130; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Dramatists, Eds. 5, 6; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 4, 9, 14, 25, 42, 67, 76, 160; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 117, 332; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Multicultural Writers, and Poets; Drama Criticism, Vol. 7; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Epics for Students, Vol. 1; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), 2005; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 46; Poetry for Students, Vol. 6; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Twayne's World Authors; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.