The search for a meaningful location as seen in the selected works of Derek Walcott


By Dr Omila Thounaojam


In his essay, “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?”- Walcott states that it is the process of discarding and remembering, the piecing together of a history in the wake of historical fragmentation, that has been the dominant force of cultural development in the Caribbean. This piecing together has created a Creole sensibility, a combination of diverse experiences – the re-imagining and recreation of a middle ground that is neither African nor European, neither subject nor object. Creativity as Walcott emphasizes in The Muse of History, cannot come out of revenge.  Against a “separatist” black literature that violently asserts its isolation, its difference, he counterposes the vision of a Caribbean writer as inevitably “mixed”- a poet who is neither a Eurocentric nor an Afrocentric but an ever more multicentric poet of the contemporary world.

In a true sense, Derek Walcott’s In a Green Night (1962) deals with the liminal status of the West Indies in the Post-Colonial period and thereby, anticipates us to the varied themes that would be present in his subsequent literary works. So this part of the paper attempts at viewing ‘how’ In the Green Night (1962) lays out the foundation for many of Walcott’s most acclaimed works in the future that explores his profound understanding of the multiple, conflicting and interacting voices which in turn, provides a rich portrait of the cultural and historical identity and transformation of the English speaking Caribbean. In his 1970 essay on art (and specifically theatre) in his native region, What the Twilight Says: An Overture (published in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays), Walcott bemoans the lasting effects of over 400 years of colonial rule. He reflects on the West Indies as colonized space, and the problems presented by a region with little in the way of truly indigenous forms, and with little national or nationalist identity. He states: “…we are all strangers here (10)…. Our bodies think in one language and move in another…” (31). While recognizing the profound psychological and material wrongs of the colonial project, Walcott simultaneously celebrates the hybridisation of Antillean cultures. This is evident when he delivers a report about the origin of his interest in the theatre where he sounds more optimistic, hoping to be able to make creative use of his cultural schizophrenia.

A central theme that runs throughout Walcott’s works is his search for a meaningful location in the Post-Colonial Caribbean culture. From the beginning, he has intensely felt the antagonisms between the cultural heritage of the Old World and the traditions of the new one. In his critical work Derek Walcott, published in 1999, John Thieme describes the conflicts Walcott has experienced between the positions of European and African, Anglophone and Francophone, Standard English and Creole, and Methodist and Catholic. In the earlier collections of poetry, Thieme traces “a sense of lost perfection, cracked innocence and psychic fragmentation,” which he considers to be a result of the racial divisions of the Caribbean society. In one volume after another, by means of a variety of important poems, Walcott tries to find expressions for the difficulties Inherent in Caribbean cultural identity as is evident in a poem like “A Far Cry From Africa.”In the poem “The Schooner Flight” (1979), Shabine, a Walcott persona, gives an often quoted definition of the identity of a person from a small country in the Caribbean:

“I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I am nobody, or I am a nation.”

In reality, this appears to mean that one has no nation but the imagination to relate to one’s location in the Caribbean cultural context. In a somewhat later work, “North and South” (1981), this poem’s persona gives another effort to express a cultural identity, referring to himself as

“A colonial upstart at the end of an empire,
a single, homeless, circling satellite.”

At an early stage, Walcott was seized by an interest in the situation of St. Lucia. This grew into a promise to chronicle his island, a vow taken together with a painter friend. Walcott’s early play, Henri-Christophe, was connected with this intense desire to depict and express the essence of his Caribbean surroundings. In a later context, Walcott managed with deeper penetration than ever before to give form to a mature attitude to this theme, with a kind of acceptance of the trespasses of his ancestors through the centuries. Here follows the end and epitome of his extremely interesting essay “The Muse of History,” published in 1976 and re-published in 1998 in the essays with the title “What the Twilight Says.”

“I accept this archipelago of the Americas, I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks.” (The Muse of History)

These are moving words for a person who feels himself exiled from the Eden of his grandfathers. We may be sure that this reconciliation has cost Walcott much but provided him with deep inner peace. But if we think of its universal consequences, this does not mean that there should exist any universal forgiveness for brutality. Thus, Walcott has no forgiveness when he asks in Omeros whether he might have broken his pen when he started writing poetry forty years earlier, if he had realized that.

“This century’s pastorals were being written by the chimneys of Dachau, of Auschwitz, of Sachsenhausen.”

In his important, autobiographical collection of poetry, Another Life, 1973, he also speaks about the task of those who first came over the seas to inhabit the American world:

“We were blest with a virginal, unpainted world
with Adam’s task of giving things their names.”

An important part of Walcott’s poetry and drama has as a partly subconscious program, the “Caribbeanization” of earlier, European motives. Thus, when he studies and admires the plays of John Synge and his depiction of Aran fishermen, he works by creating St. Lucian counterparts, simple fishermen speaking their patois. In Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott makes a great effort to interpret the nature of Caribbean identity. Colonialism has been important in damaging the human soul and humiliating the inhabitants of this part of the world. But there is no point trying to build castles in the air, as when Makak dreams of his African roots. At the end, in the epilogue, this simple-hearted visionary proletarian is acquitted, while Western civilization with its great characters is sentenced to death. Regardless of this, hate and revenge are negligible – in fact, negative – factors to the writer Walcott.

In this book-length poem Omeros (1990), he retold the dramas of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in a 20th-century Caribbean setting. Walcott’s has called himself “a mulatto of style.” It consists of sixty-four chapters divided into seven books. The central characters are two fishermen, Achilles and Philocrete. Among its subjects are sufferings of exile and the contemporary Caribbean life. The task of the bard is to sing of lost lives and a new hope. In Omeros, Homer himself appears in a row of different shapes. He is the blind Greek poet himself, the blind popular poet Seven Seas, the African griot or rhapsodist, the famous American painter Winslow Homer (with his paintings from the Atlantic Ocean), Virgil (the Roman counterpart to the Greek poet), and a blind barge-man. Even the personalities correspond to the Homeric ones: Philoctete, the wounded archer; Major Plunkett, a contemporary Philocrete; Achilles, here the son of an African slave; Hector, a fisherman; Helen, intentionally made into a very commonplace and approachable young Caribbean woman. Walcott’s post-colonial world, a world where many slaves had classic Greek names, in many different ways corresponds to Rome and Greece.  His epic poem Omeros exposes the complex cultural strains that converge in his native St. Lucia, celebrating at once the European, Amerindian, and African heritage shared by the islanders.

Discussions of epistemological effects of colonization inform plays such as Ti-Jean and his Brothers and Pantomime. One of the eponymous brothers in Ti-Jean and his Brothers (Mi-Jean) is shown to have much information, but to truly know nothing. Every line Mi-Jean recites is rote knowledge gained from the colonizer, and as such is unable to be synthesized and thus is inapplicable to his existence as colonized person. Walcott’s text is crowded with thoughts and reflections on history that probes the colonial dialectic in his two-hander Pantomime. In the 1978 play Pantomime, Walcott used only two characters, Robinson and Friday, in an ironic, modernized variation of their personal relationship that takes place on the island of Tobago. In the play, Walcott revisions the story of Robinson Crusoe / Man Friday in an effort to destabilize the colonial power constructs. Reversing the roles of master / servant, Walcott temporarily lends to Trinidadian Jackson, a guest house factotum and calypso singer, the role of Crusoe, with Harry, a British ex-patriate and owner, the identity of “Thursday,” thus resetting Daniel Defoe’s legend in pre-colonial days. Recalling his fascination with the Edenic concept of naming (“Muse” 3-5), Walcott highlights the problem that faces the Caribbean writer by having Jackson re-appropriate the material objects around him, re-christening them in a pseudo-African language, calling the table “patamba,” the chair “banda,” etc, recalling the poesía negra’s use of jitanjáfora (jitanjáfora is a term for the use of onomatopoeia in Spanish) mentioned earlier. The scene at first reflects Jackson’s agency:

“He has the ability to resurrect the language of his ancestors and regain ownership of the material of his island, teaching his minion Harry, the Anglo Thursday, his new tongue and establishing authority over his surroundings. The impossibility of his mission surfaces, however, as Jackson immediately forgets the words he had just spoken: Harry: “You never called anything by the same name twice.”

Jackson’s inability to resurrect a dead language reflects the Caribbean’s lack of a single, discernible cultural history; Harry’s retort reveals the violence inherent in the linguistic indoctrination of the colonial powers: language through the barrel of a gun. Walcott writes in English, the language of Trinidad, but he also makes full use of the local dialects, or what Barbadian writer Edward Kamau Brathwaite calls “nation language,” and portrays Jackson as code-switching throughout the play to reveal his culture’s linguistic dexterity.


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