Derek Alton Walcott was born on 23 January 1930 in Castries, Saint Lucia, to Warwick and Alix Walcott. Warwick Walcott was a civil servant, poet, and visual artist who died at thirty-five, when Derek and his twin brother, Roderick, were only one year old. Their mother was a school-teacher and encouraged their early education and love for reading; she was also involved in a community cultural group and got her sons involved in local theater. Roderick, along with his brother, was to become a well-known playwright. Derek Walcott published his first poem at fourteen and his first book at eighteen (25 Poems, 1948); his first play, Henri Christophe, was staged in 1950. He earned his B.A. in 1953 in English, French, and Latin, while on a British government scholarship at the University College of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, and he then studied for one more year in the Department of Education. In 1954 he married Fay Moyston, and they later had a son, Peter, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1959. From 1954 until 1957 Walcott taught in various West Indian schools; he soon began to devote more and more time to writing and the theater. On a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1958 he studied theater in New York City. In 1959 he moved to Trinidad and founded the Little Carib Theatre Workshop, which he ran until 1976.
Ambition and talent showed early in Walcott's career. In 1948, with two hundred dollars borrowed from his mother, he had published and then sold on street corners his 25 Poems . Frank A. Collymore, doyen of West Indian letters, quickly hailed it as the work "of an accomplished poet." Strange as it may seem for a mulatto boy to dream of becoming a poet on an obscure island where there was no precedent for a serious career in writing, Walcott turned his unpromising situation to advantage. His father's friend Saint Lucian painter Harold Simmons nurtured his powers of observation.
While he has remained true to his roots in the Caribbean, Walcott began at an early age to appreciate the traditional European heritage provided in colonial education. "The writers of my generation," he asserts in introducing his Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970), "were natural assimilators. We knew the literature of Empires, Greek, Roman, British, through their essential classics; and both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made. With this prodigious ambition one began." For this reason, the poetry and drama preceding publication of his first major book, In a Green Night: Poems (1962), contain disparate elements that only later would be woven into more cohesive, mature works.
"A City's Death by Fire," from 25 Poems and later reprinted in In a Green Night: Poems , illustrates the influence of Dylan Thomas and the intellectual play of metaphysical poetry. Another poem from the late 1940s, Epitaph for the Young (1949), is even more significant, not because it is a pastiche of James Joyce's style but because it became what Walcott calls the "urtext" for Another Life (1973). Leopold Bloom, Buck Mulligan, Stephen Daedalus, and Icarus are mentioned as Epitaph for the Young, this portrait of a young West Indian artist, recounts the voyage of self-discovery from one "island" to the next--from art, to first love, to foreign culture, to shipwreck on the shoals of reason. In the twelfth canto, a wiser, purged man (having come full circle) can hang up his oars, pray, and fall asleep. Important as the poem may be for understanding Walcott's early linguistic dexterity, the resolution is too facile, its cyclical voyage motif predictable, and the narrative too full of allusions, puns, myths, and set scenes to be sustained.
From this same period, Walcott's drama reflects a similar frenetic mix. The subject matter of Henri Christophe comes from Haitian history. The title character, based on a former slave who betrayed Toussaint-Louverture, became a king, and used his power to build a palace and fortress to rival European splendor, only to be over-thrown by his own people, could have been part of a manifesto on Negro dignity and human tragedy. Instead Walcott's Jacobean poetic style and occasional lapses of dramatic control seem to obscure the expression of the feelings of the characters.
Walcott's enthusiasm for impressive styles and literary classics may have been detrimental to his writing, but it also impelled him to pursue drama further--as well as poetry and painting. In the same year that Henri Christophe was produced (1950), he and Roderick established the Saint Lucia Arts Guild. For the first time, Derek could cast, direct, and produce plays as he wrote them. The event is fortuitous because Walcott's creativity is evolutionary. His normal practice is to improvise and revise material even while it is in the middle of a production run. Soon after founding the Guild, Walcott was recipient of a Commonwealth Development Scholarship to study at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
The Sea at Dauphin (1954), produced the year after his university graduation, was Walcott's first successful early drama. While it is modeled on John Millington Synge's Riders to the Sea (1904), there is a progressive step beyond Walcott's other juvenilia. What distinguishes The Sea at Dauphin is the cohesion of theme and manner of expression. A cycle of generations continues in the play as old Afa reluctantly agrees to acquaint young Jules with the island fishermen's lore. In effect what Walcott gained from Synge is not another borrowed style but inspiration to record the actual patois of Saint Lucian fishermen struggling for existence. Walcott has often extolled the need for developing poets to learn from their predecessors. The advice in his Trinidad Sunday Guardian article "Young Trinidadian Poets" (19 June 1966) is typical: "The search eventually ends in the discovery of other voices, and yet at its end the poet, by acquiring all of these demons, becomes himself."
Walcott's next step toward acquiring his own voice can be seen in two plays from 1957 and 1958, which owe their inception to his early experiences in New York. His first visit there, in 1957, did not exactly inspire Ti-Jean and His Brothers , produced later that year; it did, however, drive Walcott into an isolation so intense that he was forced to write out of fear. The play is based on the West Indian folktale of three brothers who attempt to overcome the devil. Only Ti-Jean succeeds, by using wit rather than strength or erudition. Simple as the story appears, Walcott recognized in writing it the elements of the kind of West Indian play he wanted to create. He describes the discovery in "Meanings" (Savacou , 1970): "For the first time, I used songs and dances and a narrator in a text. Out of that play I knew what I wanted." The second valuable play, from 1958, is Drums and Colours . Commissioned for the opening of the first Federal Parliament of the West Indies, the play is a sequence of skits designed to chronicle West Indian history. There are different types of protagonists for the four major periods of development: Columbus for discovery, Raleigh for conquest, Toussaint for rebellion, and Gordon for independence. Linking the scenes are various motifs, such as a gold coin that passes from generation to generation; descendants of key characters; and, most relevant to Walcott's West Indian influence, carnival revelers dancing, singing, and joking during intervals.
The explicitness and the didacticism of the play are necessary for its purpose. More noteworthy, however, is the introduction of carnival masks, mime, calypso music, frozen tableaux, and asides, which disrupt realistic illusions and draw the audience into the action. By 1958, then, Walcott had incorporated West Indian folk motifs, dialect, and local music into a dramatic form unique to the Caribbean. Also in 1958 Walcott discovered Bertolt Brecht and through Brecht, classic Oriental theater and film. Brecht's "epic theater" provided the theoretical foundation for Walcott's assimilated techniques. Neither the Oriental theater nor film, however, struck him as new, but they revived memories of life in Saint Lucia. In Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon (1950) Walcott recognized familiar characters, topography, and superstitions involving mountains, mists, and forests. This led in 1959 to preliminary versions of what was to become his masterpiece, Dream on Monkey Mountain , first produced in 1967; the play won him an Obie Award in 1971.
Few plays appeared immediately, though, out of Walcott's rich experiences in New York; one reason may be his move to Port of Spain and the founding of the theatrical group that later became the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. He launched a seven-year program training amateur actors for the roles demanded by his type of West Indian drama. Another equally valid reason is that, in addition to writing a weekly arts column for the Trinidad Guardian, he gave much of his attention to poetry. Between his settling in Trinidad and his winning an Obie, he married Margaret Ruth Maillard in 1962, had two daughters, and published four books of verse.
One key to the first of these volumes, In a Green Night: Poems , may be found in one of its poems, "A Far Cry from Africa." The West Indian's dilemma is captured in Walcott's best-known lines: "The gorilla wrestles with the superman. / I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?" It would be a mistake to assume that Walcott espouses one position. This first major collection testifies to his range of ideas and technical virtuosity. Concrete references identify his native island and scenes shift from there to northern Europe and America. Time is spanned from the anonymous past ("Bronze") to the personal present ( "Letter from Brooklyn"); language runs from island patois ( "Parang") to the rhetorical elegance of "Ruins of a Great House." Robert Graves was impressed enough to declare Walcott's understanding of English usage to excel most if not all contemporary English-born poets.
Given the multiplicity of this collection, no single poem is representative, yet "Ruins of a Great House" shows Walcott's technical artistry with its vivid picture of a fallen empire. All that remains of the "great" plantation are dislodged stones, a broken carriage wheel, and the acrid, rotting limes, the abandoned crop of past generations. The persona in the poem muses over the fact that former masters may have evaded guilt, but they could not avoid the grave. When it occurs to him that slaves' remains may be buried nearby, anger flares up briefly, only to be diluted with the thought that John Donne's England, too, was once a colony like his own. Compassion and intelligence intermingle to resolve that there is no easy forgiveness, no unalloyed guilt.
In his review of the book for the Listener (5 July 1962) P.N. Furbank noted that history has made Walcott a "citizen of the world"; therefore, Furbank accepts the echoes of François Villon, Dante, Catullus, the Metaphysicals, and various modern poets. In the Trinidad Guardian (10 December 1969) Gordon Rohlehr hailed In a Green Night: Poems as a landmark in West Indian poetry, freeing such poetry from "mindless romanticism," simple "historicism," overly rhetorical protest, and "sterile abstraction." This is high praise for a first book, but while there are strains of fine lyricism, sensuous imagery, and subtle turns with complex themes, the overall framework lacks purpose and direction. The utilization of so many different masks does not allow for a sense of unity.
Selected Poems (1964) suffers the same weakness because nearly two-thirds of its thirty-nine poems are reprinted from In a Green Night: Poems. Of the sixteen new poems only "Origins" was not republished in the next book, The Castaway and Other Poems (1965). "Origins" is Jungian in its utilization of racial memory, journeying back into the recesses of human history. Saint Lucia shares place with ancient Troy, Greece, Guinea, and Egypt. Significantly the point of origin is the sea, the inevitable but pathless link for islanders from lands to which they can never return. Precipitation derived from seas and rivers supplies the denouement in the closing stanza, consecrating exiles, their humble labor, and the soil of their adopted homes.
In The Castaway and Other Poems the typical nameless exile of "Origins" is represented by the protean castaway Walcott once described in an unpublished essay, "The Figure of Crusoe." Walcott's Crusoe is multifaceted, embodying the functions of Adam, in having to name all the objects and animals in his New World Eden; of Columbus, as discoverer and conqueror; of God, because he rules his world as a figure of awe and worship, to his man Friday; and of Daniel Defoe, due to the record he creates based on such experiences. This restructured Crusoe becomes a more potent symbol for Walcott than Icarus and Daedalus had been in his previous poetry. From the opening, title poem, to "Crusoe's Journal" and "Crusoe's Island," near the end, this book has a central focus. With a few minor exceptions, the perspective is Crusoe's no matter where the poem is set and no matter how abstract or universal the implications. "Crusoe's Journal" focuses on accommodation to an alien environment, and "Codicil" brings the volume to a bitter conclusion. Walcott's personal and professional anguish over his divided heritage is apparent: feeling history disrupted, the best minds debased, and nothingness in his heart, he has an indifference that conceals a "different rage." Writing in the London Magazine (January 1966), Alan Ross perceived a more positive Walcott beneath such melancholy depression. Ross also detected greater clarity without loss of evocative power in The Castaway and Other Poems: less tropical density and fewer impenetrable trails of meaning turning back on themselves.
Just as Walcott seemed to be achieving greater control over his poetry in the middle and later 1960s, his theatrical project began to show progress as well. As Walcott explains in "Meanings," he abandoned New York to settle in Trinidad because there were few serious black actors in America in 1959, and there were no producers for the kind of West Indian plays he wished to write. Thus the workshop became an outlet for him and several other West Indian talents. It also served as an educational experience in which dancers, actors, mimes, musicians, choreographers, set designers, technicians, and directors could share in experimentation. Bringing all these technical disciplines to bear on the enthusiastic, talented members of his troupe, with Brecht as his guide, Walcott was shaping Afro-Caribbean content into European form.
While Walcott was guiding his drama group, he remained active as a writer. Ti-Jean and His Brothers had come to him almost spontaneously; Malcauchon; or, The Six in the Rain , produced in 1959, was the result of his study of Brecht and Oriental theater, and is an imitation of Rashomon. Walcott's major borrowings are atmosphere, perspective, and character types. Just as in Kurosawa's film the deceptive quality of reality is the theme. Malcauchon; or, The Six in the Rain opens, as does Rashomon, with peasants sheltering together from the rain. When Walcott's characters discover the legendary criminal Chantal in their midst, the tension mounts until Chantal's accidental death. There is irony not only in the fact that the murderer is victimized but also in that Chantal's killer is the defenseless creature he had taken into his protection. Chantal's dying words reveal the final irony. In spite of his irredeemable appearance, Chantal knows love and beauty, and in his way he reveres God. Only the audience and one old man witness this revelation. For everyone else, yet another truth remains hidden.
Educational as Walcott's imitation of Rashomon may be, the major gain is in the creation of Chantal, a social outcast who foreshadows Walcott's best-known protagonist, Makak, in Dream on Monkey Mountain. There is a clear connection among Kurosawa's Japanese peasants, Brecht's "alienated" characters, and Chantal and Makak. Yet there is an equally strong source within Walcott's childhood. In "Meanings" there is mention of a violent drunkard who used to terrorize children when he came into Castries each payday. Since the mythology of Africa had been adulterated through the middle passage and generations of slavery, West Indian folklore replaced lost heroic chiefs and warriors with devils and tricksters. Walcott wanted to recover the elemental warrior latent within the old Saint Lucian derelict. The meaning of Dream on Monkey Mountain centers on Makak's own recovery of that potential.
Since the play is offered within a dream framework, its irrational, contradictory, and stylized elements are accounted for. Walcott's introductory "Note on Production" warns that the source is metaphor and that the play may be best understood as "a physical poem." Versatile actors can play multiple roles, extend traits of the protagonist, and function as symbols. The plot unfolds as in a segmented dream.
With Lestrade's comic interrogation of Makak in the prologue, the audience sees Lestrade's Afro-Saxon prejudices and Makak's sincere confusion about his own identity and the meaning of his life. He cannot recall his legal name, says his religion is Catholic, and says his race is "tired." While Lestrade is questioning, complete with song-and-dance routines, Tigre and Souris mime a courtroom scene: hearing, seeing, and speaking no evil. Their reaction to Makak's vision, once he is allowed to describe it, is open derision. When all is told, an apparition of a white woman has appeared, disclosing that he is descended from warrior kings and belongs to Africa.
Part 1 of the play is a flashback to events, antecedent to the prologue, which caused Makak's arrest for "drunk and disorderly" conduct. Makak awakens from a dream, and miracles occur when he begins to believe in his nobility and powers of healing. In scene 2 he prays not that Joseph, his dying patient, will be cured but that his people will believe in themselves. Upon Joseph's sudden recovery, word spreads that Makak is a savior. The only flaw in his messianic plan to lead his people back to Africa is that his disciple Moustique is caught exploiting the people for personal gain; Moustique is soon apprehended and beaten to death. Part 1 closes with Makak attempting to fathom the mysteries of death in Moustique's lifeless eyes.
At the beginning of part 2 Makak overpowers his jailer and leads an escape into the jungle. Unlike the single line of character exposition in previous scenes, this second part of the fable follows multiple levels of meaning. Lestrade begins pursuit, extolling the white man's rational laws and excuses for "putting down the natives." Political and social reality are unavoidable when Lestrade alludes to Sharpeville (to the police violence against demonstrators in this South African city in March 1960) and asserts that the most dangerous crime is men escaping from "the prison of their lives." Such a concept entertained by a racially mixed character such as Lestrade indicates the depth of his own delusion. Significantly when Corporal Lestrade takes to the jungle in pursuit of Makak, he "goes native," ultimately becoming Makak's staunchest convert to African "Zionism." Doing a radical turn, he sells out as completely to the black cause as he had previously to the white. In this respect Lestrade dramatizes a major philosophical point made by Walcott in his introductory essay, "What the Twilight Says": the West Indian suffers from a "schizophrenic daydream" of exile from an Edenic Africa. Therefore, Walcott contends, "Once we have lost our wish to be white, we develop a longing to become black, and these may be different, but are still careers."
Wrangling among Makak's ardent followers precipitates a rising level of violence, but, caught up in the frenzy for power and revenge, he loses control. There follows a comic Walpurgisnacht that Walcott has called an apotheosis, a dream within the larger dream. Settled in Africa, Makak presides over the judgment of all past racial discrimination. In addition to Noah, Robert E. Lee, and Al Jolson, who are patently guilty, Moustique is resurrected and damned for having perverted the original dream. Without offering any defense, Moustique countercharges that, despite the best intentions, Makak himself has been corrupted by racist power and revenge.
Makak's beheading of the white apparition concludes the bloodletting and paradoxically sets him free of his own delusions. The white goddess may have introduced blackness to replace a debilitating Anglophilia, but for the West Indian it is just as limiting to identify with distant Africa. The final step to personal liberty occurs when Makak no longer needs the racial crutch. In "What the Twilight Says" Walcott sees this release as essential to West Indian authenticity: "The depth of being rooted is related to the shallowness of racial despair." Obsession with ethnic purity can be counterproductive. In the epilogue Makak transcends illusion to disclose his essential self. Immediately he recalls his legal name, Felix Hobain. Even Moustique recognizes that Makak is a new man. His aim is to return to his mountain home and claim the heritage he has earned as a West Indian.
Just as the play is rich in ambiguities, critical reaction has varied considerably. Errol Hill finds it tangled and incoherent; Theodore Colson appreciates the necessity of a vicarious journey to purge stereotypes that undermine humanity; and Denis Solomon notes the antithetical structuring of ideas in addition to black and white--"dream and reality, essence and substance, passivity and action, purity and corruption." Selden Rodman takes Walcott to task in a lengthy 1974 interview for permitting the Negro Ensemble to turn their New York production (1971) into an antiwhite vehicle. Walcott admits discomfort with their interpretation, since his intention was not confrontational: Dream on Monkey Mountain closes not with a beheading but with a man achieving accommodation with his environment.
The 1970 volume containing the play serves as a culmination of Walcott's theatrical search through the 1960s, and the multiple poetic voices and masks of the decade are brought together in The Gulf, and Other Poems (1969). Rohlehr sees the central theme of The Gulf, and Other Poems to be "the general chasm separating peoples, cultures and even individuals within the closed unit of a family." More often than not, the narrative persona views things through glass, detached, or passing by.
The title poem incorporates major ideas and motifs from the entire book. In an airplane over Texas, the speaker considers matters as disparate as tasteless coffee, Jorge Luis Borges's prose, John Kennedy's death, personal detachment, minority violence in the United States, and the gulfs (real and metaphorical) that separate men from all vestiges of home. The "catalogue" builds to a climax with the line "age after age, the uninstructing dead." As long as the living refuse to learn from them, the dead remain "uninstructing." The poetic voice is certainly not dispassionate. There may be distance between the observer and his subject, whether he is in England, North or South America, Europe, or his native Caribbean, but he is repressing his attachments.
"Mass Man" is a satirical probing of the carnival gaiety of clerks "making style" and of one forlorn child. The speaking persona looks ahead to Ash Wednesday, feeling a different kind of abandonment: "my mania is a terrible calm."
The closing poems are more intimate, focusing on personal matters. "In the Kitchen" imagines a touching reunion between Walcott's mother and his deceased father. "Love in the Valley" and "Hic Jacet" concern love of life made more vivid by literature, great authors, and their heroines. In "Hic Jacet" Walcott gives his reasons for having rejected metropolitan exile to remain in the islands. Claiming that he actually sought more power and more fame than writers who emigrated, he says, "I pretend subtly to lose myself in crowds / knowing my passage would alter their reflection." The paradox of seeking fame through losing himself is not difficult to resolve: the line speaks of "pretending" to become one in the crowd. Blending in, he absorbs a kind of nourishment. Giving voice to his people defeats the forces that have driven other writers to seek their fortunes abroad.
The degree to which Walcott succeeds in The Gulf, and Other Poems in balancing his aesthetic taste and the earthiness of raw experience is open to critical evaluation. Roy Fuller (London Magazine, November 1969) suggested that judicious revision could remedy obscurities of attitude and syntactical clumsiness in specific poems. Denis Donoghue (New York Review of Books, 6 May 1971) thought that a weakness for grandeur and the strain between public and private expression lead portions of The Gulf, and Other Poems into rhetorical excesses. On the positive side Edward Baugh points out that the title poem is "a model of a firmly controlled blend of eloquence and rhythmic emphasis on the one hand and the plain-sounding and lowkeyed on the other" (Literary Half-Yearly, July 1970).
Walcott put some of his hopes for the future into less metaphorical form during the 1970s. In the first decade following political independence for several West Indian nations and at the height of the black-power movement, great social pressures were at work. In introducing Dream on Monkey Mountain, he mentions the value of art and the artist as revolutionary weapons; however, he does not advocate revolution as an end in itself. In a 1973 interview with Raoul Pantin, "Any Revolution Based on Race Is Suicidal," Walcott complained about the failure of "radical" writers who are too concerned with extraliterary matters to serve the demands of their craft.
While he rejects the radical approach, he is not a reactionary. Elsewhere he explained to Rodman how the sophisticated author might provoke effective change. Using the label "colonial" as opposed to "revolutionary," Walcott defined a more mature writer. Because of the revolutionary's antagonistic approach, such a writer actually galvanizes and perpetuates the tradition he opposes. More subtly, by assimilating the time-tested aesthetics of his predecessors, the colonial artist confiscates what he wants and ultimately generates a tradition in his own image. By his special definition then, Walcott told Pantin that in respecting certain ideas he "is still revolutionary in the sense that he is saying that the preservation of these ideas is valid when the revolution is finished." This idea is consistent with his commitment to the West Indies and with his description of the audience he wishes to reach with his plays: "My audience is ... the people we tend to have the most social contempt for.... It is our duty in the theatre to get to that person, not by any lowering of standards of literacy or anything like that, but by an intensity and a clarity of performance that will affect everybody in that audience from a Minister of Culture down to somebody who's somebody's maid." Walcott's article "What the Lower House Demands" (Trinidad Guardian, 6 July 1966) suggests how to reach them: with humanity, entertainment, and even proportionate vulgarity--the gifts of "geniuses from Shakespeare to Fellini."
More or less successful attempts to execute some of these concepts resulted in a few minor plays in the first half of the 1970s: In a Fine Castle (1971), Franklin (1973), and The Charlatan (1974). Themes common to the three have to do with social and racial conflict and problems of identity. As Walcott expected, the plays met with negative criticism because of the number of white roles in the scripts. Racially biased comments were occasionally made. In answer Walcott might well have repeated his words to Rodman: "My great desire is to make the scene I write about as true as possible regardless of the consequences." These three plays of the early 1970s are relatively minor, compared with Walcott's most accomplished dramas, but each reveals individuals coming to terms with life in an emerging society.
Walcott's next major publication, Another Life, his autobiographical poetic portrait of the West Indian artist, is based on personal experience, but there are universal implications rising out of the narrator's imaginative reflection. Not only does Walcott record the growth of an intelligence in Another Life, but a measure of his own artistic maturation will be evident through comparing the book with the poem he has called its urtext, Epitaph for the Young. In place of the earlier poem's allusiveness is a self-assured style, whether the mood is melancholy, humorous, or bitterly satirical.
Part 1 opens with a boy painting a landscape for his mentor (Harold Simmons) to inspect. Readers have the advantages of a dual perspective: the boy's feelings lend immediacy, but his seasoned insights as a man are also available to leaven naiveté with experience. The "Divided Child" indicated in the title of this section is then a subtle symbol for the many polarities that must be resolved before the long poem concludes. He begins by cataloguing the people and things nearest to him: domestic motifs of sewing, ironing, and washing clothes. The boy recalls laundry like "freshly ironed clouds," and the "iron hymn" on his mother's old sewing machine. Such metaphors are woven into the narrative fabric far more effectively than in Epitaph for the Young.
What the youth learns in the classroom is fused imaginatively with things he knows, turning Castries into his Troy, or his New Jerusalem. In his impressionable mind the juxtaposition of the Old World tradition and his neglected colony tends toward wild exaggeration. To restore balance, without undermining the pervasive sense of wonder, Walcott resorts to mild self-mockery: "Provincialism loves the pseudo-epic / so if these heroes have been given a stature / disproportionate to their cramped lives, / remember I beheld them at knee-height." Hindsight permits this editorial leveling. Lloyd W. Brown (Journal of Commonwealth Literature, December 1976) sees the child image as archetypal for the newness and the creative possibilities in the New World. As Walcott told Carl Jacobs in 1966, provincialism itself is not without certain advantages, giving him a "deeper communion with things that metropolitan writers no longer care about ... attachments to family, earth and history."
Part 2, dedicated to "Gregorias" (an artist figure based on Dunstan St. Omer), concentrates on Walcott's teenage years and his valuable friendship with the aspiring young painter St. Omer, who becomes symbolic of all the "Gregoriases," struggling young artists of his generation. Their mutual aim, and the central objective of Another Life, is "Adam's task of giving things their names." Awed by the masters of Europe, they create, expressing their island's primeval past. Gregorias the painter "abandoned apprenticeship" to risk the "errors of his own soul," while the poet is tied to "this sidewise crawling, this classic / condition of servitude"; and together the works are complementary, in style and medium: words and pictures, translating experience into art.
Part 3, "A Simple Flame," opens with the 1948 fire that devastated much of Castries. Reconstruction of the city in modern concrete reinforces the young narrator's sense of inexorable change. Walcott's first love, Anna (Andreuille Alcée), absorbs more and more of his attention and passes into his poetry. Conscious of the "noble treachery of art," he apologizes for the aesthetic urge to describe her even as they are holding hands.
The final segment of Another Life features severe social criticism before it rises to a lyrical conclusion. Titled "The Estranging Sea," this part seems bitter, for reasons both personal and professional. Experience has taught Walcott that, to the descendants of slaves, brotherhood means "spitting on their own poets / preferring their painters drunkards, / for their solemn catalogue of suicides." Closer to home he learns that Dunstan St. Omer has tried killing himself and Harry Simmons has succeeded, his body lying undiscovered for two days. Venting frustrations, Walcott singles out government ministers, young radicals, and Uncle Toms alike as impediments to authentic development. Relenting slowly, he concedes that those who insist on dwelling on the cruelty of the past may have a point: that is, if the journey goes back to primal beginnings and wipes the slate clean.
From such a primal "nothing" (the word he repeats emphatically) a new beginning is possible. It is paradoxical that a poet who has assimilated such a wide variety of traditional influences should advocate forgetfulness. Nevertheless, measured, selective memory fits his practice. Obsession with the past is debilitating if it ends in bitterness, hatred, or self-contempt. As with Makak and as with the West Indian "intelligence" narrating Another Life, the individual must overcome the shackles that prevent his seeing himself as what he is, not simply as what he comes from (important as that may be). This is the basis of Walcott's revolution. Therefore the repetitive "nothing" near the conclusion of Another Life can be understood not as negative but as another beginning. Walcott ends on a note of exaltation, rejoicing in the Greek-sounding appellation "Gregorias" he has given Dunstan St. Omer. They are fulfilled in their self-appointed task--like that of the Mediterranean Greeks--naming a New World.
Criticism regarding Another Life has been generally favorable, even when not enthusiastic. Paul Smyth's assessment in Poetry (December 1973) speaks for several others, admiring lyrical passages while regretting the lack of sustained coherence. West Indian novelist George Lamming underscores the political and racial pressures that automatically make a writer with Walcott's open-mindedness unpopular with cultural nationalists (New York Times Book Review, 6 May 1973). Several leading writers and critics from the Caribbean have devoted articles to the book, but the most extensive coverage is Baugh's biographical Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision (1979). Baugh reaches the conclusion that "The Estranging Sea" fulfills the first sections of Another Life and provides "a frame and perspective" for viewing the entire poem. Despite questions of formal coherence or controversial ideas, the poetry alone bears repeated readings.
Following the publication of Another Life, Walcott accepted the commission of the Royal Shakespeare Company to write a modern version of Tirso de Molina's Spanish classic El burlador de Sevilla (1634). In his hands this Golden Age treatment of Spanish aristocracy, including the original Don Juan Tenorio, becomes The Joker of Seville (produced in 1974, published in 1978). A young West Indian poet-playwright may appear to be an unlikely choice for this adaptation, but Walcott saw himself as perfectly suited. Using the original plot as a rough map, Walcott said he strove to emulate the pace of scenes and the general pattern with an authentic re-creation rather than artificial imitation: "The wit, panache, the swift or boisterous elan of his period, or of the people in his play, are as alive to me as the flair and flourishes of Trinidad music and its public character.... Once its music entered my head naturally there was no artifice in relating the music and drama of the Spanish verse to what strongly survives in Spanish Trinidad." Perhaps it is this compatibility of cultures and expression that encouraged Walcott to change the setting of one major scene (the seduction of Tisbea) to the New World and to expand upon the original figure of Don Juan to dramatize several of Walcott's own principal themes.
The protagonist's inexorable quest and every other aspect of the play--music, humor, dialogue, and character revelation--push the action forward. Only shortly before his fatal encounter with the vengeful statue of Don Gonzalo does Juan come close to voicing his impulsive drive. Reminded of the church's call for penitence, he responds, "I serve one principle! That of / the generating earth." Farther on it becomes clear that Walcott's Juan embodies an irrational force--the human, Dionysian spirit that rebels against conscious prohibitions beginning in Eden. As an existential, post-Adamic man, he is alienated from institutional values. The terms of his existence require that he use every weapon in his arsenal to conquer each female and overmatch every man he meets.
Since Walcott's revision benefits from modern psychoanalytic insights, his characters are far more introspective. Juan's rival Octavio, for example, experiences vicarious wish fulfillment through Juan's exploits. While secretly admiring Juan's liberty, Octavio hates and represses the dark instincts in his own nature. He has a recurring nightmare involving a woman and a snake in a garden: he becomes the snake he fears, and the woman welcomes his violation. Guilt forces Octavio to suspect the motivations of even his most honorable intentions. There is ambivalence within the women Juan seduces as well. Instead of being ruined by Juan, they are liberated by his unlawful embrace. Each of them, because of a weakness in her spiritual armor, is partly responsible for her own seduction. She either accepts Juan disguised as the man she wants, or she is swayed by pride to be an accomplice in her own deception.
Walcott's depiction of women in this light is not to be seen as excusing the crime by blaming the victim. Far from it: he uses the opportunity to comment on the plight of women in a male-dominated society. His statement is cogent not merely because it coincides with the Western feminist movement but because it refers to humanity regardless of sex. Men as well as women are victimized by the conventional roles imposed by society. After Isabella, Juan's initial victim, has suffered months of forced seclusion in a nunnery, she comes to regard the loss of her maidenhood in terms of the human responsibility purchased by Eve when she ate the fruit of knowledge in Eden. In consoling her fellow sufferers Ana and Aminta, Isabella does not offer sympathy but enlightenment. Their vaunted chastity, self-denial, and conformity to the dictates of propriety had made them marketable as wives only; at the same time it was antithetical to freedom and a full life. Her bitterly earned wisdom may console Ana and Aminta, but another woman, Tisbea, has committed suicide because Juan dashed her hopes of upward mobility through a noble marriage.
Juan disappoints people and sometimes causes death, as with Tisbea and Don Gonzalo, but for all his lies and chicanery he also discloses truth. Juan's tragic epitaph "sans humanité" becomes a choral refrain in the epilogue. As Juan remarks on various occasions, he is a principle, a force larger than life and therefore incapable of human emotions. Although others benefit from Juan's exploits, his flouting of maidenhood and all authority is fruitless for him. To compound the irony, the archliberator becomes trapped in the irreverent role he has chosen to play. In this respect, too, he assumes characteristics of Dionysus.
Yet, as is the case with Dionysus, Juan's death is not the final word. Death itself is cast in the joker's role as Juan's corpse is borne off to an insistent calypso beat: "If there is resurrection, Death is the Joker, / sans humanité!" Raphael's calypso band is appropriately costumed as other cards in the joker's deck. The island-flavored music is vibrant and sometimes as risqué as the native kaiso (popular songs ridiculing taboos and foibles). Thus, in spite of the serious theme, a lighter comic mood is an integral part of the overall drama. It is the kind of integrated theatrical performance Walcott considers necessary for the West Indies; it also radiates meaning in a form accessible to the world at large. A Trinidad Guardian reviewer, Victor Questel (6 December 1974), felt that the music and content enhance each other, and another critic, Patricia Ismond (in Tapia, 1 June 1975), attested to the fact that local audiences were elated with the "sensuous and aesthetic expression," which engenders a spirit of communal participation.
Walcott's next major play, O Babylon! (produced in 1976, published in 1978), is far removed from the Spanish aristocracy depicted in The Joker of Seville. He could hardly have selected a group less sympathetic to Western culture than the Rastafarians of Jamaica. The sect abstains from the material trappings of civilization, deifies Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie, and makes poverty a virtue until members can leave "Babylonian" exile to return to Africa. The dramatic tension in the story centers on the conflict between the temptations of fleshly comforts and the yearning for spiritual fulfillment. The primary antagonist is a North American corporation interested in acquiring a Rastafarian settlement as a site for a resort hotel. The corporation bribes officials, social workers, and Rude Bwoy, one of the slum dwellers who wants to become a "Big Black Star," but it cannot buy the consent of the protagonist, Aaron, and the community's spiritual leader, Sufferer. The particular era (the period of Emperor Selassie's 1966 visit to Jamaica) causes the pressure to mount rapidly. If the Rastafarians can reach an agreement with the government, many of them will be permitted to repatriate when the emperor returns to Ethiopia.
Unfortunately certain restrictions prevent former criminals, such as Aaron, and the elderly, including Sufferer, from being eligible. Striking out in frustration, Aaron commits arson. His rash act threatens to push Priscilla, the woman he loves, back into the city, but in the end they are reconciled. The long-range tragedy is that he gives the government the pretext it needs to deprive the Rastafarians of their land. As the various conflicts are resolved, the theme becomes clear. In this regard Rude Bwoy's changing outlook is especially instrumental. Cynicism permits him to grow successful, but he learns to respect and envy Aaron's resistance to the temptations that were too great for him. Aaron's defense in court is enlarged to include all the downtrodden people of the earth, and it praises the "unquenchable spark," the faith that preserves a man such as Aaron. When he is released from jail, his dreadlocks shorn, he still believes in the God he has not been permitted to see. Following days of walking among the Jamaican mountains, he learns to love his native land. His home, like Makak's "Africa of the mind," depends on the peace he makes within himself.
Since Rude Bwoy's nightclub act takes him from the slums to glittering foreign stages, there is motivation for the music (scored by Galt MacDermot). It ranges from throbbing reggae to soft, lyrical, moving spiritual numbers, and Walcott considers it to be so much a part of the play that he has called O Babylon! his first "real musical." His argument is that his previous plays do not integrate songs and dance so thoroughly into every aspect of the drama. He suggests that his cast be judged as closely for their singing and dancing as for their acting. The writer and director, too, of course, influence the theatrical production. Early presentations brought receptive audiences, but some critics complained of particular flaws. Questel found the play "too easily and glibly put together" for the "fierce integrity that the Rastafarian cult deserves" (Tapia, 28 March 1976). Sule Mombara (Caribbean Contact, April 1976) detected incompatibility between the sometimes-European musical form and the African content. Whether in reaction to such observations or for other reasons, Walcott made substantial revisions before O Babylon! and The Joker of Seville were published in a single volume in 1978.
Sea Grapes (1976), his next major poetry collection, revives familiar material, yet it seems fresher and more accomplished. Aside from Another Life, which conforms to an extended autobiographical thread, Sea Grapes is Walcott's first organically unified anthology. There is a subtle pattern in Sea Grapes, despite Richard Pevear's contention that there is too much diversity for the book to be rounded off completely (Nation, 12 February 1977). Whether Walcott consciously devised an overall substructure, it exists nonetheless. The initial sign that a metaphorical return voyage lies ahead appears in "Sea Grapes," the opening poem. The Caribbean schooner and the observer on the beach are linked with the Aegean and the archetypal wanderer Odysseus. Distances in time, space, and geography define the arrangement of the book.
The beginning section, containing twenty-one poems, culminates in a paean to Saint Lucia. Themes range from the desecrations caused by tourism in the U.S. Virgin Islands to meditations on painting and one of Walcott's favorite symbols, Adam and his progeny in the New World Eden. There follows a sequence of caustic poems on political machinations. The speaker shows his despair in "Dread Song": "let things be the same / forever and ever / the faith of my tribe." "Natural History" is milder in tone, and it reviews the evolution of man from his emergence as a "walking fish" through his arduous adaptation to the atomic age. The next poem, "Names," catalogues the broken shards of the Old World that have washed ashore in the Caribbean.
The earthy response of a child comparing stars to "fireflies caught in molasses" sets the stage for the volume's centerpiece. "Sainte Lucie," the longest poem in the collection, dramatically closes the first group of poems. Its final movement, entitled "For the Altar-piece of the Roseau Valley Church ...," has biographical interest because it centers on a mural painted by Walcott's friend St. Omer (the "Gregorias" of Another Life). In his mural St. Omer depicts not unearthly saints, but local people engaged in their accustomed duties. Walcott admits Roseau Valley is no Eden and its inhabitants no heavenly creatures, but he can see their spirits and the "real faces of angels."
In the next fourteen poems, from "Over Colorado" to "The Bright Field," he elaborates more on foreign places than he does in the poems ending with "Sainte Lucie." As Walcott's allusion to Walt Whitman in "Over Colorado" suggests, optimistic projections have gone wrong in places other than the West Indies. After touching numerous points on the circumference of his larger world, Walcott, with intermingled imagery of London and Trinidad in "The Bright Field," returns attention to the West Indies. The conciliatory reflection in "The Bright Field" brings the voyage back to its beginning and provides an emotional close to the thus-far-accumulated poems.
Beginning with "Dark August," what may be considered the concluding group of eleven poems sets a more somber mood than has appeared earlier. Experience has taught the speaker to "love the dark days" and "to sip the medicine of bitterness." Gray comes to symbolize strength in "To Return to the Trees." Like these trees, he has sunk roots, "going under the sand / with this language slowly, / by sand grains, by centuries." In her review of Sea Grapes Valerie Trueblood (American Poetry Review, May-June 1978) reiterates the fact that Walcott has been "criticized at home for not making the break with the great tradition of English literature and writing in 'the language of the tribe.'" Trueblood detects the kind of originality he practices: "His way is to find what we didn't know was there in English, while keeping its excellences." What he has found derives from the spoken, as well as the written word, as is shown in the echoes of literary masterpieces and Saint Lucian patois.
In spite of two notable triumphs in 1976--publishing Sea Grapes to favorable reviews and bringing O Babylon! successfully to the stage--personal and professional factors led to Walcott's resignation from the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Seventeen years of fruitful collaboration resulted in several plays with a distinctive West Indian style and an amateur theatrical troupe capable of going its own independent way. As a result of this break Walcott's next major play, Remembrance , while it starred Wilbert Holder, on loan from the workshop, had its 1977 premiere with the Courtyard Players in Saint Croix. Two years later, after Walcott's usual process of continual revision, the play premiered in New York at Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival, with Roscoe Lee Brown in the lead. By then Walcott had written Pantomime (produced in 1978), the play that was published together with Remembrance in 1980. In the meantime he began to accept visiting professorships at U.S. universities, including New York University, Yale, and Columbia. He was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979.
Following the large casts and exuberance of The Joker of Seville and O Babylon!, both Remembrance and Pantomime seem comparatively sedate. There is music in Remembrance, but its function is not so much to advance narrative as to support mood. The opening scene is in modern Port of Spain; then the body of the play is presented as a flashback to protagonist Albert Jordan's teaching career in preindependence Trinidad. Recalling his experiences, Jordan can remember at first only mistakes and failures. He is convinced that as a teacher, husband, parent, and occasional writer he has had no positive impact.
Inspired by Thomas Gray's "An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard" (1751), Jordan's principal message, the theme of the play, is that the humble, seemingly insignificant individual is a valuable human being no matter what his provincial surroundings. Characteristically Jordan senses the damage of a lifetime of colonial subjugation. Had he been truly weak, however, he could have easily shifted with each political movement. Instead he has contained his anger and remained firm in his convictions, while nationalists and racists have spent their fury in slogans and gestures. Exposing these repressed feelings proves therapeutic; in the closing scenes Jordan makes peace with his inner voices.
On a higher social plane, and with greater introspection, Jordan dramatizes the same journey to accommodation that brings a renewed Makak back to Monkey Mountain. Although there may be similarities in the conclusions of these two plays, Walcott is examining an altogether new facet of one of his most fundamental themes. Violence is not the only path back to self-discovery, and even the colonized intellectual contributes ultimately to the development of his country. As its title suggests, Remembrance is reflective, and the action is not carried so much by music and humor as it is in his other plays of the 1970s. Richard Eder found the New York production to grow tedious in later moments (New York Times, 10 May 1979). Edith Oliver, on the other hand, thought the slowly darkening action was quite effective (New Yorker, 21 May 1979).
Pantomime reclaims the archetypal Crusoe figure, who has been important in Walcott's poetry at least since The Castaway and Other Poems. The cast of only two male actors makes Pantomime an even more intimate play than Remembrance. Despite its scaled-down cast and time span, the play uses humor and ironic role reversal to delve into a complex subject. The primary plot follows a rambling argument between Harry Trewe, English manager of a small tourist hotel in Tobago, and his black assistant, Jackson Phillip. Their point of contention is the feasibility of staging a skit Harry has written for the entertainment of his seasonal patrons. Nothing out of the ordinary happens until Harry suggests adding humor to the Robinson Crusoe story by switching roles and improvising, Harry becoming Friday and Jackson taking on the part of Crusoe. Reluctantly Jackson plays along, but when he introduces serious points about the master-slave relationship, Harry demands that they forget the idea. Offering his resignation, Jackson insists that Harry face the implications of their colonial relationship; once again the specific grows into the universal.
When Harry tries to imagine himself in the situation of Friday, he is shocked at the irony of a black man's native culture being forcibly imposed on a Christian: "He'd have to be taught by this--African ... that everything was wrong, that what he was doing ... I mean, for nearly two thousand years ... was wrong. That his civilization, his culture ... horrible. Was all wrong." As Jackson is quick to point out, Harry has just summarized the history of European colonization, and what is happening between the two men repeats the pattern. Whenever the civilized native rises to the level of the ruling class, his master wants "to call the whole thing off, return things to normal." Tension is maintained because Jackson has determined to amplify that very point, while Harry wants to please tourists with light comedy.
In act 2 Harry has begun to see things more clearly, and the two men begin discussing in specific detail the terms of racial and social equality. With dramatic economy the exposition flows, on both individual and broader cultural levels. Thus Jackson addresses Harry's personal crises and simultaneously outlines the means whereby West Indians may authenticate their existence. Walcott's familiar castaway is resurrected in Jackson's description of what the real Crusoe would have been like. It is Jackson's contention that Crusoe was never the lonely romanticist Harry has imagined. Instead of pining over his distant family, Jackson's realist takes control of his environment and constructs a new life with the materials at hand. He stands as the first "true" Creole because of his practical faith. Jackson argues that if Harry is to survive on the island he, too, must cut his losses and adjust to circumstances in the present. After being forced to confront some of his misgivings about marital and professional failures, Harry begins to make progress. By the final curtain he is wiser, and he and Jackson have reached a more equitable relationship.
In print Pantomime seems to rely heavily on long passages of exposition. Nevertheless the play was staged at least nine times between 1978 and 1981 in the Caribbean, England, and the United States. Christopher Gunness (People, June 1978), reviewing a 1978 Trinidad production, was pleased with the lively verbal exchanges in the opening scene, with the slowly building seriousness, and with the emotional intensity packed into the conclusion. His sole reservation was that the conclusion appears ambiguous.
Whatever the ambiguity or ambivalence in this tragicomic drama, there is no such difficulty in the poetry collected in the same period. The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) is self-assured, beginning vigorously and progressing to a satisfying conclusion. Walcott is at his lyrical best, ranging widely in language and emotion. The initial poem,"The Schooner Flight," is a brisk narrative in the patois of the seaman-poet-speaker Shabine. Shabine has tried many things in his life, but nothing has given him a sense of fulfillment. In the final portion of the poem he spells out his quest, the "vain search for one island that heals with its harbor / and a guiltless horizon." The poem does not allow for any nebulous grail quest; life has focused Shabine's world too realistically for that.
As with Walcott, Shabine's skin is not white enough to admit him among the ruling colonial class, and after independence he is not dark enough to benefit from black pride. In fact the revolution shows him political manipulation rather than effective change. He remarks cynically that "Progress is history's dirty joke." Among the accomplishments of civilization have been genocide, slavery, the fall of empires, and colonial neglect. Transcending the hard opinions, Shabine possesses a larger insight. He has learned, as had Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "ancient mariner," to respect the seemingly insignificant things in life. Drawing his story to a close, he can say, "I am satisfied / if my hand gave voice to one people's grief." Neither glossing over nor excusing the inequities of West Indian life, Shabine knows the role he has to play.
One following poem, "In the Virgins," may be an otherwise pleasant evocation of place, but it yields an example of Walcott's occasional tendency to overplay his context of reference: "Like neon lasers shot across the bars / discos blast out the music of the spheres, / and, one by one, science infects the stars." Neither idea nor mood necessitates such hyperbolic excess. Fortunately this is soon followed by "The Sea Is History" and "Egypt, Tobago," two poems closer to Walcott's rare skill in arranging words so that meanings evolve naturally and are motivated sufficiently. Judeo-Christian parallels to the story of slavery and emancipation in "The Sea Is History" are mirrored in "Egypt, Tobago" with Old World/ New World transpositions. Antony and Cleopatra recline on a Tobago beach while his ambitions expire. Among terms of veiled sexuality, the power of "All-humbling sleep" is the central focus. Burdened with sin, his world crumbling, Antony is purged of all concerns save "tenderness / for a woman not his mistress / but his sleeping child." The sentiment, understated, is timeless; their location and station in life become irrelevant.
That openness allows Walcott to introduce two non-West Indian poems into this predominantly Caribbean volume. Their appearance is explained in part by Walcott's personal friendship with the poets to whom they are dedicated: "R.T.S.L." for Robert Lowell and"Forest of Europe" for Joseph Brodsky. In a style more conversational than anything after"The Schooner Flight," Walcott asks in "Forest of Europe" :
What's poetry, if it is worth its salt,
but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?
From hand to mouth, across the centuries,
the bread that lasts when systems have decayed.
The poetic line and the scene are relaxed. While snow drifts against their cottage, two men exchange experiences from two different worlds in the light of their winter fire.
The Star-Apple Kingdom is populated with individuals who respond imaginatively to their environments. The Jamaican narrator who provides the perspective in the final poem, "The Star-Apple Kingdom," has reached a point in life where he feels excluded from his heritage and his island home. His reverie, prompted by old photographs and other memorabilia, covers a sequence of mixed feelings. First he feels nostalgia over the tranquil plantation life now gone forever. As a child he had been excluded from the great house, but he was comfortable in a place where he knew he belonged. The mood is soon altered, however, as he contemplates the servants pushed to the background of a family picture. Since that scene, circumstances have permitted him to rise, and he now resides in that same great house. From his disquiet it is clear that his improved position has not brought happiness.
Entering a dream, he reviews his country's independence struggle. Next are satirical lines on the new exploiters of the people, giving way to nightmares of riots, martial law, and armed motorcades. Just before dawn, he sleeps peacefully, and when he awakens, like Shabine in"The Schooner Flight," he is refreshed. From his dream he retains a useful measure of anger and with it a reaffirmed commitment to his much-abused country. Glancing at a Caribbean map, he imagines the string of islands from west to east to be turtles, drawn like suicidal lemmings instinctively toward Africa. Crying out "with the anger of love," he seeks to warn them of their danger. With that gesture his tension breaks, and the poem descends to a tranquil close.
Through the window, he observes an ancient woman washing the cathedral steps, water dripping from her rag as "vinegar once dropped from a sponge." To his awakened mind she symbolizes possible new beginnings:
and the woman's face, had a smile been decipherable
in that map of parchment so rivered with wrinkles,
would have worn the same smile with which he now
cracked the day open and began his egg.
The energetic thrust of that mixed metaphor concludes a great poem. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer (Vicki Feaver, 8 August 1980) suggested that to compare "The Star-Apple Kingdom" with its thematic predecessor "Ruins of a Great House," from In a Green Night, "is to recognize Walcott's development not only in terms of techniques but also in breadth of vision." This concluding poem and"The Schooner Flight" serve as bookends to a well-rounded selection.
Two years came between The Star-Apple Kingdom and The Fortunate Traveller (1981). Walcott's experiences in that time period influenced the poetry directly, because he was the "fortunate traveller," living part of each year in New England--teaching at Columbia, Harvard, or Boston University--and part of the year in the Caribbean. All Walcott's collections since Sea Grapes seem to be arranged according to some unifying principle. The Fortunate Traveller is polar in orientation, beginning and ending with sections labeled "North," with a longer central group entitled "South" framed between them.
In the title poem a petitioner from a developing country pleads for economic assistance in England. Told that "You are so fortunate, you get to see the world," he agrees, as befits his subordinate position. The next descriptive line, though, without commentary, describes ironically the angle of his economy-class, shipboard view: "Spray splashes the portholes and vision blurs." The dominant images of the northern locations have to do with unaccustomed seasonal changes and winter cold. "Upstate," "American Muse," and"Piano Practice" all include pity for the state of the American muse. In "Piano Practice" she pleads a headache when the poet asks her out; he suspects she is merely afraid to be seen "with someone who has only one climate." In the first section the major poem, "North and South," is transitional, moving not only toward the next part of the book but preparing readers for the greater intimacy that will be developed there. Walcott outlines his function as a colonial writer recording the postmortem on the empire. Looking through glass once again, he compares coral beds under a glass-bottomed boat to the detritus of sunken civilizations. Their language is his favored heritage, even when the American muse is reluctant, or when the prejudiced cashier in "North and South" winces from touching his dark hand.
"A Sea Change" begins the "South" section, maintaining the linkage with the North and with the past. The presence of U.S. marines is mentioned in the first two poems, including an allusion to war in the South Pacific in "Beachhead." In the third, "Map of the New World," Odysseus enters the picture. Due to the juxtaposition of such elements, X. J. Kennedy's principal complaint is that Walcott may strive to cover too broad a canvas, giving such longer poems as "North and South" the appearance of being disoriented (Poetry, March 1983). On the other hand, Mary Salter finds some metaphors cramped in too small a space or overexplained (New Republic, 17 March 1982). Writing in the West Indies, Jeremy Taylor is suspicious of Walcott's overly poetic craftsmanship. He suspects that Walcott is writing for "intellectuals rather than for me and you" (Express, 4 August 1982). Cogent as each of these observations may be, they mostly speak of isolated points within a work of singular accomplishment. When the persona in the poems is back in the West Indies, in the "South" section, Walcott again sharpens his satirical pen. "The Spoiler's Return" resurrects a famous calypsonian to criticize graft, censorship, social decline, and fruitless causes. Spoiler sings about local scandals, international relations, and famous names from history and legend. Once again Walcott's vehicle of description and his subject matter are intricately bound together because of Trinidad's polyglot cultural matrix. Calypso and carnival bands draw upon issues ranging from the trivial to the sublime, using humor and extravagant theatrics to emphasize their points.
That basically critical stance and such broad references are but two features of this middle section. Beginning with "The Hotel Normandie Pool" and continuing to "Store Bay" at the end, Walcott turns confessional. Not only are his three children (Peter, Elizabeth, and Anna) and his wife (Norline Metivier Walcott) named, but his inner pain over divorce (from his second wife, Margaret), being alone, and the stillbirth of a daughter are disclosed. What could have been maudlin in inexperienced hands is delicately balanced between raw emotion and aesthetic distance. His brother poet Ovid and the mythical Narcissus enter the first of these poems, but, after that, literary allusions and face-saving humor give way to stark details of the observable scene.
The last section of the book is more detached once again. The title of the final poem, "The Season of Phantasmal Peace," is a benediction on all the cross-purposes and polar separations exemplified in the rest of the poetry. Moments of peace may be fleeting, as are the seasons, "but, for such as our earth is now it lasted long."
Three years passed before Midsummer was published in 1984, but there are connections between these two books, well beyond the facts that The Fortunate Traveller is dedicated to Brodsky and Midsummer addresses him directly in its first and last poems. The contrasts between temperate seasons and tropical stasis carry over from the earlier book, and Midsummer complements the polarities of The Fortunate Traveller by stressing correspondences. It is almost as though Walcott wishes to challenge those critics who continue to see his style as divided. The central focus of Midsummer is the unifying diversity of his personal Caribbean experience.
Although the volume is divided into two parts, the fifty-four (untitled) poems are numbered consecutively. Walcott's profession as colonial writer is the subject of many selections. In "IX" he describes the virtues of a writing style transparent as Chinese pictographics, "a tone coloquial and stiff," like the style of Li Po, "all synthesis is one heraldic stroke." In "XVII" Walcott weds his lifelong love of painting to his family tree: throughout the book he mentions names of artists, but in "XVII" he lays his rightful claim to the Dutch masters through his Dutch grandfather's bloodline. Elsewhere Walcott's autobiographical voice is emphasized by his naming relatives and places he has lived in New York, Brookline, Port of Spain, and Diego Martin. Beyond that, he describes small-town motel rooms, rainy days, the blistering heat of summer, and moments of dislocation that he recognizes as being almost universal.
As usual, critical opinion is divided and based on familiar criteria. R. W. Flint (New York Times Book Review, 8 April 1984) sees Midsummer as a looser, more restful collection than some of Walcott's previous books, but he finds the Caribbean pieces more natural than the "Lowellian" poems on Boston. Both Flint and an anonymous Yale Review critic (Autumn 1984) admire the intense lyricism and the parallels with traditional sonnet sequences. The Yale Review article favors Walcott's leisurely journalistic style, "where digression is itself the matter of the journey." Steven Ratiner (Christian Science Monitor, 6 April 1984), on the other hand, despite praise for the brilliant language, longs for a controlling subject to provide balance and proportion, one that can sustain development beyond the myopic self-absorption of the poet himself.
There is hardly anything new here. Beginning in the 1960s, with Walcott's first books, there were reservations about the artificiality of a West Indian using such "eloquent English," and at the same time the disparity of Walcott's subject matter began drawing fire. Given the consistency of such remarks from a variety of critics, there is obviously substance to their concerns. Either Walcott has yet to rein in his unquestioned talent, or criticism is reluctant to grant license to his unprecedented oeuvre. It is Walcott's virtuoso performance as a lyricist that elicits admiration, while it simultaneously defies formal boundaries; it is his catholic ingestion of ideas and styles that enriches his subject matter, while it simultaneously taxes the very conventions it purports to assimilate.
Walcott's next publication was Three Plays: The Last Carnival; Beef, No Chicken; and a Branch of the Blue Nile (1986), which contains a vastly rewritten In a Fine Castle, retitled The Last Carnival, along with Beef, No Chicken and A Branch of the Blue Nile. The thematic focus in The Last Carnival has been shifted away from Brown, the uncommitted mulatto journalist of the 1971 version, to Agatha Willett, an immigrant English governess, and Clodia DeLaFontaine, her young Creole charge, who dedicate themselves to Trinidad's independence movement. Scenes in act 1 cover the time from 1948, when Agatha Willett arrives during carnival season, to Independence Day in 1962. Act 2 is set in the early 1970s. Carnival time is a recurrent motif, and different characters see each year's celebration as possibly the last "Mas": one character kills himself after the carnival; martial law threatens the carnival's continuation in another scene; and Clodia's exile means she has seen her last carnival. The situational irony concluding the play is that Brown, a cynical reporter for the Guardian, considers himself condemned to an island he spurns but cannot leave, while Clodia is forced out because she associates with rebellious guerrillas. Clodia's parting advice to Brown is to "Find a cause and love it."
The two white women appear exonerated in their choices because of their love and commitment, especially when Agatha's firebrand rhetoric evolves into practical assistance for officials learning to govern a fledgling nation. Since Walcott has been charged often enough with writing for white audiences, he may be accused of veiled racism in making Brown so negative while having an Englishwoman agitate for peasant awareness and later become an essential adviser to the new Trinidad government. Another interpretation may be closer to Walcott's message. For years he has insisted that good and bad are color-blind value judgments independent of race.
Beef, No Chicken treats with sensitive humor the personal tragedies that inevitably accompany "progress." Otto Hogan, his sister Euphony, and a circle of friends face the incursion of a new sixlane highway near the town of Couva. Despite their efforts to delay fate, their rural village will be lost to the traffic and a faster pace of life. As important as that theme may be, the sight gags and puns that provide entertainment throughout the play save it from becoming overly serious. Otto keeps reminding his friends of the values they are watching disappear. Knowledge of the expected death of his closest friend, Alwyn, darkens the horizon, but Alwyn's philosophy is that man should make the best of things even if they are short-lived. Through Otto and Alwyn, Walcott dramatizes two attitudes toward an uncertain future. Since he keeps the tone light and uplifting, this middle piece serves nicely as an interlude between the heavier burdens of The Last Carnival and A Branch of the Blue Nile.
A Branch of the Blue Nile begins as a play about an amateur acting troupe and grows into a compendium of all Walcott's theatrical experiences up to 1983. In this respect it may offer too many techniques and ideas for readers to digest well. From the outset the actors are rehearsing a West Indian version of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607). Without warning, rehearsals turn in on themselves and become improvised dramas about the cast. One of the themes, then, concerns the often-indistinguishable line between fact and fiction. After the unavoidable comparisons with Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Brechtian verfremdungseffekten (effects that maintain aesthetic distance), and stage confessionals such as Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line (1975), there remain internal echoes of Walcott's own career: play production as subject (Pantomime); the dream within a dream (Dream on Monkey Mountain); seeking fulfillment through a religious sect (O Babylon!); adaptation of a classic to West Indian terms (The Joker of Seville); and rifts between director and company, as happened between Walcott and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. The list could be extended by recounting familiar themes.
The title of A Branch of the Blue Nile and the main theme derive from the English character Harvey St. Just's attempt to combine local dialect with Shakespearean lines in Antony and Cleopatra, while Trinidadian actor Chris Lewis is piecing together an impromptu play ("A Branch of the Blue Nile"), casting directly from life. Problems arise on several levels, professional and personal disagreements mingling, as one scene after another is interrupted for discussion of the fictional role and the actor's performance. For example, the actress Sheila Harris, who experiments with a religious sect, discovers her worship to be another form of performance, not unlike her devotion to acting. Along with that parallel, comparisons are drawn between the status of the profession in Trinidad and abroad. Whereas there is neglect in Port of Spain, there is injustice in London and New York. In spite of the layered themes and overlapping techniques, one anonymous early reviewer found that the synthesis works well in performance (Trinidad Guardian, 10 November 1983).
The publishing of Walcott's Collected Poems (1986) is the crowning achievement in a consolidation process that began as far back as the writing of Remembrance and his resignation from the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1976. Selections from his successive works afford the reader a view of Walcott's developing style through Midsummer. As for Midsummer itself, its direct candor is the mature extension of an allusive, confessional style dating back to Walcott's earliest verse. From Three Plays: The Carnival; Beef, No Chicken; and A Branch of the Blue Nile is equally close to Walcott's own life. It provides exposition, then dramatizes the impact of theater on a group of people struggling to discover themselves and the meaning of their lives. The combined effect of the two collections is to affirm the centrality of West Indian experiences in the New World.
The two-part division of his next poetry collection, The Arkansas Testament(1987), into sections entitled"Here" and "Elsewhere" reflects the enduring bifurcation of colonialism. Walcott's familiar themes emphasize home, memories, the past, and contrasts among cultures both ancient and modern. Suspended between his native Saint Lucia and his adopted North America, he weaves a poetic synthesis that consoles even as it fails to reconcile his displacement.
Walcott's propensity to turn all of Western culture to his own purposes reached new heights with the publication of Omeros in 1990. Combining Homeric and Dantean elements within a New World context, Walcott undertakes nothing less than a New World epic of the dispossessed. On the figurative level a striking, black Helen embodies the island of Saint Lucia. Whether they are descendants of African slaves or representatives of the waning empire, the author and the separate protagonists ultimately discover that, through their efforts to take possession of the metaphorical Helen, the island has laid its inextricable claim on each of them. In the bittersweet harmony of Omeros, Walcott reflects the unfulfilled promise and the potential of the Americas.
Walcott presently teaches at Boston University, where he has been since 1981. He continues painting, one of his first loves; he writes at a furious pace and still produces and directs plays. His career as a serious writer has encouraged many younger Caribbean artists, and the success of his Trinidad Theatre Workshop has inspired new companies throughout the West Indies. Beyond that, his poetry and drama stand as artistic proof that the most complex issues in Western civilization culminate in the New World. Thus Walcott enjoys an international reputation that by many estimates places him among the greatest contemporary English writers.
From: Hamner, Robert D. "Derek Walcott." Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers: First Series, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 117.