How does Derek Walcott chronicle West Indians' battle with heritage, identity and acceptance in his poem "A City's Death by Fire"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Knowing a brief bit about Wolcott helps sort out the meaning of "A City's Death by Fire," which then informs an understanding of the poem's relevance to West Indians' battle with heritage, identity and acceptance. Additionally, clarifying the culturally applicable definitions of identity, heritage, and acceptance permits a clearer view of Wolcott's message in this poem.


Identity changes over time and through experience. A person may have the identity of a student in one phase of life, then a professor in another phase, or they may have the identity of a daughter in one phase and of a mother, lawyer and wife, simultaneously, in another. Identity may be personal identity, cultural identity or national identity, whereby a teacher (personal) may be of the West Indies Carib community (cultural) and a citizen of Saint Lucia (national).

Heritage is fixed and unchanging. Heritage is what is passed on to a person from parents, grandparents, more distant ancestors, extended family, community and places of residence. Parents may be of two separate ethnicities and pass on two sets of practices and traditions (i.e., heritage), while grandparents may be deeply rooted in the practices and traditions of bygone days. Communities may be comprised of similar people who share practices and traditions or comprised of different groups that are very unlike each other and who share no common heritage (i.e., practices and traditions). A person may reside in cosmopolitan areas where the 21st century is fully represented or they may reside in rural areas where the 21st century is only marginally represented, if at all. Heritage, then, is the external influences that combine with taught and received practices and traditions that shape and mold a person's experience, perceptions and world view.

Acceptance is a cultural or a collective issue when one group assesses another group and judges it with contempt or indignation, viewing it as inadequate and inferior. In such cases, many of which arise as the result of and remain as the aftermath of colonization, acceptance includes acceptance of different world views (grounded in heritage), of different heritage, of different ideologies (foundations of social structure), of new literary expressions, of minority or Creole languages, and of a multiplicity of ethnicity and cultures in single individuals (e.g., parents from two different ethnic groups, etc.).

Derek Wolcott

Wolcott represents a multiplicity of ethnic roots. He was educated in the English language, as were most educated individuals in Great Britain's colonized countries. His parents were well educated (in English as well). His mother was a teacher who recited poetry at home, while his father was a poet and painter. The Wolcott family was Methodist in a predominantly Catholic environment. Wolcott trained to be a painter, then studied to be a poet, believing himself naturally endowed with an artistic gift for writing:

Forty years gone, in my island childhood, I felt that
the gift of poetry had made me one of the chosen,
that all experience was kindling to the fire of the Muse. ("Midsummer," 1984)

Born in Saint Lucia, where the Creole language sprung from French and English colonizers, is Kwéyòl; Wolcott's heritage includes French, native Carib, African and English cultural elements of practice, language and traditions. His identity is founded in an English education, with parents who were intelligent, well educated, successful and artistic. His issues of acceptance, heritage and identity as a citizen of Saint Lucia include ethnic multiplicity, disparate world views, religious conflicts or tensions, and the tension between his ethnic background and his English education.

"A City's Death by Fire"

How does the biographical element of religion, for example, help to illuminate Wolcott's poem and to reveal the West Indian battle with heritage, identity and acceptance?

The poem opens with strong evangelical allusions to religion: "gospeller" alludes to an itinerant preacher, preaching, as the title indicates, in a city; "the churched sky" alludes to a predominantly religious community. The phrase "faiths that were snapped like wire" alludes to tensions between and a lack of acceptance of different religious perspectives, or "faiths." The phrase "where Christ walked" alludes to the recorded miracle of Jesus walking on the sea.

The phrase "the hills were a flock of faiths" alludes to the heritage (i.e., practices and traditions) of religious beliefs in the rural areas that are described as being in "the hills." The phrase "dead as nails" is a reversal of an allusion to the nails with which Jesus was crucified, with which he met his death. "Blessing the death" and "baptism by fire" allude respectively to God the Father's blessing on the crucifixion and death of Jesus, the Son, and to the occurrence on the day of Pentecost during which flames of fire baptized the apostles before a crowd.

A dual theme of acceptance of religious ideas emerges. First the "hot gospeller" devastates, with his message, all the faiths represented in "the hills" of the rural areas filled with the peoples whose heritage predated the colonizers. Then the "hot gospeller" rekindles for the "boy," who is the source of the reflections in the poem, the love of God and Jesus. The town is "levelled" as though by a fire through a blaze of words because they have not accepted the message of the colonizers' religion, which is foreign to the "flock of faiths" in "the hills." The "boy" is renewed, given "green breath" of life, because he has accepted the colonizers' religion. 

It is interesting to note that only Protestant faiths, like the Methodist faith, are associated with itinerant evangelical gospellers who preach a "baptism by fire" and the "[b]lessing" of "the death" of Jesus. Catholics are not associated with this sort of fire and brimstone preaching. Wolcott was a Methodist in a Catholic community.      

Wolcott's personal battle with identity is illustrated in these same passages where, for some unnamed reason, he lost his love for God and Jesus and where breathing anew the fire of baptism renewed his sense of personal identity. The "boy" has a revelation about cultural identity as he sees his "world" as "wooden," or combustible, impermanent, looted, whereas before he had seen his world as solid walls lining a dependable "street," though he is now "shocked" that the walls are "like a liar."

The battle for heritage is a complex one in which his rural heritage in "the hills" is defeated by the heritage "in town." Though he weeps for the "rubble" of the burned, torn, looted "rubbled tales" of his ethnic heritage, he questions the tears he sheds over it, asking "why / Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?"