How would you analyze the poem "White Egrets" by Derek Walcott?

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Derek Walcott’s poem “White Egrets” is an observational poem that discusses the speaker's experiences watching egrets in Santa Cruz. The poem, set in eight parts, traces the speaker's musings on life and the metaphor of the egrets, who are seen as asking “stabbing questions” (stanza 1) about life and...

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Derek Walcott’s poem “White Egrets” is an observational poem that discusses the speaker's experiences watching egrets in Santa Cruz. The poem, set in eight parts, traces the speaker's musings on life and the metaphor of the egrets, who are seen as asking “stabbing questions” (stanza 1) about life and its purpose.

The egrets themselves are compared to many things in the poem. They are often described using angelic imagery and are described as “angels,” “seraphic,” and possessing “mythical conceit.” The egrets are a symbol of life and immortality, being above the normal issues and problems of a human lifespan. In describing them as things that are higher, Walcott sets up a dichotomy between mortal humans like the speaker and the immortal beauty typified by the egrets.

The egrets’ immortality is contrasted to the speaker’s mortality when he says, “They shall be there after my shadow passes with all its sins into the green thicket of oblivion” (stanza 2). In this, he is indicating that despite his mortality and the reality that he will die like many of his friends, the egrets, being a part of nature, will continue to live on—taking no notice of his passing or even his life. In the same way, he says later in the poem, “Some friends, the few I have left, are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain as if nothing mortal can affect them” (stanza 6). He and his friends are dying while the egrets and the world move on.

The egrets and the speaker share an instinct for immortality, though it isn’t living immortality for the speaker, but a literary immortality. Just as the egrets have an instinct to live, so too does the speaker have the instinct to make himself immortal through his poetry: “We share one instinct, that ravenous feeding my pen’s beak, plucking the wriggling insects like nouns and gulping them” (stanza 7). The fleeting nature of human life is contrasted in the poem with the immortality of the egrets, which is likened to the act of writing, which makes the speaker immortal and allows him to tap into the immortality of the natural world.

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Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott's poem "White Egrets" is a thoughtful meditation on the fleeting qualities of human life juxtaposed with the violence of the natural world. The speaker observes a number of graceful birds, chief among them the titular white egrets, and reflects on how brief his own life appears in comparison to miracles of nature. Indeed, he contemplates mortality in several sections of the poem:

The egrets are the colour of waterfalls,

and of clouds. Some friends, the few I have left,

are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain

as if nothing mortal can affect them, or they lift

like abrupt angels, sail, then settle again.

Here, the speaker acknowledges that the death of those he loves does not affect the natural world. The egrets are unconcerned with his issues. The world will carry on without him.

Interestingly, Walcott foregrounds the violence of nature in his reflection. The egrets are described as "stabbing" the earth. Spring, the season of rejuvenation and incipient growth, is portrayed as "igniting" flowers. In a key passage, the speaker observes a hawk hunting a small field mouse:

The page of the lawn and this open page are the same,

an egret astonishes the page, the high hawk caws

over a dead thing, a love that was pure punishment.

Walcott uses this violence to comment on the brevity of human life. In "White Egrets," Walcott emphasizes how fleeting life can be through his potent, brutal imagery.

I pulled my textual evidence from:

Derek Walcott's White Egrets: Poems

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