Derek Walcott

Start Free Trial

What are some of the themes in "Forest of Europe"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One theme of Walcott's "Forest of Europe" is exile. The poem mentions Joseph Brodsky, a Russian poet forced into exile by the Soviet Union, who moved to the United States in 1972. Such lines as the following refer to his—or any artist's—exile from his familiar scenes and the sense of loneliness it brings. Such an exiled person is "a man" alone in one room, living apart from his native language and culture:

you write far from the threshing harvesters
folding wheat like a girl plaiting her hair,
far from Russia's canals quivering with sunstroke,
a man living with English in one room.

The poem speaks to the exile of the many nameless people who have been forced from their homes to come to America:

the tributary of emigrants whom exile
has made as classless as the common cold

Walcott's speaker himself experiences a sense of exile in his native Caribbean as he faces waves of tourists, likening exile to a sense of being imprisoned:

The tourist archipelagoes of my South
are prisons too, corruptible

Another person facing exile, this an internal exile to Siberia, is the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. In exile, he suffered as he wrote, for he:

shook, and every
metaphor shuddered him with ague

However, Walcott's poem also celebrates the ability of art to transcend exile and bring people together. The poem connects those suffering forced exile in Russia's Siberian gulags with the forced displacements of Native Americans in the United States, stating that pain can reach across cultures. A Soviet exile's poem brings

circles with light
in a brown room, in barren Oklahoma.

The Soviet's "gulag archipelagos" are like:

the long Trail of Tears [that] runnels these plains
as hard and open as a herdsman's face

Conflating (putting together) Brodsky ("Joseph") and Mandelstam's "ague," Walcott writes:

but now that fever is a fire whose glow
warms our hands

Walcott's theme is that the artist's exile is painful but that great art transcends the pain and brings warmth and a sense of community to others.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team