Derek Walcott

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What is the main theme of the poem "Elsewhere" by Derek Walcott?

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Derek Wallace’s poem “Elsewhere” has many themes. It can be read as a poem about the narrator’s experience as a black man in America, or one can find echoes of colonialism and what it means to be on the side of the colonized. Its theme could be injustice, and the barbed wire indicates that prison may be a theme, too.

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The theme in Derek Walcott’s “Elsewhere” can be seen through the lens of repetition. The word "somewhere" is repeated over and over to emphasize a specific tone, meaning, and intent to the poem, which opens with the following stanza:

Somewhere a white horse gallops with its mane
plunging round a field whose sticks
are ringed with barbed wire, and men
break stones or bind straw into ricks.

Opening with "somewhere," the poem alludes to a far-off place, a locale that is distant and perhaps foreign to the audience. The poem can be read as an expression of social injustice, specifically racial injustice. As such, the term “white horse” can be read as a reference to white cultural purity, with the image of the white stallion connoting an obsession with cultural aires that reflects the nature of a dominant, privileged white society.

More notably, the image of the horse galloping around the barbed wire suggests a tension between the white racial purity of the stallion and the men who "break stones and bind straw."

The second and third stanzas continue the repetition and solidify the poem's theme and meaning:

Somewhere women tire of the shrouded sea’s
weeping, for the fishermen’s dories
still go out. It is blue as peace.
Somewhere they’re tired of torture stories.

That somewhere there was an arrest.
Somewhere there was a small harvest
of bodies in the truck. Soldiers rest
somewhere by a road, or smoke in a forest.

The speaker expresses the poem's meaning through the imagery of the "sea's / weeping" and the "small harvest / of bodies in the truck," which lament the atrocities of racial injustice.

Here you also see the repetition as a means to emphasize tone, the speaker taking on a sing-song cadence that speaks bluntly to the notion that the events and images relayed in the poem are happening elsewhere. The speaker is alluding to a willful ignorance that surrounded the racial injustices of the time, giving rise to the melancholy message that resonates in the fourth and fifth stanzas:

Somewhere there is the conference rage
at an outrage. Somewhere a page
is torn out, and somehow the foliage
no longer looks like leaves but camouflage.

Somewhere there is a comrade,
a writer lying with his eyes wide open
on a mattress ticking, who will not read
this, or write. How to make a pen?

The word "somewhere" is used to separate the specific images in the poem, providing a sense of urgency to the poem’s expression of outrage in the face of racial injustice.

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In Derek Walcott’s poem “Elsewhere,” it does not take long to find one of its themes. In the opening sentence,

A white horse gallops with its mane

plunging round a field whose sticks

are ringed with barbed wire, and men

break stones or bind straw into ricks.

The white horse symbolizes the so-called purity of the white race in general, either as a colonizer or as a white American: a strong person in charge, galloping around a field of caged beings—the barbed wire indicates prison, as do later images in the poem. Thus, the oppressed are lost in physical degradations to match that of their mental ones.

The narrator implies he is “free for a while,” which indicates that he is in the US. His status as a black man, however, will ensure he will reside in a permanent location of a mostly unfree "elsewhere," a place where,

in one-third, of one-seventh

of this planet, a summary rifle butt

breaks a skull into the idea of a heaven.

It is not only a physical act of violence but also a metaphorical one, directed at the oppressed and also the oppressors; everyone needs reminding of their place in the world.

For the colonized, that place was like “fog into oblivion." They were not faces or humans but mere excess statistics or numbers,

like the faceless numbers that bewilder you in your telephone

diary. Like last year’s massacres.

It is not much better in America, where the narrator seems to reckon with his own role in the history of colonialism. Unlike the colonizers toward their colonized masses, the narrator shows mercy, claiming “The world is blameless.”

By not casting blame on the colonizers, the narrator seems to be saying that while it’s important to acknowledge what went on, it’s more important that it doesn’t happen again. What matters now is that we don’t forget, we “don’t make a career of conscience”—we don’t, in other words, appease our conscience by pin-pointing the blame on the evil colonialists from the past while failing to see the problems in the modern world. In that scenario, while we may feel superior to the monsters of the past, we risk not hearing the “silent scream” echoing quietly in the elsewhere of the United States.

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Theme is defined as an underlying, universal message an author wants to communicate to his or her audience through a work of literature. Typically, the theme makes a comment about society, people, or human nature.

In Derek Walcott’s “Elsewhere,” one must identify both the audience and the thematic ideas addressed in the poem in order to determine a theme.

In lines 21-24, the speaker of the poem states that “we are free for a while,” but “elsewhere, in one-third, or one-seventh” of the world, people are suffering horrific atrocities. In the stanzas prior, the speaker has described various examples of these oppressed people whose suffering comes at the hands of a corrupt government, war, poverty, or a combination of these. When the speaker uses “we,” he seems to be referring to himself and all of those who have stable, safe lives. The invocation if the poem’s title in this stanza suggests that the speaker’s life contrasts sharply with the experiences of those who live in other parts of the world.

If the audience is everyone who lives a good life, and a major thematic idea is suffering, then a good theme statement must consider these conditions.

The speaker emphasizes the fact that people who live relatively good lives are ignorant to the unspeakable atrocities that go on in other parts of the world. As long as they remain unaffected personally, people are often willing to remain oblivious and shrug off injustice as a problem that isn’t theirs to solve.

This is underscored in the final stanza of the poem, when the speaker says “The world is blameless,” meaning that people are hesitant to help those who are suffering worldwide because they think it would mean they are culpable. Since people do not want to be blamed, it is easier for them to distance themselves completely rather than offer aid to those in need.

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