From its earliest beginnings in the eighteenth century, Caribbean, or West Indian, poetry has been an elusive but dynamic art. Though sometimes static, it has always been an evolving art form. According to one scholar, Lloyd W. Brown, the first 180 years of West Indian poetry were uneven at best; however, Brown was appraising only the formal aspect of Caribbean poetry, a poetic tradition that was imposed on the peoples of the West Indies first by a slavocracy and later by an imperialist regime. There has always been an oral tradition in the Caribbean, and although this tradition has been suppressed, it could never be destroyed. It has existed in children’s ring games, in calypso, and in the combined arts of carnival, Junkanoo, and other folk and religious celebrations. Then, too, the unwritten tradition of the Amerindians has enriched the art of Caribbean poetry. Ironically, after years of suppression, the folk and oral traditions, combined with other aspects of Afro-Caribbean cultural experiences, are theorized, by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, as the wellspring of “nation language.”
Slavery in the Caribbean was extremely harsh, and people of African descent had very little opportunity to develop the art of composing poetry. Therefore, the first poems to be published by an Afro-Caribbean came as a result of an experiment centered in the noble savage concept. Francis Williams of Jamaica, a free black, was the first to publish a poem. John, the second duke of Montagu (and at one time Jamaica’s governor), believed that if blacks were given the same educational opportunities as Caucasians they would be able to compete successfully with Caucasians. Williams, under the patronage of the duke, was educated in England. On his return to Jamaica, the duke was unable to establish his protégé in Jamaican society, so Williams opened a school in Spanish Town.
In 1759, Williams wrote “An Ode to George Haldane, Governor of the Island of Jamaica” to celebrate the arrival of the governor at his new office. Written in Latin, the poem, the only extant work of Williams, attests to the poet’s abilities, but it also suggests the subservient position in which Williams found himself: Established by a mighty hand (God the creator gave the same soul to all his creatures without exception), virtue itself, like wisdom, is devoid of color. There is no color in an honorable mind, nor in art.
Williams then bids his black muse not to hesitate but to “mount to the abode of [the new governor] the Caesar of the setting sun,” and bid him welcome.
The other acknowledged poet of the eighteenth century is James Grainger, a Scottish physician who made his home in Jamaica. His extended poem The Sugar-Cane (1766) is often described as a pastoral epic that discusses the vicissitudes of life on the island. The poem is based on Western European forms that underscore European stereotypes, as in this description of the slaves:
Annon they [slaves] form; nor inexpertA thousand tuneful intricacies weave,Shaking their sable limbs; and oft a kisssteal from their partners; who, with neck reclin’dand semblant scorn resent the ravish’d bliss.
Grainger depicts a Romantic pastoral but also indicates that, should the slaves drink alcohol or hear the drum they will immediately revert to their savage ways, and “bacchanalian frenzy” will ensue. Despite the idealistic picture presented in The Sugar-Cane, the poem has come to typify the long-lived tradition of the Caribbean pastoral.
Williams and Grainger represent the poetry of the eighteenth century; the poets who typify the tradition during the nineteenth century are the Hart sisters of Antigua and Egbert Martin of Guyana. Elizabeth Hart Thwaites and Anne Hart Gilbert were two women of African descent who have not received much exposure. Their parents, Anne Clerkley Hart and Barry Conyers Hart, were free African Caribbeans. The father, a plantation owner, was also a poet who published his poems in the local newspaper....
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