Derek Walcott Biography

At a Glance

Derek Walcott gave the West Indies a voice. In his plays, poetry, and critical essays, Walcott has long sought to unearth independent identities for the people of the West Indies and to explore the aftereffects of colonization. To do so, Walcott employs a rich mixture of images and language, particularly in his most famous play, Dream on Monkey Mountain. As both poet and dramatist, his writing is a mélange—an appropriate approach given the mixture of cultures in the West Indies. He also uses language to explore his postcolonial concerns by mixing local tongues with English, highlighting the unique identities of West Indian people. In doing so, Walcott’s writing underscores the rich, unique, and complicated culture of the Caribbean.

Facts and Trivia

  • In 1959, Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which seeks to promote works of West Indian theater.
  • Though his writing style developed apart from Latin American literature, Walcott’s work has drawn many parallels to the magic realism movement.
  • Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, a reimagining of the Odyssey, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
  • Walcott teaches at Boston University and cofounded in 1981 the Boston Playwright’s Theatre, which specializes in performing new plays.
  • One of Walcott’s less successful ventures was cowriting the Broadway musical The Capeman with musician Paul Simon. The costly production was plagued by troubles and poor reviews, closing quickly after its premiere.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In Castries, capital of the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Derek Alton Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick, were born January 23, 1930. Their mother, Alix, was a teacher in a Methodist primary school, while their father, Warwick, was a civil official and a gifted artist. Although Walcott lost his father when he was hardly a year old, fatherly guidance was provided by the St. Lucian painter Harold Simmons, the mentor commemorated in Walcott’s autobiographical poem Another Life.

Being of mixed blood—his grandfathers were white Dutch and English, his grandmothers black—and the son of Protestants in a predominantly Catholic island, Walcott experienced from an early age the schizophrenia of New World blacks and mulattoes in an alien environment. While childhood in a colonial backwater island might seem disadvantageous, Walcott believes that his classroom exposure to traditional Western culture—Greek, Roman, and British—was vitally enriching. Combining this with his informal contact with African slave tales and life in the streets, he learned to admire both currents of his dual heritage. Early evidence of his gift for cultural synthesis appears in one of Walcott’s first plays, Henri Christophe. This dramatization of the famous black rebel general is couched in the poetic images and the elaborate language of Elizabethan England.

In order to provide an outlet for his drama, Walcott and his brother founded the St. Lucia Arts Guild in 1950, the same year in which Walcott was awarded a scholarship to pursue advanced education at the...

(The entire section is 650 words.)


(World Poets and Poetry)

Derek Alton Walcott was born in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, to a civil servant, Warwick, and to Alix, the head of a Methodist grammar school. St. Lucia is a volcanic island of 238 square miles in the Lesser Antilles, halfway between French Martinique to the north and English St. Vincent to the southeast. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502, then contested for generations by the French and British, until the latter gained legal control in 1803, to yield their colonial hold only in 1959. Still, the Gallic influence remains, insofar as the population of about 100,000, largely of black African descent, speaks a Creole patois.

Because Walcott is descended from a white grandfather and black grandmother on both sides of his family, he has found himself ineluctably suspended between loyalties, resentments, fears, and fantasies. He has referred in essays to a schizophrenic boyhood, split between two lives: the interior pull toward poetry and the exterior push toward the world of action, as well as the raw spontaneity of his native argot opposed to the syntactical sinews of formal English. Inescapably, he has been both victim and victor of his divided culture, a kind of Caribbean Orestes who shuttles between the legends and folklore of his upbringing and the formal traditions of the cosmopolitan West. In his work Walcott has made much of the bridging geography of the West Indies, since they link Columbus and Robinson Crusoe, Africa and America, slavery and colonialism, exploitation and emancipation. Curiously, he even compartmentalizes his writing, stressing oral tales and folk language in his plays while suffusing most of his poems with an Elizabethan richness and Miltonic dignity of diction.

In Another Life Walcott has rendered an autobiographical narrative of his childhood and early career. This long narrative poem unfolds the evolution of a poet who will always consider himself “the divided child.” At school he was taught European art, history, and literature, but his mother...

(The entire section is 830 words.)