Derek Walcott 1930-
St. Lucian poet, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Walcott's career through 2000. See also Derek Walcott Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 14.
A Nobel laureate and preeminent West Indian literary figure, Walcott is included among the leading contemporary English-language writers of poetry and drama. Born of mixed European and African heritage, he uses literature to explore themes of ethnicity, cultural chauvinism, and political inequality. Moreover, he examines these subjects in a manner that leads to psychological and moral insights pertinent not only to the clash of Western and Caribbean culture, but to the universal human condition. Having learned English as a second language, and acutely aware of its status as the language of colonial power, Walcott has assimilated the bulk of the Western literary canon—from Greek epics to modernism—skillfully employing its techniques and traditions in his works, while never losing sight of his Caribbean identity. Walcott's poetry, particularly in In a Green Night (1962), Another Life (1973), and Omeros (1989), is celebrated for its dazzling use of sophisticated poetic forms, heartfelt self-examination, and evocative descriptions of Caribbean life.
Walcott was born in Castries, the capital city of the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, a former British colony in the Lesser Antilles. Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick, were raised by their mother, Alix, a schoolteacher; their father, a civil servant and amateur artist and writer, died a year after their birth. Walcott's mother imbued her sons with a love of literature and encouraged their involvement in a local theater group. Walcott displayed an early talent for poetry and had work published by the time he was fourteen. Four years later, he self-published his first book, 25 Poems (1948), and sold it on the streets of Castries. At twenty, he wrote and staged Henri Christophe (1950), a play based on the life of the Haitian leader, and cofounded with his brother the Santa Lucia Arts Guild. The guild gave Walcott a means of producing and directing his own plays, such as Robin and Andrea (1950), Three Assassins (1951), and The Price of Mercy (1951). In 1953 he earned a bachelor's degree in English, French, and Latin at the University College of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, which he attended on a British government scholarship. Upon graduation, he married Fay Moyston, with whom he has a son. In 1954, Walcott staged The Sea at Dauphin, one of his most acclaimed early works, and began teaching in West Indian schools. Over the next four years, he wrote several plays, including The Charlatan (1954), The Wine of the Country (1956), and The Golden Lions (1956). Walcott temporarily suspended his teaching career in 1958 when he accepted a Rockefeller fellowship to study drama in New York City. Walcott's next two plays, Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1957) and Drums and Colours (1958), focus episodes from Caribbean myth and history. In 1959 Walcott divorced Fay and moved to Trinidad, where he started the Little Carib Theatre Workshop; later the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. For several years, he trained amateur actors and wrote poetry, as well as features and criticism for several Trinidadian newspapers. After writing and staging Malcauchon (1959), Walcott shifted his focus to poetry. He published four volumes of poems in 1962, including In a Green Night, which attracted overwhelmingly positive reviews throughout the English-speaking world. During the same year, Walcott married Margaret Ruth Maillard, with whom he has two children; they later divorced. He subsequently entered into a third marriage to Norline Metivier in 1982, which also ended in divorce. In 1967, a year after being named a Fellow in the Royal Society of Literature, Walcott staged Dream on Monkey Island in the United States. Begun in the late 1950s, the play won an Obie award in 1971 and became Walcott's first acknowledged masterpiece. After the success of Another Life in 1973, Walcott accepted a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Academy to rewrite the 1634 classic El burlador de Sevilla by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina; Walcott fulfilled this task with The Joker of Seville (1974). In 1976 Walcott ended his tenure at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, citing both professional and personal reasons. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977 and in 1979 was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the early 1980s, Walcott worked as a visiting professor at several universities in the United States, including Columbia, Harvard, and Boston University, where he continued to teach through the 1990s. Walcott began to divide his time between residences in the Caribbean and the United States, a practice that influenced his poetry collection The Fortunate Traveller (1981), which received the Heinemann Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. In 1992 Walcott received the Nobel Prize for literature, making him the first native Caribbean to win this honor.
The central theme of Walcott's oeuvre is the dichotomy between black and white races, subject and ruler, and Caribbean and Western civilization. Walcott's writing deals with the lasting scars—personal, cultural, and political—of British colonialism in his native land and the opposing African and European influences that characterize his West Indian heritage. Integrating the formal structure of English verse with the colorful dialect of St. Lucia, Walcott denounces colonial exploitation and suppression of Caribbean culture, while attempting to reconcile the disparate cultural legacies that inform his literature and Caribbean history in general. Walcott's first major collection of poetry, In a Green Light, contains several early poems, such as “A City's Death by Fire” and “Epitaph for the Young,” that reveal the considerable influence of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce, respectively. The volume also features Walcott's first mature poems, such as “Ruins of a Great House,” in which he examines the decline of colonialism, and “A Far Cry from Africa,” in which he explores his own mixed racial heritage. The Gulf and Other Poems (1969) is a stylistically diverse collection that is thematically unified by repeated examinations of separation and loss, featuring the autobiographical poem “Hic Jacet,” in which Walcott contrasts his fascination with European poetry with his Caribbean roots. Walcott's next major poem, the book-length work Another Life, is autobiographical. The poem's first three sections detail Walcott's youth, adolescence, and first love, while the last section portrays his painful effort to come to terms with not only his own past but the whole of Caribbean history.
The bulk of Walcott's poetic output is found in the five volumes he published between 1976 and 1987: Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller, Midsummer (1984), and The Arkansas Testament (1987). The first two collections contain lyrical poems largely centered on the Caribbean—though Sea Grapes also includes several poems set in other locales—particularly its history and culture. The title poem of Sea Grapes, in which fishermen are compared to Greek heroes, and “The Schooner Flight” from The Star-Apple Kingdom, in which Walcott blends island patois with formal poetic language, both show his ability to evoke the tenuous ties that bind Caribbean and European culture. Walcott divided The Fortunate Traveller between poems inspired by his experiences in the United States and in the Caribbean. Though the dichotomy of settings is clear, the poems in both sections are an eclectic mix of barbed social criticism and personal confession. Midsummer is a lyrical and introspective collection; in many of the fifty-four poems, Walcott uses his own life as a lens through which to view the intertwining of European and Caribbean culture. The Arkansas Testament again emphasizes the theme of contrasting, yet related, cultures by organizing the poetry into two sections—“Here” and “Elsewhere.” Omeros, like Another Life, is a single book-length poem. In this work—whose title is the Greek word for “Homer”—Walcott pays homage to the ancient poet in an epic poem that substitutes the Antilles for the Homeric Cyclades. Two of the main characters, the West Indian fishermen Achille and Philoctete, set out on a journey to the land of their ancestors on the West African coast. The characters are concerned not with the events of the Trojan War, but rather with an array of civilizations, from African antiquity to frontier America and present-day Boston and London. Structurally, the poem is presented in sixty-four chapters of Dantesque terza rima. Walcott returned to shorter verse in The Bounty (1997), which is distinguished for its title poem, a meditation on the passing of the author's mother. Tiepolo's Hound (2000) is another book-length poem, illustrated with the author's paintings, in which he examines the theme of exile while comparing his own life to that of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.
Like his poetry, Walcott's plays have been stylistically varied, but united by themes of cross-cultural interaction. For instance, in Dream on Monkey Island, Walcott uses highly stylized staging and characterization to evoke a dream world in which an escaped prisoner becomes the leader of an ill-fated religious movement. Many of Walcott's plays, often called folk-dramas, are firmly rooted in the common life and language of the West Indies and frequently incorporate Caribbean dialects and legends. They are also noteworthy for their advanced dramatic techniques, lyrical language, and the psychological depth of their characters. In The Joker of Seville, Walcott employs the refined wit and relaxed pacing of the seventeenth-century classic, El burlador de Sevilla, to examine the Dionysian aspects of social revolution. O Babylon! (1976) is primarily a musical—many of Walcott's plays include instrumental accompaniment—set in Jamaica in 1966, during the weeks surrounding Emperor Haile Selassie's visit to the island. In Remembrance (1977), Walcott focuses on a single character, Albert Jordan, a teacher in colonial Trinidad, and uses his story to examine the role of individual integrity and conviction in changing societies. In Pantomime (1978), which uses only two actors, Walcott offers a revision of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, presented through the eyes of a hotel manager and his assistant. Beef, No Chicken (1982) is a tragicomedy about a small town facing the encroachment of a six-lane highway. Walcott worked on a much broader canvas—both dramatically and thematically—in A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986). The play opens with a group of West Indian actors rehearsing a scene from William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which Walcott uses as a framework on which to hang several interior monologues concerning the relationship between life and fiction, religion, and a host of other topics. Walcott took on an even larger project in his next play, The Odyssey (1993), a stage version of the classic Greek epic poem. Walcott's production stays meticulously true to the original poem, but with small comic and socially relevant touches, such as Greek servants who speak in Caribbean dialect. Walcott has also collaborated with singer-songwriter Paul Simon to produce the Broadway musical The Capeman (1997), a notorious critical and financial failure. In addition to his poetry and plays, Walcott has also published a significant volume of essays with What the Twilight Says: Essays (1998). This collection brings together a number of Walcott's definitive statements on his aesthetic principles and historical perspective, as presented in the essay, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory”—his 1992 Nobel lecture—and critical pieces on a variety of authors.
Walcott has been widely praised as a virtuoso poet and a deeply committed postcolonial artist whose explorations of racial, cultural, and historical consciousness in the contemporary Caribbean have been considered moving, erudite, and technically masterful. While Walcott's dramatic works have been highly regarded, his reputation rests more solidly on his poetry, which is generally considered to have reached a level of excellence that exceeds that of his plays. Among his volumes of poetry, In a Green Night, Another Country, and Omeros have been particularly acclaimed as his most important and successful works. However, Walcott's poetry and drama have not gone without marked criticism. One of the major complaints leveled against Walcott's poetry has been that his language is too refined. Critics have agreed that he is a highly accomplished wordsmith, but some have felt that Walcott's wordplay can obscure his intended meanings, making his verse appear to be a mere exercise in technique. Criticism of this type has appeared fairly consistently throughout Walcott's career, from his earliest major volume, In a Green Night, to Tiepolo's Hound. Similar claims of intellectual excess have harried Walcott's plays. Criticism of Walcott's dramatic works has focused not only on his use of language, but also on his practice of weighing his plays down with expository passages. While this technique has allowed him to explore socially relevant topics, a number of reviewers have argued that it comes at the expense of his plot and character development. Several of Walcott's plays—including Dream on Monkey Island, Remembrance, and O Babylon!—have been characterized by some critics as incoherent, tedious, and glib. There has also been a distinct political aspect to the criticism directed at Walcott's works. Walcott has been vocal about his role as a cross-cultural author who uses largely European forms to express Caribbean concerns. Due to this position, Walcott has drawn criticism from both sides of the sometimes contentious, often acrimonious, cultural divide—considered too Caribbean by some Eurocentric critics, and too European by some Afrocentric critics. Indeed, Walcott's deft use of complex rhyme and meter has been decried by some commentators as a coy affectation and by others as an act of “selling out.” While this type of criticism has abated as Walcott's reputation has grown, his continued insistence on the interdependence of the colonials and the colonized has remained a somewhat controversial position.