Edwin Thumboo Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Edwin Thumboo 1933-

Singaporean poet, critic, and editor.

Thumboo is considered the unofficial poet laureate of the Republic of Singapore. Since the early 1970s he has had a profound influence over the course of literature in his native country. His nationalistic poem “Ulysses on the Merlion” is deemed by several commentators as a landmark in Singaporean literary history.

Biographical Information

Thumboo was born in Singapore November 22, 1933. He was educated at Victoria School and attended the University of Singapore. In 1967 he became a lecturer at the University of Singapore. In 1979 he became a full professor and the head of the department of English language and literature. He also served as the dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences until late 1991. He is the editor of the periodical Poetry Singapore and two anthologies of Singaporean and Malaysian poetry, The Flowering Tree and The Second Tongue.

Major Works

Thumboo's verse is characterized by courageous political and social statements. In particular, his poetry emphasizes nationalistic issues apropos of an emerging nation dealing with the impact of years of British colonialism and a diverse multiracial and multilingual immigrant culture. In poetry collections such as Rib of Earth and Gods Can Die, he examines the power of language and the danger and responsibilities of power in a country still searching for an identity. His most famous poem, “Ulysses on the Merlion,” utilizes the classic Greek wanderer, Ulysses, to explore issues of the poet's relationship with his homeland. Recognized as the first attempt to forge Singapore's history in poetic form, the piece is viewed as a crucial step both in Thumboo's personal history and in the history of Singaporean literature.

Critical Reception

Thumboo is esteemed for his contribution to the nascent English-language literary tradition of Singapore. Critics have praised his ability to depict the struggles of his native land as it attempts to define itself after years of colonial rule. His exploration of Singapore's problems, complexities, and multidimensional cultures have been considered integral to establishing an independent literary and political identity. Yet a few critics have noted his lack of poetic development and an inattention to stylistic issues in his work.