A Credo in Isolation Even the title itself of Derek Walcott's lovely poem ''A Far Cry from Africa'' suggests that the author is writing about an African subject and doing so from a distance. It's an apt title, to be sure; Walcott is of African descent but was born and raised in what we might call the southeast corner of the American sphere without in any way encroaching on West Indies' independence. Writing from the beautiful island of St. Lucia, Walcott feels, as a well-educated and totally independent black West Indian, that he is indeed at some distance from Africa and the brutal atrocities of whites against blacks and blacks against whites that he has been reading about in Kenya, a large African state famous for its Veldt and for its extraordinary wildlife—giraffes, antelope, even rhinoceros.
The title ''A Far Cry from Africa'' may have a second meaning in addition to the obvious geographic and personal sense the author feels. The title also seems to say, ''well, look, this is a far cry from the Africa that I have been reading about in descriptions of gorgeous fauna and flora and interesting village customs.’’ And a third level of meaning to the title (without pressing this point too much) is the idea of Walcott hearing the poem as a far cry coming all the way across thousands of miles of ocean—the same routes, perhaps, as the Dutch ships of the late seventeenth century—to land in his accepting ear on the island of St. Lucia. He hears the cry coming to him on the wind. He writes, in the first line of his poem,''A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt / Of Africa.’’ He has seen photographs of Kenya. He knows that light brown and yellow, of various shades, are two of the most prominent colors of this large African state; they are veldt colors, and there are lions out on the veldt.
"Kikuyu," in the second line, is the only African word in the poem. The Kikuyu were a Kenya tribe who became Mau Mau fighters in a grass-roots effort to oust the British colonial administration of Kenya. Walcott, as if mesmerized, describes the Mau Mau fighters as moving with extraordinary speed—they know the geography of their country and they ''Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.'' The use of the word batten is interesting; it generally means to fasten or secure a hatch on a ship. The upsurge of violence is justified in some ways perhaps, but what rivets Walcott's attention, because he is a well-educated man and a humanist, is given very simply in the following image, still from the powerful opening stanza: ‘‘Corpses are scattered through a paradise.’’ Walcott, born on St. Lucia, a lovely island with a fairly low economy, would like to believe that Africa is just as paradisal and peaceful as the West Indies.
Most of Walcott's poems since the early 1960s have been written in very open but quite controlled language. ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa’’ is such a compressed and tightly structured poem that the author tends to cover the ground he wants to talk about point by point and sometimes with what we might call caricatures, or images verging on caricature. ‘‘Only the worm, colonel of carrion cries: / Waste no compassion on these separate dead!’’ He follows this surprising image with two very sharp lines about the foolishness of statistics and alleged political scholars who want to discuss fine points. And then he ends his powerful opening stanza by saying, ''What is that to the white child hacked in bed?’’ Or...
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to Kenyans, he says, who are being treated as if they were ''expendable.'' What appears to horrify Walcott partly in the case of Kenya is that the conflict and savagery taking place are happening on the basis of color; his reaction is almost Biblical in its unusually compressed and angry personal credo. At no time in this poem does he waste his time referring to any particular historical agreement. He sees the tragedy as essentially human tragedy, and the violence on both sides as essentially inhuman.
Walcott's dilemma seems to be very much in synch with some of the participants in this poem. ''Threshed out by beaters,'' he says at the beginning of the second stanza. The poet has dealt with his initial horror at these events in Kenya and has outlined his initial focus on the general area of comment. He seems to see in this second stanza what he regards as the acceptable violence of nature or ‘‘natural law’’ as having been turned into a nightmare of unacceptable human violence based on color. "Beaters" on big game safaris in Africa are the men who beat the brush, sometimes singing or chanting as they do so, and flush out birds and animals for the hunt. Of course, in a lot of cases, beaters will flush out a variety of animals they hadn't expected.
''A Far Cry from Africa'' continues this meditation on the landscape of the Kenyan veldt by saying, ''the long rushes break / In a white dust of ibises whose cries / Have wheeled since civilization's dawn / From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.’’ Walcott's image of Africa may strike some readers as a bit innocent, but it doesn't seem to be in any way affected or insincere as he expresses himself in this personal credo. Quite the contrary; it seems idealistic and uplifting, although it does leave the reader—and perhaps Walcott as well—in the position of saying, ‘‘How can we prevent these outbreaks of violence?’’ Or, perhaps more specifically, ''How can we be fair?'' Should the United Nations have intervened on behalf of the Kenyans? This is a very intense and bitter poem—a lashing out at injustice and an attempt to formulate both some distance for the writer as well as a sense of his own eventual or fundamental juxtaposition to the uncomfortable and agonizing subject.
Anthropologists, both American and European, have published an enormous amount of material in the twentieth century on different questions of social personality, physicality, and to what degree many of our fundamental social responses—for example, defensiveness, lust, comfort, and pride— seem to have an animal basis. Walcott lashes out at both sides of the Kenyan situation from a position in which he strongly and intensely believes that human and animal are not only different but should be regarded at least as absolute opposites, yet he seems to know that this is not the case. But a large portion of the middle of this poem is Walcott's expression of his coming to terms with human nature and the mixed good and bad, up and down, nature of history.
''A Far Cry from Africa'' is such an agonizing and didactic personal poem, and such a tightly structured poem in which Walcott never relaxes and explains to the reader in casual asides that he himself is of African descent, that some readers may at first feel that the poem is more a comment on news of the day than it is a personal response, and a credo, and to some extent a partial deconstruction of his own credo. The narrator weighs different examples from the Kenyan upsurge in this poem, and the writer obviously wants to come out on top of his own material. He wants to see the argument in a perspective that makes some kind of sense, and he doesn't want to get swallowed by his own feelings of anger and outrage at these events.
And so we have the ''Kikuyu'' and violence in Kenya, violence in a "paradise," and we have "Statistics" that don't mean anything and ‘‘scholars '' who tend to throw their weight behind colonial policy. Walcott's outrage is very just and by the standards of the late 1960s, even restrained. His sense of amazement and awe, and his desire to love the Africa he describes, surges at one point when he notes what is probably a fairly salient and typical detail of Kenya, how ''the long rushes break / In a white dust of ibises whose cries / Have wheeled since civilization's dawn...’’
Of course the African continent is nothing if not enormous. The range of geography and of fauna and flora is extraordinary. Different cultures are in different kinds of motion in various parts of the continent. The north of Africa contains some of the old Arabic civilizations of the eastern half of our world, including Libya, which is across the Mediterranean from Italy, and Egypt, where historical records show at least one or more black African Pharaohs before the period of time described in the Bible's New Testament. Walcott may or may not be interested in these ideas; he may or may not have visited Africa at some time. We have to concentrate on the poem and on what happens in the poem. How does he develop his sense of weighing these different negative facts of violence in a paradise of ibises and different cultures?
Walcott could be a little more informative in this poem. For example, he could allude to some of the newspaper reports that he's been reading; he could mention a particular town in Kenya, or a local hero. Even though he identifies Kenya and the great veldt and begins with a powerful opening line that sets the tone and motion for the whole poem (‘‘A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt / Of Africa''), he still wants this poem to be timeless and to apply to other situations in different parts of the world. Near the end of the poem, however, having accomplished his first objective, the charting of the Kenya upsurge and his own humanistic denunciation of brutality, Walcott does come into ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa’’—and he does so very dramatically.
Perhaps the most brutal and categorical movement in the whole poem occurs after that lovely image of the "ibises" wheeling in historical patterns since ‘‘civilization's dawn.’’ Frustrated with every aspect of this brutal color war in Kenya, Walcott comes up with an image that more or less generalizes the history of English, European, and African wars: ‘‘his wars / Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum, / While he calls courage still that native dread / Of the white peace contracted by the dead.'' In this powerful image, coming to the penultimate point of the poem, Walcott says basically that everybody dances, everybody gets emotionally intoxicated with the egoism of taking sides, everybody in that kind of situation is listening to a drumbeat of some kind or another. ''Brutish necessity,’’ he calls it, comparing the Kenyan fighters to the revolutionaries in Spain: ''A waste of our compassion, as with Spain / The gorilla wrestles with the superman.’’ At this point, Walcott seems to have spoken out on the issue, identified the problem, and to some degree disposed of the whole subject.
But there is more to ''A Far Cry from Africa'' than what we have read so far. There is, as a matter of fact, the very fulcrum of his being so involved and so intense about the subject in the first place: not just humanistic anger, but also a very personal outrage. ‘‘I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?'' he says as a beginning to the last stanza. Born and raised in St. Lucia, educated in the British system, and an omnivorous reader by the time he was in high school, Walcott is very much a citizen of the world. Quite a well-known poet by the time he was in his twenties, Walcott had, by the time he wrote ''A Far Cry from Africa,’’ spent considerable time in Trinidad, working on different theater projects, and he had also been exhibited as a talented painter.
One of the most moving aspects of this poem, once the reader accepts the very terse, basic, logical arguments regarding the struggle in Kenya, is the general image of the poet/author at the end of the poem. He has no choice but to watch both sides rather sadly continue their violence against each other. But he ends this powerful polemic with six devastating lines: ''I who have cursed / The drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? / Betray them both, or give back what they give? / How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from Africa and live?'' And of course, Walcott has never turned from Africa or gone to live there. He has continued writing and publishing and has, since the 1980s, become famous all over again for an enormous book-long Homeric poem about the islands, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the coming together of a multiple of cultural convergences.
Source: David Donnell, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. David Donnell, who teaches at the University of Toronto, has published seven books of poetry. His work is included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, and his volume Settlement received Canada's prestigious Governor General's Award.
When most Westerners think of Africa, one of the first things that comes to mind are the animals— lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes, rhinos, hyenas. And although the issues of Walcott's ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa'' are cultural—are concerned with people—animals materialize throughout the poem in generally two ways. As kinds, such as flies and ibises, animals are compared similarly to particular groups of people. But as a kingdom, as in ''animal kingdom,’’ animals are largely contrasted to humankind, even though Walcott does acknowledge a shared animality.
The opening image of ''A Far Cry from Africa’’ is ‘‘A wind...ruffling the tawny pelt / Of Africa.'' A pelt, in this case, most likely refers to the furry or hairy skin of an animal, such as a wild cat, dog, or antelope. Not only is the continent of Africa associated with animals in Walcott's poem, but it is represented as an animal. The specific topography referred to is the "veldt," a Dutch Afrikaans word meaning a field or a flat grassland or prairie with few or no trees. Within this landscape are (as one might expect to find around large animals) insects, specifically flies. The flies Walcott mentions, however, are not really flies, but metaphors for the Kikuyu, a tribal people of Kenya living in the region long before Europeans arrived. This is a controversial metaphor, indeed: likening African tribal people to pesky insects sucking the blood out of Africa.
The metaphor of the Kikuyu as flies is developed further. As flies lay eggs that turn into maggots (Walcott's ‘‘worms’’), the Kikuyu also brought forth something considered unappealing by Walcott: Mau Mau, a secret terrorist organization. The Kikuyu were an influential people whose economy revolved around agriculture. Their land was increasingly taken by white "settlers" when Britain, in 1895, turned what is now The Republic of Kenya into the East African Protectorate. The Kikuyu were forced off their land and into servitude. Kikuyu anger over this predicament increased and reached its peak with the Mau Mau Uprising against the British regime. Mau Mau began as a militant faction of the Kikuyu, the Kenya Land Freedom Army, and became a secret society bent on expelling the British from Kenya. From 1952 to 1956, it engaged in a bloody terrorist campaign; Mau Mau was infamous for its hackings and mutilations of whites, animals owned by whites, and Kikuyus who refused to join Mau Mau or who collaborated with the British. (Though the British defeated Mau Mau, the country of Kenya earned its independence in 1963 from colonial rule.)
It was reports of this violence that reached other parts of the world and must have appalled Walcott to the extent that he compared Mau Mau to maggots eating away at a field of corpses. One might infer here that Walcott is not just appalled, but ashamed at Mau Mau because he is, himself, part African. His problem is that Mau Mau might synecdochically (in a substitution of part for whole) become all Africans, even all black peoples. Mau Mau became so infamous that it was used as a verb in American slang; ‘‘to Mau Mau,’’ meant to threaten or terrorize. In comparing Mau Mau to maggots, Walcott is distancing himself from Mau Mau and against the synecdoche that Mau Mau equals all black peoples.
The second stanza begins with ibises, large birds related to herons and storks. The ibis was a favorite animal of the ancient Egyptians, becoming not only the incarnation of the god Thoth—patron of astronomers, scribes, magicians, healers, and enchanters—but a bird whose appearance heralded the flooding Nile, the season of fertility. In this stanza, (white) ibises are apparently being hunted by black Africans, which could be read as a metaphor of black Mau Maus "hunting" white estate owners and farmers. Some reading this poem are apt to synecdochically understand the white ibis, intuitively or intellectually, as a good symbol. Once the association is made, whites hunted by Mau Mau can seem blameless, guiltless, and good. Further, calling white ibises inhabitants of Africa since ''civilization's dawn,’’ makes it seem as if whites resided in Africa even before the Kikuyu. While the metaphor of ‘‘ibis equals white person’’ may work with the thrust of the poem, it is far too positive an image to represent the whites who took Kenya away from Kenyans.
The third stanza may be read as two comments made by an outsider to the Kenyan conflict that justify complacency. The word "brutish" comes from the Latin brutus, meaning heavy, inert, and stupid; it most commonly refers to beasts. Walcott's outsiders to the uprising complacently remark that nothing is to be done since Africans are possessed by ''brutish necessity'' to wipe their bloody hands upon ‘‘napkins of a dirty cause." "Napkins" indicate a ''civilized'' nicety, and the ''dirty cause'' of the British is known as the ‘‘white man's burden''—the purported altruistic duty of white people to ''civilize'' black people. The other comment in this same stanza made by outsiders about the Mau Mau Uprising is: ‘‘The gorilla wrestles with the superman.’’ The "gorilla" represents black Africans and the "superman," white Brits. Walcott's outsider considers both sides of the conflict reprehensible: that Africans, like gorillas, are not civilized, and that Brits, like Nietzsche's overweening superman, are too civilized—so arrogant as to think it their destiny to rule the nonwhite world. The speaker of this section apparently wants nothing to do with Africans, Mau Mau, or imperialism. Walcott is disgusted by both views put forth in this stanza, not only because they are distasteful, but because he cannot so easily remove himself from the conflict since he is ''poisoned with the blood of both.''
Walcott, or the persona of the outsider, has compared people to animals, but, in the second stanza, animals are contrasted with people:
The violence of beast on beast is read As natural law, but upright man Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain
The ‘‘is read’’ makes the speaker seem just barely willing to go along with the thrust of the first statement. He does seem, however, in agreement with the second idea—that man does indeed seek ‘‘his divinity by inflicting pain.’’ With these two thoughts, beasts come out better than ‘‘upright man'' since animals do what they must do, and do not seek divinity through inflicting pain.
Although Walcott never solves—within the poem—his problem of loyalty, one thing does look clear-cut: Walcott believes that humans, unlike animals, have no excuse, no attractive rationale, for murdering noncombatants in the Kenyan conflict. While we cannot be sure if Walcott, at this point in his life, was a pacifist, he does make plain in ''A Far Cry from Africa'' that whatever the rightness of the Mau Mau cause, its mode of operation was shameful. Geographical outsiders might be apt to agree. Still, Mau Mau's swift, rude terror would be better represented if juxtaposed against the gnawing, polite oppression of British imperialism. Unfortunately, Walcott only briefly mentions the vivid extremity of British practice (‘‘The drunken officer of British rule'' and ''dirty cause'' do not do justice to the extent of British injustice), making it far easier to condemn Mau Mau. Walcott's dilemma (and the reader's) might have been more righteously difficult had the poem added a few stanzas condemning the British. Instead, Walcott displaces a political situation in which large numbers of people suffered and died to the "action" inside himself—personal shame and confusion. In the process of shaming Mau Mau by claiming its members do not even measure up to animals, both Mau Mau and animals are demeaned. At the end of ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa,’’ Walcott appears as torn about his identity as both animal and human as his identity as both African and European.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Jhan Hochman, who holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in cinema studies, is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998).
Island boy. That's how Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott often describes himself, in both his poems and his conversation. However, that simple self-portrait can be misleading. At best, it's only part of the story of a man whose wanderings have produced rich, skillful, multilayered poems that draw on the poetic tradition of many nations, ranging from modern England, Russia, and Spain to ancient Greece.
Of course, the island bit has some truth to it. Walcott is a major English-language writer who was born—and still lives, for part of the year—in the multilingual Caribbean. His accent and warm manners are from the tiny, tourist-attracting island of St. Lucia, but his heroes in both his reading and writing have taken him far past the sunny, postcard blue-and-green Caribbean landscape. Walcott's historical conscience also extends far past the island's borders, and his readers live all over the world.
Walcott is so admired in England that he was mentioned in leading newspapers as a possible candidate for the position of Poet Laureate when Ted Hughes died. For a son of the colonies, being named England's chief poet would certainly be an impressive turn of events. But that irony of personal success amid his native country's history as a conquered land has not been lost on Walcott. His precarious perch between two cultures has become a key subject for him.
In fact, this lifelong conflict between his tiny native island and the wider world, between his love of English and his knowledge that it is the colonizer's tongue and the oppressor's language—and thus part of its power—is a factor in the depth and strength of Walcott's poems.
Many poems are built on ambivalence, and ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa’’ is an example of how a masterful poet can mold ambivalence into art. In this poem, Walcott extends his ambivalence about the English language and the heritage it bears to everything—meter, subject matter, and even the choice of English as a language to write in. While the poem starts off in the iambic pentameter Walcott has mastered—the bread and butter of poetry in English—the poem soon veers course metrically, just as it changes place, perspective, and point of view. Like ownership of countries and empires, everything here is subject to change.
Much of the poem can be read in more than one way, starting with the title. At first glance, if ''a far cry’’ is read as ‘‘a subject far removed from daily reality," "A Far Cry from Africa’’ is a title that might apply to most of Walcott's work. With a few exceptions, he is not influenced by the sound or tradition of Africa, but rather the titans of Western poetry. Personally close to Russian-born Joseph Brodsky and Canadian-born Mark Strand, a deep admirer of Britons Edward Thomas and W. H. Auden and Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, Walcott frequently writes homages to his favorite writers. African writers, however, rarely figure among Walcott's models.
But the ''far cry'' of the title can also be taken literally, as simply a cry from a far place. This is supported by the poem's opening lines, which detail human misery and the cries that must come with it. The phrase then leads into a questioning of colonization and the pain it has brought. The poem subsequently details a deep, personal division that is paralleled by the double meanings of the title and much of the poem. As the poem progresses, it questions itself, and it ends in a series of questions.
This division mirrors the speaker's feelings about Britain's colonization of so many countries. Despite the violence, Walcott the poet cannot fully condemn the colonizers because he has taken so much from them. His vocation—English—comes from the colonizer, and yet, as amoral human being, he feels he must condemn colonization.
Naturally, this produces an inner division. By the final passages, the rumbling references to a divided self have reached a shriek. This division is the heart of the poem, but it is only clear at the end. Therefore, all of the stanzas fall more easily into place if they are read as steps to the crucial line in the last stanza: ''I who am poisoned with the blood of both / Where should I turn, divided to the vein?''
Now it makes sense to return to the beginning. Every word in the poem is part of the step-by-step march to that deafening moment of self-division at the end. The poem starts with a personification of the entire continent, and this speaker-Africa parallel continues to some extent throughout. For a poem that moves to the grandiose, its first step looks modest: ‘‘A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt / Of Africa.’’ But like Walcott's characterization of himself as merely ''a man who loved islands,'' this first line is misleadingly simple. A trip to the dictionary is one way to uncover the layers of the poem.
The word "pelt" is normally defined as the skin of an animal (with fur or hair still on it), and so the opening line compares the continent to an animal, with ''tawny pelt'' possibly evoking the color of the African desert. But there's more. ''Pelt'' can also be human skin, and here, the wind is ruffling the pelt of a person. What seems modest is actually horribly frightening. Finally, "pelt" as a verb means ‘‘to strike,’’ an image that begins a few lines later.
In the second line, the pace quickens. ''Kikuyu, quick as flies, / Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.’’ After the confident iambics of the first line and a half (trademark Walcott), the poem draws on alliteration, forsaking meter as primary device for other poetic tools. The alliteration of ‘‘Kikuyu/quick’’ and "batten/bloodstreams" physically speeds up the poem; the action parallels the sound. Kikuyu are indigenous African people, and here they are rushing to feed upon the streams of blood in the level grassland of the continent. In this landscape, people feed off people. This is a ghastly paradise, populated with scattered corpses.
Amid all of the hubbub, the smallest of creatures—the worm—wily and slinky, loudly warns those who would be compassionate. Walcott injects some humor into the gruesome scene, with the characterization ‘‘colonel of carrion’’ depicting the worm as king of those who prey on flesh. Suddenly, Walcott takes us out of this frightening, jumbled-up world and anchors it in ''statistics'' and ''scholars'' who try to justify colonial policy. Once again using alliteration to point to a turn in the poem, the speaker puts the spotlight on those who write and think but don't really look at a hacked child or a dead savage rotting in the desert.
The reference to "statistics" and "scholars" borrows from W. H. Auden's famous poem ‘‘The Fall of Rome,’’ in which an ‘‘unimportant clerk’’ writes ‘‘I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK’’ on a pink official form. Here, too, Walcott mixes the fall of an empire with a humorous jab at bureaucrats and their statistics.
Apart from that slight tangent for some humor, stanza one sticks to its mission—to set a scene. It also shows off some poetic gymnastics, pushing alliteration and rhyme as far as they can go. Slant rhymes such as "pelt/veldt" and "flies/paradise" share space with conventional rhymes such as ''bed/dead.’’ Most important in its role of scene-setting, the first stanza ends with questions, which are integral to this poem. Just as the title proclaims ''A Far Cry from Africa’’ and then the first line proceeds to set a scene in Africa, the questions announce that the poem will offer a far cry from answers. This is a poem about far cries, about divisions of the self, a gulf as wide as a continent— all contained within one man.
While the first two lines of stanza one were all iambs, for a lulling, ta-tum sound, the second stanza begins quite differently. Instead of a light ruffling, there is the loud ‘‘Threshed by beaters, the long rushes break.’’ The plants that are used for mats or furniture bottoms are literally broken by beaters, which are revolving cylinders that chop up stalks or brush. "Beaters" also recalls ‘‘to beat’’ or ‘‘to conquer,’’ a major theme of the poem. This technique of a noun that also resonates as a verb was seen earlier with the word "pelt."
Once again, as in the first stanza, sound is king. ''Threshed'' is a single, forceful syllable, placing a clear stress on the stanza's first word. "Rush" and ''break'' reinforce the sensation of power and violence. The speaker is getting ready to roll out some grand ideas, with that kind of drumbeat sound. And so ‘‘have wheeled since civilization's dawn’’ does not come as a huge surprise. The phrase ‘‘civilization's dawn’’ lets the poem shift from a scene in Africa to a rumination on the world itself—to the history of man.
‘‘Civilization's dawn’’ also recalls the Bible's book of Genesis, which is why the poem's quiet opening followed by loud, active rumbling seems so familiar. In the next few lines, Walcott takes that opening image of paradise marred by violence coupled with a personal conflict and expands it into a tale of humanity—a sorry story repeated throughout human history:
The violence of beast upon beast is read As natural law, but upright man Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
While English naturalist Charles Darwin may have proclaimed survival of the fittest as natural law, and while in the creation story God may have granted animals to men to eat, the speaker here sees man as a conqueror attempting to mimic God. According to the Biblical story, God has power over all things, including, of course, the power to give life. Man can be God-like by literally lording power over his fellow man. The speaker here questions the wisdom of having mere people possess so much power over their fellow men.
The next stanza begins with another shake to the reader and another powerhouse image—‘‘brutish necessity'' wiping its hands ''upon the napkin of a dirty cause.’’ The word "Again" signals the stanza will continue what the other stanzas have done. As we have seen, each stanza's first few words are crucial to the poem's overall structure, and this stanza is no exception.
"Again" means that this story has happened many times over, and the repetitive questions at the end reinforce the feeling of a cycle. These are questions the speaker has asked himself many times before. This is a story of conquest and divided loyalties that snakes back to the Bible, and later, to the great empires that rose and fell and figure so prominently in Walcott' s work. Here, for example, Walcott deliberately alludes to the Bible and mentions Spain. (‘‘A waste of our compassion, as with Spain...’’) Finally, like the earliest Greek epic poets, Walcott is fascinated by senseless brutality of man over man and how even great humans are tripped up by their simple human nature.
These grand ideas should not distract from the tools of poetry that are used here, since they point to meaning. The careful rhyme throughout the poem is especially important as the ending nears. The ‘‘flies/paradise’’ lines that came early on have already focused a spotlight on line endings, and the last few create an interesting juxtaposition of "live" and ''love.'' The speaker seems to be realizing that how he lives and what he loves are not compatible. Though his elegant, Westernized lines that draw on the classical epic and lyric traditions are indeed ''a far cry from Africa,’’ Walcott nevertheless realizes that his life—what makes him live—is wider than the Western canon. He must address those close to him who are struggling to live. He cannot turn from Africa, despite all the years, the accolades, and the devotion to its oppressors' tongue.
And so, in this poem that evokes a continent, a world, and an entire history of the world in four stanzas, the speaker faces Africa and uses its desert and its violence as a means of looking at himself. The only conclusions he reaches, however, are a series of questions. All of the violence and self-division reach an intense pitch with those final questions:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the vein? I who have cursed The drunken officer of British rule, how choose Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? Betray them both, or give back what they give? How can I face such slaughter and be cool? How can I turn from Africa and live?
Fittingly, the poem ends in the word "live." For this speaker, questioning and living are one and the same. Forming questions into art—in perfectly controlled lines, displaying all of poetry's power—is how this poet approaches a crisis of identity. Somehow, a speaker nearly ripped apart by inner conflict produces a poem that races up and down but, in the end, seems overwhelmingly whole. Despite the questions, the mission of self-description within the context of history is accomplished.
Source: Aviya Kushner, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Aviya Kushner, who is the poetry editor for Neworld Renaissance Magazine, earned an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University, where she studied under Walcott, among others.
In ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa,’’ Walcott writes about the bloody war of African against European during the Mau Mau Rebellion, when members of local tribes, particularly the Kikuyu, rebelled against the British seizure of their land. The poem opens with graphic lines describing the blood and brutality of conflict; as if these descriptions were not enough, Walcott makes it clear that this is an unnecessary war, describing it as ‘‘a dirty cause.’’
Walcott saw his own life mirrored in this larger conflict, because he was of mixed African and European ancestry and thus felt an ancestral connection of loyalty to both sides involved in the conflict. As he writes in the poem,
I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein? / I who have cursed / The drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
The outer war brings up an inner paradox: how could Walcott, who is part of both sides, choose sides? How can one man fight himself? It's impossible, and he seems to be using this fact as a way of saying that all of humanity is one—these race wars and ethnic conflicts are as futile as one man fighting against himself would be. He sees the falseness of this ‘‘dirty cause"—the British propaganda that violence against the Mau Mau is a noble cause, while African violence is viewed as "animal" and the Africans themselves as "savages" and "expendable."
Despite the fact that the Kikuyu were right to be angered over British colonialism, however, Walcott could not condone the violence they used to achieve their goals, nor could he condone the colonialism and subsequent bloody acts of the British even though he loved their language and art. He does not, and will not, take sides; he cannot reduce the conflict to a simple ‘‘right versus wrong,’’ or even to a metaphorical or actual ''black-and-white'' problem, with clear answers. There is no solution: both sides are wrong, both sides are right, and Walcott as observer has compassion for them both, as he has compassion for himself as a child of both sides.
The poem is one of the first in which Walcott began exploring the implications of his mixed heritage; it was published in his first collection of poems, In a Green Night, in 1962. Since then, many critics have remarked on Walcott's use of traditions from both sides of his ancestry, and the cultures he has inherited from both sides of his family, in his work. Peter Balakian wrote of ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa’’ in Poetry that Walcott's ‘‘ability to embrace his Black West Indian identity and to accept, with the ingenuity of an artist, the language of his inherited culture accounts for much of the genius and richness of his idiom. Using the English tongue he loves does not preclude his moral outrage at the crimes that the Empire has committed against his people.’’
Walcott epitomizes the mixed heritage of the Caribbean—born on the island of St. Lucia, with African, Dutch, and English ancestors, he spoke a local Creole dialect at home, but in school learned to speak formal English and read the classics of British literature. On both his mother's and father's sides, he had a white grandfather and a black grandmother. According to Mark A. McWatt in Third World Quarterly, Walcott was aware from a very young age of this split; Walcott said, ‘‘In that simple, schizophrenic boyhood one could lead two lives: the interior life of poetry, the outward life of action and dialect.’’ Walcott's ancestry epitomized the larger racial and ethnic composition of the Caribbean islands, and he has often called himself a ''divided child'' because even as a youth, he was aware of the contradictions he embodied.
Walcott loved the English literature he read at school, and its power and beauty filled him with the ambition to write about his Caribbean home and fill it with the same kind of power and life. Even as he was thrilled by the English language, however, he was aware that the British had brought slavery and slaves to the Caribbean, including some of his ancestors. This ambivalence about his heritage would stay with him for decades and would constitute a major theme in his writings, including ''A Far Cry from Africa.’’
As Robert D. Hamner noted in Derek Walcott, Walcott ''is a living example of the divided loyalties and hatreds that keep his society suspended between two worlds.’’ But as Walcott makes clear in ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa,’’ Caribbean society is not the only one touched by these conflicts: they occur in Africa, in America, anywhere there is oppression and racism. As Hamner wrote, because of Walcott's awareness of the paradoxes in his heritage, ''inevitable questions of origins, identity, and the creation of meaningful order in a chaotic world lead Walcott to themes that transcend race, place, and time.’’
Racial conflict, and the conflicts associated with it throughout history—conflicts between master and slave, colonizer and colonized—have been a constant theme in Walcott's work since the publication of ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa.’’ More than any other poet, he epitomizes and embodies the forces that shaped the new world—every country in the western hemisphere has been shaped by the flowing-together of races, but this fact is often ignored by other writers. Many of Walcott's other poems, for example ''The Schooner Flight.'' feature people of mixed race. In that poem, a mariner from Trinidad, who is very similar to Walcott, describes his mixed English, African, and Dutch ancestry, and says, ‘‘either I'm nobody or I'm a nation.’’
In a 1977 interview with Edward Hirsch, reprinted in William Baer's Conversations with Derek Walcott, the poet made it clear that he was still thinking about the issues brought up in ''A Far Cry from Africa.’’ Walcott told Hirsch, ‘‘There is no West Indian who is black, or even one who is not black, who is not aware of the existence of Africa in all of us... The fact is that every West Indian has been severed from a continent, whether he is Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, or black... It would be equally abhorrent to me to say 'I wish we were English again.' The reality is that one has to build in the West Indies.’’ In other words, to live with all facets of one's heritage, not denying them, not elevating one over the other.
Not everyone is as comfortable as Walcott with the racial paradoxes of his heritage and of the real world; as a result, throughout his writing career, critics have sought to label him in narrower ways than he himself is comfortable with. Because he is a very cosmopolitan, cultured poet who is black, he has been both praised and blamed not so much for his writing as for his race. Some white critics have patronizingly thought him amazing because he is so articulate, and some black critics have accused him of sounding too white and betraying black sensibility. For example, McWatt wrote that the Nobel-prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky believes that describing Walcott as a ''West Indian poet'' or ‘‘a black poet from the Caribbean’’ does not do him justice. Rather, Brodsky prefers to think of Walcott as ''the great poet of the English language.’’
Regarding his place in literature, Walcott feels differently. He told Edward Hirsch in the Paris Review, ‘‘I am primarily, absolutely a Caribbean writer. The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets. Now that has led to a lot of provincial criticism: the Caribbean critic may say, 'You are trying to be English,' and the English critic may say, 'Welcome to the club.' These are two provincial statements at either end of the spectrum.’’
As in the poem, where he refuses to settle for an easy answer and embraces both sides, painful though that may be, Walcott has chosen to embrace the whole of his heritage. As Robert D. Hamner noted in Derek Walcott, ''As inheritor of two vitally rich cultures, he utilizes one, then the other, and finally creates out of the two his own personalized style.’’ In the interview with Hirsch, Walcott said, ''Once I knew that the richness of Creole was a whole uncharted territory for a writer, I became excited.’’ And, he said, ''I have always locked in on the fact that there is a living tradition around me, a tradition of chanting, of oral theater in terms of storytelling and the enjoyment of rhetoric. I was lucky to be born as a poet in a tradition that uses poetry as demonstration, as theater... The chant, the response, and the dance are immediate things to me: they are not anachronistic or literary.’’
Source: Kelly Winters, in a essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Winters is a freelance writer who has written for a wide variety of academic and educational publishers.
In his 1993 critical biography, Derek Walcott, Robert D. Hamner observes, ''It is not a simple choice between cultures for Walcott, but a matter of laying claim to his mixed heritage.’’ This ‘‘mixed heritage,’’ which the Swedish Academy, in awarding Walcott the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, referred to as ‘‘the complexity of his own situation,’’ takes a variety of often-paradoxical forms. For example, Walcott is of both English and African genetic ancestry. The blood of colonizers and colonized, oppressors and oppressed, flows in his veins. Culturally, too, he is a hybrid. As a native of St. Lucia, a small island in the Lesser Antilles, Walcott grew up immersed in West Indian culture, yet received a thorough English-style education, including exposure to the European literary tradition which soon fired his own ambitions as poet and playwright—ambitions further complicated by a linguistic inheritance including English, French, and Creole patois.
Although Walcott has long since incorporated the tug-of-war of these competing traditions, expectations, and loyalties into his mature verse and drama, successfully ‘‘laying claim to his mixed heritage'' and forging it into something wholly his own, his early work reflects the personal, political, and poetic struggles of an extraordinarily gifted young writer faced with a variety of difficult, urgent choices, none of which seems fully satisfying. ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa,'' written in 1957, is exemplary in these respects.
The title is a pun alluding to the poet's dilemma of divided loyalties. It refers to a cry coming from faraway Africa which the poet nevertheless hears all too clearly, but it also states, through the ironic, self-mocking use of the colloquial expression ‘‘a far cry from,’’ that the poet, despite his sympathy to that distant cry, is far from Africa in more than just a geographical sense. Walcott is almost obsessively drawn to such tangled conundrums of identity and language. In his best work, like the book-length epic poem Omeros, these questions are examined with the highest literary artistry and a profoundly moral, though never simplistically judgmental, intelligence.
''A Far Cry from Africa'' was occasioned by events taking place in the country of Kenya, which at the time was a British colony. Following World War II, a veritable epidemic of independence movements swept Africa and Asia as places like Kenya, long under the political, military, and economic yoke of European countries, sought the basic freedoms of self-governance. It is a tragic fact of history that many of these movements were marked on both sides by extremes of violence, and such was the case in Kenya. There, the majority tribe, the Kikuyu, under the leadership of the charismatic Jomo Kenyatta, stood at the forefront of anti-British rebellion. Even so, many Kikuyu sided with the British, who exploited tribal differences in a classic strategy of ‘‘divide and conquer.’’ As civil war spread, the British sought to demonize the rebels by attributing the worst excesses of the fighting to the soldiers of a secret society called the Mau Mau. Historians generally agree that there was no such secret society. The Mau Mau were a fabrication invented for international public relations purposes, to justify the harshly repressive tactics employed by the British and their tribal allies in putting down the rebellion. Ironically, however, certain rebel factions seized the opportunity to use the widespread panic engendered by this propaganda to their own advantage. A secret society calling itself the Mau Mau emerged as if out of the worst nightmares of the British Empire and proceeded to cast a bloody pall of terrorism over the war-torn country. In the process, they gave the conflict the name by which it became known to history: the Mau Mau Rebellion. By the time the rebellion was crushed in the late 1950s, more than 11,000 rebels had been killed and 80,000 Kikuyu herded into camps. Despite the propaganda of the British, only 32 white civilians were killed in the rebellion, and the total number of European deaths in combat did not greatly exceed 100. Jomo Kenyatta ultimately served as an independent Kenya's first president.
For Walcott, the Mau Mau Rebellion, pitting Africans against British, is a metaphor for his own psychological and cultural conflict, a conflict neatly summed up in the last eight lines of the poem: ''I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein? / I who have cursed / The drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? / Betray them both, or give back what they give? / How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from Africa and live?''
The answers Walcott ultimately found to these questions lie beyond the scope of this essay. What is important to note here is the artistry and anguished emotion with which the young poet raises his questions, as well as the mingling of the personal and the political in almost every line. The poem is divided into three stanzas of 10, 11, and 12 lines, respectively. The majority of these lines are often syllables in the meter known as iambic pentameter, which has been called the natural rhythm of the English language. Iambic pentameter simply means a line of five (penta) metric "feet" (units of two or three syllables) whose stresses (or accents) most often follow the pattern of light-heavy, light-heavy, etc. Of the eight lines quoted above, six are in iambic pentameter. The sonnets of William Shakespeare feature some of the most beautiful uses of iambic pentameter in the English language, but even colloquial speech, if written down and parsed, will often work out to be iambic pentameter.
Indeed, Walcott is consciously alluding to the sonnet form in this poem, although he has adapted it, cut it down—even, one might say, done violence to it, suiting the form to its violent subject matter. There are many different kinds of sonnets: the Petrarchan, the Shakespearean, the Miltonic, to name but a few. All are characterized by distinctive rhyme schemes and lengths, though in most cases the convention of fourteen iambic pentameter lines is maintained. Walcott has introduced variation in meter, rhyme scheme, and length. Moreover, a sonnet is a poem meant to stand alone, to be complete in itself (although sonnet sequences are not uncommon), but Walcott makes each stanza of his poem into a kind of quasi-sonnet. Thus, while the poem as a whole is not a sonnet, it is put together with the stuff of sonnets, as if the stones from an ancient but tumbled cathedral had been used to build an edifice whose origins remained noticeable but whose purpose was entirely different. It is a display of breathtaking virtuosity and confidence, but the poet's purpose is more than simply to show off his mastery of English verse forms and traditions. As mentioned above, Walcott does violence to the traditional sonnet form in order to mirror the violence of his two subjects: the war between Africans and Europeans going on in Kenya, and the similar struggle going on within the soul of the poet between ''this Africa and the English tongue I love.’’
Walcott compares Africa to an animal, perhaps a lion. It possesses a ''tawny pelt,'' and the veldt, a word meaning grassland, is likened to the bloodstream. Contrast this with the image of the Kikuyu introduced in line 2: ‘‘Kikuyu, quick as flies, / Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.’’ In the poet's extended metaphor, Africa is a beautiful animal, while the Africans living there are little more than blood-sucking insects. Africa may be ''a paradise,’’ but if so, it is a paradise strewn with corpses. What or who is responsible? While statisticians and scholars argue over ‘‘the salients of colonial policy,’’ the poet rejects such inquiry as useless. ''What is that to the white child hacked in bed? / To savages, expendable as Jews?'' The unblinking ferocity of these two lines is shocking. The butchery of an innocent white child by natives is equated to the attitude of hypocritical whites who, despite professing horror and revulsion at the Holocaust, treat Africans analogously to the Nazi extermination of Jews.
There are no good guys here. Only vast and ancient Africa, symbolizing the natural world where violence is not evil but simply an inevitable result of evolution, and the Europeans and Africans who see themselves as superior to nature, representatives of competing civilizations both of which mock the beauty and purity of nature with their murderous ways. ''The violence of beast on beast is read / As natural law, but upright man / Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.’’ Walcott, sickened by the spectacle as ''the gorilla wrestles with the superman,’’ would turn away, but cannot, for he carries that same grotesque wrestling match in his own bloodstream, in his own brain. Africa, the mother country, and English, the mother tongue, call to him with equal force, demanding he choose between them. He knows he cannot choose one or the other. Nor can he reject both. The litany of questions, posed as paradoxes, that constitutes the final eight lines of the poem poignantly and powerfully express the poet's existential dilemma, a dilemma that remains unresolved. Yet in the structure of the poem, Walcott has already begun to answer these questions by taking what is worthwhile from mother country and mother tongue and blending them into something that is both and neither.''Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?’’ The answer, perhaps still unconscious, is nevertheless plain: to poetry.
Source: Paul Witcover, in a essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Paul Witcover is a novelist and editor in New York City with an M.A. in creative writing and literature from the City University of New York.