The Fortunate Traveller

by Derek Walcott

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“The Fortunate Traveller,” the title poem of a volume of Walcott’s poetry, is divided into 4 sections and is 208 lines long. Dedicated to the American writer and philosopher Susan Sontag, best known for her analyses of culture, as in Illness as Metaphor (1978), the poem is in many ways a catalog of the failures of civilization to be humane. The narrator of the poem is indeed the ironic “fortunate traveller,” a play on the English satirist Thomas Nashe’s picaresque tale, The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). Walcott’s traveler, like Nashe’s, is an emissary between powers. Furthermore, Walcott has created in this persona someone of ambivalence and moral relativity; while able to recognize the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, the narrator is indifferent to the poverty of the Third World. In his indifference, he becomes an immoral fortune seeker and an emissary of famine.

The opening lines of the poem immediately convey the physical and spiritual decay of Europe, which describes Walcott’s ambivalence with the industrialized West. The first section describes the narrator’s double-crossing of two officials from an impoverished country. The narrator becomes an incarnation of famine. He carries a briefcase that is likened to “a small coffin.” Throughout this section of the poem, images of despoliation occur: A jet is likened to a weevil in a “cloud of flour,” and governmental bureaucrats are “roaches/ riddling the state cabinets, entering the dark holes/ of power, carapaced in topcoats.” The narrator has no mercy; he goes to Bristol to be paid “Iscariot’s salary, patron saint of spies./ I thought, who cares how many million starve?” In the concluding stanza of this section, the narrator sees in the genuflecting officials with whom he has dealt the repetition of previous corrupt orders stretching back historically to the conquest of Florida by Juan Ponce de León and apocalyptically to the locust plagues in the Bible.

In the second section of the poem, the narrator confronts the poverty of a church service in St. Lucia conducted by a frail and disreputable priest. Walcott juxtaposes this image to that of Albert Schweitzer, the medical missionary in Africa, at his harmonium. Walcott then allows the music, beginning with the choristers in St. Lucia and continuing with Schweitzer, to carry “to the pluming chimneys” of the Nazi death camps. The allusion to “lebensraum,” or space required for life, refers to the geopolitical theory used by the Nazis to justify their territorial expansion, which implicitly applies to the European and North American control of the Third World. The poem then argues that “the heart of darkness is not Africa” but “the white center of the holocaust.” The second section concludes with the argument that, if God is so indifferent to His creation, then one should now write “After Dachau,” not anno Domini.

The third section continues to develop this morally terrifying character, who argues for keeping the hungry ignorant and deceived by the false promises of religion, so that like lice they will “swarm to the tree of life.” The argument concludes that “we cared less for one human face/ than for the scrolls in Alexandria’s ashes.” That is the “ordinary secret” of inhumanity that the narrator reveals. The narrator sees in European civilization a failure of compassion; he is able to recognize it because of his own moral indifference.

In the final section, the narrator’s double-crossing is discovered. The final two stanzas become prophetic and serve to reinforce the poem’s epigram from Revelation. The hypocrisy of the industrialized, postcolonial world is inscribed in this prophecy: “the weevil will make a sahara of Kansas,/ the ant shall devour Russia.” This poem is one of Walcott’s strongest condemnations of the industrialized world powers.

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