The Fortunate Traveller

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The poems in this book are often about cultures and preoccupations that wear out. The poet himself, however, stands out more than they, making analogies out of artifacts and the materials of art, looking closely at himself as a poet, and enduring an artist’s distance from surroundings and people.

The landscapes in which Derek Walcott sets his poems help focus the sections of the book: “North” takes place mostly in the American northeast, “South” in the Caribbean and Greece, and the second “North” section in England. At one point Walcott says he will do without the mythological overlay he puts on place. In “Greece” he admits “nothing was here at all, just stones and light,” but the places he visits in many of the poems excite his literary taste. He goes so far as to wish, walking near the sea, that he were an “octopus, with ink for blood” (“Store Bay”). He calls the hurricane ravaging a Caribbean island a “cyclops” (“Hurucan”), refers to the “alliterative hills” and the “rocks hard as consonants” in the Welch countryside (“Wales”), and speaks of “cacophanous seaports” (“North and South”). At twilight, “the sky is loaded like watercolor paper” and the pool the poet is sitting beside—though he knows it does not quote Ovid—echoes the “applause” of a dried-up tree (“The Hotel Normandie Pool”). The poet may try to learn from a stream, but the lesson it has to teach him he still expresses as a “language”—that is, an art form (“Upstate”).

When Walcott talks in “Greek Warriors” about inheriting the Greek “gods,” he does so as a poet addressing George Seferis, another poet who preserved those gods and thus belongs to the lineage of poets who made them famous (if not made them up) in their poems. In “Store Bay” the wrestlers in the surf remind Walcott of “silhouettes I once saw/ as Hellas.” The materials of art and allusions to them often infiltrate Walcott’s statements about other people. He says, “her own white wedding dress/ will be white paper” (“Jean Rhys”), and in the same poem he cannot resist a bad art-pun, writing of a “pink dress” that it “wilts like a flower between the limes.”

Walcott’s view of poeple usually has a moral focus, the literary imagery of which is meant to clarify it. He addresses the bandits in “Cantina Music,” saying they were ready “to die/ if someone could name the cause,/ to play your last scenes as/ you slowly waltzed into dirt.” Though not directly literary, the behavior of Nazi killers in “The Fortunate Traveller” strongly suggests art: Walcott writes of “the rubber claw/ selecting a scalpel in antiseptic light.” The image of the artist himself controls “The Spoiler’s Return,” where the poet’s job is to satirize the corruption of people, including “censorship,” “graft,” the economic schemes which care nothing for the common man, the palming off of bad goods on consumers, and all the ideological swindles which keep the poor poor.

Walcott’s feel for the oppressed may come from his having grown up near them and as one of them. He calls himself “a colonial upstart at the end of an empire” (“North and South”), but he is also an artist, which sets him...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Booklist. LXXVIII, January 1, 1982, p. 582.

Library Journal. CVI, December 15, 1981, p. 2396.

Nation. CCXXXIV, February 27, 1982, p. 247.

The New York Review of Books. XXIX, March 4, 1982, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. CVII, January 3, 1982, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, November 27, 1981, p. 76.