Goats and Monkeys

by Derek Walcott

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

Walcott deceives the reader of “Goats and Monkeys,” for until the last two lines it appears that the poem follows the traditional view that black is evil, white is good; black is corruption, white is innocence; black is the destroyer, white the creator. In the final lines, the poet contradicts what he has seemingly argued. Othello, the “mythical horned beast” so carefully and effectively drawn to this point, the poet states, is “no more/ monstrous for being black.” The words “comic,” “mockery,” and “farcically” appear in the final stanza, perhaps to hint that the reader is not to take literally what has been presented in the first four stanzas. In effect, Walcott subverts his own poem.

Walcott’s ancestors were Africans brought to the Caribbean as slaves to work on sugar plantations; he has some Anglo-Saxon blood as well. Several generations later, Walcott grew up in an educated home, aware of his African heritage but thoroughly schooled in the English language and the British tradition dominating his tiny West Indian island. Walcott was in his early twenties when the Caribbean colonial outposts gained independence from Great Britain. As a child of the faded British Empire, he has often addressed the experience of colonialism in his poetry, an experience he describes as divisive. Yet, unlike many other postcolonial writers of non-Anglo-Saxon origin, he has never promoted a back-to-Africa movement as the panacea for this divisiveness or as a form of revenge for the injustice of British imperialism.

Ironically, long after “Goats and Monkeys” was written—it is one of Walcott’s early poems—postcolonial literary-political theorists discovered new meaning in Othello, and set out to read it as a racial document. Othello represents the innocent black man, seduced and corrupted by the temptress Desdemona, the white world. Seeking revenge on this white villain, whom he believes to be unfaithful, black Othello rejects her whiteness and destroys it.

Long working to overcome the divisions between black and white through art rather than through political revenge and rejection of his white heritage, Walcott in 1965 appears almost to have foreseen the revisionist reading of Othello and, in “Goats and Monkeys,” pre-answered and pre-disputed its claims from the 1980’s. Walcott concludes that black is no worse than white, that human nature possesses the capacity for cruelty no matter the color of skin. At first this may seem a simplistic way to approach the poem, but not when the first four stanzas are reconsidered in light of the final statement—“no more/ monstrous for being black.” These words redefine all that has preceded them and turn the old conception of black and white into a “comic agony” and a “mockery,” one that can only be taken “farcically.”

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