Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550
Walcott’s epic poem Omeros explores humanity’s relationship to history and nature. Both have been corrupted by man’s ambition, leaving humanity deeply wounded. The affliction is physical for the St. Lucia fisherman Philoctete, whose ankle has been crippled by a rusty anchor. This is both an allusion to Philoctetes, the title character of Sophocles’ play Philoktts (409 b.c.e.: Philoctetes, 1729), and to the shackles worn by African slaves. The wound leaves Philoctete unable to make boats, go fishing, or even cultivate his garden, and so he seeks solace in the white rum of forgetfulness at Ma Kilman’s No Pain Café.
The proprietress is described as an African sibyl; that is, a native, tribal medicine woman, as well as the priestess of Apollo who guides Aeneas through the underworld in Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). It is her ability to restore tribal rituals that finally affords Philoctete some relief. That remedy is not available to the British officer Major Plunkett, who retired to the tropical island with his Irish wife Maud. He, too, carries a wound, sustained in the skull during General Bernard Law Montgomery’s campaign in Northern Africa, symbolic of his love for the exotic and complicated by imperial guilt and his fear of dying without a legacy. These conflicting emotions lead him to research the island’s history rather than celebrate its nature, and so, as his wife dies from cancer, he buries himself in his work.
It is the fate of a blind cripple that the poet fears for the entire modern world. The poet consists of an amalgamation of voices: the blind island native, Seven Seas; the historical bard Omeros, or Homer; a series of sounds emerging from nature herself; and Derek Walcott. The poet’s travels—literary, imagined, and real—to Europe, Africa, and America have left him scarred with the pain of humanity’s brutality, a problem he allegorizes in the main plot, which alludes to Homer’s epic poem the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611). Achille and Hector, former fishermen and partners, are driven mad by their love for the beautiful Helen and their inability to make a decent living at their trade. While Achille dives illegally among the coral reefs, Hector drives a van, work that will prove far more dangerous than the sea. Achille’s lingering connection with the ocean permits him to take an imaginary voyage to Africa, much like Dante’s sortie through the Inferno in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Achille’s newfound tribal identity allows him to mourn Hector’s passing, reunite with Helen, and raise the baby that may or may not be his.
The complex numerological divisions of books, chapters, parts, and stanzas allude no less densely to European literary history than the poem’s characters, settings, and action, but like the island natives and the passions that drive them, the lush descriptions of flora and fauna and the long, graceful poetic lines are inspired purely by the tropical beauty of St. Lucia and the rhythm of the ocean that cradles her. Thus does Walcott aspire to effect the same healing powers invoked by the natives for a much more diverse but still deeply wounded modern, industrialized, and global audience.