Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
Like many Caribbean islanders, Derek Walcott is able to see history prismatically. His European education allows him to see the daily life of his fellow St. Lucians in epic terms that resemble those of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or the tale of Philoctetes, best known through Sophocles’ play Philoktts (409 b.c.e.; Philoctetes, 1729). The Franco-Antillean forms “Achille” and “Philoctete” substitute for “Achilles” and “Philoctetes,” but such minor accidental adjustments pale beside the timeless human realities of unobtainable love and unhealed wounds. Omeros moves simultaneously through several time periods and tells several stories concurrently. On the simplest level, the narrative voice of the Seven Seas (Omeros) presents portraits of the fishermen Achille, Hector, and Philoctete. As in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), Achille and Hector contend for Helen, the island beauty. Helen’s beauty is central to the poem, and the golden yellow dress she wears, a gift of Ma Kilman, makes Helen resemble a monarch butterfly.
The unhealed wound of Philoctete resembles that of Philoctetes, the Greek warrior to whom the dying Heracles willed his bow and arrows. It was because Philoctetes unknowingly brought that bow into the sacred precincts of Artemis that a serpent gave him a wound that would not heal. Philoctete’s plight also resembles that of Amfortas, one of the chief knights of the arthurian quest for the Holy Grail. It is the wound of humanity itself, the wound in Jesus Christ’s side. It is the wound that one cures only through an inner source such as the native medicine of Ma Kilman. Philoctete received his wound from a rusty anchor, and his fellow fishermen have left him behind on St. Lucia, just as the Greeks abandoned Philoctetes on the island of Lemnos.
One might read the Greek myth as a commentary on intolerance and expediency. The Greeks rescue Philoctetes only when they realize that they require the bow and arrows of Heracles that Philoctetes inherited. They tolerate the odor of his wound only because they have to do so to defeat the Trojans. The St. Lucians tolerate but isolate Philoctete, and his fate is to accept handouts from the tourist armies that descend upon the island.
Ma Kilman resembles the witch Circe from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) insofar as she uses transforming magic. Circe turns men into swine. Ma Kilman kills though the intoxicants she sells at her bar, but she also transforms Helen into a monarch butterfly through the gift of a castoff yellow dress and turns Philoctete back into a fisherman through her herbal magic. Ma is also a native mother who saves her young, yet her transformation of Helen is a fatal intoxicant for Hector. He dies just outside his city, as did his Homeric namesake.
Walcott’s poem also alludes to Maud (1855), a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. One of the subsections of Tennyson’s work is titled “Come into the Garden, Maud,” and orchid farming is Maud Plunkett’s profession. The male narrator of Maud describes his emotions as they evolve through his father’s death; his family’s ruin as contrived by the lord of the Hall; his forbidden love for the old lord’s daughter, Maud; and his successful courtship and flight abroad with her. This is, on one level, the love story of English-born Dennis Plunkett, his Irish-born wife, and their emigration to St. Lucia. Dennis is a military officer turned pig farmer, an English version of Homer’s Eumaeus, while Maud is an orchid grower trying to forget her homeland, much as do the Lotus-eaters of Homer or Tennyson.
The ships that invade...
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St. Lucia are those of American and European cruise lines, not those of the Greeks, but they bring invading armies nonetheless. Some islanders, such as Hector, the fisherman turned taxi driver, are willing to serve them.
The prevailing meter of Omeros resembles Dante’s terza rima, three-line stanzas in aba form that Dante used in La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Walcott incorporates this meter to pay tribute to the epic poet, and he modifies it to assert his own powers of innovation. Omeros is a vernacular Caribbean epic. Likewise, Dante’s innovation was his use of vernacular Italian rather than Latin or Provençal. It was a native meter and a native tongue. Walcott combines St. Lucian patois with an innovative Italian verse form.