Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947

Since Omeros is a book of epic proportions written primarily in English by a black poet from a small Caribbean island, its very existence is fraught with political complications. Walcott is an assimilator who does not hesitate to exploit every facet of his polyglot experience, whether his choices offend Afro-Caribbean...

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Since Omeros is a book of epic proportions written primarily in English by a black poet from a small Caribbean island, its very existence is fraught with political complications. Walcott is an assimilator who does not hesitate to exploit every facet of his polyglot experience, whether his choices offend Afro-Caribbean purists or humanist liberals. Too little time has passed since publication of Omeros in 1990 for critical opinion to have settled definitively; however, certain aspects of the work often come under scrutiny in the commentary that has appeared. In spite of Walcott's argument to New York Times columnist D. J. R. Bruckner that he was not writing a "conundrum for scholars," it is impossible for commentators to ignore explicit epic references and parallels. To their credit, most of them quickly delve beneath the surface to focus on Walcott's creative deviation from the formula. Rei Terada's book Derek Walcott's Poetry: American Mimicry, for example, stresses the complexity and sophistication of Walcott's manipulation of Homeric and other Western paradigms. Her chapter on Omeros pursues the idea that Walcott subtly disguises the representational nature of his own fictional characters by comparing them with their classical Greek archetypes. As a result, his "realistic" characters are more immediately vivified in contrast with the "art" they imitate. John Lucas, reviewing for the New Statesman and Society, argues that Walcott's exploitation of the masters presents no constriction. Classical analogies aside, Lucas contends that "the glory of Omeros is in the manner of its telling, in Walcott's masterly twining of the narrative threads, and also in the poem's seemingly inexhaustible linguistic riches.

Regarding the prosody and scope of Omeros the verdict is divided. Among those who suggest that Walcott is too ambitious, that he may have overwritten, or spread this West Indian poem too thinly in attempting to incorporate North America and Europe are Christopher Bakken in The Georgia Review, Christopher Benfey in The New Republic, Brad Leithauser in The New Yorker, David Mason in The Hudson Review and Sean O'Brien in The Times Literary Supplement. Regardless of his reservations, Leithauser echos Lucas in praising Walcott's linguistic virtuosity. Impressed by the range and variety of Walcott's rhyme schemes, Leithauser offers Omeros as "a rhyme casebook" because Walcott has "a sure, prepossessing vocabulary, a deft and ludic wit, ... an intricately calibrated ear.... wonderful analogical talents." St. Lucia-born scholar Pat Ismond, in her Caribbean Contact review, goes so far as to assert that Walcott's poem is "informed by a lyric" rather than an epic muse. Furthermore, writing from her perspective within the Caribbean, she disagrees with those metropolitan critics who find Walcott's excursions beyond the West Indies to be problematic. She appreciates the larger New World nexus of colonial reality. In confronting North America's unconscionable treatment of Native tribesmen, Ismond contends that Walcott "makes a truly revolutionary gesture," positing the heart of America in the Dakota plains rather than embracing the stereotypical image of Pilgrims in New England. Equally sensitive to the impetus behind Walcott's looking beyond the Caribbean, Geert Lernout argues in Kunapipi that it is the poet's dual vision that makes Omeros a ''powerful achievement'': ''Walcott presents the two sides, the benevolent colonialism of the minor officials of the empire on the one hand and the descendants of slaves on the other."

The polarities noted by Lernout are obviously also the sources of Walcott's personal and cultural heritage. The African episode in Omeros fits so seamlessly as to go unremarked by most critics. Creole by birth as well as by experience and education, his roots are nurtured by European as well as African sources. Lernout mentions in passing that Walcott and James Joyce accomplish similarly patriotic objectives for their respective island nations. Writing for the Southern Review, Sidney Burns insists that in rhetoric, humor, structure and style, Joyce's Ulysses is likely "to emerge as the most generous sponsor of Omeros.'' In addition to Homer and Joyce, critics are finding a growing number of informative parallels with other Western models. At least three recent articles that seize upon Helen as the thematic center of Omeros make the case for Walcott's contribution to and extension of time-honored prototypes. According to Charlotte McClure in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Walcott's female protagonist assumes an identity of her own after 2500 years of varied treatment. Comparing the Helens of Hart Crane and Hilda Doolittle with Walcott's creation, McClure concludes that without the benefit of female support within her patriarchal society, the Caribbean Helen achieves autonomy, ultimately breaking free of Homeric and Sophoclean associations. In World Literature Today, Julia Minkler draws upon Shakespeare's Tempest to discuss Helen among her St. Lucian Calibans, Prospero, Miranda Ariel and Sycorax. Minkler finds Walcott's Helen "not only Caliban's physiognomically complementary mate but the pivotal force of creation and procreation as well." Then, contributing to a collection entitled Robinson Crusoe: Myths and Metamorphoses, Paula Burnett locates Walcott's new Helen within the rich Crusoe-Friday myth that itself grows out of the Ulysses legend. Due to their healing power, "moral courage, endurance, compassion, and knowledge of the human condition," Helen and Ma Kilman are primary forces in Walcott's narrative of the ''handover of white power to black, in the name of a multiracial and multicultural future in which the wounds of history stay healed."

From some of the claims represented among these critics, it is apparent that Walcott's Omeros is expected to be capable of sustaining a weighty philosophical and aesthetic burden. Even before Walcott's receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1992, Omeros began attracting more and more serious scholarly attention. Among the books on the poem that will inevitably be making their appearance is Robert Hamner's An Epic of the Dispossessed: Derek Walcott's Omeros, scheduled for publication in 1997.

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