The Aleatory Muse of Omeros

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2026

Illustration of PDF document

Download Omeros Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Most critics and reviewers recognize the obvious epic dimensions of Omeros and wisely proceed to Walcott's deviations from the traditional formula. At this point some conventional approaches begin to note perceived weaknesses. One common objection, voiced by David Mason in The Hudson Review and Sean O'Brien in The Times Literary Supplement, is that Walcott errs in attempting to include Euro-American material in what is ostensibly a West Indian epic. Another complaint, offered by Christopher Bakken in The Georgia Review, is that rhetoric occasionally threatens to overwhelm the narrative impetus. One answer to both these concerns is that Omeros is to a significant extent the offspring of chance, fortune, the coincidental roll of dice, Walcott's aleatory muse. At least this is a stratagem, an authorial ploy that allows Walcott to exploit the ambient space between the vital people who are his immediate subject and the aesthetic distance required to depict their lives artistically.

Chance and coincidence are sufficiently important to Walcott that he makes them explicit in minor details and within the thinking processes of major characters. In her American Mimicry, for example, Rei Terada comments on 1) Walcott's paying attention to spelling errors; 2) both Walcott's and English expatriate Major Plunkett's fascination with one-to-one correspondences between Aegean and Caribbean events; and 3) coincidental details mentioned by Warwick Walcott that link him with Shakespeare and Hamlet. Certainly, Achille accidentally gets "trust" wrong in naming his canoe In God We Troust, Major Plunkett misspells the Arawak word "Iounalo," and a sign is misprinted "HEWANNORRA." Clearly, Walcott in his own persona and Major Plunkett expend much of their energy in the poem pursuing a well-intentioned, nonetheless misguided, quest to immortalize their West Indian Helen in emulation of Homer's white paradigm. This eclectic blend of misprision and fancied correspondence in Omeros, however, goes much deeper than these overt manifestations. Indeed it pervades the subtext and Walcott's aesthetic technique. Since Walcott makes himself a participant within Omeros, the circumstances of his birth serve as one antecedent accident. As he describes his predicament in Another Life, "reason had produced its monster: / a prodigy of the wrong age and color." Even his obscure island happened to be so desirable to France and England that he grew up being taught St. Lucia was the ''Helen of the West Indies."

An impressionable Walcott absorbed such incidental correspondences until he eventually realized their potential not only as subject for analogy, but also for the recognition latent within any accident or mistake. Shortly before undertaking the writing of Omeros, Walcott explained at a literary conference the lesson he learned when he mistyped the word "love" in his manuscript where he intended to say ''life.'' It immediately occurred to him that this slip of the finger registered a truth he had not previously conceptualized. He records his conclusion later in "Caligula's Horse" for Kunapipi: "That is one part of the poetic process, accident as illumination, error as truth, typographical mistakes as revelation." As a matter of fact, early in the second chapter of Omeros Walcott candidly informs readers that his very title grows out of a simple mistake. When he speaks of Homer to his lover, a Greek sculptress, she informs him that the authentic pronunciation of the name is "Omeros." Title in hand, with all its connotations, Walcott undertakes the conversion of Aegean rudiments into a Caribbean narrative. This epic of the dispossessed centers on a Creole island that has dropped between the lines of history. Since St. Lucia and her people have been lost or marginalized in the record of European conquest, Walcott may be said to have "found" them and himself as subject matter. Already at hand are black countrymen named after figures from classical myth and legend, educated under a system of hierarchical Western values. The precursor of Helen, he explains in a Green Mountains Review interview with J. P. White, is the woman he happened to encounter on a local transport bus. Portraying this incident in ''The Light of the World'' from The Arkansas Testament, Walcott introduces this remarkable ebony rival to Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, a van like Hector's Comet, the Halcyon Hotel where Helen will be employed at the close of Omeros, and he registers his desire to give something to these people he has abandoned in pursuit of art.

Thus it would be appropriate to categorize the contents of Omeros as ''found art." At least that is the impression Walcott cultivates in having Helen first appear as a mirage before his persona. When his eye happens upon this feline beauty in madras head-tie and yellow dress, the narrator can only pronounce, "And all the rest followed." From one unexpected vision, all the other characters, themes, and plot lines cohere in Helen both as a person and as the embodiment of St. Lucia. Initially, she may serve as a cause just as her Greek namesake does in the Iliad; however, in the modern setting no demigods are found working their will on a grand scale. Instead, Walcott consistently presents a sequence of events wherein ordinary humans must feel their way tentatively, reacting to shifts in fortune, whose most well-intentioned plans may turn out to be misguided. Of the four major questing figures, only Achille and Ma Kilman achieve untainted goals. In each case, they succeed not through personal assertion but by allowing an external power to reveal missing knowledge. The overriding difference is that Ma Kilman responds to instinct and follows a trail of ants in locating the African herb that cures Philoctete's physical and spiritual affliction. Achille, in turn, succumbs to a sunstroke-induced trance to regain the African heritage that had been wrested from his people by the Middle Passage. For Dennis Plunkett, "all the rest" begins with his commitment to giving Helen the history she has been denied, making her the object of the Battle of the Saints. Apparently, even Helen's possession of the butterfly-colored frock that serves as the standard for that famous battle comes into her possession due to misunderstanding. Whether she imagined Maud Plunkett intended it for her or she stole it, there is the accomplished fact. Equally determined to exonerate Helen, Walcott undertakes her artistic representation through the Westernized paraphernalia of Omeros.

Before these men realize the colonial paternalism inherent in their agendas for Helen, the stations of their quests afford fruitful insights. Pursuing his research, the Major happens upon a surrogate for the son he and Maud were unable to conceive. Although young Midshipman Plunkett died over 200 years ago, by accidentally falling on his own sword during the Battle of the Saints, the Major's discovery of his name in the annals of the military engagement is sufficient to confirm his blood-ties to his adopted country. His luck in finding the name unexpectedly and his obsession with fortunate parallels, however, only affirm the European framework of his historical account. After his wife's untimely death, he becomes more thoroughly integrated into authentic island society when he calls on Ma Kilman's powers as an obeah-woman to establish communication with Maud in the afterlife. Humbled by personal loss and realizing that he had been inadvertently imposing his will on Helen's story, he at last concedes that she is "not a cause... only a name / for a local wonder."

Walcott's sojourn carries him away from the island to North America and Europe in books four and five—the portions of the epic that some critics see as the least artistically defensible. The fact that Walcott's own professional life necessitated foreign residence is insufficient alone to justify the material of these two books. An equally autobiographical yet more compelling motive may be found in the ''accident" of his being born of mixed blood. Not only has he sung this theme since adolescence, but it is as integral a component of his existence, as it is of all Creoles, regardless of whether they wish to acknowledge the disparate sides of their ancestry. Walcott's "all the rest" encompasses this broader context. When he needs an alter ego to share the pain of a broken marriage and growing disenchantment with the American Dream, an unlikely figure jumps from the pages of a book he is reading, Rex Smith's Moon of Popping Trees. As Walcott explains, "Catherine Weldon arose in high relief / ... making a fiction of my own loss." Prompted by the ghost of his father, he traces the roots of colonialism to the decadent seats of European empire. In the Old World, he learns to prefer the birds perched on the commemorative statues to the monuments themselves. That lesson is reiterated when he returns to St. Lucia and the image of Homer himself counsels that, "A girl smells better than the world's libraries." In addition, this talking statue of authority argues that as powerful as love for a woman may be, "the love of your own people is / greater." Acting in Virgil's capacity as guide to Dante in The Inferno, the statue removes Walcott's remaining illusions by taking him through St. Lucia's inferno near Soufriere. After this corrective experience, Walcott reaches an epiphany similar to that of Dennis Plunkett:' "The sea was my privilege. / And a fresh people."

Although Walcott draws many literary figures into Omeros, it is imperative to note one other crucial influence on the epic. Walcott, who is a painter as well as a poet and playwright, has always sketched scenes for his poetry and drama. This is important because he plans to publish in a separate book the ink and watercolor illustrations he has prepared for Omeros, and also for his technical affinities with two out of the many graphic artists he cites directly. The lucky coincidence of Winslow Homer's surname, in itself, merely fits into the litany of correspondences. However, when Walcott chances upon Homer's The Gulf Stream he is forced into a singular recognition. Homer's realistic depiction of a lone Negro sailor adrift in a dismasted skiff between voracious sharks and an oblivious sailboat on the horizon leads to his exclamation, "Achille! My main man, my nigger! /... forever, between our island / and the coast of Guinea.'' Combined in that electric moment are two painters, two Homers, and two representatives of a race suspended precariously between the Old and New Worlds. The second painter deserving special notice is equally instructive, but for an entirely different reason. Walcott's allusion to Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass should elicit the heart of Dadaist "aleatory," "chance" or "found art" theory. It is this anti-art technique that underlies Walcott's non-linear plotting of Omeros. Whereas Duchamp declares a "ready-made" urinal to be an art object, Walcott proclaims the artistic validity of St. Lucia's readily available but disregarded population. Furthermore, when Walcott mentions the accidental cracks in Duchamp's Large Glass, he draws from this artist's celebration of the creative value of mishaps. Speaking to Katherine Kuh in The Artist's Voice, Duchamp explains his random dropping of three lengths of thread onto painted strips of canvas to form his iconoclastic 3 Standard Stoppages:' "The idea of letting a piece of thread fall on a canvas was accidental, but from this accident came a carefully planned work. Most important was the accepting and recognizing of this accidental stimulation."

Neither Duchamp's nor Walcott's manipulation of chance and ready-made objects can be taken as purely haphazard. Their material is carefully selected, yet each choice is cast as random enough to maximize a sense of spontaneity—creativity arising from the mundane. Walcott's characters may seem diminished when compared with the glorious warriors of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but as he demonstrates, they possess a dimension of heroism all their own. Omeros has room for good-hearted Dennis Plunkett whose putative son inadvertently anchors the Major's life in St. Lucia by his accidental death. It is also about Walcott, Achille and the other descendants of Afolabe and the female colliers whose menial labor fueled the economy of an empire. Walcott's contribution is to demonstrate that, although they did not set out to conquer anyone, were not able to return to their native land, and did not found a marbled Rome, "they crossed, they survived. There is the Epical splendour."

Source: Robert D Hamner, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Helen's Calibans: A Study of Gender Hierarchy in Derek Walcott's Omeros

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4411

But she'd last forever, Helen.1

In book 1 of The Histories Herodotus implies that Helen of Sparta (alias Helen of Troy) was lewd and unchaste (an opinion shared by other fifth-century men of letters as well), "for," he says, "it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be."2 Herodotus also mentions another version of the abduction story (a version, however, of which he himself seems quite skeptical), according to which Helen did not really go to Troy but ended up in Egypt, where she spent some time at the court of King Proteus.3 Finally, according to Euripides in Helen, Hera, "angry that she was not given the prize," gave Priam's son "a breathing image out of the sky's air"4 so that Paris would hold a "vanity" (i.e., a shadow) instead of the real woman.

Certainly, Helen's legend has endured numerous interpretations from many cultures, from classical mythology to the present, or, as Derek Walcott says in Omeros, his most extensive poetic work, "Smoke wrote the same story / since the dawn of time" (2.23.2). Caribbean culture is no exception. Resonant of the Homeric story yet at the same time successfully adapted to the specificity of the region's tempora and mores, the Helen theme is multifariously present in Caribbean literature and folklore. From the popular Jamaican song "Helena,"5 to Stanley French's play The Rape of Fair Helen,6 to Walcott's Omeros and his recent stage adaptation of the Odyssey7, Helen's myth and "nature" are now seen under a new, inter/metacultural perspective.

Specifically in Omeros the St. Lucian poet, critic, and playwright Walcott treats Helen in an idiosyncratic narrative of Caribbean aspiration and inspiration. His version of Helen deviates considerably from the original matrix. For him, Helen's story is no longer the account of her abduction by Paris and her exile in Troy but rather that of her growth as a woman after the war. What is more, Paris himself is no longer accounted for in the text except through a pun implied by the name of the sunken battleship Ville de Paris ("City of Paris," "Vile Paris").

This new Antillean Helen should not be seen as a victim but rather as the axis about which the entire "horned island" (1.7.2) and its elemental men rotate: Achille, a dignified version of Menelaus; Hector, Paris's counterpart and, like Paris, a man of duplicitous nature; Philoctete, a low-key character suffering from an incurable leg wound; the Vagrant Poet, a version of divine Homer himself; and Dennis Plunkett, the softhearted colonizer of a town ''he had come to love'' (2.22.3). In brief, Walcott changes the original story, in which the male captor victimizes his female captive, into a story of seduction— this time, however, it is a seduction of the male by the female.

Finally, and above all, Walcott turns the original story into an account of textual rebirth for both male and female. This new story,''Not his, but her story," takes over immediately after the war, "Not theirs, but Helen's war" (1.5.3). Unlike the white Helen, who has died long ago "In that pause / that divides the smoke with a sword'' (1.6.2), this Helen of the West Indies (7.62.1) seems happily settled down in a revived postwar Troy, which she now tenderly but possessively calls her village (1.5.3); for, in her new Antillean transformation, as one sees it unfold in and out of Omeros, Helen symbolizes as well as personifies the island itself, which is likewise called Helen (2.19.1,2.19.3).

In addition to being resonant of the Homeric story, however, Walcott's Omeros is also reminiscent of yet another work, Shakespeare's Tempest.8 Not only does it share with the latter such characteristics as an island setting and a storm as catalyst, but it also relates to The Tempest on the basis of the psychological and/or symbolic proximities of its main characters, save one. In particular, both Achille and Hector, the local fishermen antiheroes of the poem, partly identify with Caliban, the "abhorred slave," the "savage," and the "thing most brutish" of Shakespeare's play. At times Philoctete, who "anoint[s] the mouth of his sore" (1.3.2), thus "feeding" his wound, also identifies with Caliban, who, in The Tempest, is bound by Prospero to "feed" the island's gaping "wound," its furnace. Omeros, the omniscient, omnipresent, yet invisible Poet, and his local visible reduction, Seven Seas, the island's blind griot and seer (3.28.1), resemble Prospero, the island's master poet, sage, and magus. The Vagrant Poet-Narrator (and at times Walcott himself) often evokes an echo of Ariel, Prospero's bewildered captive. Eager to disentangle himself from Homer's intellectual web (thus opting for a Caribbean identity that is no longer uncritically dependent on a cultural subordination to the West and its tradition), he gradually succeeds in freeing himself and his island from the poet's enchanted but fatal grasp. Ma Kil[l]man, the owner of the No Pain Cafe, an Obeah figure who ultimately cures Philoctete's gangrenous wound, represents the domesticated version of Sycorax, Caliban's absent mother. Last but not least, Maud Plunkett, obsessed with her never-ending (and Penelope-like) quiltmaking, stitching birds "into her green silk / with sibylline steadiness" (7.62.2), becomes a more mature, toned-down Miranda.

Helen, on the other hand, who in the poem personifies the concretized version of a long-awaited Caribbean identity, resists comparison and belongs to no one. Throughout the narrative she functions independently of the other characters' fates, as she alone stands and acts outside that narrative. At the same time, and of all the other characters in Omeros, she is the one to determine the narrative's progressions and its crucial outcome as well. Already divergent from her Greek counterpart, Walcott's Helen does not on first impression seem to parallel any of the characters from The Tempest, yet in a unique way she does.

In "Beyond Miranda's Meanings: Un/silenc-ing the 'Demonic Ground' of 'Caliban's Woman'" Sylvia Wynter analyzes the adverse relation of "sameness" and "difference" that unifies yet differentiates Caribbean womanists from white feminists. Wynter brilliantly suggests that we see the silenced Caribbean and black American woman as the long-anticipated mate of Caliban, so pronouncedly absent from The Tempest.9 Addressing previously posed questions on the absence of Caliban's legitimate father and the "silent presence of a mother not yet fully understood,"10 Wynter now poses the significant question on the absence of Caliban's Woman, i.e. "of Caliban's physiognomically complementary mate" (SW, 360). Characteristically, Wynter says:

Nowhere in Shakespeare's play ... does Caliban's mate appear as an alternative sexual-erotic model of desire .. Rather there, on the New World island, as the only woman, Miranda ... is canonized as the ''rational'' object of desire; as the potential genitrix of a superior mode of human "life," that of "good natures." (SW, 360)

According to Wynter (as well as to Maryse Conde, whom Wynter quotes), Caliban is reduced to a labor machine. His nondesire for his own mate, a woman like him, as well as his nonneed for the procreation of his own "kind," constitutes the founding function of the social pyramid of a global order, "put in place following upon the 1492 arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean" (SW, 360). The absence of Caliban's endogenous desire for his kind of woman and instead the soldering of his nevertheless-existing sexual desires onto Miranda (SW, 361), the woman he absolutely cannot have, polarize Caliban's unconscious. Thus he is now displaced from the state of a "brutish slave'' to that of a frustrated and almost schizophrenic being. In Wynter's view, Caliban's Woman, seen as the harbinger of a new era of consciousness in the Caribbean, would/could have helped (if allowed into existence) to reinstate Caliban's human status, otherwise subhuman.

At this point, further elaboration on the concept of Caliban's Woman is necessary. In her essay Wynter seems primarily concerned with the political rather than literary dimensions of this concept. For her, the Caribbean womanist—whether a member of the intelligentsia, a middle-class housewife, or a member of the working class—is at last becoming an indispensable factor of Caribbean sociopolitical and cultural reality; and although Wynter too reckons Caliban as a symbol of the Caribbean people in general, from the beginning of their enslavement to their present status of economic subordination to the West, she seems particularly disturbed not so much by the fact of his misrepresentation (Caliban now personifying Caribbean males) as by the total lack of representation of Caliban's Woman, because of racial and patriarchal domination. In other words, Wynter's concerns as a womanist pertain to the fact that women's marginalization in the Caribbean is colonization twice removed: first by colonial Prosperos and second by colonized Calibans and their repressed desires and needs. Still, one should keep in mind that Wynter's essay is after all the concluding statement of a selection of essays written by women who write, or write about, literature and who address not only political but literary questions as well. What is more, the fact that in this same essay Wynter calls Caliban's Woman "demonic" (SW, 364)—a notion that in my view is diametrically opposed to Walcott's "Adamic" notion —brings to the surface literary connotations equally implied by this very concept.

Walcott states in "The Muse of History," an essay written in the early seventies, that although amnesia—and especially amnesia of the literary European past—is the "true history" of the Caribbean, "The great poets of the New World, from Whitman to Neruda, reject this sense of history. Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic."11 By mentioning Whitman and Neruda, and also Borges, Cesaire, Saint-John Perse, and other New World (American, Latin American, or Caribbean) poets, vis-a-vis the Adamic element, Walcott unquestionably relates this image not to political or politicized issues but directly to literature and literary concerns. In addition, Walcott also looks at Caliban from a purely literary angle, openly distancing himself from those New World, militant poets who see Caliban's mastery of the master's language not as victory but as self-deceit (3-4), thus reducing it to a language that, as Shakespeare put it, taught Caliban only how to curse. Referring to the Adamic man of letters (who is newly ''made'' but not ignorant of the world) and his second Eden, Walcott says:

The great poetry of the New World does not pretend to such innocence [i.e., molded after the myth of the noble savage], its vision is not naive. Rather, like its fruits, its savor is a mixture of the acid and the sweet, the apples of its second Eden have the tartness of experience. (5)

As a matter of fact, Walcott's Adamic concept obviates female intervention. Like the biblical Adam, this New World Adam is "made" directly by his ''god,'' without female interference or any other connection, for that matter. As described in Omeros, in the New World "each man was a nation / in himself, without mother, father, brother" (3.28.1). In this ''second Eden with its golden apple''(2.18.2), all "men are born makers, with the original simplicity / in every maker since Adam. This is prehistory" (3.28.2).

Going back at this point to Wynter's demonic image, I suggest we see the term demonic as the antonym of Adamic. I likewise suggest we see the term as far removed from the current Christian connotation as possible. Demonic derives from the Greek word daimon, meaning god- or goddesslike, a link between gods and humans, and good or bad spirit. In this particular context (i.e., as a good spirit) a demon, especially a female demon, can virtually relate to the spirit (or force) of inspiration, creativity, or to a faculty pertaining to the mind or soul of the individual involved, very much in the sense of the Socratic daimon—namely, his conscience. (It is worth mentioning that, in Greek, words such as inspiration, creativity, and conscience are all feminine.) In this sense, Wynter's "demonic Woman" could represent the second stage of growth for Caliban's Woman, a stage of cultural (since pertaining to creativity) rather than solely political selfconsciousness and maturation. Thus, in her demonic stage, Caliban's Woman is no longer looked at as just a Muse—i.e., the inspirational force behind male creativity (a stereotypical male contrivance)— but rather creativity herself, especially creativity of the mind, for her and for women to follow. As such, Caliban's Woman is viewed as the female creative force that propagates, procreates, and builds upon her own mental capabilities, without man's or "god's" intervention.

her beauty is what no man can claim any more
than this bay. Her beauty stands apart in a golden
dress, its beaches wreathed with her name.
(7.57.3)

In my view, Walcott's Helen in Omeros is the well-balanced conflation of Wynter's demonic model and Caliban's Woman. She is not only Caliban's physiognomically complementary mate but the pivotal force of creation and procreation as well. As the personification of Caliban's Woman, this new and promising Helen is now pregnant, "carrying Hector's child" (6.49.3). In her saffron dress, stolen from Maud, Helen meanders enigmatically from man to man "with the leisure of a panther" (7.64.2), yet her eyes "never betrayed horned Menelaus / or netted Agamemnon in their irises" (7.64.2). She, "Black maid or black mail," is everywhere, yet her presence is "oblique but magnetic" (2.18.2). She could be everybody's, yet, in her remote stillness (7.64.2) and Sphinx-like evasiveness, she belongs to nobody. In her case even the term "Caliban's Woman" becomes a misstatement, since it no longer describes Walcott's Helen accurately, a woman with a glossy but nevertheless substantial personality. It is a fact that in Omeros Caliban has at last been blessed with a woman of his "kind," but it is also a fact that he has not, under any circumstances, been able to claim this woman as his own. Rather, it is Helen who owns him and men like him.

In an unexpected turn of events, the island's men have become Helen's men instead—Helen's Calibans, so to speak. Her radiance and exuberance push them to extremes. Achille feels ' 'like a dog that is left / to nose the scraps of her footsteps" (1.7.1). Hector, un homme fou (1.3.1), is determined to fight an enraged Achille (7.59.3), his former friend and companion,''for a tin and Helen'' (6.46.1), later to lose his life unfairly and ingloriously. And Major Dennis Plunkett, the colonizer with the heart of gold—himself a Caliban—is "fixed by her glance" (2.18.1), fatally lost in her "seduction of quicksand" (6.53.1). Even Philoctete, who is beyond caring about women, has suddenly become her "footman" (2.20.2). Knowing "It was her burden [the woman's and the island's] he bore,'' he now wonders:

Why couldn't they love the place, same way, together,
the way he always loved her, even with his sore?
Love Helen like a wife in good and bad weather,
in sickness and health, its beauty in being poor?
The way the leaves loved her, not like a pink leaflet
printed with slogans of black people fighting war?
(2.20.2)

From now on, Helen has become an aphorism: Helen, the woman, is no man's prey, no warrior's spoil; Helen, the island, is no man's land. Finally, as the personification of the demonic woman mustering creativity and wisdom, Helen has bewildered two more of the island's Calibans, the last ones to fall into her nets: Omeros, the divine poet himself; and the Vagrant Poet, the most complex of the poem's Caliban-like characters.

According to the Vagrant Poet, Omeros, who is both his nigger and his captain (3.30.2)—in a word, his exorcism (7.59.1)—personifies creativity, knowledge, and enchantment. Introduced to him by a Greek girl exiled in America, Omeros also personifies the experience of a past trying to grow roots anew inside the New World poet, a past that does "what the past always does: suffer and stare" (1.2.3). What is more, for the Vagrant Poet, Omeros is a vision, the sibylline voice of divine wisdom, and the ever-living discourse with that past. He says "Omeros,"

and O was the conch-shell's invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes
and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore. (1.2.3)

As the source of knowledge (a Prospero figure in the Shakespearean sense as well), Omeros is also portrayed as a snake, thus evoking Eden's serpent.

I saw white-eyed Omeros motionless. He must
be deaf too, I thought, as well as blind, since his head
never turned, and then he lifted the dry rattle
in one hand, and it was the same sound I had heard
in Cody's circus, the snake hiss before battle.
(5.43.2)

Both a serpent and a godlike figure (a trickster/seer),12 this Caribbean-construed13 Omeros feels no anger for having shown Woman how to partake of God's knowledge. On the contrary, himself a symbol of wisdom, he allows Helen to savor the fruit of that wisdom unconditionally, in an act of divine communion. In addition to the yellow dress, Helen also steals a bracelet from Maud (the bracelet of knowledge) but is caught in the act by Dennis Plunkett, who, bewitched by her spell, lets her take it.

... he was fixed by her glance
in the armoire's full-length mirror, where, one long arm,
its fist closed like a snake's head, slipped through a bracelet
from Maud's jewel-box, and, with eyes calm as Circe,
simply continued, and her smile said, "You will let
me try this," which he did. He stood at the mercy
of that beaked, black arm, which with serpentine leisure
replaced the bangle....
The bracelet coiled like a snake. He heard it hissing:
Her housebound slavery could be your salvation.
(2.18.1-2)

Viewed as the poet's embrace with her in disguise,14 this serpentine bracelet underlines Helen's spiritual communion with the absolute ideal of knowledge.

Last of all, the Vagrant Poet—Walcott's Adamic man par excellence—entrusts Helen with the secrets of his mystical,15 metaphysical,16 and poetic17 experience, an experience that derives not only from Homer and the classical tradition but also from Shakespeare and the perpetuation of that tradition. During a metaphorical descent into the depths of his soul in pursuit of knowledge and spiritual fertility, the New World poet of Omeros visits with the phantom of his Father/father,18 who in turn unveils to his initiate son the secrets of their patrilineal heritage. He says to him: "I was raised in this obscure Caribbean port, / where my bastard father christened me for his shire: / Warwick. The Bard's county. But never felt part / of the foreign machinery known as Literature. /I preferred verse to fame, but I wrote with the heart / of an amateur. It's that Will you inherit" (1.12.1). Later on in the poem the Vagrant Poet also meets with the phantom of his mother,19 who too feels compelled to emphasize her son's origins: '"You are my son.' / 'Warwick's son,' she said. / 'Nature's gentleman'" (3.32.1).

Once the spiritual journey to his personal past is completed, the Vagrant Poet undertakes a series of journeys to a communal past via Africa, Europe, and North America over a considerably long but discontinuous span of time. It is during these voyages that he begins to have particular doubts about the nature of his Adamic identity and decides to set sail for maternal roots. And, although he will later admit "I had nowhere to go but home. Yet I was lost" (4.33.2), he finally, deliberately and unconditionally, surrenders to Helen: the mother figure of Africa, the earth goddess of Greece, the Nereid of the "other" archipelago. He ponders:

"If this place is hers, did that empty horizon
once flash its broadsides with their inaudible rays
in her honour? Was that immense enterprise
on the baize tables of empires for one who carries
cheap sandals on a hooked finger with the Pitons
for breasts? Were both hemispheres the split breadfruit
of her African ass, her sea the fluted chitons
of a Greek frieze?'' (7.62 2)

And in response to his own psychological qualms, he adds:

"You were never in Troy, and, between two Helens,
yours is here and alive,..
...These Helens are different creatures,
one marble, one ebony...
but each draws an elbow slowly over her face
and offers the gift of her sculptured nakedness,
parting her mouth."

Still later he exclaims, "What a fine local woman!" (7.64.2). The Vagrant Poet is home at last! "I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea,"20 he says. Let "the deep hymn / of the Caribbean continue my epilogue" (7.64.2). As for Helen, her cycle come to a closure, she now passes the torch of her "demonic" nature to a new Helen (7.63.1), Christine, Ma Kilman's niece. Thus the Helenic— and no longer Hellenic— character of Walcott's story has created a literary intercultural continuum, which, like the sea, will be going on forever (7.64.3).

Almost two decades ago, in "The Muse of History," emphasizing the New World poet's Adamic idiosyncrasy, Walcott wrote: "I needed to become omnivorous about the art and literature of Europe to understand my own world. I write 'my own world' because I had no doubt that it was mine, that it was given to me, by god, not by history, with my gift."21 Contrasting his ideology to the militant beliefs of the "new prophets of bitterness" in the Caribbean, he also wrote: "I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost."22

In Omeros, through the persona of the Vagrant Poet (often seen as Walcott's own alter ego), Walcott's Adamic theory seems revised. The poet no longer considers his mythopoeic gift divinely sent but rather realized and propagated through a female demon: the demon of imagination—-or, as Walcott calls it in "The Muse of History," the "memory of imagination in literature" (25). In Omeros, however, this spirit is no longer an abstraction. On the contrary, it is conveyed by the intellectual, spiritual, and physical powers of a "real" woman, Helen, who also identifies with that New World woman Wynter calls "demonic" and constitutes the companion of the New World man. This new woman (of whatever class, status, or occupation) has taught her "Caliban" the way of belonging anew. She has taught him the way of belonging not to a person but to a present that draws its energy from the past, a past that, although no longer Adamic (i.e., god-sent and male-propagated), nevertheless musters the divine and, at the same time, fe/male characteristics of life.

Notes

1 Derek Walcott, Omeros, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990. "Omeros" is the Greek form of ''Homer." In the epigraph here Walcott refers to an Ideal—i.e., the eternal and universal "Helen" rather than the mythological figure of Homer's epics. Subsequent citations are followed by parentheses indicating book, chapter, and section number.

2 Herodotus, The Histories, Aubrey de Selincourt, tr., London, Penguin, 1983, book 1, p.42 (emphases added).

3 Ibid., book 2, pp. 170-74.

4 Euripides, Helen, in Euripides II, Richard Lattimore, tr., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1969.

5 "Helena," Jamaican Folk Singers vol. 3, Encore!, n.d.

6 Stanley French, The Rape of Fair Helen, Barbados, Carib Printers, 1983. French is a contemporary Caribbean playwright from St. Lucia, West Indies.

7 For a review of the production of Walcott's Odyssey at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (Summer 1992), see Oliver Taplin, "Hustling Homer," Times Literary Supplement, 17 July 1992, p. 19. Taplin calls the production a "feat of poetry" and a "meta-heroic folk-tale." As far as Helen is concerned, and although the central female character here is Penelope, any connection with the Helen theme should be made by juxtaposition of flighty, untamed Helen to domesticated Penelope, the faithful wife par excellence for the Greeks.

8 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Robert Langbaum, ed., New York, New American Library, 1964. As in Omeros, links between Homer and Shakespeare are also apparent in Walcott's Odyssey. Taplin characterizes Shakespeare's tragedy Troilus and Cressida as the "forerunner in English'' of Walcott's play adaptation, although, unlike the latter, which is based on Homer's Odyssey, Troilus and Cressida is based (among other sources) on the Iliad. For a textual interpretation of Helen in Troilus and Cressida, see Mihoko Suzuki's Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference and the Epic, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1989, pp. 210-57.

9 Sylvia Wynter, "Beyond Miranda's Meanings: Un/silencing the 'Demonic Ground' of Caliban's 'Woman,'" in Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women in Literature, Carole Boyle Davis & Elaine Savory Fido, eds., Trenton, N.J., Africa World Press, 1990, p. 363. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation SW.

10 For an exhaustive analysis of the figure of Caliban's mother, see Lemuel Johnson, "Whatever Happened to Caliban's Mother? Or, The Problem with Othello's," in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, Fifth World Shakespeare Congress, Tokyo, August 1991.

11 Derek Walcott, "The Muse of History: An Essay," in Is Massa Day Dead? Black Moods in the Caribbean, Orde Coombs, ed., New York, Anchor, 1974, pp. 2-3 (emphasis added).

12 The spider/trickster Anancy (or Anansi) is an important figure of Caribbean and African folklore. For a different, creative retelling of Anancy, see Andrew Salkey's Anancy's Score (London, Bogle-L'Ouverture, 1973) and Anancy, Traveller (London, Bogle-L'Ouverture, 1992). In particular, Salkey's Anancy is the conflation of a lovable trickster and a clairvoyant sage.

13 In an interview following Omeros's publication, Walcott called Homer a great Caribbean artist. For excerpts of that interview and a review of Omeros, see D. J. R. Bruckner, "A Poem in Homage to an Unwanted Man," New York Times, 9 October 1990, pp. C13, C17.

14 The spiritual union/embrace of Omeros (disguised as a bracelet) with Helen is reminiscent of the various metamorphoses of Zeus and his sexual embraces with mortal women.

15 Pertaining to a mystes, in Greek ''the initiate to a mystery or cult.''

16 Pertaining to the epic hero's katubatic venture. According to the conventions of the epic, the hero, although still alive, undergoes a katabasis—i.e., a descent into Hades—in pursuit of knowledge and/or fertility.

17 Pertaining to creation in general, from the word poietes, Greek for "creator," "composer," "maker."

18 In this episode the Vagrant Poet follows the example of Vergil's Aeneas (Aeneid, book 6), who descends into the underworld to consult with the soul of his dead father Anchises about the founding and destiny of Rome.

19 This scene is reminiscent of Odysseus' descent into Hades to consult with Teiresias about his future (Odyssey, 11, "Nekyia"). While in Hades, Odysseus runs across the soul of his dead mother Anticleia, who informs him about the fates of his loved ones (wife, son, and father) after his departure for Troy.

20 For a personification of Caribbea (the Caribbean Sea), see Andrew Salkey's epic poem Jamaica (London, Hutchison, 1973).

21 Walcott, "The Muse of History," p. 26.

22 Ibid., p. 27.

Source: Mia A. Minkler, "Helen's Calibans: A Study of Gender Hierarchy in Derek Walcott's Omeros,'' World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993,272-76

Ancestral Rhyme

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3657

In one of the first glimpses we have of Helen, the heroine of Derek Walcott's book-length poem Omeros, she walks barefoot along a beach on her native Antillean island of St. Lucia, singing a Beatles song. The tune is "Yesterday," and the line she focusses on strikes a note of understated wistfulness: "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away." Helen is reflecting upon the upheavals of romance— as well she might, for she, in her surpassing beauty, is a heart-breaker. An "ebony girl" in a "lemon frock," she has recently been fired from her job as a servant to a pair of British expatriates, Dennis and Maud Plunkett. Dennis, a retired major who has taken up the disciplining of a new sort of troops— he has become a pig farmer—is silently mad about her. So are, silently or vociferously, most of the other men on the island, including a pair of fishermen whose rivalrous designs threaten to unravel the community's uneasy workaday calm.

Some forty pages farther along, we learn that the young woman's troubles were never "far away," as Walcott resurrects "Helens from an earlier time,'' whose lives were indentured to an inhumane colonialism. He vividly summons those forebears of hers who, working for pittances under the scorching Caribbean sun, once carried staggering loads of anthracite down from the hills to the holds of imperial freighters:

Hell was built on those hills. In that country of coal
without fire, that inferno the same colour
as their skins and shadows, every labouring soul
climbed with her hundredweight basket, every load for
one copper penny, balanced erect on their necks
that were tight as the liner's hawsers from
the weight The carriers were women, not the fair, gentler sex.

As she sings, Helen is ruefully conscious of an unwanted burden: she is pregnant and does not know who the father is. But she bears, simultaneously and unwittingly, a greater burden still. She, like all the dark-skinned islanders, carries the weight of a history of generations of cruelty and chicanery, most of which has passed away unchronicled and unrighted. Through Helen, and Helen's precursors, Walcott ventures back more than four hundred years, to that "yesterday" when the first African slaves were transported to the Caribbean.

Yet his backward-looking muse does not halt there. He equates the Caribbean and the Mediterranean—both belonging to a "sea without time"— and thereby likens his Helen to Homer's, and his squabbling fishermen to the warring Greeks and Trojans. The whole of Omeros (the title is Homer's name in Greek) is anchored to The Iliad and, in a lesser degree, The Odyssey. Only a page after Helen strolls the beach, Walcott forges a litany of yesterday's, and St. Lucia dissolves into the fields of Troy:

And yesterday these shallows were the Scamander,
and armed shadows leapt from the horse, and the bronze nuts
were helmets, Agamemnon was the commander
of weed-bearded captains; yesterday, the black fleet
anchored there in the swift's road

Implicit in the undertaking of this colossal poem are a number of presuppositions, among them a root belief in the sustaining continuities of history. The links between ancient Greece and the modern Caribbean are regarded as genuine and artistically negotiable. No matter that the Greeks were empire builders and the Antilleans are portrayed as the pawns of new empire-makers, the multinational corporations. Both peoples are seafarers, and Walcott makes much of the notion that to a marine community the daily nudge and drain of the tides overrides more recent life rhythms. His characters may watch American TV programs or dance to reggae music or hot-rod down the streets, but all such trappings of modern life vanish before the larger reality of the "ocean's voice." Similarly, Walcott confederates the two cultures on the basis of their pagan convictions; they are alike in inhabiting islands flush with ghosts and natural spirits. "Omeros" opens in a state of what might be called vegetal panic: jungle trees are quaking in fear as islanders hack their way toward them in search of trunks that might make seaworthy canoes. Finally, Walcott assumes that his dark-skinned islanders cultivate a spoken language of sufficient beauty, punch, and dexterity to render it suitable for the elevated dignities of an epic poem. Needless to say, there is in this assumption a touch of the antiquated. The broad consensus among English-language poets is that the eclogue is no longer viable. The conventions that deemed it plausible for the common man, in the guise of shepherd or fisherman, to declaim in elaborately patterned verse died some time ago, perhaps when the last of Frost's rugged New Englanders traded in his Vermont sheep farm for a rent-with-option-to-buy condo in Sarasota. Fortunately, news of the form's demise has not yet reached Walcott, who presents his fishermen, taxi-drivers, domestics, and barkeeps as natural poets. To be sure, he has fun with their linguistic uncertainties—their solecisms and malaprops and misspellings. But make no mistake: he is singing a song of praise to the mettle and resilience of a tongue that has wandered far from those shores where the King's English is spoken.

It becomes evident after only a couple of pages that Walcott in ''Omeros'' has set himself a pair of sizable tasks, one a matter of content and the other of technique. As regards the former, he must have recognized from the outset the grave risk that the parallels between Homer's Greeks and Walcott's Antilleans would, in the long haul, grow artificial and contrived. (It is a danger he has chosen to confront head on, going as far as to name the two fishermen who battle over Helen's affections Achille and Hector.) In terms of technique, Walcott has likewise deliberately courted our eventual fatigue, by deciding to work in three-line stanzas whose rhymes evoke Dante's terza rima. In English, as opposed to rhyme-rich Italian, the rhymed tercet has proved to be of scant utility over the centuries, its currency typically restricted to the short lyric. A potential reader is therefore entitled to hesitate before embarking on an epic poem set in the modern Caribbean which draws heavily for subject upon Homer and for music upon Dante. But these are reservations likely to fade straightaway in the presence of Walcott's sure-handed stanzas. The welcome truth is that in Omeros, his ninth full-length book of verse, Walcott has overcome a number of seeming insurmountables. Even those readers who, like me, have admired much in his previous work may well find Omeros an inspiring and enlivening surprise.

Although Homer lends his name to its title and many details to its plot, Omeros is hardly a mere retelling or updating of The Iliad or The Odyssey. Omeros moves on a wide diversity of tides and currents, and the bulk of the book is devoted to incidents and meditations that have an exiguous link, at best, to Homer's epics. Its narrative encompasses a nineteenth-century woman pioneer on the Great Plains; an eighteenth-century midshipman ancestor of Dennis Plunkett's; an aborted Antillean political campaign; a sunken treasure; a hallucinatory pilgrimage to Africa; a faith healer; and a contemporary poet—not so much a persona of the author as the author himself—who ponders modern urban life in Boston and Toronto. In dreams, in memory, sometimes in the flesh, Walcott's characters venture onto at least four continents and across at least four centuries.

Generally, what unites these far-flung souls and objects is the sea (or its agonizing absence, as when Major Plunkett relives the campaign against Rommel in the Sahara). In Greek mythology, it was of course a body of water—the navigable Styx— that conjoined the living and the dead, and Walcott has solid precedents for supposing that an epic poet should feel at liberty to travel by means of the mind's waterways from one end of creation to the other. Still, there are moments when, in aspiring to be all things to all people, Omeros winds up chugging like an overburdened motorboat. The Great Plains sections, in particular, seem not only narratively peripheral but thematically superfluous. They feel didactic, as though composed chiefly to highlight our nation's betrayal of the Indian. But do they—one must finally ask—add anything noteworthy? Hasn't the issue of the Old World's pillage of the New already been broached, unignorably, by Walcott's decision to center the poem on impoverished Antilleans? One recalls the lesson that, half a century ago, the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh encapsulated in his sonnet "Epic," in which Homer's ghost materializes in order to point out that The Iliad was fabricated from nothing but a "local row." Even for the epic writer, Kavanagh reminds us, largeness needn't begin large; the trick is not in the scale of the tale but in the skill of the telling.

Omeros is most moving, significantly, when it stays close to home. The extended interludes in which the poet converses with the ghost of his father are indelibly drawn: spooky and graceful and loving and wrenchingly sad. Although the poet is, implicitly, an eminent man (he's the author, after all, of the brilliant feat of learning that is Omeros), and the father in his life-time was, explicitly, a gifted man whose career was hamstrung by poverty and race prejudice, the place of honor throughout the meeting belongs to the father. He is at once taskmaster, supporter, and counsellor. It is from him that we learn of those earlier Helens who slaved under hundredweights of anthracite, and he is the one who—playing upon the multiple meanings of "feet"—tautens the cords that bind the poet's burden to the poet's craft. He reveals to his son a method of fusing form and content:

Kneel to your load, then balance your staggering feet
and walk up that coal ladder as they do in time,
one bare foot after the next in ancestral rhyme.
Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms
shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's
desire to enclose the loved world in its arms;
or heft a coal-basket, only by its stages
like those groaning women will you achieve that height
whose wooden planks in couplets lift your pages
higher than those hills of infernal anthracite

And yet as rich a character as the poet's father becomes, Major Plunkett may be a still more considerable artistic achievement, in part because he begins so unpromisingly. When we first see him, in his "khaki shirt and capacious shorts," he is wiping the froth of a Guinness from his "pensioned moustache." He looks, in brief, like an all too easy stereotype and target—the English-colonial "hanger-on"—and the reader naturally worries that Walcott's rage will get the better of him. But quickly, as the lineaments of Plunkett's life come clear—his bewilderment over Britain's geopolitical decline, his flair for puns, his unfulfilled dream of a freewheeling trip around the world, his taciturn grief in the face of his wife's illness—he takes on subtler pigments and finer shadings. Indeed, the tragedy that eventually sinks him, as he careens into a stunned widowerhood, is the book's most fully realized bereavement. We feel for him. And that a man who appeared destined to provide the poem with its villain instead becomes a stirring, weighty figure testifies to the deep sympathies that inform Omeros. It's a bighearted book.

As a prosodic form, the rhymed tercet is no workhorse; it's nearer to a carrier pigeon. It offers only four self-contained rhyme schemes (AAx, AxA, xAA, AAA), as opposed to the fourteen available to the quatrain. Little wonder, then, its relative unemployment among English-language poets; and no surprise that Walcott, having accepted the challenge of fitting so straitened a form to so vast a project, has resorted to a great deal of cross-stanzaic rhyming. He rhymes with broad flexibility, though he frequently, feintingly suggests that he plans to proceed otherwise. Time and again (by my estimate, there are more than a hundred such examples), he opens a new section as though he were going to adopt terza rima. The initial stanza's first and third lines will rhyme, as will its second line and the first line of the next stanza. But then—almost invariably after four lines—he snaps the pattern and begins rhyming catch-as-catch-can. (Why he has chosen this particular juncture as his breaking point and has stuck to it so faithfully, remains something of a conundrum—one of many formalistic puzzles woven into Omeros. I was similarly mystified by his decision, in an otherwise uneventful passage deep in the middle of the poem, to run twenty-four "L'' rhymes in twenty-seven lines: vertical / skull / smell / swell / idle / sail / middle / supple / gunwale / skill, and so on. As you would expect, the music shifts from lilting to leaden—but you're never sure why Walcott has brought the change about.)

Minute scrutiny of this sort might seem finicky but for the matchless variety and inventiveness of Walcott's rhymes; the care he has manifestly lavished upon them solicits our closest attention. In any poem of this length you would expect to find a range of rhyme types, if only because the customary prototype—exact rhyme—can become constraining or monotonous over time. But Walcott extends himself far beyond all foreseen deviations. A teacher of versification might well employ Omeros as a rhyme casebook. Here, in addition to exact masculine and feminine rhymes, one encounters triple rhymes (gentility / humility) and visual rhymes (plough / enough) and pararhymes or rim rhymes (often coming in strings: nose / canoes / noise) and anagrammatic rhymes (organ / groan) and apocopated rhymes (river / deliverer) and macaronic rhymes (come / homme, glory / mori) and light rhymes (sea / money) and rime riche (piss / precipice, Raj / mirage) and hosts of intricate couplings—each bearing its own distinctive acoustical qualities—for which, so far as I know, no terms have been coined except that grabbag designation "off rhyme." (How would one classify, for example, the not quite rime riche pairings of pier / happier or captains / capstans? Or a blend of visual rhyme and rime riche, like fishpot / depot? Or a hybrid of light rhyme and rim rhyme like egret / great? Or the sort of rhyme—a favorite of Walcott's—in which one word, orthographically speaking, envelopes another, as in brows / burrows or rows / arrows or acre / massacre?)

Perhaps the most striking feature in his rhyming is his ready use of outlandish pairings of a sort usually reserved for light verse. When he rhymes "panther" with "and her" or "altar" with "halt. Her" or "Florida" with "worried her" or "hunter" with "front of her," we are closer to W. S. Gilbert or Ogden Nash than to Milton or Spenser. We are perched right at the teetering edge of parody—which is where he wants us. Omeros is no sendup of epic traditions—it is no Rape of the Lock —but Walcott is keenly attuned to the humble, farcical aspects of his island world, as when his hero Achille, with a touching combination of faith and ignorance, christens his boat In God We Troust.

Omeros is a poem of elusive metres. Robert Frost once observed that there are "virtually but two" metres in English—strict iambic and loose iambic. Omeros initially looks like an example of the latter, with interspersings of a tighter iambic line. But elsewhere the lines are loosened to a point where the iambic beat disappears, with the result that any systematic attempt to read the poem metrically —with that easy sense of place, that fluid but constant awareness of where you stand within the line, which is the hallmark of solidly metred poetry— must end in frustration. There are simply too many uncertain feet, extra stresses, ambiguous emphases, and so forth, for comfortable processing. Perhaps Walcott would have us take another approach? So many of the lines contain twelve syllables that one is tempted to conclude that he has forgone conventional metrics in favor of purely syllabic verse. However, the uncertainties that attend syllabic count in English, and the reader's difficulties in comprehending such a long syllabic line, make this interpretation problematic. The cadences are powerfully rhythmic, to be sure, and one may decide that Walcott has "captured the music of the sea," or something of the sort, and let the matter drop there—but the lack of an orthodox metre is in fact a crucial, individuating trait. Rhyme—which could not help playing a signal role in Omeros, given Walcott's ingenuity with it—becomes preeminent in the absence of a clearly felt metre. Rhyme-based rather than metre-based, Omeros is a nonesuch among long poems.

One might go as far as to call it rhyme-driven. Over and over, rhymes are what hold the tumbling, pell-mell stanzas together, and since so many of the rhymes are unorthodox and recherche the poem's structure is forever on the verge of being lost. Even more than most verse, Omeros demands to be read aloud. When the prosodic underpinnings of a poem consist of rhymes like, say, "coffee" and—some twenty syllables later—"of the," you probably can't depend on your eye alone to catch the buried order that balances the hurly-burly; for this, you probably need actual, spoken echoes lingering in the air. (Here and there, one might describe the poem as rhyme-driven in another sense, for Walcott occasionally allows his appetite for choice rhymes to bend bis phrasings or sentence structures. But even in such instances the sheer oddity of his music often diverts the reader from any impression of strained or forced rhyming.) Although one can conceive of a somewhat altered Omeros whose faint ghost of an iambic-pentameter line has been expunged and whose metre is purely free, an Omeros without rhyme is unthinkable. It would be a different beast altogether.

Writers on English-language prosody generally contend that metre is a fundamental and rhyme a secondary or ornamental tool. But this view, while sound in the main, may distort those unusual poetic imaginations—in our century one thinks immediately of Charlotte Mew and Louis MacNeice and, especially, John Crowe Ransom— for whom metre is often expendable but rhyme remains essential. (Like Omeros, Ransom's oeuvre is imaginable without metre but Ransom wouldn't be Ransom without rhyme.) Such poets usually are demons for brevity. It has been left to Walcott to demonstrate a means by which rhyme —the "invention of a barbarous age," according to Milton—might support a Mil-tonic macrocosm.

Douglas Wakiihuri, the winner of [1990's] New York City Marathon, remarked after the race that real fatigue hadn't set in until Mile 20, some three-quarters of the way. Among marathoners, Mile 20 traditionally represents the point of greatest pain and trial and despair, and it is tempting to postulate that among the epic poets—the marathoners of the versifying world—a similar testing ground arrives at about the three-quarters mark. In any case, I had reached approximately that point in my reading of this more-than-three-hundred-page poem when either my own or the poet's energies flagged a little. Somewhere toward the close of Omeros the reader sees that its various branches are never going to wind up belonging to a single trunk; and with the knowledge that the poem will remain a thing of disparate parts comes the realization that one can in fairness formulate piecemeal judgments— can conclude, perhaps, that the passages dealing with Plunkett's ancestor could use some trimming, or that Hector's character needs to be clarified. Late in the poem, too, one may weary somewhat of Walcott's penchant for the sweepingly abstract— for big, summational declarations about the nature of time or history or love. Every poetic virtue contains its hazards, obviously, and Walcott's characteristic eagerness to don a sage's getup and utter vatic grandiosities carries the risk that he may at times stumble on his robes, or his beard may slip a bit.

But they're apt to be momentary lapses, these stumblings or slippages, since Walcott wields all kinds of strengths that can bolster a sagging passage in a twinkling. He has a sure, prepossessing vocabulary, a deft and ludic wit ("she was an adamant Eve"), an intricately calibrated ear. He's a man of wonderful analogical talents, especially when he fixes his eye on the natural world. He gives the reader roosters that really crow ("their cries screeching like red chalk / drawing hills on a board"), jellyfish that truly float ("tasselled palanquins of Portuguese man-o'-wars / bobbed like Asian potentates"), swifts that genuinely fly ("this frail dancer / leaping the breakers, this dart of the meridian"). And he's better than wonderful—he's little short of miraculous— when he stirs up some weather. The hurricane he brews in an early chapter is so splendidly overmastering that a reader is left feeling dazed, windblown, waterlogged. If to read Omeros is to sign on for a substantial voyage during which small doubts are constantly raised and quelled, raised and quelled—well, what long poem of our time can be read without misgivings or objections? Who doesn't find elements to quarrel with or quibble about in John Berryman's "The Dream Songs" or James Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover"? And who, even so, is any the less grateful to their makers?

So bright and immediate are many of Walcott's local virtues that one can lose sight of the lowering darkness of Omeros. Not until I'd set the book down, the journey completed, did it become clear what an unbroken line of woes it enfolds. Maud Plunkett is not the only one whose life ends sadly: Hector dies in an accident; the midshipman falls in combat while still a boy. And, year by year, political corruption cankers the island's soul, pollution threatens its beauty. There is a loud call of anguish at the center of Omeros, but the book is something more—something better—than a simple cry from the heart. It's a complex cry from the heart, for Walcott has succeeded in filtering all sorts of titanic sorrows through a limpid and ferocious intellect.

Source: Brad Leithauser, "Ancestral Rhyme," The New Yorker, 11 February, 1991, pp. 91-5.

Previous

Critical Overview