Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1823
Modern poets have often relied on classical imagery to present their theories of history. William Butler Yeats saw history as a series of cycles, repetitions with variations to which only the poet-artist remained sensitive. Indeed, the poet-artist of Yeats is an adept in the mystical sense who rebuilds civilizations through art after those charged with safeguarding culture, the politicians and diplomats, have helped destroy old ways of life through their failures. In Yeats’s poem “Leda and the Swan” (1923), the poet queries whether the raped Leda could have foreseen that the ultimate consequence of Helen’s birth would be the death and destruction caused by the Trojan War. T. S. Eliot notes the spiritual failures of history, considering it a series of cunning passages and corridors, a labyrinth which deceives even as it informs. Like Tiresias, the title figure of his poem “Gerontion” (1920) has insight in blindness but prophesies to an unheeding world. This need to prophesy is the futile compulsion of Eliot’s poet-artist. Nikos Kazantzakis, attempting to redirect positively the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, which had been perverted by Nazism, extended the myth of Odysseus in his epic Odyssia (1938; The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, 1958) to show that the history of human achievement is bound up with the will to endure and embrace challenge with enthusiasm. It is against this background that Derek Walcott, the distinguished poet born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, has written his epic Omeros, a poem worthy of the company of any of the above masterpieces.
Walcott’s verse has a contemporary tone which recalls that of Kazantzakis; it also displays a predisposition toward wordplay, rather like the latter prose of James Joyce. Even so, Walcott is entirely his own master, and his poem functions simultaneously on three levels: mythic, historical, and contemporary. True to epic convention, Omeros opens in mid-action, the fishermen felling cedar trees to make new boats. The process is age-old, and the tree-gods willingly surrender themselves to the axes. The armada the boats form is not bound for Troy, but it does allow the fishermen continued subsistence. The blind seer Seven Seas functions as a contemporary Homer, recalling the indefinite identity of the blind ancient Greek poet. The name Seven Seas corresponds to Homer’s own universality and emphasizes the universal application of human experience.
In Greek mythology, preparations for the Trojan War begin when the Trojan Paris, whom Homer calls Alexandros, convinces Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaos, to leave her husband and return with him to Troy. Pledged to defend Helen’s marriage, Menelaos’ brother Agamemnon recruits a massive armada of forces from various regions of the Greek world. These sail for Troy, and a ten-year war begins before Troy ultimately falls, ironically not through military might but through the strategy of the wooden horse. Walcott’s Helen is variously seductive, inconstant, and sympathetic, just as she is in Greek myth; even so, she is an entirely contemporary figure, a poor native of St. Lucia, extremely proud and the object of much male attention because of her striking beauty. When given a yellow velvet dress by Maud Plunkett, the Anglo-Irish woman for whom she has worked as a domestic servant, Helen fittingly resembles a monarch butterfly. She regally flits along the beach, attracting the silent admiration of many men, including that of Maud’s husband, Major Dennis Plunkett, a former British officer turned emigre’ pig farmer on St. Lucia.
In Walcott’s epic, just as in those of Homer, Helen provides the impetus for conflict, though Walcott decidedly shifts the emphasis which the Iliad outlines. In Homer’s poem Hector...
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is a Trojan, and his marriage to Andromache is idealized as a happy one. Hector’s farewell to Andromache and their son Astyanax is, indeed, one of the most poignant scenes of the Iliad. Hector’s combat with Achilles and the fated death of the Trojan hero constitute the climax of the Iliad and anticipate the fall of Troy itself Walcott’s Helen inspires the conflict of two young St. Lucians, both bachelors, Hector and Achille, the Greek name of the latter appropriately altered to its Franco-Antillean form. It is Helen who causes Hector to abandon the independent but unremunerative trade of fisherman for the compromising job of taxiing tourists to the local airport. In the short term his fight with Achille is successful, for he wins Helen, but the price he pays is high, and their relationship is ultimately tragic.
Achille, on the other hand, responds to his loss of Helen by making both a literal and a psychic sea journey in search of his origins. Though logic dictates that his hollowed-out wooden boat could not survive a journey to the coast of Africa, he nevertheless finds himself there, and it is there that he meets Afolabe, a tribal chieftain who is apparently his father, though, more significantly, Afolabe is also the spirit of Achille’s ancestors. Such a journey to recover the past is regularly a part of the mythic hero’s prospectus, and readers of Walcott’s poem will likely recall that a crucial element of Odysseus’ return to his native island of Ithaca is that hero’s journey to the Underworld, the realm of the dead in which he hears the prophecy of Tiresias and meets the shade of his mother Antikleia.
Walcott’s Achille similarly encounters a parental ghost and in a sense witnesses a prophecy as well, for Achille is present when enemy warriors stage a surprise raid on the village to capture slaves to be shipped to America. He, therefore, not only witnesses the past that has shaped his own life on St. Lucia but also experiences the psychological wound that history causes. That he had christened his boat, the very one which had brought him to his African past and in which he earns his living, In God We Troust shows the irony with which Achille optimistically accepts the American premise of his life on St. Lucia. His misspelling of “trust” implies his childlike naivete and his confidence in fate. It is only after his journey that Achille recognizes the continuity of sights he had unquestioningly accepted since his birth. Slavery remains in the form of European passenger liners and tourist hotels, small boys who dive for coins tourists toss, domestic service in the homes of comparatively wealthy Europeans, and even in the form of cast- off gifts such as Helen’s dress. What is worse, native St. Lucians attempt to correct social inequities through ultimately divisive political forms such as capitalism and communism; these merely polarize, never unite, its population. Obviously, Achille is not an intellectual and so never articulates these arguments, but he does acquire some sense of the damage history does and how difficult it is to alter it radically.
The Plunketts have their own psychic wounds, and these are similarly private and unarticulated. Economic reality forced their emigration from Britain. Maud looks wistfully back upon her youth in Ireland and silently wonders about the remote possibility of her return. Like Achille, Major Plunkett wonders about his origins and undertakes genealogical research which ties his own background to St. Lucia. He discovers an ancestor peripherally involved in the wars between the British and French which ultimately made St. Lucia part of the British West Indies. Major Plunkett’s genealogical research is the counterpart of Achille’s extraordinary voyage, though it yields no more in the way of tangible results. The Plunketts, too, are slaves to the past, and their traditionally antagonistic European backgrounds complicate their estrangement, between themselves as well as among their fellow St. Lucians. Though they did decide to emigrate to St. Lucia, they did so only from necessity; though their situation appears ideal to most black St. Lucians, the Plunketts have neither the financial resources nor the intellectual capacity to return to a wholly Europeanized way of life. Even if able to make the journey physically, their own differences would be magnified by greater proximity to England and Ireland. Fate has placed them on St. Lucia, and their history has left its scars.
History has clearly wounded all the characters of Walcott’s Omeros, and the wound thus becomes the poem’s exponential symbol. In the case of Philoctete, a fisherman unable to practice his trade effectively because of a festering sore on his thigh, the wound is literal as well as psychological. Philoctete recalls the Philoctetes of Greek myth. Philoctetes, son of Poias and prince of the Malians, had inherited the bow and arrows of Heracles and was to have led seven ships against the Trojans, but was bitten by a snake on the island of Lemnos. His wound became infected, and because its stench became so intolerable the Greeks abandoned him there. Philoctetes spent ten years on Lemnos suffering miserably with his wound. He could not die, nor could he live normally. Even so, when the Greeks learned that Troy would fall only by the arrows of Heracles, Odysseus and Diomedes journeyed to Lemnos and begged Philoctetes to accompany them back to Troy. The Greek myth is a telling commentary on toleration, which is all too often based on expediency rather than liberality.
Walcott’s Philoctete bears a wound from a rusty anchor, and Philoctete is also left behind, by the fishermen of St. Lucia. He does not make the African journey with Achille, yet he bears the wound of history externally as well as within. Reduced to showing tourists how the fishermen carve their boats and to smiling for photographs as the stereotype of a happy islander, he unwittingly holds the key to his people’s future. Philoctetes was cured only when he participates in the conflict at Troy. Philoctete, whose situation most closely resembles that of the majority of humanity, can be cured only by comparable involvement in the events that surround him.
Omeros, though clearly Walcott’s most comprehensive and ambitious work, reflects the themes of many of his earlier poems. Because of his origins as a black man born on St. Lucia but one who was educated in the classical British tradition, he acutely recognizes his divided allegiance; his poems regularly deal with the resulting sense of isolation, estrangement, and rootlessness. Even so, he recognizes that these feelings apply universally to the human condition, and he sees them as a consequence of history. Walcott offers no easy cure for the wound each human being bears, but he does suggest that living life is the best means of dulling history’s pain.
Sources for Further Study
The Economist. CCCXVII, October 27, 1990, p.97.
The Guardian. October 25, 1990, p.24.
The Listener. CXXIV, September 27, 1990, p.30.
The New Republic. CCIII, October 29, 1990, p.36.
New Statesman and Society. III, October 5, 1990, p.36.
The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, March 7, 1991, p.3.
The New York Times Book Review. XCV, October 7, 1990, p.1.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, May 25, 1990, p.46.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 14, 1990, p.977.
The Washington Post Book World. XX, November H, 1990, p.1.
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Omeros is a searching, evocative 325-page modern epic poem. It is searching in the sense that it has a mission: to right the wrongs of history by illuminating shadowed chapters of events in the lives of ignored or victimized races and individuals. It is evocative in the sense that it is sophisticated, multilayered, complexly symbolic, and artfully musical. It is also vigorous human drama. Largely on the basis of its publication—but also in recognition of earlier published poetry and drama—its mixed-race author, born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and teaching at Boston University, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 10, 1992.
Literally, Omeros gives the impression of being loosely chronological, set on St. Lucia and spanning one day—from sunrise, when fishermen are felling laurel trees to fashion into canoes, to sunset and then a full moon on the sea after a successful day of mackerel fishing. Figuratively, however, the poem is far more complicated, spanning as much as three hundred years in its many time-warp flashbacks. Walcott tells several different stories, parts of which are embedded in other stories, so that to begin to make sense of the poem the reader must attend carefully to the identity of the narrator, or rather, narrators, who are often unidentified.
The cast of characters in Omeros is one of simple Caribbean fishing people with derivative Greek names—Hector, Achille, Helen, Philoctete—who swill white rum, swear in French patois, bounce to Bob Marley reggae in a blockorama dance, and play out their lusts and feuds in the hot sun. There are also a pair of long-married, decent colonialist settlers, Irish homebody Maud Plunkett and former British soldier Dennis Plunkett, who have moved to St. Lucia to retire. Maud dies and is buried during the course of the poem. For a time the seductive black beauty Helen is employed in the Plunkett household, though she is dismissed for her arrogance and for stealing clothing items. Though Maud gives Helen some money out of pity for her unborn child, she refuses to reinstate her. Helen is the object of jealousy between brawny fishermen Achille and Hector, and she is uncertain which man has impregnated her. Hector gives up the sea to drive tourists around the island in his transport van. After he dies in a crash, Helen moves in with Achille to raise her baby, though the couple cannot agree on what the child should be named.
One of the poem’s few non-Caribbean episodes takes place at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation right before the massacre at Wounded Knee, focusing on a minor but intriguing historical figure. Catherine Weldon, a well-heeled East Coast widow, in 1889 decided to travel west with her adolescent son under the auspices of the National Indian Defense Association. She worked for a time in Buffalo Bill Cody’s touring Wild West Show, actively protested the government mistreatment of the Sioux, and served as personal helpmeet to Chief Sitting Bull. Her story, occupying fewer than twenty pages of the poem, culminates with her pitiable, solitary death on a winter night in her rocking chair, her finances depleted, her son having died of tetanus, the Sioux bent on ignoring her pleas to keep peace with the government by refusing to participate in the Ghost Dance.
The most intriguing and elusive character in the poem is the shape-shifting narrator, who suffers many things and spellbinds the reader with his protean nature. The poem is named for this figure, which is also place, sound, and object:
O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer wasboth mother and sea in our Antillean patois,os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashesand spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washesthat echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.
This chameleon figure becomes, by turns of page, the ancient Greek poet Homer, an inanimate carved white marble bust, a blind old man named Seven Seas who keeps a khaki dog, Omeros the salt-sea life-force and inspiration, and Walcott the poet, who visits his mother in a nursing home, who is jilted by a promiscuous Greek lover named Antigone (whom he fruitlessly pursues throughout Boston), and who experiences a profoundly liberating sea-change that ends his midlife crisis. This transformation in poet Walcott is brought about when he follows another character, named Dante, through the St. Lucian sulfur pits known as Maleboge, a difficult, purgative journey that liberates him to own, to verbalize, and to celebrate the history and identity of his native people. They come to symbolize the dispossessed, displaced, and discriminated against peoples of all time.
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Omeros is divided into seven books and sixty-four chapters, each with three parts or movements. The first book is the longest, having thirteen chapters, and the fourth book, with four chapters, is the shortest. There is an identifiable theme to each book, which is introduced near the end of the previous book. The first book, appropriately, introduces all the important characters and hints at all the major themes. Near the end of book 2, Achille is on a fishing trip and follows a sea-swift, an action that provides a segue into an important dream vision and reunion with his now-dead father in Africa in book 3. The poet narrator visits his elderly mother at the end of book 3, which sets the course for book 4, with its angst-filled present-day wanderings of the poet and the historical tragedy of the Sioux Indians right before the Battle of Wounded Knee. Book 5, even as it continues the anguished tale of the Sioux and the Ghost Dance, widens the voyages to Portugal, Spain, England, and Ireland, glimpsing black slaves, Greek slaves, and a Polish waitress in Canada, all shadows of diaspora and exodus.
Book 6 brings the narrator and the focus of the story back “home,” to the island and characters of St. Lucia. It ends in an African ritual dance in the capital city of Castries. This location sets the stage for the purgation and catharsis of the final book, in which Dennis Plunkett sees a loving vision of his dead wife in a seance, the poet reaches his inner vision and peace through a trial by fire, the sea-swift figuratively stitches up wounds in the soul of the world by joining two hemispheres together (the old world and the new), and the supremacy and eternity of the sea is affirmed and celebrated. The poem ends with the phrase “the sea was still going on,” and the past progressive verb suggests that past hopes, dreams, fears, and realities will continue intentionally into the present and the future. Now and ever, the salt sea, the origin of life, offers blessing and renewed and invigorated life for those who intuit and accept it. The source of all salves for the wounds of all of the characters is, directly or indirectly, the sea.
Omeros is written in eight thousand lines of terza rima stanzas. Its meter is irregular. The rhyme scheme is often unpredictable, unlike that of traditional epics, which tend to maintain a very strict rhyme scheme and meter. Walcott’s poem is full of exquisite and uncommon versification. It is an ambitious enterprise and a technical masterpiece, with rhymes varying from rime riche (rhyming words with identical sounds but different meanings, such as “stair” and “stare”) to assonance and eye-rhyme. Walcott seems to be showing off his artistry, giving readers a catalog of all the varieties of rhyming possibilities. Yet nowhere is the language strained: It is fluid, musical, and even simple, and where appropriate it follows rhythms of conversation or evokes sounds of ocean waves.
Walcott’s lines are visually, though not metrically, the same length, and the number of lines in a stanza (three) seems to be fixed, with one notable exception—an anguished passage of thirty-four lines of tetrameter couplets at the very center of the poem, where the loveless poet narrator contemplates his empty house. The form uses couplets, but the poet himself is sadly solitary. The section begins, “House of umbrage, house of fear,/ house of multiplying air/ House of memories that grow/ like shadows out of Allan Poe.” This section details the heartbreak of a failed marriage and the pangs of loneliness. The poet feels trapped and cursed, his house is “unlucky,” and he would “uncurse” it “by rites of genuflecting verse.” He wishes that he could “unhouse” his house because it is such a hard, cold place, and the only guests are “fears.” The placement of this section in the heart of the poem reveals the tragedy within the poet’s heart, his anguish and angst. It is fall, a time of dying things, and the section follows episodes of various losses, abandonments, disappearances, “castaways,” and “dead-end[s] of love.” Following this section the poet expresses a more general nostalgia for transitory things, which is preparatory to the Catherine Weldon and Sioux Indians section.
Omeros is an epic poem that, in many significant aspects, reverses epic convention. The very writing of an epic in the late twentieth century is unusual; the long narrative form flourished with Homer, Vergil, Dante, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. While traditional epics begin with an invocation, Omeros ends with one that is both a salutation and a leave-taking:
I sang of quiet Achille, Afolabe’s son,who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,whose end, when it comes, will be a death by waterI sang the only slaughterthat brought him delight, and that from necessity—of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.
The passage continues, “but now the idyll dies//let the deep hymn/ of the Caribbean continue my epilogue.”
While epics usually chronicle a journey or a quest, Omeros is fabricated of many diverse voyages—some highly charged, others slight—that are means to a more important end: gaining meaningful insight into what matters the most—first for self, then for the world. Walcott explores why traditional historical accounts are problematic and seeks to flesh out incompleteness and inaccuracies. This is, finally, the poet-narrator’s means of coming to terms with himself, of owning up to his mixed identity.
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Hector has resigned his traditional fisherman’s life to become a taxicab driver. This allows him to afford the small gifts he gives to Helen, the most beautiful woman on St. Lucia. Helen, in turn, reciprocates with sexual favors. This arrangement exacerbates the jealousy of Achille, a fisherman who also seeks Helen’s attentions. Hector’s cab races at breakneck speed through the quiet streets of the island. He specializes in driving wealthy tourists to and from the local airport, but his reckless driving will ultimately bring about his death. He risks life and limb, his own as well as those of his passengers and of anyone who happens to be in the way of his racing cab.
The life of Achille, by contrast, seems more tranquil. It is certainly more traditional, but his occupation of fisherman is in its way no less dangerous than that of Hector. Undertows, current shifts, and unexpected tides can easily carry Achille in unexpected directions, figuratively and literally. He sets off on a journey, following the tides with no known destination, after he loses Helen. From this point on, he places his faith in his cacique, his hollowed-out boat. He paints “In God We Troust” on its side. When he learns of his spelling error, Achille declares that it is not an error but rather God’s way of spelling “trust.” Achille departs with perfect faith in God, in fate, and in the way things have eventuated. He follows the sea-swift, or hirondelle, a swallow-like bird that flies straight into a storm. As a result, Achille heads to Africa.
Meanwhile, another fisherman, Philoctete, receives a thigh wound from a rusty anchor. The wound festers, refuses to heal, and renders him unable to practice his trade effectively. Philoctete is abandoned by his fellow fishermen and awaits a cure, which is ultimately provided by Ma Kilman. Until he is healed, he poses for pictures with tourists, accepting the coins they give him with a broad smile while always suffering from his wound.
Achille reaches Africa. He meets Afolabe, whom Achille instinctively recognizes as his ancestral father. Achille seems to have regressed in time and is present when enemy warriors stage a surprise raid and capture villagers to be transported as slaves to America. His past and present have merged.
The Plunketts, a British couple, have lived in St. Lucia since economic hardship after World War II forced them to emigrate from England. Maud, a commercial orchid grower, recalls the Ireland of her childhood wistfully, knowing it is unlikely that she will ever return. Dennis, a major in the British army during the war, has adopted St. Lucia for its benign climate and inexpensive way of life. He has become a pig farmer, and his relations with the native St. Lucians are generally civil and courteous but always restrained.
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Helen of the West Indies The setting of Omeros ranges from the past to the present in the Caribbean, Africa, North America and Europe, but the constant center is Walcott's native island of St. Lucia. St. Lucia is the second largest of the Windward group of the Lesser Antilles. Small and insignificant as it may appear among so many islands, it has a remarkably colorful history. The population in 1990 was 151,00, comprised of 90.3% African descent, 5.5% mixed, 3.2% East Indian, 0.8% European. Early attempts at European settlement were undertaken in the sixteenth century. Largely because of its strategic location and its fine harbors, St. Lucia rapidly became a pawn in Europe's imperial expansion. The island was passed between England and France fourteen times before it was finally ceded to England by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. As a result of the martial and legal contention, St. Lucia has been called the Gibraltar of the Caribbean and the Helen of the West Indies. Agricultural products have been the main source of revenue—first sugar, then bananas. Until the advent of petroleum fueled ships in the late 1920s locally mined coal was important in the economy.
Despite the fact that the official language has been English since 1842, a majority of the population continues to speak a French patois and 90% are Roman Catholic. This is the milieu in which Derek Walcott, an educated, middle-class, artistically gifted member of a Methodist family, grew to adulthood. Contending with white grandfathers and black grandmothers on both sides of his family and the premature death of his father when he was only an infant, Walcott struggled to find himself with few established guidelines. As he expressed it in his autobiographical poem Another Life, 1972, "The dream / of reason had produced its monster; / a prodigy of the wrong age and colour." As a student, he was impressed with the poetry of Guadeloupe born Saint-John Perse (pseudonym of Alexis Saint-Leger Leger), but his own early verse and drama reflect the British colonial educational influences of the metaphysical poets and of Milton, Dylan Thomas, Eliot, John Millington Synge and Joyce. Later he adds traces of Hemingway, Kipling, Conrad, then writers who have become personal friends, Robert Lowell, Joseph Brodsky, and Seamus Heaney. Regardless of the number of Western masters he may have assimilated, Walcott remains constant in his determination to draw from the most immediate subject matter of his life, the confluence of disparate cultures in the West Indies.
The Middle Passage One inevitable pole of Walcott's heritage is Africa. For this reason, he felt it necessary to send Achille back three hundred years, across the Middle Passage on a dream quest to eliminate the amnesia and the shame inflicted by the history of Western subjugation. Treated as merchandise and dispersed without regard to family ties, or place of origin, forced to give up their religions, customs, and given Western names, slaves could retain and pass down only fragments of their African identity. Walcott treats Achille's indoctrination as instinctive or racial memory. In the primitive dress, instruments, and rituals, he detects traces of ancient African practices he only partially understands in St. Lucian society. When he has Achille observe one African tribe abduct members of another to be sold into slavery, Walcott dramatizes the fact that man's inhumanity to man knows no racial boundaries. Walcott is careful not to imply that Achille's knowledge of tribal life makes him somehow become African. It is important to him that Achille simply reclaim this part of his past and incorporate it into his authentic identity as a West Indian, an integral member of a Creole culture. Toward the end of Omeros he is thus enabled to teach Helen the deeper meaning of Boxing Day masquerades that predate their Christmas associations.
The Battle of the Saints At the other pole of Walcott's existence is his European heritage. This aspect of Caribbean history is largely devoted to Major Plunkett and his discovery of Midshipman Plunkett: men from separate centuries whose lives intersect after some two hundred years over a famous maritime battles between England and France. Walcott's treatment of the Battle of the Saints does not emphasize European glory. Walcott and his character Dennis Plunkett are interested in this momentous battle for more domestic reasons. Together they see it as evidence of St. Lucia's intrinsic value, not as a European prize, but for its claim on them as individuals.
Independence For modern emancipated citizens of the country, such as Philoctete, Hector, and Maljo, the current battle to possess Helen centers on their social and political custodianship. Walcott witnessed the abortive experiment of the West Indian Federation from 1956 until its collapse in 1962. The failure of the Federation disappointed Walcott because he saw it as an opportunity to integrate and combine the resources of smaller islands into a more effective, stronger unit. In the aftermath of the Federation, St. Lucia became an independent state within the British Commonwealth on February 22, 1979. Although the Federation does not figure directly in Omeros, the shortsightedness and destructive political infighting that destroyed the Federation are embodied in the epic's national election scene. It is tempting to see in the acronyms of the two parties Maljo wishes to oppose (LP and WWPP) the Progressive Labour Party and the United Workers Party. The parallel is especially interesting since Walcott mentions a candidate named Compton and the Honorable John Compton of the United Workers Party actually won the bitterly contested election of May 1982.
North and South The shadow of North America looms large over the Caribbean basin and Walcott's professional life, and is included in his West Indian epic. Since Walcott is a participant in the poem and he insists that as a West Indian he is a citizen of the Americas, his sojourn in the United States is as much a part of his extended landscape as is Africa. Once again he telescopes history, this time to dramatize the irony of a postcolonial United States that nearly wiped out one race and enslaved another. Rather than focus on the genocidal policies that threaten to annihilate the Crow and Sioux, Walcott concentrates on the historical figure of Catherine Weldon, who lost a son and suffered the ostracism of her own race in order to support the Native American cause. Walcott gives a human face to sympathetic members of the white oppressor class, such as Weldon and the Plunketts, and in alluding to the many Western authors and artists in the Euro-American section of his epic, but he is not attempting to mitigate the overwhelming evil of imperial domination and slavery; rather, he is attempting to come to grips with both the black and white polarities of his personal existence. The essential thrust of Omeros is reconciliation, redemption, and the empowerment of Creole West Indian consciousness.
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Epic Features Although Omeros superficially resembles canonical epics in many ways, Walcott purposely deviates from the genre in order to broaden the scope of this traditionally heroic form. The lengthy though not consistently elevated poetic language is often more lyrical than purely narrative. There is no attempt to appear objective and the protagonists range from the poet himself to simple peasants who are the opposite of demigods engaged in great battles. Walcott depends on frequent allusions to and parallels with Homer, Virgil, Dante, and others, but his goal is to validate simple men and women whose very survival possesses unexpectedly heroic dimensions.
Point of View Because Walcott makes his own persona one of the protagonists, his perspective is always at hand. Under other circumstances this might undermine the individuality of other characters; however, in this case, Walcott uses a self-reflexive technique, candidly insisting that each narrative "I" is a fiction, including his own. This is a crucial point, considering that one of his purposes is to dramatize the fact that all accounts of events, whether in an epic poem or a "factual" history, are selective narratives. The controlling "I" determines what is central and what is relegated to the margins. Walcott is present in his characters, and from that vantage point he is able to comment on roles played within the text.
Setting The main action takes place in postcolonial St. Lucia, North America, and some major European capitals. Historically, the West Indies have been indelibly shaped by the influx of alien races and cultures; therefore, the story telescopes backward in time to introduce past events that have inpacted the present. In a vision, Achille is transported three hundred years into the past to recover forgotten African rituals and witness tribesmen being captured by members of their own race for sale into slavery. Other episodes include the Battle of the Saints from 1782 and incidents from the 1890s in the American frontier. The story follows Walcott himself as he travels from St. Lucia to Boston, to Europe, and back to the Caribbean. Since all the events have psychological repercussions for various characters, much of the action is internal, as each resolves personal problems.
Allusions From the very beginning, Omeros depends on the reader picking up on numerous allusions to classical literary epics. The title refers to Homer, and many of the characters' names echo leading figures from the Iliad and Odyssey. In addition, as Major Plunkett pursues his historical research, he finds parallels between the Trojan war and the Battle of the Saints. Aside from the classical and historical allusions, Walcott also makes reference to more recent authors, painters, and sculptors as he explores the manner by which he and other artists translate their reality into art.
Imagery Walcott makes extensive use of sensory perception throughout Omeros. The pronunciation of Omeros' name is replicated in the "O" sound of the blown conch shell. The blind Omeros perceives his environment by ear. Walcott and his fishermen characters relate to the sea as mother, "mer" in their patois, and her surf writes and erases her message all along the shoreline of their island. Birds proliferate on Maud Plunkett's tapestry and the seaswift becomes a focal point for several characters, both literally and figuratively. Philoctete's existence is almost defined by his painful wound. Helen's beauty, her proud bearing, and her signature yellow dress turn heads wherever she appears. Aside from these standard appeals to the senses, Walcott's self-reflexive text draws attention to itself. He mentions his thought of a Crow horseman taking shape as he inscribes it in book four; then in the fifth book falling snow and the whiteness of the physical page itself become conflated with "the obliteration / of nouns fading into echoes, the alphabet / of scribbling branches."
Symbolism The ubiquitous sea is not only the element surrounding Walcott's island, connecting it with distant continents and serving as the source of the fishermen's sustenance. It also symbolizes the historical amnesia afflicting St. Lucia's native population. Generations of African emigrants have forgotten their roots, just as each wave line left on the shore is erased by its successor. Time and again these ancestors are seen as a line of worker ants, toiling anonymously under unfair burdens. The seaswift in flight makes the sign of the cross against the sky; it leads Achille's pirogue on his African odyssey. The ghost of Warwick Walcott cites the swift's habitual flight pattern, seaward and back, as the model his son must trace back to St. Lucia. Wounds within each character symbolize the afflictions attendant upon slavery, colonialism, and metropolitan subjugation. Ma Kilman's homeopathic cure of Philoctete serves as baptism into a new life, freeing him to remember the past without being its victim. The journey motifs—whether in dreams to Africa or to Soufriere's Malebolge; whether they are the poet's personal sojourns to the United States and Europe; whether to connect the present with Greece, the Battle of the Saints, or the American Dakotas— all represent the diverse paths leading to wholeness for Walcott's protagonists.
Prosody The basic poetic structure of Omeros is occasionally off-rhymed terza rima stanzas. The rhyme scheme often interlocks, as is expected of terza rima, but Walcott ranges from exact to many forms of off-rhyme. On rare occasions, there are couplets and tetrameter passages. Walcott had described his meter as "roughly hexametrical"; the "roughly" needs emphasis. The numbers of loose iambic feet vary to the extent that the stanzas often approximates free verse.
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1600s-1820: The African slave trade along the Middle Passage brought approximately 6,777,000 slaves into Brazil and the West Indies by 1820. During the same time, immigration brought approximately 964,000 Caucasians into the region. This created an ethnic imbalance, with an 88% majority population of African descent. By 1820 in North America, 550,000 Africans were imported among a Caucasian population of 651,000, making blacks an ethnic minority of 46%. In the third book of Omeros, Walcott has Achille retrace three hundred years of history to reaffirm his African origins.
1833-1865: British Parliament abolished slavery in its West Indian colonies in 1833. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the United States in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed freedom at the close of the Civil War in 1865.
Late twentieth century: St. Lucia has a population of approximately 151,000, with a majority of African descent (90.3%), racially mixed (5.5%), East Indian (3.2%), Caucasian (.8%). With a population of 22 million, the ethnic distribution of the United States is more varied: Native American .8%, Asian-Pacific 2.9%, Hispanic 9%, African-American 12%, non-Hispanic Caucasian 71.3%. Books four and five of Omeros recount Walcott's reaction to racially divided Boston.
1776-1814: The English colonies in North America fight to win their independence in 1776. This corresponds with the height of conflict between the French and Great Britain for disputed possessions in the Americas. In Omeros the Battle of the Saints is central to Major Plunkett's historical research. France finally ceded St. Lucia to England in the 1814 Treaty of Paris.
1941-1979: In 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joins the British Commonwealth and her allies against the Axis powers in World War II. In Omeros Major Plunkett frequently recalls his participation in Montgomery's North African campaign during World War II. The Plunketts' retirement to St. Lucia after the war makes them a part of the postwar independence movement. The time period includes the short-lived experiment with the West Indian Federation (1958-1967) and St. Lucian independence on February 22, 1979.
Late twentieth century: The United States has a tricameral government with an elected president as chief executive. St. Lucia owes allegiance to the British regent, who is represented by a governor general, but is governed by an elected parliament, led by the prime minister. In the second book of Omeros, Walcott recounts an election campaign pitting the St. Lucia Labour Party against the United Workers Party.
1780-1870: Historically, the St. Lucian economy has depended on agriculture. By 1780 there were already nearly fifty sugar plantations. This labor-intensive crop that fueled the rapid influx of slave labor in the West Indies. 1870-1930: During the late 1800s, natural coal deposits in St. Lucia became a significant source of income. This industry is recognized by the ghost of Warwick Walcott in the first book of Omeros when he draws attention to the female colliers loading steamers in Castries Harbor. By the 1940s, income from coal production declined due to the replacement of steam power with petroleum-fueled shipping. In 1923, bananas were introduced into the local economy and eventually replaced sugar as the main source of agricultural income.
Late twentieth century: While agriculture remains the primary source of St. Lucia's international income, efforts are being made to diversify crops (67% banana production), to encourage tourism and industry into the 1990s. Tourism is the second largest sector of the economy, bringing in millions of dollars each year. As Walcott indicates in Omeros, there are considerable misgivings about the commercialization of property, handicrafts, and local customs for the entertainment of foreign visitors.
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Excerpts from Walcott's Omeros, The Odyssey and Collected Poems are read by the author on a Caedmon audiotape, recorded November 18, 1993, copyrighted 1994; available from HarperCollins Publishers.
Walcott reads excerpts from Omeros and discusses the epic in a 1991 taped interview with Rebekah Presson, released as "Derek Walcott" in the New Letters on the Air: Contemporary Writers on Radio series; available from the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
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Sources for Further Study Bakken, Christopher. Review in The Georgia Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer 1991, pp. 403-06. Notes that although Walcott tends to tell rather than show, his epic of the people who are usually excluded from the narrative of history "demands a revision of our world view "
Benfey, Christopher. "Coming Home," The New Republic, Vol. 203, October, 1990, pp. 36-9. Concludes that Omeros shows great ambition but lacks the "surefootedness and verve" of Walcott's best poetry.
Bensen, Robert. "Catherine Weldon in Omeros and "The Ghost Dance'," Verse, Vol 22, No 2, Summer 1994, pp. 119-25. Offers a thorough analysis of the role of Weldon m Walcott's Omeros.
Brown, Robert, and Cheryl Johnson. "An Interview with Derek Walcott," The Cream City Review, Vol 14, No 2, Winter, 1990, pp 209-23. Walcott expresses thoughts on the composition of Omeros He sees similarities in between ancient Greeks and modern West Indians.
Bruckner, D J R. "A Poem in Homage to an Unwanted Man," New York Times, October 9,1990, pp. 13,17. In an interview with Bruckner, Walcott discusses influences on Omeros, and his reservations about calling the poem an epic.
Burnett, Paula "The Ulyssean Crusoe and the Quest for Redemption in J M Coetzee's Foe and Derek Walcott's Omeros," in Robinson Crusoe: Myth and Metamorphoses, edited by Lieve Spaas and Brian Stimpson, St. Martin's Press, 1996, pp. 239-55. Compares and contracts the two works cited, singling out for analysis Helen's unifying role in Omeros and Walcott's portrayal of women generally as figures of healing and redemption.
Hamner, Robert D. Derek Walcott. Rev. ed Twayne, 1993. Examines Walcott's career through his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1992.
Ismond, Patricia. "Walcott's Omeros: A Complex, Ambitious Work," Caribbean Contact, Vol. 18, No 5, March-April, 1991, pp 10-11. Overview and analysis of the work and its influences.
Lernout, Geert. "Derek Walcott's Omeros-The Isle Full of Voices," Kunapipi, Vol 14,1992, pp 90-104. Interprets Omeros as a "counter-narrative" critical rather than imitative of Western traditions.
Lucas, John "The Sea, The Sea," New Statesman and Society, Vol. 3, October 5,1990, p. 36. Commends the linguistic richness of Omeros.
Mason, David Review of Omeros in The Hudson Review, Vol. 44, No 3, Autumn 1991, pp. 513-15. Contents that Walcott's introduction of material extraneous to the central Caribbean setting weakens the narrative.
McClure, Charlotte S. "Helen of the 'West Indies': History or Poetry of a Caribbean Realm," Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol 26, No. 2, Fall, 1993, pp. 7- 20. Considers the character of Helen a fresh conception of her Greek counterpart because of the Carribean background against which Walcott portrays her.
O'Brien, Sean. "In Terms of the Ocean." Times Literary Supplement, Vol. 4563, September 14-22,1990, pp. 977-78. Review contending that the narrative fails to hold reader interest in the North American and European sections.
Ramazan, Jahan. "The Wound of History: Walcott's Omeros and the Postcolomal Poetics of Affliction." PMIA 112, No 3, May, 1997, pp. 405-18. Discusses' Omeros as a repudiation of postcolonial writing as a "literature of victimization" through examination of wound and affliction imagery in the work.
Terada, Rei. "Omeros," in her Derek Walcolt's Poetry: American Mimicry, Northeastern University Press, 1992, pp. 183-227. Examines Walcott's utilization of the Homeric literary model.
White, J. P. "An Interview with Derek Walcott" Green Mountains Review, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 14-37. Walcott discusses the difficulties of progressing from a slave mentality to authentic freedom. After commenting on the epic aspects of Moby Dick, Ulysses, and Walt Whitman's poetry, he states his desire to capture, in Omeros, "the names of things and people in their own context."