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 Iliadoutlines. In Homer’s poem Hector 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...
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