(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1823 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

Helen of the West Indies
The setting of Omeros ranges from the past to the present in the Caribbean, Africa, North...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)

Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

Epic Features
Although Omeros superficially resembles canonical epics in many ways, Walcott purposely deviates from the...

(The entire section is 910 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

1600s-1820: The African slave trade along the Middle Passage brought approximately 6,777,000 slaves into Brazil and the West Indies by...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

Dennis Plunkett, a British expatriate, feels a sense of greater belonging to his adopted community of St. Lucia after he discovers that a...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Epics for Students)

Excerpts from Walcott's Omeros, The Odyssey and Collected Poems are read by the author on a Caedmon audiotape, recorded...

(The entire section is 65 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

Austin Clarke's Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack, 1980, is a humorous account of a youngster's attempts to cope with the...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

Sources for Further Study
Bakken, Christopher. Review in The Georgia Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer 1991, pp....

(The entire section is 564 words.)