Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733

>Omeros is about memory, history, and identity, and these issues are explored from both a personal and a global perspective. An intriguing aspect of Walcott’s art is his merging of elements of personal biography with global history. For example, the invalid mother whom the poem’s narrator visits refers to “Roddy”...

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>Omeros is about memory, history, and identity, and these issues are explored from both a personal and a global perspective. An intriguing aspect of Walcott’s art is his merging of elements of personal biography with global history. For example, the invalid mother whom the poem’s narrator visits refers to “Roddy” and “Pam” (Walcott’s siblings in real life) in speaking with him and calls him “Warwick’s son” (Warwick is the actual name of Walcott’s father). An important thread in the poem is the poet’s trying to solve a midlife crisis that is rooted both in living in an empty house and in experiencing writer’s block. Omeros celebrates the hard-won discovery of the subject best suited to the poet’s individual expression: his own island people of St. Lucia. The affirmation of parental and ancestral ties is connected with this personal and ethnic exploration. It is explored, for example, in the beginning of book 3, where Achille figuratively goes back to Africa and spends time with his father, Afolabe. Their anguished discussion of naming and identity resonates hauntingly with the experiences of black slaves enduring the Middle Passage. A slave was customarily renamed by his owner at the time of purchase.

The narrator-poet tells readers that he has “stitched” wounds into his characters because “affliction is one theme/ of this work.” The biggest wound of all is the most obvious: a weeping, starfish-shaped sore on Philoctetes’s shin that he incurred from a rusty anchor and that he moans about throughout the entire poem. For a dollar he will display it to tourists so they can photograph it. In despair, he drinks himself into daily oblivion at the No Pain Cafe and tears out tender white yams from his own garden by the roots in frustration. Finally, blessedly, he is healed by a voodoo woman named Ma Kilman, owner of the No Pain Cafe, who bathes his leg with tincture of an elusive ill-smelling herb that she has gleaned in the forest, having followed a line of ants in her search. Significantly, the seed of the healing herb originated in Africa and was carried to St. Lucia in the beak of a sea-swift.

Bird imagery is very important in the poem: flight, crossings and criss-crossings, building bridges and connections between hemispheres, races, and generations. Maud Plunkett, who is homesick for Ireland, stitches an elaborate quilt that displays the rich variety of birds that inhabit St. Lucia, many of which have immigrated just as she has:

The African swallow, the finch from Indianow spoke the white language of a tea-sipping ternwith the Chinese nightingales on a shantung screen,while the Persian falcon, whose cry leaves a scaron the sky till it closes, saw the sand turn green,the dunes to sea, understudying the man-o’-war,talking the marine dialect of the Caribbeanwith nightjars, finches, and swallows, each originenriching the islands to which their cries were sewn.

Maud’s quilt, symbol of cultural diversity and harmony, becomes her shroud in death.

Cultural blending and melding is a central theme that infuses almost every aspect of Omeros. The simple Caribbean fishermen’s names connect them with Greek gods. Black Helen is as beautiful and desired as her Greek counterpart who ignited a war; the poem compares them—“one marble, one ebony”—and seems to prefer the one who is “here and alive.” Helen’s identity as a woman is also merged with the island of St. Lucia; Walcott finds connections in the entomology of their names: “the island was once/ named Helen.” Helen’s promiscuous vacillation between Hector and Achille is compared with the island’s having changed hands fourteen times between the French and the English before it gained its independence in 1979. The narrator-poet, of mixed racial heritage, seeks to re-enter his “reversible world,” aware that his “disembodied trunk [is] split/ along the same line of reflection that halved Achille.” Connecting essential halves is both method and message of the poem.

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.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1274

Hegemony and Identity
On several levels, Omeros presents the strategies by which human beings survive and assert their integrity in spite of the restraints of overwhelming hegemonic forces. Walcott's peasant fishermen of Gros Ilet suffer neglect and shame due to the fact that imperial power has deprived them of their ancestral culture. Expatriate residents of St. Lucia Dennis Plunkett and Maud Plunkett must learn to accommodate themselves to existence in a colony that has been relegated to the margins of history. In a reversal of the standard paternalistic relationship between metropolis and colony, Walcott introduces several father-son combinations that are liberating and mutually beneficial. Last, the author uses vestiges of the epic literary tradition to assert a basis for self-esteem, even heroism, among his dispossessed people, while he simultaneously challenges the very artistic form through which he makes his assertion.

Affliction, Deprivation, and Self-Esteem
Walcott mentions early in Omeros that ''affliction is one theme of this work." Philoctete already has the seemingly incurable wound on his shin, and Major Dennis Plunkett has sustained his head injury. Walcott makes it clear, however, that this theme operates on a figurative level as well. Philoctete, for example, traces the persistence of his open sore to the chains shackling his enslaved grandfathers. The Major is tormented by his feelings that, like the history and people of his adopted colonial home, unfairly pushed to the margins of history, his own name and fame will die with him because he has no heir. Achille's afflictions include both the pain in his heart over his loss of Helen and the amnesia he suffers in having been cut off from his cultural roots. Recognizing the dimensions of such wounds, it follows that the cures must be necessarily complex. Philoctete is restored to health when Ma Kilman rediscovers an herb and the homeopathic remedies of her ancient African grandmothers. In order to regain his soul, Achille must be transported in a dream back to the African village from which his ancestors were taken into slavery hundreds of years earlier. Later, when he has grown to accept his identity as a transplanted man of the New World, Helen returns and he can begin the process of helping her to understand the African roots that now draw nourishment from St. Lucian soil. The Major gradually learns to feel whole and to make for himself a place. Helen figures prominently in his quest in the role he has imposed on her as the personification of the island of St. Lucia. Dennis Plunkett decides to rectify history's negligence toward Helen and her people by dedicating himself to writing her history. His subsequent research into the Battle of the Saints fortuitously provides the name of Midshipman Plunkett as his putative. The young man may have died in the conflict, but the crucial value of the Major's discovery is that it gives him a blood tie to St. Lucia. Later, after his wife dies, his attachment to the local people is eternally confirmed as Ma Kilman helps him to feel even closer to Maud than he did when she was alive.

Colonialism and Independence
One of the unfortunate legacies of colonial domination is that subject peoples are prone to value themselves and their colony according to the standards of their subjugators. In Omeros, Walcott registers this fact in terms of psychological, sociological, political, and cultural effects. This is the underlying reason he begins his epic by deliberately calling for classical comparisons, and it launches his odyssey to North America and Europe in books four and five. The gesture, however, leaves him open to charges of imitation. This unavoidable influence is also what prompts Major Plunkett to champion Helen's cause by attempting to match Eurocentric history. Achille's journey to Africa gives him back his name and establishes justifiable pride in his origins, but his most valuable insight is that Africa is not his home. His ancestors ''crossed, they survived. There is the epical splendour.. .the grace born from subtraction.'' Philoctete's involvement in Maljo's abortive political campaign underscore's the internecine strife that threatens a newly independent nation experimenting with democracy. Self-determination all too obviously does not guarantee cultural independence. One of the most insidious vestiges of neo-colonialism has become tourism. The natural beauty of tropical havens attracts so many leisure transients that national economies become vulnerable to foreign priorities. Reacting to the changes being wrought in St. Lucia by modernizing entrepreneurs, Walcott's persona begins to suspect his own relationship with the island. Near the end of the poem, the influx of tourists and corporate interests drives Achille and Philoctete to undertake a voyage in search of an unspoiled island where they could begin anew. Eventually they recognize that they must return and defend their integrity in the midst of a society that remains under duress.

Art and Reality
One of the pervasive themes that begins early and grows to paramount importance in the last two books centers on Walcott's self-reflexive point of view in Omeros. Walcott names his poem after Homer, the wandering poet who initiated the epic tradition, and he incorporates elements of the genre in order to sustain expectations. Since his intention is to validate a corner of the world that past generations have considered unimportant, he must ultimately negate expected terms of heroism and advance a new perspective. He creates room to maneuver when he first insists that every "I" is a fiction. This allows him to invest some aspect of his own persona in one after another of his characters. Such candor also disrupts the artifice of his text and allows the reader to feel more immediately privy to his intentions. He and Major Plunkett start out together in asserting their West Indian Helen's right to the coincidental Greek and Trojan parallels. But both of them come to understand that by molding Helen into the object of their imaginative designs, they do an injustice to the actual woman, who has a right to be no more nor less than just herself. In keeping with every imperial conqueror before them, they were exploiting a resource for their own gain. Gradually Omeros begins to dismantle the artistic structure to advance the reality that is its inspiration. After having been impressed by the monuments dedicated to European conquistadors in the fifth book, Walcott expresses a preference not for the statues, "but for the bird in the statue's hair." He advances another step when in the next book he comes to realize that as an artist he is guilty of wanting to preserve the quaint world of the poor in his imagery. He concludes that "Art is History's nostalgia," sacrificing the real for his idealized creation. He then risks interrogation of his own reason for writing about Achille, who would never care to read his own story. His answer, typically metaphorical, is twofold. First, the illiterate sea, which never reads the epics of mankind is still its own ''epic where every line was erased /yet freshly written in sheets of exploding surf." Second, Achille's race, like living coral that builds on itself, ''a quiet culture / is branching from the white ribs of each ancestor." Finally he speaks through Major Plunkett when he decides to let Helen be herself, the reality on which the sun shines naturally, for "she was not a cause or a cloud, only a name / for a local wonder."

Form serves function in Omeros as forces of hegemonic power, deprivation, colonial neglect, and paternalistic literary influences come under the scrutiny of an artist from the third world, who records his people's struggle to establish their identity, self-esteem and independence even while he questions his own artistic processes.

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