Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

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Walcott is certainly no apologist for the history of British imperialism, as this poem and others prove. Still, his stand should not be construed as revolutionary or radical. For example, when his highly successful play, Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967), was published in 1970, he wrote in the introduction to it and other plays that he was not advocating a movement back to Africa but considered such political discourse a kind of fantasy. He does not believe that those coming out of the colonial experience should shackle themselves with hatred and bitterness toward their former oppressors.

Walcott considers it wrong to use literature for political purposes or for revenge, because for him such motivation obstructs the art itself. He has criticized some Third World literature for setting out to exorcise the demon of colonial history and to get even with the former oppressor. Needless to say, many radical Third World writers and critics consider Walcott a traitor to their cause. Walcott has argued, though, that mastering the conqueror’s language and literary heritage is the greatest form of revenge. Answering those detractors who say that this mastery amounts to nothing more than mimicry, Walcott has pointed out that when victims can name, can express themselves, can reveal their own truths, can establish their identity in the torturer’s language and make use of that language’s literature, then they emerge victorious. Even more, theirs is an ironic victory.

Certainly, no one will dare to call Walcott a mimic. The descendant of African slaves brought to the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations, with a British sailor somewhere in his background, Walcott has learned to name in the imposed language, and to do so splendidly and originally. A work such as “Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire” writes back to the imperial center in its own language and makes use of that language’s poetic devices to reveal the injustice meted out to colonial subjects.

The poem functions on a larger scale, however, because neither revenge nor revolution motivates the poet. His is a concern with ways in which humankind might save itself from perpetuating its folly, repeating its mistakes, pouring out the blood of its young for a flag that is no more meaningful than an empty sleeve. It is especially significant that Walcott does not treat the British Empire alone but in a historical perspective alongside the Roman Empire. By establishing this analogy, he enlarges the poem so that it transcends the political treatise, the catalog of imperial wrongs, the exorcism of history. Instead, the poem calls for a revolution that will bring about the union of humankind, regardless of origin, color, nationality, religion, and any other irrelevancies the “empty sleeve” of a flag might represent.