Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire

by Derek Walcott

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

The author of "Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire," Derek Walcott, is a descendant of former Caribbean slaves and is from St. Lucia. He grew up in an area of the world dominated by English and French colonizers for quite a long time.

In the first poem of this pair, Walcott discusses the downfall of the Roman Empire; however, without the parenthetical information, it is difficult to imagine that a reader would know which empire is being described. This is quite meaningful, as it means that the poem could conceivably apply to a number of empires. Walcott's speaker begins by describing a heron that is flying across a marsh in the morning, and the speaker watches while the bird shifts its body and opens its wings in order to land on a stump of a tree. In parentheses, the speaker thanks God for this bird, because it shows that the time of this land having been colonized by Roman invaders is over. Herons are often symbolic of peace, tranquility, and calm, and they would not be likely to venture somewhere these qualities are lacking. So, as if to punctuate the statement that the Roman Empire is no more, the heron "underline[s] this quiet with a caw." He gets the last word.

In the second poem, the speaker seems to address the British Empire and its impending dissolution. An old man who is a veteran of some foreign war is nearly bent in half, apparently due to his age and his wounds. He can hear children outside singing a song that glorifies the British Empire, and the speaker claims that these young people seem to want to continue to fight and die in wars that they will one day learn are pointless and remote. The old veteran is in poor shape, but he seems to wonder if he could cry with his one good eye in front of these children, showing them how there is no glory in fighting for this empire, then perhaps they would realize that their losses will tally much higher than the country's gains.

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