Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire

by Derek Walcott

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Speaker

The speaker of the poems can be counted as a character. The speaker of the first poem is a person who observes a heron's flight in some geographical location that used to be a part of the Roman Empire; perhaps it is England, as the British Isles were once ruled by Rome and the British Empire is mentioned specifically in the second of the two poems (as "Brittania"). The speaker of the second poem once fought in an "African campaign" under the auspices of the British Empire, and so he could be from the Caribbean, as the author is. Britain relied on soldiers from this region in various international conflicts.

The Heron

The heron is the principal actor of the first poem, aside from the speaker themself. It flies across the marsh and lands on a stump, breaking the quiet with its loud caw; the Roman Empire is no more, and the bird gets the final word. It is symbolic of the peacefulness that can reclaim a country once it is abandoned by the colonizers and the invaders have been forgotten.

The Veteran

In the second poem, the old veteran is in pretty poor physical shape, having fought for the empire in Africa: he is bent nearly double, has only one working eye, and has an empty sleeve, likely because he has lost an arm. He longs to impress upon the children outside his door that they ought not to cheer on the empire, singing, "Rule, Brittania, rule," because they stand to lose so much—possibly even their lives—in defense of this country that is not their own. Their own cultural identities are compromised at best and eliminated at worst as a result of their colonization by the British Empire. The old veteran wonders if them seeing him cry would change their minds.

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