Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire Analysis

Derek Walcott

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As the title indicates, these are two poems about the passing of an empire: first the Roman, then the British. For Derek Walcott, the linking of the two imperial powers, however disparate they might seem, stresses the repetitive nature of history; in several other poems, he draws the same comparison, viewing the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean as analogous to the British domination of the Caribbean.

Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Walcott grew up during the fading days of the British Empire. Of African descent, he received a British education and learned “the English tongue I love”—as he says in another poem, “A Far Cry from Africa” (1962). In that poem, he asks the question common to postcolonial writers, especially those who are not of British descent but whose language is English: “Where shall I turn, divided in the vein?” A one-time colonial subject himself, Walcott can empathize with those who in earlier days lived under “Rome’s trampling feet.” Thus the two poems become a single work, for the title does not announce “the Passing of Empires,” but “the Passing of an Empire.”

Poem 1, when read without the parenthetical statement, simply presents an image of a heron, not a particularly graceful bird in flight, landing on a stump and disturbing the “quiet with a caw”—a hoarse and unpleasant bird sound. Within the parenthesis, the heron is linked somehow to the Roman Empire. Possibly, Walcott...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although didactic in nature, “Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire” avoids the pitfalls of some moralistic poetry by utilizing an indirect presentation of ideas by means of imagistic and metaphoric devices.

The simplicity of the opening image of the heron flying, braking, then decorating a stump, at first belies its importance in the overall meaning of the poem’s two parts. Without the five lines in parentheses, the image figures as a pure and striking depiction of this rare bird—and nothing more. Yet the poet’s parenthetical interruption cannot be ignored, since in it he links the bird with the Roman Empire. The heron in the completing line no longer serves as the emblem of Rome’s conquest, but acts as the harbinger who announces, “underline[s],” the “Passing of an Empire.”

In the second poem, Walcott switches technique and draws an extended metaphor riddled with words conjuring up death: first the deathlike existence of the pensioner, then the “passing” of Empire. The old man lives in a house that resembles a “coffin,” where the specter of death hovers over him. He is stooped and appears to be “threading an eternal needle.” Like a “grave” he is one-eyed. His head is called a “skull,” his single eye oozes “balsam” (oily secretions), and his jaw is “doddering” (feeble, senile). The allusions to death continue as he listens to the children singing and thinks of them practicing “to play dead,”...

(The entire section is 528 words.)