Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire

by Derek Walcott

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Taken together, the two poems seem to comment on the nature of colonization and how incredibly destructive it can be to the people of the colonized country. In the first poem, the heron acts as a symbol of the peace which can exist both before the colonizers arrive and after the colonizers have left and been forgotten—but not while the colonizers rule. To the speaker, it is notable that the heron flies across the marsh and lands on a stump, "decorat[ing]" it. This is most probably because he has never observed such a thing before because herons are often associated with peace and tranquility, and so the bird would not have been likely to be in a place where these qualities are completely lacking. The place was so disrupted by the Roman invaders that the natural world felt its effects. However, by returning after the colonizers are gone, the heron has the final word, not the colonizers.

In the second poem, the "empty sleeve" of the old veteran functions as a symbol for the incredible magnitude of the loss felt by those who are called to defend the empire. The empire already demands their cultural identity, as evidenced by the children singing the "Rule, Brittania" song. The empty sleeve is compared to a "poor flag" in the poem's final line, implying that those who are colonized are disconnected and held apart from the country. Yet they will still be called upon to sacrifice in extremely visceral and life-altering ways, such as fighting in wars and losing life and limb—in this case, limb, as the veteran's empty sleeve shows that he has lost an arm during his service to a country he does not truly belong to. His empty sleeve represents his sacrifice as well as the scanty returns he receives for the service he performed; he might receive a pension as a veteran, but this obviously does not give him back his sense of wholeness or identity.

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