The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

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.

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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 had in mind an obscure classical poem that depicts the heron as a traitor bird; according to that tradition, the ancient armies watched for herons feeding in shallow water and thereby determined where the soldiers might safely cross into the city they intended to invade. “Thank God,” the poet says, those days have passed.

Poem 2 takes a more concrete approach by presenting a specific example of imperial folly. Although it is only hinted at, it seems that Walcott is depicting a West Indian—most likely of African descent—who had served in the English army during World War I; after all, the mother country relied in both world wars on its far-flung subjects to defend the “Emerald Isle” against the enemy. One-eyed and one-armed, “the pensioner, a veteran,” hears a new generation of colonials singing the words of the usurper’s anthem; “Rule, Britannia, rule.” The old man then wonders whether the boys would believe what he might reveal about the futility of spilling blood for Empire, only to gain “such a poor flag as an empty sleeve.”

The two poems blend into one: The herons no longer signal to the “trampling feet,” and the arrogant words “Rule, Britannia, rule” diminish in power. The time of Empire has passed.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

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,” to “pour their blood out.”

The final simile—“such a poor flag as an empty sleeve”—plays first on the veteran’s physical state, his arm obviously lost in the war. Then Walcott dares to extend the analogy by suggesting that the British flag is as useless and pathetic as a sleeve hanging empty, purpose and meaning lost in both cases. After all, the poet is speaking here of the hallowed “Union Jack,” the cloth symbol of the British Empire on which once the sun never set.

On the one hand, Walcott makes effective use of a number of poetic devices to show that the veteran’s ruined life stands for the cruelty and injustice that imperialism dealt its subjects. On the other hand, by introducing the children naïvely singing the conqueror’s anthem and by having the half-dead veteran responding negatively to their innocent games, the poet suggests—but does not say—that Empire is dying and young lives may no longer be touched by its excesses. While poem 1 celebrates the demise of the Roman Empire, announced by the raucous shriek of the heron, poem 2 predicts the coming end of colonial loyalty to England, that loyalty symbolized by an empty, dangling sleeve.

This poem is one of Walcott’s earlier works. Although lacking some of the elegance, polish, and complexity that characterize the later poetry, it effectively introduces the theme of Empire’s sad legacy, a theme to be treated in varied ways again and again throughout Walcott’s extensive poetic output over the years. Furthermore, the poem, although an apprentice work, demonstrates the lucidity, the free rhythms, subtle allusiveness, rich imagery, and overall mastery of poetic technique that distinguish all of Walcott’s work.

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