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.)