Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire

by Derek Walcott

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Here are some quotes from Derek Walcott's "Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire":

(thank God

that from this act the landscape is complete

and time and motion at a period

as such an emblem led Rome's trampling feet,

pursued by late preconsuls bearing law)

The first of Walcott's poems begins with the symbol of a heron flying and landing on a stump. The parenthetical excerpt above takes up most of the lines of this poem. In this excerpt, Walcott likens the landing of the heron to the end of Roman conquest. He is thankful that the Roman Empire has come to an end, along with its wars, which are symbolized by trampling feet. He also writes that Roman laws are at an end. The landscape on which the Romans once trampled is now quiet, and the silence is punctuated only by the caw of the heron.

In the small coffin of his house, the pensioner,

A veteran of the African campaign,

Bends, as if threading an eternal needle,

One-eyed, as any grave, his skull, cropped wool . . .

In the second poem, Walcott writes about a veteran of British wars—perhaps World War I or World War II. The man, who might be from the West Indies, fought in Africa. His battles left him without an eye, with part of his skull missing, and with a missing arm. His house is like a coffin because he is half-dead. When he bends, he continues the age-old cycle of war and the aftermath of war, as if he is threading a needle. This image calls to mind the idea of the Fates, who weave history in a continuous fashion. The veteran is part of this long historical story that involves the rise of empires and their wars, as well as the aftermath of the wars.

Or lifts his desert squint to hear

The children singing "Rule, Britannia, rule,"

As if they needed practice to play dead.

Boys will still pour their blood out for a sieve

Despite his balsam eye and doddering jaw.

The veteran has limited vision, as he is missing one eye. As he sits in his house, he hears children singing the anthem to the British empire—"Rule, Britannia, rule." They are rehearsing being soldiers, but Walcott writes that the children do not need this type of practice. Death will still come to them when they volunteer to be soldiers. He considers this act like dying for a sieve, for something that is empty. In other words, Walcott likens the empire to nothing more than a sieve, which can retain nothing. The boys are willing to die, even though the pensioner has a wooden eye and broken jaw. They have learned nothing from his injuries and will continue to fight for the emptiness of what their empire stands for.

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