Derek Walcott is a twentieth-century poet, who was born on the island of Saint Lucia, in the Lesser Antilles, on January 23, 1930. He was born a twin. His father, a civil servant who painted and wrote poetry, died when Derek and his twin brother were one year old.
Consequently,Walcott never knew his father except for the stories his family told of him. His mother was a teacher who had a love of the arts and she would often recite poetry to her children. Throughout the early stages of his life, Walcott learned of, harsh situations his family members faced, and went through a few himself. A select few of these hardships became inspiration and material, for some of his poems. In particular, Walcott’s grandmothers had lived through the era of slavery, and the topic of slavery would be something he touched on multiple times in his works. His mother was involved in leading the local Methodist church, but the family felt overshadowed by the predominantly Catholic culture of the island.. . Being raised in the Caribbean also had a significant impact on the poetry he would go on to write, as well as his life in general. Walcott’s education was the spark of his career in the arts. His time at St. Mary’s college, located on the very island he was raised, and the University of the West Indies proved to be inspiring for him as an artist. This passion for art lead him to move to Trinidad in 1953 to take on a job as a theatre and art critic. His first major literary achievement would come at the age of 18, when he borrowed money from his mother and self-published 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (1949). After living in Trinidad for about six years, Walcott established the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. It would be this complex that would manufacture a majority of his plays. After this, Walcott spent much of his time traveling the world and becoming a culturist for Caribbean literature and life. He also spent time instructing as a professor of literature at Boston University. Many view his greatest accomplishment to date as his receiving of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
Common themes in Derek Walcott’s works include a focus on Caribbean culture and history, the effects of colonialism, and one’s relationship to language. He sometimes includes a mix of languages, from English to Caribbean patois to French. Additionally, Walcott’s poetry often spans across different times, places, and events to show the often complex connections between cultures and peoples in the Caribbean.
In this excerpt from the poem “The Sea is History”, Walcott explores Caribbean history in relation to African history by delving into the details and horrors of the Middle Passage and the beginnings of enslavement. He suggests that much of the history of this time is locked in the sea, “in that grey vault,” and in the lost lives of African people who died aboard slave ships or drowned during the Middle Passage. He also makes strong comparisons to the flight of Jews in the Bible (Exodus) seeking the Promised Land.
“The Sea is History”
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:
In the following poem, “A Far Cry From Africa,” Walcott additionally explores his cultural heritage from both the British colonizers and the African people forcibly brought to the Caribbean by European colonial powers for enslavement, separated from people remaining in Africa who were fighting the effects of colonialism in their homelands. He speaks of colonial policy in Africa and of historical events, and he speaks of both the Kikuyu and the English; however, at the end of the poem, he narrows the larger focus to make a strong and challenging personal connection. His questions to himself in the last seven lines asks how he can, if at all, peacefully connect the dissonance between his English and African backgrounds and what he has gained and inherited from these various cultures. Walcott does not take into consideration all of the cultural aspects, but focuses on the brutal history of both African and English cultures. Both of his grandmothers were African and both of his grandfathers were European, thus he feels conflicted within himself as to where he belongs.
“A Far Cry From Africa”
A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
Readings and Interviews
Poetry is an Island – brief descriptions of Derek Walcott as an artist, a poet and a person, including a reading of Love After Love
Poem Reading by Derek Walcott
Saint Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Empire and Language – discussion of America as an Empire, diversity of cultures and language
- White Egrets (2010)
- Selected Poems (2007)
- The Prodigal (2004)
- Tiepolo’s Hound (2000)
“Derek Walcott.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2016.
“Derek Walcott – Biographical.” Nobel Prize. Web. 09 Dec. 2016.
Walcott, Derek. “”A Far Cry From Africa”” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2016. <https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/far-cry-africa>.
Walcott, Derek. “”The Sea is History”” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2016. <https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/sea-history >.