Derek Walcott is a poet, now over fifty, whose voice was for a long time a derivative one. His subject was not derivative: it was the black colonial predicament (Walcott comes from St. Lucia). But there was an often unhappy disjunction between his explosive subject, as yet relatively new in English poetry, and his harmonious pentameters, his lyrical allusions, his stately rhymes, his Yeatsian meditations. I first met his work in an anthology that had reprinted his “Ruins of a Great House,” a poem now several decades old:
A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose
The leprosy of Empire.
’Farewell, green fields,
’Farewell, ye happy groves!’
I climbed a wall with the grill ironwork
Of exiled craftsmen protecting that great house
From guilt, perhaps, but not from the worm’s rent
Nor from the padded cavalry of the mouse.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the abuse
Of ignorance by bible and by sword.
A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets.
It was clear that Walcott had been reading Yeats—the “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” “On a House Shaken by the Land Agitation,” and so on. Walcott’s piece did not seem to me then, and does not seem now, a poem, but rather an essay in pentameters. The emotional attitudes of Walcott’s early verse were authentic, but shallowly and melodramatically phrased. Walcott borrowed theatrically, for instance, from Yeats’s Supernatural Songs to express a genuine dilemma.
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?
It is always dangerous for a young poet’s future when he begins, as Walcott did, with a subject. Language may become, then, nothing but the ornament to his message, the rhetoric for his sermon. Walcott did not escape this ornamental view of language (and his uncertainty as to his own genre caused him to spend twenty years writing for the theater, forming a theater company, and directing plays, the most direct and urgent form of literary communication).
But there were other aspects, not anthologized, to Walcott’s early verse. One was the presence of island patois—unsteady, not well managed, but boldly there, confronting the Yeatsian poise:
Man, I suck me tooth when I hear
How dem croptime fiddlers lie,
And de wailing, kiss-me-arse flutes
That bring water to me eye!
But the ever-present baleful influence of Yeats suddenly overshadows the patois speaker, and the song ends on an unlikely “literary” note:
…Flesh upon flesh was the tune
Since the first cloud raise up to disclose
The breast of the naked moon.
Somewhat later, a shrewd social observation made itself felt in Walcott’s work …