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Visions of Light

When Derek Walcott’s first book of poems was published in London in 1962, it came with the blessing of Robert Graves, one of the twentieth century’s finest and most underrated poets, and a title from Andrew Marvell—In a Green Night. The title was a muted gesture toward Modernism, since T.S. Eliot had been the major force behind the rediscovery of Marvell after two and a half centuries of neglect. But Eliot had cosmopolitan tastes and initially he had been drawn to the Metaphysical poets because they reminded him of Laforgue and Corbière.

Graves, on the other hand, was linked to Marvell as though by natural right, as direct inheritor of a pecu-liarly English lyric tradition: classical, witty, idiosyncratic, pure. It was this tradition that Walcott had absorbed as a student in the British West Indies: “Like any colonial child,” he wrote in his essay “The Muse of History,” “I was taught English literature as my natural inheritance. Forget the snow and daffodils. They were real, more real than the heat and oleander, perhaps, because they lived on the page, in imagination, and therefore in memory.”

The British Empire may have had many failings, but in its glory days no one was sent out to administer the Pax Britannica without a solid grounding in the classics, and the colonial schools and colleges benefited accordingly. Walcott himself has said that his education “must have ranked with the finest in the world. The grounding was rigid—Latin, Greek, and the essential masterpieces, but there was this elation of discovery.” It was also, by modern standards, sternly old-fashioned. At Oxford, fifty years ago, English literature stopped at the death of Keats, and I assume it was no different at the University of the West Indies. If you were interested in what followed or—God forbid—in contemporary writing itself, you read it on your own time.

Walcott was indeed interested and duly served his apprenticeship with Eliot and Auden, but his heart wasn’t in it. He is not an experimental poet and has never been easy with the fast-talking, hard-edged high anxiety that gives the Modernist writers their peculiar sense of strain. His natural style is melodious, meditative, and even-paced, closer to Yeats than to Eliot or Pound, closer still to the Victorians—closer, in fact, to grand Victorians like Tennyson and Arnold than to their maverick proto-Modernist contemporaries like Clough and Hopkins.

Walcott has something else in common with these earlier masters: he writes long poems, poems with plots and characters and intricate philosophical themes. The long poem is not an art form that has fared well in the last hundred or so years. Pound tried it because he was determined to write the Great American Poem but—to me, at least—the Cantos are a gigantic magpie’s nest stuffed with shiny objects, more like the journal of an eccentric scholar than an epic, and with no more inherent structure than, say, Berryman’s daybook of griefs and gripes and hangovers, the Dream Songs. The most important long poem of the twentieth century is The Waste Land, though it is not long by Victorian standards; it runs to a mere 433 lines, and Eliot is said to have added the endnotes in order to pad the thing out to book-length. In other words, The Waste Land is a short poem that feels long because it traverses such a dense inner space.

Walcott has never been interested in that kind of jagged compression. His abiding preoccupations are complex and contemporary—exile, alienation, and the troublesome area where black culture and identity meet white—but he deals with them from an aesthetic distance and his plangent, ruminative tone of voice needs length in which to flourish. He is also a craftsman, a sophisticated technician who likes to ring changes on that most traditional of meters, the iambic pentameter, and is fascinated by rhymes, half-rhymes, and assonance. Although his work itself is in no way old-fashioned, it seems, like his classical education, to belong to a steadier, more spacious period before poetry became a specialized, minority interest and was, instead, as much a part of the general culture as the novel. You simply read it differently: silently but out loud, as it were, for the civilized and civilizing pleasure of listening to the music in your head.

Omeros (1990), Walcott’s Caribbean variations on Homeric themes, is a long book—350 pages of terza rima. Tiepolo’s Hound, which is also written in a technically demanding form—alternatively rhymed couplets, a/b//a/b—is only half that length, but it is complex and multilayered, and it evolves slowly, like a novel. It is a poem about exile and obsession and art, and it explores these themes through the stories of two lives, Walcott’s and Camille Pissarro’s, told in parallel, each illuminating the other.

They make a good pair: born in the West Indies exactly one hundred years apart and self-exiled to colder climates, two craftsmen doggedly devoted to their art and working against the current fashions. Both of them were outsiders from the start—children with talent and ambition in indolent backwaters, internal exiles whether they left home or stayed put. Their family backgrounds added to the confusion. Pissarro’s was Se-phardic Portuguese in what was then the little Danish colony of St. Thomas, in the Antilles, and he moved to France when anti-Semitism was about to erupt in the Dreyfus affair. Walcott arrived in the States at the height of the civil rights movement and his beginnings were even more complicated than Pissarro’s. His peculiarly English education, he once wrote, meant that “my generation had looked at life with black skins and blue eyes,” but that was only half the story. His father was an Englishman, his mother West Indian; they were middle-class, English-speaking, and Methodist in a British colony, St. Lucia, where the fishermen and peasants were Catholic and spoke Creole French. Walcott eventually came to regard his complex heritage as a source of strength:

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

But that wry confidence didn’t come easily and the contradictions he was born to haunt his work.

The exile always carries his homeland with him, though not necess-arily as a paradise lost. Walcott is particularly eloquent about the way Pissarro’s tropical childhood enhanced the chilly beauty of Paris and made it delectable, sharpening his appetite, modulating his palette, opening his eyes to a different order of light:

O, the exclamation of white roses, of a wet
grey day of glazed pavements, the towers

in a haze of Notre Dame’s silhouette
in the Easter drizzle, lines banked with flowers

and umbrellas flowering, then bobbing like mushrooms
in the soup-steaming fog! Paris looked edible:

salads of parks, a bouillabaisse of fumes
from the steaming trees in the incredible

fragrance of April…

Walcott writes about painting subtly and with insight because it, too, is part of his inheritance. His father was a civil servant who painted in his spare time, but he died when the poet was a baby and Walcott got to know him by poring over the handful of paintings and art books which he left behind:

From my father’s cabinet I trace his predecessors
in a small blue book: The English Topographical Draughtsmen,

his pencil studies delicately firm as theirs,
the lyrical, light precision of these craftsmen—

Girton, Sandby, and Cotman, Peter De Wint,
meadows with needle spires in monochrome,

locks and canals with enormous clouds that went
rolling over England, postcards from home,

his namesake’s county, Warwickshire. His own
work was a double portrait, a cherished oval

of his wife in oil, his own face, with a soft frown
that seemed to clarify the gentle evil

of an early death. A fine sketch of a cow,
a copy of Millet’s The Gleaners, Turner’s

The Fighting Téméraire, the gathering blow
of a storm with tossing gulls, more than a learner’s

skill in them, more than mimicry, a gift.

These objects had established my vocation,” Walcott wrote in a 1965 essay called “Leaving School,” “and made it as inevitable as that of any craftsman’s son, for I felt that my father’s work, however minor, was unfinished.”

Walcott duly took over where his father had left off. He started out as a painter as well as a poet and continued painting long after his literary reputation was established. Tiepolo’s Hound is illustrated by a not particularly relevant selection of his watercolors, and on the back of the book is a photograph of the handsome young poet at his easel. Walcott’s pictures are bright and delicate and pleasing, but they have none of the authority of his verse, as he himself readily admitted in an interview on British television:

There’s a very big difference between someone who can paint pretty well and somebody who’s a painter…. It’s how the paint is moved along recklessly, you know, without any caution. And although I can paint pretty competent water-colours I just don’t have that bursting confidence…. It’s all very Methodist.

Methodist and also methodical: he is, by temperament, a devoted craftsman who studied the masters and labored at his technique, and not just when he was learning to paint. Even now, as a mature poet, he goes out of his way to make things difficult for himself, setting himself technical goals—book-length poems in tricky rhyme schemes—that few other contemporary poets would even attempt. But craft is only a necessary first step. The amateur painters labor to acquire it, but true artists, like Pissarro, take it for granted. For them, technical assurance and economy become something more mysterious: an instinct for the precise brushstroke in the precise place that brings an image suddenly to life.

This mystery is the dominant theme of Tiepolo’s Hound. Walcott sensed it first at an art show in New York:

I remember stairs in couplets. The Metropolitan’s
marble authority, I remember being

stunned as I studied the exact expanse
of a Renaissance feast, the art of seeing.

Then I caught a slash of pink on an inner thigh
of a white hound entering the cave of a table,

so exact in its lucency at The Feast of Levi,
I felt my heart halt. Nothing, not the babble

of the unheard roar that rose from the rich
pearl-lights embroidered on ballooning sleeves,

sharp beards, and gaping goblets, matched the bitch
nosing a forest of hose. So a miracle leaves

its frame, and one epiphanic detail
illuminates an entire epoch…

This moment of revelation became the poet’s obsession, as though by studying the single slash of color that made Tiepolo’s “spectral hound” leap out of the frame he could unravel the mystery of genius. The trouble was, he could never find the picture again, however diligently he visited exhibitions and trawled through art books:

I riffled through the derisive catalogue
determined that the fact was not a vision.

(The dog, the dog, where was the fucking dog?)
Their postures wrong. Nothing confirmed my vision.

He even made a pilgrimage to Venice, but grudgingly, with his patience wearing thin:

Devoted as a candle to its church,
the thigh flared steadily, more affliction

than quest now, I would end my search…

Cowardice, stubbornness, indifference
made too much of the whiteness of the hound…

When he drew a blank in Venice it occurred to him that maybe he had mistaken the artist; the creature was Veronese’s, not Tiepolo’s. So he started over, again to no avail. And the more he searched, the deeper the mystery became.

Walcott tells this story in tandem with Pissarro’s, as two versions of the same quest, one misguided and frustrating, the other resolved, though not in the heart-stopping way Walcott would have predicted when he first saw Tiepolo’s hound. For Walcott, Pissarro represents genius without flamboyance, the artist as craftsman, plugging away at his vision of light—light in Paris, light in Pontoise, endless subtle variations on a single luminous theme, “so modest, so sublime!” His life was bleak and impoverished, his paintings didn’t sell, and only a handful of fellow artists recognized his gift. In old age, his hands were crippled by arthritis and he was almost blind, but he went on painting to the very end.

This is the secret Walcott was looking for: stubborn persistence allied to craftsmanship so habitual and refined that it becomes an instinct, a way of seeing; not the sudden flash of inspiration or High Renaissance drama, but a steady devotion to the world as it is:

some critics think his work is ordinary,
but the ordinary is the miracle.

Ordinary love and ordinary death,
ordinary suffering, ordinary birth,

the ordinary couplets of our breath,
ordinary heaven, ordinary earth.

This is cool and measured and beautiful, and perhaps that’s what Walcott means by “Methodist.” In the poet’s imagination Tiepolo’s hound embodies the careless, flamboyant talent both he and his father lacked as painters. Pissarro’s meticulous genius is less startling in comparison, but it is what Walcott is after in his new poem:


A silent city, blest with emptiness
like an engraving. Ornate fretwork eaves,

and the heat rising from the pitch in wires,
from empty back yards with calm breadfruit leaves,

their walls plastered with silence, the same streets
with the same sharp shadows, laced verandahs closed

in torpor…

Walcott is doing in words for his beloved St. Lucia what Pissarro did in paint for the French landscape—fixing it in time with “lyrical, light precision,” modestly and without fuss.

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