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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.