Derek Walcott: ‘What the Twilight Says’

Derek Walcott, St. Lucia, 1994; photograph by Inge Morath
Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos
Derek Walcott, St. Lucia, 1994; photograph by Inge Morath


The first poem in this substantial selection of the work of the St. Lucia–born poet Derek Walcott was written when he was only eighteen. It initially appeared in a privately printed volume entitled 25 Poems (1949), a self-publishing venture subsidized by Walcott’s widowed mother (who worked as a seamstress and a teacher) to the tune of $200—a stake she eventually recouped after the young poet sold enough copies to friends to break even. The poem is set at twilight, and opens:

The fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk,
Do not consider the stillness through which they move.
So I since feelings drown, should no more ask
What twilight and safety your strong hands gave.

The first two lines are lucid enough, but the second two seem themselves overtaken by dusk, a little murky and hard to make out. Unlike the fishermen who are so involved in the task of rowing homeward that they have no time for emotional or aesthetic responses to the evening stillness through which they move, the poet presents himself as overwhelmed by feelings—as drowning in them, rather than rowing through them. Or might his feelings drown someone else? Or might it be the feelings themselves that drown? The phrase could be parsed all sorts of ways.

Does he, one wonders, envy the fishermen’s stoical lack of reflectiveness, or are the drowning feelings introduced as a way of signifying the gulf between their primitive hand-to-mouth concerns and his superior, educated, impassioned consciousness? And whose are the “strong hands”? Is he telling himself not to ask because the question would widen the gap between himself and the fishermen? Perhaps all that is unambiguously clear from these two lines is that the young Walcott has been reading the young Auden.

Indeterminacies of this kind clearly befit a poem that takes place in the gloaming. In Walcott’s later writings twilight often assumes a more particular figurative significance. In the 1970 essay “What the Twilight Says” he describes how an Antillean dusk can transform a slum into a thing of beauty:

Deprivation is made lyrical, and twilight, with the patience of alchemy, almost transmutes despair into virtue. In the tropics nothing is lovelier than the allotments of the poor, no theatre is as vivid, voluble, and cheap.

The stab of irony in “cheap” signals the unease that so often afflicts Walcott when he considers the gap between himself and the Caribbean poor. As in “The Fishermen Rowing Homeward…,” twilight is depicted in this essay as prompting reflections on his relationship with his less self-conscious compatriots:

Years ago, watching them, and suffering as you watched, you proffered silently the charity of a language which they could not speak, until your suffering, like the…

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