Printer Friendly


Homer's work has served as a wellspring of Western consciousness through the ages, and in this epic narrative Derek Walcott draws on it to make memorable poetry out of the lives and circumstances of Saint Lucian fishermen. His title, Omeros, evokes the name of the mythical Hellenic bard, and his narrator describes how as a child having heard a young foreign woman pronounce Homer's name, he never forgot its sound:

O was the conch-shell's invocation, mer was

both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,

os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes

In his art, Walcott has set out to "prolong the mighty line of Marlowe and Milton," and the verses of Omeros introduce an Antillean voice to the origins of that European chorus.

Walcott's book represents a Caribbean interpretation of Homer's work, and as such should be considered part of the line of translations that, starting with Livius Andronicus, stretches to the present in English through Alexander Pope, George Chapman, Robert Fitzgerald, and the more than two hundred complete and partial versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey to have appeared since then, culminating in the latest creations of Robert Fagles, Allen Mandelbaum, and Christopher Logue. However, Walcott's version should not be considered so much a translation as a transmutation of the original texts. Omeros filters the Greek epic tales through a Caribbean worldview that resists, takes possession of, rearranges, and expands their premises. Thus, with an omnipresent sea remaining as background, the heroes of this poem are not kings but nobles of another sort. According to Walcott, Philoctetes, Hector, and Achilles are fishermen or taxi drivers eking out a living on land and sea, and Helen is an imperious Saint Lucian housemaid.

The poem's references to the Greek work are both explicit and implicit. Homer puts in an appearance as Seven Seas: "a black fisherman, his stubbled chin coarse as a dry sea urchin's."

True to his description in the Iliad, Philoctetes suffers from a wound in his leg that incapacitates him and causes him to roam over the island seeking a cure. In the meantime, he attempts to reconcile himself with Hector and Achilles, who are vying for Helen's love. The poem's narrator also shares Odysseus's wanderlust: At one point in the story he travels in time to Homer's Greece; at another, he describes scenes out of Dante's Divine Comedy. Later, we witness the Battle of the Saints, which took place between the colonial powers France and England for control of Saint Lucia in 1782. The battle between the European powers reflects Hector's and Achilles's struggle for Helen, who is identified with the island. The narrator also travels geographically, drawing parallels between the Caribbean and the tragedy of the native peoples of North America, the lives of Polish immigrants on Long Island, and conditions in Lisbon, Boston, Toronto, and the Dublin of James Joyce, author of another noteworthy transmutation of the Greek myth in our century.

Walcott not only connects the history of the Caribbean with the European epic tradition but, through a dream of Achilles, the poem also offers a vision of Benin in the days of the African slave trade. In his reverie, Achilles observes the dispersion of the African peoples and their isolation in the world and exclaims:

So there went the Ashanti one way, the Mandingo another,

the Ibo another, the Guinea. Now each one was a nation in himself,

without mother, father, brother.

To Walcott, the Caribbean is a dispersion zone, a sort of switchboard with input from and output to other parts of the world. This image characterizes both the Antillean archipelago and the poem Omeros.

Walcott's ambitious enterprise takes the form of three-line stanzas that often evoke the terza rima of Dante, in which the second line of each rhymes with the first and third lines of the next stanza. This pattern is not constant, however, and the narration is driven by a profusion of rhymes--pararhymes, anagrammatic and apocopated rhymes, making up a veritable compendium of verse forms. The poem's cadence, meanwhile, is as varied and ecstatic as the music of the sea and the islands. Its rhythmic complexity invites reading aloud for the sheer enjoyment of being carried along from one theme to the next, masterfully underscoring Walcott's description of rhyme as "the language's desire to enclose the loved world in its arms."

Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, Walcott declared, "In the Antilles, poverty is poetry with a V, une vie, a condition of life as well as imagination." Clarifying his opinion, he added that survival is the living poetry of the Caribbean. As for being a Caribbean poet, Walcott equates survival with stubbornness and asserts that the poet's stubbornness is what has made Antillean poetry endure. With Omeros, the spiritual stubbornness of the Saint Lucian poet has reclaimed and transformed for the Caribbean the rhyming scheme of Dante, one of the great figures of the European Renaissance. Equally important, Walcott has cast the work of Homer in fresh and unmistakably Caribbean terms.

Jorge Hernandez Martin is an assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and a regular contributor to Americas.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Martin, Jorge Hernandez
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Previous Article:A Way in the World.
Next Article:The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry.

Related Articles
Conversations with Derek Walcott.
Tiepolo's Hound.
Kola's list of 100 plus Black Authors of The Twentieth Century (Fiction, Poetry & Drama).
Isaac Julien: Bohen Foundation.
The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English.
Derek Walcott: the voice of the Caribbean: Saint Lucia's favorite son discusses the emerging identity in literature and prose unique to the islands.
Ambition and anxiety; Ezra Pound's Cantos and Derek Wallcott's Omeros as twentieth-century epics.
On chapter XLV of Derek Walcott's Omeros.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters