Derek Walcott’s Omeros, and the Significance of the River of Ancestry

Derek Walcott was born in 1930 in Castries, St. Lucia. He is the author of many plays and volumes of poetry. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.

Walcott's Omeros is a work of remarkable sweep and power. The use of Greek myth serves as not only a structural principle of the poem, but as a means of expressing basic truths about the relation of human society to its past.

Omeros takes its name from the Greek name for the poet Homer. The poem draws parallels with both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The principle characters in the poem include Achille, Hector, and Helen. Achille and Hector are fishermen on the island of St. Lucia. Helen is a beautiful young woman, whose lovers are Achille and Hector.

Another figure in Greek mythology important to understanding the poem is Philoctetes, an archer whose arrow caused the death of Paris in the Trojan War. Philoctetes was a prince who had the bow and arrows of Hercules. He was bitten by a snake on the way to Troy, and was abandoned by the Greeks on the island of Lemnos. After Achilles and Ajax were dead, the Greeks were told by a prophet that they would need the bow and arrows of Hercules to win the Trojan War. Odysseus and Diomedes went to Lemnos, and brought Philoctetes with them back to Troy, where he was cured of his wound.

The setting of Omeros is St. Lucia, an island in the Antilles. St. Lucia is a mountainous, volcanic island, about 240 miles north of Venezuela. Martinique is about 24 miles to the north, and St. Vincent is about 20 miles to the south. Castries is the largest city in St. Lucia.

St. Lucia received its name from the Spanish, in honor of a virgin saint of Sicily. The island has also been called `The Helen of the West Indies.’ Landmarks that are described in Omeros include the town of Soufrière, and its nearby sulphur springs. The poem also refers to Gros Piton and Petit Piton, twin volcanic mountains in the southwest area of the island.

A famous event in the history of St. Lucia was the Battle of the Saints in 1782, in which Admiral George Rodney defeated the French navy under the Count de Grasse. Frequent mention of Rodney is made by the poet in Omeros. George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792) was a British naval hero, who fought during the Seven Years’ War. In 1761, Rodney was able to take control of St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent. In 1779, he was again sent to the West Indies, when France was offering support to the American colonies who were at war with England. Rodney defeated the French navy at a battle near Martinique and Dominica, capturing Count de Grasse and his flagship, the Ville de Paris.

Omeros is an example of epic poetry. An epic is a long narrative poem presenting the adventures of a hero and heroic events that contribute to the formation of a people or society. Omeros is written in terza rima, the verse form used by Dante in The Divine Comedy. Three-line stanzas are interlinked by a regular rhyme scheme, with the second line of each stanza rhyming with the first and third of the next.

The poem is divided into seven books. Book One has chapter 1-13, Book Two has chapters 14-24, Book Three 25-32, Book Four 33-36, Book Five 37-43, Book Six 44-55, and Book Seven 56-64. The chapter numbers are given in Roman numerals. Each chapter has 3 sections. Each section is usually 12-20 stanzas in length, though some are as short as 3-6 stanzas, and others are more than 30 stanzas in length.

Book One describes a group of black Caribbean fishermen, whose names include Achille, Hector, and Philoctete. The fishermen cut down a tree to make a canoe. The canoe, or pirogue, is made by hollowing out a tree trunk. Philoctete has a scar on his leg due to a wound from a rusted anchor.

Achille and Hector are rivals for a young woman named Helen. Hector is consumed by envy for Achille.

Ma Kilman is a shop owner who runs the oldest bar in the village. Seven Seas is a former fisherman who has gone blind. Seven Seas claims he has sailed around the world. Ma Kilman helps Seven Seas draw his veteran’s compensation from the post office. She also gives Philoctete vaseline for his wound. Ma Kilman is seen by the villagers as a guardian or sibyl who has a mysterious knowledge of the after-life.

Major Dennis Plunkett is a farmer. He wears a khaki shirt and shorts. He and his wife Maud are white. Maud is from Wicklow, Ireland. Plunkett had served under General Montgomery in the North African campaign in World War II. He had suffered a head wound, and Maud had been his nurse. They have no children.

Helen is a beautiful young black woman, who is a servant on the Plunkett’s farm. Helen is willful and proud. She is pregnant, but she is not sure who is the father of her baby. She is like a `panther,’ whose shape draws Achilles to her. She wears a yellow dress, which she has stolen from Maud. Helen claims that Maud had given her the dress, but that Maud forgot.

In the island museum, a twisted bottle, crusted with fool’s gold, is exhibited. The bottle was recovered from the Ville de Paris, a ship that was involved in the Battle of the Saints.

Achille is in debt, and wants money to help him pursue his conquest of Helen. He takes his boat out to sea, and dives from the boat to look for treasure in a sunken galleon.

Philoctete tries unsuccessfully to make peace between Achille and Hector. Achille runs out of money, and goes to work on the Plunkett’s farm. The Plunketts take a ride in a Land Rover around the island.

Book Two describes a British midshipman assigned by Admiral Rodney to a diplomatic mission at the Hague, in the Netherlands. The assignment of the midshipman is to learn of Dutch interests in the Antilles, and of weapons being shipped to the American colonies. The midshipman’s name is Plunkett. His ship is the Marlborough. The intelligence he gains is to be used by Admiral Rodney to take revenge against the Dutch islands and against the French island of Martinique.

African slaves help their British masters in a battle against the French, and among the slaves is Afolabe, an ancestor of Achille. For his bravery in the British victory, Afolabe is renamed “Achille” by Admiral Rodney.

A naval battle takes place in a channel of three islands called Les Saintes. The Marlborough is involved. The midshipman Plunkett draws his sword as his ship is rammed by a French frigate, the Ville de Paris. The mast of the Marlborough is shattered, and water pouring through a breach in the ship throws the midshipman against his sword, fatally wounding him. Wine bottles from the hull of the Ville de Paris spill into the sea, and one of the bottles settles on the sea floor.

The poem returns to the present-day, and Dennis Plunkett is attracted to Helen. Although Hector is the father of Helen’s baby, Plunkett feels that that he himself has symbolically given the island Helen a son, by the death of the midshipman Plunkett.

Helen sleeps with Achille, but then goes to live with Hector. Hector has sold his canoe, and has bought a passenger van, called the Comet, which has rows of leopard seats. Hector drives the van recklessly.

Book Three describes Afolabe returning to his village in Africa. Afolabe has been renamed Achille, and his life as a slave has distanced him from his people in Africa. He travels in his canoe along a river to the village. He meets his father, and his father’s name is also Afolabe. His father asks him what he is now called, and he answers that he is called “Achille.” One day, the village is attacked by slave-traders. The slave-traders take fifteen prisoners, and when Achille later attacks the raiding party, he is also taken prisoner.

The poem returns to the present. Achille wakes up in his boat, having had a dream about Africa. The mate in his boat has caught a fish while Achille has been sleeping. They return to land, and Achille sees Helen. Achille washes out his boat. He rakes up some leaves in Seven Seas’ yard.

The poet sees his own aging mother, and tells her that she has two sons and a daughter and a lot of grandchildren. The poet leaves on a plane for America, and Achille watches the plane in the sky.

Book Four describes the poet’s life in New England. The poet has lost a lover, and feels wounded, like Philoctetes. A stirring and powerful section of the poem (XXXII, II) describes the house that the poet lives in. The rhymed couplets of this section provide an important contrast to the verse structure of the rest of the poem. The poet refuses to be trapped in a house of despair. He says that the doors of his house will be kind and gentle.

Book Five describes the poet’s travels to Portugal, Italy, England, Ireland, and back to New England. He travels to the Great Plains of North America, looking through the window of an airplane at the clouds and at the landscape of the Dakotas. He returns to Boston, and tries to get a taxi, but several taxis pass by and refuse to stop, though they are empty. He walks to the harbor, and looks at the skyscrapers.

The poet is reminded of the Ghost Dance of Winter, and thinks about the hardships faced by the Plains Indians. As he walks through the city, the streets are covered by ice and snow. He gets a ride on a streetcar.

In Book Six, Hector is killed in an auto accident. A piglet runs onto the road, and when Hector tries to avoid it, his van spins off the road, crashing into the palm trees, and killing him. He is found slumped under the swaying statue of the Madonna that hangs from his windshield. He is buried near the sea, and is mourned by Philoctete, Achille, Seven Seas, and Helen. Achilles whispers to the dead Hector that their ancestral river will forever lead them home.

Ma Kilman cures Philoctete of his wound. She is a sibyl, or obeah-woman. Ants crawl aound her feet, and through her hair. The ants have given her their language. She can pray in the language of dead ancestors. She is compared to the Sibyl of Cumae. She is a symbol of healing.

The Plunketts take a trip to England. They return to St. Lucia, and Maud dies of cancer. Her funeral is attended by Philoctete, Achille, Helen, Seven Seas, and the other townspeople of the island.

In Book Seven, the poet has a dialogue with the guide Omeros. The poet steps into a canoe, and is taken by a ferryman to a lagoon. The poet is led by the blind guide Omeros up a volcano to the Pool of Speculation. The poet feels that he has lost faith both in religion and in myth. Then Omeros takes his hand, and the poet is pulled out of doubt, and to a renewed faith.

The brilliant imagery of the poem is drawn from its setting on a tropical island. Recurring images in the poem include: the almond tree, the egret, the laurel tree, the iguana, the anemone, the sea-swift, ants, the breadfruit tree, gulls, the reef, the conch shell, the volcano, rain, fig trees, banana fields, morning glories, bougainvilleas, orchids, the canoe, the rusty anchor, the oar, the leg wound. These images serve to bring unity to the poem, and to reinforce its major themes.

The ants are a symbol of death or destruction. At the beginning of the poem, the fishermen chopping down the tree are compared to an army of fire ants. Later in the poem, we learn that a sailor drowned at sea was named “Fourmi Rouge” or “Red Ant.” Ants run through the hair of Ma Kilman, and let her hear the language of dead ancestors. When Afolabe attacks the slave-traders, and has been captured, ants crawl over his fallen body.

The predominant, or most frequently-used, image of the poem is the sea-swift. The swift is a fast-flying bird with long, narrow wings, common in many areas of the world. When Achille is introduced in the first chapter, he is watching a sea-swift. The swift later guides him back to the village of his ancestors in Africa. The swift is a symbol of spiritual guidance or grace given by God. The swift carries a seed in its stomach as it skims over the ocean, and is also a symbol of regeneration.

Helen represents human willfulness or pride, but her beauty and fertility are also symbolic of the island of St. Lucia. Her village is the Troy where Achille and Hector struggle for her. The poet notes that the island had previously been named Helen. In the poem, Helen’s breasts are compared to the twin peaks of the island. The island represents an image of beauty.

Plunkett is compared to Ulysses, Maud to Penelope, and the poet to Telemachus.

The blind fisherman, Seven Seas, is a symbol of the universe. The poet also mentions that the island is named after a blind saint. The poet is guided to faith by the blind Omeros.

The oar is a symbol of war. The poet, as he climbs a volcanic mountain and smells the sulphur pits, has a vision of Hector in hell, carrying the lance of an oar.

A major theme of Omeros is that human identity is in part defined by ancestry, and that knowledge of our ancestry helps us define our human identity. In Book Two, chapter XXIV, section III, Achille sees the ghost of his father’s face, and this leads him to ask himself about his own identity.

The river of ancestry is important for the descendants of slaves, because the existence of slavery has caused a loss of knowledge of ancestry. When Achille returns to Africa, he realizes that he can no longer remember the names of the river- and tree-god in which he steers his canoe. When Afolabe asks his son what the name “Achille” means, and Achille responds that he does not know, Afolabe says that “a name means something,” and that if one’s name means nothing, then “you, nameless son, are only the ghost of a name” (XXV, III). This loss of knowledge of ancestry reflects man’s lost sense of his place in the universe.

In a parallel account within the poem, Plunkett traces his ancestry and family heraldry. Plunkett can trace his ancestry back many generations, but he and Maud have no children. Plunkett comes from a family that has included a long line of soldiers who have fought many battles. But he has to find a way to accept the fact that he will have no heir.

Omeros is a work that is rich in humor. An example of the humor of the poem is the native dialect or patois spoken by the fishermen, with its broken syntax and slang. Another example of humor is the misspelled motto on Achille’s boat, “In God We Troust.” Another example is Hector’s chariot, the Comet, a van with leopard-skin seats. Hector drives the van recklessly, until he has a crash. Another example of humor is the character Maljo, a fisherman-mechanic who runs for politicial office, and who is nicknamed “Professor Static” or “Statics” for the way in which his campaign speeches are short-circuited by broken syntax.

Omeros expresses the poet’s deep love for his native land. The island in the poem is like Troy, where mankind tries to lay claim to beauty, but the island’s beauty stands apart, ‘wreathed in gold.’ The poem also presents for the reader the complexity and richness of Caribbean culture.

A unifying element in the poem is the image of the sea-swift. The swift appears at the beginning and end of the poem. Achille, also, appears at the beginning and end, and is a unifying subject of the poem. The poet says that he sings of Afolabe’s son, Achille. Achille, in the last section of the poem, is triumphant, as he cuts open a fish that he has caught. He walks from the beach, leaving the vast emptyness of the sea.

Copyright© 2000AlexScott

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