Derek Walcott

How would you describe the sea in poetry? The Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott (1930‐2017) describes the sea as a center of history. It is a source of power, sustenance, beauty, and the carrier of journeys and stories. Walcott’s childhood, colored by the blue and green Caribbean Sea and surrounding island nature, inspired the unique imagery of his poems.

Derek Walcott Derek Walcott

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Table of contents

    Derek Walcott: Childhood and Education

    Derek Walcott was born on January 23, 1930, in Castries, Saint Lucia. Saint Lucia is an island in the West Indies.

    Derek Walcott, Saint Lucia Peaks, StudySmarterFig. 1 - St. Lucia is an island in the Caribbean Sea known for its hills and peaks.

    Walcott’s mother was a creative teacher who frequently recited poetry around the house. His father was a civil servant and a painter, who died when Derek Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick Walcott, were only one year old. Derek Walcott was raised by his mother, alongside his brother and sister. The family was of English, Dutch, and African heritage, which reflects the colonial history of the Caribbean islands.

    Roderick Walcott is a playwright, painter, and designer.

    A Brief History of Saint Lucia

    Derek Walcott’s poetry was greatly influenced by his Saint Lucian upbringing. The small island has an interesting history and mixed culture because it was colonized by both the French and the English. Walcott’s poetry explores the effects of colonization. Here is a brief history of Saint Lucia:

    • Before the 16th century, Saint Lucia was inhabited by indigenous people from Northern South America and the Caribbean.
    • In the 16th century, the Spanish discovered Saint Lucia.
    • From the 17th until the early 18th century, the island was colonized by both England and France. It changed ownership serval times until the French ceded the island to Britain permanently in 1814.
    • British and French colonists developed a slave trade in the West Indies during this time. Many white men took black mistresses and enslaved Black women. The lucrative sugar plantation industry in the mid to late 18th century functioned on the labor of enslaved people. The local people were overruled and horrifically exploited by the colonists.
    • Saint Lucia was an associate state of the United Kingdom from 1967 to 1979.
    • The island finally gained independence on February 22, 1979.

    Walcott’s mother did her best to ensure that her children’s creative talents were fostered. Derek Walcott attended Methodist schools. Methodists were a Protestant minority within the island’s Catholic culture that was established under French colonial rule.

    At the age of 14, Walcott had his first poem published in The Voice of St Lucia, a local newspaper. The poem was a religious poem inspired by the English poet John Milton. It was also influenced by Walcott’s Methodist faith.

    Spirituality is a common theme in Derek Walcott's poetry. He believed that being a poet was a religious vocation and saw poetry as a form of prayer.

    As a young man, Walcott also trained as a painter under the Saint Lucian artist and historian Harold Simmons. The young Walcott was inspired by Simmons, as well as the French painter Paul Cézanne and the Italian painter Giorgione.

    Walcott's poetry collection Tiepolo's Hound (2000) features his watercolor paintings.

    Though he painted throughout his life, Walcott’s focus shifted to writing at an early age, as he fell in love with English poetry. He was inspired by modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and felt called to be a writer.

    Derek Walcott attended high school at Saint Mary's College in Saint Lucia and then received a scholarship to attend the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.

    Derek Walcott: Biography

    When Derek Walcott was only 19, he set out to publish his first poetry collection called 25 Poems (1948). His mother lent him $200 so that he could go to Trinidad and have the books printed. He sold copies of the book to his friends to cover the costs of the printing.

    The poet also self-published his second poetry book, Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (1949).

    Walcott went on to publish 24 poetry collections throughout his lifetime, including In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962), Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), The Prodigal (2004), Selected Poems (2007), White Egrets (2010) and Morning, Paramin (2016).

    Paramin is a rural village in the hills of West Trinidad.

    Walcott’s poetry is greatly inspired by his heritage, upbringing, and the history of the West Indies. His poetry explores his identification with both Caribbean and English ancestry. It is also inspired by the ocean and the sea, which is seen in his epic poem, Omeros (1990).

    Derek Walcott, Caribbean Islands and Sea, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Walcott’s epic poem Omeros is about fishermen in the Caribbean.

    Beginning in the 1950s, Derek Walcott split his time living primarily in Boston, New York, and Saint Lucia. He worked as a university professor at several prestigious schools including Boston University, Columbia University, Yale University, Rutgers University, and Essex University.

    Also in 1950, Derek Walcott began his career as a playwright with the premiere of his first play, Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (1950). Walcott went on to write 25 plays, many of which were produced by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which he established with his twin brother in 1950.

    Walcott later founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in 1981.

    Walcott won an Obie Award in 1971 for his play Dream on a Monkey Mountain (1967). His plays are frequently set in postcolonial times and deal with sociological and political issues in the aftermath of colonization.

    In 1992, Derek Walcott received the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature for his writing, which sheds light on Caribbean history and multiculturalism.

    The poet received several other awards, including the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, the Royal Society of Literary Award, OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and a lifetime achievement award from the Griffin Trust For Excellence in Poetry. Walcott was also made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2010, he won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his poetry book, White Egrets.

    Derek Walcott, Caribbean Heron White, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Caribbean Great White Egret is actually a white Heron.

    Walcott married three times and had one son and two daughters. His son, Peter Walcott, is a painter in St. Lucia.

    Derek Walcott died at his home in St. Lucia on March 17, 2017, at the age of 87. His funeral source was held at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Castries. He was buried on a hill in Castries, Saint Lucia called Morne Fortune.

    Morne Fortune means “good luck hill” in French and was the site of many battles between the French and British for control of the West Indies.

    Derek Walcott: Poetry Books

    Derek Walcott was a highly prolific poet. He published two dozen poetry books throughout his lifetime. Walcott is best known for his fourth poetry collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948‐1960 and his epic poem Omeros.

    In a Green Night: Poems 1948‐1960 focuses on Caribbean culture, history, and the effects of colonization. Many of his poetry books focus on these themes. They emphasize the power of language and the significance of places.

    Walcott's Homeric epic poem, Omeros captivates Caribbean experience in a retelling of the Trojan War as a battle between Caribbean fishermen. The poetry book is loosely based on characters from The Iliad (circa 762 BCE) by Homer.

    An epic poem is a long narrative poem that is typically about a heroic journey. Traditional epic poems typically feature characters who carry out extraordinary deeds and deal with gods, non-mortal creatures and forces.

    Here is a complete list of Derek Walcott's poetry books:

    1. 25 Poems (1948)
    2. Epitaph for the Young: Xll Cantos (1949)
    3. Poems (1951)
    4. In a Green Night: Poems 1948—60 (1962)
    5. Selected Poems (1964)
    6. The Castaway and Other Poems (1965)
    7. The Gulf and Other Poems (1969)
    8. Another Life (1973)
    9. Sea Grapes (1976)
    10. The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979)
    11. Selected Poetry (1981)
    12. The Fortunate Traveller (1981)
    13. The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcott and the Art of Romare Bearden (1983)
    14. Midsummer (1984)
    15. Collected Poems, 1948–1984 (1986)
    16. The Arkansas Testament (1987)
    17. Omeros (1990)
    18. The Bounty (1997)
    19. Tiepolo's Hound (2000)
    20. The Prodigal (2004)
    21. Selected Poems (2007)
    22. White Egrets (2010)
    23. The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948–2013 (2014)
    24. Morning, Paramin (2016)

    Derek Walcott: Poems

    Two well-known poems by Derek Walcott are "XIV" and "Love after Love." They present common themes of Caribbean nature and Christianity, which are found in many of Walcott's poems.

    "XIV" (1984) by Derek Walcott

    "XIV" is a poem from Walcott's 1984 poetry book Midsummer. "XIV," which is the roman numeral for 14, presents memories of the poet's childhood in Saint Lucia. The poet and his brother gather around their mother to listen to the captivating stories she tells.

    The poet uses striking imagery of his childhood home and the nature that characterizes it to present the powerful surroundings that shaped him:

    With the frenzy of an old snake shedding its skin,

    the speckled road, scored with ruts, smelling of mold,

    twisted on itself and reentered the forest

    where the dasheen leaves thicken and folk stories begin." (1-4)

    "Love After Love" (1986) by Derek Walcott

    "Love After Love" is a poem that was published in Walcott's 1986 book, Collected Poems, 1948–1984. It is a short, four-stanza poem that explores the idea of regaining a sense of identity and a love for oneself after facing heartbreak and loss. The poet uses biblical allusions of bread, wine, and a feast to suggest that self-love and human worth are rooted in God's love for humanity.

    The time will come

    when, with elation

    you will greet yourself arriving

    at your own door, in your own mirror

    and each will smile at the other's welcome,

    and say, sit here. Eat.

    You will love again the stranger who was your self.

    Give wine. Give bread." (1-8)

    Derek Walcott: Omeros Quotes

    Omeros takes the inspiration of the Trojan war and carries it to 20th-century postcolonial Caribbean islands, where fisherman fight rather than Greek warriors. Walcott's epic poem sheds light on the uniqueness of the Caribbean experience and the impacts of slavery.

    The poem starts with the fisherman Philoctete dramatically speaking to a group of tourists, telling the how the trees are chopped down to build canoes. From the outset of the poem, Derek Walcott portrays how the nature of Saint Lucia is interwoven with the lives of the people:

    Laurier-cannelle is a tree that is native to Saint Lucia.

    'This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.'

    Philoctete smiles for the tourists, who try taking

    his soul with their cameras. 'Once wind bring the news

    to the laurier-cannelles, their leaves start shaking

    the minute the axe of sunlight hit the cedars,

    because they could see the axes in our own eyes.

    Wind lift the ferns. They sound like the sea that feed us

    fishermen all our life, and the ferns nodded 'Yes,

    the trees have to die.' So, fists jam in our jacket,

    cause the heights was cold and out breath making feathers

    like the mist, we pass the rum. When it came back, it

    give us the spirit to turn into murderers."

    (Chapter I, Part I, Lines 1-12)

    The central conflict in Omeros is between Achille and Hector. The two men live in St. Lucia and Achille has taken a tin from Hector's boat, which he no longer uses because he left fishing behind to be a taxi driver. Though this is the superficial point of tension, the underlying problem is that a woman named Helen slept with Achille and left him for Hector. She is pregnant, but they do not know whose child it is. The play explores the theme of betrayal:

    Men can kill

    their own brothers in rage, but the madman who tore

    Achille's undershirt from one shoulder also tore

    at his heart. The rage that he felt against Hector

    was shame. To go crazy for an old bailing tin

    crusted with rust! The duel of these fishermen

    was over a shadow and its name was Helen." (Chapter III, Part I, Lines 30-36)

    Derek Walcott - Key takeaways

    • Derek Walcott was a Saint Lucian Poet and playwright.
    • His writing often focuses on the nature of the Caribbean and the effects of colonization.
    • Walcott wrote 24 poetry books and 25 plays.
    • The poet is best known for his poetry collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948‐1960 and the epic poem Omeros.
    • Two of Walcott’s poems are “XIV” and “Love After Love.”
    Frequently Asked Questions about Derek Walcott

    What is Derek Walcott's most famous poem?

    Derek Walcott's most famous poem is his epic poem, Omeros (1990). 

    Where was Derek Walcott born?

    Derek Walcott was born is Saint Lucia, which is an island in the West Indies.

    Why did Derek Walcott win the Nobel Prize?

    Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for his writing, which sheds light on Caribbean history and multiculturalism.

    Who was Derek Walcott?

    Derek Walcott was an Saint Lucian poet and playwright known for his poetry collection Green Night: Poems 1948‐1960 and his epic poem Omeros. Walcott’s poems include “XIV” and “Love After Love.”

    Where is Derek Walcott from?

    Derek Walcott is from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean. He has English, Dutch, and African heritage.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: Derek Walcott was raised by his mother who used to read poetry around the house.

    Which of the following things greatly influenced Walcott’s poetry?

    What type of poem is Omeros?

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