Major Themes I discovered in Derek Walcott’s Omeros: I. Plant Life Interconnects Everything

I realize that it is probably a fool’s errand to try to state anything new or original about Derek Walcott’s Omeros, a book about which dozens of scholarly papers have been published in academic journals and hundreds of commentaries posted on the internet. I have perused only a smattering of that literature, but suspect that any comments I make about this book have probably already been stated before by others. Nevertheless, I am going to stride forward boldly and try to summarize a few major themes I noticed while reading Omeros. I posted earlier a short comment about the very personal nature of the narrative that underlies all of the broader themes in the poem. Here I turn my attention to one of the broad themes that struck me me while reading of the book. Namely, the theme that Plant Life interconnects everything and can be a source of healing.

I kept my Google Search device close at hand while reading Omeros to look up terms with which I was unfamiliar. Many of these were Latin, and I initially assumed they were probably allusions to classic literature. For this reason it came as a surprise to me that the majority of the terms I had to look up while reading the first few chapters were botanical names of trees, shrubs, flowers, and vines. That fact attuned me to start paying attention to references to plant life. Here are examples of some of the terms or phrases I noticed in the early chapters of the book:
[Note: Page numbers are from the First Paperback edition of Omeros, published by Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1992]

p. 3 – ‘Once wind bring the news to the laurier-cannelles, their leaves start shaking…’

p. 3 – Wind lift the ferns.

p. 5 – The first god was a gommier.

p. 6 – A thorn vine gripped his heal.

p. 6 – …the speech taught their saplings: from the towering babble of the cedar to green vowels of bois-campêche. The boise-flot held its tongue with the laurier-cannelle, the red skinned logwood endured the thorns in its flesh…

p. 8 – Banana fronds nodded…

p. 10 – …to the useless shade of an almond…

p. 10 – They were dragged to a place under the manchineels…

p. 12 – It was not a palm-tree’s dial…

p. 12 – …he felt it unclench the fists of the breadfruit tree…

p. 13 – In you the seeds of grey almonds guessed a trees shape, and the grape leaves rusted…

p. 14 – Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves…

p. 20 – …a logwood grove whose thorns litter its dry shade.

p. 20. – above them is a stand of surprising cactus.

p. 20 – …the almonds bent evenly…

p. 20 – The wind turned the yam leaves like maps of Africa.

p. 21 – His skin was a nettle…

And so on throughout the poem. These references to plant life are not only used profusely, but in addition are used to construct a major theme that everything is interconnected. Here are a few references illustrating how that theme is made explicit:

p. 59 – …the way the lianas knot their inseparable vine around two tree trunks sometimes, or a mast grows leaves in the heart of a forest, binding every vein, rooted in the island for the rest of their lives.

p. 63 – Every leaf defines its limits. All roots have their histories.

p. 87 – Plunkett’s ances-tree (his pun) fountained in blossoms and pods from a genealogical willow above his blotter’s green field.

p. 140 – …the crooked tree who carried the genealogical leaves of the tribe in his cave-throated moaning, traced the interlacing branches of their river-rooted lives as intricately as the mangrove roots.

This theme reaches its penultimate level in Chapters XLVII, where some of the healing properties of plants are itemized, and XLVIII where healing of the afflictions of the narrator and some of his alter-ego characters begins to take place, “Under the thick leaves of the forest [where] there’s a life more intricate than ours… p. 240

Ron Boothe

Click here to go to my second essay in this series about Omeros Themes — The Swift Connects The New World to Africa


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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