Major Themes in Derek Walcott’s Omeros: II. The Swift Connects The New World to Africa

In my previous post on this topic I discussed one major theme I discovered while reading Omeros, an interconnectedness maintained by plant life. Here I will make a few comments about another connecting theme, The Swift Connects the New World to Africa.

I read Omeros in hardcopy rather than on my e-reader so I do not have an easy way to count how many times the term ‘swift’ or one of its variants occurs in this poem, but it must number in the dozens if not hundreds. It is sometimes used as a noun (a bird or a moth or symbolically as a sign of the cross), and other times as an adjective or an adverb (swiftly). Used poetically, its intended meaning is often ambiguous or a possible pun, as in “[Achille] made a swift sign of the cross.” p. 6

The use of the swift symbol starts early in the poem in Chapter I when Achille “saw the swift crossing the cloud-surf, a small thing, far from its home”, and continues right into the last chapter where “riding these last worried lines; its rhythm agrees that all it forgot a swift made it remember.”

The swift symbol connects the narrator’s identity in The New World to Africa and helps heal some of the pain left over from slavery.

In Chapter IV, Philoctete limps down an abandoned road towards his yam garden, “past huge rusted caldrens, vats for boiling sugar … the only ruins left here by history.” He screams in pain and curses the yams. Later he looks up and sees “a branch where a swift settled without a cry.” The sea-swift watched him and then “twittered seaward.”

Later in Chapter XXIV, Achille, dealing with the pain of realizing he has lost Helen, is “lured by the swift” out to sea, towards Africa, and “felt he was heading home.” While in Africa, God tells Achille, “Is I send the sea-swift as a pilot, the swift whose wings is the sign of my crucifixion . … And Achille felt the homesick shame and pain of his Africa.”

In Chapter XLVII we learn that it was a swift flying from Africa to the New World centuries ago that carried the seed, in its stomach, that sprouted after the bird died to form a vine whose flower provides “the cure that precedes every wound.”

Finally, the swift is a symbol for the narrator of the poem, Walcott’s alter-ego. In an imagined conversation that takes place in Chapter XXXVI, the narrator’s dead father implores the son to travel the world to see “those streets whose History had made great. … Once you have seen everything and gone everywhere, cherish our island…” Then continuing somewhat enigmatically, the father tells the son, “The sea-swift vanishes in rain, and yet in its traveling all that the sea-swift does it does in a circular pattern. Remember that son.” And the son does remember, telling us near the end of his poem:

I followed a sea-swift to both sides of this text;
her hyphen stitched its seam, like the interlocking
basins of a globe, in which one half fits the next

into an equator, both shores neatly clicking
into a globe; except that its meridian
was not North and South but East and West. One the New

World, made exactly like the Old, halves of one brain,
or the beat of both hands rowing that bear the two
vessels of the heart with balance, weight, and design.

Her wing-beat carries these islands to Africa…
Chapter LXIII, Section III

Ron Boothe

Click here to continue to the 3rd essay in this series about major themes in Omeros — What Does the Past Leave Behind?


About Ron Boothe

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