Major Themes in Derek Walcott’s Omeros: III. What does the past leave to us?

[NOTE: All page number references are from the First Paperback edition of Omeros, published by Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1992]

In my previous posts on this topic I discussed two major themes I discovered while reading Omeros,
I. Interconnectedness maintained by plant life
II. The Swift Connects The New World to Africa
Here I will make a few comments about another major theme, this one characterized in the form of a question: What Does the Past Leave Behind?

At numerous places in the poem a contrast is made between empires that leave stone monuments behind (eg., The British Empire, embodied in the character Plunkett) and peoples that leave no trace (e.g., African slaves brought to the New World). More generally, the poem contrasts a western-centric approach to history (epitomized by what has been left behind by dead, white, European males) with a more multicultural approach.

This theme is alluded to in the early pages of the poem. On page 15 we are introduced to a plaster statue with a broken nose that is sitting in an artist’s attic studio. It is a small bust representing Homer, an iconic figure in the history of western civilization. The poem then conjectures that if this statue could see between the lines, “its nostrils might flare at the stench of manacled ankles,” an obvious reference to African slaves whose history is not honored in western-centric historical artifacts. A few lines later we are given a succinct declaration of what the past means — suffering (African slaves) and staring (the cold bust of homer).

On page 20 we are introduced to a contrasting image of artifacts left behind by the history of African slaves. Nothing highfalutin like a plaster bust this time. Instead, “huge rusted cauldrons, vats for boiling the sugar, and blackened pillars. These are the only ruins left here by history, if history is what they are.”

These contrasts between the views of history of Western Europeans and African Slaves in The New World are made explicit in numerous passages such as the following:

A bronze horseman halts at a wharf, his green-bronze
cloak flecked with white droppings, his wedged visor
shading the sockets' hyphenating horizons,

his stare fixed like a helm. We had no such erections
above our colonial wharves, our erogenous zones
were not drawn to power, our squares shrank the directions

of the Empire's plazas. Above us, no stallions paw
the sky's pavement to strike stars from the stones,
no sword is pointed to recapture the port of Genoa.

There the past is an infinite Sunday. It's hot or it rains;
the sun lifts the sheets of the rain, and the gutters
run out. For those to whom history is the presence

of ruins, there is a green nothing. No bell tower utters
its flotilla of swallows memorizing an alphabet,
no cobbles crawl towards the sea. We think of the past

as better forgotten...

[page 192]

On page 196, questions are posed along with western-centric type answers, “Who decrees a great epoch? The meridian of Greenwich.” And, “Where, in which stones of the Abbey, are incised our names? Who defines our delight? St. Martin-in-the-Fields.”

The British character Plunkett, after having engaged in an extramarital sexual relationship with his maid named Helen, decided that “Helen needed a history, that was the pity that Plunkett felt towards her. Not his, but her story.” [p. 30] And Plunkett was convinced that his motives for writing her history for her were good ones: “My thoughts are pure. They’re meant to help her people, ignorant and poor.” But Helen possessed an artifact from the past, a bracelet she had stolen from the jewel box of Plunkett’s wife while Plunkett watched: “But these, smiled the bracelet, are the vows of empire.” [p97]

Plunkett remembers that the island where they live, St Lucia, was once called Helen so he transfers his project of writing a history of Helen from the maid to the island — “So, Plunkett decided that what the place needed was its true place in history, that he’d spend hours for Helen’s sake on research…” [p. 64]

Early on Plunkett is enamored by a western-centric notion that a proper understanding of history will reveal grand ideals. During the course of the poem he becomes more and more disillusioned with this notion. Here is a passage reflecting his change from imagining finding a past of grandeur to a more cynical view as he digs in the soil near the location of a famous battle:

Boys watched the white man's [Plunkett's] inexhaustible patience

chasing the curious piglets away from the work,
which was to prove that the furthest exclamations
of History are written by a flag of smoke,

from Carthage, from Pompeii, from the burial mound
of antipodal Troy. Midden built on midden;
by nature men always choose the same dumping ground

or an ancestral grove, and what lay hidden
under the heap of waste was the French cemetery
when the place was an outpost, facing Gros Îslet.

But this was also her village, this was where she
walked and swam on its beach, this was her parapet.
The midden proved to have been the capital port.

But then she had been the glory of nations once,
the shoes and basins of Troy, Imperial France
lay in his palm; two brass regimental buttons.

[Pages 98 – 99]

The narrator informs us that he was encouraged by his (now dead) father to pursue a life of art as a way of making sure the stories of African Slaves and their descendants are heard in addition to those promoted by Empire.

From here, in his boyhood, [his father] had seen women climb
like ants up a white flower-pot, baskets of coal
balanced on their torchoned heads, without touching them,

up the black pyramids, each spine straight as a pole,
and with a strength that never altered its rhythm.
He spoke for those Helens from an earlier time:

'Hell was built on those hills. In that country of coal
walk up that coal ladder as they do...
They walk, you write...
...they climb, and no one knows them;
they take their copper pittances, and your duty

from the time you watched them from your grandmother's house
as a child wounded by their power and beauty
is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.'"

[pages 73 – 76]

And the narrator gives it his best effort to follow his father’s exhortation. But near the end of the poem, he becomes increasingly cynical that creating art by writing the kinds of poetry he writes is up to the task of being a countervailing influence to Empire. Another question and answer on page 197, “Where is the light of the world? In the National Gallery.” One of the most powerful passages in the entire poem for me is the extended discussion of this issue in Section III of Chapter XL:

And Istanbul's spires, each dome a burnoosed Turk,
swathed like a Saracen, with the curved scimitar
of a crescent moon over it, or the floating muck

of a lowering Venice probed by a gondolier,
rippling lines repeating some pilgrim's journals,
the weight of cities that I found so hard to bear;

in the was the terror of Time, that I would march
with columns at twilight, only to disappear
into a past whose history echoed the arch

of bridges sighing over their ancient canals
for a place that was not mine, since what I preferred
was not statues but the bird in the statue's hair.

The honeyed twilight cupped in long, shadowed squares,
the dripping dungeons, the idiot dukes, were all
redeemed by the creamy strokes of a Veláquez,

like the scraping cellos in concentration camps,
with art next door to the ovens, the fluting veil
of smoke soaring with Schubert? The cracked glass of Duchamp's

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, did Dada
foresee the future of Celan and Max Jacob
as part of the cosmic midden? What my father

spiritedly spoke of was that other Europe
of mausoleum museums, the barber's shelf
of The World's Great Classics, with a vanity whose

spires and bells punctually pardoned itself
in the absolution of fountains and statues,
in writhing, astonishing tritons; their cold noise

brimming the basin's rim, repeating that power
and art were the same, from some Ceasar's eaten nose
to spires at sunset in the swift's half-hour.

Tell that to a slave from the outer regions
of their fraying empires, what power lay in the work
of forgiving fountains with naiads and lions.

To which I can only respond in the same way I respond to this poem in its totality – “Wow!”

Ron Boothe

[In my 4th, and final, commentary in this series about themes I discovered in Omeros I discuss The Importance of Names of Things]


About Ron Boothe

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