Skip to main content

Feature

An Iliad for Our Time

Walcott’s Caribbean Epic

By William A. Shullenberger | HUMANITIES, November/December 2001 | Volume 22, Number 6

Although we tend to assign the epic to the literary past as a bygone genre, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, published in 1990, asserts the ongoing power of the epic to claim our attention and shape our understanding. The epic is a monumental literary forman index to the depth and richness of a culture and the ultimate test of a writer’s creative power. Homer’s Iliad stands at the beginning of the epic tradition in western culture, and Walcott’s Omeros is that tradition’s most recent expression.

The epic is the collective memory of a people, offering poetic memory as a way to transcend the afflictions and losses of history. Homer, for instance, marks the differences and continuities between Greeks and Trojans, and Walcott represents the lives of Caribbean people in the waning of the colonial period.

The grace, beauty, and imaginative strength of Omeros depends in good part on Walcott’s insightful reading and rewriting of Homer. Walcott is an example of how a contemporary writer can make a place for himself in the literary tradition and harvest its power for his own creative authority. But literary influence is not a one-way street. T. S. Eliot describes the relationship this way: "What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them."

So Walcott, in his “really new work,” revises our relation to Homer. Walcott’s rewriting of Homer’s epics leads contemporary readers back to the ancient texts to discover persisting human themes and complex literary strategies. It sharpens our attention to structures of imaginative, moral, and social power articulated in the Iliad. Reading the two poems together renews our awareness of the Iliad’s pertinence to our times, and renews our sympathy for those remote and god like, yet deeply vulnerable, characters who enact and suffer our ultimate concerns.

Whoever he may have been, whether a single integrative genius or a convenient fiction to pin together the accumulated work of generations of anonymous bards, “Homer” sets the standard of the epic in western culture. Walcott absorbs both the Iliad and the Odyssey in his story, but the Iliad establishes the high tragic tone that resonates through Omeros and provides the central characters and conflicts that Walcott refigures in his story.

In the Iliad, ten years of war at Troy are condensed into several weeks. The savagery escalates at the time of Achilles’s sullen withdrawal from the fighting, and climaxes in his explosive, terrible return. In Achilles’s absence, the battle shifts back and forth, affected in unpredictable ways by divine interventions and sudden outbursts of courage and skill by heroes on both sides. Achilles reluctantly permits his beloved comrade Patroclus to enter the fighting as a surrogate. His death at the hands of Hector outrages Achilles, who blazes back into the action with a bloodthirsty fury great enough to terrify even the gods.

The poem abounds in ironies. The culture is founded and defended by the very virtues which threaten to destroy it. Homer displays heroic self-assertion as a double-edged virtue, a courageous gesture of individual defiance against mortality and all human contingency. But because one person’s aristeia is another’s undoing, heroism ultimately serves the impersonal and destructive force it defies. Gift-giving and hospitality are binding counterforces against individual heroism; for the friendships forged by gifts and guests have a stronger claim upon the hero than even kinship or tribal loyalties. This is what made Paris’s abduction of Helen from Menelaus’s household a blasphemy great enough in the Greek estimation to warrant ten years of slaughter.

Walcott has frequently developed analogies between the cultures of Homer’s Mediterranean and his own Caribbean; Omeros relocates Homer’s epic scene from ancient Troy to the backwater Antillean island of St. Lucia, and discovers the tragic grandeur and mythic power of Homer’s heroes in the fishermen and villagers who harvest the all-nurturing sea and the fertile but fickle earth for their lives’ subsistence. The central Homeric characters of Omeros are Helen, and Achille and Hector, brothers of the fishing trade whose rivalry for Helen’s extraordinary beauty turns their friendship to murderous anger.

Women occupy particularly perilous and vulnerable positions in the Iliad. From the fight over Helen, which is the manifest cause of the war, to the sparring between Agamemnon and Achilles over the possession of the mute captive Briseis, Homer shows women as trophies, objects of exchange and contention -- an extreme form of the dehumanization to which all are subject.

In Omeros, Helen, like her Greek prototype, is the great enigma and driving force behind men’s acts of courage and desperation. Walcott heightens her mystery by providing the reader little access to her thoughts. This reserve, paradoxically, humanizes her by allowing Helen a kind of privacy of conscience unusual for a literary character. The poet refuses to intrude upon or speak for her experience, as he does for his male heroes.

Achille’s desolation upon Helen’s abandonment of him takes him further and further out to sea -- the “mer” in O-mer-os -- until the search compels him on an odyssey through time and space to an inland village of upriver Benin. Here he relives the slave raid that dispossessed his ancestors of home, name, and past. He returns to St. Lucia a changed, self-possessed man, ready to live with his losses. Meanwhile, Hector’s anxiety about Helen’s love and his compulsion to keep her in modern style drive him to give up the sea, to sell his canoe and to buy a souped-up transport van, with space-age customized painting and leopard skin seats, to taxi people about the island. The pressure for money, the longing for the sea, and remorse over his fight with Achille ultimately propel Hector over a sea cliff to his death. Helen and Achille are reconciled, and the poem ends with Helen preparing to give birth and Achille returning to harvest the thrashing silver of the inexhaustible sea.

Walcott crosscuts several other stories into the primary tale, among them that of the lame Philoctete waiting for a cure for the festering sore on his foot, emblematic of the psychological wound of slavery. Other stories show the deep love for the island cultivated by the expatriates Dennis and Maud Plunkett, and the displaced poet’s own odyssey in search of a place to call home. The poet’s journey, like Achille’s, is temporal as well as geographical: he goes back in time to encounter his mother and father, and out into the world to confront the imposing cultural mystique and trace the waning boundaries of a European empire.

Homer appears as a character in various guises in Omeros: as the blind grizzled fisherman Seven Seas, as a crazy vagrant kicked about Trafalgar Square, as the great American painter Winslow Homer, as the Liffey-haunting, dandified ghost of James Joyce, as the griot of a West African village, and as a Sioux prophet at the time of the Ghost Dance. But Homer surfaces most powerfully in the sublime hexameters of Walcott’s verse, making the poet himself the most inclusive and self-conscious of the Homeric figures he stitches into the poem.

Walcott employs what T.S. Eliot called the “mythic method,” using the narrative spell of myth to organize and dignify the potential chaos and insignificance of modern secular life. But he does so in the self-questioning way of a modernist aware of the potential falsehoods and nostalgias of mythmaking. He creates a poem on a heroic scale, with the scope of the Homeric epics, but also with the self-conscious interventions and the narrative fragmentation characteristic of modernism. He sustains the tone of grandeur, weaving together a fabric of seemingly incompatible styles: the high sublime of Homeric declamation and of English visionary poetry with the nimble, syncopated Creole patois, chants, and challenges of St. Lucia’s streets, bars, and seafronts.

Walcott achieves that blend of objectivity and implicit compassion that gives Homer’s poems such tragic dignity, and, like Homer, he imagines the poem itself as a heroic act, a sustained meditation on history, capacious enough to register its deepest losses and powerful enough to claim that art can transcend them. In Omeros, as in the Iliad, we see history transfigured into myth, even at the moment of its fading, and Helen’s bitter lament in the Iliad for herself and Paris could stand as an epigraph for the central figures of both poems: “Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, so even for generations still unborn we will live in song.”

About the Author

William A. Shullenberger is a professor of English at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He has taught two NEH Summer Seminars for School Teachers on “The Classical and the Modern Epic: Homer’s Iliad and Walcott’s Omeros."

Funding Information