Inside the Ruins: On Derek Walcott’s Life and Work

April 24, 2017 | 1 5 min read

In March, the acclaimed poet Derek Walcott died at the age of 87. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Walcott became a literary voice known throughout the globe. Celebrated for his verse and his plays, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a MacArthur “genius” grant, an Obie award, and countless other prizes. He also taught at a number of institutions, including Boston University (where I now teach, though I didn’t know Walcott personally).

covercoverReconciliation was one of Walcott’s great tasks as a poet. He fused the iconography of the Americas and of Europe in order to create a hybrid poetry. He combined allusions to classical myths with descriptions of the landscape of his native Saint Lucia, and he incorporated quotations from countless European authors in his works. This enterprise of poetic fusion reached a peak in perhaps his most famous work, Omeros, a reworking of Homer that loosely follows the terza rima verse form used by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy. Omeros was published shortly before Walcott won the Nobel Prize in 1992, and, at least if last month’s obituaries are to be believed, will go down as a landmark piece in his poetic oeuvre.

While Omeros has gotten most of the headlines, a shorter and much earlier poem, 1956’s “Ruins of a Great House” reveals some of the abiding concerns of Walcott’s work in a more condensed way. In only about 50 lines, it shows how Walcott reworked tradition and reflected on the legacy of colonialism. The poem’s setting is the manor house at the heart of a former lime plantation. The speaker wanders the ruins of the house and conjures hints of the suffering wrought by life on this plantation.

The very genre of the poem suggests Walcott’s dialogue with English literature. Many works in the English canon include long descriptions of and meditations upon large estates in the English countryside. The 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell took a Yorkshire manor as his topic in “Upon Appleton House.” Countryside estates such as Pemberley feature in Jane Austen’s work, and Downton Abbey participates in the “great house” tradition.

Walcott, too, turned to the figure of the great house in this poem, but he focused on the moral costs of “this Great House.” Violence, coercion, and theft were the foundation-stones for this mansion. The stone cherubs at the gates of the ruins “shriek with stain,” both the marks of time and the metaphorical remnants of blood.

Limes appear throughout the poem. The “smell of dead limes quickens in the nose / The leprosy of empire.” The lime serves as an emblem both of the plantation and of the British Empire (the lime being one of the symbols of the British navy during the 19th century). Just as the great house of the plantation was deteriorating, so too was the British Empire during the 1950s. In the decades after World War II, the sun began to set on that empire, as it lost one colonial possession after another.

“Ruins of a Great House” is in part about the end of empire, about the transition from one era to the next. The great house once stood with bold majesty and bloody glamor. But now time has laid waste to the scene. The poem reflects on an elaborate wall that cannot protect the house “from the worm’s rent / Nor from the padded cavalry of the mouse.” Death comes even to empire and its institutions. Yet while “the men are gone,” the “rot remains with us.” Empire may be over, but its legacy persists.

The legacy of empire permeates the poem. “Ruins of a Great House” is full of quotations from British writers, including the 17th-century writer Thomas Browne and the Romantic poet William Blake. It mentions Rudyard Kipling, author of “The White Man’s Burden,” and “men like [John] Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, and [Francis] Drake,” who were key figures in early English forays into a transatlantic empire. The speaker of the poem has a complicated relationship with these “ancestral murderers and poets;” they provide so much of the material from which Walcott drew, but they also were part of a system that brought great suffering to this island (what the poem calls “evil days”).

The final stanza of “Ruins of a Great House” adds to this complexity:

Ablaze with rage I thought,
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
But still the coal of my compassion fought
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, “part of the continent, piece of the main,”
Nook-shotten, rook o’erblown, deranged
By foaming channels and the vain expense
Of bitter faction.

All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:
“as well as if a manor of thy friend’s…”

Reflecting on the cruelty of life at the estate, the speaker fills with rage at the thought of a slave’s body “rotting” in the lake.

The following lines, though, counter that rage with a sense of compassion, which is grounded in an awareness of common humanity. England, too, was once a colony — a possession of the Roman Empire. It too experienced waves of invasion and domination by foreign forces. Thus, the islands of the Caribbean and the isle of Britain share the legacy of being colonies. Historical parallels become a vehicle for revealing human connections.

The quotations Walcott included in this stanza come from a passage by the 17th-century British poet and clergyman John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Donne’s famous lines (picked up by Ernest Hemingway and others) assert universal connections across mankind. The death of any person “diminishes” Donne because he has some connection — however distant — to all other human beings. So when the funeral bell tolls, it proclaims a death that touches us all.

Walcott incorporated these lines from Donne in order to underline the theme of common humanity. This incorporation also implies Walcott’s own desire to assimilate the conventions, images, and formal traits of European literature into his own hybrid verse. Realizing the common human condition of both the plantation owners and the slaves, of both Walcott and Donne, breaks down the walls built by blind anger. The final quotation from Donne performs a stunning reversal: the manor house that serves as an emblem of cruelty throughout much of the poem becomes, in the last line, a figure of interconnectedness.

“Ruins of a Great House” does not offer an excuse for past wrongs, but in showing compassion for sufferers as well as those who inflict suffering, the poem suggests the limits of vengeance that would populate a caste of ethical untouchables.

Combining ethical rigor and personal charity has implications for understanding the legacies of writers, too. Literary accomplishment does not ensure a life free from personal controversy; allegations of improprieties with female students ended Walcott’s bid to become Oxford Professor of Poetry. However, a writer’s work can triumph even when the writer falls short.

Throughout his career, Walcott reflected on how artists and writers in the Americas should respond to European influence. In “The Muse of History,” a famous essay from the 1970s, Walcott argued that the task of “New World” poets would be to take on the legacy of European culture (and European colonialism) and use it to weave new narratives of life and art. This weaving would join together the experiences of past victims and victimizers. He addressed the ancestors who bought and sold slaves and his ancestors who rode “in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship,” saying to them, “I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.”

The “soldering of two great worlds” — Europe and the Americas — was one of Walcott’s major projects. Even as a vision of cultural fusion informs the style of his poetry, the soldering of worlds has ethical implications, too. Accounting for the complexities of others’ experiences can remind us of our abiding human bonds, even amidst the blood and muck of the world. “Ruins of a Great House” ends with a vision of compassion — which surely is a gift.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

teaches at Boston University. He is the author of The Other Side and has published in The Atlantic, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.