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

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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). Reconciliation 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.

An Essential Human Respect: Reading Walt Whitman During Troubled Times

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We live in contentious times.  In these frenzied days, it’s worth returning to Walt Whitman’s book of Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps.  First published in 1865, Drum-Taps reflects on the confrontation of grand visions and the human costs of realizing them.  It suggests the importance of empathy in the face of significant ideological disagreement. The Civil War was in part a great clash of ideas and of visions for what the American republic would be.  Abraham Lincoln underlined the stakes of this disagreement in the Gettysburg Address: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. What the “new birth of freedom” called for in Gettysburg meant might have evolved over time; for instance, the abolition of slavery became increasingly central to the Union’s rhetorical self-defense as the war continued. But, whatever the evolving notion of the Union, it certainly differed in major ways from how many top Confederates saw secession.  In March 1861, in Savannah, Ga., Confederate Vice-President Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a former congressional colleague of Lincoln, outlined his vision for the stakes of the war.  Stephens argued that many of those who founded the nation believed that slavery was “in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.”  According to Stephens, Thomas Jefferson and others believed that slavery would, eventually, end because it violated the principle of equality among men and women.  Stephens claimed the Confederacy offered a corrective to this belief in human equality: Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. Stephens found that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy was the commitment to racial inequality, and this radical philosophical principle justified, in his view, the dissolution of the Union. Whitman took the side of the Union, the vision of which played a major role in both his poetic and political thinking. In his original preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman called the United States “essentially the greatest poem,” and the visionary project of a poet for Whitman involved the creation of a broader fellowship that transcended the conventional boundaries of society.  He viewed the United States as a vehicle for this enterprise of fellowship. In its record of the Civil War, Drum-Taps homes in on the juxtaposition of vision and the flesh, of aspiration and suffering.  For all the great ambition of the antebellum United States, it contained great pain, and the carnage of the Civil War painted in red, white, and gangrene the price of maintaining the hope of the Union.  Ideas clashed in the Civil War, but men and women bled.  Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s 2008 study This Republic of Suffering argues that the magnitude of suffering and death during the Civil War sent shockwaves through American culture; the equivalent of over 600,000 war deaths in 1861-1865 would be over 6 million deaths in 2016. The horror of this legacy of pain influenced Whitman’s life and poetry. His brother George served in the Union army throughout the war, and Whitman himself had a front-row-seat for the carnage of the Civil War during his time as a medical orderly.  He spent countless hours comforting the wounded and sick soldiers in Washington D.C. and elsewhere.  In an 1863 report, he reflected on visiting the wounded at the capital’s Patent Office, which had been converted to a hospital: A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings, the Patent Office, was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there several times. It was a strange, solemn and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. Whitman attended to that magnitude of suffering in Drum-Taps.  In one of his notebooks, he claimed that “the expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked the hospitals, among the wounded.”  In many respects, the poems of Drum-Taps are songs for and of the wounded. One of the most famous poems of the collection, “The Dresser” (later titled “The Wound-Dresser”), narrates the experience of tending to those injured in battle: Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in; Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground; Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital; To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return; To each and all, one after another, I draw near -- not one do I miss; An attendant follows, holding a tray -- he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again. That refuse pail, ever filling and emptying, implies the seemingly endlessness of tending to bodies and spirits ravaged by war.  The figures of these soldiers are sacred and exalted -- that “priceless blood” -- but still they suffer. Whitman’s verse does not hide that suffering, or the price it exacts: From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood; Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head; His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, And has not yet looked on it. With grim irony, these lines attend to amputations suffered in the name of preserving the Union.  Beyond the specific details of this wound-dressing, we see also the signs of the psychological pain of the amputee, who cannot even bear to look at the site of his dismemberment.  In “The Dresser” and elsewhere, the poetic speaker does not profess an ability to end this suffering or nullify the pain of the sufferers.  Instead, he can only act as a witness to this suffering. While a book of poetry about war, Drum-Taps offers relatively few presentations of battles.  Rather than versifying military maneuvers, Whitman offers a broader catalogue of perspectives -- of mourning parents, thriving cities, moonlit nights, and ford crossings.  This catalogue presents the greater context within which the violence of the war occurs. Short poems -- like sudden perspectival knives -- cut in between many of the longer poems of Drum-Taps.  Some of these poems might not even seem to be about the war at first: Solid, ironical, rolling orb! Master of all, and matter of fact! -- at last I accept your terms; Bringing to practical, vulgar tests, of all my ideal dreams, And of me, as lover and hero. But this sudden flourish of reflection has clear connections to the war.  The ideal dreams and fancies of Whitman and his fellow Americans have become subject to the hard trials of gunpowder, bayonet, and surgeon’s saw.  And these tests of dreams pierce human hearts. Some of Whitman’s early poems about the Civil War at times adopt a triumphalist, celebratory mode.  Written in 1861, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” conjures the explosive excitement of the coming war.  The poem opens with the exhortations “Beat! beat! drums! -- Blow! bugles! blow! / Through the windows -- through doors -- burst like a force of ruthless men.”  With the force of blaring trumpets, tidings of war come to disrupt the conventional comforts of civilian life in peace. We risk simplifying this poem, however, if we view it only as a gilded celebration of war.  The diction of the final stanza, for example, suggests an undercurrent of horror in the thrill of the pounding drums. Beat! beat! drums! -- Blow! bugles! blow! Make no parley -- stop for no expostulation; Mind not the timid -- mind not the weeper or prayer; Mind not the old man beseeching the young man; Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties; Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie awaiting the hearses, So strong you thump, O terrible drums -- so loud you bugles blow. The drums and bugles have no time for argument or sorrow or prayer.  They break up families -- splintering old from young, parents from children -- and seem a prelude to a multitude of bodies, which lie awaiting hearses to bear them away. Near the end of the book, especially with the “sequel” tacked on like a mournful suffix in October 1865, Whitman reflected in depth on the devastation of the war.  After the electric pounding of the visionary drums, the verse surveys a battlefield littered with broken bodies, severed limbs, and pale corpses.  Abraham Lincoln -- especially in a poem such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” -- becomes a representative figure: an emblem of the Union’s cost.  Whitman, though, did not stop with Lincoln.  Many of the poems of Drum-Taps reflect on the suffering of the simultaneously anonymous (because unnamed) and personalized (because shown as people with essential dignity) soldiers.  In part through this assertion of common suffering, Drum-Taps aims to unite a divided nation. “Reconcilitation,” the penultimate poem of the original 1865 version of Drum-Taps, offers a meeting of North and South, of living and dead: Word over all, beautiful as the sky! Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost; That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world: …For my enemy is dead -- a man divine as myself is dead; I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin -- I draw near; I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin. In this moment, Whitman’s verse presents a scene of recognition of an essential humanity across radical differences: that enemy is “a man divine as myself.”  Whatever the differences of cause between these two men -- and these differences may yawn chasm-wide -- they have a common human fellowship. Rather than succumbing to self-righteous demonization, Whitman illustrated the power of a human empathy that transcends ideological bellicosity.  This empathy does not ultimately nullify ideological difference -- Drum-Taps does not call for the defeat of the Union in order to end the war -- but empathy does situate this difference in a more complicated context. There were huge differences between the visions of the Union and the Confederacy, but those differences did not nullify the fact that partisans of both sides were human beings, with the inherent worth shared by all men and women.  Though he opposed the Confederacy, Whitman also sought to show the dignity of the Confederate soldiers not because he believed in their cause but because they were human beings.  In his time nursing wounded soldiers, Whitman cared for both Union and Confederate men.  He wrote, for instance, of watching over a Confederate prisoner of war whose leg was amputated.  Whitman’s empathy as both an artist and a man was not only a gift for those with whom he agreed or whose cause he applauded.  Whitman’s project in Drum-Taps reminds us of the way that poetry (and literature in general) can strive to keep us alert to our deeper bonds. Whitman’s poetry chose the harder path of empathy.  In its portrayal of human suffering, Drum-Taps notes the price exacted by grand -- even noble -- visions in this “soil’d world.”  The collection suggests the importance of leavening a thirsty idealism with an essential human respect. Previously: "Embracing The Other I Am; or, How Walt Whitman Saved My Life" Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.