Pandaemonium

DEREK WALCOTT INSIDE THE RUINS

Derek-Walcott

In March, the great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott died.  Central to his work was a reckoning with the legacies of colonialism, but from a perspective that today is often derided, even seen as reactionary by some. Walcott insisted on placing the Caribbean and Caribbean writing within a much wider intellectual tradition, insisting that Homer and Dante and Shakespeare belonged to him as much as they did to any European. What is called the ‘Western canon’, he was adamant, was his inheritance, too, and his to interpret and shape and develop. In his poem The Star-Apple Kingdom, he described his intellectual and social inheritance and identity as that of having ‘Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a / nation’. And in A Far Cry from Africa, he asked ‘Where shall I turn, divided to the vein? / I who have cursed /The drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? /Betray them both, or give back what they give?’ His answer to that final question was clear.

This essay about Walcott’s  poem Ruins of a Great House was written by the critic and lecturer E Thomas Finan, and published on the wonderful literature site The Millions. Finan’s essay explores uses Ruins of a Great House to explore Walcott’s central themes, and his significance. My thanks to both for being able to republish on Pandaemonium.


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Inside the Ruins
E Thomas Finan

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.

Moonlight among Ruins circa 1820 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

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.

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Pieter Bruegel The Tower of Babel

Derek Walcott
Ruins of a Great House

though our longest sun sets at right declensions and
makes but winter arches,
it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and
have our light in ashes. . .
Browne, Urn Burial

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Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,
Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,
Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws.
The mouths of those gate cherubs shriek with stain;
Axle and coach wheel silted under the muck
Of cattle droppings.
Three crows flap for the trees
And settle, creaking the eucalyptus boughs.
A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose
The leprosy of empire.
‘Farewell, green fields,
Farewell, ye happy groves!’

Marble like Greece, like Faulkner’s South in stone,
Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone,
But where the lawn breaks in a rash of trees
A spade below dead leaves will ring the bone
Of some dead animal or human thing
Fallen from evil days, from evil times.

It seems that the original crops were limes
Grown in that silt that clogs the river’s skirt;
The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone,
The river flows, obliterating hurt.
I climbed a wall with the grille ironwork
Of exiled craftsmen protecting that great house
From guilt, perhaps, but not from the worm’s rent
Nor from the padded calvary of the mouse.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the
abuse
Of ignorance by Bible and by sword.

A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone,
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplex4ed
In memory now by every ulcerous crime.
The world’s green age then was rotting lime
Whose stench became the charnel galleon’s text.
The rot remains with us, the men are gone.
But, as dead ash is lifted in a wind
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.

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. . . ‘

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The photo of Derek Walcott is courtesy of Nigel Parry/Faber. The paintings are JMW Turner’s ‘Moonlight Among Ruins’ and Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Tower of Babel’.