BMCR 2024.02.12

Derek Walcott and the creation of a classical Caribbean

, Derek Walcott and the creation of a classical Caribbean. Classical receptions in twentieth-century writing. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. Pp. 208. ISBN 9781474291521.



‘Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole’.[1] So Derek Walcott remarked in his Nobel Prize lecture in 1992. Referring to the mosaic-like nature of Caribbean identity, he went on to speak of ‘the gathering of broken pieces’ as being ‘the care and pain’ of his Antillean homeland, its art representing ‘this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent’.[2] Pointedly, Walcott then suggested that the process of writing poetry itself represents a similar process of (re)assembling cultural, historical and literary fragments into a new whole.

Renowned as a poet and playwright of the Caribbean experience, Derek Walcott had a lifelong interest in classical literature. But his Greece and his Rome are centred differently to what we find in many other authors who have drawn for inspiration on antiquity. In his works, Walcott’s classical Rome often appears to be equated with the British Empire, which had its own contested colonial legacy in the West Indies.[3] But his ancient Greece is not the Hellenic world of the great city states of Athens and Sparta. Instead, he seems to have been primarily attracted to the Greek islands with their fishing villages, rocky harbours and pleasant shores, which mirror so closely the culture and environs of his native St Lucia.

As Walcott explained in a 1992 interview: ‘There has never been a place that has had such a concentration…of all the cultures of the world [as the Caribbean]…. It is actually a more interesting place than ancient Greece…. The Caribbean is made of various races with a multiplicity of individual possibilities. Part of the Caribbean heritage is Western education with its Greek echoes. Everybody knows the references and associations, Odysseus the Eternal Wanderer, Helen the Eternal Beauty, Achilles the Eternal Warrior. They are household names and magnify ‘everybody’. Someone sailing the ocean alone or trying to get home is Odysseus; every culture, especially marine culture, has such stories of quests, people lost, returns. They are part of the folklore. The simplicity of the Caribbean must be like the Greek islands; Homer’s world must have been similar’.[4]

In this way, Walcott found a way to connect in his works the cultures of the ancient Aegean and the modern Caribbean. Echoes of the mythology and history of the ancient world abound from his early poetry collections from the 1940s and 1950s onwards, but they reach a culmination with his Homer-inspired Caribbean verse epic Omeros (1990). In this panoramic and protean novel-length work, Walcott’s poem swims with the authentic voices of Antillean culture, even as it elides the traditional divisions between time and space, ancient and modern, myth and history. The importance of classics—especially the ancient epic—in his oeuvre has been a subject of debate ever since, so a new monograph that seeks to understand Derek Walcott’s reception of antiquity is long overdue and most welcome.

Part of Bloomsbury’s Classical Receptions in Twentieth-Century Writing series, Derek Walcott and the creation of a classical Caribbean represents the first book-length study of Derek Walcott’s career-long engagement with the ancient world. In it, Justine McConnell explores classical reception across the full range of Walcott’s prolific oeuvre, from his poetry to his plays and, of course, Omeros. This book will be of immense interest to students and scholars of Derek Walcott’s writings, as well as those of modern classical reception, Caribbean literature, and postcolonial studies. McConnell is the author of individual and co-edited studies of theatrical adaptations of the ancient epic and the Homeric Odyssey in the African diaspora, making her well placed to explore Walcott’s classical reception.

Book-ended by a lengthy introduction and a short epilogue, McConnell’s study is divided into three main chapters: ‘Time’, ‘Syncretism’ and ‘Re-creation’. These cover the primary thematic agents that its author identifies as having powered Walcott’s responses to antiquity. Each chapter is arranged in a roughly chronological fashion to encompass the development of his thought during his long career. The layout of McConnell’s argument is clear and logical, and she calls upon a range of critical approaches to build her argument, with a special focus upon classical reception and postcolonial theory. Naturally, Walcott’s poetry and Omeros figure largely throughout the study, but McConnell also pays equal attention to Walcott’s extensive output as a playwright.

McConnell contends that a ‘trifold argument’ animates Walcott’s responses to antiquity: first, he dismisses the temporal distance between ancient and modern, thus equating the two periods; second, he positions syncretism at the core of his artistic approach, uniting the European classical tradition with the Indigenous, African and Asian influences that have forged Caribbean identity; and, third, there is a recreative spirit to his work that allows him to remake the familiar in new forms, and this guides the uses to which he puts Greco-Roman literature. Her argument is underpinned by engagement with the work of literary critics and postcolonial theorists such as Alejo Carpentier, Édouard Glissant, Fernando Ortiz, Antonio Benítez-Rojo and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In Chapter 1, ‘Time’, McConnell examines the multifarious ways in which Walcott sought in his works to dissolve the distance between antiquity and modernity, as well as the division between myth and history. She argues that, in order to dismantle notions of inequality between the European literary canon and Caribbean postcolonial writing, he collapsed the chronological order of time through emphasising ‘simultaneity’. Furthermore, by drawing attention to the ways in which myth and history are entwined in Walcott’s works, she shows how he could complicate the boundaries between the factual and the fictional. Through dissolving these limits between past and present, legend and reality, he found a way to close any perceived disparity between the cultural value of Greece and Rome and that of the contemporary Caribbean. McConnell’s exploration of simultaneity in Walcott’s works is explored through examinations of a selection of his poetry, such as his long autobiographical poem Another Life (1973), along with the three plays that make up his Haitian Trilogy.

Chapter 2, ‘Syncretism’, focuses on the multi-faceted character of Caribbean culture as a vital ground for Walcott’s classical reception. Walcott’s own identity perfectly exemplifies the diversity of West-Indian culture, since he had African, English and Dutch ancestry. McConnell argues that this background encouraged Walcott to blend diverse influences in his art to forge a fresh aesthetic representative of Antillean culture. In particular, his admixture of classical and Caribbean culture is shown to have uncoupled Greco-Roman literature from its Eurocentric position as the foundation of the Western canon. Instead, he assimilated classical works with local culture to create a cross-cultural oeuvre that embodied and expressed far more than the sum of its parts. In its exploration of cultural fusion in Walcott’s work, the chapter includes examinations of his early poetry collection Epitaph for the Young (1949) and other poems, along with his plays Ti-Jean and his Brothers (1958), A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986) and his adaptation of The Odyssey (1992).

In chapter 3, ‘Re-creation’, McConnell begins by investigating the importance of Robinson Crusoe in Walcott’s writing. Although often posited as a figure of colonial invasion and oppression, Walcott conceived Crusoe differently, as representing, instead, an ‘Adamic’ symbol of paradise regained in the New World through his collection and recombination of fragments from the old and the new. In the rest of the chapter, McConnell outlines the ways in which Walcott sought to work within the tradition of classical literature, while subtly diverging from it to create wholly fresh works of art ‘with no Homeric shadow’.[5] In this way, she argues that in this way he created a body of work that escaped the restrictions of the classical tradition, yet which compels us to view both ancient and modern afresh. In charting Walcott’s modes of reinvention, the chapter covers his plays Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967) and The Isle is Full of Noises (1982), a selection of his poetry, and his plans for a film adaptation of Omeros.

Finally, in the book’s short epilogue, McConnell reflects upon how Walcott’s classical reception is grounded in, and inseparable from, his broader aesthetic approach to poetry and playwriting. She focuses upon the distinctive forms of ‘knowing’ that mark out Caribbean identity from its European counterpart, arguing that these allowed Derek Walcott to perceive and reconfigure the classical canon in a uniquely Antillean form. Through this means, he was able to portray the familiar characters and narratives of Greco-Roman literature in ways that allow us to see them with new eyes, not as mere framing models for postcolonial writing.

Throughout her monograph, McConnell displays an admirable command of the extensive literary criticism on Walcott, as well as on Afro-Caribbean and postcolonial literature more generally. Oddly, however, McConnell omits mention of Robert D. Hamner’s Epic of the dispossessed: Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1997), so far the only book-length study of the poem’s classical credentials. McConnell also perhaps fails to emphasise enough the importance of the Judeo-Christian heritage as an equally vital influence on Walcott, taking into account his Methodist upbringing and the biblical echoes that recur throughout his writing.  But these are minor criticisms of a study that wields its sources with authority and employs them to valuable ends.

Derek Walcott and the classical Caribbean represents an important work of literary scholarship that deserves to find a wide audience. In it, Justine McConnell uncovers a wealth of new perspectives that throw substantial light on Derek Walcott’s creative process. It is a work of commendable clarity and insight, whose intellectual premise is sound and whose central claims are convincing. Most importantly, the book’s argument demolishes the notion that Walcott’s art was in any way derivative of, or indebted to, the Western canon for its originality. The work’s primary contribution to scholarship will be to highlight how a consciously Caribbean form of classical reception was created that successfully assimilated ancient literature, yet remade it in its own unique image. If Omeros represents the central peak of Walcott’s classical reception, McConnell ensures that she charts a complete topography of the surrounding hills, plains and coasts of antiquity in his oeuvre.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Derek Walcott’s native St Lucia changed hands so frequently between Britain and France that it gained the sobriquet ‘the Helen of the West Indies’. The cultural riches of the classical world have been similarly claimed and disputed by many over the centuries. But the distinctly Caribbean form of classical reception at the heart of McConnell’s book highlights what is possible when new literature is fermented in old. In Omeros, Walcott famously spoke of ‘Greek manure under the green bananas’,[6] symbolising the way in which he sought to use the form of the ancient epic to fertilise his own work in all of its vernacular character and originality.

In another sense, Greece and Rome wash in and out of Walcott’s work like flotsam and jetsam; at times, merely an allusive presence, at others, a guiding influence. But, using these fragments, Derek Walcott found himself, Crusoe-like, able to construct works of profound meaning for Caribbean literature. Transcending accusations of indebtedness and mimicry, he achieved an extraordinary synthesis between the Western literary canon and the multi-cultural diversity of the West Indies. When Derek Walcott sings to the muse, McConnell shows in her book that it is in the lilt of a calypso; always seeking a return to his own tropical Ithaca, where the tides wash away history and allow the world constantly to be remade anew.



[1] Derek Walcott, The Antilles: fragments of epic memory – the Nobel lecture (1992): (accessed 1 October 2023).

[2] Ibid.

[3] See, for instance, Walcott’s ‘Two poems on the passing of an empire’ in In a Green Night (1962), 35.

[4] Interview with Luigi Sampietro; quoted in Bruce King, Derek Walcott: a Caribbean life (2000), 521.

[5] Derek Walcott, Omeros (1990), 271.

[6] Ibid.