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An Introduction to Derek Walcott's Omeros

Robert D. Hammer, in his Epic of the Dispossed: Derek Walcott's Omeros, argues that Walcott's epic can be divided by its seven books in three major movements:

I. Books One and Two--The major plots and characters are established within St. Lucia

II. Books Three, Four, Five--The Middle Passage is revisited through Africa (Bk. 5), North America (Bk. 6), and Europe (Bk. 7) before returning to St. Lucia.

III. Books Six and Seven--A return to St. Lucia that follows the earlier plots but ends up more as a study in the poetic mind of Walcott and the limits of a post-colonial epic.

Four major, intertwining plots are important to Omeros:

  • The relationship between Helen, local beauty, and Achille and Hector, fishermen.  We follow the breakup of Achille and Helen, Helen's moving in with Hector, Hector's switch from fisherman to cabbie, Helen's attempts to find work, and Achille suffering over the loss of Helen.  We also follow Achille as he dives for treasure, as he makes a dream return to West Africa, and as he celebrates the St. Stephan's day festival.  Eventually, we learn of Hector's death in a crash, Helen's pregnancy, and her return to Achille.

  • The second major plot involves Major Plunkett and his wife Maud.   The Major decides to write a local history in part as a tribute to Helen's beauty.   We learn of Maud's desire to return to Ireland, her preparations for her death, and the Major's eventual mourning for her loss.  At one point the Major and Hector confront each other.

  • The third major plot involves the wound of Philoctete.  He is associated with Ma Kilman, who runs a local bar, and Seven Seas, a blind bard-like figure.   Philoctete's wound is eventually healed by Ma Kilman, who returns to her African roots to uncover a cure.

  • The fourth major plot involves Walcott himself as the narrator.   We follow his own attempt to come to grips with his failed marriage and his epic.   Among other matters, we see Walcott meet the ghost of his father twice--once in St. Lucia and once in North America, we follow Waclott on his journeys to North America, where he encounters the ghost of Catherine Weldon, Europe, where he visits Lisbon, London, Dublin, and the Mediterrean, and his return to St. Lucia, where he makes a dream visit to the underworld.  Omeros is as much a work about Walcott's own poetic consciousness as it is the other stories of the St. Lucians.

A Few Suggestions for Reading Omeros

  1. Keep in mind that Walcott intends for various plots to be taken up, dropped, and returned to.  Be patient with the changes to the storyline.
  2. Read the poem as a study in the poetic mind itself.  Walcott is a major voice that interposes himself in the text.  He is, at once, narrator, observor, participant, and creator.
  3. Try enjoying the richness of the language.  Walcott's epic is a study in rhymes, half-rhymes, and off-rhymes.
  4. Keep in mind the epic conversation.  Walcott's narrative is both an epic and anti-epic.  he adopts the epic conventions only to reject them, reinvent them , or rework them.

Key Themes

A number of key themes and motiffs work their way through Omeros. Keep an eye out for some of the following:

  • Helen as St. Lucia, Caribbean beauty, and the present
  • The sea swift as Christ figure and/or Antilles landscape
  • History's demands vs. the amnesia of the landscape
  • The cyclopes, the eye
  • Work--Achille's, Plunkett's, Hector's, Walcott's, etc.
  • The Homer/Omeros figure--Seven Seas, the African griot, the Sioux shaman, Joyce, etc.
  • Wounds--Philoctete, Punkett's, Achille's, Walcott's
  • The dead, the underworld
  • Classical Greek figures--Menelaus, Paris, Ulysseus, etc.
  • Bird imagery, in addition to the swift
  • Sea imagery--the sea as the landscape
  • Battles, esp. the Battle of the Saints
  • Ghosts--Afolabe, Walcott's father, Catherine Weldon, Joyce, etc.
  • The gods--Caribbean gods, African gods, Greek gods, the Christian God

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding