|What is an Epic?
"A long narrative poem
in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic
whole through their relation to a central figure and through their development of episodes
important to the history of a nation or a race." (Harmon & Holman. A
Handbook to Literature. 7th ed.)
the Net," 1999, oil on canvas by Derek Walcott.
|Characteristics of an Epic
- Characters are larger-than-life beings of national importance and
historical or legendary significance.
- The setting is grand in scope, covering nations, the world, or even
- Action consists of deeds of great valor and courage.
- Style is sustained in tone and language.
- Supernatural forces interest themselves in human action and often
|Particular Epic Techniques in the
- An invocation to the Muse for inspiration in the
telling of a story.
- Epics tend to start in medias res. "In
the middle of the action."
- Epic catalogues list warriors, armies, etc.
- Descent to the Underworld
- Dialogues tend to be extended, formal speeches.
- Epic similes are frequent.
simile: "a long, grand comparison which is so vivid that it temporarily displaces
the object to which it is compared."
Questions about Omeros' Epic Nature
|Look over the general definition
and characteristics of an epic.
- Which aspects of these has Walcott adopted for his epic?
- Which aspects has he altered?
- What is he trying to suggest by doing this--about the nature of the
Caribbean? about the nature of heroics? about the nature of race and culture?
|Look at the invocations
(chapter 2, sec. 2; chapter 13, sec. 3; chapter 59, sec. 2; chapter 64, sec. 1).
- What does he praise about Omeros?
- Why does he pray and/or invoke "my Zero"?
- Why does he praise the Sun?
- What are the characteristics of Achille that Walcott
praises? What is he choosing to stress about Caribbean life here? Compare this
with the invocation to Homer's Iliad translated below.
1990, oil on canvas by Derek Walcott
|"Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles
son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it
send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for
so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of
men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. And which of the gods was it
that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the
king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus
had dishonoured Chryses his priest."
Homer. Iliad Book 1. trans. Samuel
|Look at the epic catalogues in
chapters 38, sec. 3 and 52, sec. 2. Why would Walcott put together such lists?
Read the extensive dialogue between Achille and his ancestor Afolabe
in chapter 25, sec. 3. What do we learn about the nature of Achille's lost
Walcott at points makes various religious references. Why does
he include the following?
- The gods of weather during the hurricane (chapter 9, sec. 3)
- The gods of trees (chapter 1, sec. 2)
- The Christian God (chapter 4, sec. 2; chapter 25, sec. 1
- The African gods (chapter 48, sec. 1)
- The sea swift has an almost religious power (chapter 4, sec. 2;
chapter 24, sec. 1; chapter 47, sec. 3; chapter 63, sec. 3)
- Ma Kilman is regarded as a Sibyl figure (cf. chapters 47-49).
Look at the descents into the underworld. Why does he borrow the
return to the dead in each case?:
- Achille's diving expedition is a kind of descent to the dead (chapter
8, sections 1-2).
- Achille's visit to Africa in a dream vision is a return to the
ancestors (Book 3).
- Walcott accompanies Omeros to the Malebolge (Book 7).
Locate some examples of Walcott's similes.
The most obvious epic battle is that of the Battle of the Saintes
|The Larger Question of Omeros as an
"I think any work in
which the narrator is almost central is not really an epic. It's not like a heroic epic. I
guess. . . since I am in the book, I certainly don't see myself as a hero of an epic, when
an epic generally has a hero of action and decision and destiny."
--Interview with Rebekah Presson, 1992
The whole book is an act of gratitude. It is a
fantastic privilege to be in a place in which limbs, features, smells, the lineaments and
presence of the people is so powerful. . . . And there is no history for the place. . .
One reason I don't like talking about an epic is that I think it is wrong to ennoble
people, . . . And just to write history is wrong. History makes similes of people, but
these people are their own nouns."
Walcott's Omeros is a work in conversation with the epic,
but Walcott himself insisted that it is not a true epic. Along with those above,
note some of the ways in which Walcott's long poem is in conversation:
The poem obviously builds off Homeric references--Hector,
Achille(s), Helen, Philoctete, Paris, etc. Both Walcott and Plunkett see
the epic connections in name and deed, but the text eventually calls it into question.
Walcott's relationship to his father's ghost has a Virgilian feel,
as his relationship to Omeros has a Dantesque quality. Likewise, Catherine Weldon is a
kind of conduit for Walcott:
- Warwick his father: chapters 12.1-13.3 & 36.3
- Catherine Weldon: chapters 34.3-35.3, 42.2-43.2
- Omeros: chapters 2.2-3, 28.1, 38.1, 39.3, 40.1-2, chapters 61-63.
Walcott's visit to Dublin and Joyce's ghost makes subtle reference
to Joyce's Ulysses. Likewise, his visit to the Malbolge is a nod to Dante's
Note, however, how Walcott calls into question the epic
project in reference to St. Lucia: chapter 45, sec. 2; chapter 62, sec. 2; chapter 64,