An Interpretation of Derek Walcott's "Crusoe's Journal"

"My Crusoe, then, is Adam, Christopher Columbus, God, a missionary, a beachcomber, and his interpreter, Daniel Defoe.  He is Adam because he is the first inhabitant of this second paradise.  He is Columbus because he has discovered this new world, by accident, by fatality.  He is God because he teaches himself to control his creation, he rules the world he has made, and also, because he is to Friday, a white concept of Godhead.  He is a missionary because he instructs Friday in the uses of religion [. . .] He is a beachcomber because I have imagined him as one of those figures of adolescent literature, some derelict of Conrad or Stevenson [. . .] and finally, he is also Daniel Defoe, because the journal of Crusoe, which is Defoe's journal, is written in prose, not in poetry, and our literature, the pioneers of our public literature have expressed themselves in prose. [. . .] I have tried to show that Crusoe's survival is not purely physical, not a question of the desolation of his environment, but a triumph of will [. . .] We contemplate our spirit by the detritus of the past."
-- Walcott, "The Figure of Crusoe"
crusoe.jpg (34427 bytes) Overview

Walcott's poem is a meditation on the kind of poetic and cultural transformation needed to survive against the complicated Caribbean experience of colonialization.  His figure of Crusoe is a shape-shifter like the mythic figure of Proteus, who not only learns how to adapt to changing circumstances but also how to make a poetic symbol by which he understands the world.  The figure of Crusoe is both individualistic and communal.  He is communal because he is representative of the Caribbean people.  He shapes his journal/experience/poem in much the same way that Walcott describes the shaping of a culture in his Nobel address, "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory". Crusoe brings together a ruin of objects and symbols and cultural fragments in order to construct a new vision.  Yet this same process in the poem is fraught with loneliness.  Crusoe the maker is alone in such a project.


Epigram: [see n. 1 in the Norton anthology] Crusoe looks upon the world as something objective and free from his subjective perception and involvement.   The poem will undercut this stance, claiming that subjective perception is part of what we do with the objects of the world.

lines 1-9: The first lines provide the setting of the poem, a drive past a beach house between the ocean and the forest in Trindad.  On such a trip, the mind of the poet ("the intellect") must judge the surroundings much like Robinson Crusoe in Defoe's novel had to gather everything he could from the wreckage of his ship.  But here the wreckage and tools are those of prose.

lines 10-15: Such a tool-making/gathering is like Adam first naming the animals; each word has a complete newness to it, for it feels as if it were without precedent.  In Walcott's estimation the world is always new for the poet, always being recreated or reconfigured.

lines 16-25: This reconfiguration is also like the arrival of Christopher Columbus and Christianity in the New World.  Converts, such as Defoe's character of Friday who served and was converted by Crusoe, find that the infusion of the Word alters their cultural and religious consciousness, yet they also make this language serve their own purposes.  For example, a kind of new, more symbolic cannibalism results as they partake of Catholic communion.

lines 26-29a: "All shapes, all objects" are from the sea and multiply and alter like the shape-shifting Greek god Proteus.  [The sea in Walcott seems to represent a number of things.  Among others, it stands for the process whereby the natural geography of the Caribbean tends to display the cultural objects of human history.]

lines 29b-39: The speaker now makes a parenthesis, describing the coast seen off a cliff-side road as a kind of "stuttering canvas" not only because the scenes pass quickly by but also because it represents a unclear, broken kind of speech.  The passing villages can be compared to the castaway setting of children's stories like Treasure Island.  The young boy, a particularly lonely image, could be a boy inspired by such images, perhaps even Walcott himself.

lines 40-41: We are naturally lonely because we must, like Crusoe, construct meaning with what time (that is, history or the past) gives us.

lines 42-53a: Poetry, like divination, creates something that is without use and apart from its creator.  As such, like gulls' crying, poetry never resigns itself to its isolation, needing praise from others.  Like the character of Ben Gunn, it must learn to be at peace with its island isolation.

lines 53b-57: [see n. 9] "Like Crusoe, the inhabitants of the Caribbean [or the individual poet?] have created a new culture out of the debris of their historical experience."

lines 58-70: The intellect with its perception of the world needs a mask/symbol to provide shape and meaning.  Our face is that of a beachcomber (or perhaps Crusoe himself) who longs to return to innocent Eden.  It longs for the experience of faith, a kind of faith that Adamically names its experience, that chooses its words, including unorthodox beliefs.  The last line can be understand in at least three different ways: 1) see n. 3 in the anthology -- as a pantheistic reference, so God is present in all things; 2) as another symbol of the poet's creation of meaning and the loneliness that accompanies it; and/or 3) as the separation that God feels from his creation which is similar to the feeling of separation in the human creation of ideas.


  1. How does Walcott's Crusoe figure compare to and contrast with the beliefs of Wordsworth, Yeats, and Stevens about the poetic creation of meaning?
  2. How does "Crusoe's Journal" compare to Walcott's essay "The Muse of History"?  Do they hold the same view of the past?  Is the Crusoe figure a classicist in Walcott's estimation?  Why or why not?
  3. How would orthodox Christianity respond to Walcott's use of Christian imagery here? (Also consider here the poem "The Sea is History.")

"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