Omeros: Caribbean Epic

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.)

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"Preparing 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 the universe.
  • 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 intervene directly.
Particular Epic Techniques in the Western Tradition
  • 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.
  • Dialogues tend to be extended, formal speeches.
  • Epic similes are frequent.

    epic 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

  1. 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?
  2. Look at the invocation on pages 2983-2984.  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.
  3. Look at the selection from Book Six on pages 2981-2982.  This is an example of a modern epic catalog.  Why would Walcott put together such a list?
  4. Read the dialogue between Achille and his ancestor Afolabe.   What do we learn about the nature of Achille's lost heritage?
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"Omeros" 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 Butler.

Questions about Omeros' General Message

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"Domino Players," gouache on paper, done by Derek Walcott in 1999.

  1. How would you describe Achille's making of a pirogue (dugout canoe)?   Is it a spiritual experience?  Why or why not?
  2. What is Walcott suggesting about the Caribbean past and present by describing the myth of the sunken galleon?
  3. What kind of realm does the underworld represent for Achille?
  4. What does Achille's dream return to the Nigeria of the Yoruba represent?  What do we learn of him?
  5. What connection does Achille see between the Christmas dance and his African ancestry?
  6. What connection does Walcott draw between his visiting of the trail of tears in the United States and his culture's past?

"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