Outline of Walcott's "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory"

para. 1-6: Walcott begins by reflecting on the experience of attending a Trinidad-Indian performance of the great Indian epic the Ramayana.   He reflects that he was mistaken to view their performance through his skepticism rather than through their faith.

para. 7-11: He suggests that we make a mistake in seeing Caribbean culture (such as the performance) as a sad echo of the past.  It is better to see it for what it is now.  "The sigh of History" means nothing there in the sense of seeing the present as but a tragic echo of a much greater, more civilized past.  Instead, we should see Antilles as a vase broken but restored and more beautiful for it.

para. 12-15: This process is like that of poetry--poetry, too, brings together a large collection of fragments, past and present, to make a beautiful new whole.  Rather than trying to return to some distant (pure) original language, we work with the interesting mixture of culture we have been given.

para. 16-19: The Caribbean culture has to work against others' expectations of what constitutes civilization, such as large metropolitan cities.   Viewed from this perspective, the Caribbean seems like disappointing tropical postcards.

para. 20-25: The powerful mixture of the Caribbean -- French, English, Spanish, African, Asian -- is itself a vibrant culture.  Those who point to a lack of books or institutions -- theatres, museums -- overlook the native resources that a people depend upon.  Such a culture is about survival in its constant newness.

para. 26-29: Views of the Caribbean as unfinished, unrealized cities lead to a disappointment in the very landscape as somehow corrupt or depressed. 

para. 30-34 [not in your handout]

para. 35-38: Walcott has the benefit of being a poet of this new and vibrant culture, which is fresh in its beginnings.  For the poet, every morning is a new morning.

para. 39-40 [not in your handout]

para. 41-46: Walcott condemns the way that tourism has reduced most people's experience of Caribbean culture to a flat version that is easy to package and sell.  He fears how quickly this older culture could disappear.

para. 47-50: Walcott himself is that young boy who "framed stanzas" that cherish "our insignificance."

Key Issues

  1. A culture is significant more for its present than its past.  It is a mistake to see the Caribbean as a fragment of past great cultures.

  2. It is equally a mistake to judge the Caribbean by the standard of a civilization of large cities and institutions.  Its vibrancy is in its newness, in its cultural mixture.

  3. This cultural mixture is like poetry in its ability to make something beautiful from a collection of fragments.

  4. The tourist trade produces a flat culture that robs the Caribbean of its depth and complexity.

"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