Deus in Machina: poetic technique in Derek Walcott’s Omeros

This lengthy article by Andrew Singer has just appeared in The New Yorker. Here are some excerpts. Follow the link below for the full article.

Much has been written about Derek Walcott’s epic book-length poem, Omeros, since its publication in 1990 — deservedly so — but little has been attempted of direct poetic analysis. Poetry, especially formal verse, spans a territory that borders music on one side and meaning on the other. A masterful poet unfolding verse is keenly attuned to both, exploring and playing on their interrelation in continually surprising ways. Recognizing this interplay between sound and sense is one of the great refined pleasures of reading an accomplished poem. Suffusing every part of Omeros, regardless of action or complexity, philosophical meaning or depth of thought, is its music. To get at this most directly, let us examine a section where nothing special happens, where no particularly overarching complexity of meaning will distract.

Omeros is presented in seven Books, totaling 64 chapters, of three sections each. All but Chapter XXXIII, section 3, are written in hexameters, echoing Homer’s Odyssey, albeit playing with the meter freely. The lines are further grouped in triplet stanzas, acknowledging Dante, albeit without adhering to Dante’s rhyme scheme. Omeros is fully rhymed, although, like the meter, its rhyme scheme is fluid and proceeds from the music, with deeply refined effect. Every line in Omeros has a rhyme somewhere nearby.

Book One introduces the several principal island characters and relations, and the action remains wholly within its shores. When Book Two opens we are transported, without knowing why, to a point in Dutch history. It is the first of several grand reveals in successive Books of the poem, as its narrative opens in stages to other times and places, tracing out and back those forces of history and society which have led to the island’s present life. The first section of Book Two sets the scene for this. Delaying any explanation of why we are suddenly off the island and in a point of Dutch history is itself sufficiently surprising; rendering this with best effect, Walcott layers no additional complexity of reflection onto this section. Thus it is a good place for us to focus on the underlying music. Here is this first section of Book Two in full:

Book Two

Chapter XIV


The midshipman swayed in the coach, trying to read.
He knew that the way to fortify character
was by language and observation: the Dutch road

striped with long poplar shadows in the late after-
noon, the weight of the man in his coach, a sunbeam
changing sides on the cushion, a spire’s fishhook 6

luring a low shoal of clouds like silvery bream
towards it; the light gilding the spine of his book,
the stale smell of canals in the red-thatched farmer

who glowered and swung like a lantern on the seat
opposite, with the marsh-breath of an embalmer,
a wire-coop of white chickens beneath his feet, 12

each boot as capacious as those barges crossing
the Lowland reaches at dusk. The Dutch were grossing
a fortune in the Northern Antilles, and he

wondered if the farmer knew this with night closing
round his flambent Flemish nose. Admiral Rodney
had asked for the smartest midshipman possible, 18

who needed only one thing, a good memory,
so he was assigned to work his way to The Hague,
but in the roundabout way of all those people,

the higher the post the more their orders were vague.
He leant back in the coach, inspecting the twilight
ranked in darkening poplars, between which the farmer 24

glared at him. In a box on the roof, its ropes tight,
its brass clasp flashing, was his blue uniform; a
sword folded in it. He turned to the farmer’s face.

He had counted the clustered berries on the nose,
noted the eyebrows’ haystacks, the dull canal gaze
of his reflection, the forehead’s deep-ploughed furrows, 30

the bovine leisure with which he turned away eyes
stupefied by distances. Swaying on one knee,
an ochre jug gurgled. From this the farmer swallowed,

then heeled the cork shut with a ham-sized palm, only
to wriggle it again with one thumb to a loud
squeak that seemed to surprise him with every mile. 36

The stomach’s rippling orb enraged the squire,
who averted each offer with a hardening smile
at this bulk, obese and turgid as his Empire.

Were it not for the war he might have loved the place;
even with its ribbed windmills’ skeletal rattle,
for its orange-roofed farms hidden among poplars, 42

wheels with crystal weirs, its black-mapped, creamy cattle
grazing their long shadows. The fields were prosperous
and lied of peace. From them, horizontal fire

lit an enormous cloud, then its changing towers
were crossed by unlucky rooks, and a touched spire
withdrew from the field, as dusk pricked its first flowers. 48

Under a sucked-out sun, like a lemon lozenge
on a blue Delft plate, he counted the black crosses
of shipping, the steeples, and the immense

clouds over the port emptied as if by a plague.
The farmer grunted, not to him but to the chickens
between his huge boots, and boasted in Dutch: “The Hague.” 54

A spy sent through the Lowlands, he was to observe
from certain ports the tonnage, direction, and mass
of Dutch merchantmen; the arms they shipped in reserve

to American colonies through St. Eustatius,
an island bristling with contraband; then embark
to Plymouth to serve with Rodney. A florin moon 60

showed him the footman lowering his chest in the dark
of the wharves. He tipped his hat to the footman
and gave him a coin. He was a very thorough

and observant young officer with an honour-
able career ahead of him, but a bit raw.
His name was Plunkett, his vessel The Marlborough. 66

Examining this verse in detail reveals a remarkable richness of poetic effect. The matter-of-fact first line sets the scene. Notice how a repetition of rhythm in this line also reproduces the effect it is describing: “swayed in the coach, trying to read” (DAH duh-duh dah, DAH duh-duh dah) establishes the coach’s lulling rhythm on its interminable journey through the Dutch countryside to the port.

The phrase ending this first stanza, “the Dutch road,” then sets up a double meaning. When first reading it, encouraged by the colon which precedes it, we understand “the Dutch road” philosophically — that fortifying character by language and observation has distinguished the Dutch. Yet the sentence resumes after the break, continuing for another three and a half stanzas, to describe, in fact, the actual road, establishing the scene for us visually, leading us to do a double take and re-assess the phrase “the Dutch road,” now with comedic effect. The double meaning of this phrase is intentional because of that colon preceding it; the timing of this sophisticated joke thus pivots on the stanza break.

Then notice how the music takes off. The comedic double take is quickly subsumed after the stanza break by a cascade of accumulating sensual detail. In discussing rhythm in poetry workshops Walcott was fond of quoting Nijinsky: when asked once in an interview what the secret of his success as a dancer was, Nijinsky replied, “When I go up, I stay up.” Here we have Walcott doing just that, heightening the music with this long descriptive sentence. This long sentence gains poetic strength also because it follows the short phrase, “the Dutch road.” Playing line and stanza breaks is one of the great games which formal verse allows. Walcott is playing both sides of the stanza break here to best effect, first by breaking the sense abruptly after “road” to allow the double meaning into the sentence, then transforming the comedy to beauty after the break with this lyric descriptive flourish.

And what a description it is — an endless, turgid, late afternoon journey through unfamiliar countryside bathed in silence and rising tension. We get the precise effect of late afternoon from the poplar shadows striping the road. We get the rocking motion of the carriage from the sunbeam changing sides. Inverting the customary image of a body of water reflecting sky (itself already inverted), we have here the sky portrayed as a body of water, with a church spire as a fishing hook catching clouds of bream. We get a rhythmic reproduction of the expansiveness of the journey in the even, accumulating syllables of lines 8–12, including the comic effect of the farmer himself swinging, in the clause “who glowered and swung like a lantern on the seat.” We have a wonderfully unflattering description of this Dutch farmer. The increasing stridency of this characterization becomes understandable later, when we realize that it comes to us via the thoughts of the other passenger, who turns out to be an exhausted and therefore somewhat hostile young English spy.

Walcott is not just describing a Dutch peasant in this section — his effect is to render the definitive Dutch peasant with these lines. He manages to infuse this description, and so many others, with a feeling of absoluteness by tapping into an archetypal repertoire of visual and other associations shared by most every cultured English reader, applied systematically and with sophisticated finesse. Here the farmer is “red-thatched” (i.e. his hair is reddish like a straw roof) and later, his eyebrows are haystacks, his nose has clustered berries. Each detail is a physically precise yet surprising quote of stock images from Dutch landscape paintings, together with other fundamental icons of the Dutch countryside — canals, cows, ploughed furrows — all transposed, elegantly yet whimsically, to describe the features and movements of the farmer’s head, as seen by a disgruntled foreign traveler.

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