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1990, first published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; portions of the poem first appeared in various journals such as Partisan Review, The New Republic, Antaeus, Frank, and The New Yorker

Language & Form

Epic poem. English. Seven sections (called "Books") further divided into chapters of poetic narrative structured in a kind of Terza Rima


The story revolves around the lives of Caribbean fishermen in the island of St. Lucia. The main protagonists are the fishermen Achille, Philoctete, Hector, and Seven Seas (Omeros); Helen, a native woman and the love interest of Achille and Hector -- in many ways a center of the story and identified with the island itself; a British farmer/ landowner by the name of Dennis Plunkett and his Irish wife Maud; the local bar owner and healer, Ma Kilman; and the narrator himself who is a poet and native of St. Lucia. For most of the story, Philoctete suffers from a festering wound to his leg, eventually healed by Ma Kilman. Achille and Hector compete for the love of Helen, a servant at the farm of the Plunketts. Shifting settings between the Caribbean, Africa, the18th-century conflicts between the British, the Dutch, and the French over colonial possessions and slave-trade, the narrative weaves together the lives of the protagonists, the past and present, nature and the human world. A central figure in the poem, the poet/narrator is haunted by the despair of lost love, travels the world, and is eventually led to renewed faith by the blind guide Omeros and his visions in St. Lucia.


Main Issues

  • Influence of Homer and Dante, thematics of anger, division, competition, lust, battle, domination, oppression, suffering, and eventually love, homecoming and redemption

  • Helen, woman and island, presented as symbolic and actual center of the human struggle, goal of the competition of nations and individuals

  • Poet's journey in search for hope, love, meaning, and self-understanding in the midst of the injustice, the despair and hopelessness of the postcolonial world

  • Poem attempts to shed light on the postcolonial experience by means of a poetic fiction that draws its insights from nature, history, language, and ancestry

  • Poem works by interweaving of the personal and the historical, the lives of masters and servants, the human and the natural. Links are established between individuals and situations in the colonial past, the postcolonial present, the fictional space-times of classical and medieval literature, and the cyclical realm of nature

  • White western colonialism, imperialism, and market economics are presented as the source of the evil that taints the Caribbean paradise; the history of slavery and the slaves passage from Africa to America are seen as one of the origins of the "wound," the illness that the poem seeks to heal

  • Redemption achieved by the poetic journey, the rediscovery of lost names/language, African and Native American origins; the beauty of the natural world; and remembering / understanding of the relations and continuities between the living and the dead

  • Conflicts and differences are effaced, human and historical antagonists reconciled under the signs of nature, the poetic language, and the voice of the poet. As the poet explores his identity with all protagonists, the separate interests are shown to be common, all strivings revealed as forms of the quest for love, embodied in Helen, St. Lucia, the ancient Iounalao

  • Nature is revealed as a sacred realm of healing, life, in many ways transcending the conflicts of the historical and the human worlds. The rhythms of nature are echoed in the poetic language which establishes itself as the vehicle of salvation

Study Questions

In what ways does Walcott use the works of Homer and Dante? Why does he find it necessary to rely on such mainstays of Western literature, "the World's Great Classics" (Ch. XIII)? Is Walcott claiming membership in and continuity of that tradition? How are the themes of the Iliad (anger, battle), the Odyssey (homecoming), and Dante's Divine Comedy (redemption) incorporated into or appropriated by Walcott's work? How are the classical and medieval works related to the ideas that Walcott's work seeks to convey? How is the postcolonial Caribbean subject and his/her situation related to the issues, themes, and ethos of classical and medieval epics? Are there continuities and connections between the stories of ancient Greek heroes and those of impoverished Caribbean fishermen? What is the effect of using the name "Achille" to refer to a humble black fisherman? Is he an epic hero? In what sort of a conquest is he engaged? How does such conquest differ from those of the legendary Achilles? Are the real heroes of history the generals and the warriors or the humble people, "the builders," who do productive work (Ch. LXII)? What does elevated, aristocratic epic have to do with the lives of common people? Is the conquest of Troy by the Greeks in the 13th c. BC related to the history of colonialism and postcolonialism? Is there irony in the use of the epic names and themes in Omeros? Are the language, literature and culture of the colonial masters challenged at the same time that they are echoed and continued? How is the epic tradition replicated, how modified? How is this similar or different from what James Joyce attempts in Ulysses?

What is the meaning of the figure of Helen? Why is she portrayed as the center and cause of all the struggles? In what sense is that true or false? How does she assimilate the identity or role of the legendary Helen of Troy? What does the character in the story share with the Helen of Greek myth? Was Helen of Troy really the cause of the Trojan War? What were the real motivations of the Trojan War, of Western colonialism / imperialism, of slavery? Why is Helen also identified with the island of St. Lucia (also named Helen)? What do human individuals have to do with large historical forces, property, or even land? Is it fair to personify such referents through one individual character? Why or why not? Is the Helen of Omeros a human being, a symbol, both? Can the human being be separated from its symbolic functions? What sorts of distinctions can or should be made? Are the individual and the symbolic at odds with each other? How does this relate to the issue of the impersonality of monuments, statues, books? How is does this relate to the idea that "a girl smells better than the world's libraries" (Ch. LVI)? Does the impersonal, symbolic Helen contribute to the perpetuation of a history of conflict, domination and the oppression of women and others? Does the individual Helen work against such forces? Is there a confrontation of mythology and anti-mythology at work in this poem?

What is the meaning of the wound of Philoctete? Is it important that it was caused by a rusted anchor? What does that suggest? What do the anchor and the wound symbolize or represent? Is it only Philoctete who is wounded? What are the deeper issues? What is suggested by unhealth, gangrene, illness, unhealed wounds? How is the Greek story of the archer Philoctete, bitten by a poisonous snake, connected to the story of the Caribbean Philoctete and the concerns of Walcott? What is the snake that has bitten the Caribbean Philoctete? How are the anchor and the serpent employed symbolically? Is the wound on Philoctete's shin connected to the concept of the wounding of Achilles's heel? Is it important that, after being healed, the Greek Philoctete helped win the Trojan War and avenged the death of Achilles? Is the situation of Philoctete also related to the medieval legends of the Fisher King, a ruler whose wound / illness is tied to the sterility of the land and can only be healed by the Holy Grail? What are the common meanings in these various myths and legends, including those of Omeros?

What is the significance of Plunkett's research of the 18th-century conflicts of the English, the French, and the Dutch? Is it significant that he is without progeny? Why is it said that his only "son" is an ancestor, Midshipman Plunkett, a 19-year old who died in the Battle of the Saints (1782)? Is it significant that the young Plunkett died of a wound inflicted by his own sword? Is it important that a wine bottle encrusted with fool's gold survives from that battle? Why is Plunkett said to be blind to the constellations, that he sees only stars? How does this relate to his reading and interpretation of history? Why is it said that he wants to give the island (Helen) a history and a son? How is the recovery of the memory of a dead man like an impregnation? Is this like a rape? Of what sort?

How is history portrayed in the poem? What is said to drive the historical process? How does the past affect the present? Does the past doom the present and the future to the eternal repetition of tragedy? Does Walcott see any way out of the tyranny of the past over the present and future? Why does the poem seek the recovery of the lost? How does the recovery of the past by Achille and by the narrator differ from Plunkett's "research"? Are there different conceptions of history in the story? What is meant by the images of snow, flour and "the power ... to shake the world to whiteness" (Ch. LXIII)? How are those images connected to the whitewashing of past horrors like the genocide of Native Americans by white Europeans, "the blizzard slowly erased their swirling cries, / ... / the flour basting their corpses on the white fields" (Ch. LXIII)? Is Walcott engaged in a kind of critical and poetic re-writing of history? What is the relation between literature and history? What does poetry have to say about what happened and what is said happened? What is the meaning of Achille's hallucinatory journey back to Africa? What does he learn there? How is the recovery of the past connected to the concept of the cure? What role does language play in the journey to the past? How does the real elude both fictional and supposedly factual accounts of the past?

How are colonialism and imperialism portrayed in the story? What does Walcott mean when he says that "Empires practised their abstract universals / of deceit" (Ch. XXXV)? What does he suggest in lines like "Seashells. Seychelles. The empire of cancer spread ..." (Ch. LII)? How is imperialism like a cancer? What is meant by the word play? How does language mimic the effects of imperialism? What does it do to "Seashells" and "Seychelles." What happens to their identities as different objects? How is the death of Plunkett's wife Maud by cancer compared to the effects of imperialism? How does Walcott trace the postcolonial present and its future back to the history of colonial conquest, the slave trade and the growth of the Western empires? How does he envision the future growing out of such a past?

How are business, commercial activity, markets and other economic practices characterized in this poem? How are they revealed as sources of the evil and illness that afflict the characters in the story? How is economic activity portrayed as victimizing nature and other human beings? Why is colonial warfare characterized as "profitable conflict" (Ch. XIV)? What goods and commodities are the object of such conflicts? What is suggested when Walcott, speaking of Plunkett and Western colonialism, points out that "Pigs are his business ... Empires were swinish"? (Ch. XI). What is the "Pool of Speculation" (Ch. LVIII)? Who is there? What do they do? Why is it compared to Dante's Malebolge (Hell's circle of fraud)? How is the journey to hell related to the selling out of land and sea for hotels and other commercial enterprises? Why is the image of black women carrying baskets of coal into the ships so important as a motivation of the poem? (Ch. XIII). Why are they compared to ants? Why does Walcott say that "as they climbed the / infernal anthracite hills showed you hell, early"?

What role does language play in the story? Could it be said that language is also a protagonist? How does it act? What does it do? What does it enable or disable? How does language open or close horizons of understanding? How is the story both a voicing of and a struggle against language? Are there right and wrong, true and false names? What distinguishes true from false names? How does one shake off "the yoke of the wrong name" (Ch. XLIX). What is the purpose of the punning and word play often employed by Walcott? How about the incorporation of different languages (English, French, Latin, Caribbean patois? What is meant by the "lost names", such as Afolabe (for Achille), Iounalao (for St. Lucia)? What is accomplished by the remembering of old names and lost languages? Which language seems most forgotten? What the is language of the ants that Ma Kilman seems to understand? What does it teach her? Why is it said to be "the language of her great-grandmother" (Ch. XLVIII)? What about the role of single letters like O, V, X, S? How about symbols like the hyphen and the ampersand? What specific functions do they play in the story? What do they represent? Do they spell or convey any messages?

How is memory treated in the story? What is so important about it? What must be remembered? How is the epic poem a vehicle of memory? Why does it seek to unveil and preserve the past? How is the past related to the present and the future? How is this all related to Ma Kilman's struggle to remember the plant that can cure Philoctete's wound? Why does Walcott suggest that "Time is the metre, memory the only plot" (Ch. XXIV)?

How important is nature in this story? What is its significance? What role does it play? What are people doing to nature? What is happening to St. Lucia? How does Walcott employ the physical geography of St. Lucia to emphasize the point of its being both paradise and hell? What are the symbolic functions of natural places and settings like the sulphur springs at Soufrière, the twin volcanic mountains known as the Pitons? How is the human body related to physical geography? How are nature, the body and woman identified and presented as victims of violent oppression? Why does the story open with a scene of trees being cut to make boats? Are there any parallels in classical mythology suggesting the origin of tragedy in the cutting of trees? Is it important that Ma Kilman finds the cure for Philoctete's wound in a plant that originally came from Africa? How is the poem also part of the cure? How is the poem said to incorporate the rhythms of nature? How are language and nature related? How is nature related to gods, divinities, and healing or killing powers?

How is religion treated in this story? What conflicts are defined between God and gods? How are language, memory, history and nature factored into those conflicts? Is Christianity simply identified with colonialism and imperialism? Do the concerns of Christianity and of the ancient gods of nature coincide at any point? On what issues? How are they reconciled? How is the situation of the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved connected to the religious issues in the poem? How is the situation of nature connected to religion?

Who exactly is the narrator? How is he related to the various characters in the story? How does Walcott blur the lines between narrator and characters? What is the purpose of those identifications? Why is it important that individualities are sometimes unclear and identities merge into one another?

How is the image of the sea-swift -- "l'hirondelle des Antilles" -- employed in this story? How does it frame and unify the narrative? What does it represent?

Who/what is Omeros? How are the fisherman Seven Seas, the ancient Greek poet, and the narrator connected? How does Walcott analyze the meaning of the word Omeros? How is Omeros both father and mother? How is the word related to the sounds of nature? How does Omeros both incorporate and transcend the ancient Greek poet?

How does Walcott engage the visual arts in his poem? Why does he say that he sees Achille in Homer Winslow's The Gulf Stream (Ch. XXXVI)? How do such scenes compare to Walcott's own paintings of Caribbean scenes? What other visual works are invoked in the poem (e.g. Ch. LX)? What is suggested about them?

According to Walcott, do art and poetry have the solutions to the problems of the human existence in general and the postcolonial dilemmas in particular? What are the limitations of language, art and poetry? Do they in any way echo / repeat the voices of empire and domination? Are the arts also allied with oppressive power? Does Walcott see those problems in his own work, as in his statement to his students at Boston University: “The problem is that you Americans think poetry is democratic, that anyone can write it. It’s not—it’s aristocratic”? How does he propose to solve the problem of that class affiliation? Can art and the poet truly take the side of the oppressed in the "class-war" (Ch. LIV)? Can the limitations of a high culture produced by power be transcended in its own cultural works? Is there a "light beyond metaphor" (Ch. LIV)? Can the quotation and re-crafting of "the World's Great Classics" ever lead to anything but the glorification of a past of violence and its continuation in the present and future? Can the art works of the past be used in the establishing of critical difference and the transformation of the present and the future into something better?

Is Walcott's use of past and present, history and literature, an example of postmodern pastiche? Why or why not? How is Walcott's philosophy of history similar to or different from postmodern conceptions of the historical? How does Walcott challenge postmodernism, how does he embrace it?



Derek Walcott's Omeros (Jane Anderson Jones, Manatee Community College, Florida)


Last updated: 08/16/2004


© 2004 by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, all rights reserved


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