Deus in Machina: poetic technique in Derek Walcott’s Omeros
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:
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.
The poetic mechanics here reward closer examination — for there is masterful control of standard poetic effect, applied judiciously but relentlessly as phrases and clauses accumulate into longer sentences, producing what we might term a classical punctuation of poetic narrative sound. We find for example consonance in the “flambent, Flemish nose” of line 17, which gives the end of that sentence a sonic stamp of finality. And there is assonance in the “brass clasp flashing” of line 26 — and again, notice the effect is not used arbitrarily, but to heighten the music. Let’s look at this in some detail.
That whole sentence which includes the brass clasp, in lines 25–27, accumulates short phrases for effect. We have: “In a box on the roof” (short phrase), “its ropes tight” (short phrase, ending the line), then the repetition of “its” at the start of the next line opens into that longer phrase: “its brass clasp flashing.” The lengthening in this phrase is heightened by the alliterative letter a; then it’s followed by a phrase of equal length and stress pattern (plus an unstressed additional syllable): “was his blue uniform”. A slightly longer pause is then effected by the semicolon, and then one more phrase of exactly the same syllabic length completes the music of the sentence: “a sword folded in it.”
Grammatically that semicolon is unnecessary — in fact it is not even strictly correct, since “a sword folded in it” is just another phrase, not a clause with a separate verb, so we would expect just a comma and not a semicolon preceding it. Yet Walcott is so exquisitely attuned to sound that he gives us this semicolon here — not to punctuate the meaning of the sentence grammatically, but to punctuate its music.
Not only this, but remarkably, the sounds reproduce the sense of what is being described throughout this whole passage. The phrase “its ropes tight” is itself tight; the “brass clasp flashing” gives us a measured flashing in its alliterative effect. And there are even more precisely weighted effects nearby, as in the phrase “ranked in darkening poplars” (line 24). Here the openness and duration of vowel sounds in “rank,” “dark,” and “pop” are coeval; they are arrayed in the distribution of n, k, and r sounds so precisely as to reproduce the evenly ranked trees in the very progression of phonemes through the phrase. There is no other way to say “ranked in darkening poplars” except to recreate the regular effect of these evenly spaced roadside trees.
Make no mistake — a poet creates this echo of meaning in rhythm and sound quite consciously. If there is any doubt then let’s see how Walcott continues the game. In line 28 we have the staccato, playful “counted the clustered berries on the nose,” and its rhythmically similar, but lengthening, echo in the next line, “noted the eyebrows’ haystacks, the dull canal gaze.” The differences in rhythm between these two are instructive, and very fine: the syllables in “eyebrows’ haystacks” are weighted just a bit longer than the more comically quick “clustered berries.” In fact, the doubled up-and-down sounds of “eyebrows’ haystacks” even sit like haystacks to the ear.
There is a limit to what a poet can do consciously, and I am guessing that this last bit, about the haystacks, is just a lucky stroke. Yet the game in this passage as a whole is clearly intentional. The phrase ending the line after these haystacks, the “dull canal gaze,” is a slant rhyme with the “berries on the nose” in the previous line, but also plays against this harness of the couplet rhyme, however fine it is already, by lengthening the latter line sonically, with the l’s and long a’s of “dull canal gaze,” just as the view itself opens to those long canals. In this supremely compact miniature, Walcott is reprising, with this couplet, the same aesthetic he applied earlier with the Dutch road, namely, a short comic effect — the berries on the nose — followed by a lengthening rhythm — the haystacks, then the canals — which subsumes the joke in a deeper beauty. In both cases, Walcott’s amplitude (and compassion) doesn’t let him rest with the cheap shot or mere one-liner, but leads him on to extended aesthetic depth.
In the next lines, the “bovine leisure with which he turned away eyes / stupefied by distances” itself now opens to a notably more leisured rhythm that parallels the effect of staring vacantly. Then in line 33 the phrase “an ochre jug gurgled” really does gurgle. A swaying effect is established with several successive phrases here of similar rhythm and two-syllable verbs: “Swaying on one knee, / an ochre jug gurgled. From this the farmer swallowed.” This swaying is then undercut with a line of sudden monosyllabics: “then heeled the cork shut with a ham-sized palm” — mimicking brilliantly, with exaggerated emphasis on the words “shut” and “ham-sized palm,” the sharp pounding of the farmer’s hand heeling the stopper back in the jug.
This rhythmic game doesn’t end there. After the sharp sealing of the alcohol jug, the farmer squeaks it open again a moment later — and the comma and the word “only,” hanging on the end of that line, followed by the line break and then the wriggling action, reproduces the wry effect of the farmer’s momentary pause and return to drinking. Finally, by breaking the phrase “loud squeak” between the adjective and verb at the end of that next line — in formal verse it is startling (and risky) to end a line with an adjective — we get the same feeling of surprise that the farmer himself effects each time he reopens the jug with a squeak in order to drink more. The squeak itself is then given a mature decrescendo by continuing the sentence to the end of that line. So that whole stanza is: “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.”
Walcott’s poetic treatment is so transcendent that even this minor stock character, this farmer relentlessly derided as reprehensible in the mind of his fellow traveler, is at the very same time accorded such respect in diction, rendered with such archetypal precision, that he achieves an almost iconic dignity. This whole passage, from the ranked poplars in line 23 through this jug squeaking in line 36 is a virtuoso firework of sound and rhythm reproducing meaning — one that is muted and never garish, judicious and never overworked, all expressed in natural, grammatically unstrained sentences, and all held together in grand and strictly rhymed hexameter lines.
These long hexameter lines are ceaseless waves flowing ever on, subsuming the original poetic functions of hexameter from Latin — elegiac, martial, heroic and so on — to a comprehensive playbook of tension and resolution for its own sake, for the sake of its own ceaseless beauty, which becomes the uppermost redemptive layer of the poem. When modern English was first being formed into a world class language, and the first sustained attempts to translate classical Latin into English were made accordingly, hexameters were found to be too clunky to carry an analogous range of effects, owing to our paucity of rhyme, irregular stress patterns and non-phonetic pronunciation. Translators of Latin settled on iambic pentameter as our corresponding natural idiom, which English poets have relied on ever since as the principal line for most formal verse. With Omeros, Walcott is reclaiming hexameter, reaching right back to the epic start of western literature, updating and infusing it with the cinematic sweep and light of our age.
Such is the depth of Walcott’s compositional style that even at first apparently unnoticed details often reveal greatly condensed, hard-earned reflection. For example, given so much else to admire in this section, “The fields were prosperous / and lied of peace” (lines 44–45) may be glossed over by a lazy lector. Yet anyone who lives in a time of gathering intrigue will recognize the paradox, how certain aspects of a place may be totally in order while other aspects are conspiring toward its own undoing.
At the end of the section we are finally told the significance of this English spy in the larger poem. He is a namesake of a main character from the island, Major Plunkett. The later Major is actually researching this period, during his retirement, because the earlier Plunkett’s ship, the Marlborough, is one that figures prominently in a major sea battle that had secured the island for the English against the Dutch several hundred years before — a battle which is dramatized in the next section of the poem.
As if gloating ever so slightly upon revealing at last how this scene relates to the larger narrative, Walcott cannot resist a sophisticated rhythmic chuckle at the end. Ending the whole section with a rhyming couplet, it nonetheless does not deliver the customarily definitive bang, because the very last line ends, unusually, with a dactyl (DAH duh duh — i.e. one stressed followed by two unstressed syllables) when revealing the name of the ship. Rhyming “raw” in the penultimate line with “Marlborough” here causes us to drawl the latter; this subverts the traditional heroic bravura of the Homeric dactyl, ending the whole section instead on a wry, self-conscious note, as raw as the rancor-prone young English spy which it describes. Walcott mimics this rawness in as poetically sophisticated a manner as possible, by playfully tweaking this rhythm in the very last syllable — a final rhythmic meta-comment that disarms somewhat the spy’s raw attitude just as it rewards an attuned, attentive ear.
As the poem continues to open outward in time and space, folding in preceding action and complexity and reflecting on it in the backdrop of our contemporary world, it arrives to that farther shore of philosophical depth and meditative weight, of meaning grounded in sensual detail, with uniquely overwhelming effect.
There are numerous passages in Omeros where the action itself amazes. Among the choicest of these are the island hurricane in Chapter IX; the movement back in time and space to Africa with its slave raid and Atlantic crossing in Chapters XXV–XXVIII, and, in a more muted register, Maud’s dying in Chapters L–LII — this latter being the only occasion I have ever felt such empathy for a character in a poem that I wept while reading it.
Yet other passages astonish not chiefly by what happens, but by their cumulative, dynamic yet balanced complexity, where each small action is contextualized with such a depth of perception and significance it is as if an all-knowing eye is weaving a holographic picture through layers of scenery, character development, psychology, politics, plot development, and ever present history, informing even the most mundane movements with a sense of their own absolute dignity. Among these passages are Chapter X, section 2, where the Plunketts drive around the island following the hurricane season, and Chapter XLVIII, in which Ma Kilman, an obeah priestess, is working to heal Philoctete’s wound.
Walcott’s oeuvre is sometimes characterized as “post-colonial.” It certainly is this — particularly when the term is used broadly to include such writers as James Joyce — but to characterize Walcott’s work only this way is to overlook its basic continuity and inclusiveness within the English canon. Some of the most significant poets in history have come from outside the established center; by mastering English poetics on its own terms, they have expanded the possibilities of English verse accordingly. Shakespeare himself came from outside the London establishment and canonized the idiom and life of the countryside he knew so completely it changed the standard English language. Yeats’ octosyllabics legitimated Irish idiom, perspective and concerns, again expanding the possibilities of English into British verse. Pound certainly did likewise to encompass the transatlantic and the European with his Idaho origins and the rest of his expansive rummagings.
Walcott, with his classic English education and colonial upbringing, by mastering English verse so definitively, expands its cultural reach to include the experience, dialect, perspective and concerns of the South, the islands, the colonies — in short, he reframes what it means for English to exist as a world language by expanding its possibilities, rebalancing and re-centering it in the grandest terms.
Speaking as a poet with a long personal history of and great influence by Omeros, experiencing moreover, as we all are, the rapid changes in our world since this poem first appeared and Derek Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize, some greater general conclusions about this poem are justified here. With Omeros, Walcott is doing something that was previously regarded almost universally as impossible: rendering a full-length English epic in rhymed hexameters of fully natural English sentences, infused, moreover, with such dignity, inclusiveness, musical scope, sheer formal play and incandescent beauty, that it brings the classical epic definitively away from its origins in glory, carnage and conquest, toward a fully realized intellectual work enshrining psychological complexity and nuance, coexistence, empathy and healing, and societal redemption. Walcott has updated the epic form for a new age — and shown the world that English letters is up to the challenge of mastering these new heights of civilization. Perhaps we might even posit that epic hexameter verse is again possible in English language, not because of any great advance in our poetics per se, but because the very culture itself has evolved to the point that these more advanced and complex values — of nuance, empathy and so on — actually find fullest expression in the greater amplitude that hexameter provides. In any case the implications of Walcott’s achievement transcend the literary: Omeros stands as a testament to our own ability to transform further as a people in an ever-evolving world.
Andrew Singer is a poet and short story writer, illustrator, cultural journalist and university instructor based in Budapest. A graduate in Poetry from the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, he is currently hard at work on his first novel.