In the Spirit of Homer: Constructing National Identity by Reconstructing Individual Histories

Heather M. Bradley, Washington and Lee University

Walcott's quest for self-identification survives in Omeros, which sings of "our wide country, the Caribbean Sea" (Walcott 320). In the spirit of Homer, the poet strives to define his native island, St. Lucia, by reconstructing the histories of her inhabitants. Walcott acknowledges that "History makes similes of people, but these people [the St. Lucians] are their own nouns" (cited in Hamner 143). The narrative structure and the subjects of Omeros support Walcott's efforts to maintain the individuality of the St. Lucians while uniting them under a common history. In this sense, Walcott finds his uown identity through the endeavors of his central characters. The figure of Achille represents the primary channel for Walcott's self-realization and acceptance of his hybrid heritage. Achille's symbolic journey into his own past parallels Walcott's contemplations of his African heritage. Also, the changing relationship between Achille and Helen illustrates the nature of Walcott's conclusions about his hybridity. Walcott conveys his "rage" through the experiences of Achille.

Achille, who embodies the traditional ideal for Walcott, allows the poet to return vicariously to his roots. The young fisherman leads a simple life:

The morning star had stepped back, hating the odour
of nets and fish-guts; the light was hard overhead

And there was a horizon. . . .

This was the light that Achille was happiest in.
When, before their hands gripped the gunwales, they
stood for the sea-width to enter them, feeling their day begin. (Walcott 8-9)

Achille depends on the bounty of the Caribbean for his economic survival and this respect for the sea perpetuates the stereotypical image of the primitive native who endures without technological enlightenment. The ventures of Achille show Walcott's affinity for "this Africa" (1246.30). In his sunstroke-induced delirium, Achille embarks on a dream-like journey back to his roots. This voyage allows the poet to explore his heritage as well. The conclusions that Achille reaches, in terms of the virtues of the African culture, seem to be shared by Walcott, who speaks through the narrative "I." Achille's need to recognize the influence of Africa in the creation of his character, and, furthermore the nature of St. Lucia, mirrors the quest of the "I." The poet identifies the purpose of his writing through an imagined conversation with his dead father:

They walk, you write . . .

climbing in their footsteps,that slow, ancestral beat
of those used to climbing roads: your own work owes them

because the couplet of those multiplying feet
made your first rhymes.... no one knows them . . .
and your duty . . .

is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice. (Walcott 75-6)

Walcott writes to express and record the customs of the native St. Lucians, just as Achille returns to Africa in order to legitimize certain aspects of his heritage.

Achille experiences doubts about his identity similar to those expressed by Walcott in "A Far Cry from Africa": "For the first time, he asked himself who he was" (Walcott 130). These queries inspire the fisherman's contemplation of his past. Achille embarks on a journey to the other side, reminiscent of Homeric visits to the Underworld, and comes "into his own beginning and his end" (Walcott 134). He finds his namesake, the connection to his African inheritance, and discusses the perplexing issues of his hybridism. Achille points out a grave consequence of cultural integration: "Everything was forgotten. The deaf sea has changed around every name that you gave/us; trees, men, we yearn for a sound that is missing" (Walcott 137). He juxtaposes the new order of the British with the world of the Africans, depicting the lack of meaning in the contemporary society, which simply accepts the dictates of its leaders. His namesake inquires: "Why did I never miss you until you returned? Are you the smoke from a fire that never burned?" (139).

Achille realizes the necessity of change through his ancestor's indifference to the deviation of Achille's generation from ancient customs. This detachment causes Achille to miss "the life he had left behind" as he notices that despite the changes, many African customs remain alive in his village (Walcott 142). The odyssey of Achille reestablishes his African roots and affirms their presence in the culture of St. Lucia. His journey engenders a new appreciation of the local rituals, costumes, dances, and music. Achille prepares for a customary Christmas celebration with renewed enthusiasm: "Today he was African, his own epitaph, his own resurrection. [He realizes] that he was in search of treasure. . . . that had always been his" (Walcott 273, 275). Achille "[goes] back to the bush" and desires a life enriched with African tradition (Walcott 61). This desire results in unforeseen difficulties for Achille.

[The set of interlinked essays derives from a paper originally written in 1997 for Professor Suzanne Keen's English 350 at Washington and Lee University.

[Postimperial] [Derek Walcott] Themes [Politics]