‘Between me and thee is a great gulf fixed’: The Crusoe Presence in Walcott’s Early Poetry

  • Stewart Brown


In his essay ‘The Muse of History’ Walcott asserts that the great poets of the New World perceive man as ‘a being inhabited by presences, not a creature chained to his past’.1 It seems to me that the notion of a poetry inhabited by presences is a useful way to approach Walcott’s own poetry; indeed by any definition he is by now one of those ‘great poets’ himself. I have suggested elsewhere2 that those presences – masks, personae, figuras, voices – which the poet has ‘entered’3 represent a strategy for dealing with the complexities of the history which has obsessed his imagination. The presences I would identify are overlapping and related categories which serve to focus aspects of that obsession. At one level they are wilfully adopted masks in the traditional literary sense, devices to enable the poet to speak in other voices, but at another level they are the consequence of Walcott’s perception of his cultural and historical situation as a West Indian poet: they occupy him. These presences serve to liberate his imagination from the chains of ‘historical realism’,4 from the limitations of a voice compromised by the contradictions of his personal situation, and allow him to comprehend and confront those very contradictions. Robinson Crusoe, I want to argue, is one face of a castaway presence which speaks through the voices of Odysseus, Crusoe and Homer.


Middle Passage Great Poet Poetic Imagination Romantic Artist Early Poem 
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  1. Stewart Brown, (ed.) The Art of Derek Walcott (Seren Books, 1991) pp. 13–33.Google Scholar
  2. Edward Hirsch, ‘An Interview with Derek Walcott’, Contemporary Literature, vol. 20, no. 3, 1980, 279–92, 282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Kevin Ireland, ‘Place and Poetic Identity’, in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 1, no. 2, December 1966, 157–60.Google Scholar
  4. Kenneth Ramchand, An Introduction to West Indian Literature (Sun-bury on Thames: Nelson Caribbean, 1976) p. 121.Google Scholar
  5. Derek Walcott, Midsummer (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1984) p. 47.Google Scholar
  6. Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 (London: Routledge, 1992) p. 176.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stewart Brown

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