A Far Cry from Africa by Derek Walcott is a poem based around the struggles in Africa. One would presume it is at least partially autobiographical and so it’s a fairly safe assumption that the narrative voice is indeed Walcott’s own.
Explore A Far Cry from Africa
Form and Tone
A Far Cry from Africa is written in free verse. It is presented in two stanzas one consisting of twenty-one lines the other consisting of eleven. It does not follow a strict rhyming pattern, although end rhymes feature prominently throughout the poem. The effect of this is that the poem has a stilted, disjointed feel which mirrors the feelings expressed within the poem. The rhythm is also inconsistent, although the line lengths are similar the beats in each line alter which again adds to the sense of discord. The poem is deeply rooted in Africa. The language used helps to make the poem feel culturally African.
You can read the full poem here.
‘A Far Cry From Africa’ Title
The title is in itself fairly interesting. It certainly has a double meaning. The obvious meaning is that it is using the phrase which means that the events are “far removed” from what you expect in Africa, but actually, I think the title is subversive and is supposed to be taken very literally. Meaning that in Africa there are people crying.
A wind is ruffling the tawny pe
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
The first two lines reference the Kikuyu. This is one of the biggest tribes in Kenya. There is an interesting use of imagery here as they are described as being “as quick as flies” the poet talks of them being massacred, In the fourth line he makes a really striking comparison between the Veldt area which he considers a paradise, and the fact it is littered with corpses. Rhyme is used in the opening section with an ABAB pattern. This might make you come to expect that to be a reoccurring pattern, but this is not the case and this helps give the poem a “stilted edge”.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
In the fifth line, we see the use of alliteration. Worms are “picked on” here, being referred to as the colonel of Carrion. The suggestion being that where you find rotting flesh, you find worms. He personifies them though and gives them an almost militant voice as they exclaim ‘Waste no compassion on these separate dead!’ this gives them a villainous quality. In the 8th line, he refers to the locals as salient, this is a clever piece of imagery it gives the impression that these people are isolated. It also has a double meaning with military connotations. I think that the point the poet is trying to make is how the colonials use their data and skew facts in order to portray the Kikuyu as savages. Of course this doesn’t tell the full story. I guess then that this whole begging section is laden with irony, maybe even dramatic irony as an informed reader would realise that these views aren’t an accurate description of the issues that have existed in Africa.
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn
In the tenth lines, we see a very powerful metaphor as Walcott draws on a comparison between the atrocities being committed here and the ones committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. At least that’s what one would assume by referring to Jews as expendable. Once again A Far Cry from Africa turns to imagery and the use of nature. Here Ibises are used and their cries referenced. According to the narrator these cries:
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
I feel this is probably a metaphor for the repeated slaughter and genocide of civilizations highlighting that this is an issue that has been prominent throughout the history of mankind. Of course, this is conjuncture on my part.
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
The next four lines follow what have come before in creating a really visceral image. Walcott uses repetition of the word beast here in order to cement his comparison. The suggestion here is then that the men that carry out the atrocities may as well be animals. He then goes on to attack religion by suggesting that man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.
The next four lines are really interesting. It isn’t totally clear who the “he” that is referenced in these lines is, but I am assuming it is supposed to represent mankind. If this is the case then the words are pretty damning here. They are described as delirious and once again we see the word beast employed. There is once again the use of graphic description using words like carcass and dread here help to convey the dark and grim tone. There is a lovely piece of wordsmanship here as Walcott uses the phrase “white peace” this is used almost as an oxymoron as the peace he is describing is born of the multiple deaths. Just another example of the strong use of irony throughout the poem.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkins of a dirty cause, again
There is a wonderfully glib line here as the process of wiping one’s hands. This innocuous act is made powerful by being allied to the idea of “man” or perhaps more specifically the “white man” being dismissive about what is going on. Metaphor is used fantastically here, it is so thinly veiled as to almost be construed as sarcastic.
In the 24th line, he uses the phrase
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain
Once again this is very sarcastic and certainly not the view of the narrator himself who clearly, as we later see, wrestles with his lineage and heritage. The use of Superman helps to date the piece and highlights that it is contemporary and that these are current affairs. He refers to himself as being poisoned by the blood of both. We can assume that this is referring to his mixed heritage.
I who have cursed
How can I turn from Africa and live?
This final section of the poem really brings us to the crux of the entire poem. The poet struggles to deal with his lineage and his association between that lineage and the atrocities carried out by those nations. By the same token, he is torn as he clearly has an affection for the language of his mother tongue.
About Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott was a St Lucian poet who among his many accolades received a Nobel prize for literature. Given the fact that he is of South American descent, it seems strange that Walcott wrote about events in Africa, although you could make the assumption that it was due to an interest in a fellow colonial country.