The title of Derek Walcott’s poem, ‘Ebb,’ signals the ebb of life and nature as a whole. In the industrialized, post-war world, the middle-aged speaker meditates upon growing older, the effects of industrialization, and the loss of natural beauty collectively. The speaker takes special note of his surroundings during a road trip by car. During his car journey, he recalls how everything has changed with time and what he cannot find or misses around him.
‘Ebb’ by Derek Walcott is an image-rich poem about a speaker’s car journey by the seashore.
The poem begins metaphorically, referring to the world as a treadmill that humans ride each day. With rapid industrialization, the world around the speaker has also changed. From his car, he can notice the polluted sea and the monotonous buildings and factories. Surprisingly, he notices a schooner visible from the shade of the trees growing in an oasis still untouched. This schooner reminds him of lost boyhood. When his car moves far from the oasis as well as the schooner, he starts thinking about his own mortality and how terrifying, and miraculous habitual day-to-day scenes are.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
Walcott’s ‘Ebb’ consists of a total of 13 tercets or stanzas having three lines each. The whole text is written in free verse without a set rhyme scheme or meter. There is occasional rhyming in the poem. For instance, in the first two lines, the words “ride” and “tide” rhyme. Similarly, in the third tercet, “bungalows” rhyme with “narrows.” The point of view of the poem shifts from first-person plural to singular. It is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker who represents those who are with him on the journey.
In ‘Ebb,’ Walcott makes use of the following literary devices.
- Repetition: The poem begins with a sense of continuation that is evoked by the repetition within this phrase, “Year round, year round.” There is also a repetition of the term “schooner” in the poem that highlights its importance with respect to the subject matter.
- Enjambment: This device is used throughout the poem. It creates a break in the flow hinting at the lack of harmony in the landscape. One can consider the first few lines of the poem in order to understand the speaker’s state of mind after witnessing the outside world from the comfort of his car.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “frayed tide/ fretted,” “suburban shoreline,” “but, blessedly,” “swift-wickered shade,” “some island schooner,” etc.
- Simile: In the sixth tercet, Walcott compares the schooner to a “lamed heron” and “oil-crippled gull” by using a simile. It is compared to the pale moon in “like the washed-up moon.”
Year round, year round, we’ll ride
this treadmill whose frayed tide
fretted with mud
through a dark aisle
of fountaining, gold coconuts, an oasis
marked for the yellow Caterpillar tractor.
In ‘Ebb,’ Derek Walcott meditates upon aging and industrialization lyrically. The speaker hints at the continuous process of using up the earth throughout the year. Walcott compares the earth to a “treadmill” that is set in motion by human force. This treadmill keeps rolling, leaving the wastes of rapid industrialization and urban development by the shoreline. The speaker, from the comfort of his car, tries to find something beautiful even in the “muck” gathered by the sea.
Then his car leaves the shoreline behind and enters the city. He notices the dusty bungalows and factories budding here and there. Fortunately, his car leaves the city behind and takes a narrow path by which he finds a fountain and coconut trees surrounding an oasis. Ironically, this place will also be destroyed to make way for new buildings and factories. The “Caterpillar tractor” parked near the oasis helps the audience anticipate the place’s future. It is important to note how the poet compares the tractor to a caterpillar feeding on the leaves for its growth. Similar to a caterpillar, the tractor would level the place to the ground for the sake of urbanization.
We’ll watch this shovelled too, but as we file
through its swift-wickered shade there always is
some island schooner netted in its weave
ruled, like the washed-up moon
to circle her lost zone,
her radiance thinned.
In the fifth tercet, the speaker highlights this fact. He describes how this oasis will be shoveled sooner or later. He is not alone in his car. There are others who notice the oasis. There is an island schooner floating on the sea. The speaker catches a glimpse of the boat from the “swift-wickered shade” of the oasis. From the tree cover, the boat appears like a heron that has lost its ability to walk. It seems to the speaker as if the schooner is like a gull crippled by oil. These similes hint at the effect of sea pollution and how it affects birds that inhabit the seashore.
The speaker’s car moves parallel to the schooner. He describes how the boat heaves free on the open sea and races to the horizon along with him. It seems as if the schooner and the speaker are part of one law. Their destination is the same, but their paths are different.
In the eighth tercet, the speaker draws upon another simile in order to describe the schooner. It is compared to the pale moon that is about to complete its last circle. This is why the moon’s radiance is dimmed. The image of the pale moon symbolizes aging as well as mortality. Through this symbol, the speaker tries to hint at his age. It could be inferred that the speaker is middle-aged or nearing his forties. He meditates upon his own mortality during the journey by looking at the schooner.
The palm fronds signal wildly in the wind,
but we are bound elsewhere,
from the last sacred wood.
And why not? From this car
there’s terror enough in the habitual,
miracle enough in the familiar. Sure …
In the following tercet of ‘Ebb,’ Walcott personifies the palm fronds signaling the speaker to stay a bit longer. The palm fronds’ wild movement in the wind is symbolic of childhood and youth. In contrast, the speaker declares that they have no time to wait. They are bound elsewhere. It could be a reference to the ultimate, inevitable destination of humankind. Besides, the trees that are still standing in the oasis are described as “the last sacred wood.”
As the speaker’s car moves far from the shoreline, the schooner appears smaller than before. The distant boat reminds the speaker of his own boyhood. When he was a child, he was like the schooner destined for the limitless horizon. As he grew up, the world started to seem grand enough to explore in a lifetime wholly. As an adult, he sees his own reflection in the schooner. It appears to be “crippled,” and the moon appears broken through its ragged sail.
In the last two tercets, the poetic persona philosophically talks about life. He describes how humans give in to their deepest fear, which is death. They mortgage their freedom and happiness to fear with each “sunfall.” The speaker describes how the fear of the unseen makes one so blind that the habitual scenes appear terrifying. They even find the familiar things miraculous as they have been so busy in their mundane lives that they could not even notice their surroundings. In the last line, Walcott uses an ellipsis in order to hint at the speaker’s inability to think further. It is because he has also been like others. He has been too focused to look outside his habitual “zone.”
Derek Walcott’s lyrical poem ‘Ebb’ hints at the deepest fear of humankind, which is nothing other than mortality. Through this piece, Walcott touches upon a number of topics ranging from natural beauty to the deterioration of mother nature by human activities.
The poem was first published in The Gulf and Other Poems in the year 1969. Walcott was nearing his forties at the time of writing this poem. That is why a sense of nostalgia and a sense of apprehension is there in the poem about the future.
This piece taps on a number of important themes that are not related yet tied together beautifully. These are mortality, time, childhood, nature, and pollution. The poem captures a car journey by the shoreline.
Here is a list of a number of poems that tap into the themes present in Walcott’s meditative piece ‘Ebb.’ You can read more such poems by Derek Walcott.
- ‘A Long Journey’ by Musaemura Zimunya — This poem explores how an African rural area is transformed after British colonial rule.
- ‘Journey’ by Gillian Clarke — This poem focuses on a road trip by car and the things witnessed by the speaker.
- ‘Homework’ by Allen Ginsberg — This darkly humorous piece describes a speaker’s attempt to wash various places on the earth.
- ‘Crossing a City Highway’ by Yusef Komunyakaa — This poem explores the divide between nature and humankind, with humans having forgotten the ways of mother nature.
You can also quickly go through these thought-provoking poems about time.