Derek Walcott

Goats and Monkeys by Derek Walcott

Here’s an analysis of “Goats and Monkeys” by Derek Walcott. Caribbean Literature covers issues like racism, colonization, and dislocation. The immigrants who went to the Caribbean Islands and the authors who went abroad to study felt dislocated. Language problem has always been there and Creole is the language of the underprivileged in the West Indies. People earlier merely imitated the Europeans, but later on, started having more faith in their own culture.

Alienation as a theme is centric to this region’s literature as they have had a firsthand experience when it comes to isolation. Derek Walcott believes in his land but denounces the Intellectual Black power ideology and hollow traditional values, just like his contemporary Edward Braithwaite.

In his poem, “Goats and Monkeys”, he has referred to Othello’s dilemma in Shakespeare’s play. The poem reads like an extended example of Walcott’s thesis on historicity and identity.

Goats and Monkeys by Derek Walcott


Goats and Monkeys Analysis

Taken from his collection, “The Castaway and Other Poems,” the poem, “Goats and Monkeys”, which can be read in full here, centres on master-slave relationship. The theme is somewhat similar to Danial Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday.  It is also symbolic of the rulers and the ruled, with God as the omnipotent force to be regarded with awe and reverence.

Goats and Monkeys’ has obvious references to Shakespeare’s Othello. Walcott realizes that transgressing the social norms is not possible, even after hundreds of years have passed since the play was enacted in Shakespeare’s England. The thesis of the present day Negro writers is still based on identity and historicity.

Walcott feels that modern society has not changed substantially to accept Othello as Desdemona’s lover even today.

‘…even now, an old black ram

is tupping your white ewe.’


“Goats and Monkeys” begins with a quotation from Othello where Lago warns Brabantio, Senator of Venice, that he has been betrayed as Othello, the Moor, is making love to Brabantio’s fair and beautiful daughter Desdemona. Othello is called the black ram, who is “tupping the white ewe” (Desdemona). It is a bad omen that the heavy body of the coloured brown Moor is descending over Desdemona’s fair body like passing of Earth’s shadow over the glowing silvery moon during a lunar eclipse. But it is tragic that in Act V, Scene II, the same Othello, while bending over her lips, is “charring” her “marble throat” by suffocating her with her own pillow after putting out the “light” he is carrying.

Here “God’s light” means that the life given by the Creator is extinguished in this murder although the murder has not been committed, as shown in the first stanza.

What the poet means to say is that the so-called social order has been transgressed. The “social” law demands that blacks and whites should remain separate. Ironically, the social law is the other name given to “divine” law.

At the time of her murder, Desdemona in her sleep is dreaming of her husband and lover, Othello, coming to her. Desdemona’s fate is similar to that of Pasiphae, daughter of Helios by Perse who became the wife of Minos, King of Crete. She was passionately attracted to a splendid bull gifted to her by the god Poseidon for sacrificial purposes. Strangely enough, she gave birth to a monster (Minotaur) after having sexual relations with the bull.

Then the poem refers to Eurydice, wife of the legendary Greek poet and musician Orpheus, son of the King of Thrace, who was bitten by a shake; she died and was taken to Underworld.

Orpheus followed his wife to the Underworld and there pleaded with Hades to restore Eurydice to him. Hades agreed to let her go on the condition that she would follow her husband back to Earth, but Orpheus must not turn to look at her. When Orpheus was almost at the end of the tunnel, he could not resist the temptation to see whether she was really following him.

The result was that Eurydice was at once whisked away to the Underworld again and was lost to him for ever.

The mention of Pasiphae and Eurydice comes as a warning for they too have been punished. Eurydice’s fair skin was also like a light, but she was swallowed by the Underworld. Pasiphae was punished for her sexual desires and became the mother of a monster, Minotaur.

As the poem continues, the couple are shown making love with each other. The poet says that she is pure, a young beautiful mistress to Othello who in turn is an evil moor. The poet has again associated the animal imagery with  Othello when he calls him an ape. “Their immortal couple” refers to the immortality received to the work of Shakespeare that even after so many centuries has not died away. In “He is your sacrificial…doubly sweet’ the animal imagery is stronger than ever. Othello is Desdemona’s sacrificial beast who roars in fury because of Iago’s conspiracy and like an insane bull that gets incited upon the sight of red ribbon, he too gets immensely tormented.

The poet here attributes Othello with a “saffron-sunset turban” that bears his fury and tells that it was not a racial cause that made him seek revenge. An interesting thing to be noted here is the association of revenge with panther which deduces revenge as a predator seeking its prey.

In Desdemona’s chamber, with his manly prowess, Othello harms the absolute (innocent Desdemona). The moon disappears of this corruption. Desdemona is like a white fruit fleshed for lovemaking. “But doubly sweet” refers to the fruit that has been tasted by others meaning Desdemona’s unfaithfulness that made Othello murder her.

Desdemona’s dream and Othello’s tragedy is a “fable of the blind stone”, there is something magical about the fact that the white woman has always been “Dazzled by that bull’s bulk against the sun”.

Walcott waxes lyrical when he describes Desdemona’s bright complexion which “rhymes with the night”. Yet lyricism is ousted from lovemaking when “Virgin and ape, maid and malevolent Moor” come together in the heat of their passion.

But discrimination between the black and white being a manmade law, Othello must be made the “sacrificial beast”. This image is enhanced by the Spanish spectacle of bullfighting where the animal is provoked, tortured, and then killed to the delighted roars of the crowd.

This bloodthirsty sport is used to show that the downfall of a black man is a legitimate act.

After murdering her, Othello barbarously accused Desdemona for all she had done since time started but it was his own night long lechery – wickedness driven by ambition and lust, which was to be blamed. Innocent and poor Desdemona could only cry for forgiveness. And it is still her silvery love (pure and enlightened love) that questions over disgrace. Only total destruction can resolve the corruption in Desdemona’s face which is stained like the moon. It is to be noted here that oxymoron in the “pure corruption” is upon Desdemona’\s dreaming face – Desdemona can be paralleled to many pure and innocent girls who were tricked and then looted of their innocence by people like Othello)

In the later or so to say the last stanza, Othello is savage in his approach and we get to hardened our hearts with ridicule at this black man. He turns his back on her after having murdered her. Desdemona is like a clear moon that can never hate her love, night.

Othello’s grief was caused by the handkerchief (here a false evidence by Iago to prove Desdemona’s disloyalty). This handkerchief is a sibyl’s (forecaster’s) stitched Remembrancer (the use of an image which invokes past memories) and this mythical tale of a horned beast (Othello) spreads a very crucial message – Othello’s revenge is never considered a racial crime – He was in fact a friend, but not because he was a black and Desdemona a white.

The title of the poem, “Goats and Monkeys” is an exercise of supreme irony. The poet turns Othello into an allegorical figure with whom he can identify because he, too, is black, competing for recognition in a white society. It is interesting to note there that Walcott’s name was suggested for England’s Poet Laureate as a successor to Ted Hughes. In a sense, this had greater significance than the coveted Nobel Prize, for it meant that Walcott would represent Britain as a multicultural society and reconfirm the link between the Crown and the Commonwealth countries.

He remains, however, a “teaching poet” who alternates between America and his home in the islands.

As a twentieth-century poet, Walcott tries to focus on various worlds – the reality of the present and its fantasy in reflection, and the past in his own imagination. Yet he is unable to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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