Names by Derek Walcott

Here is an analysis of Names by Derek Walcott. Born in 1930 in Barbados, Edward Brathwaite is one of the most outstanding poets of Caribbean literature. He has written about the condition of the blacks in the Diaspora and of the devastating effects of slavery. He influenced the writers and intellectuals greatly by provoking the mood of anti-imperialism and searching for one’s roots. Brathwaite guided the quest for orality in the decade of the 1970s. He has also written critical and theoretical essays where he has championed Creole as a national language.

Names Analysis

Section I

Walcott is perhaps at his best when he is most autobiographical. He seems to be working on this thesis – What is history? What is identity? –for the Caribbean islanders as he composes, integrates and sumps up his most mature thoughts in each succeeding collection of poems.

The poem, “Names”, which appears in Sea Grapes and can be read in full here, shows his preoccupations with the same theme, and he starts the poem with a sense of his own history that is contained in the sea surrounding the islands.

He negates the fact that identity can be named, for he has “no nouns” with which to introduce himself. His “race” can be interpreted as his community or his tribe; it is also the personal race that he is running towards an individual identity.

The identity of the post-colonial poet in the English language is further compounded by the fact that he comes from the French-speaking part of the islands.

He cannot deny his French heritage where he was taught to say the words “moubain,” “cerise” and “baie-la”, and subsequently understands them through their English equivalents. Sound plays a vital role in this poem, for Walcott talks of the untrained “fresh green voices” learning and mispronouncing, while the original languages of the natives are swept away.

The black people may try to find their origins once again, but the poet ruefully admits that “the wind bends our natural inflections”. Walcott often repeats words and entire phrases to emphasise a search that seems to yield no results. When he repeats that “the mind was halved by horizon”, he, as an intellectual, perceives that his world has indeed been divided into white and black by colonial history, language, education and racial prejudice.

Thus, his search for a past previous to colonial history is futile. The exotic cities of Benares, Canton or Benin that once held sway over the world are lost in the recesses of time. Again the poet asks the soul-searching questions, “Have we melted into a mirror, / leaving our souls behind”.

It is typical that as a twentieth-century poet, he tries to focus on various worlds – the reality of the present and its fantasy is reflection, and the past in his own imagination. Yet he is not able to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion.

The magnificent climax of the poem is that just like the “sea-eagle screams from the rock”, the poet echoes “that cry/that terrible vowel I” to proclaim his identity. Walcott has always been concerned with sound effects in his verse, and previously there was the comparative softness of alliteration in words of acceptance in “A Far Cry from Africa”, wherein he says: “Statistics justify and soldiers seize/The salient of colonial policy.”

Now the sound is a shriek of the well-defined first person singular pronoun that contains all the self and the consciousness of one who is tormented by the lack of a definite identity. It is significant that the poet still cannot find out a name/noun to justify the scream. He must resort to a pronoun that is both minimal and absolute.

“I’ stands for one – and all can activate it. This “I” is literally the sound of a scream, “aaa iii eee!” It is an agonised voice raised in a shrill and assertive cry, trying to drown out those who may deny to existence. There is still more to this “I” for it conceals a pun on the word “eyes”.

The eye of the poet, thus, perceives what he lacks in terms of identity, individuality and independence. And then the same alliterative softness envelops this single, expressive shout once more when he says: “the sky folded/as history folds over a fishline, /and the foam foreclosed…This section of the poem ends in childish play. Just as children write their names in the sands of the seashore, so too Walcott and his people try: “to trace our names on the sand/which the sea erased again to our indifference.”

If they do not care that the identity they attempt to establish is removed by the tides, it is because an identity has been thrust upon the people. It has been granted but they have not claimed it; so how can they care? There is also resignation in the fact that the fate of an oppressed people must be dictated just as nature dictates the lives of men living close to it.

Section II

In the second section of the poem, Walcott shifts from his own confused state of mind to the condition of the colonisers who, too, are dislocated and displaced just as his ancestors have been. They, too, have left behind their own histories and glories of Castille, Versailles and Valencia, and are trying hard to recreate their homelands on these distant shores.

Thus, with “nostalgia or irony” they attempt a continuity of their glorious history by renaming bays, “uncombed forest” and “uncultivated grass” in this wild country. They give the places European names. Walcott remembers perhaps the popular fable of the fox who could not reach the grapes it wanted when he writes in sympathy of the white masters—“names or the sour apples/and green grapes/of their exile.”

The memory of their homeland is diminished but the European names remain. Walcott explains why the colonisers felt they must teach those whom they had colonised, which has become such a significant issue in post-colonial writing –“Being men, they could not live/except they first presumed/the right of everything to be a noun.”

The African acquiesced,/repeated, and changed them.”—This is colonization at its most benevolent, with language as an instrument of control. A hegemonic force, language extended through and into education is not forced upon the native but it is accepted by consent.

The erosion of culture and origin is not debated; perhaps it is simply disregarded in that context. The natives in Walcott’s poem take on the identity of children as they listen to the masters teaching them their first foreign languages through which they too must learn to communicate. They learn about their own geography couched in Eurocentric allusions: “These palms are greater than Versailles, /for no man made them.”

This may be a grudging tribute to nature’s powerful beauty even in the colonies, and the masters finally turn to the constellations in a sky they are unfamiliar with. In the final image, they return to the stars over “Valencia’s forest”. They must, after all, impart to the uncivilised savage the wonders of the Renaissance, the wealth of scientific learning and artistic knowledge that is a prerogative of Europe.

The poem closes with a question and an answer that demonstrates the mounting anger and frustration of the colonial master, as well as the nai’ve yet pathetic reply of the native subject: “Answer, you damned little Arabs! /Sir, fireflies caught in molasses.”

The last line of the poem contains a really beautiful metaphor in terms of composition. But the poor natives are really just like the fireflies – still scintillating although they are caught in a giant trap. They cannot foresee what is going to happen to them.

The last line is the swan-song, where the position of the master in power is emphasised, and the downtrodden are caught in the sticky sweet mess of a colonial identity too irresistible to reject. Therefore, the only time that the natives are given an actual name and an identity, it is condescending and derogatory, preceded by an invective.

In this context, the word “little” is also insulting, for it insinuates a people who have no knowledge of their own and must be raised out of a dark ignorance, to understand and alien geography and history that is arrogantly bestowed upon them.

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