The poem contains several references to The Odyssey by Homer, ones that will require some research on the reader’s part to understand. For example, the final allusion to Polyphemus, the cyclops, that Odysseus and his men escape from. ‘Sea Grapes’ also contains an allusion to a type of grape in its title.
Explore Sea Grapes
‘Sea Grapes’ by Derek Walcott is a thoughtful and multilayered poem that uses Odysseus and his journey as an allegory.
The poem starts with the speaker viewing a schooner in the Caribbean Sea. It reminds him of Odysseus, and he starts to relate a contemporary moment to events from The Odyssey. He speaks about Odysseus’s longing to get home but the fact that he was torn between his responsibilities and his desire to remain free and able to commit adultery.
You can read the full poem here.
Stanzas One and Two
That sail which leans on light,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband’s
In the first lines of ‘Sea Grapes,’ the speaker begins by describing a “schooner’ on the sea. He relates this schooner to Odysseus’ fabled vessel in Homer’s The Odyssey. This metaphor allows the speaker to expand their imagination. They envision what could be happening on the boat and the surrounding sounds and feelings. In the second stanza, the speaker mentions that Odysseus was “father and husband.” Readers familiar with his story know that this is a reference to his wife, Penelope, and his children in Ithaca.
Stanzas Three and Four
longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
will never finish and has been the same
In the following lines, the poet uses the word “longing” as a way of describing the need Odysseus had and that he senses from the schooner he’s looking at to get home. The phrase“sour grapes’ is used in the third line. Sea grapes are a type of grape that’s indigenous to the Caribbean Sea area, the same place that the poet sets this poem. He appears faithful in these first stanzas, but things get more complicated as the poem progresses.
The speaker then mentions “Nausicaa,” a character from the epic poem who Odysseus is tempted to stay with, committing adultery. The poet compares this to sour grapes, it’s tempting, but when they are eaten, they’re not what one would expect.
Stanzas Five, Six, and Seven
for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.
The classics can console. But not enough.
Odysseus is dealing with an age-old battle between what he wants and what he should do. He needs to go home and resume his responsibilities as husband and father but, it feels easier at the moment to neglect those responsibilities and remain with Nausicaa.
The poet also alludes to the cyclops, Polyphemus, in the sixth stanza. Odysseus makes his way home on the “groundswell” created by the giant’s boulder. The poet attempts to relay to readers that to choose between their obsession and lust and the responsibilities they’ve signed up for. Odysseus is used as an allegory for the conflicts one faces in everyday life.
The poet concludes with the following message. The classics, like The Odyssey, can provide some information and some direction, just like age-old lessons about right and wrong, but they don’t have all the answers.
Structure and Form
‘Sea Grapes’ by Derek Walcott is a seven-stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets, and a final single-line stanza. The lines are written in free verse. This means that the poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this, the poet’s use of literary devices allows readers to interpret a feeling of unity and poetic cohesion. Plus, the poet uses dactylic hexameter, a meter commonly found in epic poems.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between line three of the first stanza and line one of the second stanza. This line also contains an example of a caesura.
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “leans” and “light” in the first line of the poem and “blind” and “boulder” in stanza six.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example: “like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name / in every gull’s outcry.”
- Allusions: can be seen when the poet mentions something but does not devele into details to explain it. For example, the name “Odysseus” in the second stanza is an allusion to Homer’s Odyssey. It requires readers have prior knowledge.
The tone is descriptive and clear. The speaker knows the lessons they’re trying to describe and, through an allegory, speaks to obsession and lust.
The purpose is to discuss the space between what’s right and responsible and what one may want to do at the moment. Odysseus fights to figure out where he belongs and what he wants and is eventually carried home.
The poet uses images of waves, gulls, and other sea-related features to describe the allegory of Odysseus and his broader topic.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sea Grapes’ should also consider reading some other Derek Walcott poems. For example:
- ‘Dark August’ – describes the dark life a speaker is forced to live when someone he depends on abandons him.
- ‘Love After Love’ – offers advice to someone who has just left a bad relationship.
- ‘The Sea is History’ – a complex poem that discusses identity and history.