‘The Virgins’ written by Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott fixates on the contemporary state of the economy, life, and society of Frederiksted, an island town on the western coast of Saint Croix. This piece, with its brief content, delves deeper into the American dream of bettering lives in the Virgin Islands, an unincorporated and organized territory of the United States. Written in the 1970s, the poem makes use of deliberate overstatements in order to point out some of the important concerns of the Virgin Islands, which are free economies, the absence of effective political representation to voice their demands, and the boom in the tourism sector at the expense of socio-economic development.
Explore The Virgins
‘The Virgins’ by Derek Walcott presents a cynical picture of deserted Frederiksted, a town of Saint Croix.
The narrator of this piece, Walcott himself, takes readers on a walk with him on the island town of Frederiksted. His keen eye, in the lack of human presence and associated activities, tries to make the most of the available landscape. Hopelessly, he lingers in the town and broods upon the present state of the US Virgin Islands as a whole. On a discouraging note, he holds the US responsible for the gross underdevelopment of the Islands. Additionally, he produces some images that hint at the heavy dependence of the town on tourism. This is why, when the tourists visiting the town occasionally leave, the town becomes deserted.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
In Walcott’s ‘The Virgins,’ there is no regular rhyme scheme or meter. The poem is composed in free verse. It is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker who is originally from the Virgin Islands or Frederiksted. Walcott uses the first-person pronoun “I” in order to establish a personal connection with the subject matter, as he also belongs to the Caribbean Islands. In the text, the reader can find occasional rhyming, such as in the last four lines. These lines roughly follow the alternative ABAB scheme. There are other instances of rhyming, such as in “civilized” and “underpriced.”
In ‘The Virgins,’ Walcott makes use of the following literary devices.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “Down the dead,” “first free,” “life not lost,” “small-islander’s simplicities,” “sun, stone,” “roulettes spin/ rustily,” etc.
- Enjambment: Walcott uses this device in order to create a momentary pause during line transitions. For instance, the sentence beginning with “I am reminded” is cut short and continued in the next line that reads “of life not lost to the American dream.”
- Irony: In this poem, Walcott uses ironic remarks in order to convey his disillusionment and disappointment. For instance, in the lines “my small-islander’s simplicities/ can’t better out new empire’s civilized/ exchange,” the speaker consciously understates a simple islander’s ways of life.
- Hyperbole: Readers can find the use of this device in “stone arches/ and plazas blown dry by the hysteria/ of rumor,” “A condominium drowns/ in vacancy,” and “a jeweled housefly.”
Down the dead streets of sun-stoned Frederiksted,
the first free port to die for tourism,
strolling at funeral pace, I am reminded
of life not lost to the American dream;
Derek Walcott’s lyrical piece ‘The Virgins’ begins with a monotonous, rapid repetition of the harsh consonant sound of “d.” The consecutive use of the “d” sound resonates with the speaker’s anger with the fact that the streets of Frederiksted are now empty. The causes are manifold. This island town is a free port where tourists need not pay taxes to the local government. Besides other than tourism, there is no other alternative sector that can give impetus to economic activities.
The speaker, a native Caribbean, knows the history of the Virgin Islands well and expresses his disconcertment with the harsh pounding of the consonant sound. He strolls like a mourner in some funeral procession on the empty streets of Frederiksted and welcomes the audience to take part in his leisurely stroll. The emptiness of the town reminds him of the simplicities of the islanders that are forced to be forgotten by rapid commercialization and the American dream.
but my small-islander’s simplicities
can’t better our new empire’s civilized
exchange of cameras, watches, perfumes, brandies
and plazas blown dry by the hysteria
of rumor. A condominium drowns
in vacancy; its bargains are dusted,
The United States of America referred to as the “new empire” with its “civilized” goods, promised the islanders of the “good life” that is still a dream for them. Besides, the vision of simple life can never better the modern illusion designed by capitalist nations such as the US. According to the speaker, the new empire (the US) came with lucrative products in order to bolster free trade and capital influx from tourism.
However, the dream of a “good life” is still unrealized. On top of that, the income distribution is so low that poverty is on the rise alongside crime rates. The speaker states how the islanders struggle to make ends meet. This is why one can find crime happening in the daylight on the “blighted” streets of Frederiksted.
The speaker can find empty stone arches and plazas. The “hysteria” of a better future, referred to as a “rumor,” evaporates when reality kicks in. Besides, the condominium, which should be filled with tourists, is vacant. The products that are offered to tourists are now covered with dust.
but only a jeweled housefly drones
heading for where the banks of silver thresh.
However, the speaker tries to find a speck of beauty in this monotonous, deserted landscape, evoking no hope, but utter despair. He takes note of a housefly hovering over the bargains. It is hyperbolically described as a “jeweled housefly.” Now, in the absence of tourists, the houseflies are the only cruisers to the island, droning the empty places in search of food.
The following lines of ‘The Virgins’ similarly describe the present state of the town. Walcott depicts how the roulettes are rusted as they are not used for a long time. The wind now spins roulettes continuing a chimeric gamble. In the next lines, Walcott hopelessly remembers how the trade revved up every morning when tourists flocked to the port. Now, the flow of everyday life is heading towards the banks that are threshed by seawater. It is an induction of a sudden halt in the activities of the islanders.
Walcott’s free-verse piece ‘The Virgins’ presents a cynical picture of the island town of Saint Croix, Frederiksted in the absence of tourists. In this poem, Walcott describes how the town’s economy and its people are heavily dependent on tourism and how the town looks when there are no tourists.
There are a number of themes in this poem that include but are not limited to the commercialization of local culture, the American dream, poverty, and colonization. The central idea of the poem revolves around the effects of the free trade economy and tourism.
The title of Walcott’s poem refers to the Virgin Islands of the United States, shortened to only ‘The Virgins.’ Through this piece, Walcott gives an overview of the life, culture, and socio-economic condition of the Virgin Islands.
Here is a list of a few poems that tap into the themes present in Walcott’s cynical piece ‘The Virgins.’ You can also discover more such poems by Derek Walcott.
- ‘Price We Pay for the Sun’ by Grace Nichols — In this poem, Nichols describes how poverty lurks behind the picture-perfect idea of Caribbean islands.
- ‘Stewart Island’ by Fleur Adcock — This poem describes the atmosphere of deceit which surrounds part of Adcock’s home.
- ‘Checking Out Me History’ by John Agard — This poem presents the poet’s outlook on racial and colonial discrimination.
- ‘Answer’ by Chinua Achebe — This poem is all about getting rid of one’s inferiority complex.