Walcott, Traherne and Poetics of History
“The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty!” (Traherne: Centuries of Meditations) (Emphasis added).
The highlighted lines form the epigraph of Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Orient and Immortal Wheat’ that is included in his collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962). Walcott’s relationship to the seventeenth century mystical poet Traherne can be seen in the poetic and historical paradigms of this poem. Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) was an English poet most well-known for his treatises Christian Ethicks and Centuries of Meditations. In his writing, the idea of ‘prenatal innocence’ with the idealized infant figure becoming the symbol of lost contact with divinity comes out distinctly.
In Centuries of Meditations, he has described, with passionate ecstasy, the recollection of his childhood consciousness when the world stood out in excellence and glory. The consciousness of a child, for Traherne, was marked with pristine innocence, a state of being uncorrupted by sin and thereby closest to God. Traherne’s writing is marked by ‘felicity’, celebration of that state of human evolution when the entry into this world is marked by an infant’s natural recollection of heavenly glory.
Revd.Dr.Edmund Newey, in his recent study of the figure of the child in theology, in a section titled ‘Rediscovering Traherne” has pointed out: “Thus whereas for Vaughan the child functions primarily as a reminder of the Fall, for Traherne the child is an image by which the whole story of the human race, from creation to eschatological glory, can be viewed.” (Newey 2016). Itrat Husain has pointed out that there are three principal ideas relating to the way in which Traherne views childhood as a state of one’s being-first, that in his state of childhood, innocence dominated and there was no trace of sin; second; he always retained the visions of childhood that were defined by glory and an innate sense of wonder; and third, Traherne believed that the visions of childhood were uncontaminated visions of the Reality. In Centuries of Meditations, he says:
It is not only in a careless reliance upon Divine Providence, that we are to become little children, or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger and simplicity of our passions, but in the peace and purity of all our soul…And therefore it is requisite that we should be as very strangers to the thoughts, customs, and opinions of men in this world, as if we were but little children, those things would appear to us only which do so to children when they are first born… (161)
Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Orient and Immortal Wheat’ makes a direct and considered reference to Traherne’s phrase in a manner of underscoring the need for recontextualising its theological import in the postcolonial historical framework.
Walcott’s use of the phrase ‘orient and immortal wheat’ as a title for his poem displays a relationship of intertextuality that interrogates the paradigms of history and politics through postcoloniality as epistemology. In referring to Traherne’s work, Walcott is directing the reader to Christian theology in general and to Traherne’s trope of infantile glory in particular. In Traherne’s text, this phrase is descriptive where the adult consciousness of the poet is redrawing the picture of his original nearness with God. In the state of infancy, a state that is pure (and innocent), the human consciousness is rarefied and is therefore in the reception of heavenly glory. The visuals of divine perfection and the sensual apprehension of God’s glory abound in Traherne’s Centuries. When Walcott uses this phrase for a poem that deals with childhood memory, he retains the trope but presents an altered context that is inevitable.
Walcott’s poem is, like Traherne’s, autobiographical in a meditative mode. Walcott, like Traherne, recounts his childhood visions of eternity. While the tropes and structure remain the same, the contexts differ, leading to different tenor and meaning. Walcott’s poem opens with the line “Nature seemed monstrous to his thirteen years”, immediately altering Traherne’s infantile recollection with his adolescent one. In both the texts, memory serves to present a mode of apprehending godhood. In Traherne’s, the child basks in the eternal glory of God’s love, unmediated and free. In Walcott’s poem, the adolescent boy tries to touch the visions of heaven and hell through the mediating persons and structures (priests and church/chapel). The pristine consciousness of a child is replaced with the questioning and rebellious consciousness of an adolescent. The visions that come naturally to the infant do not come naturally to the teenager. Walcott has minutely replaced orient fields of grain with malarial plains, highlighting the Caribbean landscape that hosts a missionary religion in comparison with the English landscape that has settled well, by the seventeenth century, with Christianity. The abundance of English landscape is also contrasted with the want of Caribbean landscape (the lush fields of corn and orient vs the sweltering and hungry plains).
Walcott is pressing an important question in postcolonial theology that interrogates the ‘import’ of structures, idioms and rituals in colonial evangelization. In Walcott’s poem, the local context keeps piercing the otherwise smooth fabric of an evangelical process.
Prone to malaria, sweating inherent sin,
Absolved in Limacol and evening prayers,
The prodigy, dusk roughing his peaked face,
Studied the swallows stitch the opposing eaves
In repetitions of the fall from grace.
In the first line, Walcott stretches a mundane but typical Caribbean imagery (sweating, Limacol, swallows, eaves) to Christian contexts. The young boy sweats ‘inherent sin’ and is absolved in astringent and prayer. Walcott is highlighting the internalization of new theological meanings by the native people, hence sweating ‘inherent sin’. This phrase also draws attention to the racial prejudices inherent in the discourse of the civilizing mission. The ‘inherent sin’ of the native boy is the sense of inferiority that has been injected into his believer’s blood through the evangelists. The repetitions of the doctrine of sin, fall and grace that are an integral part of missionary preaching are presented in contrast to the natural repetitive movements of the swallows. Walcott is critiquing the artificial nature of religious ceremonial against the natural rhythms and patterns of the world. He is also pointing out the difference between urbanized ritual and rural/semi urban rhythms of third world life. Through the eyes of an amorphous consciousness experiencing fever and passion of the senses, Walcott presents to us the context of Caribbean life that is amorphous, unstructured and wild to the colonizer’s sensibility. The taming of the topography and natural wilderness also mirrors the taming of the naturally ‘savage’ soul of the native.
Walcott’s poetics captures the history and sociological contours of the central thought of Christianity - innocence, sin and fall. His lines create poetic structures that betray the historical and anthropological warps and wefts of the fabric of religion. The coming of Christianity, its spread, adoption and practice by the indigenous people of the Caribbean is not a simplistic, mono dimensional historical narrative. The metaphysical import of this narrative is beset with violence of many kinds. The metaphysical violence is played out in psychological, emotive, as well as physical violence in many ways. The process of proselytizing is not without its inherent structural method of attacking established theological/metaphysical beliefs. Introducing belief through linguistic registers that may not always correspond to cultural tropes and lived experience in a particular place, projects incongruities of the kind that Walcott captures in this poem. Althea Prince has pointed out the non-simplistic relationship between the African, Indian and European contexts of religion for people in the Caribbean (Taylor 28-29) and the need for academic engagement with Caribbean religion to take into account cosmogony, historical and geographical sense of the Caribbean people. She formulates important questions in this regard:
What shifts will be made in the conceptualization of the Divine when the threat of the elements, combined with states of siege, looms large and close in a small piece of volcanic formation? Will it suffice for Mass to be said in a sonorous voice by one person, or will the entire congregation need to harmonize from its belly in order to feel that supplication has been adequately made?...How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (Taylor 28)
Another important feature of evangelical Christianity is the model of ‘liberation’. Walcott’s poem, in the manner in which it necessitates re-contextualising, calls for re-examining the meaning of liberation in postcolonial reality. In third world Christianity, liberation as a theological principle has been expanded to include the issues of inequality, poverty, stigmas and oppressive models of thought.
Such anthropomorphic love illumines hell,
A charge brought to his Heavenly Father’s face
That wept for bat-voiced orphans in the streets
And cripples limping homeward in weak light
The first line evokes the refrain of Jesus’ love for mankind, and Walcott juxtaposes it with the love of man for man. The metaphysical dimensions of Christian love are extended to include human love that naturally emerges from the emotion of empathy and concern. The subjects of compassion are presented in heart wrenching reductive terms-‘bat-voiced orphans’, ‘cripples limping’. The absence of agency in the oppressed is an operational notion for the acting subject to extend her/his compassion to. The oppressed have no complexity in subjectivity, an idea upheld in theorization about the poor (cultures of poverty). Walcott deliberately sketches the oppressed in this manner, highlighting the politics of representation in literature. Further, Walcott is also calling for attention to liberation theology-its need, its imperative and also its limitation. Emmette Weir upholds the term ‘Caribbean Liberation Theology’ for a theology that identifies with “the struggle of the poor and oppressed” and engages with the socio-economic and spiritual dimensions of Caribbean reality (Weir 42, 45-46). Livingston Thompson in “Dr.Lewin Williams and Caribbean Theology” stresses on the decolonization of theology in the Caribbean context. The idea of independence is central to his understanding when he says, “Caribbean theology represents an attempt to formulate a theological discourse that would complement the political imaginations of regional independence. Consequently, there is, in Caribbean theology, a major emphasis on the idea of the decolonization of theology.” (Roper et al 196).
There are two important factors that determine the spread of new religions- inherent contextual incongruity as well as the anthropological implications of race. The contextual incongruity may lead to suspicion and malice towards missionaries in places where the indigenous religious practices have remained dominant. In the context of India, for instance, this is easily discernible. In the Caribbean islands, indigenous religious beliefs of African origin, along with Hindu beliefs, have a long history of uneasy affair with Christianity (Poddar 179).
At another level, as discussed in Walcott’s use of poetical tropes for religious vocabulary, Christian principles simply applied to Caribbean life may not be completely meaningful if the indigenous theological and cultural contexts are not absorbed and negotiated with.
The implications of race are pertinent in postcolonial theology. While the indigenous peoples received Christian teaching, the discourse of sin was disseminated within the coordinates of lived cultural, religious and social practices (Burnett 3). The indigenous practices of life were often labeled as sin in missionary teachings, thereby instilling in the people a sense of alienation and guilt. From the perspective of indigenous theology, it is liberating but restrictive in its own sense. While it rightly challenged then existing social oppressive practices, it also often painted indigenous traditions in the same stroke of backwardness and lack of civilization. Postcolonial literature has highlighted the racial implications of theology thereby calling for liberation from anthropological hierarchy itself.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the abuse
Of ignorance by Bible and by sword
(Walcott: ‘Ruins of a Great House’)
Patricia Ismond has argued that Walcott remains apprenticed to the ‘thoughts and metaphors’ of the Western tradition in the early part of his literary journey when he composed In a Green Night. She considers the questions of identity not so pronounced in this collection compared to his later work which is more direct and political. Ismond, while she notices the irony in the redeployment of seventeenth century conceits and metaphysical poetic structures, she merely sees continuity and ironic reflection in Walcott’s relationship to the European (Western) tradition.
It is in this specific area of his close affinity with the Metaphysicals that Walcott remains most firmly bound to the faith and “light” of the Western tradition at this stage. This area signs and underlines his apprenticeship to its thought and metaphors, and gives the volume its final outlook. In Green Night, the Christian order prevails as the immediate context of that bond to the tradition….Walcott has strongly internalized this religious bond from his upbringing. The creative redeployment of the Christian tradition has two culminating points in the literature-Dante in the medieval period, and the Metaphysicals in the Renaissance. His apprenticeship to the Word shows an essential continuity from Dante, as the most inclusive voice in Epitaph, to the Metaphysicals in this volume. (Ismond: 39-40)
Ismond’s repeated use of the term ‘apprentice’ to refer to Walcott’s early poetics, and her universalisation of European writers as against the particularity of Walcott as a Caribbean writer who must come clean in his relationship with the ‘great’ tradition-whether he is yet free or is willing to be free, how soon will he snap the intellectual and poetic bond, seem to be part of a criticism that refuses to see the dialectical churning in the postcolonial artist’s consciousness. Ismond recognizes the irony but accepts it as reflective of his poetic schizophrenia (Harris). It is imperative to see Walcott’s irony, especially in ‘Orient and Immortal Wheat’ as an affirmative act-one that admits the schizophrenia but is not apologetic about it. Walcott’s irony is a performance that is calling all the actors of time, place and the ‘word’ to create a new drama of the history of poetics. Far from carrying the continuity, Walcott is attempting to challenge the myth of literary continuity that continues to marginalize the epistemological universe of a large part of the world.
The young boy in Walcott’s poem is a conflicted subject. Walcott’s exploration of his subjectivity takes the reader into the psychological and emotive paradigms of the doctrine of sin and judgment. The young boy is drawn to the aesthetics of the natural world, and by extension, to the physicality of the world. The conflicting pulls of desire and fear of sin can be tormenting for a boy for whom the tenets of religion put his desire at unease. The psychological aspect of religious doctrine is a subject that immediately pits Walcott’s context in opposition to Traherne’s. In Traherne’s prose, the psychological process of recollection becomes a mode of spiritual realization. In Walcott’s poem, the religious ritual (of prayer) becomes a mode for psychological reflection as the poet retraces his anxieties and dilemmas of his youth.
The trope of recollection and remembrance is particularly significant to the writings of Walcott. His oeuvre resonates with the metaphor of inward journey into a cultural and racial collective unconscious ending with a reflection on the historical and political coordinates of his placement. This inward journey, as in Omeros, is a journey into the collective memory of pain, loss and abandonment that he recognizes as” a far cry from Africa”. In Traherne’s meditative writing, the inward journey takes his consciousness to the spiritual glory of his prenatal union with Lord and consequently the beatific visions of heaven on earth. The young boy in Walcott’s poem is at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood and his retracing is therefore chaotic and amorphous unlike the neat and pristine childhood in Traherne.
When the lamplighter, his head swung by its hair
Meant the dread footfall lumping up the stair:
Maman with soup, perhaps; or it could well
Be Chaos, genderer of Earth, called Night
Patricia Ismond, while discussing Walcott’s intertextual references to the Metaphysical poets like Marvell, Donne and Traherne in Green Night, has pointed out that Walcott recognizes in the Metaphysical conceit that blending of reason and metaphysic that becomes apt for his poetics. Ismond has included Traherne in a generalized Metaphysical poetics. Traherne’s poetics has remained the subject of much neglect in its own time and in the coming centuries too till Dobell’s edition (1908) called for justified interest in Trahernian scholarship. Traherne’s sensibility is not only different from other religious poets of the seventeenth century, he does not belong to the ‘School of Donne’ in the way Marvell and others do. In Traherne, the idea of felicity and even non dualism are distinguishable that put him at odds with the poetics of the Metaphysicals. Walcott’s reference to Traherne shows his deep understanding of Traherne’s mysticism and his figurative interjections are considered questions on historical and political paradigms of Christian theology in a post colony world.
Traherne’s poetics is historical and political and he consciously creates literary paradigms for these coordinates to emerge into critical debate. In Walcott’s poetry, historical positioning emerges strongly through his considered textual references (borrowings as some critics put it) to writers of the Western tradition. In evoking Traherne in this poem through the title and the epigraph, Walcott is making an appeal for an integrated reading that negotiates the literary, theological and historical paradigms of the two texts. Intertextuality is, in Walcott’s poetics, not merely a literary process but a historical method.
The colonial racial trope of identifying the native as a child and the colonizer as the mother/father figure is also problematised in Walcott’s considered reference to Traherne’s theology. Philippe Aries in his seminal work Centuries of Childhood (1960, 1962) points out the relationship between commerce, privatization and bourgeois notions of childhood starting from the early modern period. The nineteenth century with its repressive education system, created and the following centuries, especially with technological obsession as Aries points out, endorsed the hierarchy of intellectual and emotive parameters in distinguishing childhood from adulthood. These colonial notions traveled to the rest of the world and it is hardly surprising that these hierarchical models were to determine precolonial (and postcolonial) epistemology. The difference between eternal glory and agonized adolescence in Traherne’s and Walcott’s poems respectively, is that between colonial placidity and indigenous turbulence. As theological and poetical models, the differences, and yet the unbreakable bond between the English and African (Caribbean) tongue of Walcott speak a universal language of longing, loss and displacement that are the central to the study of Walcott’s work.
- Edmund Newey. 2016. Children of God: The Child as Source of Theological Anthropology, London: Routledge.
- Garnett Roper, J.Richard Middleton. 2013. A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology: Ecumenical Voices in Dialogue. Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
- Howard, Gregory (1995). Caribbean Theology: Preparing for the Challenges Ahead. University of West Indies: Canoe Press.
- Michele Praeger. 2003. The Imaginary Caribbean and Caribbean Imaginary. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
- Patrick Taylor (Ed.). 2001. Nation Dance: Religion, Identity and Cultural Difference in the Caribbean. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
- Paula Burnett. 2000. Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics. Florida: University Press of Florida.
- Philippe, Aries. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Alfred A Knopf.
- Prem Poddar. 2008. Historical Companion to Postcolonial Literatures-Continental Europe and its Empires. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Jason Gordon. 1998. “Faces of Jesus in Caribbean Theology” at: http://caribbeantheologytoday.net/rationale/publications/faces-of-jesus-in-caribbean-theology-by-jason-gordon-fifth-annual-conference-january-5-9-1998/ (Last accessed 27/04/2017).