Derek Walcott’s Sea Grapes – 1

You can find the text of Sea Grapes at

What a wonderful poem it is. It leapt off the page when I reached it in Walcott’s Collected Poems 1948 – 1984. My immediate feeling was that this was the most arrestingly alive and intellectually engaging poem in the volume so far.

What makes it come alive and stay alive so vividly? For me it was first of all that wonderful opening image, the way literal and metaphorical suggestions both played into and clashed with each other. The six words of the first line do so much. The use of “That” gives the sail an emphatic, almost concrete presence which is so swiftly etherealized by “leans on light” that the concrete presence and the ethereal image seem to be given simultaneously. The leaning of the sail both emphasises the physicality of the sail and introduces a hint of anthropomorphism to it. The sail may literally lean, but it can only seem to lean or metaphorically lean on light because light is insubstantial. The alliteration of “leans” and “light” yokes together these contradictory pulls towards physical and non-physical ways of picturing the scene, so they work together to strengthen, deepen and complicate our imaginative impression. The whole line feels energetic, partly for reasons of sound, but the word “leans” carries a contradictory hint of weariness which is picked up in the following line. And simultaneously with all this the brilliance of the Caribbean sea and sky explodes from behind and around the boat. In fact so much hits you all at once in the act of reading the line that trying to analyse it sequentially seems absurd. Could one ask for a better illustration of Pound’s assertion of the essentially dynamic nature of imagery when he says, “The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing”?

There are equally brilliant images later in the poem – for example “the one on shore / now wriggling on his sandals to walk home”. If Odysseus is the sea-wanderer, this figure is contrasted with him (at least on one plane of suggestion) as the homely modern islander on the beach, someone we can watch with intimate fellow-feeling, but the sandals belong as happily to classical legend as to the twentieth century Caribbean, so the contrast is sharpened by similarity. The adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name in every gull’s outcry is as gripping as Judas in Nerval’s sonnet “plein d’un remords si vif /Qu’il lisait ses noirceurs sur tous les murs écrits”. I admit I’m puzzled by the reference of the line; the adulterer could be Odysseus himself but why he should be haunted by Nausicaa’s name I don’t know. Odysseus’s obsession was with getting back to Penelope.

That’s a puzzle for me to try to solve later – unless Walcott simply got it wrong. What I want to say now is that the wonderful way mental picturing works in this poem depends partly on the skill and deftness of Walcott’s detailed expression and partly on larger underlying similarities that make for easy imaginative transition between the two sun-struck, island-sprinkled sea worlds with their strong, simple colours and light and their archetypal activities of sailing and return.

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