Analyse the se of Intertextuality in Derek Walcott's Poetry

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In the literary realm, texts are in one way or another interconnected with the history of written language and very often, a work of art is built on the foundations of already existing pieces. As Julia Kristeva (1980) so clearly asserted it, “a literary work is not simply the product of a single author, but of its relationship to other texts and to the structures of language itself, […] any text is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another”. This is particularly noticeable in Derek Walcott's poem, Ruins of a Great House, where he makes an excessive use of intertextual references to discuss about the British Empire through the metaphor of the disintegrating colonial villa. In this stance, this essay will provide an in-depth analysis of intertextuality in Ruins of a Great House, by focusing on the reasons behind the recurrent references to canonical authors and subsequently, their contribution to the creation of the poet’s very identity.

Walcott gains a poetic vision that correlates to a larger vision for his culture. To use Edward Said’s word, Walcott achieves a ‘contrapuntal’ vision that converts him from his location of being a poet (man) living with a sense of exile to the one exiling his state of exile. This is evident in ‘Ruins of a Great House’ as Walcott invariably resists the adversarial divisiveness promulgated by binary classifications and argues instead for a cross-cultural fusion or a stance which allows identity to slip between the nets of static essentialist categorization. ‘Ruins of a Great House’ also confronts issues central to Caribbean culture, taking the fate of a former estate house as a metonym for the passing of Empire. The house represents the security of the supposedly stable Old World social order which crumbles down in the New World social order of Caribbean land. The poem emphasizes the theme of the transience nature of human life and in doing so, debunks the oppositional aesthetics rooted in notions of cultural and racial binaries along with the essentialist political definition of ‘Power’. The opening line of this poem states:

Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House, Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust, Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws... (IGN 19) The passage also comments on the particular fragility of the former plantocracy’s way of life and the poem goes on to suggest that the colonial presence has been but a passing phase in a recurrent Caribbean natural cycle:

Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone. (IGN 19)

Both slave and master inherit histories of excruciating pain, cruelty and abuse. Walcott proves that one can rise above the dimness of twilight into a new day, by testing the boundaries of the night. The Europeans taught the oppressed nothing of their heritage, but where there was nothing Walcott saw a well of opportunities and decided to channel this avenue instead of losing his identity and constructed from his in betweeness, a different and personal identity. Through this created identity, Walcott defines himself as a literary artist not bogged down by the circumstances of people once colonized.

Derek Walcott, both a timeless critic to post-colonial optimism and imperial Romanticism, is a torn man – vacillating between his paternal white heritage and the black culture of his mother's side. This conflict of identity prompts him to reflect on the philosophies of life, and this is clearly reflected in his use of intertextuality. In this poem, Derek Walcott's persona reflects on the fissured ruins of a plantation great house recalling the past splendor of the age in which the plantations, their aristocracy and their architecture was prosperous. He finds himself able to appreciate this past glory, the accomplishmenst and what he could regard as the greatness of the fallen empire despite the fact that he knows that it was built on the foundations of slavery, genocide and debauchery. Walcott combines the bitter knowledge that:

“Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake

The Albion too was once A colony like ours”

Derek Walcott makes use of an epigraph, quoting Browne’s (1658) Urn Burial, a novel that deals with Man's struggle with mortality, and the improbability of his destiny and reputation in this world and the next. By including the quote “it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes,” Walcott might be pointing to the differential treatment which time and mortality ultimately measure out for all of mankind. In the end, the imperialists might face the same atrocious end as those they dominated. The end, death, is the same for all; no one escapes the inevitable consequences of time and mortality. Walcott uses the metaphor of the Great House to depict an Africa ruined at the hand of its colonisers. The colonial rulers have robbed Africa of its wealth and destroyed its people. The different similes and metaphors that Walcott uses depict a violent treatment of the colonised. In other words, the British lizard with “dragon-like claws” has devastated the “moth-like girls of Africa.” The Guardians (gate-cherubs) of the gates had been slaughtered (streaked with strain). I believe that the poem is a means for Walcott to transmit his anger about the hardships and torture the slave had to go through and that the purpose of this intertextuality is to denote the anguish that they had to go through before finding “our light in ashes.”

Moreover, the imperial power interferes and interrupts the natural progression of the culture and the language of the colony. What was experienced by the oppressor, the opportunist as “The world’s green age” (35) was to the exploited, the less powerful “a rotting lime” (35). What might have been the reality becomes a mere process of disenchantment. It is impossible to rewind the clock of time to the beginning, to the point of intersection. The present cannot evade the influence of the philosophy, the will or the intent of that which forcefully superseded. Acknowledging about the obvious “sins” of the British Empire as well as a similarity in terms of a colonial past, Walcott expresses his inability to be considerate through the words “But still the coal of my compassion fought/That Albion too was once/A colony like ours, “part of the continent, piece of the main” (43-46). He reminds the reader that the oppressor was also once the oppressed, an ancient England at the mercy of a greater power. This intertextual reference to Donne’s Mediation XVII suggests the interconnectedness of mankind to time that went by, to the present time and on through to the future time. What affects one affects the all, and every part, whether a “clod” or a “promontory” or a “manor of thy friend’s,” it is crucial to the whole. This reference brings the poem to a surprising ending. Where earlier the Empire was portrayed as wicked and evil, a power that wrought great suffering and pain, now at the end there is a softening toward its image: “All in compassion ends/so differently from what the heart arranged”(49-51). The heart had other plans, other arrangements, perhaps to hate or to rage against the injustice, the tyranny, but in the end compassion seems to peek through all the negativities.

Besides, by including the quote “Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the abuse of ignorance by Bible and by sword” (28-30), Walcott is referencing the poem ‘Recessional’, in which Kipling is imploring God for clemency and protection, as the Empire pursues its quest of colonization. However, Walcott foresees the imminent doom of the empire and attributes it to the abuse of the power conferred to them and an overexploitation of the colony A period of history would soon be coming to an end, the British Empire would have to face its inevitable death, but the “leprosy” has left its mark and the damage that it has inflicted will continue to exist long after the last “farewell” (11). For none of us is an island to ourselves what affects one affects the whole, we are all “part of the continent, piece of the main” (43-46). By refereeing to Kipling, in my opinion, Walcott is trying to provide a condense of the different faces of colonialism and how it came about its doom.

Through intertextuality in ‘Ruins of a Great House’, Walcott makes reference to canonical British authors, seeking to give a voice to the formerly colonized. He “writes back” (Ashcroft et. Al, 2002) not to blame or complain to the colonials but to dictate his newly found identity after years of creolization and imperialistic attitudes. He allows the postcolonial to come to terms with his/her divided identity and thus construct a different and personal identity, which seeks no form of acceptance from colonizer or colonized, for the Caribbean person is no longer the ‘Other.’ What predominates in the poem is Walcott's knowledge that he is contemplating the degeneration that has impacted an institution that was once powerful. "Ruins of a Great House" further reinforces the tensions of merged identities. The persona moves from an exhibition of anger, resentment, hate and bitterness to a compassionate understanding of his British masters, who themselves were once slaves to the Romans. This greater perspective of things enables the speaker to accept the existential nature of his divided-self and that of West Indian man.