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Best known for his theatrical works and his 1990 Homeric epic Omeros, Derek Walcott is a major voice of postcolonial Caribbean literature. Walcott has been awarded both a Nobel prize and an OBE from the British Government for his literary and theatrical contributions. Like many contemporary poets, Walcott writes in a postmodernist tradition. The postmodern period is difficult to define, but one of its main traits, particularly in poetry, is the use of antiquated discourses, forms, and voices to comment on the present. Walcott’s poetry uses this technique to infuse the literary canon with a Caribbean identity.
Because of the postmodern play of forms and discourses, Walcott’s poetic style is wide-ranging and evokes comparisons to Homer, John Milton, and Biblical texts. “Adam’s Song,” part of his 1976 poetry collection Sea Grapes, engages with the Biblical story of Genesis and humanity’s fall. The poem makes connections between contemporary religious practice and the treatment of women, with Eve’s interpreted place as a temptress and cause of original sin. Rather than feed into the religious dichotomy of man and woman, however, “Adam’s Song” instead champions human connection.
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Derek Walcott was born January 23, 1930, in the island country of Saint Lucia. Part of a Methodist minority, Walcott’s family was excluded from the Catholic culture that dominated the island. Walcott’s father, who died when Derek and his twin brother Roderick were one year old, was a successful painter and civil servant. His mother was an elementary school teacher and often recited poetry in their home. As a young man, Walcott trained to become a painter under the guidance of Saint Lucian artist Harold Simmons. Though Walcott abandoned his hopes of becoming a professional painter by his mid-teens, Simmons proved a valuable role model and Walcott continued to paint throughout his life.
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Walcott published his first poem, a religious work imitating the British poet John Milton (1608-1674), in The Voice of St Lucia at 14 years old. Religion continued to play a major thematic role throughout Walcott’s poetry. Walcott self-published his first two collections of poetry, 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (1949), between the ages of 18 and 19. Walcott’s mother paid for the books to be published in Trinidad, and Walcott made the money back by selling the books to his friends.
Walcott attended the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica until 1953. After graduation he moved to Trinidad, where he established himself as a teacher and critic. During this time, Walcott also wrote a number of plays before returning seriously to poetry with the publication of 1962’s In a Green Night. This collection also marked the beginning of Walcott’s poetic exploration of colonial Caribbean history. 1976’s Sea Grapes, in which “Adam’s Song” was originally collected, deals with similar themes. Though Walcott’s poetry was well received from the 1960s through to the 1980s, he was primarily celebrated as a playwright. His 1970 play Dream on Monkey Mountain led to him being awarded an OBE from the British Government.
Omeros, Walcott’s 1990 poetic retelling of Homer’s Iliad in the Caribbean islands, quickly overshadowed his previous theatrical works and is widely recognized by critics as Walcott’s masterpiece. In 1992, largely due to Omeros’s success, Walcott was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Walcott’s 2010 collection White Egrets was similarly well received and was awarded both the T.S. Eliot Prize and the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Walcott continued to write significant theatrical and poetic works until his death on March 17, 2017.
Walcott, Derek. “Adam’s Song.” 1976. Collected poems, 1948-1984, p. 302. Archive.org.
Walcott’s “Adam’s Song” begins with the image of an “adulteress [being] stoned to death” and connects the practice with that of killing people through “whispers,” or gossip (Lines 1, 3). Unlike the stones that would bludgeon the adulteress to death, the practice that occurs “in our own time (Line 2) “films [the victim’s] flesh with slime” (Line 4).
The second stanza then moves to Eve, the first woman according to Christian and many other Abrahamic belief systems. The speaker describes Eve as “horn[ing] God for the serpent” (Line 6) and doing so “for Adam’s sake” (Line 7). The speaker claims that this intention makes “everyone guilty or Eve innocent” (Line 8). The third stanza states that “Nothing has changed” from Eve’s time (Line 9), and that “Adam sang” a song that men still sing (Line 10). The following stanza clarifies that Adam’s song is “to Eve / against his own damnation” (Lines 12-13). The song, according to the speaker, was originally sung “in the evening of the world” (Line 14).
The fifth stanza describes this evening and how the remaining light interacts with “eyes / of panthers in the peaceable kingdom” (Lines 15, 16). The following stanza then elaborates on Adam’s emotional state as he sings the song. He is “frightened” of God’s “jealousy” and fears for “his own death” (Lines 18, 19, 20). As the song reaches God in the seventh stanza, however, the divine being “wipes his eyes” (Line 21). The poem’s eighth and final stanza contains Adam’s song. In it, he refers to Eve as his “Heart” (Line 22) and compares her to a number of natural phenomena.
By Derek Walcott