Voices of Heritage and Discord: Unveiling the Complexities of Identity in Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa”

By: Michael Schmalz

of Heritage and Discord: Unveiling the Complexities of Identity in Derek
Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa”

‘Divided to
the vein’

As a product of the interwoven and fluctuating culture of
the British colony of Saint Lucia, Derek Walcott explores and promotes his
English, African, and Dutch heritage through his poetry. Bereft of a
distinctive identity, Walcott employs his art to epistemologically reflect on
his English and Caribbean lineage, revealing the contiguously discrepant, yet
eventually analogous qualities within them. These qualities are communicated
through the Mau Mau uprising from 1952 to 1960, during which the Kikuyu tribe
utilized guerilla tactics to fight against harsh British colonial rule. In "A
Far Cry from Africa,"
set against the backdrop of this violent
uprising, Walcott delineates two paths that underscore the ethical and
peremptory sides of history, prompting a deep inquiry and delving into his
attachments and struggles with identity. Unable to discern nationalism amidst
the perpetual, senseless violence that pervades the colonial landscape, Walcott
finds himself “divided to the vein” (Walcott line 27). Subsequently, Walcott
becomes ensnared in a state of retreating worldliness and deeper into a pit of
disorientation within which he is unable to “face such slaughter” and not able
to “turn from Africa and live" (32-33). This division is congealed as the
central struggle throughout the poem, allowing it to become a nuanced
exploration of the complexities of post-colonial identity and the moral
ambiguity of violent struggles for independence.

Man and

The first-person perspective of Walcott is fluid,
adopting an ambiguous sense that maintains a capacity to change throughout the
poem. Without reading into the poem at all, the title, “A Far Cry from
offers a neo-colonial recognition, echoing his struggles and
speaking to how Africans can feel detached from African identity following
years of forced assimilation. Throughout the poem, Walcott, using naturalistic
comparisons, presents the central struggle of the poem by comparing the
disturbance of colonization in traditional African life to “a wind ruffling the
tawny pelt” (1). Throughout the poem, Walcott continues to use aspects of
nature to contrast and evoke the violence in Kenya as well as to present
readers with a more realistic and graphic representation. By imagining Kikuyu
as “quick as flies / Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt,” Walcott draws
a moral condemnation of their tactics while also implementing the term ‘veldt,’
a word from Afrikaans that conducts a tenuous collation between both acts of
violence (2-3). In the second stanza, Walcott ironically incorporates the term
“civilization” while describing a hunt “of ibises,” which are white-legged
animals, “by beaters” to acknowledge the scathing subsistence of barbarity and
aggression within our modern, enlightened societies (11-12). Walcott furthers
this through historical narratives, mentioning graphic acts of the “white child
hacked in the bed” committed by “savages, expendable as Jews” (9-10). Walcott
ends this quote with a question mark, leaving himself just as perplexed as when
he began the poem. Furthermore, this inquiry expresses Walcott’s internal
strife with this equivalence point of arbitrary violence, within which he
questions the perception of individuals as inherently violent. The climax of
this comparison between humans and nature becomes exemplified through Walcott’s
repetition of the word ‘beast’ and the ensuing abutment between “wars [that] /
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum” and “white peace contracted by the
dead” (18-21). The natural succumbence of humans to primal violence is,
suggested by Walcott, an inevitable phenomenon that demands external critique,
as it promotes a futile endeavor akin to how "the gorilla wrestles with the superman" (25).

A Splintered

The aimless structure of Walcott’s poem appears as an
inadvertence, following no rhyme scheme and a tangled form and meter. Walcott’s
initial stanza offers an ABAB rhyme scheme yet abruptly breaks on the fifth
line, creating a disjointed and fragmentary feel to the poem that mirrors
Walcott’s divided loyalties. Each stanza progressively increases in length and
maintains a blurry structure, displaying Walcott’s psychological process and
advancement that outs itself as a form of rebellious encroachment in the poetic
sphere. Coalesced with Walcott’s broken identity, this structure reflects the
dissension between French Creole or West Indian dialects and the standardized
metrical form of English poetry. Comparably, it helps denote Walcott’s
physically bearing ties to Africa’s suffering grappling with his love of the
English language that has allowed him to express himself. The organic, free
feel of Walcott’s poetry is aided by his incessant use of enjambment that
furthers the themes of violence and urgency in “A Far Cry from Africa”.
As mentioned before, the pronounced use of rhetorical form in the opening and
concluding stanzas of Walcott's poem not only overtly underscores his own
unresolved struggle with his heritage but also actively engages and challenges
the readers to contemplate their own sense of identity and belonging in the
context of colonialism and post-colonialism.

“Derek Walcott.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/derek-walcott.
Accessed 7 May 2023.

Walcott, Derek. "A Far Cry from Africa." The
Norton Anthology of English Literature
,      edited
by Stephen Greenblatt, 10th ed., vol. 2, W.W. Norton & Company,     2018,   pp.