Poetry and History

‘Dead ash and blackening ember’:
memory as a site of resistance in Derek Walcott’s “Ruins of a Great House”

“Ruins of a Great House” is a very early poem by Derek Walcott, written sometime in 1953-4. Walcott was then a postgraduate student of 24, studying for a Diploma in Education at the University of the West Indies, in Jamaica. On a walk with one of his tutors, the poet John Figueroa, on Guava Ridge in the Blue Mountains, he saw the ruins in question which, so he said a year later, inspired this poem . (1) The poem was among those sent to Roy Fuller and chosen by Geoffrey Moore for publication in New World Writing in November 1956. It was republished, with a few interesting changes, (2) in Walcott’s first major collection, In a Green Night (1962), and has since appeared in every collected and selected volume of Walcott’s poems.

The period 1953-1956 was a time of more or less conflictual decolonization, in Malaya, in East Africa and in Walcott’s native cricket-playing Caribbean. In what was increasingly seen as the twilight of Empire, one of the central questions was that of what would survive, and that in turn raised further questions of legacy and memory, questions of divided loyalty, which I would like to explore through this poem (3).

The poem begins with a specifically Caribbean site of resistance: the Great House, both a literally commanding presence in the West Indian landscape and a supreme symbol of the plantation economy based on slavery. Walcott was not alone at this time in taking the ruins of a Great House as a point of departure (4) . As their titles suggest, great houses also figure in the first novels of George Lamming and Wilson Harris: In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and Palace of the Peacock (1959). Indeed, like these novels, Walcott’s poem can be read as a miniature bildungsroman, in which the historical reality and persistent patriarchal presence of the Great House of colonialism are transformed into an extended metaphor for a life-and-death struggle between the old and the new.

We immediately recognize the poem as an ode written in the manner of the English Romantics, both a description of a view and an anatomy of the viewer’s emotions. True to type, (5) it is irregular in form, with apparently random, yet emphatic, masculine rhymes, as well as the more modern half-rhymes, and eye-rhymes. The description of the ruins of the Great House, emblematic of the end of Empire, is a masterly variation on the Romantic theme of decay, with the scattered stones reminiscent of the stones which mock the fallen pride of Ozymandias (6) . Something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark: ‘Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake’. The sordid reality of the human suffering that lay below the surface of the former life of the great House is conjured up in a powerful series of Gothic images of disease, stench and corruption, ‘the leprosy of Empire’.

The poem thus begins with the question of historical memory, with the Jacobean theme of revenge; all the scattered traces of the past ‘shriek with stain’ (4). The rotting slave literally reeks, and (pun intended) metaphorically wreaks his particular revenge for the historical wrong done to enslaved Africans. But the poem does not stay with this ancestral memory; more interestingly, it moves on to another form of memory, in order to end, in a way that seems to surprise the poet himself, on the theme of compassion, in the form of a dialogue between friends. Following Aristotle, the poet moves from the particulars of history to the universal world of poetry. The site of struggle is displaced from history to poetry, with the fire metaphor of my title providing a key moment in that transition:

But, as dead ash is lifted in a wind
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.

These lines are pivotal because they express a reversal of what we would expect: the poet’s eyes are no longer burning with revenge, no longer “Ablaze with rage”, but cool to the black coal of compassion . Paradoxically, the compassion comes from “the ashen prose of Donne ” , from the core of the enslaving civilization of the dead white male. The Great House, as the allusions to Donne’s magnificent "Meditation XVII" remind us, (7) is also the House of Death, that universal destination which awaits all mankind. No temple of the body is safe from the “worm’s rent  or the mouse’s attentions. . The poem is drenched with allusions to the idea of man’s mortality: from the epigraph taken from Sir Thomas Browne, “it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness ” (8) to the three crows of lines 7-8, who are perhaps the three ravens of the Jacobean song and mystical allegory “There were three ravens sat on a tree (9)”.

The “evil days” and “evil times” are not merely particular accidents of history. As the allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost reminds us (10) , they are part of the Fall, part of that “aboriginal calamity ” (11) which affects all men. The Great House thus becomes a Pastoral site where a return to innocence is possible, where, as in Blake’s poem ‘Night’, the lion can lie down with the lamb (12) . For Walcott the Christian poet this is possible because the advent of Christ effects a transition from the Old Testament, the era of rage and revenge, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth ” (13) to the New Testament, an era of compassion and accommodation: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions (14)”. Christ-like, poetry performs a healing function, the poet using what T.S. Eliot called “the sharp compassion of the healer’s art (15) ”. Walcott heals the hurt of history by putting it into the universal perspective of the grim comedy of Death. Such imperial victories as might have been won by the surprise attacks of padded cavalry are short-lived triumphs, when compared with the continual struggle against Death, the “padded cavalry of the mouse (16) ” .

In Walcott’s poem the history of the slave rotting beneath the former beauty of the Great House and  garden, is ‘silt’, ‘silt that clogs’, a metaphor for the rage at history that impedes creative thought. For Walcott, as for T.S. Eliot , history on its own is merely “roots that clutch”, “a heap of broken images” (17). The poet’s eye must see beyond that of the historian, find the rivulet, and release the waters of Lethe so that “The rivers flows, obliterating hurt.” Not history, but the hurt of history must be seen in perspective if something new is to be constructed. That is exactly what the poem does in its central stanzas, when the poet himself becomes part of the landscape: “I climbed a wall…”, “And when a wind shook in the limes I heard” and “pacing, I thought next”. The thoughts that occur to the poet ‘pacing’ (18) are memories of “ancestral murderers and poets”, Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake (19) . These slave-traders and pirates were ‘ancestral’ for Walcott who, as a man, came of mixed blood and who, as a poet, was inevitably apprenticed to all the poets that had written before him.

How to resist the murderers without sacrificing the poets? In ll. 23-4, Walcott literally and metaphorically surmounts the paradox: “I climbed a wall with the grille ironwork / Of exiled craftsmen”. The image of the grille ironwork offers an escape from a silting sense of guilt because it was made by ‘exiled craftsmen’ with whom Walcott can identify, as indeed can all humanity, in the sense that we are all exiles from paradise, all disjecta membra. The poet uses the work of these former craftsmen in order to see beyond the wall of history, and what he sees in that perspective is that man’s exiled condition is universal and apparently permanent.  Over time, all people are both colonizing and colonized: the Greeks, the Romans, the French, Faulkner’s slave-owning South. ‘Albion too was once / A colony like ours. As Walcott said in a later interview:

[…] the whole process of civilization is cyclical. The good civilization absorbs a certain amount, like the Greeks. Empires are smart enough to steal from the people they conquer. They steal the best things. And the people who have been conquered should have the sense to steal back (20) .

This is exactly what Walcott the poetical pirate is doing in this poem: stealing and giving back. The entire poem, as an early critic pointed out, is “strung on a framework of quotations (21) ”. In the 1950s, the struggle between the strong culture and the weak one might have been unequal, but it was never entirely one-sided. Walcott’s borrowing is interactive, enriching both the new (Caribbean) culture and the old (European) one. In his reiterated use of allusion Walcott is literally writing back into the Modernist tradition, and also into the seventeenth and eighteenth century traditions of the Country House poem (22) .

Walcott was criticized for talking to and with the enemy, but he  always defended himself in terms of the cultural situation in which he found himself, in the Caribbean in the 1950s:

[…] the fact remains, the masterpieces of the language in which I work are from a white literary history. That must not prevent me from mastering the language; it is not a matter of subservience, it is a matter of dominating. One becomes a master, one doesn’t become a slave (23) .

Indeed, in this poem we see no evidence of slavish borrowing: the images of the Old World are transformed by the landscape of the New.  Walcott’s version of the Garden of Eden contains, not an apple and a snake, but limes and a lizard. The familiar is made rich and strange: as in the reference to Henry V (24) . Surely only a Caribbean, island-loving poet could so affectionately draw our attention to the vividly vernacular in Shakespeare: “nook-shotten” .

Walcott’s doubly creative borrowing works in a way that is not hostile, but accommodating, an open-ended dialogue between friends. The unfinished end of the poem suggests the beginning of a new exchange between former enemies. The final allusion to Donne in the last line “as well as if a manor of thy friend’s” is a brilliantly mocking and self-mocking pun. Manor is also manner, Walcott writing in the style of his friends, in the manner of the colonial tradition.

Some postcolonial critics have argued that in shifting the site of memory from history to poetry, Walcott evades the main issue. The dense intertextuality at work in this poem might seem to create an entirely self-referential, self-enclosed world outside linear time. Yet poetic compassion, in obliterating the hurt of history, does not obliterate history itself. Quite the contrary: in poetry history is resurrected. Memory is constructed not in stone, but in language, in the ‘memorable speech’ that was Auden’s definition of poetry. It is in that sense that poetry can offer such a formidable site of resistance. Poetry is the sovereign site of memory and, as the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah once pointed out, for the wretched of the earth, memory is a subtle but potent weapon.


(1) These biographical details can be found in King,  Derek Walcott. A Caribbean Life,  p. 100.

 (2) These are discussed by Mervyn Morris in a paper given in 1968, ‘Walcott and the audience for poetry’.

(3) “Ruins of a Great House” is often seen as an early answer to the question asked at the end of “A Far Cry from Africa”:
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed the drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live ?
Walcott’s personal anguish is very much emblematic of the anguish of many postcolonial writers after the Second World War.

(4)  Pascale Guibert, a collegue from Caen, reminded me that Irish literature is rich in great House literature. I am grateful to her for the following ideas for comparison:
- Eavan BOLAND : « Daughters of Colony » ; « The Colonists » in THE LOST LAND
- Seamus HEANEY : « Midnight » in WINTERING OUT
- Brendan KENNELLY : « The Big House » in THE BOATS ARE HOME
- Richard MURPHY : « The Woman of the House » in SAILING TO AN ISLAND
    and « Family Seat » in THE PRICE OF STONE
-An interesting article: FSL Lyons : « Yeats and the Anglo-Irish Twilight », in IRISH CULTURE AND NATIONALISM 1750-1950, MACDONAGH, MANDLE & TRAVERS eds. Macmillan (1983) 1985.

 (5) The form of the irregular ode was introduced by Abraham Cowley in 1656. Early odes were eulogies, but Walcott, tongue-in-cheek tribute has perhaps not so much come to praise Caesar as to bury him.

(6)  Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ (1818) :
 I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 (7) from Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624) by John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

(8) Epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial, or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (1658). Walcott’s text appears to have been taken from the extract in Charles Dudley Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature, Ancient and Modern, vol. 6 of 30 volumes, 1896-7:

Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty seven Names make up the first story, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox? Every house addes unto that current Arithmetique, which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt whether thus to live, were to dye. Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse, and have our lights in ashes. Since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento's, and time that grows old it self, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.

This epigraph was added later, for the collection In a Green Night. It perhaps contains an echo of William Styron’s first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), a powerful evocation of Faulkner’s South.

(9) Song collected by Thomas Ravenscroft in Melismata. Musicall Phansies Fitting the Court, Cittie, and Countrey Humours (1611). Included in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse (1900, 1939), no. 389.

There were three ravens sat on a tree,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
They were a black as black might be,
With a down.
The one of them said to his mate.
"Where shall we our breakfast take?"
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down.
Down in yonder green field,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
There lies a knight slain under his shield,
With a down.
His hounds they lie down at his feet
So well they do their master keep.
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down.
3. His hawks they fly so eagerly
Down a down, hey down, hey down
No other fowl dare him come nigh,
With a down.
Down there comes a fallow doe
As heavy with young as she might go.
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down.
She lifted up his bloody head,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
And kissed his wounds that were so red,
With a down.
She got him up upon her back
And carried him to earthen lake.
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down.
She buried him before the prime,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
She was dead herself ere even-song time,
With a down.
God send every gentleman
Such hawks, such hounds, and such leman,
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down

(10) from Book 7, 21-31 of Paradise Lost (1674) by John Milton:

Half yet remains unsung, but narrower bound
Within the visible diurnal sphere;
Standing on earth, not rapt above the pole,
More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visitest my slumbers nightly, or when morn
Purples the east: still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

(11) To use a phrase Walcott was fond of, borrowed from part 7 of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864).

(12) ‘Farewell green fields/Farewell ye happy groves’ (10-11) is a direct quotation from ‘Night’, a poem by William Blake, an allusion which can be read as an interesting variation on the theme of twilight:

The sun descending in the west,
The evening star does shine;
The birds are silent in their nest,
And I must seek for mine.
The moon, like a flower,
In heaven's high bower,
With silent delight
Sits and smiles on the night.

Farewell, green fields and happy groves,
Where flocks have took delight.
Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves
The feet of angels bright;
Unseen they pour blessing,
And joy without ceasing,
On each bud and blossom,
And each sleeping bosom.

They look in every thoughtless nest,
Where birds are cover'd warm;
They visit caves of every beast,
To keep them all from harm.
If they see any weeping
That should have been sleeping,
They pour sleep on their head,
And sit down by their bed.

When wolves and tigers howl for prey,
They pitying stand and weep;
Seeking to drive their thirst away,
And keep them from the sheep.
But if they rush dreadful,
The angels, most heedful,
Receive each mild spirit,
New worlds to inherit.

And there the lion's ruddy eyes
Shall flow with tears of gold,
And pitying the tender cries,
And walking round the fold,
Saying, “Wrath, by His meekness,
And, by His health, sickness
Is driven away
From our immortal day.

And now beside thee, bleating lamb,
I can lie down and sleep;
Or think on Him who bore thy name,
Graze after thee and weep.
For, wash'd in life's river.
My bright mane for ever
Shall shine like the gold
As I guard o'er the fold.”

(13) Exodus chapter 21, verse 23.

(14) Gospel of St. John, chapter 14, verse 2.

(15) T.S. Eliot, East Coker, part IV.

(16) This phrase surely contains an echo of Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’.

(17) See, for example, “The Burial of the Dead”, the opening sequence of The Waste Land (1922). This is the second stanza:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

(18) For Walcott, pacing produces poetry in a particular form. In an interview, talking about Wallace Stevens’ habit of composing poetry while out walking, he  declared, “the pace of strolling is iambic pentameter”.  In 1981, in the New York Review of Books, Helen Vendler said “Ruins” was not a poem, but an essay in pentameters.

(19) Walcott was to return to the example of Raleigh in a later interview: “And that’s not to deny that there are real crises of resolution, and conflicts and ironies, about the fact that you’re writing in English. For example, you can’t just think of Sir Walter Raleigh as someone who was simply an adventurer, some who exploited – even if you’re inclined to use that kind of historical post-mortem on Raleigh. You can’t let it cloud the fact that Raleigh is a superb, a great poet.” William Baer (ed.), Conversations with Derek Walcott, p. 204.

(20) William Baer (ed.), Conversations with Derek Walcott, 1996, p. 75. The interview took place in 1982.

(21) F.N. Furbank in The Listener, quoted in King, p. 184.

(22) “Ruins” interestingly anticipates the critique of Mansfield Park that Edward Said was to make in Culture and Imperialism (1993), some forty years later. These opening stanzas of “Upon Appleton House, to my Lord Fairfax” (1651) by Andrew Marvell are a fine example of the Country house poem:

Within this sober frame expect
Work of no foreign architect
That unto caves the quarries drew,
And forests did to pastures hew
Who of his great design in pain
Did for a model vault his brain;
Whose columns should so high be rais'd
To arch the brows that on them gaze.

Why should of all things man unrul'd
Such unproportion'd dwellings build?
The beasts are by their dens exprest,
And birds contrive an equal nest;
The low roof'd tortoises do dwell
In cases fit of tortoise-shell;
No creature loves an empty space;
Their bodies measure out their place.

But he, superfluously spread,
Demands more room alive than dead;
And in his hollow palace goes
Where winds as he themselves may lose.
What need of all this marble crust
T'impark the wanton mote of dust,
That thinks by breadth the world t'unite
Though the first builders fail'd in height?

(23) Baer, p. 48. The interview took place in 1977.
(24) From Henry V, III, 5, 12-16 (1600) by William Shakespeare:

Duke of Bourbon: Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards!
Mort de ma vie! If they march along
Unfought withal, but I will sell my dukedom,
To buy a slobbery and a dirty farm
In that nook-shotten isle of Albion.

For “rook o’er blown” Walcott perhaps had in mind the last lines of ‘This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison’, addressed to Charles Lamb by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797:

My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
 Had cross'd the mighty Orb's dilated glory,
 While thou stood'st gazing; or, when all was still,
 Flew creeking o'er thy head, and had a charm
 For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
 No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

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