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Literary Migrations
Homer’s Journey through Joyce’s Ireland
and Walcott’s Saint Lucia

By Patricia Novillo-Corvalán




This paper examines the literary kinship found in the works of Derek Walcott, James Joyce and Homer. Principally, it explores the way in which Walcott transplanted the classical epic tradition onto his Caribbean island of Saint Lucia in the wake of Joyce’s similar shifting of the Odyssey to twentieth-century Dublin. It argues that Walcott forged a colonial affiliation with Irish literature, which he used as a model for his reflections on the linguistic, cultural and historical situation of Saint Lucia. The paper concludes with Walcott’s homage to Joyce in his epic poem Omeros, which underlines the significant fact that the epic genre is not a fixed form of yesteryear, but rather a fluid, living category that travels across cultures and languages and acquires richer, more complex meanings through each of these migrations.

Derek A. Walcott (b.1930)
(Brian Snyder/Reuters 1992)

The work of James Joyce looms large in the prolific production of the St Lucian poet, playwright, essayist, and 1992 Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott. This is revealed in his autobiographical essay ‘Leaving School’ (1965), in which he reported his youthful identification with ‘[his] current hero, the blasphemous, arrogant Stephen Dedalus’ (Walcott 1993a: 31); in his epic poem Epitaph for the Young (1949), where he continued and developed his relationship with Joyce’s work; in his seminal essay, ‘The Muse of History’ (1974), the epigraph to which boasted Stephen Dedalus’s forceful declaration in Ulysses: ‘History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ (Walcott 1998: 36); [1] and in his celebrated epic poem Omeros (1990), in which he emulated Joyce’s Hibernian rewriting of the Odyssey as he shifted Homer to the historical, cultural and linguistic circumstances of his twentieth-century Caribbean island of Saint Lucia.

Beneath the enduring fascination that Walcott has repeatedly professed of Joyce and Irish literature, however, it is possible to identify a larger historical reciprocity that proved fundamental in this timely literary meeting. At the core of Walcott’s affiliation with the Irish literary tradition, thus, is embedded a deeply-rooted colonial history that forged a series of parallels between the Irish and Saint Lucian islands.

According to Charles W. Pollard, these analogies are based on historical, religious, and political factors, particularly since ‘[both writers were] born on an island controlled by the Roman Catholic Church and the British Empire’, and were ‘educated by Irish priests […] but rebelled against [their] suffocating orthodoxy’ (Pollard 2001: 197). Similarly, he claims that both writers were ‘educated in the colonial system, [and] grew to resent English rule yet cherished the English language and literary tradition’ (Pollard 2001: 197). Finally, Pollard asserts that their literary vocations ‘compelled [them] to flee the provincialism of [their] island home although [they] continued to focus on writing about that island’ (Pollard 2001: 197). In effect, Walcott himself identified these striking parallels in a crucial interview with Edward Hirsh:

The whole Irish influence was for me a very intimate one. When the Irish brothers came to teach at the college in Saint Lucia, I had been reading a lot of Irish literature: I read Joyce, naturally I knew Yeats, and so on. I’ve always felt some kind of intimacy with the Irish poets because one realized that they were also colonials with the same kind of problems that existed in the Caribbean. They were the niggers of Britain (Baer 1996: 59).

In Walcott’s creative development as a writer, Stephen Dedalus’s perceptive differentiation of his Hibernian-English dialect from the Standard English spoken by the Dean of Studies: ‘— The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech (Joyce 2000: 159)’, would have increased his awareness that as an English-speaking Caribbean writer he had to face a similar linguistic dilemma.

Therefore, just as Joyce masterfully twisted the colonial language to make it suit the particular requirements of his twentieth-century Irish circumstances, so Walcott similarly employed the English language to express the racial, cultural, and linguistic concerns of the island of Saint Lucia. Walcott turned the English language into a hybridised, Antillean patois that successfully captured the regional accents and idiosyncrasies of the Saint Lucian people. Moreover, in ‘The Muse of History’ Walcott advocated an Adamic redemption, a linguistic rebirth that would allow New World writers to become a second Adam and to rename, and hence transform, the oppressive colonial legacy which they had inherited.

In particular, he placed emphasis on the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whom he considers one of the greatest New World poets, arguing that Neruda had similarly undertaken the historical task to rename and poetise his own culture (Walcott 1998: 39-40). This call for action is powerfully allied with the belief that the ex-colonial subject has the right to use the white man’s words […] his dress, his machinery, his food. And, of course, his literature’ (Walcott 1993b: 20). In this light, Walcott is asserting that language and literature provide marginal writers a dual means of self-representation which enable them to use the Western tradition to their own advantage, as well as stretching the linguistic possibilities of the colonial speech through the use of devices such as code-switching (moving between two languages or dialects within the same discourse) and vernacular transcription (writing in colloquial language).

Yet at the same time, in the mirror of Joyce’s art wherein Walcott recognised the image of his own face, are also reflected a series of complex, distorted figures with which the Caribbean poet identified. The looking glass of Irish art simultaneously revealed to him the literary figures of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, albeit compounded and enriched by the signification they had assimilated in Joyce’s work. If Joyce charted the complex migration of Homer’s Odyssey into the scenery of his native city of Dublin, then Walcott similarly extended the journey of Homer to the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia.

But Joyce’s mapping of the Odyssey also involved a complex voyage through history and literature that created a version of the Greek hero Ulysses refracted through the prisms of Dante’s Commedia, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as through several centuries of critical interpretations that he had inherited as a twentieth-century Irish writer. Thus in his epic poem Omeros, Walcott also incorporated a Homeric heritage refracted by Dante’s medieval understanding of Homer (he employed a lyric form that resembles Dante’s tersa rima) and by Joyce’s contemporary readings of Homer and Dante, which Walcott, in turn, blended with the rich, exuberant, and yet oppressive history of Saint Lucia.

Not for nothing has the island been named the ‘Helen of the Caribbean’, in a metaphorical designation that proposes an analogy between the mythical quarrel between Greeks and Trojans over Argive Helen, and the historical disputes between British and French powers over the sovereignty of the island. Saint Lucia, as Walcott pointed out in ‘Leaving School’, had been named ‘by Columbus […] after the blind saint’ (Walcott 1993a: 24). According to Christian hagiography, Saint Lucy plucked out her beautiful eyes because they proved attractive to a male admirer. This vow of chastity also enabled the martyr to renounce all earthy possessions in her total devotion to God. The motif of metaphorical and physical blindness, as we shall see, is also central to Walcott’s relationship with Homer and Joyce.

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Novillo-Corvalán, Patricia, 'Literary Migrations: Homer’s Journey through Joyce’s Ireland and Walcott’s Saint Lucia' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 157-162. Available online (, accessed .


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