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

By Patricia Novillo-Corvalán



Marble bust of Homer in the British Museum, London
(Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic original, second century BC)

For Walcott, above all, this process of cross-cultural transference became a means by which Western discourses could be transplanted into the geographical landscape of his native Caribbean Island. These migrating seeds, thus, would bear the fruits of the cultural and linguistic richness of Saint Lucia, but also the thorns of a long and oppressive history of colonisation and slavery. In this manner, ‘Homer’ becomes Omeros, a cultural legacy stripped of a capital ‘H’ and turned from the singular monologic ‘Homer’ to the plural dialogic ‘Omer(os)’, suitably representing the cultural diversity of colonised peoples whose hybridity is characteristic of an in-between identity that results from the merging of multiple worlds, multiple languages and multiple races. Therefore the canonical figure of Homer acquires a new literary and cultural meaning within a Caribbean heteroglossic locale:

I said, “Omeros,”

And O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was

both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,

os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes

and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.

Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes

that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed (Walcott 1990: 14).

The metaphor of the sea provides Walcott with the dual image of literary continuation and re-generation, as the ever-flowing waters of epic inscribe his Caribbean poem within the classical epic tradition but also within the Hibernian sea of Joyce’s Ulysses. In his essay ‘The Language of Exile’ the Irish poet and 1995 Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, perceptively identified the powerful currents that merge in Walcott and Joyce’s seas: ‘When Walcott lets the sea-breeze freshen in his imagination, the result is a poetry as spacious and heart-lifting as the sea-weather at the opening of Joyce’s Ulysses’ (Heaney 1993: 305).

Like Joyce, Walcott set himself the task of creating a new type of trans-cultural epic, which he represented on the large and multifarious canvas of Omeros, whereby he depicted the everyday reality of the islanders of Saint Lucia. This vast and complex panel, however, created ambivalent relationships in terms of culture (New World/Old World) race (black/white) and language (Creole-English/Standard English). By this token, the characters that inhabit Omeros adopt the grandiloquent names of their epic ancestors, but emulate a new type of heroism that arises, not from the battles of high rank individuals, but from the struggle of fishermen and local people who have to survive the socio-economic challenges of the island.

For instance, in an interview with J. P. White, Walcott applauded Joyce’s successful creation of a new type of urban epic that transcends traditional notions of heroism: ‘Ulysses is an epic because it breathes. It’s an urban epic, which is remarkable in a small city. It’s a wonderful epic in the sense that the subject is lyrical and not heroic. The subject is a matter of a reflective man, not a man of action, but a sort of wandering Jew’ (Baer 1996: 161). The conciliatory qualities of Leopold Bloom, to whom Walcott is alluding here, are particularly manifested at the end of the ‘Ithaca’ episode. Contrary to his Homeric counterpart Odysseus, who mercilessly executed both Penelope’s importunate suitors and the female servants of the palace, Bloom opted for an anti-heroic, pacifist acceptance of Molly Bloom’s infidelity with Blazes Boylan, and decided not to perpetuate a bloodthirsty, Homeric-type revenge on her suitor:

Why more abnegation than jealousy, less envy than equanimity?

From outrage (matrimony) to outrage (adultery) there arose nought but outrage (copulation) yet the matrimonial violator of the matrimonially violated had not been outraged by the adulterous violator of the adulterously violated (Joyce 2002: 603).

It is important to highlight here, nonetheless, that the main story of Omeros is the antagonism of two local fishermen, Achille and Hector, who become arch-rivals in their fight for the love of Saint Lucian Helen, a beautiful yet highly enigmatic character, who works as a waitress in a local bar of the island. Yet it merits mention that for as much as Walcott’s characters are able to wear the mythical façade of their Homeric counterparts, these masks are eventually removed in order to reveal the Other, deeper reality that lies beneath the classical attributes. In this manner, Walcott’s Homeric correspondences, like Joyce’s, are not fixed, one-dimensional constructs, but rather fluid, transformative identities that are capable of breaking free from the shackles of their Homeric namesakes insofar as their larger meaning becomes transformed by their new geographical setting.

In this way, Caribbean Helen adopts several Homeric and mythological identities; she inherits the beauty of her counterpart, Helen of Troy, and thus becomes the source of rivalry between Hector and Achille. The eventual death of Hector, however, turns Helen into Penelope, a bereaved figure grieving for his absence, weaving an intricate tapestry out of the foamy currents of her Caribbean mer. Helen is also Circe, the enchantress whose powers allure Plunkett (the British expatriate) and who silently steals Maud’s (Plunkett’s Irish wife’s) bracelet. Towards the end of the poem, however, Saint Lucian Helen triumphs over all her epic counterparts as she reasserts herself in all her Caribbean identity, transforming the long history of a marble face into the renewed beauty of an ebony face:

Names are not oars

that have to be laid side by side, nor are legends;

slowly the foaming clouds have forgotten ours.

You were never in Troy, and, between two Helens,

yours is here and alive; their classic features

were turned into silhouettes from the lightning bolt

of a glance. These Helens are different creatures,

One marble, one ebony (Walcott 1990: 313).

Another principal personage in the poem is a local fisherman named Philoctetes, who bears a wound from a rusty anchor which, as the book develops, acquires a larger allegorical significance and becomes a metaphor for the abuse and suffering of the Saint Lucian people. As Lorna Hardwick has pointed out: ‘Names, relationships and situations familiar from Homer also bring with them reminders of enforced diaspora and a plantation culture which replaced the African names of its slaves with classical ones’ (Hardwick 2006: 356).

It is highly significant, in this respect, that Seamus Heaney produced his own Irish version of the Greek hero in The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” (1991). Like Walcott’s Caribbean afterlife of the mythological character, Heaney’s fluid and lyrically infused translation of Philoctetes similarly resonates with echoes of his Irish circumstances. For instance, in his ‘Production Notes’ he suggested that his new title The Cure at Troy conveyed the faith belief system of Irish Roman Catholicism: ‘Cure is backlit ever so faintly in Irish usage (or should I say Irish Catholic?) by a sense of miracle. Lourdes and all that’ (Heaney 2002: 172). Further, the Northern Ireland resonances of Heaney’s version of Sophocles are deeply interrelated with the fact that most of the cast was originally from Ulster, that the play’s official opening took place in the Northern Irish county Derry, and, as Heaney also admitted, the play operated under the cultural slogan of Field Day Theatre Company (Heaney 2002: 174).

In a larger way, both Walcott and Heaney’s afterlives of Philoctetes foreground the importance of healing and hope as the best antidotes to alleviate the wounds of the past. ‘“We shall all heal”’ (Walcott 1990: 219) says the blind figure of Seven Seas to the rest of the characters at the end of Omeros. And the Chorus in Heaney’s The Cure at Troy positively proclaims towards the end of the play: ‘So hope for a great sea-change/On the far side of revenge./Believe that a further shore/Is reachable from here./Believe in miracles/And cures and healing wells’ (Heaney 1990: 77).

In addition, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ tragedy reinforces the valid claim that it is possible to identify a longstanding association between Irish literature and ancient Greek mythology, principally in the wake of Joyce’s Ulysses. Marianne McDonald has particularly recognised the interrelationship between Attic tragedy and the Irish theatrical tradition: ‘In the twentieth century, there seem to be more translations and versions of Greek tragedy that have come from Ireland than from any other country in the English-speaking world. In many ways Ireland was and is constructing its identity through the representations offered by Greek tragedy’ (McDonald 2002: 37).

Amongst the most important playwrights who have continued and developed this literary affiliation it is worth mentioning here the Irish playwright Tom Paulin, chiefly with his idiosyncratic, Northern Irish version of Antigone entitled The Riot Act: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone (1985) and Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats (1998), in which she successfully transposed Euripides’ Medea into the cultural and linguistic setting of the Irish Midlands. It is obvious, then, that Walcott employed the rich symbolic medium of Greek literature to convey his Caribbean reality, just as the Irish had, and still are, exploiting the wide range of creative possibilities offered by ancient Greek tragedians.


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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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