Walcott depicts himself as “the mulatto of style” in “What the Twilight Says: An Overture Essay

Walcott depicts himself as “the mulatto of style” in “What the Twilight Says: An Overture. Discuss the factors that may have contributed to this self reference and how this “mulatto of style” has been reflected in his work and has contributed to the creation of his own voice.

Derek Alton Walcott was born at Castries, St Lucia, on 23rd January 1930, son of Warwick and Alix Walcott with a twin brother Roderick Aldon Walcott and a sister who was two years older. His artistically gifted father died after an operation in 1931 when the boys were barely one year old. His mother served as headmistress to a Methodist Grammar School.

The Urban Dictionary defines “mulatto” as someone of mixed heritage where one parent is black and the other white.” As an inheritor of two vitally rich cultures, Walcott descended from a white grandfather and a black grandmother on both the paternal and maternal sides and he is a living example of the divided loyalties and hatreds that keep his society suspended between two worlds. His paternal grandfather was an Englishman from the island of Barbados and his maternal grandfather was a Dutchman from Saint Maarteen with his grandmothers being predominantly of African origin.

Walcott’s ancestral roots is one factor that has contributed to his “mulatto style” and has certainly augured well for Walcott providing him with a rich history that has certainly informed his writing. At school, history which was presented as the “glorious” exploits of British generals and admirals, the most memorable scenes being acted out at the theatre of British Imperial History in St Lucia and which was made visible through the brass shell-cases, relics of the First World War that decorated the Walcott’s living room. The most frequently quoted passage from all of Walcott’s work illustrates his mulatto ancestry:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,

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?�

Since the question of identity is one of the most frequently recurring themes in West Indian Literature, it is fitting that Walcott should take it up. He wrote. “something prickles in me when I see the word Ashanti as with the word Warwickshire, both separately intimating my grandfathers’ roots both baptizing this neither proud nor ashamed bastard, this hybrid, this West Indian.”�. Walcott establishes that no matter what the mix he is West Indian.

Education both formal and informal is another factor that has contributed to this “mulatto style”. The dichotomy in Walcott’s mind as a young boy was between the tradition of literature and formal education on one hand and the oral tradition of the common people on the other. In his opinion, Walcott believes that the greatest bequest of the British Empire in the islands was education which ranked with the finest in the world. At school he was grounded in European literature and this accounts for the “English tongue” which he so loves but because he is a mulatto he has also been nurtured by another culture one that comprises of oral tales of gods, devils and cunning tricksters passed down by generations of slaves. As inheritor of two vitally rich cultures, in his writing, he utilizes one, then the other and finally creates out of the two his own personalized style.

Some critics have claimed Walcott to be an imitator because there are traces of the established masters of Literature in his poetry and drama. But Robert D. Hamner has noted that they decry Walcott for two reasons “first, that he is not more thoroughly West Indian and second, because they are alienated by his predilection for western rather than African influences.”� Walcott indicates “that writers of his generation were natural assimilators.

They knew the literature of the Empires Greek, Roman, British through their essential classics and both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elevation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made. With this prodigious ambition one began”4 Walcott learned by example and as a youthful apprentice he consciously traced the models of Joyce, Elliot, Sophocles, Marvel, Brecht, Baudelaire, the Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatres and West Indian folktale and dance. Walcott was honest enough to disclose his intention to appropriate whatever stores he found useful in the canon of world literature. In some of his early works examples of these would include:

– In 25 Poems there were titles such as “Elegies”, “In Death are all Honourable”

– In Epitaph for the Young, Hamlet’s “Alas poor Yorick” becomes “Alas poor Warwick” (the name of Walcott’s father)

– Henri Christophe(1950) a play written in verse Jacobean style with quotations from Hamlet and Richard III heading two parts of the play.

– The Sea at Dauphin(1954) Walcott’s third drama was modeled after Synge’s Riders to the Sea was his first folk play

– Ti-Jean and His Brothers, the catalyst came from the Orient: the Japanese Kabuki and Noh traditions

Because Walcott’s culture as a West Indian is fed by multiple tributaries, Walcott does not stop with imitation. He does not only accept the fact but he is inspired by it. A true artist’s apprenticeship never ends Although the styles of his youthful period were predominantly Western; it is interesting to note that the material is inherently Caribbean. . Walcott’s sources of inspiration are wide ranging; he experiments continually – fitting Old World style into New World content; he tries on a variety of masks, and he passes through a number of evolutionary phases.

The St Lucian landscape indelibly has contributed to Walcott’s artistic development and “mulatto of style”. This is the land of his birth. All the influences that formed his psyche originated on this island. He got to know the countryside early, partly through visits to his grandfather’s property near Choiseul and partly because a close friend of the family invited the Walcott boys to vacation at her estates. It was here Walcott experienced the epiphany he described in Another Life (p.42) and one of her estates is the title of a poem in the Gulf volume (Gulf, p.52). St Lucia is a rugged, mountainous, thickly-foliaged island, its mountains often seeming higher than they are. This landscape was a feeding ground for Walcott’s imagination and provided many symbols for Walcott’s mythology. In Dream Walcott states:

“Whether you wanted to accept them or not, the earth emanated influences which you could either put down as folk superstition or, as a poet, could accept as a possible truth. I think that is why a lot of my plays remain in St Lucia, because there is a mystery there, that is with me from childhood that surrounds the whole feeling of the island. There was, for example, a mountain covered with mist and low clouds to which we gave the name of la Sorciere, the witch”.5 Examples of the landscape pervades his writing, for example,

– the Soufriere volcano – ‘Soufriere, where

the raw

sore of the volcano chafes,

exhausted boil. Another Life (p.37)

– Sea – ‘infinite, boring, paradisal sea (Gulf, p.51)

Walcott’s “mulatto style” to some extent may have been inherited. His father was an artistic painter and it was also learnt that painting was not his father’s only passion – he had a secret love for poetry and music. Walcott’s mother on the other hand also had artistic learnings – she acted in amateur theatricals and Walcott remembers her reciting speeches and poetical hymns. His parents’ passion and involvement in the arts may have contributed to his diversity as an artist, poet, dramatist and playwright. During the late 1950s Walcott began a transition into the second stage of his career. Not contented with writing itself, the poet-dramatist shifted his focus toward directing and producing. By 1960s, Walcott’s greatest activity was in theatre. His poetry in this decade did not suffer but was of a high quality even though most of them were reprints of earlier poems.

Walcott continues to explore the medium of stage so that he can broaden the base of the arts and reach larger audiences but he consciously guards his integrity at the same time.

Dream on Monkey Mountain which Walcott had begun in 1959 but did not finish until 1967, is the mature work of an artist who has come into his own voice. This play credited Walcott with an Obie Award in New York as the best foreign play of the 1970-1971 season. On entering his 40s Walcott seemed surer of himself and the expansiveness of his mind was displayed throughout his work. In the 1980s, the texuality of expression itself becomes increasingly important as subject matter in Walcott’s poetry and plays and this resulted in the publication of Collected Poems 1948-1984.

Whereas earlier poems bear the imprint of a wide range of influences from John Donne to Robert Lowell, more and more the later verse refers to the process of converting experience into art, whether it be the printed word or the painted canvas. Reprinting poem “L” from Midsummer Walcott speaks of his father Warwick’s hand moving in his:

….now, when I rewrite a line,

or sketch on fast-drying paper the coconut fronds

that he did so faintly, my daughters’ hands move in mine.6

This “mulatto of style” became a Nobel Laureate in 1992. When the Nobel Prize Selection Committee examined Walcott in 1992, they found a repository of the best New World culture, a writer who by birth (roots), by environment (education ; culture and landscape) and by personal commitment had lived multiculturalism long before the bete noire of political correctness made this term a cause to celebrate. Derek Walcott, “the mulatto of style” has already added invaluable living treasure to the world’s store of experience.


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