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The Circulation of Metaphor in Derek Walcott’s Poetry

Paul Breslin
p. 37-44


In Walcott’s poetry, metaphor becomes flowing metamorphosis, not a set of stable analogies. Building on Romantic and Modernist precedents, Walcott adds two new features: the “leapfrogging” of metaphor, such that the vehicle of one generates the tenor of another, and a circular progression, wherein the last vehicle in the series returns to the initial tenor. This circularity evokes Édouard Glissant’s “poetics of relation.”

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  • 1 Bruce King, E-mail message to the author, 18 December 2005.

1This paper grew out of an e-mail exchange with Bruce King, who asked: “Where did Derek get his idea that poetry is metaphor?”1 It did not occur to me to question the questioner: where did Bruce get his idea that Derek has the idea that poetry is metaphor? “Walcott has always understood poetry as metaphor,” he wrote in Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life (389) but there is no footnote tying this judgment to something Walcott wrote or said. In Walcott’s essays and interviews, I could remember no statement to this effect, nor could I find one in the poems, though scattered passages come close: “I lived in a different gift, / its element metaphor,” he wrote in Another Life, distinguishing his gift of poetry from Gregorias’s gift of painting (201). An index-assisted rummage through William Baer’s 1996 collection of Walcott’s interviews and the studies by Terada, Ismond, Thieme, Burnett, and Fumagalli turned up no such assertion. The critic who has most extensively addressed Walcott’s use of metaphor is Rei Terada, but she does not claim that metaphor is uniquely central to Walcott’s poetry. Rather, she argues that metaphor obeys a “human, psychological necessity” that informs all our uses of language (Terada, 104). If so, it is not the special hallmark of Walcott’s poetry, or even of poetry in general.

2And yet, without demanding proof, I had immediately accepted King’s premise. It seemed plausible to infer from Walcott’s style that for him, metaphor was, if not the whole of poetry, its most important part. His work also shows evidence of careful attention to sound patterning, speaking voice, and above all imagery, but even these are intimately bound up with metaphor. In this brief talk, I stop short of saying that metaphor is all. I have reframed King’s question, “where did Walcott get the idea that poetry is metaphor,” as a set of smaller ones: what traditions known to Walcott give pride of place to metaphor; how does metaphor typically function in his writing; and how does his use of it diverge from precedent?

3The idea that metaphor is the most important trait of poetry may go all the way back to ancient Greece. In the Poetics, Aristotle wrote that “by far the greatest thing for a poet is to be a master of metaphor. Such mastery is the one thing that cannot be learned from others. It is a mark of genius, for to be good at metaphor is to be intuitively aware of hidden resemblances”(317) Aristotle does not appear to have meant that metaphor is the most prominent feature of the tragic verse play—he devotes little space to it amid elaborate treatments of characterization, plot, and diction. But if metaphor is where poetic genius (or lack of it) appears, one might infer that without distinction in metaphor, even a tragedy that perfectly realizes all of Aristotle’s principles will fall short of greatness. The Poetics concedes to metaphor a wild plot of ground that no cultivation may improve.

4Nonetheless, Aristotle is fairly confident in his identifications of the flora that grow in this wild plot: one can always line up the paired objects linked by “hidden resemblance.” The most elaborate form he considers is that of “analogy or proportion,” in which “a second term being related to a first as a fourth is to a third, the poet employs the second for the fourth or the fourth for the second.”(315) Two pairings of tenor and vehicle are linked by the “hidden resemblance” not of object to object, but of the terms of resemblance linking each pair, so that the analogy, Ares:shield::Dionysus:cup can generate the figures “Ares’s cup” or “Dionysus’ shield.” Even here, the pairing of terms can be unambiguously defined.

5Has metaphor as found in English poetry ever been so tidy as that? During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries possibly, but not before or since. By the early seventeenth century, Shakespeare and Donne had pushed the metaphor of analogy beyond Aristotle’s a:b::c:d, with elaborate conceits based on multiple qualities of resemblance. Donne’s famous comparison of lovers to a drawing compass depends on at least four simultaneous terms of relation: the compass, like the lovers, has two parts that are joined; these parts pull apart or touch each other, as the compass is opened or closed; when the compass is used, one part circles around the other, just as the lover who leaves will continue to orbit the one left behind; and the circle drawn by the compass, as a figure of recurrence and return, promises reunion. Nonetheless, it is the Romantic poets who first use metaphor in a way resembling Walcott’s, which King aptly describes as “metaphors branching off from metaphors” (429). It is metaphor as metamorphosis.

  • 2 The term metaphor, as Terada reminds us, derives from a Greek verb meaning to carry, transfer, or t (...)

6Consider, for instance, the second part of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” Shelley likens the clouds to the decaying leaves of autumn, driven before the wind. They are shaken from “the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean”—an implicit metaphor by which sea and sky become trees. Then clouds of an “approaching storm” become, instead of leaves, the “bright hair uplifted from the head // Of some fierce Maenad.” Soon afterwards, the wind is the “dirge // Of the dying year,” while the “closing night” of the year is “the dome of a vast sepulchre.” In just four tercets, Shelley has traveled an immense distance from his opening figure of clouds as leaves. What route does he follow? One associative link is given within this passage: the “tangled boughs” may suggest the wind-blown hair of the Maenad. The sepulchral imagery, however, reaches back to the opening section, in which the falling leaves were “ghosts” or “pestilence-stricken multitudes,” while each “winged” maple seed becomes “a corpse within its grave,” awaiting resurrection in spring. The abandoned clouds-as-leaves comparison, along with the fusion of air and ocean, reappears in the fourth section: “If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear, / If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee / A wave to pant beneath thy power … .” By the end of the poem, the wind is carrying neither leaves nor clouds, but sparks from a dying fire (Shelley, 578). One might say that the rapid transformation of one metaphor into another dramatizes the poem’s theme, the urgent wish for transformation and renewed imaginative power. If any single element holds all of these together, it is the figure of the wind as spirit and carrying force, able to tear things loose from their accustomed place, turn them into something else, and transport2 them from one domain to another. Metaphor, in short, can no longer be perceived as a pattern of relations among sharply-defined objects that retain their initial form. It becomes a force that restlessly dissolves and reconstitutes its own analogies, and in so doing, erases any clear boundary between the literal and the figurative. Mixed metaphor, still considered a fault in most contexts, becomes an art—though like any art, it can be practiced well or badly.

  • 3 Shelley’s “Hell is a city much like London” becomes Walcott’s “Hell is a city much like Port-of-Spa (...)
  • 4 “Words for Hart Crane,” in The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, 159. Crane includes Shelley in a l (...)

7Shelley has not been a crucially important poet for Walcott, despite his allusion to a line from Peter Bell III in “The Spoiler’s Return.”3 But Hart Crane, whom Robert Lowell called “The Shelley of [his] Age,”4 does matter to Walcott, who narrated the PBS Voices and Visions program on Crane. When asked to comment on poetic craftsmanship at the University of Illinois, Chicago in 2002, Walcott offered an explication of a line from Crane’s long poem, The Bridge: “Greeting they sped us, on the arrow’s oath” (The Poems of Hart Crane, 62). He glossed the phrase “arrow’s oath” as joining the act of shooting the arrow with the rage that motivated the archer (as an oath sworn to kill an enemy, or an oath sworn at an enemy), and he pointed out how the caesura after “us,” followed by the understressed “on,” performs the fall of the arrow dropping, spent, before reaching its mark. In this impromptu close reading, Walcott revealed how closely, for him, the power of a metaphor is intertwined with other poetic qualities such as rhythm. Crane did not live long enough to be a reader of Walcott, but some remarks in his essay “General Aims and Theories” and one of his letters to Harriet Monroe (in response to baffled queries about one of his poems) can help us understand Walcott’s way with metaphor.

8In his letter to Harriet Monroe, Crane likens his oblique metaphors to one of T. S. Eliot’s, in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”: “Every streetlamp that I pass / Beats like a fatalistic drum” (Collected Poems, 16). Conceding that “a street-lamp simply can’t beat with a sound like a drum,” he argues that “the unmentioned throbbing of the heart and nerves in a distraught man . . . tacitly creates the reason and ’logic’ of the Eliot metaphor”(The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, 237) Crane is not merely describing an implied metaphor, in which the tenor, unstated, may be inferred from the vehicle. Nor is he describing a proportional metaphor, such that the relation of drum to streetlamp parallels that of two other terms. Rather, it is the speaker’s unstated nervous anxiety, to be inferred from the diction and rhythms of the poem as a whole, that makes the streetlamp drum-like, and that makes the metaphor intelligible. Crane does not spell out how this happens. One might infer that for the anxious speaker, the light appears to pulse or throb in a rhythmic way. One might add that an old-fashioned gas lamp, of the kind still in use in Eliot’s youth, would actually fluctuate in brightness (the lamp is said to have “sputtered” later in the poem). In that case, the metaphor also has some grounding in sensuous perception, although a synesthetic transposition from visual to auditory pulsations remains necessary to make the connection. Even so, as Crane put it in “General Aims and Theories,” “the terms of expression employed are . . . selected less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associated meanings,” which rest on a “‘logic of metaphor’ which antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech. ” (Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose, 221).

9So far, I’ve discussed precedents for Walcott’s use of metaphor within poetry and criticism of the Western canon. Another source of metaphorical inspiration, which he has often acknowledged, is the common speech of the Caribbean. As he told Edward Hirsch in 1977,

[T]he metaphors that one heard from peasants describing a tree, a flower, an insect, anything, were not like the Latin names for those things… Let’s say you’re looking up at a bird in the sky over St. Lucia and somebody says “ciseau la mer.” Now “ciseau la mer” means “scissor of the sea,” and that’s much more startling, much more exciting than saying “martin” or “tern.” The metaphor is almost calligraphic: when it is pronounced you can almost see it (Hirsch, 58).

  • 5 Reading at Hartwick College, 10 November, 1989. I am indebted to Bob Benson of Hartwick College for (...)

10In a reading of November, 1989, introducing the transcription of a creole conte embedded in his poem “Sainte Lucie,” Walcott praised the line “Moin ’tendre un corne cornait” for its wordplay: I heard a horn horning—i.e., blowing, but also giving horns, cuckolding. It reminded him of Laforgue (he must have been thinking of “Le Mystère des trois cors” in Derniers Vers). He said that the folk idiom “sometimes grows much sharper than the individual intellect from the tribe can ever do. When literature achieves that, then it becomes something.”5 The metaphorical energy of language comes not only, or even primarily, from literary tradition, but also from the vernacular. As Maria Cristina Fumagalli has pointed out, the towering predecessor in such turns to the vernacular is Dante, who drew from both vernacular Italian and formal Latin, making of them something new, a synthesis and transformation of both (Fumagalli, 16-17).

11Walcott’s most extensive discussion of metaphor, in an essay or interview, came when he was discussing his play, Dream on Monkey Mountain, with Sharon Ciccarelli in 1997:

The metaphor of dream was, for me, an old man who looked like an ape, and above his shoulder, a round white full moon. And the journey of that moon which drew the man/ape through the cycle of one night multiplied (like all metaphors) into questions of human evolution, racial evolution, the search for self-respect and pride, and the reality which comes with the morning. Once a gong has been struck, the visible resonances of figure, sound, and image will all be concentric and will be subject to all kinds of true and perhaps contradictory interpretations. If you look hard at any bright object it will multiply itself, will send out dimmer images around it (Ciccarelli, 38).

12In this way, “the writing of the play” became “equivalent to the poetic experience where the dominant metaphor creates metaphors.” For Walcott, then, a strong metaphor is generative. Like a gong, it sends waves of sound outward in concentric circles.

13Walcott, ever a resourceful synthesizer of multiple traditions, nonetheless adds some new twists of his own, and they have something to do with what might be called a metaphor of metaphor itself. Terada remarks that “it is impossible to say whether Walcott is led to link disparate worlds by his dependence on metaphor, or led to that dependence by his need to link worlds” (37-38). But the two go together. His poems, though grounded in his Caribbean origins, push restlessly outward, linking “here,” as he would put it in The Arkansas Testament, and “elsewhere.” In “The Schooner Flight,” his persona Shabine says: “I have only one theme: / The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart— / The flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know. . .” (Collected Poems, 360). This quest-theme generates the urgent appositives of the second line, which figure the abstract term “longing” three different ways, as simultaneously bowsprit, arrow, and lunging heart. He often creates such hydra-headed metaphors. Moreover, the placement of “longing,” the only abstract noun in the line, as the third term among four, resists the impulse to take “longing” as the literal sense for which the other three terms are figures; rather, all four terms have equal status as mutually glossing one other.

  • 6 Self-pillaged from Paul Breslin, Nobody’s Nation: Reading Derek Walcott, 265.

14At other times, Walcott leapfrogs his metaphors, so that the vehicle of one generates the tenor for another. This is especially true of his poetry from The Star-Apple Kingdom onwards. A conveniently compact example, which I shall recycle from Nobody’s Nation, occurs in Omeros: “the wind changed gear like a transport with the throttle / of the racing sea” (49). The wind is the tenor of a simile whose vehicle is a transport; then the transport’s throttle is the tenor of another analogy in which the vehicle is the sea.6 But a brief dip into the Collected Poems quickly turns up others. Poem XXXVI in MidSummer describes “the hornet’s nest of a chain-saw, working late,” thus figuring the sound of the saw as the buzzing of hornets. Later, the poem speaks of “the hornet’s chain-saw,” in which tenor and vehicle are reversed: the hornet’s buzzing is figured as the rasp of the saw. “From This Far,” in The Fortunate Traveller, opens by calling the eyes in a marble statue “white almonds,” and then turns the almond tree thus evoked into part of the literal landscape, and the starting-point of another analogy:

The white almonds of a statue stare
at almond branches wrestling off their shade
like a girl from her dress. . . .

  • 7 Examples from Walcott, Collected Poems 492, 414, 375-376.

15And, in “The Forests of Europe,” the frozen plains where the Trail of Tears once ran are “as hard and open as a herdsman’s face / sun-cracked and stubbled with unshaven snow”; immediately, this figurative snow becomes literal and generates its own analogy in the lines “the snow circles like Cossacks round the corpse / of a tired Choctaw till it is a blizzard / of treaties. ” 7

16But despite the centrifugal leapfrogging of his metaphors, Walcott usually turns the ramifying paths of association back toward their origin. “All that the sea-swift does/ it does in a circular pattern,” writes Walcott in Omeros (188), and the same may be said of his own metaphors. To show this circular movement, one might track the recurring figure of crows through the ninth chapter of Another Life, which describes the act of painting a landscape. Their first appearance is already complicated:

From the reeds of your lashes, the wild commas of crows are beginning to rise.

17Although these crows exist “out there” in the landscape, they seem to grow subjectively out of the painter’s eyes, and they are textualized as “commas,” already touched by the mediation of language and art. Later, we’re told that “the shadows are crossing like crows,” so that now “crow” is a visual analogy for the literal “shadow.” Then, as the painter, exhausted, looks away from the landscape, his “lashes settle like crows”—the crows have returned to the eyes that generated them some sixty lines earlier.

18I shall close by revisiting the figure of the arrow in “The Schooner Flight,” which evokes a linear quest for a resting-place, a destination. But the poem already knows that this is a “vain search” (Collected Poems, 360). One might gloss Walcott’s “one theme” of the “arrow” with ?douard Glissant’s use of the same figure in his essay, “Poetics.” Glissant links the epic impulse in literature to the ambition of empire, which “projected toward” its goal. Such movement is “arrowlike.” In time, imperial projections provoke other “trajectories”: a movement “from the Center toward the peripheries,” followed by a counter-movement “from the peripheries toward the Center.” And then, in a third phase, “the trajectory is abolished; the arrowlike projection becomes curved. The “poet’s word . . . makes every periphery into a center; furthermore, it abolishes the very notion of center and periphery” (Glissant, 28-29) Walcott’s circular metaphors, increasingly prevalent in his work from the late 1970s onward, belong to this third moment, which for Glissant inaugurates a contemporary “poetics of relation.” It is in this respect that Walcott’s metaphors, though indebted to the Caribbean vernacular and to precedents in European and American poetry, also contribute to the creation of a new tradition.

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Aristotle. The Art of Poetry, trans.Philip Wheelwright. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1951.

Breslin, Paul. Nobody’s Nation: Reading Derek Walcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Ciccarelli, “Reflections Before and After Carnival: An Interview with Derek Walcott, in Conversations with Derek Walcott, ed. William Baer. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996.

Crane, Hart. The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, ed. Brom Weber. New York: Liveright, 1966 [1933].

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Fumagalli, Maria Cristina. The Flight of the Vernacular: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and the Impress of Dante. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2001.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Hirsch, Edward. “An Interview with Derek Walcott,” in Conversations with Derek Walcott, ed. William Baer. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996.

King, Bruce. Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

King, Bruce. E-mail message to Paul Breslin, 18 December 2005.

Lowell, Robert. The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Thomas Hutchinson. London: Oxford University Press, 1961 [1905].

Terada, Rei. Derek Walcott’s Poetry: American Mimicry. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Walcott, Derek. Collected Poems 1948-1984. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.

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Walcott, Derek. Talk at “The Caribbean: Where Choice Is Born,” conference at University of Illinois at Chicago, 2002 (Walcott’s remarks summarized from memory).

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1 Bruce King, E-mail message to the author, 18 December 2005.

2 The term metaphor, as Terada reminds us, derives from a Greek verb meaning to carry, transfer, or transport. See her Derek Walcott 219.

3 Shelley’s “Hell is a city much like London” becomes Walcott’s “Hell is a city much like Port-of-Spain.”

4 “Words for Hart Crane,” in The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, 159. Crane includes Shelley in a list of poets he “run[s] joyfully towards.” See, 67. Thomas S. W. Lewis notes that Shelley’s poems are among the books preserved from Crane’s library in his “tower” in the family’s Cleveland house, before his departure for New York. See Letters of Hart Crane and His Family, 6.

5 Reading at Hartwick College, 10 November, 1989. I am indebted to Bob Benson of Hartwick College for providing a tape of this reading.

6 Self-pillaged from Paul Breslin, Nobody’s Nation: Reading Derek Walcott, 265.

7 Examples from Walcott, Collected Poems 492, 414, 375-376.

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Bibliographical reference

Paul Breslin, “The Circulation of Metaphor in Derek Walcott’s Poetry”Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 28.2 | 2006, 37-44.

Electronic reference

Paul Breslin, “The Circulation of Metaphor in Derek Walcott’s Poetry”Commonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 28.2 | 2006, Online since 15 January 2022, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Paul Breslin

Northwestern University

Paul Breslin is Professor of English at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois, United States). In addition to extensive journal and little magazine publications as poet, essayist, and reviewer, he has published three books: The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry Since the Fifties (University of Chicago Press, 1987), Nobody’s Nation: Reading Derek Walcott (University of Chicago Press, 2001), and a collection of poems, You Are Here (TriQuarterly Books, 2000). With Robert Hamner, he co-edited a special Walcott issue of Callaloo (28:1, 2005). In January 2003, he gave the Derek Walcott lecture for Laureate Week in St. Lucia, an annual tribute to St. Lucia’s two Nobel Prize winners. He is nearing completion of a second volume of poems.

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