Derek Walcott’s great poem “A Far Cry from Africa” needs a little background, but not a great deal. Walcott sets his poem in the midst of the Kenyan rebellion against the British Empire. (President Obama’s grandfather was active in the Kenyan resistance against the British.) The Kikuyu, mentioned once by Walcott in the poem, are one of the largest native Kenyan ethnic groups. The only other allusion in the poem is to Spain, a shorthand for a lost-cause resistance to a superpower. In Spain in the 1930s, an elected left-wing government fought in vain against fascists who were supported by Hitler. “Our compassion” was with the left-wing Spanish Republicans, but was wasted (I suppose Walcott means) because the result was a foregone conclusion: the superpower was going to win.
But meanwhile, the “white child hacked in bed” dies a horrible death, too. To fight the oppressor, the oppressed must become just as brutal. Walcott’s speaker (let’s detach him from the real Walcott for the moment) is “poisoned with the blood of both”: he must have both white and black ancestors, and he isn’t happy with either identity. He calls Africans “savages” in the poem, but white people are “brutish,” “delirious as . . . beasts.”
In just a few lines, the poem considers war and violence, human nature, the ironies and rationalizations of language. It is a poem in the grandest traditions of humanism, ones that we will see repeated elsewhere in the Countdown. It poses a problem that is both ethical and aesthetic. Another way of phrasing its concerns is that between morality and art, perhaps. Can the speaker choose “Africa” (the morally right choice, in his reckoning; I think the poem tilts that way) or “the English tongue,” which gives him his artistic voice?