#58 “A Far Cry from Africa” (Derek Walcott)

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?


13 responses to “#58 “A Far Cry from Africa” (Derek Walcott)

  1. The speaker of the poem certainly does seem conflicted as to which side he should choose. I can’t imagine it would be an easy decision to make. It shouldn’t be and in a perfect world he shouldn’t have to. This poem makes me think of children whose parents are divorced. Sometimes the parents force their children to choose “sides.” The children don’t want to betray either on of their parents and often come to resent them both. The speaker of the poem also seems to me a bit suicidal. In the line “Betray them both, or give back what they give” it sounds like the speaker is contemplating taking his own life. It may seem to him the only way to satisfy both sides. Both sides seem to demand the blood of the opposing side and I wonder how his parents ever came together in love to have him as a result. Was the speaker’s birth the result of rape? If the speaker’s parents were a couple in love, what kinds of obstacles did they face? Were the speaker’s parents still alive? Were they able to live together in peace and love? What was the speaker’s childhood like? He obviously had to live somewhere, how did he escape being killed for simply being a British-African?

  2. After hearing and discussing this poem I had much compassion for the speaker. The way the person spoke about being torn between two worlds was very powerful. I truly felt the speaker believed there was nowhere to go. At the end of the poem a series of questions arises and the reader cannot help but to try and answer them, to maybe help this person with their decision. I was just as confused about what the speaker should choose when I was done with the poem. I feel as though this person is truly divided, “divided to the vein.” How can you choose between two worlds that run so deeply within you, that run through your veins? Both sides are doing unimaginable things to one another, as “beasts” do. The speaker says that the blood of both has poisoned him/her and someone in class stated that gives the idea that the speaker is disgusted by what has come about between the two sides. Regardless of that, as you (Morris) have stated, the speaker is left to choose between morality and art. After reading through this poem countless times, I am just as confused as the speaker. It is possible to choose, but whatever that choice may be, a bit of the speaker’s self is lost, either the morality or the “tongue…”

  3. decarlocoleman

    In the poem A Far Cry from Africa the tone of the poem made me relate to the speaker when it came to being torn when having to make a decision. Throughout reading I could see that within the poem itself, there seems to be a cycle. A Far Cry from Africa begins with some questions that can be answered and ends with questions that don’t lead to immediate answers upon reading and mentally processing them. In line 4 it reads, “Corpses are scattered through a paradise” Corpses do not belong in the world of paradise, which is a little confusing because these words appear to be contradictory as I read through the poem. Simile is used in the poem with the words “quick as flies” and a metaphor is also used in the front line to make the poem more energetic and interesting to read. The poem word usage is so literal yet figurative in lines such as; again brutish necessity wipes its hands upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again a waste of our compassion. These effects also give great impact to what Walcott is trying to suggest. The poem is very deep and needs great understanding of historical context to further your knowledge of “A far cry from Africa”

  4. In his poem, “A Far Cry from Africa,” one line plunged me into deep, retrospective and introspective thought,”Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” As a product of the sixties and seventies, I have experienced segregation, integration, adaptation, and identification as worlds collided in what was known as the Civil Rights Era. This one line has been the mainstay of my entire life. As I read and meditated on all three poems, I was amazed by the timeless, universality of poetry and human nature. I thought when we fought the battle of the Civil Rights Movement we would be able to move forward as a nation, but here we are fifty years later posing the same questions that Walcott asked, “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? How can I face such slaughter and be cool? How can I turn from Africa and live?” The weariness with it all that Robert Frost wrote about in his poem, “After Apple Picking,” is the way I see racism and division in America. The three poetry selections reflect the sadness I feel for our country. I still see ‘the gorilla wrestling with the superman’ in politics on issues that threatened to divide this country to the vein, and I wish it wasn’t so. In Langston Hughes’ poem, “Theme for English B,” I believe he placed his finger on the pulse of the vein that divides us when he said, “I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you…I hear New York too.” Just like Langston Hughes I enjoy ‘Bessie, bop, or Bach.’ I love both worlds and have gifts to bring from both worlds and that is my true identity. I don’t like being divided to the vein, but rather, I chose to follow the lyrics of John Lennon in his song, “Imagine,” where he imagines a world without religion, color, political parties, countries or poverty and wealth. So, I guess my true identity is a dreamer. Shel Silverstein, a famous children’s poet, wrote in his poem, “When you turn off the lights” we all look the same. I feel that the veins may be different, but the blood is the same.

  5. The first thing that I noticed about this poem was that it was entirely negative throughout; there are no happy thoughts, images, or even words. I think that probably relates to the fact that it was written during the conflict between Britain and Kenya. The author has both white and black ancestors, so the poem shows the bad of both sides. He cannot seem to choose between the black, “and face such slaughter,” or “turn from Africa and [not] live.”

    It is interesting to me how he chooses the English language to write in, rather than the African language, but still speaks of how he is disgusted with both sides of his ancestry. I think that even today people in the same situation, might possibly face the same problem. I know that on talk shows there are often people who are deny that they are more than one race, and act as though only one; someone is both black and white, picks one and denies they are the other.

    Also, the line in the poem, “The violence of beast on beast is read as natural law, but upright man seeks his divinity by inflicting pain,” shows to me that these people, which ever race involved believed it was their god’s orders to them to kill, and in doing so they were simply “seeking their divinity.”

  6. In the poem “A Far Cry from Africa”, the speaker is torn between his love for two countries. His first love seems to be with Africa, it seems the speaker was there in the past and some where along the lines moved to Great Britain for some reason. The poem is written with much passion and anger coming from Walcott, it seems that he sides with neither country and disagree’s with all the unnecissary violence, he refers to the violence as “beast on beast” as well as calling the soldiers and leaders savages. It’s my belief that the speaker has left Africa for economic reason’s and possibly wanted to go to a more stable country to better him self, which is why there is much talk and compassion for Africa in the first stanza and once again in the final line when he says” how can i turn from Africa and live?”. Walcott also refers to the war as, “the gorilla wrestles with the superman” which once again leads me to believe the speaker went to Great Britian for economic reasons. It seems he is extremely torn about this war between his two countries and doesn’t mention any optimisim for an end, since the British army seems to have expendable soldiers in abundance, and what rellay sucks is that Walcott see’s this as “Natural law” and that man is always seeking his divinty by inflicting pain, from this it seems that he has lost faith in mankind as well, very sad.

  7. In this poem the writer is torn in between the two countries. He has a deep love for the both of them. This happens alot with people today when we are trying to make a big decision. I felt a lot of anger from the writer because he wants to choose both but can only choose one. I feel the pain for the people in Africa because their people are being killed and and shipped to slave trade. This poem uses a good description of describing what happend and how he feels about what is happening between the two countries.

  8. andreamcginley

    The lines that stood out to me most were “In a white dust of ibises whose cries have wheeled since the civilizations dawn” because it just brings to mind that there has always been struggle and turmoil since the beginning of time. There was Cain and Able, Native Americans and Europeans, Israelis and the Palestinians…the list goes on, and it just seems so foolish that we as human beings cannot come to some agreement to stop this violence. When the speaker point out the “violence of the best on beast is read as natural law” also alludes to that we are no more than animals if we continue to fight as we do. How can we evolve into anything better if we cannot resolve our differences civilly, is what the poem seems to be asking. The speaker leaves this question open ended with the ending of the poem because the speaker asks a few rhetorical questions. It also portraits that there is violence and inhumanity on both sides that there is no moral or correct side which the speaker uses the metaphor of a “napkin for a dirty cause”; however the speaker does lean towards the fact that Africa is the less immoral of the two because the speaker seems to not be able to live without his beloved Africa. This poem poses questions that can be used in many situations in life; it is not exclusive to the speaker’s situation in Africa. These monstrosities of internal and external conflict awry each day in a new form. It is a never ending question that the speaker has given us to answer.

  9. In the poem “A Far Cry from Africa” the speaker of the poem is faced with a huge dilemma. As an uprising is being fought between the tribes in Kenya and the British who have colonized the area, the speaker is torn between two worlds. In line 26 and 27 of the poem the speaker states “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” these two lines show how the speaker recognizes the evil and bad things that both sides have to offer. There was a comment during the class discussion about the speaker feeling more closely tied to the British side. I don’t necessarily agree with that assumption. In line 30 of the poem the speaker states “Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?” I would assume the English tongue he loves is in reference to the good things colonization by the British has brought. Colonization by the British brought such things as trade, an advanced language, higher education, and a viable economic system. On the other hand the speaker refers to the other side of the coin in the last line of the poem. The speaker states “How can I turn from Africa and live?” If there had to be a decision on which side the speaker felt closer with I would say it was with the African side, based on this last line. He ends the poem by asking how he could live if he turned from Africa. He didn’t state anything in defense of why, such as he did with the British by their tongue. Africa just being Africa was enough for him to be torn by the decision of which side to choose. The African side in my opinion holds more weight within the battle in his head.

  10. Derek Walcott’s poem is a powerful one, and goes through many themes. The one that stands out to me the most though is racial identity, especially between two seemingly contrasting ones like white and black like Walcott’s narrator. It’s the most powerful to me because the topic is still a big one in America especially for people of mixed heritage. People here have enough of a hard time trying to gain an identity without the negative aspects of both races that Walcott’s narrator faces. How does a person choose between two races who needlessly slaughter each other? More important, why must a person choose between the two? The narrator wrestles with this question in the story, asking does he betray them both, or give back what they give, which means how does he return the aggression and cruelty that one race has inflicted upon another race. It is also interesting to see the brutal imagery that Walcott wrote, especially the contrast at the beginning of the corpses littering paradise and the child being hacked in bed. I think Walcott always makes a point with “in a white dust of ibises whose cries Have wheeled since civilizations dawn” showing that no matter the race this brutality has been present since the beginning of time. So why should the narrator have to choose sides when no race is truly “innocent”? Each has their own dark history and some of the negative conations of that history still are with us today. The narrator should not have to choose a side; a man can still hold his love of Africa and his love of English and what comes with it without having to choose a racial identity. It’s not what skin color we are, but what we do in life that matters.

  11. firewaterboi321

    Derek Walcott’s reflection of his personal turmoil with his identity is interesting to me in this poem. He has what I would call a racial-crisis in his attempt to rationalize his indecisive approach to his cultural identity. It would seem that he is torn between his racial background of Kenyan and English. He is torn between a sense of tribalism and a tendency toward brutal violence, being “…poisoned with the blood of both.” His use of the word poison to describe his nationality (I would assume half Kenyan and half English) indicates a strong distaste for both people. How difficult is it to try to decide whose side of the fence you stand when you have equal claim to both? Walcott, towards the central body of the poem, even goes beyond race and sees man in generality: “…upright man Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.” In this regard cultural differences are prevalent as mankind tries to find reason and meaning in the world by subjugation and oppression. Walcott’s feeling of uncertainty in regard to his racial identity indicates his reluctance to deny “where he comes from.” Humans in general have a strong feeling of identity with their race and origins. Shaking these foundations to their core does point to a serious reconsideration of what is “normal” or “right.”

  12. Mr.Ramos Derek walcott was not an African at all he was actually from Castries saint Lucia in the Bahamas.He actually had a fairly good childhood his mother was a teacher and a poet herself,however his childhood was not completely charmed(his father died when he was a young boy)

  13. But he did have conflicting loyalties both his grandmothers were slaves and both of his grandfathers were British,but his religion caused more issues than anything else he grew up Methodist in the primarily catholic Bahamas. in fact his first published poetry caused a lot of controversy in his home town because it was inspired by Methodism and the local Catholics claimed it was blasphemous

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