Thursday, 4 August 2016


Critical Appreciation of "A Far Cry from Africa"

1. Introduction
     "A Far Cry from Africa" is from Derek Walcott's first major collection of poems, "In a Green Night (1962)". A reflexive poem, "A Far Cry from Africa" is an honest effort to understand the poet's vocation, his relationship with the world at large, and with his country of birth, Saint Lucia. In this poem Walcott asks several questions, mostly to himself, in a bid to understand himself, his country, and the politics and colonial subjugation that has divided his life, profession, and loyalties. Although this poem may appear to be a dramatization of Walcott's own particular racial angst, it can equally be read as a more generalized investigation of the Caribbean psyche's divided cultural and ethnic allegiances. 
2. Historical Background of the Poem
     The poem is written at the backdrop of Mau Mau Uprising; an extended bloody battle during the 1950s between European settlers and the native Kikuyu tribe in what is now the republic of Kenya. In the early twentieth century, the first white settlers arrived in the region, forcing the Kikuyu people off of their tribal lands. European took control of farmland and the government relegating the Kikuyu to a subservient position. The ongoings in Kenya magnified an internal strife within the poet concerning his own mixed heritage. Walcott has both African and European roots; his grandmothers were both black, and both grandfathers were white. As Walcott is divided in two, so too is the poem. The first two stanzas refer to the Kenyan conflict, while the second two address the war withing the poet. 
3. Title of the Poem
     The title of the poem is very ambiguous in nature. In involves an idiom: "a far cry" which means an impossible thing. But the poet seems to use the words in other senses also; the title suggests in one sense that the poet is writing about an African subject from a distance. Writing from the island of St. Lucia, he feels he is at a vast distance - both literally and metaphorically from Africa. Another possible explanation of the title might be the contrast between the beautiful setting of the African veldt and the bloody violence that occurred there. And a third level of meaning to title is the idea of Walcott hearing the poem as a far cry coming all the way across thousands of miles of ocean. He hears the cry coming to him on the wind. 
4. Structure of the Poem
     The poem contains four stanzas of mostly iambic tetrameter. Actually, the poem starts off in iambic pentameter, the prevalent form of poetry written in English, but soon veers off course metrically - a change that reflects the changing scene and perspective in the poem - with lines of varying length and number of stresses. A point of consistency is Walcott's use of masculine endings and masculine rhymes. However, rhyme is as irregular as meter. The scattered rhyme is ABABBC..... . Only those lines are rhymed in which Walcott sees a particular contrast or similarity. Caesura has been used half way through the second stanza. In short, the structure of the poem emphasizes the main emotional dilemma in the poem. 
5. Themes of the Poem
     Split identity, anxiety, isolation, cruelty, violence, religion and love are the major themes of the poem. Walcott belongs to both African and European roots and he identifies himself as a mongrel; both grandmothers were African and both grandfathers were European. Walcott's hybrid heritage prevents him from identifying directly with one culture and creates a sense of anxiety and isolation. The wind "ruffling the tawny pelt of Africa" refers to the cruelty of Mau Mau insurrection against the violence of British colonialism. The words "corpses, paradise, dead, Jews and cursed" create an atmosphere of religion in the poem. Walcott's feeling of affection for Africa and fondness for English tongue propagate the theme of love.
6. Culture Clash in the Poem
     There are many clashes in the poem. The first image signaling conflict is the hint of a storm brewing in the opening lines where Kikuyu flies feed upon the land and maggots upon dead Mau Mau. And within this, a sub conflict also exists between those Kikuyu believing that the rights of the individual do not necessarily violate those of the group and those convinced that individual rights do violate group rights. In lines six through ten, there is also the clash between the culture of those outside the uprising and those killed by it, outsiders with the luxury of judging the conflict, and insiders for whom no explanation is sufficient. These conflicts yield up the main confrontation of the poem, that between Mau Mau and the British, and the conflict withing the poet about which side to take. 
7. Animal Imagery in the Poem
     The whole poem is a succession of visual, auditory and kinesthetic images. However, the most important imagery is the visual imagery of animals. Lion, flies, worm, ibises and beasts are the major animal images. Africa is compared to a lion with a "tawny pelt". Flies are used as an image of Kikuyu who are feeding on blood, which is present in large enough amounts to create streams. Worm is an image of British colonizers and it adds a sickening detail in this setting of decaying human flesh. The worm's admonishment to "Waste no compassion on these separate dead!" is puzzling in that it implies that the victims somehow got what they deserved. The images of ibises and other beasts tell this land was ruled by these animals before African or European civilization existed. In short, the poet has used ample animal imagery to criticize the savage aspects of both cultures. 
8. Religious Imagery in the Poem
     Walcott uses religious imagery throughout the poem in his exploration of African life. Through the juxtaposition of "corpses" and "paradise", Walcott is exploring the link between life and death, ugliness and beauty. By linking the two words, Walcott is exploring the paradoxical link between death in a "corpse" and life in "paradise" after death. There is further use of religious imagery in the first two lines of the second stanza as "necessity wipes its hands". This illusion to Pontinus  washing his hands of Jesus's blood before his crucifixion, demonstrates an acknowledgment of consequences but not of responsibility. Thus the personification of "brutish necessity" has been used to distance the narrator of responsibility for the actions described in the first stanza. 
9. Literary Devices
(i) Cacophony: Kikuyu quick
(ii) Alliteration: "Batten upon the bloodstreams", "colonel of carrion cries".
(iii) Rhyme Scheme: Scattered rhyme ABABBC...., forced rhyme "again .... Spain"
(iv) Rhyming Couplet: "dead ....dead"
(v) Anaphora: "How can I ..... How can I"
(vi) Metaphor: Africa is compared to a lion and worm is a metaphor for British colonizer.
(vii) Illusions: Jews (Holocaust), napkin of a dirty cause (British mannerisms), Spain (Spanish Civil war 1930)
(viii) Play on Words: Colonel (colonial), Brutish (British or Brutus)
10. Conclusion
     The poem elaborates the poet's ambivalence and his Philoctetaean situation in choosing between what is right and what is wrong, and his strive to resolve the paradox of his biological, cultural and racial hybrid inheritance. However, this struggle appears to be irreconcilable. The poem seems to fall into the trap of creating what certain post-colonial critics have referred to as "Manichean" divisions, and certainly mixed racial ancestry is hardly being seen as a source of strength. In short, the poem reveals the poet's psychological conflict, divided loyalties and his angst for not being identified with a particular tradition. 
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

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