Derek Walcott’s “Egypt, Tobago” Poem

The history of writing this poem is not widely known, but it is stated, that it was written in the surroundings of the Egyptian oasis, as such clear and detailed images of the scenery may be attained only after immersion into the atmosphere of the Egyptian surrounding and feel the historical emanations. The national identity of the poem is stated in the lines of the lying copper palm tree, and the description of the desert. (Breslow, 1993) The Construction is mixed, as there is no distinct feature of strict meter or rhythm. As for the interpretations, it is necessary to mention, that the most commonly accepted are the following: Anthony and Cleopatra represent the Sun and The Moon, who may meet in the daytime, but still, fate will not allow them to be together. Another interpretation says that the poem should be understood not only in the historical context but in general, as the example of the relations of two powerful personalities. (Ismond, 2001).

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Construction of National Identity

The National Identity of Tobago had been formed through the centuries. The key role of the construction played the fact that it was under the colonial yoke of Great Britain. The parallel may be drawn with the Greek-Roman war, which is mentioned in the poem. In the battle at Actium, Anthony was defeated, and Greece could breathe freely for some time after that battle. The same may be said of Trinidad: the world community decided to refuse colonialism, and colonial states could not withstand the pressure of the world community and decided to grant independence for their colonies.

Shattered and wild and
palm-crowned Antony,
rusting in Egypt,
ready to lose the world,
to Actium and sand.

This reminds the “rusting” England, the England, which experienced difficulties, and could not control the colonies. Anthony here symbolizes Great Britain, and he has nothing to do in the circumstances, but to accept the defeat. (Ismond, 2001).

Historical Context

Taking into account the historical context of the poem, it is necessary to emphasize, that there is a direct indication of the year 32 BC. In spite of it, critics highlight, that author aimed to describe the second half of the twentieth century, as the decolonization of Trinidad and Tobago took place in 1962.

He brushes a damp hair
away from an ear
as perfect as a sleeping child’s.
He stares, inert, the fallen column.
He lies like a copper palm
tree at three in the afternoon
by a hot sea
and a river, in Egypt, Tobago. (Selwyn, 1997).

These lines stand for the sorrow of the colony owner for the lost territories, which will no longer benefit from the territories of the far Caribbean archipelago. The image of Anthony, who lost his Cleopatra, is described in the colors of sorrow, grief, and sadness. Actually, these feelings are central to the poem, as the author aimed to conceal the main theme (decolonization of Tobago), and cover it with images and analogies, that will not be associated with decolonization. The purposes of this concealing are various: literary ideas, political considerations, desire to avoid clichés, and stamps. Actually, Trinidad and Tobago became an “independent and unitary state” within the British Commonwealth under a Governor-General representing the Queen of England, and Anthony either did not lose Cleopatra, as she stayed alive, but the previous relations were no longer achievable for both (the same is for Britain and Trinidad and Tobago). (Ismond, 2001).

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In spite of the historical parallels, associated with the processes of decolonization, the poem mainly defines grief, and this grief is attributed to Anthony. The key point of the poem is to show Anthony’s sorrow, as he and Cleopatra will no longer be together. Their union could be too dangerous for both Rome and Egypt. (Selwyn, 1997).

He brushes a damp hair
away from an ear
as perfect as a sleeping child’s.
He stares, inert, the fallen column.

The sorrow is shown in the background of the defeated and destroyed Actium. On the first hand, the tragedy of the Greek city adds to Anthony’s tragedy, on the other hand, it may be emphasized, that his parting with the woman he loves is pay for the destroyed lives and houses of Greek citizens in Actium. (Gidmark, 1998).

Another point of view highlight, that the words of the poem may be interpreted as the general example of the relations between two strong-willed persons. These relations may develop calmly and safely for both, but as a consequence of their strong ambitions, one may appear among the ruins. These ruins symbolize the destroyed relations, quarrels, lost opportunities, or other serious mistakes. The feelings in this situation may be described as:

Her salt marsh dries in the heat
where he foundered
without armor.
He exchanged an empire for her beads of sweat,
the uproar of arenas,
the changing surf
of senators, for
this silent ceiling over silent sand

And the price for the mutual feelings appears too high.


“Egypt, Tobago” is a unique verse, by the genius writer. The mixtures of the rhythms and meters are used for better expression of the particular moments, while the means of description have never been used before. The Interpretations may be numerous, but the key point of any will be the relations of two people, who desperately loved each other, but could not be together.

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Breslow, Stephen. “Derek Walcott: 1992 Nobel Laureate in Literature.” World Literature Today 67.2 (1993): 267-271.

Gidmark, Jill B. “Conversations with Derek Walcott.” MELUS 23.2 (1998): 222.

Ismond, Patricia. Abandoning Dead Metaphors: The Caribbean Phase of Derek Walcott’s Poetry. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2001.

King, Bruce. Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama: Not Only a Playwright but a Company, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop 1959-1993. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Pollard, Charles W. “Traveling with Joyce: Derek Walcott’s Discrepant Cosmopolitan Modernism.” Twentieth Century Literature 47.2 (2001): 197.

Selwyn R. Cudjoe (1997). C.L.R. James and the Trinidad & Tobago Intellectual Tradition, Or, Not Learning Shakespeare Under a Mango Tree. New Left Review, a(223), 114-125.

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