Analysis of Derek Walcott’s ‘The Almond Trees’
Derek Walcott’s poem ‘The Almond Trees’ expresses the overwhelming power of colonial memory and the brutality of the colonial enterprise. Through his central image of “coppery, twisted, sea-almond trees”, Walcott justifies the critic Mark McWatt’s view that Walcott is “distanced by vocation, by a habit of perception” as he shows the intensity of his personal struggle with the dualities of his character through the persistent memory of the colonial past. Through simply observing a scene on a beach, the physical juxtaposition of the sunbathers (“girls toasting their flesh”) with the “sea-almond trees” leads Walcott to consider the not “visible history” of the situation – the consequence of “a habit of perception.”
The almond trees serve as an extended metaphor to represent the brutality of the colonial past. Slavery, violence and torture characterise the focus of the majority of the poem although, somewhat characteristically of Walcott, this becomes more ambiguous and possibly hopeful in the “metamorphosis” at the end of the poem. Walcott is generally implicit throughout ‘The Almond Trees’ and uses his vivid imagery and metaphors to create a sense of the intense emotion instead of explicit reference to the postcolonial mindset. The single line verse, “Aged trees and oiled limbs share a common colour!” is an exception to this delicacy, as it has been unappreciated by critics who regard it an unnecessarily explicit in furthering the metaphorical link between the sunbathers and trees. However, as the line is punctuated by an exclamation-mark, it suggests this may not be an example of overly embellished writing but a possible humorous interjection, possibly to reduce the weight of the severe tone before the powerful images of slavery in the subsequent stanza.
The opening of the poem develops the postcolonial theme. “There’s nothing here” is deeply ironic and reflects the wit of Walcott because of the poignancy of the poem that follows and the implicit mockery of such an absurd view that was held by the original colonialists. The absence of buildings, books and social structures in Africa at the time of colonialist arrival led to the ‘Eurocentric’ perception of the native African people as primitive and uncivilised. As the poem first appeared in Walcott’s collection The Castaway in the 1960s, the issues surrounding decolonisation and the problems of postcolonialism were contemporary. Similarly, the emergence of the ‘Black Power’ movement at this time can justify the strong post- and anti-colonial tone of the poem as well as the strong sense of Afro-Caribbean identity in lines such as “stripped of their name / for Greek or Roman tags.”
The consistent undertone of violence in the poem may also be a product of the broader social context of the poem. The image of “forked limbs” has immediate connotations of brutality with the morbid sense of dismembered “limbs” conjuring thoughts of the aftermath of battle and possibly a satanic impression from “forked”. The use of “toasting their flesh” develops the morbid image of “forked limbs” as “flesh” suggests a rawness and open wounds. The use of “toasting” is unusual because of its incongruity. Some interpretations could see the alternative of ‘roasting’ as too explicit in developing the raw flesh and animalistic metaphor. Alternatively, “toasting” could be seen as a distinctly Western metaphor in the celebratory sense of ‘a toast’ or the sense of cooking which could further emphasise Walcott’s criticism of colonialism. The image of flesh as food is developed by a string of images which, through the link to cannibalism, is most horrific. This is done by combing the image of “forked” with “toasting their flesh” and further by “it’ll sear a pale skin copper” (in which sear has connotations of branding livestock) and “they’re cured” which, although ambiguous, can be interpreted in the sense of curing meat. Although Walcott makes no explicit reference to colonialism in these images, the underlying tone of morbidity and brutality they create is almost inevitably related to the brutal treatment of Africans in the Caribbean (as well as the direct description of the impact of the sun on the almond trees). These images of raw ‘flesh’, connotations of food and putrefaction are repeated in other poems such as the references in ‘Ruins of a Great House’ to “the leprosy of Empire” and “ulcerous crime”.
The consistent undertone of brutality in the subtle connotations of almost every adjective (such as “twisting”, “writhing”, “singed”, “sear” and “fierce acetylene air”) develops the theme of “no visible history.” These implicit descriptions and the use of the almond tree metaphor reflect that although the coast has few remaining symbols of colonialism, the memory remains overwhelming. This relates to the opening stanza in which refers to the “cold churning ocean, the Atlantic” as having “no visible history” but embodying the foundations of colonialism through the imperial navies and slave ships. The memory, which is also central to much of Walcott’s other poetry (such as in ‘Ruins of a Great House” where he states “In memory now, by every ulcerous crime”), becomes fundamental to the conclusion of the poem. “One sunburnt body now acknowledges / That past and its own metamorphosis” which brings an end to the violence and brutality of the poem.
Walcott’s use of abstract images and details is a characteristic device. The reference to “their leaves’ broad dialect a coarse, / enduring sound” is an example of the fluid transition between the natural and the human in the poem. It also shows the vivid imagery developed by Walcott which instead of being a discursive, unlike some other postcolonial pieces (such as R. S. Thomas’ poem ‘Welsh Landscape’ where he clearly expresses “To live in Wales is to be conscious / At dusk of the spilled blood”), Walcott is descriptive. He develops tone and emotion through powerful description such as “they were lashed / raw by wind, washed / out with salt and fire-dried”. The various layers of these images such as the biblical connotations of “lashed” and the intense sensory-physical image of being “washed / out with salt” emphasises the intensity of personal emotion and internalised feeling of the postcolonial setting in contrast to political or social comment in other works.
Walcott develops a sense of isolation in the poem as his images and perspective seems distanced and withdrawn. His reflections come from physically distanced observations of others who prompt memory and thought but not self-identification. In the most poignant image of the poem – “Their grief / howls seaward through charred, ravaged holes.” – the poet is notably distanced from the people and the memories he reflects upon with the distinctive use of “their”. Although a biographical interpretation may show that while writing the collection The Castaway (within which ‘The Almond Trees’ was first published) Walcott conveys a sense of his isolation from society, his distance in this poem could also be seen as the distance of the memory and a disjointed history. The poet is not lamenting his own isolation and it would be difficult to apply such an interpretation. However, through his distance he could be emphasising his theme of there being “no visible history.” Although the images seem removed, the emotion remains intense and violent, which may suggest that Walcott sees his perception and memory, as with other Afro-Caribbeans, removed from the conventional ‘Western’ mode of physical, visible memory.
The chilling image of “Their grief / howls seaward through charred, ravaged holes” is emphasised by the lineation and its separation in to a separate stanza. As a separate stanza, the image is given strength and a finality which only makes it more forceful. In addition, the separation of “Their grief” on a single line makes these words in particular emphatic as the disjointing of the form and rhythm caused by the short line-break almost reflects the difficulty of speech in heightened emotion. The onomatopoeic effect of “howls” (which resonates with the breadth of sounds in the word and the sharp ‘s’ ending) also has animalistic connotations which develops the natural imagery of the poem by further aligning symbolic importance to natural phenomena. The use of “charred, ravaged holes” encapsulates all of the central images in the poem such as the sense of fire, heat, suffering, torture and brutality. As a conclusion to the poem, Walcott’s final impression of the colonial memory could have been harrowing. However, the final stanza ends the poem with duality, a device he often employs.
Dualities are central to this poem, as with most of Walcott’s poetry. In addition to the central duality of the fluid metaphor of the trees and the colonial memory, Walcott uses a range of images that emphasise the tension between the past and present. The contrast between the classical images of “brown daphnes” and the “sacred grove” (which produces an immediate sense of the affinity towards nature of some native African tribes like the “Evil Forest” of the Ibo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) shows the poet’s sense of divided identity. He sees the brutality of the colonial past but uses the culture of those he condemns to express the torture of it. Walcott’s juxtaposition of the two cultures can be interpreted as showing the intense conflict between these different identities and the horrific personal struggles caused by colonialism.
However, Walcott himself has emphasised the importance of universality in his poetry (just as he reflects in ‘Ruins of a Great House’ that “all in compassion ends”). Therefore, the dualities between man and nature in the central metaphor and the brutality of the colonial memory allow Walcott to develop his universal perspective in showing the “grove grieves in silence, like parental love.” This final image is ambiguous but the overriding sense must be positive. The personification of the natural surroundings (“within the bent arms of this grove”) suggests a comfort and godly force overcoming the brutality that characterises the majority of the poem. However, the connotations of “grieving in silence” undermine this by suggesting that the postcolonial memory is persistent. The control and slowing of the rhythm in the final line which separates “like parental love” could suggest a sense of lament in which the words could be read as sighing and remorseful. Equally, they could be interpreted as full of pride and hope and slowed to a powerful exclamatory rhythm. The alliteration and consonance of the ‘l’ sound is soft and the echoing of the monosyllabic “like” and “love” suggests a more hopeful tone in which Walcott may be suggesting that the colonial past is slowly forgotten and the “brown daphnes” have become closer to the Caribbean. The significant shift in tone in the final stanza from the horrific penultimate stanza further implies the positive intentions of this final image.
Walcott, and in particular ‘The Almond Trees’, does not fit a ‘typical’ genre of the postcolonial (if something such could exist). In the earliest postcolonial texts such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, written at a time and by a man with a biography not too dissimilar to Walcott (in terms of education and influence), the presentation of the postcolonial is extremely different to that in ‘The Almond Trees’. Whereas Achebe laments the loss of culture and to some extent the violent disintegration of the Ibo way of life, Walcott presents a greater sense of the brutality colonial history. Whereas Achebe uses a simple prose (despite his Western education) and descriptive narrative to reflect the vernacular, oral tradition, Walcott embraces the Western culture with his use of classical images and embellished verse in ‘The Almond Trees’. Here he shows that fundamentally he is a literary artist. Unlike some postcolonial and post-post-colonial traditions, Walcott does not consider the sense of dislocation, hybridity or double consciousness (so apparent in different types of literary expression to Walcott) such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Although Walcott is witty, sharp and perceptive (shown in his subversion of the theme of “no visible history” and his opening that “there’s nothing here”), he is not primarily humorous, nor is his work explicitly postcolonial in condemnation. However, as with many other postcolonial texts, he develops the theme of universality in ‘The Almond Trees’ by juxtaposing history and memory to show a “metamorphosis” of Caribbean identity. Just as Dharker concludes explicitly, “look into its outcast eyes / and recognise it as your own” and Achebe reflects, “what is good among one people is an abomination among others” so Walcott ends, more subtly the need to “acknowledge[ ] / that past” and understand a shared origin “like parental love.”
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Derek Walcott’s poem ‘The Almond Trees’ expresses the overwhelming power of colonial memory and the brutality of the colonial enterprise. Through his central image of “coppery, twisted, sea-almond trees”, Walcott […]