In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems: 1948-1984 and Selected Poetry, the authors explore the impact of different forms of history, including the idea of ‘visible’ history, a patriotic perspective on history and the opposing ideas of the history of individual people or a community and the history of a political empire.
Alongside this, the authors consider the changing impact of colonialism on the cultural history of different people and societies. Conrad and Walcott explore these forms of ‘history’ and their impact from different and sometimes opposing perspectives, as they wrote in different eras and were raised in very different cultural environments. Walcott in particular examines the changing impact of ‘history’, mirrored by the contextual more progressive view of this ‘history’. As time went on the public, academics, and political leaders became more critical of colonialism and more respectful of different cultures. This could also be another explanation for the authors’ different perspectives. As referenced by the wording of the question, the term ‘history’ itself has proven to be subjective and ambiguous. The specific idea of ‘no visible history’ was publicised by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who said that Central Africa was “…without history… we must therefore conclude that the races of man which now inhabit this region are unchanged from the prehistoric tribes who were the original inhabitants”1.
The phrases “without history” and “prehistoric tribes” summarise one of the main ways in which Central Africa and its people are depicted, and are the fundamental concepts of how ‘visible’ history and its impact are explored by Conrad. It can be inferred that Conrad supports the view that Central Africa has ‘no visible history’ through the comments that the central character and main narrator Marlow makes about the African landscape and native people. While on his journey to the Inner Station, Marlow states that “going up that river the River Congo was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”.
By comparing the depths of Central Africa to the “earliest beginnings of the world”, this simile connotes the idea that Marlow is hypothetically travelling back in time. Through this there is an implication that the native people of Central Africa are at an earlier stage of evolution in relation to Europeans, that they are more like Marlow’s ancestors than his contemporaries. This also suggests that Marlow, and possibly Conrad, does not have a creationist view of the beginnings of the world, reflecting the prominence of Social Darwinism at the time ‘Heart of Darkness’ was written. Marlow also describes an interaction he has with one of the natives, stating that “the prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell?”. The adjective “prehistoric” again implies that Marlow sees the native people as being less evolved and culturally developed than Europeans. Marlow’s observation also supports the idea that African language, culture and history are bound up together, and that there is an assumption of it being incomprehensible to Europeans. The use of a tricolon gives the narration a fast pace, highlighting the sense of confusion in this instance, which can be seen as representative of this idea of incomprehension.
The question mark further emphasises this, but could also be interpreted as a challenge from Conrad (through Marlow) to the contemporary reader to question whether the aforementioned incomprehensibility of African history was valid or simply a racist perception. Overall, Conrad explores the idea of ‘visible’ history and the view that it Central Africa is without history in this sense, presenting Central Africa and the African people as prehistoric and less evolved than European people through the perspective of Marlow. Walcott also acknowledges and investigates the idea that the Caribbean has ‘no visible history’ in his poetry, prominently in ‘The Almond Trees’. However, while Conrad seems to agree with it and accept it, Walcott mainly challenges the idea and also arguably offers a Caribbean alternative to this definition of ‘history’. In contrast to Conrad, Walcott demonstrates that the ‘history’ of the Caribbean is visible, it is just much subtler than European ‘history’. The first line of the poem, “There’s nothing here”, initially evokes the idea of a lack of visible history, however the sentence continues “this early;” on the following line. By making this structural choice, Walcott leads the reader into thinking that he believes the idea of ‘no visible history’, however he then goes on to highlight how there is something (history) there if one looks closely enough.
Poet and scholar Edward Baugh summarises this argument, stating that “history is visible on the beach, if one knows how to read the landscape … – but not history as monuments, or great battles, or conquest or imperial might. Rather, history as survival and endurance and the forging of community, of a people, through and despite a traumatic rite of passage”2. This message is further emphasised later in the same stanza, where the speaker reflects “no visible history, / except this stand of twisted coppery, sea-almond trees”. The use of end-stopping after “history” gives the reader a moment to anticipate Walcott’s corroboration of the idea of the Caribbean having ‘no visible history’, however as this is followed by the conjunction “except” Walcott again challenges this assumption. The speaker watches a man walking his dog on the beach and muses that there is “‘no visible history’ / until their lengthened shapes amaze the sun”.
The repetition of the phrase “no visible history” further accentuates the idea that the Caribbean is without the traditional, physical forms of ‘history’. Significantly, the fact that this second citation of ‘no visible history’ is in quotation marks makes it clear that Walcott is referencing the attitudes Baker, J.A.
Froude and V.S. Naipaul (among others) held towards African and Caribbean history, and through doing this implies that this view is not his own and that he does not agree with it. Additionally, the conjunction “until” conveys the view that there will come a time where the Caribbean’s history is visible, but this will be a different form of visibility to the traditional European idea of ‘history’. However, instead of devoting himself to opposing the idea that the Caribbean has ‘no visible history’, Walcott offers a Caribbean alternative to the traditional European view of ‘history’ itself.
It is implied that Walcott does not see the absence of ‘visible history’ as an entirely negative thing, as it has allowed Caribbean people to embrace and develop their current culture and has actually unified them as a community. He alludes to the people’s history of enslavement in ‘The Almond Trees’, describing in an extended simile that compares the people to the island’s trees how they were “stripped of their name, / for Greek or Roman tags”, humiliated and abused as they huddled together, “naked”. The verb “stripped” and adjective “naked” have negative connotations of exposure, vulnerability and violence. This language and the imagery it creates references the treatment of Caribbean people by the colonists and could be interpreted as a synecdoche for the wider loss of identity (their name) and dignity (their clothes) that the people experienced. Walcott’s specific use of the noun “tags” rather than “words” or “names” is significant as it infers the objectification of the native people. The reference to “Greek and Roman tags” further emphasises the comparison of the Caribbean people to the trees and nature of the island, as plants often have Latin names and are identified by “tags”.
Although a reference to the objectification and negative treatment of native Caribbean people, this extended simile helps to create a unique, unified sense of Caribbean identity and history through the natural life of the island, as the people are portrayed as homogeneous with their natural surroundings. Walcott proposes this idea of a shared natural environment over time as an alternative form of Caribbean history, culture and identity. This is something which does not rely on the traditional sense of ‘visible’ history, and is instead more psychological and personal to the people. The idea is summarised in the final three lines of the poem: “their leaves’ broad dialect a coarse, / enduring sound / they shared together.” This final statement has a more positive tone, the words “enduring” “shared” and “together” in particular emphasising ideas of unity, community, the survival of a negative past and the anticipation of a positive future, through acknowledgement of this difficult past and acceptance of a natural kind of history.
Integrate this quote into the above paragraph?: “He mastered the colonizer’s language to make an un-colonized utterance. His poems illustrate a useful, necessary, and yes, original foundational trust in elementary European poetic forms. And, finally, they represent an elegant murmur against history’s violent narrative of bondage — an expression that favors writing honestly in a shared world language about the struggles of the men and women of the Antilles and beyond.
” In contrast to this idea, a contemporary of Walcott’s, V.S. Naipaul, declared that “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies”3. This quotation highlights Naipaul’s support of the idea that the Caribbean has no ‘history’, despite having Trinidadian heritage himself. However, Naipaul’s perception of ‘history’ is based on Western and European standards, including monuments, statues, written documents and archaeological evidence celebrating what he deems “achievement and creation”. Although Walcott does not support Naipaul’s attitude of what constitutes ‘history’, Walcott’s new sense of ‘history’ perhaps cannot be entirely separated from the original idea of ‘visible’ history supported by Conrad, as it is still in part a physical sense of history. Both authors explore the changing personal impact of ‘history’, on Marlow, Kurtz and the African Natives in ‘Heart of Darkness’ and on Walcott’s speakers, and arguably therefore himself, in ‘Selected Poems’.
Conrad and Walcott strongly suggest that ‘history’ impacts the characters’ and speakers’ own sense of identity, culture and language. Thus, the authors explore cultural history, addressing how imperialism, colonialism and slavery – a central part of Caribbean/African and European history – affects and impacts the lives of people continually. Additionally, Conrad and Walcott explore the impact of a patriotic view of history in a patriotic light, and in particular the ‘greatness’ of empire and the glorification of colonisation. This can be seen in Walcott’s epic poem ‘The Schooner Flight’. The character in the poem, Shabine, comments on ‘history’, largely through exploring his own heritage and ancestry.
Walcott’s use of language in the poem reflects the theme of hybridity that runs throughout it, implying that Walcott has an uncertain or confused sense of his personal history and he views his identity as one of hybridity. Furthermore, the opening lines of Walcott’s poem ‘The Sea is History’ are “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? / Where is your tribal memory?”. This along with the title indicates the poem’s underlying themes of history, culture and also, identity. The poet’s use of rhetorical questions highlights the speaker’s challenge to the world (and the audience) to think about what ‘history’ truly is. These lines also highlight the contrast between military and colonial – or a Western history – and a more “tribal”, African and Caribbean history, a conflict which Walcott faced himself in reflecting on his personal history, and one which is also explored in ‘Heart of Darkness’.
The terms “monuments” and “memory” link to the aforementioned idea of a ‘visible’ history, and by challenging this sense of history Walcott is inviting the reader to consider their own idea of what ‘history’ actually consists of. Also, the sea is used as a metaphor for history throughout the poem, suggesting that history is fluid and ever-shifting but also very natural and constant. ‘The Sea is History’ is heavy in religious imagery, including many Bible references which in effect tie in history and religion together. This implies that the speaker views their religion as part of their history, therefore supporting the interpretation that in his poetry Walcott explores a cultural and personal sense of history, as well as a more general nation-wide history and historical identity. Walcott himself declared “I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation.” This reflects the significant role that Methodism and spirituality played in his work, and also suggests that his religion was a significant part of his own history.
Significance of the structure – particularly in the last (few) line(s): “…
there was the sound / like a rumour without any echo / – / of History, really beginning.” The structure of these lines is very significant as it symbolises the continuity of history after the poem ends, implying that a new sense of history has now begun to come out and affect the lives of many people, and it will continue to do this for an indefinite amount of time. The poem ends on a positive, calm note which leaves the reader Quotes from Walcott himself – “It is the English language which is the empire, and great poets are not its vassals but its princes.” – links to…
“And isn’t it the case that Walcott’s use of received British forms is an assertion of an independent prerogative, a challenge, even a subversion? One important element of Walcott’s poetry is that it’s a political poetry of the anti-repressive variety.” – “He mastered the colonizer’s language to make an un-colonized utterance. His poems illustrate a useful, necessary, and yes, original foundational trust in elementary European poetic forms. And, finally, they represent an elegant murmur against history’s violent narrative of bondage — an expression that favors writing honestly in a shared world language about the struggles of the men and women of the Antilles and beyond.” In Heart of Darkness, Conrad explores the impact of a patriotic perspective on history in a patriotic light, and addresses the popular idea of the ‘greatness’ of empire.
The Frame narrator’s comments on Britain: “It the Thames had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud…”, “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
” Conrad also explores this outlook through the character of Marlow’s aunt who is shown to be very patriotic and pro-colonisation. – colonialist propaganda of the time – Pear’s Soap advert, Kipling’s ‘A White Man’s Burden’ – however Marlow sees his aunt as naïve for believing this propaganda – “There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet.” There is a strong sense of Marlow’s mocking, condescending tone, SATIRISING? “rot”, “humbug”, “let loose”, “excellent” “the excellent woman” – impersonal, objective? – layer of scepticism – implying that Conrad himself had a more objective and critical perspective on colonialism and its ‘positives’ – moral mission etc. Context: In a lecture, Sean Lang raised the point.
..4 This personal impact of history is contrasted with the history of an empire in ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Walcott’s poetry. Both authors reference a historic empire, in ‘Heart of Darkness’ the frame narrator comments on the British empire and Marlow comments on the Roman empire and the Belgian colonial power.
In Walcott’s ‘Ruins of a Great House’, the speaker comments on the collapse of the British Empire and the after-effects of colonialism on the Caribbean. The poem includes imagery of death and decay, most prominently “The leprosy of empire.” This along with description of decrepit buildings are a synecdoche symbolising the decline and collapse of the British Empire – “the disjecta membra of this Great House”, “I heard / What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire”. The speaker also states “I thought next / Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake, / Ancestral murderers and poets” This links to Conrad’s choice of ‘great’ colonial leaders and explorers in ‘Heart of Darkness’: “It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin”. Also, in the poem there is frequent passionate imagery of fire, burning and rage. The speaker states “That Albion too was once / A colony like ours, “part of the continent, piece of the main””.
This is a reference to John Donne’s ‘Meditation XVII’, in which he addresses a sense of universal humanity. (Walcott describes the position the Caribbean is in, having to rebuild after colonialism and slavery – which highlights the ongoing/long-lasting impact of history.) In ‘Heart of Darkness’, the Frame Narrator comments on the height of the British Empire. Soon after this, Marlow comments on the Roman Empire, and implies that its heyday seems recent. The after-effects of colonisation? (could reiterate earlier point) – Baugh quote – Sharepoint articles for context In conclusion, Joseph Conrad and Derek Walcott explore the immediate and long-term impact of different forms of history, on individuals, cultures and even countries through the landscape.