Monday, January 26, 2009

An Oppressing Past and a Hopeful Future in Walcott's "Forty Acres"

While some may cherish the principles of New Criticism, to apply that particular literary theory to Derek Walcott’s poem “Forty Acres” would be counter-intuitive, leaving the full meaning absent.  The poem, which was written as a laudatory piece for president-elect Barack Obama, refers numerous times to the dark past of American history that pervades our nation’s conscience.  Walcott’s poem, which does not ignore but instead utilizes the past to contrast with the occasion, is an upbeat and hopeful consideration of how today’s political scene will affect our nation’s future.  On the very first line, the poet depicts “a young negro” emerging “out of the turmoil,” a turmoil that, examining the world today, is simultaneously social, economic, and political.  Obama is presented as the emblem of an “impossible prophecy,” perhaps a prophecy that merely one hundred and fifty years ago would indeed have felt impossible, but with the determination of this particular “young ploughman,” is now being fulfilled. 
 In contrast with the youthfulness of the poem’s protagonist is the old guard of “bespectacled owls,” a “gesticulating scarecrow,” and “crows with predictable omens.” The young man, however, is unaffected by their efforts, as he “feels the change in his veins, heart, muscles, tendons.”  Walcott uses the images of “the moaning ground,” “the lynching tree,” and “the tornado’s black vengeance” to imply how those in opposition to this “young Negro” have used every possible method to keep him from his destiny, even trying to (metaphorically, of course) turn nature against him. But keeping this ploughman from his destiny is not in Nature’s nature. Once the young man assumes his place behind the plow, the “land lies open like a flag…and furrows wait for the sower.” It seems that Walcott is hopeful that we as a nation will be the reapers to that sowing; we will be the beneficiaries of the efforts of this youthful leader, this embodiment of American possibility.  

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