“Sea Grapes” Poem Analysis

Posted: June 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

Sea Grapes

By Derek Walcott

That sail which leans on light,

tired of islands,

a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,

home-bound on the Aegean;

that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is like

the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name in

 every gull’s outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war

between obsession and responsibility will

never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore now

wriggling on his sandals to walk home, since

Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough from

whose groundswell the great hexameters come to the

conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

Critical Journal to “Sea Grapes” by Derek Walcott

Sea grapes are a type of grapes that is indigenous to Caribbean Sea that has particularly bitter and sour taste. The title of this poem is obscure in terms of the connection between the content and the title. However, the important message or the theme of the poem lies within the sour taste of sea grapes. Furthermore, Derek Walcott was born and raised in the Caribbean, and his experiences around there inspired many of his writings. Walcott was engrossed in Greek mythology, and mentioned about it frequently in his work, comparing and contrasting it with the present situations and problems. This poem, “Sea Grapes,” written by Derek Walcott, illustrates that conflicts between obsession and responsibility must be solved, weaving them to ancient Greek myth and the hero by using allegory and metaphor.

The readers must note that the most significant message conveyed in this poem is that individuals should settle the strife between responsibility and obsession. The poet utilizes metaphor and allegory to effectively show what he endeavors to say. Furthermore, the words ‘responsibility’ and ‘obsession’ are directly written in the poem to emphasize his message. In addition, the rhythm of “Sea Grapes” is a dactylic hexameter, which is used frequently in epics and heroic poetry, to highlight the allegory.

Specifically about the allegory, the entire poem is strongly correlated to the ancient Greek myth of the hero Odysseus. The Greek mythological hero Odysseus sailed for many years after winning the Trojan War, confronting numerous obstacles while longing to return back to his son and wife. He is frequently tempted by beautiful women on islands who promise him security and comfort. Odysseus’ dilemma between obsession-living secure and safe life with beautiful women such as Nausicaa- and responsibility-returning home to his wife and son as an ideal husband and father- is wisely coped with by Odysseus’ making the right choice of resuming to sail back home. Moreover, looking more deeply into metaphor, sea grapes are used to describe obsession, which guilt and dishonesty underlie beneath. Differing from typical grapes, sea grapes have their original sour and taste, alluding to how bitter choosing obsession over responsibility can feel.

In the second stanza, the poet mentions that Odysseus sailing back to ‘home-bound’ in Aegean Sea, fulfilling his responsibility as a father and a husband. Although from the first stanza to the third stanza, the words make up a sentence, the poet intentionally divided it up into three so that the second stanza illustrates how faithful Odysseus is as a husband and a father. However, the third stanza depicts Odysseus’ temptation, committing adultery by staying with Nausicaa on the way home, hinting how sour it is to choose what attracts him, comparing it to ‘gnarled sour grapes’. Despite that Odysseus returns home, the readers can perceive from the third stanza that he ‘longs’ to decide to do what he wants as the gulls seem to cry out Nausicaa’s name, making it more challenging for him to resist the temptation.

Towards the fourth stanza to the end, making a contrary by starting with a succinct sentence on the fourth stanza, the poet succeeds to grab attention of the readers and emphasize what he wishes to convey. The readers can sense that the dilemma which Odysseus is faced with expands to the present day and not only to this Greek hero but also to everyone, since the poet alerts the readers by claiming that the predicament ‘brings nobody peace.’ This verse triggers the readers to receive a tense and strained feeling, and it continues on by letting the readers aware that the dilemma, which is ‘the ancient war between obsession and responsibility,’ is not coped with and has not gotten any better. In this stanza, the readers are able to predict that the poet is trying to say that individuals should endeavor to deal with this predicament that has been continued on for millenniums.

Continuing the same sentence from the fourth stanza, the fifth stanza demonstrates that the ‘ancient war between obsession and responsibility’ is burdensome for both the ‘sea-wanderer,’ and ‘the one on shore now wriggling on his sandals to walk home.’ Alluding to Odysseus and the end of the Trojan War, the former strays around, seeking for temptations that can bring him pleasure and satisfaction, now that he has an opportunity to. On the contrary, the latter determines to choose responsibility, returning home on the shore while ‘wriggling’ due to the guilt caused by struggling of the ‘ancient war,’ because he could not firmly decide to fulfill his responsibility in the first place, as he ‘longed’ for temptation, as shown previously.

However, the ‘ancient war’ ends for Odysseus as ‘the blind giant’, Polyphemus’ rock causes a gigantic wave and Odysseus escapes and ultimately arrives at home. The wave, ‘the trough,’ makes the grand finale of the epic Odyssey, ‘the great hexameters,’ as it creates ‘conclusions of exhausted surf,’ which signifies that Odysseus’ predicament is coped with. The readers must point out that Odysseus’ accomplishment of returning home over numerous hindrances and allurement was done strenuously, as hinted from the diction ‘exhausted.’ This stanza ultimately suggests to the readers that the struggle between obsession and responsibility is surpassingly exhausting and difficult.

The message that the poet wishes to suggest through the poem is clearly shown in the last two verses. In the present, individuals also must endeavor to find the best choice between obsession and responsibility, in which for Odysseus was the latter. The readers must note that although the ‘classics,’ which they can imply is Odyssey, succeeded in solving the dilemma, it should be fulfilled nowadays, as mentioned that what has been done in the past is ‘not enough.’ Derek Walcott, through his poem “Sea Grapes,” successfully conveys the message that the conflict between obsession and responsibility should be settled, utilizing allegory to Odyssey and metaphor to the native Caribbean sea grapes.


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