A Caribbean Odyssey on “The Schooner Flight”

In 2016, I published the research paper I wrote on the relationship between football and CTE here and I truly enjoyed the feedback I received on the essay. Writing has become a passion of mine, so every now and then I craft a paper that I’m extremely proud of for class. This semester, I wrote a 10 page essay for my British Poetry class, analyzing the classic poem “The Schooner Flight” by Caribbean author Derek Walcott. I included the essay below and I hope you enjoy reading it!


Esteemed Caribbean author Derek Walcott examines the relationship between his personal identity as a mixed-race man and his conflicted sense of home as he travels around the Caribbean Sea in his epic 11-section poem entitled “The Schooner Flight.” In the poem, Walcott carries the reader through the swirling seas on the bow of the schooner as he recalls the events of his journey. Walcott’s physical expedition across the ocean mirrors his internal struggle to reclaim what it means to be a true Caribbean man defined only by himself rather than foreign opinions. Wrestling between his pure love for the mother land that birthed him and the tainted islands occupied by descendants of the original European squatters, Walcott’s main character, purposefully named ‘Shabine’, sets sail on a quest to settle his internal conflicts. 

    In his first section, Shabine bids farewell to his first two loves- his home and his wife- and encounters his soulmate- the Sea. Called ‘Shabine’ throughout the piece, meaning half-white or of mixed heritage, Walcott introduces a struggle with his mixed-race heritage through the eyes of his speaker. Shabine, a colloquial nickname from the area, is used in conjunction to refer to many characters of mixed-heritage in the story. While the name could be a dialect-based term of endearment, it may also be confused as a racial slur depending on the speaker’s intentions. Shabine doesn’t directly propose his opinion on the name, but responds to his title with grace. This section represents Shabine’s wandering thoughts, his conflicted emotions floating across the deep sea faster than the schooner itself. Walcott invokes the word “I” with every action Shabine takes in the poem, saying, “I stood, I pass, I said…” (line 7, 11, 12) proving the piece is indeed, spoken from Shabine’s mouth. As the setting and number of characters expand, Walcott repeats “I” to remind the reader that this story is completely Shabine’s, though he may have other influences in the piece. Shabine and the other unnamed characters in section one communicate through variations of English Creole- a native mixed language typically spoken in Trinidad. As Shabine leaves his life behind before boarding the schooner, he writes, “I pass me dry neighbor sweeping she yard,” (11) a unique dialect indigenous to his home. Walcott invokes such language as a means of holding his homeland close because he will soon leave it behind. Shabine first introduces his conflicted love for the land as the taxi passes by familiar scenes- a dog lying on the road, neighbors cleaning their yards, when he says, “if loving these islands must be my load,/out of corruption my soul takes wings,” (28-29). The corrupt leadership of the Caribbean islands is one of the Walcott’s crucial struggles in his poem. His desire for a pre-colonialism homeland boxes with the realization that the Caribbean of old will never again exist. Still, Walcott uses imagery as a character, describing the sea and town in lush figurative language that pulls both Shabine and the reader back to where he belongs. As he exits the land he once loved, Shabine illustrates the backdrop, “the sea…was painted afresh by the strokes of the sun/signing her name with every reflection;/dark-haired evening put on/her bright silk at sunset,” (47-50). In search of answers to his conflicting questions, Walcott whispers his romantic divide, “I swear to you all, by my mother’s milk/by the stars that shall fly from tonight’s furnace,/that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;/I loved them as poets love the poetry/that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea,” (65-69). Although he adores his family and the life he built, his desire for the sea and the journey toward a clear identity is what motivates his actions throughout the whole of the piece. 

    The second branch of the poem highlights the disparity between the natural beauty of the land and sea and Shabine’s emotional reflections. Walcott dives into the vast blue and the entire section using vivid imagery and allusions. Introducing the first leg of the trip, Shabine illustrates the difference between the leaders of the ship and the crew or passengers. Personifying both characters as predators vs. prey, Shabine uses marine animals as placeholder people. Shabine, when pondering upon who would take the fall for a mistaken quiz, recalls, “well, I knew damn well who the suckers would be/not that shark in shark skin, but his pilot fish,” (88-89). Just as sharks reign over the fish of the sea, so do those in power onboard the schooner. Shabine continues his use of expressive images as he argues with the corrupt minister-monster, whom he refers to as a lizard, proposing, “I have seen things that would make a slave sick/in this Trinidad, the Limers’ Republic,” (110-111). Through his detailed descriptions, Shabine shows how he despises the leaders in his home and the gentrification that’s currently taking place, referencing events as worse than the act of slavery. Impacted more so by his relationship to the colonizers as a mixed-race man, Shabine struggles with his emotional state. Not everything he witnesses makes him ill, however, as Shabine also uses imagery to portray the beauty around the schooner. In one section of part 2, Walcott pieces together a five-line core ending in a slant-rhyme:

    But this Caribbean so choke with the dead    that when I would melt in emerald water,    whose ceiling rippled like a silk tent,    I saw them corals: brain, fire, sea fans,    dead-men’s-fingers, and then, the dead men, 

using clear illustrations in the section, Walcott describes the disparity between the true beauty of the lush land and vast sea against the dead bodies that followed colonization in the Caribbean (116-120). He ends part 2 with a biblical plea, wondering what the purpose of his life is through his despair. Almost as a dual figure to Job in the Bible, Shabine cries, “where is my rest place, Jesus? Where is my harbor?/Where is the pillow I will not have to pay for,/and the window I can look from that frames my life?” (148-150). Alluding to similar Biblical struggles, Shabine is unable to grasp the beauty surrounding him as his emotional state wavers. 

    Section 3 thoroughly digs into Shabine’s conflict as a mixed-race Caribbean man. This part of the poem has a somber tone and employs visual representation as Shabine recalls the violent massacre of young men in his homeland. For the first time, Shabine opens the section with a personal action statement, “I had no nation now but the imagination,” (151). He no longer feels a connection to the Caribbean and is repulsed by the conflict of racial identity. The key theme of this part is his conflict between his mixed race status. Shabine wonders aloud who will accept him and who rejects his person. Again referencing slavery in a dark tone, Shabine weighs his options saying, “the first chain my hands and apologize, ‘history’;/the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride,” (154-155). Shabine uses imagery and personification in the upcoming lines as he depicts his lack of documented familial and racial history as a crawling crab, escaping the claustrophobic, decrepit bottle. He notes the massacre of black bodies in the 1970 Black Power revolt that didn’t affect change in the government, as he describes, “they sank in the bright hills like rain, every one/with his own nimbus, leaving shirts in the street,/and the echo of power at the end of the street,” (179-181). Walcott clearly illustrates the killings while reckoning with the outcome of such a massacre as it relates to his personal identity. 

    Parts 4 and 5 observe the beauty and difficult history of the sea’s surroundings through comparative imagery as Shabine encounters the slave trade passage- a history of his own people. Walcott sets the scene of a lackadaisical twilight trek across the night-colored water with his shift in syntax at section 4. Instead of creating a chunk of lengthy sentences as is mirrored in the previous parts, Walcott changes his syntax and writes in fragmented phrases. The first two lines of the section read, “Dusk. The Flight passing Blanchisseuse./Gulls wheel like,” (191-192) which briefly illustrate the ship’s direction and the setting. Walcott adds to the scene by saying, “lighthouse and star start making friends,” (194), an alluring image that portrays the ship’s loneliness across the dark sea, and reflecting Shabine’s ultimate solitude as well. Walcott briefly closes the section with a hint of alliteration, creating movement in the reader’s imagination- the opposite of part 4’s beginning. As Shabine crosses the Middle Passage in part 5, he examines the heritage of his African ancestry and how his relatives’ struggles affect his own life. Using his descriptive observations, Shabine searches the sea for his lost identity and finds the souls of the slaves, boarded and packed in the depths of ships like sardines masking their own filth. The section connects the past and present with a detailed description of Shabine’s observations mixed with his recognition of the ships that traded and sold human beings. He combines imagery with metaphors as he recounts the passing of nearby warships and their captains, saying, “we float through a rustling forest of ships/with sails dry like paper,” (208-209). The image of paper ships is fluid because they’re both crafted of the same material. Shabine considers himself a passerby inspecting the active life around him. He seems unbothered by the passing of international slave ships, although they once carried his stolen ancestors to their destinations, noting, “our fathers below deck too deep, I suppose,/to hear us shouting. So we stop shouting,” (229-230). Although the section encounters slavery in close proximity, mixed-race Walcott doesn’t flinch and instead continues floating, just like the schooner itself. 

    Personification drives section 6 as Shabine measures the level of humanity in the Australian casuarina trees- displaced plants as indigenous to the land as Shabine himself. Shabine carefully describes the trees in their natural element, comparing their physical appearance during harsh weather to that of a woman in mourning, “watching their bending bodies wail like women/after a storm, when some schooner came home/with news of one more sailor drowned again,” (243-245). While Shabine initially refers to the trees as cedars, he eventually notes how important one’s choice of words is in alluding to history. Just as Shabine’s own name has a difficult meaning that defines his identity as a mixed-race man, so do the casuarina’s title. He says,     

But we live like our names and you would have    to be colonial to know the difference,    to know the pain of history words contain,    to love those trees with an inferior love,

calling the casuarinas by their original name although they’re imported from Australia, he acknowledges them as part of the land. In a similar fashion, Shabine is acknowledging how mixed-race people are a diaspora, longing for their homeland without knowing their exact genealogy. By personifying the casuarinas and adopting them as natives, he’s calling on the same action for mixed-race people and other descendants of slaves. 

    Sections 7 and 8 reflect the polar antithesis of love and violence as Shabine remains trapped between the great loves of his life and his confrontations with the confused identities of other characters. Shabine recalls the beginning of his first love as he says, “I loved you alone and I loved the whole world./What does it matter that our lives are different?” (261-262). The loneliness of the vast ocean and his conflicted emotions lead Shabine to reminisce on an easier and more fruitful time. The colloquial diction of the first section returns in this part as Shabine uses the language with whom he’s most comfortable toward the woman who loved him first. Using the slang, “we here for one night,” (271) in the same line as “tomorrow, the Flight will be gone,” contrasts Shabine’s dual identities and two great loves. The first reveals his relaxed and complacent relationship with his wife because he returns to the native dialect with which he’s most familiar. This identity truly cares for his wife and family and the comfortable life they’ve established in the Caribbean, while the other sails away to an unknown destination. Shabine loves the sea and its opportunity for new life and the discovery of old ones. The only commonality between his two passions is his poetry, inspired by the lovers he leaves and heads toward. Section 8 discards any leftover romance from its former part, leading to a violent altercation between Shabine and the cook. Walcott includes this section to reveal how important Shabine’s privacy and writings are to the character. By revealing the fight directly after Shabine’s passionate love appeal, Walcott is creating the distinction between Shabine as a lover vs. fighter and how both parts exist in one. The English creole dialect returns and remains prominent through the rest of the section, showing how Shabine’s native thoughts and personality are revealed in emotional times.

    The most meaningful themes related to identity and social evolution are brought to life in part 9 during Shabine’s discussion with his friend Vince. Progress is the most repeated word in the section- an idea that Shabine struggles with as he faces the consequences of colonialism. As a mixed-race man, Shabine is extremely pessimistic about real progress, while Vince sees the lighter side of optimism:

    Progress is something to ask Caribs about.    They kill them by millions, some in war,    some by forced labor dying in the mines    looking for silver, after that n*ggers; more    progress.

Walcott places the word ‘progress’ as the first word in its own line to highlight the contrast between the actual definition of the word and how its positive effects come at a price- in this case, revealing the extermination of indigenous Caribs (305-308). Shabine’s pessimism is due to the treatment he’s faced at the hands of European descendants. He knows that “progress is history’s dirty joke,” (310) and refuses to accept any proclamation of success or victory unless real change occurs. Shabine uses clear imagery to flashback through the violent suffering of Africans in the Caribbean due to European conquest. The imagery invokes terror and anger in the reader, causing one to ponder on the true brutality of colonization. By referencing the pain and fear Caribbean children faced, Walcott is most successful at pandering to one’s deep pathos. Walcott wonders what it takes to create true progress for all people when he says,

    I drowned at last    in big breakers of smoke; then when that ocean    of black smoke pass and the sky turn white,    there was nothing but Progress.

The letter ‘P’ is capitalized in this one use of progress as if Walcott is showing how violent or invasive success for one group of people isn’t real progress at all.

    As Shabine stares death in the face in part 10, he realizes that love and religion are more important than any identity crusade, which he reveals through panicked diction. The image of a rough and uneasy dark sea opens the section as a mirror image of Jesus’ experience in the great storm. Walcott uses the sea creatures’ unusual actions as allusions of the storm brewing. Because Shabine instantly panics and believes death is upon him, he notes that “I have not loved those that I loved enough,” (388) a message to the reader that the only important parts of life are family and friends. Walcott brings back Shabine’s creole as he speaks his native dialect in a traumatic moment. As the slave ships return, Walcott uses them as guides for Shabine’s future identity. Shabine realizes that he doesn’t have to choose between either race, but can instead celebrate his identity as a whole. He recognizes the strength of his ancestors in his renewed faith, reminiscing scenes at church when he says, “we sang how our race/survived the sea’s maw, our history, our peril,/and now I was ready for whatever death will,” (408-410). A restored sense of faith is illustrated through Walcott’s use of animal comparisons found in the bible. As the sea begins to calm, Shabine’s need for answers disappears and he finds a renewed sense of self and purpose in the Caribbean. 

    The final section of the poem is sprinkled with descriptive imagery as Shabine rediscovers his identity and the love he has for his family and homeland. The light that follows the blackened storm parallels the renewed light surrounding Shabine’s existence and the home with which he once felt distant. The light rain, compared to a showering girl, freshens and restores the Caribbean that Shabine once loved. Through the beauty of the peaceful imagery, Shabine realizes that the love he has for his native land outweighs his hatred for its history of colonization and gentrification. He is no longer searching for answers or the consequences of historical failures, but instead finds a passion for light travel with a pure heart and new dedication to his family. The smoke that once choked his lungs evaporates into the history that documents its existence. He illustrates the indescribable setting, “as many islands as the stars at night/on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken/like falling fruit around the schooner Flight,” (456-458) using the image to broadcast his excited journey home. His one true love, however, will always remain the sea, as he says, “my first friend was the sea. Now, is my last,” (463) While he will return home and make amends with his family, Shabine will forever be tied to the great ocean. Luckily, the sea doesn’t require an expansive description of his ethnic history as acceptance. 

    Although Shabine sails away from his family and his struggle to understand his mixed-race heritage, he returns home with a renewed sense of purpose and place in the world. The scars of slavery and colonization will never truly disappear, but Shabine learns that a pure connection to his homeland and the surrounding world helps to ease the pain. By the end of the poem, Shabine is rehabilitated in his search for answers and may finally accept who he is- a poet of the sea.