Colonial Romantic light. Post-colonial/colonial concerns of identity lend

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and Postcolonial literature naturally leans towards an exploration of identity,
as it discusses the impact of Colonial rule on colonisers and those
colonialized. This is exemplified in Derek Walcott’s and Joseph Conrad’s work. Although
both authors are disparate, the explorations of identity in both texts have a Romantic
root. This essay explores the extent the journey of identity in these texts
connect to Romantic literature. Colonial and Post-colonial literature explores multiple
aspects when searching for identity, regarding hybridity, exoticism, and
subalternity, but the question I am looking to answer is how much of this can
be traced back to discussion in the works of Romantic writers and philosophers?


Both Walcott
and Conrad depict landscape as a channel for identity in a Romantic light.  Post-colonial/colonial concerns of identity lend
themselves towards key aspects of Romanticism, their explorative form giving potential
for the introspective aspects of the Sublime and Negative Capability. This
exploitation of Romanticism allows for vivid imagery and an emotional capacity which
wouldn’t be accessible otherwise. Post-colonial/colonial concerns of identity
lend themselves towards key aspects of Romanticism, their explorative form
giving potential for the introspective aspects of the Sublime and Negative
Capability. Keats defines Negative Capability  as “when man is capable of being in
uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and
This is apparent in Conrad’s work when exploring the journey to discover the identity
of ‘the Other’, the African landscape being ‘the hush that had fallen suddenly
upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the
fecund and mysterious life.’ Use of diction like ‘immense’ and ‘mysterious’
gives an impression of something which cannot be fully articulated by words;
the lack of knowledge of African identity is enhanced by hyperbolic description
of a landscape foreign to Britain. Conrad uses landscape to demonstrate European
Colonizer’s weak search to discover the African identity: they focus on aesthetic
and do not delve into cultural identity. Conrad creates the natives to be the
subaltern, a figure lesser than the West as they do not hold hegemonic power. This extends to African figures
throughout the book, as Conrad upholds a Burkean approach to their
representation amongst the Sublime. Considering the statement of critic F.R.
Leavis, there is an ‘adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and
incomprehensible mystery,’ which enables the identity of ‘the Other’ to be seen
with obscurity, like the Romantic Sublime. Parallels can be drawn between
Conrad’s description of setting and Romanticist work. In Percy Shelley’s ‘Mont
Blanc’, he states ‘wilderness has a mysterious tongue.’ The vagueness in this
declarative clause forms a sense of speculation, enhancing the ‘mysterious’
landscape, similar to Marlow’s investigation of identity of ‘the Other.’  Unlike the positivity of the Romantic Sublime,
Conrad suggests evil exists in nature.  The
Congo river is described as ‘an immense snake uncoiled,’ evoking ideas of
deception ‘in the depths of the land.’ This metaphor conjures ideas of sin, the
‘snake’ referencing human immorality as discussed through serpentine imagery in
the Bible. Conrad could be suggesting that the mysticism of the Congo is not an
enticing Romantic experience of a higher spirit, but in fact holds a dangerous
primitivism away from comfortable civilisation. The use of the post modifying
adjective of ‘uncoiled’ stimulates ideas of wilderness, something having being
released into the jungle Marlow sceptically describes. By using such language,
Conrad strays from Romantic imagery to a more sinister articulation of nature. Although
the Sublime ‘operates in a manner analogous to terror’2,
the content never triggers the sinister tone created by Conrad in Marlow’s
first impressions of the jungle.


Conrad’s use of Sublime, depicting Marlow’s confusion when searching for
clarification of African identity, Saint Lucian poet Walcott uses the literary
illustration of the Sublime to depict the impact of Colonialization on
establishing Caribbean culture, creating a search for identity against ideas
emplaced by Western culture. Walcott reflects on
the Caribbean being a colonized space, and the problems presented by a region
with little indigenous forms and national identity; he affirms that the
Caribbean people ‘are all strangers here… Our {Caribbean} bodies think in one
language and move in another.’3
These ideas of introspective debate are a key focus in Romantic work.
The repetitive imagery of darkness surrounding the description of landscape in The Swamp suggests the shadow hiding in
Caribbean culture to the Colonialist eye, and from himself in reflection of the
destruction of his culture in the past. Walcott searches for himself through
the ‘black mood’ of his history, an amalgamation of a culture transported from
one place to another. However, Walcott presents the ‘darkness’ of the swamp as
a place of fertility and growth. The Caribbean culture ‘grows’ in The Swamp, a place which also represents
its destruction. The paradoxical delicacy of this poem articulates the
confusion of Walcott’s identity, but differently to Marlow. The ‘darkness’
Walcott describes symbolises not what he doesn’t know, but what isn’t visible
as a consequence of Caribbean culture being disregarded by the West because
Colonialists believed their society was more civilised. Walcott challenges
these ideas by using imagery of fertility and growth, exemplified in the
lexical choices of ‘phalloi’ and ‘vulva’, evoking ideas of reproduction and suggesting
the beginning of the search to redefine himself. Walcott struggles to define
himself by either his African heritage or English identity. These ideas of
darkness and introspective discovery through landscape connect to Romantic
representation of identity. John Keats, Romantic poet, uses ideas of fertility
to represent ideas of renewal after the French Revolution, similar to Walcott
as a Post-Colonial writer. In To Autumn4,
Keats uses the decay of transitioning into winter to show the fertility of
nature, an analogy for socio-political happenings at the time. Autumn is personified as a fertile woman, ‘thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind’ . This
idea of the reproduction of cultural identity parallels Walcott’s imagery, demonstrating
Romantic root.

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Conrad uses landscape to depict the difference in
advancements among Western identity and Native African civilisations. Marlow
describes travelling the Congo river ‘like
traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.’ This example of
allochronic discourse gives primitive implication to the African landscape, a
‘land of another existence.’ Through this, Colonialism is justified through the
understanding of contemporary Eurocentric opinions of a more developed West.
Conrad uses Marlow’s perception of the ‘unknown land’ to depict Africa as a
version of Europe’s past, interpretable as all cultural identity being from the
same origin. Marlow’s search for European identity is rooted back to African
identity; whilst all civilisations start as ‘primitive’, some develop. This develops
in Marlow’s recount of Kurtz’s statement in his writing: “we whites, from the point of
development we had arrived at, must necessarily appear to them (natives) in the
nature of supernatural beings”. This holds post Darwinian implications,
suggestive of ‘whites’ being more advanced. Conrad’s use of the first person
pronoun ‘we’ implies the unison of the West against the Natives, outlining
ideas of the subaltern; Kurtz presents the ‘whites’ as those with hegemonic
power and thus a higher societal status. By using ‘supernatural’, Conrad
references Kurtz’s idea of his identity being similar to a ‘deity,’ he has
found himself as a godlike figure to the anonymous ‘them’. He searches for a utopian
‘white’ identity in contrast to the ‘primitive’ natives. This is supported by Sir Samuel Baker, a
British explorer who stated that Central Africa holds ‘the races of men {..}
are unchanged from prehistoric tribes.’ At the beginning of the
novel Marlow describes the Thames as having ‘been one of the dark places of the
earth.’ The use of past tense suggests that England was a place of
“primitive darkness” until Rome colonialized Britain. This
exemplifies the epistemological grounding for colonialism: “all living
societies were irrevocably placed on a temporal slope, a stream of Time – some
upstream, some downstream.”5 The use of time to show a transition of
identity is also apparent in the work of Walcott. He firmly believed in
cultural identity, seeing his vocation to be the voice of a previously unspoken
culture (the Caribbean), articulated in Another
Life. Walcott uses the ‘pseudo-epic’ to reflect upon his personal
experience of art, providing an artistic vision through a synthesis of writing
and painting, reaching an epiphany regarding his identity. The title has multiple
meanings: it’s about ‘another life’ of his own, referencing his hybridity, but
also ‘another life’ of art. The autobiographical poem is, for the majority, in
first person, occasionally slipping into a second or third person narration
when referring to a characteristic which doesn’t identify with his current
self. Walcott examines himself before and after his vocation and detaches
himself from what he used to be. This is exemplified in the declarative ‘he
fell in love’. Walcott refers to his younger self falling ‘in love’ with art,
culture and poetry, leading to his realisation that he must be a Caribbean poet.
The instability of the narration reflects the transitionary period of this
vocation. The search for vocation presents his journey for identity through poetry.
Walcott expresses his ambiguity through the structural switch between tenses,
discussing his past and present identity, permitting reflection on his
psychological journey as a poet. Another Life is the journey of young Walcott and the postcolonial
Caribbean from adolescence to adulthood. However, unlike how the contrast
present in Marlow’s search for identity defines itself through comparison to
‘the Other’, Walcott focuses on internal contradictions. The end of the book
reaches towards a resolution, regarding cultural, linguistic and historical
aspects of himself. This can be connected to the writing style of William
Wordsworth in The Prelude. Both
poets use epic form to evaluate themselves, allowing for in-depth discussion of
their character, their past, and their future. However, it isn’t the details of
nature which inspire Walcott, as it is for Wordsworth, but art. Whilst
Wordsworth searchesjourneys towards a search for philosophical identity,
Walcott settles for reality, for ‘another life’ among the one he is living. Walcott
quotes the West Indian writer, Alejo Car-Pentier, on the New World artist’s
task as ‘Adam’s task of giving things their names.’ By giving names, Adam
creates a new dimension to these ‘things,’ similarly to Walcott ‘giving’
Caribbean culture a new name, through his poetry.

search for identity is rooted in the conflict of his hybridity: feeling the
need to voice the Caribbean people in a manner literature hasn’t approached
before, but valuing the impact of his British education. Walcott uses poetic
identity to explore this inner conflict. In A
far cry from Africa, Walcott uses the interrogative “I who am poisoned with the blood of both / Where shall I turn, divided
to the vein?” to articulate his confusion. 
The negative diction ‘poisoned’ suggests Walcott’s struggle to find his
identity, with connotations of being toxic and disruptive. The alliteration
of ‘blood of both’ emphasises the hybridization of Caribbean culture, focusing
on the harsh plosive sounds which are contrasted by assonance. The contrast of
repeated phonetic sounds forces acknowledgement of Walcott’s hybridity; he
struggles to define himself by his African heritage or English identity.   We are
drawn to the biological aspect of identity through reference to ‘blood’, similarly
to how Conrad forces the reader to observe the biological differences of the
African natives to the European colonialists by focusing on aesthetic. Walcott
roots his identity in his African heritage, yet is confused by ‘the English
tongue’ he claims to ‘love’. This inner confliction contrasts the conflict of
identity presented by Conrad. Instead of being rooted in the ‘mystery’ of the
unknown, the ambiguity of Walcott’s identity is in what he knows: his Caribbean
heritage and the English language; ‘Derek Walcott has had at least two lives.’ 6
This idea continues in Names, where
Walcott articulates the hybridization of Caribbean culture as the birth of
“race”, instead of the loss of individual character when journeying in search
for identity. Using a lexical field of renewal, Walcott visualises a “moment /
when the mind was halved by a horizon.” Walcott describes and questions the
‘moment’ in which black and white were introduced in binary opposition. He
negates naming identity in the first section of the poem, as he has ‘no nouns’
to define himself at the beginning of his search. He stands as an individual,
narrating with singular first person pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘my’.  This shifts to the utilisation of ‘we’ and
‘our’, marking the expansion from the singular identity to the collective one
found in his journey.  He creates a
community despite his inner conflict. This creation of identity links to philosopher
and writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who heavily influenced the Romantic period.
He states ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’7
This supports Walcott’s ambition to ‘free’ the Caribbean voice through
literature, as previous societal constructions in the West limited the culture
to ‘chains’.  Walcott strives to disagree
with opinions like that of English historian, J.A Froude, who stated ‘there are
no people there {West Indies}… with character and purpose of their own.’8
Walcott uses poetry to explore the journey where he affirms his identity, his
purpose, his vocation, promoting a culture in opposition to critics like Froude.


Walcott’s presentation of rebirth of identity, Conrad represents Kurtz as the
loss of Western identity through his experience in the Congo. Unlike the ideas
of rejuvenation in Walcott’s work, Kurtz presents the character Marlow is
doomed to become if he journeys further to search for his identity in the
Congo. Both Marlow and Kurtz strive to discover the Congo, but Kurtz becomes
absorbed by the jungle, it “got into his veins,
consumed his flesh.” Like Walcott, Conrad chooses to focus the reader upon the
physicality of identity. The reference to ‘veins’ and ‘flesh’ forces us to understand
Kurtz’s consumption; it’s visibly part of him. This diction provokes
animalistic imagery of Kurtz, presenting him as at one with the ‘dark’ jungle.


The Romantic concept of negative
capability is apparent in the representation of Marlow’s search for knowledge
of his identity through his endeavour to meet Kurtz. Keats writes that
Coleridge lacks negative capability because he “would let go by a fine isolated
verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of
remaining content with half knowledge” This incapacity is shared by Marlow. To Marlow,
Kurtz’s words contain knowledge; he believes that they represent the inexpressible
colonial experience: “He had summed up—he had judged’, ‘He was a remarkable
man.’ Marlow is determined to find the Colonial identity, believing it is in
Kurtz, who marks someone consumed by Colonialism in the novel; it is an
articulation of this journey. However, doubt and confusion mark  the larger narrative: the postcolonial sublime
that creates an aesthetic of indeterminacy and defined by a  refusal to resolve uncertainties. The frantic
exclamation of Kurtz on his deathbed, summarises the entirety of his colonial
experience to ‘The Horror!’ Through the repetition of the word, Conrad highlights
the internalised ‘horror’ of Kurtz’s own actions as a consequence of his
journey for identity into the Congo (the ruptured moral integrity of
Colonialization is obvious). This articulates the ‘everything and nothing’
Keats describes in his letters when referring to negative capability. At the
time, the knowledge of African people from characters such as Kurtz was all
that informed West, but when presented later with factual evidence people
realised the poor representation of Colonial activity.


Romantic predilection for the exotic is expressed by Conrad when
exploring identity. Marlow describes
his fascination with foreign countries as a child and desire to travel:

‘America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the
glories of exploration…I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I
will go there.’

Conrad uses Marlow’s past to demonstrate his identity at the
beginning of the novel: he sees himself as an ‘explorer’ striving to see the
exotic. Marlow’s search for identity is rooted in the ‘glories’ of travelling;
he wishes to expose himself to cultures outside his knowledge. The word
‘glories’ demonstrates Marlow’s excitement before travelling to the Congo, and emphasises
ideologies of the British Empire. This is indicative of Marlow’s patriotic
stance – exposing oneself to other areas of the world expands the ‘glories’ of
Britain, both in resources and culturally. These attitudes echo those held in
the Romantic period; ‘in a very real sense the Romantics …help prepare England for
its imperial destiny. They help teach the English to universalize the
experience of ‘I’.’9
The philosophical poem The Recluse  by Wordsworth evidences this, setting out to organise
the universe by celebrating the universal validity of patriotic English values.


In contrast, Romantic exploration of the exotic when considering
journey for identity is dismissed by Walcott. In his noble lecture, Walcott
discusses romanticising cultures as creating a sense of artifice in their past
and the journey to the current cultural identity, referring to the Antillean
Islands as ‘not nostalgic
sites but occluded sanctities as common and simple as their sunlight.’10
In opposition to Conrad’s presentation of Marlow’s excitement towards the
‘unknown land,’ Walcott aims to ground Caribbean culture and present it with a
sense of normality. This is apparent in Ruins
of a Great House. The poem is dominated by themes of decay, expressing the
journey of the identity of the slave and how it has changed in his Post-Colonial
eye. The metaphorical ‘Great House’ symbolises Colonial rule, which has now
‘fallen’. The semantic field of decay (‘death’ ‘rotting’) allows the reader to
understand the transition of the Caribbean identity, journeying from ‘evil
days’ of constriction to days of compassion, the poem ending on a common note
of humanity: ‘so differently from what the heart arranged/ “as well as if a
manor of thy friend’s.” Walcott eliminates ideas of glamorising ‘nostalgia’ in
the discussion of the history of the journey to find Caribbean identity, and
presents it with a dark truth. Ironically, Walcott uses a structure similar to
a Romantic Ode, using an external object to discuss internal introspection.
This highlights the digression from nostalgic reflection to presentation of the
harsh truth of his culture’s history throughout his body or work.


conclusion, both writers use romantic influence to present ideas of journeying
towards identity. However, Walcott rejects some Romantic ideas used by Conrad
in his writing. The journey in exploration of identity is very apparent in both texts and allows
the reader to consider the importance of the context of the time. This deepens
the meaning of both texts, in the sense of presenting identity from two
disparate origins, one being a Colonial writer with mainly Western views, the
other being a Post-Colonial writer influenced by two cultures. Romantic
influence allows for an emotive and vivid exploration of both.

1 Keats’s letter to his brother George,
December 1817

Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry
into the Sublime and Beautiful

Derek Walcott, What the Twilight
Says: An Overture

4 John Keats, selected poetry

Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other

The Two sides of Derek Walcott, New
York Times 2009

The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques

The English in The West Indies,
James Anthony Froude

Romanticism and Colonialism:
Writing in Empire, Marlon B Ross

Noble Lecture, Derek Walcott



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