In his poem “Ebb”, that is a subject of this analysis, Walcott explores the complex interconnected relationship between humans and nature in this poem, and what happens when it gets out of balance. I think this is very much a poem for modern times, with our ever-increasing concerns about environmentalism and preservation of the natural beauty of our world.
This analysis is tailored towards A-Level students (Cambridge / CIE Literature), but it’s also suitable for other levels of study and exam boards (AQA, Edexcel, OCR, WJEC / Eduqas, CCEA).
If you find this analysis useful, you can take a look at my full course of Walcott poetry.
For more poetry analysis, including Walcott’s, click this link.
“Year round, year round we’ll ride
this treadmill whose frayed tide
fretted with mud
leaves our suburban shoreline littered
with rainbow muck, the afterbirth
of industry…”Derek Walcott
Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright.
Sere — dry or withered / crinkled
Treadmill — a wheel that turns by the weight of people or animals, originally used in industry
Suburban — relating to the outskirts of a city
Afterbirth — the placenta that is left over after the birth of an animal
Pioneer — someone that explores and charts new territory
Oasis — a small spot of life in a dry desert, where water and plants spring up seemingly out of nothing
Wickered — having the woven appearance of wicker, as in wicker fences or baskets
Scurf — dry flakes that appear on the surface of skin or organisms
Caterpillar tractor — a large yellow tractor used in construction
The poem describes the sights that the speaker and his companions experience whilst on a car journey along the coast. Stanza 1 describes the endless cycle of the Earth, how it turns like a ‘treadmill’ and its edge is a ‘frayed tide / fretted with mud’ as it meets the sea; the humans ride it yearly. Stanza 2 takes the reader to the ‘suburban shoreline’, the edge of the land where the ‘littering of rainbow muck’ (oil and waste that floats in from the sea) forms the ‘afterbirth of industry’ — a gruesome image which suggests that the byproducts of rapid progress are toxic. In Stanza 3, the car passes salt-crusted bungalows and a factory, the speaker is relieved when they come to an idyllic clearing of coconut trees, although he remarks cynically that this beautiful natural space too will soon be cleared by a Caterpillar tractor. In Stanza 5, the speaker notices a schooner through the ‘netted’ trees, which form a wicker pattern of light and shadow. The boat looks as if it’s trapped ‘like a lamed heron’ or ‘oil-crippled gull’ (Stanza 6). In Stanza 7, the car moves out from the trees and the image of the schooner finally breaks free into open water and ‘races the horizon’, traveling fast across the sea in a straight line. The speaker of the poem travels parallel to the ship along with the land. Though they travel in the same direction, in Stanza 9 the speaker observes that he and his companions ‘are bound elsewhere’ — traveling to a different place. In Stanzas 10–11, he reflects further on the schooner and how it is floating too far away; it turns into a vision of lost youth. The final two stanzas (12–13) take a shift in tone, and become more philosophical and abstract — the speaker observes that we mortgage ‘life to fear’, in other words, we sacrifice true and natural living in order to minimize the fear and difficulties of our daily lives. He finally asks ‘why not?’, succumbing to the idea that he has no right to judge others when he’s traveling and observing the world from the convenience and safety of his car. From his modern perspective, even regular habits are terrifying enough, and familiar experiences are like miracles — he can’t imagine being fully wild and natural like our ancestors, how frightening it must have been.
The poem is predominantly told in the first-person plural, shifting at the end to first-person by the tenth stanza — ‘sometimes I turn to see’. The reasoning behind this is perhaps that the speaker is holding ‘us’, the reader, accountable for the folly and greed of industrialization — he seems to be talking about humans as a whole, and how we interact with and adapt to the world around us. The repetition of the plural pronouns, ‘we’, and the possessive pronoun ‘our’ further emphasize the sense of humanity as a whole is responsible for industrialization. In the tenth stanza, the speaker plays on innocence, shifting to first-person, communicating that the ‘schooner’ has drifted ‘out too far’, that even in ‘boyhood’ it’s too late. The line, ‘sometimes I turn to see’ suggests the idea of looking back to the speaker’s childhood, perhaps to a time when the world seemed more natural and less overdeveloped. The final world ‘Sure… ‘ trails off using ellipsis, perhaps suggesting that the speaker has no real solution to the problem and that he feels helpless as he watches the natural world being consumed and warped by humanity’s obsession with growth and progress.
The poem, whilst relatively short, consists of many compact stanzas (tercets — three-line stanzas), many of which use enjambment to bridge one another. This connectivity perhaps signifies the way in which our actions are linked together — how the decisions to use a car or build a house, for instance, have environmental repercussions. It also serves to create an Imagistic feeling to the poem — a string of images and experiences are connected together, whilst also shifting in a way that emulates a film and captures the impression of the poet observing his surroundings during a car ride.
Shift in focus — the various images provide shifts in focus as the poem progresses — such as observing the shoreline, the coconut trees, the schooner through the coconuts and the schooner more clearly in the sea. As the images shift, so does Walcott’s thought process — he observes the collective impact of humans on nature, his own personal experience of technology and modern life, the wider philosophical implications of our interaction with the environment.
Visual imagery – The poem is laden with visual imagery depicting scenes of devastation and the physical destruction of nature inflicted by man-made machinery. There is a repetition of ‘schooner’ — a sailing boat used for the purpose of fishing. Also, the opening stanza describes the land as a ‘frayed tide fretted with mud’.
Juxtaposition – natural vs manmade imagery.
Metaphor – The poem opens with the cycle of, ‘year round, year round’, likening it to a ‘treadmill’ to be ridden — treadmills traditionally are wheels used in industry, so this represents the way in which humans work to progress and develop themselves.
Repetition — ‘Year round, year round we’ll ride’ — the anaphora of ‘year round’ coupled with the consonance of the ‘r’ sound that recurs at the beginning and end of words in this line.
Irony – the ‘Caterpillar tractor’ is a manmade piece of machinery, and yet it’s named after a natural insect — Walcott appears to draw attention to the brand of the tractor in order to emphasise the irony that we call unnatural technology after nature, yet we use these machines also to destroy and warp nature to our own ends.
Symbolism – the schooner itself becomes trapped in a ‘net’ of filth, created by humans — demonstrating the rapid progress caused by industrialization as now even simpler boats or machines are struggling to function because of other more powerful advancements. The schooner perhaps symbolizes a time when humans had a more reciprocal relationship with nature — fishing naturally, in a balanced way that didn’t damage ecosystems, instead of the selfish and exploitative way in which we now take over the earth and destroy its beauty and purity. The schooner is likened in similes to an ‘oil-crippled gull’ and a ‘lamed heron’, suggesting that as well as destroying the environment, humans are also crippling themselves and their own future with their unbalanced and unnatural progress that consumes and destroys endlessly.
The ‘washed-up moon’ is a complex symbol that could refer to several ideas; firstly, it may represent ‘moon jellyfish’, who are often washed up on beach shores with the tide. Secondly, the moon and tides are thought to be strongly connected and in classical literature, the moon is always personified as a goddess who oversees the oceans.
Personification — the ‘palm frond’ waves like a hand in the breeze, which we could interpret as nature saying farewell to the schooner and by extension the stage of man that lived in harmony with the environment.
Ecocriticism — This is a type of criticism that explores how humans impact the natural world, usually commenting on the negative effects of anthropocentrism (having a viewpoint where we put humans first). Like many of Walcott’s other poems, Ebb concerns itself with the environment and therefore elaborates on nature and observes its decline in the face of industrialisation and greed. There is little mention of a human protagonist and instead the palette of nature takes center-stage.
The Caribbean — Walcott was born in the West Indies, and much of his poetry explores how it feels to be in that environment — therefore, when picturing the imagery of the poem we should view a tropical / Caribbean setting.
Imagism — Imagism is a modernist poetry technique that developed in the early 1900s as a response to advances in technology, such as the development of photography and film. It attempts to capture impressions of the world using a series of snapshot or vignette-like images. Walcott is heavily influenced by modernism, and especially the poets TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, who are credited with developing and popularising imagism. This genre of poetry also heavily reinforces the central themes of the poem — namely the way technological progress influences our experience as humans on the planet and differentiates us from other animals and elements of nature.
Greed – While much of the poem investigates how we as a human race are ruining the environment, much of this comes at the cost of greed. There is compelling evidence of this in the form of the fourth stanza, when the speaker deploys the visual imagery of ‘gold coconuts’ and ‘oasis’ ‘marked’ for the destruction of a ‘yellow Caterpillar tractor’ The adjective ‘gold’ refers to the colour of unripened coconuts, but it also metaphorically suggests that humans view the coconut trees as physical gold — a way to expand and capitalise on the landscape. The proper noun ‘Caterpillar’ is also uses irony to suggest that, as caterpillars eat and consume tree leaves, so the humans will eventually consume and destroy the coconut grove. It also draws attention to the disharmony between humans and the natural environment — caterpillars would never over-consume to the point of destruction as they form part of an ecosystem that is always self regulated and in balance, whereas humans warp and destroy their world.
Beauty – the beautiful natural world is juxtaposed with the ugly and dirty descriptions of the litter and waste that humans produce. Yet, there are some beautiful aspects to human creation too — the ‘schooner’, for instance, is described in idyllic terms. The key message appears to be that we shouldn’t take too much and disrupt the natural balance, rather than not creating or progressing at all.
Technology – towards the end of the poem, the speaker does appreciate the way in which technological and industrial progress has made life comfortable for humans, he is fully appreciative of his capacity to travel quickly and efficiently with a car, he observes that ‘the wildest of us all’ still enjoys the relative comforts of collective human progress. As a modern person, he still feels there is ‘terror enough’ and ‘miracle enough’ in the world even with all our advancements.
Collectivism vs the Individual – individual human, it is hard to imagine the greater impact of our daily actions upon the world — we don’t always think of the fact that there was once a forest or a field instead of our house, or that we’re contributing to the destruction of the environment every time we purchase a new item in a supermarket or travel to a new location using fuel. The poem explores this disconnection between our immediate actions, and their wider implications in the world. The message here seems to be that we should be doing more to help reverse or slow down the impact we create on our planet, and that though as an individual it can feel impossible to make a difference, if enough of us collectively work together to focus on making positive impacts with ethical and environmentally positive choices, we can start to heal the damage done by industry and too rapid growth.
Nature – Walcott sees nature as a constant creative and destructive force in the world, and he feels that humans should also respect and aim to achieve this balance with anything that they create. There are cynical observations on the way in which we destroy nature — the ‘lamed heron’ and ‘oil-crippled gull’ are reminders of this. However, there is also an appreciation for the fact that nature pushes back and tries to reclaim its harmony with humans — the ‘scurf- // streaked bungalows’ are human creations which have become worn or covered with salt deposits from the sea, reminding us that nature erodes the works of humanity too. The ‘oasis’ is a relief after observing the dirty manmade ‘suburban shoreline’, implying that he prefers to be surrounded by nature.
POSSIBLE ESSAY QUESTIONS:
- Discuss Walcott’s attitude to industrialization in ‘Ebb’ and in two other poems of your choice from the collection.
- In what ways does Walcott explore the relationship between humans and nature in ‘Ebb’?
Thanks so much for reading! If you find this analysis useful, you can take a look at my full course of Walcott’s poetry.