In his poem “Ebb”, which 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 post includes a breakdown of the stanzas, an insight into the speaker + voice of the poem, and an exploration of the themes and deeper meanings. This is only a quick overview to help you get to grips with the poem; you can access a full in-depth breakdown of the poem below.
If you find this analysis useful, you can take a look at my full course of Walcott poetry.
For a complete poem analysis, click here
“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.
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.
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.
For a complete poem analysis, click here