in A Level, CIE, English Literature, Poetry

Here’s a part of the analysis of the poem ‘Mass Man’ by Derek Walcott. It’s tailored towards students taking the CIE / Cambridge A-Level syllabus but will be useful for anyone who’s working on understanding the poem at any level.
Great for revision, missed lessons, boosting analytical / research skills and developing students’ confidence in Walcott’s poetry at a higher level. Enjoy!

If you want to access the full analysis document of ‘Mass Man’, click here.

Thanks for reading! For the full CIE IGCSE Poetry Anthology course and many more English Literature and Language courses, click here.

ATTITUDES 

  • Some individuals don’t feel comfortable in crowds – Walcott typically positions himself as an outsider in his poems, a quiet observer who is unable to participate in collective activities. He thinks too deeply about his surroundings and the symbolic or spiritual meanings that underpin daily activities, and he feels that this approach to life makes him quite distant from others, who are able to just exist in the moment without too much analysis or over-interpretation. For this reason, it may be that the speaker doesn’t enjoy the idea of losing himself in the frenzied spectacle of the carnival; he can’t just let go of his own mind and feelings and become lost in the whirling crowd. Instead, he stands apart, as if hanging from a gallows. 
  • Poets are the spokespeople of their society – here, as in other poems, Walcott shows that he takes his duty as a poet seriously – the job of a poet is not just to entertain, they have the power to document and communicate important truths about their culture and time. He sees himself as a person whose duty it is to record the life experiences of Caribbean people, and to dialogue with grand themes such as culture and history, whilst remaining respectful of the classical opinion that literature has the power to immortalise people and key events in history – here, he chooses to immortalise figures such as ‘Hector Mannix, water works clerk’ and ‘Boysie’ – typical, everyday and normal people who find glory in becoming part of the festival that takes them away from the repetitive drudgery of their daily lives. The name ‘Hector’ also is an allegorical reference to Homer’s Iliad, in which Hector was a great Trojan hero – in the poem, Walcott elevates these everyday figures to the status of heroes by writing about them in his poetry and showing the wider communal value they bring to their society by participating in the carnival. However, an alternative reading might suggest that he is ridiculing these figures, who are merely pretending to be heroes for the duration of the carnival, after which they will turn back to their regular lives. Some critics have suggested ‘Mannix’ to be interpreted as a conflation of ‘man’ and ‘nix’, the latin word for ‘nothing’. In this sense, we could say that Walcott is disappointed in the paraders and their lack of individuality and self-expression. 
  • There are different kinds of madness and delusion – the ‘mania’ of the carnival dancers is a kind of collective frenzy, they are all caught up in the moment of the festival and lose themselves in the spectacle of the show – one parades around flamboyantly as a peacock, another roars menacingly, dressed as a lion. In a way they have lost or altered their sense of identity, becoming animalistic or effeminate, suspending their everyday personalities in favour of ‘metaphors’ – acting out a symbolic spectacle. This ritualistic kind of temporary madness is comparable to bacchanalia practised by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, festivals where people were encouraged to partake in collective rituals and lose themselves in the chaos of celebration, before returning to their regular daily lives. Walcott, who appears to be the speaker in the poem, sees himself as unable to give in to the feeling of the festival, he isolates himself and tries to keep his wits together as he knows he must write about these people and the event in a poem tomorrow, after they are all recovering from the party. 
  • Carnivals and festivals are pretentious – carnivals are a big part of Caribbean culture, and political festivals are held often in celebration of the government there – in other poems such as ‘Parades, Parades

CONTEXT

Shakespeare’s Antony and CleopatraWalcott directly references Shakespeare’s tragedy with his observation that one of the performers ‘Barges like Cleopatra down her river’. This recalls the famous speech about the doomed Queen Cleopatra: 

“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold,

Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that

The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,

It beggared all description: she did lie

In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold, of tissue—

O’erpicturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork nature.” 

Cleopatra is known for her creative and ostentatious personality, being a person of excessive wealth, high status and incredible beauty. As a tragic figure, however, her mode of existence is doomed to fail and ultimately she dies a noble but sad death, giving up all her power and wealth for her love of Mark Antony, a Roman general. The allusion to Cleopatra works both on the level that it references the idea of extreme and excessive displays of wealth, and also the tragic undercurrent that hums under the surface of the play, a similar feeling to the one which Walcott captures in his poem with his references to macabre imagery such skulls and hanged men. Antony and Cleopatra is also a play in which the personal, selfish feelings of the tragic heroes are given precedence over their political duties to their people – as both Antony and Cleopatra ignore their social responsibilities in order to enjoy one another’s company. Walcott may be critiquing a similar feeling in his observation of the carnival, in that everyone is lost in a hedonistic enjoyment of the moment, celebrating and caught up in the excitement of the day, when the wider political backdrop of the West Indies is at a point of instability and difficulty. Perhaps Walcott views this as a kind of wasted potential, where people congregate together to have a good time, instead of using their collective power to make a real positive change in their country. 

African rituals – the descriptions of the ‘peacock’ and ‘lion’ costumes of the performers in the carnival are reminiscent of tribal African rituals, such as Yoruba culture, where dance and ceremonies held great spiritual and religious significance and are a form of prayer and communion with the Yoruban Gods and ancestors. Perhaps by performing and dressing this way in the carnival, the Caribbean people are trying to connect to their African heritage and maintain a feeling of culture and solidarity within their community. Yet there is also a sense that Walcott disdains the way in which these more ancient and important rituals are just used in the present moment for amusement and enjoyment, having lost their deeper religious significance as they would have if performed by native African tribes. 

Danse macabre – The dark imagery of the speaker figuring himself as a hanged man swinging by a rope, as well as the references to decay through the description of ‘mange’, ‘ashes’ and the ‘skull’ creates a macabre tone to the poem. This is a possible reference to the medieval idea of the danse macabre – the dance of death – a literary and artistic trope that depicts people from all walks of life dancing in a procession towards a grave. The meaning behind this trope is that life is short, and no matter what a person’s status was in life, we are all united and equal in death. 
Walcott once described Carnival ‘as the exultation of the mass will’ – this critical quotation means that he feels carnivals are a moment where individuals lose the sense of their own identity and opinions in order to come together and feel joy as one whole group. Interestingly, the idea itself is quite neutral – but in the poem, Walcott seems to feel a kind of pessimistic resistance to partaking in carnival celebrations.

BONUS CONTENT:

POSSIBLE ESSAY QUESTIONS

  1. ‘Walcott’s poems explore the boundaries of the self and individual identity.’ Discuss to what extent you agree with the statement, referencing ‘Mass Man’ and two other poems of your choice. 
  1. Discuss Walcott’s exploration of public events and ceremonies, with reference to ‘Mass Man’ and two other poems of your choice. 

If you want to access the full analysis document of ‘Mass Man’, click here.

Thanks for reading! For the full CIE IGCSE Poetry Anthology course and many more English Literature and Language courses, click here.

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