Time and the Idea of Victory in Walcott’s “Volcano”

I’m still on the idea/concept of “time” for this week’s Walcott reading, and I see it especially in the poem “Volcano.” The poem opens up in historical uncertainty, in the mire of “legends” such as the lions that supposedly roared at Joyce’s funeral or Joyce’s death itself. It’s from this foundation that the poem transitions abruptly to the external/material/natural world (as Walcott often does—see “A Far Cry From Africa”). In this fork/split, Walcott draws us to the image of “two glares from the miles-out-at-sea derricks” which he connects metaphorically to the glow of a cigar and volcano. After the split, Walcott smooths over the seam and establishes the connective tissue which is the question of whether to be a reader or a writer: “One could abandon writing/ for the slow-burning signals/ of the great, to be, instead,/ their ideal reader.” As the literal image of glowing lights is meshed with the experience of reading great writers (their works or legends like “slow-burning signals”), the narrator is forced with a choice between writing and reading, producing and consuming. The problem is that reading requires a sense of “awe” which is a casualty of the modern world: “So many people have seen everything,/ so many people can predict,/ so many refuse to enter the silence/ of victory.” What the poem resolves into is nostalgia for the past, a lament for a lost appreciation of greatness, the unique and extraordinary. Walcott writes, “so many take thunder for granted./ How common is the lightning,/ how lost the leviathans/ we no longer look for!” In this is a loss of seeing the embers of the cigar, of not recognizing the ”masterpieces,” of “[refusing] to enter the silence/ of victory.” The final line is a resolution to read more and establish connections with the past.

In this lament, I’m struck by Walcott’s formal choices of recycling language and images. In a poem about lost and deteriorating histories, there is a fair amount of repetition: the image of cigars and volcanoes, the symbols of greatness in legends, giants/leviathans, and thunder/lightning. The poem continues to fold back in on itself (at least that’s how I understand my experience of reading it). What catches my eye most is the word “victory,” italicized and capitalized (“Victory”) in several places: first with skepticism towards an idea of victory (“Victory is ironic”), then as the end to a journey with connotations of finality but also impending catastrophe that active volcanoes symbolize (“Victory’s end”), and then as casualty of modern life, a “silent” space “indolent” people no longer explore (“so many refuse to enter the silence/ of victory”). A subtext of the poem is Walcott’s questioning of victory’s meaning. Whether the idea of victory is obscured in legends of the past or the end of an epoch and beginning of another (suggesting finality but really connoting continuance) or a clarity of meaning that people can no longer access, it is a transient and slippery concept that is reinforced by Walcott’s repeated play with the word.

“Victory” is an important concept in thinking about the historical record, since history is written by the victors. Victories also punctuate historical time periods. Wars are contests with victors and each major war symbolizes a break with the past and the birth of new era (literary periodization often coincides with war and violent events—WWI birthed high modernism, for instance). Finally, in “victory” there is a decided sense of temporal progression. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to understand Walcott’s discussion of time and history alongside a questioning of “victory,” with all of its historical implications. Further, what do these concepts (time and victory) mean to black diasporic subjects who are at once in the technological/capitalistic progression of modernity yet “legally and violently excluded from modernity’s official public spheres” (Williams 85)?


I think it is more like a pyrrihc victory to some degree. Even with conquest and colonialism, for a lot of people the past is in the past, almost like a foreign country. There is no attachment or bonds here between the past and the present, so it is almost like the 'achievements' or victory are lost to time. The only signs of the past are the echoes of what has happened and regret from those who are shamed by ancestors who were part of a rich but difficult history to contend with.